1st Wine Explorers’ world wine tasting…

“Exceptional guests for a unique journey around the world of wine“

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On June 16, seven professionals from the wine industry did us the honor of joining the WINE Explorers’ team, in order to share the discoveries of the first part of the trip, which began in January 2014. A unique tasting, where 12 countries were represented, as that we are very happy to share with you today!
A complicated choice because after a year and a half of peregrinations and 180,000 kilometers traveled, over 2,250 wines had been tasted and listed.
 Some wines were tasted conventionally while others were served blind, to give some surprises to a public of connoisseurs.
The idea was not to judge these wines, but to assess the potential of each of the selected wine regions and discuss the notion of terroir.

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They attended the tasting  : Patrick Schmitt MW, editor in chief of The Drinks Business (UK), Debra Meiburg MW, consultant (Hong Kong), Jean-Claude BerrouetSandrine Garbay, cellar master of Château d’Yquem, Thomas Duroux, CEO of Château Palmer, Stéphane Derenoncourt and Rachid Drissi, purchasing manager of the prestigious negotiant Duclot.

24 wines from 12 countries were tasted

DRY WHITE WINES
Kristall Kellerei, 2013, Rüppel’s Parrot Colombard, NAMIBIA
Aruga Branca Pipa, 2009, Katsunuma Jozo Winery, JAPAN
Virtude Chardonnay, 2013, Salton, BRAZIL
Skyline of Gobi Chardonnay Reserve, 2013, Tiansai Winery, CHINA
Tasya’s Chardonnay, 2011, Grace Vineyard, CHINA

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RED WINES
Pinto Bandeira Pinot Noir, 2014, Vinícola Aurora, BRAZIL
Nouveau, 2013, Château Mani, SOUTH KOREA
Cuvée prestige, 2014, Castel, ETHIOPIA
Grande Vindima Merlot, 2008, Lidio Carraro, BRAZIL
Don Manuel Petit Verdot, 2013, Tacama, PERU
RPF Tannat, 2011, Pisano, URUGUAY
Don Manuel Tannat, 2012, Tacama, PERU
Juan Cruz Tannat, 2012, Aranjuez, BOLIVIA
Cuvée Ameena Syrah, 2010, D’Orrance Wines, SOUTH AFRICA
Cuvée Violette, 2012, Le Vieux Pin, CANADA
Emma’s Reserve, 2012, Silver Heights, CHINA
Kerubiel, 2005, Adobe Guadalupe, MEXICO
5 Estrellas, 2009, Casa de Piedra, MEXICO
Le Grand Vin, 2012, Osoyoos Larose, CANADA
Ensemble Arenal, 2010, Casa de Piedra, MEXICO
Raizes Corte, 2010, Casa Valduga, BRAZIL

SWEET WHITE WINES
Vendange Tardive, 2012, Vignoble du Marathonien, CANADA
Vin de Glace, 2011, Vignoble de l’Orpailleur, CANADA
Tomi Noble d’Or, 1997, Suntory Tomi no Oka Winery, JAPAN

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TOP 3 OF THE JURY – WHITE

1Aruga Branca Pipa, 2009, Katsunuma Jozo Winery, JAPAN
(100% Koshu, 6 months in French oak, then 2 years in bottle)
” Bright wine, slightly gold. Nose of vanilla and acacia ; even more complex after opening, slightly smoky. Mouth with a round, smooth and fresh attack. Very delicate and subtle ”
Food & wine pairing : fish and beurre-blanc sauce

2Virtude Chardonnay, 2013, Salton, BRAZIL
(100% Chardonnay, 6 months in French and American barrels)
” Beautiful clarity, light yellow color. Fresh nose with some floral notes. On the palate a pleasant acidity and an interesting balance. The volume comes from the grape. A wine that displays some personality ”
Food & wine pairing : fresh tagliatelle with salmon

3Vendange Tardive, 2012, Vignoble du Marathonien, CANADA
(100% Vidal, noble rot, slow cold pressing)
” Intense gold color. Pretty nose, deep, notes of pineapple, apricot and mango. Smooth in mouth, with candied peach and apricot. Beautiful wine, dense, rich and sweet but still harmonious ”
Food & wine pairing : vanilla ice cream and hazelnut feuillantine

Two other wines also got the attention of our jury…
Rüppel’s Parrot Colombard, 2013, Kristall Kellerei, NAMIBIA
(95 % Colombard, 5% Sauvignon Blanc/Chenin)
A very aromatic wine, light and pleasant… that seduced by its “drinkability “.
Tomi Noble d’Or, 1997, Suntory Tomi no Oka Winery, JAPAN
(100% Riesling, noble rot)
Undoubtedly an unusual wine…

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TOP 5 OF THE JURY – RED

1Cuvée Violette, 2012, Le Vieux Pin, CANADA
(100% Syrah, 14 months in barrels with 19% new)
” Intense deep red color. Green pepper notes on the nose with herbs, olives and blackcurrant. Beautiful mouth, slightly herbaceous with a tapenade and red berries profile. Nice tannins, light oak and very good length. A wine full of elegance and finesse ”
Food & wine pairing : veal chop

25 Estrellas, 2009, Casa de Piedra, MEXICO
(Blend of Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Cinsault, aged for 12 months in French and American barrels)
” Complex and earthy nose. Black olive, plum. Mouth well structured, balanced and harmonious. Good length with an aromatic finish. A wine with lot of finesse ”
Food & wine pairing : chili con carne

