Grape expectations: faux chateaux charged with creating new wine lovers in China

Changyu's Chateau Baron Balboa winery near Shihezi City, Xinjiang Province. Image courtesy Changyu Pioneer/Illva Saronno

When you’re trying to encourage a nation to develop a passion for wine on a par with that enjoyed in other countries, you need a good “story” consumers can buy into. At China’s oldest wine producer, they are doing that by building a network of European-style castles across the country.

Chateau Changyu Reina is part of a RMB600 million (US$87m) complex outside the Shaanxi Province city of Xi’an. It addition to brick towers, cobbled courtyards and wood-beamed halls, it boasts cellars with room for as many as 150,000 oak barrels. Currently, the winery is turning out around 5,000 bottles a year, mostly Merlot. Yet with more than 2,000 acres of vines on site, there’s plans to produce many more.

An interactive exhibition inside the castle teaches would-be wine lovers about the global history of the drink. Mirrors encourage them to stick out their tongues to examine their taste buds. By pressing a button, they can see if they can match a region to a scent. They can even get familiar with different types of soil, or terroir. There’s also a room dedicated to former Chinese leaders. None of them appear to be enjoying a glass of wine. Future leaders surely will.

Chateau Changyu Reina opened four years ago. Changyu Pioneer began making wine in China as far back as 1892. It is now one of the top 10 global wine producers by volume. The challenge Chinese winemakers face, however, isn’t quantity. It’s improving quality.

Changyu’s Italian collaboration

Augusto Reina isn’t just the namesake of the Shaanxi chateau. The 77-year-old is also the head of Illva Saronno, the Italian company that produces the liqueur Disaronno. Working with Changyu, Reina is helping the Chinese firm produce vintages that both hope will keep even the sniffiest wine snob happy. Illva Saronno has since taken a significant equity stake in Changyu Pioneer. Meanwhile a life-size bronze of Reina can even be seen sitting on a bench in the vineyard at Chateau Changyu Reina. As its mission continues, Changyu Pioneer now boasts a portfolio of six faux chateau across the country.

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