20 Aug 2013

WINE: China’s First Traceable Wine

Johnny Chan: Pioneer of Provenance (for Vertu
‘LET’S change this industry: come clean and let the land speak,’ says Johnny Chan about Chinese wine while swirling a glass of his lime-flecked, subtly cardamom spiced Chardonnay. Named after the year Admiral Zheng He commanded his sixth voyage, to Hormuz, Africa and Arabia, ‘1421’ is China’s first fully traceable wine, and is intended to capture the pioneer admiral’s intrepid spirit. 

Harnessing his mobile phone camera, Chan, smartly clad in a TM Lewin shirt, scans a traceability code on 1421’s label, which bears the slogan ‘From China with Pride’. The resulting page shows information guaranteeing the provenance of vines sown in the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains. Here, at the same latitude of Bordeaux, melting pure mountain snow waters the vineyard in summer and protects from disease in winter.
‘The 1990s saw the first wine craze in Asia,’ recalls Chan, who opened China’s first wine merchant in Beijing in 1995. ‘The world teases the Chinese relentlessly for adding Coca Cola into Bordeaux, but we were used to drinking oxidised wine.’ Chan stresses the importance of taking a clean approach to winemaking. ‘We’ve literally built loos for workers beside our vineyards.’
In his quest to make wine, Chan was offered a 40% stake in an existing wine producer. But he declined on account of their refusal to assure traceability, and insistence on poly-culture. ‘Because vines are only harvested once a year, sweetcorn and vegetables grew among vines – I didn’t know what effect that would have.’
Through guaranteed origin, Chan is also determined to confront counterfeiters. He says: ‘1992 was declared a landmark vintage for Chinese wine, yet stocks never appear to run dry! Similarly, counterfeiters are prepared to pay restaurateurs $400 for an empty bottle of Château Lafite.’ He pauses for another sip. ‘It’s why people who believe they’ve tasted a $4,000 bottle prefer mine which costs a fraction.’
As well as hosting 400 episodes of a lifestyle programme on the Travel Channel depicting culinary and cultural exploits across the globe, Chan is founder and chief advisor of the Hong Kong Wine Club and director of the International Wine Academy.
A pioneer professionally, Chan was also a pioneer in his personal life. ‘I was the first person I knew to marry aged 21. My wife, Lily, who was barely 18, came from Shanghai. We first corresponded as pen pals then married nine months later.’
Chan says 1421 is a dream comes true. ‘But as much as it is a commercial exercise I feel it would be more meaningful if the traceable program can influence other Chinese wine producers to be faithful to their own terroir. I want Chinese wine to be part of the international community.’