3Kerubiel, 2005, Adobe Guadalupe, MEXICO
(38% Syrah, 16% Cinsault, 16% Grenache, 6% Tempranillo, 3% Viognier)
” Garnet color, early evolution. Intense nose of jammy fruit (plum, strawberry, gooseberry). Very nice, evokes childhood. Mouth also on black and ripe fruit. Beautiful and dense structure in mouth. Seductive and very well made ”
Food & wine pairing : sautéed veal and wild rice

4Le Grand Vin, 2012, Osoyoos Larose, CANADA
(50% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Petit Verdot, 9% Cabernet Franc and 4% Malbec, 20 months in French oak barrels with 60% new and 40% of one wine)
” Nose of spices and wild herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme), combined with ripe black fruits. Round mouth, full, balanced. Elegant and harmonious tannins. Remarkable density and length ”
Food & wine pairing : lamb

5Pinto Bandeira, 2014, Vinícola Aurora, BRAZIL
(100% Pinot Noir, 6 months in French oak barrels)
” Light color, quite dense. Nose of modern Pinot noir, woody, ripe and fruity with notes of blackcurrant. Quite fine. Nice texture on the palate. Precise extraction, long length. Beautiful final ”
Food & wine pairing : white meat or marinated red tuna.

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A few words about the countries presented

ASIA

China : a giant which is just beginning
World’s 5th biggest producer and current largest consumer of red wines, China remains primarily a country of extreme conditions of production, with temperatures ranging up to +40°C in summer to -40°C in winter in many central regions, forcing the vines to be buried each winter. The vines are quickly damaged and it is impossible to keep old vines in many regions. Quite an important problem for the elaboration of super premium wines. However, the size of the country offers many different mosaics of climates and soils, allowing hope for a nice future for a production which is so recent. Some top winemakers, as Emma GAO in Ningxia, have already shown us that it is possible to make some very fine and elegant wines.

South Korea : too much moisture for Vitis vinifera
A unique Korean wine presented during the tasting has helped us to highlight the fact that in very wet cultivated areas (90 to 100 %) – as here in South Korea or in Taiwan, for example – wine production requires the planting of hybrids vines other than Vitis vinifera. This seems to suggest that quality wine production is compromised in regions relatively close to the equator, where the humidity is constant and the cycle of the vine is continuous.

Japan : great elegance in the land of the Rising Sun
Japan is a country with generally difficult weather conditions, with a wet climate. The meticulous care of the vine still allows them to produce some very nice wines, especially from the Koshu, Riesling or Pinot Noir grapes. The tasting has shown that Japan can produce very elegant and aromatic wines, both dry, like the delicious « Aruga Branca Koshu » from Katsunuma, or sweet like the cuvée « Tomi Noble d’Or » from Suntory, a surprising botrytis Riesling (moisture combined with an altitude of over 700 meters here becomes an asset).

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AFRICA

Special mention for South Africa
A terroir already well known by connoisseurs for decades now, this tasting was the confirmation that South Africa can produce magnificent and elegant wines, especially from the Syrah grape variety, as here in the Robertson region with the cuvée « Ameena Syrah » from Dorrance Wines which was unanimously appreciated.

Ethiopia : a country as beautiful and endearing as atypical and confusing
11 million bottles produced per year, including 1 million by the CASTEL winery. Real potential in this wine region located 100 kilometers South of Addis Ababa, the capital. You can find here beautiful poor soils perched at 2,000 meters above sea level, with cool nights that allow the grapes to gently reach nice maturity, especially for red wines. Rainfall, often low, but offset by drip and controlled irrigation (as in Chile or California), allows the plant to receive just enough water. The global impression of the wine tasted is positive, even if it is strongly marked by its aging in new oak barrels. We guess a real potential for this young wine country… to be remembered.

Namibia : a confidential production
This country has only four wineries, less than four hectares each! Located North of South Africa, viticulture remains anecdotal there.

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AMERICAS

Brazil : a real potential
The country opened its borders only 25 years ago and is just beginning to reveal its potential. The region of Serra Gaucha, situated around the 29° parallel South, is already promising, both for sparkling and still wines. A topography which reminds us of Tuscany, a rather temperate climate, plenty of sunshine, a moderate but good altitude (700 meters on average), combined with expertise thanks to the Italian immigration and strong technical investments, promise a bright future for the Brazilian wine industry.

Bolivia, a land full of promises
Wine production exclusively in altitude (1,600 to 2,800 m) is probably the main secret of Bolivia’s success with quality wine production; mainly for red wines. Because despite the semi-tropical location of the country around the 21° and 22° parallel South, the region of Tarija (the country’s main producing region), benefits from drier conditions at over 1,600 meters and has a remarkable terroir, mainly composed of well drained sandy loam soils and schist dating from the Jurassic period.
In many Bolivian wines we found freshness, elegance and some complexity, like during the tasting with the cuvée « Juan Cruz Tannat » from Bodega Arranjuez.

