No corks, no vintages and no grapes? Chen Weiran, founder of Beijing’s Wine Room, on the future of wine

We live in an era of rapid change. Everything from our climate to our consumer habits is fast evolving and wine cannot be made, packaged and sold the way it is now for much longer. But in order for the industry to change, it needs some innovators to lead the way.

Beijing-based Chen Weiran is one of them. Her CV is an impressive one, including WSET diplomas, a Bourgogne Wine Instructor certificate (she is one of only 10 people in China to have this hanging on her wall), and much more. She is also the founder of the Wine Room, which holds Beijing’s most prestigious wine events, talks, dinners and lectures, and provides Chinese consumers with an easy way to understand the industry.

Weiran first fell in love with wine after she accompanied her father on business trips and would pick the labels off wine bottles because she thought they were beautiful. She studied at the China Foreign Affairs University, and while her fellow students pursued a life of diplomacy and international relations, she decided that wine was the easiest way for her to create a bridge between China and the rest of the world.

“As Chinese people travel more, they are getting in touch with an entirely different culinary culture and therefore with the rest of the globe,” she says. “People are beginning to drink more wine than ever before, and appreciate wine from different countries. Chinese people are more open-minded about wine from newer markets than many people in other parts of the world­—wine importers bring in vintages from places as diverse as Macedonia, Molvdova and Israel. So I think the future of wine in China is really bright—largely because it is a new market, so people choose according to taste rather than prestige.”

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Above Weiran in Burgundy

In China, tastes are evolving rapidly, and Weiran has noticed her clients branching out from a typical Bordeaux to red wine from elsewhere in Europe and America, to reds from around the world. White wine has lagged behind in China but is rapidly catching up.

“Wine is something which you do not need to have a fixed taste for, or a single beloved bottle,” she says. “It largely depends on who you are drinking with and what experience you have with them during that night together. One step on from that is knowing the story of the winemaker and the vintage.” 

Although, in this era, having no fixed preference will hold you in good stead for an uncertain future. Climate change has forced the wine industry to evolve more in the last 20 years than it had in six centuries beforehand. In 2017, wildfires destroyed nearly 300,000 acres of land across Napa Valley in California, while France’s extreme freeze from January to March 2018 proved equally destructive.  It is now far more common for wine-makers from Burgundy (one of France’s most storied regions) to lose up to three-quarters of their crops a season due to unexpected weather. By 2069, northern France will likely be too warm to produce what we now think of as a Burgundy at all.

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Above Chen Weiran and her business partner

Viticulturalists at the University of California are preparing for this new era by building a solar-powered, zero-carbon emission Teaching and Research Winery where they use new methods to grow wines without electricity, water, or even soil. They are even looking into ‘test tube’ wines, which are assembled from chemical molecules—a similar step to the one the food industry is taking with synthetic meat.

And while grape-less wine sounds a little too dystopian for our liking, global warming will bring benefits to some countries, as the latitude for growing grapes in moves north. This means it will shift  away from southern Italy and Spain towards Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands—and in Asia, to China and Tibet. “Climate change makes countries like the UK and Japan more suitable for wine making,” says Weiran. “It also makes Germany able to produce a good Pinot Noir.”

It might be time to arrange a funeral for the cork too, as it is made from the bark of a particular kind of oak tree that only grows in certain regions near the Mediterranean, ones that have been drought stricken in recent years. Equally, if drone delivery goes the way it is looking then the glass bottle will need to be replaced by a tetra pak.

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And then there are smartphones. The technological revolution has transformed every creative and business field it touches—and wine is no different. Wine is a US$300 billion industry and so far, only a handful of start-ups have been ventured into it. One of them is Vivino, which allows users to scan any bottle of wine and immediately retrieve user reviews, average ratings and prices for the bottle, along with other essential information to help them choose what they want to drink, buy or collect. The Vivino library now contains over 8.5 million bottles of wine and users are actively scanning 300,000 bottles per day.

I think the future of wine in China is really bright—largely because it is a new market, so people choose according to taste rather than prestige

- Chen Weiran -

“Tech will make a big difference, and also let winemakers and vine growers be more precise during their work,” says Weiran. “Even though, for the moment, the experienced ones all rely on their tastes and past practices.”

Wine, which on one end of the scale is like liquid art, is more complex than most industries when it comes to tech upscaling. However if traditional winemaking becomes more difficult as our planet warms, premium wines wil become rarer and more in demand—making connisseurs such as Weiran more important than ever.

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