May 25 - Chateau Hansen's Gobi Desert wines pursue international presence. Arnold Gay reports.
It looks nothing like wine country, but as spring arrives in Mongolia's Gobi desert, workers are busy uncovering buried grape vines. The vines were buried to protect them from the Gobi's harsh winter temperatures. The first vineyards here were set up by Chateau Hansen in the early 80s. The winemaker says the hot, dry summer, and plentiful water from the nearby Yellow river make the wines one of China's best. As the world's most populous nation grew wealthier and embraced foreign tastes, so did the vineyard, which now boasts 250 hectares of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapevines. To raise its profile further, Hansen built a grand European-style chateau, which doubles up as a hotel. It also hired French sommelier Bruno Paumard, who calls the Chinese wine industry unique. (SOUNDBITE) (French) CHATEAU HANSEN SOMMELIER AND WINEMAKER, BRUNO PAUMARD, SAYING: "80 percent of the market in China is really the local governments who encourage the enterprises in their city to consume red wine, of a certain brand, at their banquets instead of 'baijiu', the Chinese alcohol for their incessant and never-ending toasts. So it's actually a market that's totally unique on Earth." The Frenchman says status-conscious Chinese customers are also more prepared to splash out on high-end wines than European or U.S. wine lovers. Chateau Hansen regularly receives tour groups from local governments or businesses keen to learn more about wine production and culture. Demand is so strong Hansen CEO Han Jianping plans to invest 3 billion yuan (470 million U.S. dollars) to build a wine cultural centre near Ordos, one of Inner Mongolia's biggest coal boom towns. (SOUNDBITE) (Mandarin) HANSEN CEO, HAN JIANGPIN, SAYING: "I think first of all, the momentum of growth in the wine industry is huge. With a great foundation of over one billion people as we have in China, and growing at 20 or 30 percent a year, there is a huge potential for more growth." Almost all of Hansen's wine is sold in China, but the company hopes an upcoming wine exhibition in Hong Kong will help propel the brand onto the international scene. One study shows China is now the world's fifth-largest consumer of wine, with demand seen rising by over 54 percent, or a billion bottles by 2015. Arnold Gay, Reuters.