“Coup de Coeur” for Canada
The classification of this first WINE Explorers’ tasting is telling: the Okanagan Valley, in British Columbia, is full of treasures. Near the 49° parallel North, the climate is governed by a coastal mountain range that protects the region from cold and wet depressions swept by the Pacific Ocean, 400 km to the west. The result : a warm and dry climate with annual rainfall of 200 mm and an average temperature of 22°C during spring and summer time. The region produces fantastic red wines, fresh, with beautiful elegance and finesse. Another great discovery – at the other end of the country, some 4,400 km to the East : the sweet white wines of Quebec, from hybrid varieties such as Vidal or Seyval. A very small production offering very nice wines with concentrated aromas, thanks to a cool climate and grapes harvested (very) late by a few irreducible passionate winemakers.

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Mexico : the beautiful surprise
The region of Baja California, South of California, was one of the best surprises of the first WINE Explorers’ tasting. Located on the 31,5° parallel north, this semi-desert region lacks of water (less than 200 mm of rain per year in good years) and does not forgive any approximation. It results in solar wines, powerful and balanced, meticulously blended, combining up to six grape varieties in the same cuvée and show how important it is to consider Mexico as one of the next stars of tomorrow’s new-world red wines.  A nice recognition for a country that was, in 1554, the pioneer of the Americas in terms of viticulture…

Peru, a great terroir
The Ica Valley is the main region of production of the country. The climate is dry and hot. “A bit like Chile“, some said. And even if we are here on the 17° parallel South, this region is suitable for producing wines in exceptional conditions, ” thanks to the characteristics of its unique climate and its alluvial soils”, loved to emphasize great wine figures like Max Rives and Emile Peynaud. At the foothills of the Andes, red wines made from Petit Verdot and Tannat grapes can give very good results.

Uruguay, to follow very closely
Despite a fairly dense and rather concentrated annual rainfall, very conscientious wineries know how to produce very nice wines, especially red, with rather early varieties such as merlot, or other less early as tannat. It is the case of the Pisano winery for example, which benefits from clay and limestone soils with very high pH (7.5 to 8), giving mineral and complex wines. In the land of meat lovers (52 kg consumed per year per capita !), wine knows how to find its place with style.

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THE FINAL WORD

All regions of the world are not conducive to viticulture. Yet, many factors such as soils, altitude, climate, grape variety or climat can create special conditions for the production of very nice wines. A protective mountain barrier, a South-facing hillside… are sometimes the ingredients for an elegant and complex wine. However, what can make each of these wines some ‘great’ wines is above all the skill of the winemaker and his meticulous knowledge of its terroir.
Understanding a terroir is adapting its cultivating system, choosing the appropriate plant material, making the right choices in the vineyard and in the winery. Jean-Claude Berrouet reminded us during this first tasting of this wise definition of terroir, given by Olivier De Serres in the 17th century and which aptly illustrates this final word : ” Air, land and complant are the foundation of the vineyard“. Let us not forget that.

The conclusions of this first WINE Explorers’ tasting still remain relative because unfortunately we do not have the chance to visit all wineries of the countries we explored (it would take although 10 generations of explorers to try to visit them all!). And as we all have a different palate, it is possible that we sometimes lacked objectivity. That is why it was very important for us to be surrounded by leading experts in the world of wine, with various backgrounds and experiences, to balance the impressions that we had when tasting these wines the first time.

This experience remains primarily a humbling lesson and of open-mindedness, for wines sometimes “outside of the usual standards” but with an undeniable potential and personality. We will renew it with joy next year!

The world of wine is far from having revealed all its secrets…

WineExplorers’cheers,
Amandine Fabre & Jean-Baptiste Ancelot


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS :
We thank our partners to believe and follow this project : the VIDELOT Group, DB Schenker, Château Lafon Rochet, Château Calon Ségur, Château La Conseillante.
Thank you to Elisabeth Jaubert, Ariane Khaida and Jean Moueix for having made this tasting possible.
And thank you to all the people close to the project and who encourage us every day.

China, wine super power and new Eldorado – Part 2

Part 2/2 : Tianjin, Hebei, Beijing & Shandong

We mentioned in our previous article that China became the biggest consumer of red wine in the world in January.
Why such enthusiasm for wine? Mainly due to the opening of China to the world. And while during these last few years there has been a decline in the consumption of spirits such as baijiu, wine, however, is booming.

Château Junding (Shandong)

Château Junding (Shandong)


Drinking red wine is considered to be good for one’s health, but that is not the only reason for the increase in consumption! New generations travel and study abroad and westernize their consumption. They see wine as a fashionable product, generating social ties. And Chinese investors understood this very well: new vineyards born and grow super fast.
We have focussed on four major  recognized Chinese wine regions, all concentrated around Beijing: Tianjin, Hebei, Beijing (itself) & Shandong.

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Tianjin, pioneer region in Sino-foreign joint ventures

We were heading southeast from Beijing to visit Dynasty, a Sino-French joint venture between Tianjin City Grape Garden and Remy Martin, established in 1980.

We went there by train, departing from the Beijing Railway Station about to experience the joys of Chinese public transport. Whatever…
We spent hours waiting in the heat and the noise to get our tickets at a counter crowded with people. Around us people were sleeping on the floor, their bundles under their heads for pillows; others played cards barefoot, probably waiting for a late train. This became a real obstacle course which ended with us traveling with our 70kg-bags between our legs. We laughed out loud in the face of such anarchy.

Dynasty

Dynasty


Upon arriving at Dynasty, a big surprise awaited us.  We found ourselves face to face with a real castle. There was even a miniature replica of the Louvre Pyramid (the Pyramid designed in 1983 by the Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming Pei…rather fun) built in front of it.  The interior decorations and ceiling heights were overwelming too.

