Gobi Desert Wine to Tackle Poverty and Boost Incomes

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

In the arid Gobi desert spanning the two Asian nations of China and Mongolia is a bold attempt to make wine and reduce poverty. The environment is harsh, with temperatures swinging from sub-zero winter cold to sweltering summer heat. The desert is also home to high winds and notorious dust storms that plague China’s capital Beijing every year.

China’s wine industry is booming as people have embraced the drink’s perceived health-giving qualities and are using it to celebrate new-found wealth as the economy has flourished. Current wine consumption in China is half a litre per person per year, low compared to the French average of 55 litres a year. But this is growing quickly.

Well-known brands include Great Wall, Dynasty and Changyu (http://www.changyu.com.cn/english/index.html), which is considered the world’s 10th largest wine producer.

One innovative winery is using this wine boom to tackle poverty and increase local wealth.

Chateau Hansen (hansenwine.com) in Inner Mongolia has been operating since the 1980s, but recent expansion and modernization have significantly increased its earning power and the number of people it employs. Located in an area with high levels of poverty, it has developed a successful wine business in the desert by tapping the plentiful water supplies from the Yellow River. The area is now considered one of the best for growing wine grapes in China.

Located near Wuhai city (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wuhai), 670 kilometres west of Beijing, Chateau Hansen has 250 hectares of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Gernischt grapevines.

The vines are buried under the sand to protect them from the harsh weather in the winter.

“The lowest temperature gets down to is below -20 degrees C (Celsius), but in summer, it can reach 38 or 40 degrees C (102 or 104 F),” Li Aixin, Chateau Hansen’s head of viticulture, told MSNBC. “Here the four seasons are good for the growth of the grapes, but in the winter we need to bury them in the earth” to keep them from freezing. Hansen has been ambitious in its approach. It has a European-style chateau, hotel and even a French wine expert, Bruno Paumard, on site to help with the wine making. The chateau’s cellar now stores 1,000 barrels of wine.

Paumard arrived in China in 2005. He has thrown himself into Chinese culture and tasted and tested the country’s wines. Hansen has produced 400,000 bottles of wine, mostly sold in China, where red wine drinking has become a big part of the culture of celebration.

Hansen sells the majority of its wine to government organizations and regional enterprises. It has seen its profits double to 100 million yuan (US $18 million) in 2011 and hopes sales will double again in 2012.

“Eighty per cent of the market in China is really the local governments who encourage the enterprises in their cities to consume red wine, of a certain brand, at their banquets in the place of Chinese ‘baijiu’ for their incessant and never-ending toasts,” said Paumard, referring to China’s home-grown rice wine. “So it’s actually a market that’s totally unique.”

Hansen’s Cotes du Fleuve Jaune du Desert de Gobi has become one of the biggest award-winning wines in China. It received a bronze medal from the International Wine Challenge of Blaye, near Bordeaux, France.

China now stands as the world’s fifth-largest consumer of wine (International Wine and Spirit Research study) (http://www.iwsr.co.uk/). The market in China is forecast to grow by 54 per cent from 2011 to 2015, adding up to a billion bottles.

A map of China’s vineyards and their terroir or soil conditions shows a diverse wine-making sector (http://www.hansenwine.com/english/vineyardlink.html).

In this busy marketplace, Hansen prides itself on being organic. It also has the goal of turning the arid desert into green vineyards using irrigation from the Yellow River and groundwater. It wants to create employment and raise living standards in the region and is fitting into a national strategy to raise living standards for poor regions.

There is a training programme for the around 400 workers employed by the winery. No pesticides are used and only sheep dung is used as a fertilizer provided by 3,000 sheep on site. Trees also play a role in providing humus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humus) for the vines. There is also accommodation in a nearby village for the employees.

There are 250 hectares of vineyards and the grapes are harvested by hand. Expansion began in 2001 when the chateau and winery were built. It is strategically located just 500 metres from an airport and the chateau has a luxury hotel. Around 20,000 people visit a year, according to Hansen’s website, bringing in further income for the winery. The winery also uses Mongolian culture and cuisine as a selling point to attract tourists.

The chief executive of Hansen is Han Jianping, who made his first fortune in real estate development.

Han believes that “the momentum of growth in the wine industry is huge.”

“With a great foundation of more than 1 billion people as we have in China, and (the industry) growing at 20 or 30 per cent a year, there is a huge potential for more growth,” he said.

Resources

1) China Wine Online: An information service that also produces the China Wine Business magazine and runs the China Wine Study Tour. Website: http://www.winechina.com/en/index.asp

2) The 10th Shanghai International Wine and Spirits Expo 2013: Website: http://www.winefair.com.cn/sugar/en/index.asp

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