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

South Korea, a country of winegrowers…and surprises

A few days before going to South Korea, we launched a bottle into the sea on our Facebook page : we still did not have any contacts in this country…
One thing was certain, there is wine production in South Korea. Not to worry, then, the world of wine is (very) small and friends are always there to help and to share their network.

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Mission n°1 : making appointments with winegrowers

We just landed in Seoul. Now we simply needed to wait patiently. We took this opportunity to visit the capital. Some neighbourhoods only, because the city is immense. With 25 million people, Seoul is the third most populated metropolis in the world after Tokyo and Mexico City.
The architecture is sometimes very surprising, as for example at the corner of a shopping street in Myeong-Dong’s neighborhood, where a big surprise awaited us. Placed in the middle of a square, surrounded by buildings, one more modern than the other – in an ever changing town planning – the Cathedral of Myeong-Dong majestically throned.

Corée du Sud, vin coréen, Séoul, Junete, DuraeAn, Château Mani, Grand Coteau, Ah-Reum Kim, campbell early, muscat bailey A, Myeong-Dong, gubong, cheongsoo, Kim Giduk, Chungcheongbuk-do, macération carbonique, Jean-Baptiste Ancelot, Ludovic Pollet, Wine, Wine Explorers, Exploration, Asia
What wonder to come face to face with this beautiful cathedral, built between 1892 and 1898, a symbol of the Roman Catholic Church’s presence in South Korea – where in Seoul, there are over 1.2 million Christians.
But let’s get back to our vineyards. Because by now we had the contact details of four Korean wineries ! However… there was a slight “technical problem” which we had to overcome : none of these contacts spoke any English. Oops… By chance – and especially with the help of a school friend – we were in contact with Ah-Reum Kim, a journalist for the WINE REVIEW, a Korean magazine dedicated to food and wine. A few phone calls later our appointments were made. Thank you Ah-Reum !

Body language and winery visits

Rental car in hand, let’s go to the countryside, 300 km South of Seoul, to visit DuraeAn winery.

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Nearing the vineyard it seemed that the GPS was also a bit lost. We asked for directions by showing the address written in Korean on a piece of paper. A man took his car and beckoned us to follow him. He lead us to the domain. Once on site a real challenge awaited us : presenting ourselves, being understood, gathering information… and doing all this without speaking the language and only communicating with signs ! In the end we understood that DuraeAn winery produces mainly grape spirits, thanks to a double distillation alembic. Mr. Kwon, the owner of the winery, tried to explain to us with gestures that his wine is not sold and that he produces very little. We concluded that it must be made as a hobby and that the production is shared with his friends. He was very proud to show us around the cellar which housed a hundred barrels from France and Portugal. And the icing on the cake, he wanted us to autograph one of his barrels. Mandatory photo session.

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Junete and Grand Coteau, two very nice wine estates

Mission completed. We left the day after for Junete, the second winery of our trip.
Ms. Ha, the owner, was all smiles. She was waiting for us. And luckily she had wifi. Why was that important you might wonder ? Because we could communicate with her via Google Translate. And it worked pretty well ! The wine estate is very small : two hectares planted exclusively with campbell early*, a red hybrid grape variety – a cross between belvidere and Muscat of Hamburg. It gives a light wine with aromas of black fruit (see tasting notes below).
We ended our tour with a delicious outdoor lunch with Ms. Ha and her husband. On the menu was : dried fish, fermented cabbage, white rice and a cold soup made with blackberries and white radish.

Corée du Sud, vin coréen, Séoul, Junete, DuraeAn, Château Mani, Grand Coteau, Ah-Reum Kim, campbell early, muscat bailey A, Myeong-Dong, gubong, cheongsoo, Kim Giduk, Chungcheongbuk-do, macération carbonique, Jean-Baptiste Ancelot, Ludovic Pollet, Wine, Wine Explorers, Exploration, Asia
Heading back northwest, close to the sea, we arrived at Grand Coteau. A vineyard of 2.5 hectares which produces rather atypical wines, like a red sparkling, an ice wine made from campbell early or a white wine 100% cheongsoo (a very aromatic local hybrid grape that tends towards notes of white fruit and citrus). Here – as in most of the vineyards we encountered during our Korean trip – the vines are covered with huge gutter-shaped plastic nets. This is because the climatic conditions in South Korea are not very favourable for viticulture due to summer rain, high humidity and poor soils, bearing some similarity to the Taiwanese climate.

Grand Coteau

Grand Coteau


Tasting of some Korean wines

Result, Korean white wines are generally very light and the red wines are starved of tannins. Some examples of wines that we tasted.
– “M5610 Elevation 2010“ from Grand Coteau
A 100% campbell early sparkling rosé wine. Nose and mouth of wild strawberry. A fresh and pretty sweet wine rather balanced but short finish. (10% alcohol). Cellar price : 39 000 KRW (about 28€).
-“Gubong Red Wine“ from DuraeAn
A red wine made from gubong (a local grape variety), non vintage, with a very light pink-orange color. A nose of red fruit and a sweet mouth. Slightly bitter finish. (12% alcohol).

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-“Grape Wine Dry 2010“ from Junete
A purple-red wine 100% campbell early. Nose of Port wine with black fruit (blackberry) and strawberry finish. Very discreet mouth, a little hot. (12% alcohol). Cellar price : 15 000 KRW (about 11€).
– “Icewine 2010“ from Grand Coteau
A very surprising ice wine made from campbell early. This is possible since the temperature in some mountainous regions of South Korea can drop to -15°C in winter. Orange brick-red colour. Nose of strawberry and blueberry. Flat mouth, the fruit is gone. (10% alcohol). Cellar price : 52 000 KRW (about 38€).