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The 77-acres vineyard of Italian Riesling and Hamburg Muscat are surrounded by industrial buildings. The city literally circles the property. So I wondered where the grapes for the 40 million bottles produced annually by Dynasty comes from? The answer is simple (and common to many major wineries in the world), the rest of the vineyards – 3,700 acres of vines – is about 750 miles away, in the Ningxia region! Difficult to approach the notion of terroir in such conditions.

Hebei, the booming coastal region

First observation on arrival: hoists have invaded the landscape. The ambitions of the region are clearly displayed.
Illustrated by Bodegas Langues, a vineyard designed by the Austrian billionaire Gernot Langes-Swarovski (grand son of jewelry designer Daniel Swarovski) and which is nothing but a nice gift from the owner to himself.

Bodegas Langues

Bodegas Langues


Imagine: an investment of $300 million for 500 acres of vines planted on the mountainside (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc); a fully automated gravity cellar with a capacity of 1,600 tons; two elevators designed especially to move the 600 HL stainless steel tanks, and best of all… a Chinese cooperage producing its own oak barrels, 100% “Made in China”! The wines are sold for €150 on average and can reach a couple thousand euros for a double magnum of the top cuvée, set with gemstones.

A neighbour, Château Huaxia Greatwall, which marked the beginning of the Greatwall in China (COFCO), owns 3,200 acres of vines – planted in the Province along the Yanschan mountain, on rich sandy-loam soils – for a production of 46,000 tonnes and a cellar with 23,000 barrels! Enough to make your head spin.

Château Huaxia Greatwall

Château Huaxia Greatwall


Beijing, or when the vines caught up with urbanism

After an one hour ride on the Beijing underground, we arrived in the Fangshan district. Far from the big productions of the country, the new region only represents twenty wineries for now, between 25 to 100 acres in size. To stand out from other regions, the local government has implemented a strict policy for winemaking: an interdiction to buy grapes from elswhere (everything has to come from the estate). An organic certification for viticulture and winemaking is also under consideration.
The Fangshan region first prospered through its production of marble. But the marble has been depleted and now they must find new ways to keep the 260,000 jobs at stake. The development of the wine industry is the new workhorse of Fangshan.

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We visited Château Bolongbao, an experimental winery of 100 acres planted with Roussanne, Viognier and Petit Manseng, alongside with more traditional varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The challenges in the vineyard are massive: high humidity, summer rains and winter frosts which neccesitates protection of the vines during this four month period.  But this does not prevent the production of quality wine throughout – souple, easy to drink and fruit driven.

At Château Lion, an hour’s drive away, they also had to adapt to additional and unexpected constraints. 4 years ago the château has been “cut in half” by an aerial railway linking Beijing’s suburbs to the center.

Château Lion

Château Lion


A blow that did not diminish the overwhelming optimism of its owner, who is very proud of his vineyard trellised in double Guyot. He even played with blind-tasting by letting us taste a delicious white wine out of the tank, with aromas of mint, peach and citrus which turned out to be a 100% Vidal, a white grape that is normally found in Canada for the production of ice wine. Hats off.

Shandong, a region with significant potential

Here is an interesting region from a climatic point of view.
There is no need to bury the vines for protection during winter (unlike all the other wine regions we passed by in China), since the climate is warmer. The Shandong vineyards are on the same latitude as Greece or Turkey.

Future Lafite Estate (Shandong)

Future Lafite Estate (Shandong)


We had a few meetings in the Penglai distrcit, where 2/3 of Shandong’ grapes are produced. And if today Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) is having a foothold in the region*, there is a reason for that. The potential is there: beautiful sunny summers, moderate rainfall, poor soil compounds – for the most beautiful vineyards – with granite, limestone and minerals; a sea breeze drying the vines in summer thereby protecting it from many diseases; the possibility of planting a wide variety of vitis vinifera grapes and the ability of having older grapevines than elsewhere in China.

Here the properties compete in originality, like the Treaty Port Vineyards castle, Scottish-inspired, which sits just across the future Lafite estate. It even produces a whiskey with imported Scottish malt.

Treaty Port Vineyards (Shandong)

Treaty Port Vineyards (Shandong)


Another nice local (French) success is the Château Reifeng-Auzias, born in 2003 as a joint venture between Dominique Auzias (Château Auzias), Michel Behar (financial), and Wu Feng and Mei Ling (a couple in the Chinese oil business). The château would even be “one of the best planted vineyards in China and even elsewhere in the world“, according to Bernard Burtschy.

And what do the wines taste like?

The Hebei Province particularly impressed us for the quality of its wines.

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-“Grand Reserve 2009“, from Bodegas Langues (Changli district): a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Complex nose of red fruit, leather and violets. Mouth with soft black fruit (blackcurrant dominant) and cocoa. Cellar price: €220.
-“Cabernet Sauvignon Spécial Reserve 2005“, from Château Huxia Greatwall (Changli district): a nose of ripe black fruit (black cherry and plum) and liquorice. A beautiful mouth, fresh, with pleasant, supple and elegant tannins. Cellar price: €78.
-“Reserve 2009“, from Château Nubes (Huailai district): a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon with notes of jammy black fruit, leather and spices. Cooked fruit in mouth with fine and silky tannins. Nice length. Cellar price: €130.
-“Danbian Marselan 2011“, from Domaine Amethys Manor, (Huailai district): a red wine 100% Marselan matured half in American and half in Hungarian oak barrels. Very spicy nose (black pepper, clove), with black fruit and a slightly herbaceous finish. Fresh mouth with a crunchy finish. Delicious.
-“Petit Manseng Late Harvest 2010“, from Domaine Franco-Chinois (Huailai district): a wine we open for our anniversary of the Great Wall of China. Candied nose, with complex and lovely dry fruits. Lively palate with a good acidity and a final on dried apricot. Superb.

