Austria's Role in creating the Chinese wine industry

A fascinating story going back 130 years, almost entirely forgotten

I’ve been working a lot lately with Marselan, a great grape with tons of potential. China is really jumping on the whole Marselan bandwagon, so I did some research into the beginnings of the Chinese wine industry, and came across the absolutely wonderful story of how China owes much of its early wine history to Austria, of all places.

Today, China’s wine industry goes to great efforts to emulate French idols, planting French grapes and building replica Bordeaux chateaux, despite icons such as Lenz Moser’s Chateau Changyu-Moser partnership’s Austrian pedigree. Its many Chateaux contrast with the absence of Weinguts. In many ways though, its relationship with Austria stretches back far more than a few years - in fact, China’s early vineyards owe far more to Austria than any other winemaking country.

The story actually starts again with Changyu, founded in the 1890s in Chefoo, today’s Yantai. The very beginnings, influenced by the French and using local table grapes, aren’t terribly exciting. The first winemaker sent over to China, from France, died of a tooth infection in Shanghai, before even making it to Changyu’s vineyards. The second, from the Netherlands, was a fraud who had never made wine before in his life.

The story takes a decidedly Austrian twist with the fortuitous arrival of a third winemaker, an Austrian, who, while visiting Singapore on other business, was convinced to travel North and lend a brief hand. His recommendation was to import 400,000 Austrian Welschriesling seedlings. Very few of them survived the sea journey however, and subsequently French varieties were brought over, and the Austrian variety sadly mostly forgotten about.

A range of studies on varieties’ survivability during harsh Chinese winters have found that Welschriesling was, by far, the most hardy evaluated variety. In one study, Marselan (a grape I have written about elsewhere and that many, including myself, believe has potential as China’s next flagship variety) had death rates upwards of 20% when not buried, when every single Welschriesling vine survived. It’s a variety I love - so here’s hoping China takes another leaf out of Austria’s book.

At any rate, Changyu’s vineyards were replanted with French varieties, and yet another Austrian steps into the picture, Max von Babo, the son of the founder of Klosterneuburg’s viticultural institute, just happened to be the Austro-Hungarian consul in Chefoo. He signed on as a permanent consultant, moved the consulate to the vineyard, and proudly flew the imperial flag by the winery.

The cellars were built to contain several hundred giant oak casks. One of von Babo’s first steps was to order six 150hl oak barrels from Austria. They were shipped dismantled. The exciting part of the story ends here, I’m afraid. Von Babo led the vineyard to a fair few successful vintages, but in the end, the 20s took their toll on Changyu as well, and a series of crises (financial, deaths, fire, fraud - a bit of everything) overshadowed the wine’s supposed high quality. It continues today as Changyu-Moser, its Austrian origins surprisingly deeply buried.

I got a lot of my research from this academic article, it's well worth the read.