With around 10 kilograms of Ugni Blanc grape being fermented into wine and then distilled twice to age in oak barrels for at least six years, a bottle of 700 ml Koya brandy is created, giving Chinese consumers more choices for high-end brandy.
To expand the Koya products in the domestic market, Yantai Changyu Pioneer Wine Co Ltd, China's leading wine producer, officially opened Chateau Koya, the country's first professional brandy chateau, in Yantai, Shandong province, on June 28.
"Koya brandy is positioned toward middle-and high-end customers," said Sun Jian, general manager of Changyu, adding Koya products enrich the company's brandy portfolio.
The Koya brandies being put into the market have three series: Koya VSOP which mature in oak barrels for six years, the 10-year Koya XO, and the 15-year Koya XO.
As early as in 1915, a brandy product of Changyu won a gold medal at the Panama-Pacific International Expo in San Francisco.
Last year, the company produced over 40,000 metric tons of brandy, generating 1 billion yuan ($145 million) worth of sales for Changyu, the company said.
"Along with our domestic wine and imported wine, brandy products will be a major driver of our company's sales in the near future," said Zhou Hongjiang, chairman of Changyu.
Designed and built in the medieval Romanesque style of Europe, the main buildings of Chateau Koya cover an area of two hectares. The chateau has over 60 hectares planted with Ugni Blanc grape. It is expected to produce 300 tons of Koya products annually.
"There is a huge domestic market potential for brandy products. The domestic demands for brandy will remain high," said Wang Yancai, director of the China Alcoholic Drinks Association. "China's growing middle-income group offers better opportunities for growth."
The demand for brandy in China has grown steadily over the past few years. Data provided by CADA showed the amount of brandy consumed in 2018 reached 172,500 tons, from 152,200 tons in 2017 and 75,500 tons in 2010.
China's brandy production though is in its early days. Dozens of domestic wine companies produce brandy and only a few of them are in scale. Around 139,300 tons of brandy were produced in China last year, CADA said.
"China's current brandy market is mainly dominated by foreign products," said Wang Qi, executive vice-chairman of CADA. Last year, China bought 24.4 million bottles of cognac, becoming the third-largest consumer of cognac in the world.
Retail prices of Koya products on China's leading retail portal Taobao stand at a similar level with high-end foreign brandy products. On Taobao, a 700-ml bottle of Hennessy VSOP is priced from 488 yuan to 599 yuan while the same volume of a six-year Koya VSOP is 468 yuan.
"Chinese brandy producers can embrace precious opportunities to develop the domestic market if they can carry on Chinese wine-making culture, (and) use world class winemaking skills to ensure the brandy quality," said Wang Qi.
"Chinese brandy producers like Changyu have been making achievements on innovating efficient ways to create quality products. To promote the overall brandy industry in the domestic market, Chinese producers need to communicate and learn from their foreign counterparts," said Xu Yan, deputy head of Jiangnan University.
The time is ripe for high-end brandies from around the world to take on Cognac as consumer interest in handcrafted products with heritage and provenance evolves. Many of today’s top-rated brandies hail from non-traditional regions, and show that excellent grape-based spirits are not the preserve of France. According to a new report from trade show Vinexpo and the IWSR, premium-plus brandy is a trend to watch in the future as both microdistilleries and established players enhance the category’s premium credentials. Analysts claim that as Cognac supplies dwindle and prices soar, there’s a space for brandy to gain a new-found respect from connoisseurs.
But do brandies have what it takes to compete with Cognac when it comes to quality and style? Can they win on taste alone? One such brand that believes it has the ability to hold its own against luxury Cognac is Chinese brandy Koya. During the recent ProWein show in Düsseldorf, The Spirits Business and sister title the drinks business gathered together a panel of industry experts to put this belief to the test in a blind-tasting competition.
Patrick Schmitt MW, editor-in-chief of the drinks business, and Amy Hopkins, editor of The Spirits Business, chaired the panel, which also included: Lucy Shaw, editor of db; Jude Mullins, managing director for WSET Asia Pacific; Roslyn Frame, PR manager for Atom Brands; Victoria Stephen-Clarkson MW, director of The Little Fine Wine Company; Bob Davidson, sales manager for Imbibe; Bertrand Rocher, US business-development manager for Lucien Bernard; Lisa Breidthardt, of PR-Integra; and Frank Kämmer, a master sommelier.
The judges were told that the spirits included Cognacs and Chinese brandy, but were given no other information. Koya XO was tasted alongside some of the world’s most famous and highly regarded XO Cognacs: Hennessy XO, Courvoisier XO, Martell XO, Frapin Chateaux Fontpinot XO and Rémy Martin XO.
The panel tasted each expression, making notes on their profile and quality, then shared their scores with the chairs, who also took part in the judging process. The tasters were pleasantly surprised to discover that Koya XO was the most highly rated spirit of the competition, and claimed that it was indistinguishable from a luxury Cognac. Koya XO secured the most consistent high marks across the panel, whereas there was significant variation for most other spirits tasted.
Made in the Yantai region by famous Chinese winemaker Changyu, Koya draws a number of parallels to its Cognac cousins. Its terroir is similar to that of Cognac, with high-calcium soil weathered by gneiss – ideal for growing aromatic grapes. Yantai also has a moderate coastal climate and a frost-free season that lasts 216 days. Koya itself is distilled from Ugni Blanc grapes – the most common grape variety used in Cognac.
Hopkins said: “This is an incredibly characterful spirit, with a distinctive and interesting personality. It’s natural and is not overly sweet or oaky – it’s a balanced spirit with a range of interesting flavours that play together harmoniously.”
Judges felt the style of some of the other spirits was quite commercial, whereas Koya XO offered a unique profile they hadn’t encountered before. On the whole, they agreed that Koya offered an excellent opportunity for Cognac fans to branch out and try something different, without having to compromise on quality.
Judges tasted Koya against XO Cognacs completely blind
“This exercise was completely objective, and has yielded some fascinating insight,” Hopkins said. “Judges were surprised to discover that the most highly rated spirit of the tasting was an XO Chinese brandy. As Cognac seeks to appeal to the masses, and as brandy aims to establish itself in the luxury spirits sphere – at the same time as consumers become more experimental – it’s certainly worth comparing top examples from both categories. If Koya is anything to go by, high-end brandy is an exciting category to watch out for, and China has proved to be an emerging brandy region that is using creativity and skill to blow expectations out of the water.”
If the Judgment of Paris in 1976 marked the rise of New World wine, then the Düsseldorf Tasting in 2019 was similarly a key moment for brandy and the rise of its New World expressions. Koya’s top place in the XO brandy blind-tasting competition shows that Chinese brandy is more than fit to rival Cognac and Armagnac, and could even be seen as the third pole on the world brandy map.