3 other interesting red wines tasted in the other wine regions.
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-“Bolongbao Red 2010“, from Château Bolongbao (BEIJING, Fangshan District): blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. After one year in French barriques, develops notes of blackberry, cocoa and leather. Fresh, supple and well structured. Cellar price: €60.
-“Private Reserve 2005“, from Château Gooding (SHANDONG): the iconic wine of the estate, a Cabernet Sauvignon produced exclusively in magnum. Nose of black fruit, spices and undergrowth. Fine tannins. Powerful on the palate, with notes of  liquorice and cassis.
-“The Commissioner 2009“, from Treaty Port Vineyards (SHANDONG): blend of Marselan and Merlot. Delicate nose of blackberry, blueberry and red cherry. Soft palate with balanced fruit and crispiness ; touch of black pepper on the finish. Short but fresh mouth. Cellar price: €40.
– and a nice curiosity : a 15 years old XO from Dynasty (TIANJIN), that can compete without blushing with some French Cognacs. Cellar price: €78.

Conclusion: when it comes to premium wines (above €50), the quality is often there.

The Chinese wine barrel exists!

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In the mountains of north eastern China, at the foot of Mongolia, is an oak forest of only a few hectares. Just enough trees for the two happy Chinese coopers based east of Beijing. So the oak barrel “Made ​​in China” does exist. And after tasting, it seems that the tannins and aromas of these wines are ​​thinner and more discreet compared to Hungarian or French oak.
However the Chinese oak barrel is just a sweet and ephemeral dream. It takes between 70-80 years for an oak tree to reach its mature height and it is impossible to replant trees in the mountains, it would be too expensive. “Therefore within 3-4 years the Chinese will be obliged to import oak from abroad if they wish to continue producing barrels“, the director of a cooperage explained to us.

Nowadays China is a major player in the wine world, both from a production (5th largest producer), as well as from a consumption (world n°1 for red wine) point of view. It must therefore be taken very seriously.
However, as Chinese wine exports does not exceed 2% of total production, and regarding the fact that the number of potential consumers in the country is growing every day, this trend is not about to reverse. Therefore Chinese wine will not be (not yet anyway) on all our tables tomorrow.

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Let’s close this article with a magical moment experienced on July 16, the birthday of both explorers Ludo & JB: a walk on a neglected part of the Great Wall of China. A moment of absolute stillness and where the vastness of the world reminded us politely that we are only small drops of water in the ocean. 

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA
 

*Les Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) have joined the Chinese group CITIC in 2012 to build a winery in the wine region of Penglai. The vineyard is already fully planted ; the facilities are still in construction.

Thank you to Nancy Pan and Brian Yao for their kind assistance and the numerous translations from Chinese to English.
For any other information related to the Chinese market : 
http://www.wines-info.com

 

Emma GAO, the great lady of Silver Heights

Focus on Silver Heights winery, a Chinese micro vineyard, far away from the established standards, producing only 40,000 bottles per year, and where we had the chance to taste the best red wine of our Chinese trip. A little jewel…
To follow is a summary of our meeting with Emma Gao, the winemaker of the family estate, a delightful young woman close to the hearth.

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WINE EXPLORERS : How did you become involved with wine ?

Emma GAO : It was my father who had the idea for me to learn winemaking in France for a better future career. I went to Orange and later to Bordeaux, and spent a total of 4 years in France. The French lifestyle and rich culture impressed me. I loved studying at the Bordeaux Oenology University with internships in some wineries. As you know this school is serious with the best professors who influenced me a lot with their professionalism.
I returned to China in 2004 to work in Xinjiang winery as winemaker, and then I went to Shanghai for wine sales-training, in order to have a global approach to the wine business.

WE : How was the Silver Heights winery born ?

EG : While I working my third vintage in an industrial winery in China, I realized how hard it was to produce quality wine. I got really upset that time and talked to my father about it. He told me over the telephone to come back to Ningxia, and that we will buy tanks and dig a small cellar for me to make the wine that I wish to make. My parents has a yard where they live, of less than 1 hectare planted with vines, fruit trees and vegetables. So I was so happy to start our own wine here! In 2007, our wine was recognized both by Wine Amateur in China and by overseas professionals. In 2009, Torres China, our distributor, helped us to come up with the name Silver Heights and to market the wine by promoting it in great hotels and restaurants in China.

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WE : Why Silver Heights almost disappeared recently ?

