And Finally

Red alert

Investors left high and dry as wine plan wilts

Grapes w

Turned sour in Harqin

The county of Harqin in Liaoning province sits on a similar latitude to some of France’s greatest wine regions. Realising this seems to have been enough for a posse of local government bosses to make a fact-finding trip to Europe. On their return they announced they would be following the French example by growing Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

Tempted by promises that wine was going to become a pillar industry in the region, a businessman called Xu Shaolin signed a contract to make Harqin’s first vintages. The plan, state broadcaster CCTV reported this month, stipulated that local farmers would grow a guaranteed tonnage of grapes for the new winery every year. There was excited talk of Rmb4 billion ($644 million) of sales within four years.

As we reported in The Little Red Book – a look at how China is starting to make its mark in the wine world (see the Focus Editions and Books section of our website) – the Chinese are already the fifth largest wine maker globally. The quality of most of that vino is mixed, at best, and one reason why is that the wineries tend to be dependent on third-party producers for their grapes. Farmers are also paid by weight, so quantity trumps quality.

The problem in Harqin was different. Xu built his plant and hired his staff. But his winery was getting no grapes at all. On a trip back to the county he discovered why: local farmers had replanted their fields with corn.

Xu is said to have 10 years of experience in the wine industry, although he seems to have taken some major risks in Harqin. The worst of the winter temperatures in the wine-growing regions of France don’t fall much below -5 celcius. In Harqin they drop at least three times as low. As we mentioned in The Little Red Book, it’s not impossible to make good wine in wintry conditions and we even featured an up-and-coming winery that survives the deep-freeze winters of Xinjiang (its wine scored well at a blind tasting last November too, see WiC261). But perhaps the winter chill was too much for the grape growers of Harqin. Many of its farmers seemed reluctant to cultivate grapes in the first place, having always planted corn. Faced with losing their livelihoods, they soon turned back to their traditional crop as the first grape harvests failed.

Harqin’s wine plan sounds like hubris on the part of the local government. But when does fierce ambition become fraud? On his early tours of the region Xu was shown vines that (it now seems) had been planted less than a year earlier. Later he was sent grape samples that were deemed “highly satisfactory”, according to media reports. Xu’s co-shareholders might well ask where these grapes came from. Perhaps they might reflect on why the plan’s promoters failed to find a single expert who thought that the business was feasible, Liaoshen Evening News adds. In the meantime Xu is on the hook for loans to the project. Despite selling his production line he is still short and the local banks are chasing him for repayment.

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