EG : A few years ago it was still the country side here. Now we are surrounded by buildings. And unfortunately our little farm was considered to be taken by a Real Estate Developer, in order to built a residence with a park. Because in China all land is the property of the Government(1).
The French Ambassador, who visited us once when he came to Ningxia, found that we had a little piece of paradise in the middle of the city and recognized that Silver Heights is a cooperation model in wine between France and China. So they wanted to support us and wrote a letter to the Mayor of Yinchuan to convince him to keep one corner of the park for us and to build a wine museum to welcome visitors.
With this very kind letter from the French Ambassador, we were allowed to keep a part of our farm, where our history and first vintage started and with which we have strong emotional ties. Thus, a happy ending! The 2012 & 2013 Silver Heights vintages will be aged here.

WE : What is your project of the wine cellar in the mountains ?

EG : In the very beginning we started with a total production of only 10 barrels, mainly for friends and family. Then little by little, this production increased every year, because the wine gained a good reputation, which was unexpected!  Then, my father and I decided to invest in a stable development, so we found some land in the mountain and planted new vines, in total 40 hectares. We planned to built a bigger facility in this beautiful vineyard touching the mountain.  We have the help of French architect Philippe Mazier who also had  many good ideas for designing the Silver Heights winery. The same architect will transform our ancient farm into a culture museum.

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WE : What makes Silver Heights one of the most recognized Chinese wineries today ?

EG : Our 16 year old vines have always been carefully maintained by my father. The altitude of 1200m, the sunshine, the dry wind and the Helan mountains that protect the vineyard, provide a very healthy environment to produce quality grapes and to make good wine. In addition,the temperature difference between day and night here is greater than 20 degrees, which is a plus for the maturation of phenolic compounds.
And above, all the wine that we produce here truly reflects the terroir of Ningxia, disease-free and very pure. We have recently planted new French rootstocks with which we hope to improve the quality even more.

WE : However, Ningxia is facing extreme viticulture, why ?

EG : While we are on the same latitude as Bordeaux, the climate here is continental. We are situated in a very dry region with an annual rainfall of only 200 mm, compared to an evaporation rate of 1600 mm! This presents a  real challenge and necessitates the use of drip-irrigation. On the other hand, this climate does offer the advantage of a disease-free environment which allows us to practise viticulture without the use of pesticides.
The huge temperature difference between summer and winter: 37°C to -25°C obliges us to bury the vines during the winter to protect them.  This sadly has the effect of reducing the vegetative growing cycle.

WE : Can you introduce your different wines to us ?

EG : We select only the best grapes for making the Silver Heights range, which we age in oak barrels for between 12 and 16 months, in accordance with traditional methods and without filtration.
Three main wines are produced : “The Summit“, a wine made ​​for ageing   a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Gernischt(2).

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And the “Family Reserve“, a friendly wine for everyday consumption. Finally we have a last label, “Emma’s reserve” our iconic wine, only produced in great vintages.
Our second brand Vallée Enchantée is made with the rest of the grapes once sorted. This is a wine for everyday consumption and is sold regionally.

– – – – – –

As we mentioned in the introduction, it is at Silver Heights where we felt most emotional about a Chinese red wine: “Emma’s 2011 Reserve“, a blend of Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Gernischt. A nose of black fruit (blackberry, blueberry and blackcurrant) with notes of violet, spices and roasted coffee. An elegant and fresh palate with velvety tannins and a good length. To be enjoyed exclusively in a magnum size bottle.

– – – – – –

WE : Where are your wines sold ?

EG : Torres China is exclusively distributing our wines. With Torres, we are presented in the most prestigious restaurants and five star hotels in China: in Shanghai, Beijing and even Guangzhou.

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WE : Where does this very special connection between Silver Heights and Torres came from ?

EG : I’m very lucky to have worked with Torres China in 2008-2009 as a training manager. The GM, Alberto Fernandez, discovered our first wine, still in barrel at the time. He liked it and because of the passion he had for it, he decided to take over the packaging, marketing and media relations. And Damien Shee, GM for Torres Beijing also invested a lot of passion by promoting Silver Heights to the premium restaurants, always organising events to promote the brand.
At Torres, they said they are « emotional investors ». They just wanted to help us as a boutique winery to make the dream that my father and I share come true. You know, Torres China represents only family wineries from over the world. And they believe that only family wineries can make good wine continuously. Torres is contributing in many countries like Chile, China, Russia…for environmental protection, charity and local cooperation.

WE : How do you see the wine evolution in China in the coming years ?

EG : If you look at the evolution of the economic growth in China over the past decade from a global point of view, it is clear that the demand is still very luxury and premium wines oriented. New world wines are well represented on the market. Wine also reflects a very good image of health so people like to offer it as a gift – especially red wine, it’s very respectful. However that doesn’t even represent 1% of the population.
Wine is associated far more with Western culture than with Chinese culture. In the future we will need the influence of sommeliers and wine critics to educate the Chinese consumers, and hopefully at the same time go for a more qualitative and affordable Chinese wine production. So hopefully one day wine will be chosen instead of Baijiu and Huangjiu – our traditional spirits – in the glass of 1 billion Chinese consumers.
Let’s wait another 20 years and we’ll talk again…

 WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

For more information: www.silverheights.com.cn

(1) [Refers to the state land expropriation if the public interest so requires, in accordance with procedures prescribed by law and authority farmers collectively owned land into state-owned land, and shall be given the rural collective economic organization of landless peasants and landless reasonable compensation and proper placement of legal acts.]
(2) Cabernet Gernischt, grown in the country for at least a century, seems to be a very close cousin of Cabernet Franc, according to ressente studies.

China, wine super power and new Eldorado – Part 1

Part 1/2 : Xinjiang, Ningxia & Shanxi

Today – more than ever – the wine world has its eyes fixed on China. Why might you ask?
If you recall, in January 2014, the following news caused a stir in all the newspapers: China became the biggest consumer of red wine in the world (1.865 billion bottles consumed in 2013), dethroning France at the same time(1)!
So as passionate explorers we looked forward to go there to get an overall picture of the situation. We spent 30 days in the country, visited 32 wineries in seven different regions and tasted more than 230 wines. Here follows the story of our one-month trip in China.

Château Changyu Baron Balboa Kinjiung (Xinjiang)

Château Changyu Baron Balboa Kinjiung (Xinjiang)


Development ambitions are clearly shown

Until the 1980s – ie yesterday in perspective to the history of humanity – China was primarily focused on the production of table grapes in the Muslim regions of the west. And although the history of viticulture in the country seems to date back to 7000 years BC,  modern Chinese viticulture is less than 35 years old.
Imagine… Within just three decades, China became the 5th largest producer of wine (in 2012), with a production of nearly 15 million hectoliters(2) ! And the country doesn’t want to stop here; far from it. China aims to become number one in the world within the next five years(3). At present there are seven major production areas in the provinces of Xinjiang in the west, Ningxia and Shanxi in the center, Tianjin, Hebei, Beijing and Shandong in the east.

WINE Explorers' trip in China - July 2014

WINE Explorers’ trip in China – July 2014


Xinjiang, between extreme viticulture and colossal investments

We began our exploration in the Xinjiang province in north-west China. First observation: the desert is king (only 70mm of rainfall per year!). The mountains, omnipresent, jealously guard their snowcapped well; one of the main sources of irrigation for vineyards together with the lakes of the region. The outside temperature is about 35 degrees in the shade – usual for July. Consequently,the harvest is early, at the end of August.
So many vineyards on the horizon… The hectares grow here at the speed of flowers in spring, and the landscapes offered to the eye of the traveler, are of rare beauty.

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At the center of the province, near the city of Urumqi, viticulture has been driven by the Japanese in 1985, with a real boom late 90’s. Here the army is responsible for managing the 10,000 hectares planted. And wineries compete with gigantism: a cellar capacity of 40,000 tonnes for Tatary Winery, two presses with a capacity of 50 tons/hour each for Sandyland Estate and a production of 6 million bottles per year for Citic Guoan Wine (who even exports a little bit of wine to Parisian Chinese restaurants).

Sandyland Estate

Sandyland Estate


A little further north, near Korla, the young sub-region named Gobi, created in 1998 with the domain Les Champs d’Or, already has ​​6,000 hectares. A good start.
There, Tian Sai Vineyard, with its 140 hectares planted in 2010, is going to be a reference: the wines are very promising. There are international varieties such as Cabernet Franc, Merlot or Chardonnay, and two Chinese varieties: Bei hong (red) and Bei mei (rosé); Bei meaning “Beijing,” the city from which these two hybrids originate.  Investments there are impressive: four helicopters have just been purchased and are waiting patiently to transport VIP guests from Korla airport to the guest rooms of the property.
Another incredible Estate is the newly built Château Changyu Baron Balboa Kinjiung which with its huge turrets are reminiscent of a jewel of the Médocaine architecture. The wines are not ready yet. They will open to the public very soon.

Tian Sai Vineyard

Tian Sai Vineyard


We told you about the extreme viticulture in summer… that’s not the only challenge! This is only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to this winter temperatures  can drop to between -20 and -25 °C; forcing the estates to bury each vine at the end of the fall, to avoid the risk of seeing the vines fade away during the winter. A mammoth task.
Another issue is labour. As paradoxical as it may seem, there is a critical shortage of workers in this part of China. Even though the Chinese Government is investing heavily to attract new workers, they are not (yet) falling  at the door. So consequently, the mechanisation of  vineyards is very developed in Xinjiang.

Ningxia, the wine tourism booming region

from left to right : JB, Mr Cao Kailong, Ludo & Professor De Mei LI in Yinchuan (Ningxia)

from left to right : JB, Mr Cao Kailong, Ludo & Professor De Mei LI in Yinchuan (Ningxia)


Those who have heard of Chinese wine have heard about the Ningxia province, the area which has received the most media attention, and is to date the only recognized official Chinese wine region. Some signs are unmistakable: the Ningxia has its own regulatory wine organism (the only one in the country), an international experimental growing zone was put in place (where the OIV, or Denis Dubourdieu, has a vineyard plot) and Vinitech China was moved to Yinchuan, the capital of the province.
Here we are on the same latitude as Bordeaux. But contrary to what one might (wrongly) think, the climate is very different because it is continental, with low rainfall (200 mm/year) and the region is facing strong temperature differences between summer and winter, forcing wineries to cover the vines during the winter. Fortunately, the protection of the Helan mountains, the high altitude vineyards (1200 m), the 73 lakes and the Yellow River offer very favourable conditions for growing grapes.

Futur vineyards, Ningxia

Futur vineyards, Ningxia


The desire for growth in Ningxia is strong, according to Mr Cao Kailong (Director of the Bureau of Grape and Floriculture Development of Ningxia): “many serious entrepreneurs invest in wine here and in the near future we wish to double the planted vine area of Ningxia, reaching 66,000 hectares”. And investments by the local government for the development of wine tourism are considerable: 50 billion RMB (equivalent to € 6 billion) was invested in the construction of roads and for the delivery of water and electricity.
And the region has excellent estates producing top quality wines, such as Silver Heights (probably making the best Chinese red wine), Helan Qingxue, LeirenshouHelan Mountain or Château Septembre.

Château Septembre, a family story

Château Septembre, a family story


Shanxi, between gigantism and modernism

We left the Ningxia province for the Shanxi province –  an 1:30 hour flight to the east. While in the car on our way to the airport a message to our attention was broadcasted on the local radio station: “We hope you enjoyed your stay here and we wish the WINE Explorers a good trip in China.” Nice and friendly attention.
Shanxi is a beautiful province, covered by green mountains. It is also (and unfortunately) the most polluted region in China. Vineyards, preserved by altitude, are grown between 700 and 1200 m. There are absolutely delicious wine to be found. After 4 hours of driving, following the winding road carved into the rocks, we finally arrived at our first winery visit, Château Rongzi. And what a surprise!

Château Rongzi

Château Rongzi


It’s not a castle that stands in front of us, but a whole village – under construction – which literally sits on top of the mountain. Impressive… The 400 hectares of vines, planted in 2007, currently produces 400 tons of juice for wines of great quality, especially the reds. Admittedly, they are taking advice for winemaking  from Jean-Claude Berrouet; which hoisted the Estate to the top.

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Another nugget from Shanxi is Grace Vineyard, with 200 hectares of vines planted in 1998, and whose owner, Judy Leissner, is one of the leading figures of wine in Asia(4)“The sun, the high altitude, the very poor soils and the 500-600 mm of rainfall during the year provide ideal conditions for growing grapes”, we were told. The Chardonnay from this domain is remarkable.

Tasting: China has made ​​considerable progress

Admittedly, China has impressed us: many wineries have succeeded in producing good quality wines. The downside, however, is important: drinking (good) wine in China will damage your wallet: at least 25 to 30 € per bottle. It is also common to see wines sold for over € 100 – especially through VIP membership and directly from the property. This is a very popular practice for wealthy Chinese customers. (Also to be noted, the majority of the Chinese production, sold in supermarkets for around €5, is not shown during tastings and I am conjuring up a terrible image.

Cabernet Sauvignon is king in China, and many other international varieties are also popular (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc). However Cabernet Gernischt(5), the most grown Chinese red grape – whose origins are European – has particularly impressed us. Traditionally blended, we had the chance to taste it on its own in stainless steel tank at Helan Mountain: a herbaceous nose, very spicy (pepper, violet, clove) with black fruit; some nice tannins on the palate, crisp and fresh.

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Five red wines which we particularly rated in the three regions for their elegance, structure and finesse of the tannins:
-“Skyline of Gobi Cabernet Sauvignon 2012“, from Tian Sai Vineyard (XIANJIANG)
-“Jiabeilan Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2011“, from Helan QingXue (NINGXIA)
-“Oak Reserve Wine 2011“, from Leirenshou (NINGXIA), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with nice red fruit and a silky texture
-“Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve 2010“, from Helan Mountain (NINGXIA) : a dense and deep structure with superb tannins
-“Rongzi Cofee Label 2013“, from Château Rongzi (SHANXI), an elegant Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

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As well as two white wines and a traditional method:
-“Chardonnay Special Reserve 2011“, from Helan Mountain (NINGXIA), probably the best Chinese Chardonnay: creamy, fresh, complex and delicate
-“Méthode Traditionnelle Brut Rosé NV“, from Chandon (NINGXIA), the only serious traditional method sparkling in China, blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
-“Tasya’s Reserve Chardonnay 2011“, from Grace Vineyard (SHANXI), a lively Chardonnay, nice tension, with great freshness.

Ganbei, the art of downing drinks

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To conclude this first part on China we would like to share a Chinese tradition with you – it is friendly, traditional and millennium – but so painful for these Western stomachs of ours: the Ganbei, which is translated here by “bottoms up”…
This is a crucial element of business in China, you will not escape hearing your hosts yelling “Ganbei!” all the time during a business lunch. The matter is serious: the protocol is strict and refusing to drink is forbidden for the risk of upsetting your host.
On the first night we arrived in China we had our first traditional dinner according to these rules, drizzled with baijiu, the traditional Chinese rice alcohol. A bottle of MOUTAI, one of the most prestigious Chinese baijiu, arrived at the table, but it was still 65% alcohol! Despite our throats burning, sweating and the alcoholic element… we tried to look good. Invitations to toast went in all directions at breakneck speed. We ended the evening in a sacred state. This is something that one has to experience at least once in one’s life to understand the phenomenon. But be prepared…

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA 

 

(1) according to Vinexpo
(2)Source OIV 2013 A figure to be qualified, however, since Debra Meiburg MW told us    recently and rightly so “it is hard to get statistics because China imports a lot of bulk wine, which is then mixed with local production ”
 (3) source : Le Figaro
(4)Judy Leissner was awarded “Wine Personality of the year“ in 2012 by The Drinks Business.
(5) Cabernet Gernischt, grown in the country for at least a century, seems to be a very close cousin of Cabernet Franc, according to recent studies.

Thank you to Nancy Pan and Brian Yao for their kind assistance and the numerous translations from Chinese to English.
For any other information related to the Chinese market : http://www.wines-info.com