Château Mani

Château Mani, the last (but not the least) winery of ​​our Korean journey – is situated right in the middle of the country, in the region of Chungcheongbuk-do**. We met with Mr Kim Giduk, the winemaker, with whom we were able to exchange a few words in English. A nice exception ! The château is a large building in a classical style and features a courtyard where the tradition is to crush the grapes barefoot into square stone basins during the harvest.

Château Mani

Château Mani


Another tradition here, which is reminiscent of the story and custom of a famous Bordeaux château : each year the estate invites a different artist to design a new label for the wines. But before tasting the wines, let’s visit the storage cellar, a mystical place lost in the mountains, 15 minutes drive from Château Mani. Thousands of bottles are sleeping on shelves along major corridors carved into the rock. I never expected to see such a place in South Korea. We didn’t stay for long because it was very cold there (only 10°C).

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Back at the château we tasted two wines ; probably the two best Korean wines.
-“Château Mani Cult Wine 2009
A red blend made from muscat bailey A and Cabernet Sauvignon. A pretty nose of strawberry and blackcurrant. Lovely on the palate with crispy fruit. Some tannin which provided good structure. Surprising. Cellar price : 28 000 KRW (about 20€).
-“Château Mani NOUVEAU 2013
A second red wine, using campbell early and made like a beaujolais nouveau, with carbonic maceration. Aromas of strawberry. A fresh and light wine to drink as an aperitif. Cellar price : 21 000 KRW (about 15€).
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In Korean dishes : spices, garlic and chilli…

“Beware of Korean dishes, they are ultra spicy” ! We were warned several times and I must admit that I had not taken the matter seriously. Because after our African trip earlier this year I thought my body seems accustomed to any spicy food. How naive…
The dishes arriving on the table were one more red than the other. There were spices, garlic and chilli everywhere. Hard for an unaccustomed European stomach… So the trick is simple : eat white rice as an accompaniment to extinguish the flames. Rather effective. And besides, it didn’t stop us from enjoying the feast, quite the contrary.

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The proof came with this excellent Korean barbecue. A classic and a must for lovers of grilled and juicy meat. Bon appétit ! 

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA
 

*Campbell early is produced in South Korea, United States, Japan and Taiwan and is known as a table grape with a taste of muscat but not as interesting for the wine industry because it requires very hard work as a grape variety.
**For more information : Château Mani

 Thank you to Sébastien Menut and Ah-Reum Kim for their invaluable assistance.

Taiwan : where vine grows between rice paddie and red dragon fruit

Welcome to Taiwan, a beautiful island of 35,961 km2 to the South East of China where there are as many scooters as there are people.

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Taiwan is a good country to live in and a place where you always feel welcomed with open arms. And it doesn’t matter that majority of the Taiwanese population do not (yet) speak good English, since the people in the street are all extremely friendly and willing to help at any time. It warms the heart.

It even appears that vines grow here…
And yes, wine made ​​in Taiwan does exist ! And its history is one of the most recent : estate wine production dates back to 2002. Prior to this farmers and homeowners were not authorised to produce their own wine and any production of vine grapes had to be sold to the Taiwan Tobacco & Liquor Corporation (TTL), the monopolist Government company.

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A custom made program

We were greeted on arrival by a team of wine lovers – growers, importers and journalists – who have concocted a week of travelling (more than attractive) for us : Estate visits, a lunch with the Vice Governor of the Changhua County, the election of “Miss Grape”, the discovery of Oolong tea and the exploration of the coast. A great program.
But first of all, let’s go to the center of the Island, to the Changhua region, where most of the country’s wineries are situated : a table grape on two growing in Taiwan is from the Changhua County.

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We arrived after a 3-hour drive from Taipei, the capital. After getting out of the car, the heat and humidity overcame us instantly. A few minutes later we were literally soaked from head to toe.

Extreme weather conditions

Making wine in Taiwan is a real challenge, both technically and humanly. The vines are often to be found between cultures of red dragon fruit and rice, and this is not by coincidence. There is constant moisture in the air. It rains a lot and the soils are always wet, which makes it difficult to reach optimal maturity of grapes.
In Taiwan there are no seasons and the climate is tropical : winters are warm – 22°C on average – and the vines never rest. Imagine… here, theoretically at least, up to 3 harvests per year is possible. But vines need dormancy to rest and to build up resources to produce vigorous grapes. Add to that the typhoons from July to September. No doubt, we are in the heart of “extreme viticulture”.
However making Taiwanese wine is not impossible. Far from it. “We just have to be passionate wine lovers; constantly attentive and working hard in both the vineyard and the cellar”, explained us Hammer Huang, the winemaker of Domaine Croissance Profonde Estate.

JB & Hammer Huang

JB & Hammer Huang


And if all the winegrowers on the Island have a common point, it is their passion for wine. As you can imagine, making wine in such conditions is a huge personal and financial investment. At some point between 2011 and 2014, 10 of the 24 existing wineries have stopped their activity and replaced there vineyards with red dragon fruit which are more profitable and less tiring : red dragon fruit are harvested more than 6 times per year, require little care and are sold at good prices in the Japanese market.

Tastings “made in Taiwan“

We have met some lovely winemakers. All working manually throughout the year, as no winery exceeds one hectare of plantation. The vines are grown using pergola* trelissing to avoid diseases. Sometimes the grapes are protected with small plastic bags – a practice generally used for table grapes. We were surprised by the size of the berries that sometimes reached the circumference of small plums.

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Some wineries are doing well qualitatively, especially bearing in mind the context.
4 wines have caught our attention:
-“Black Queen 2013“, from Domaine Croissance Profonde Estate
The only wine from the Estate with only 600 bottles produced every year! Undoubtedly the most successful wine we tasted. Nose of black fruit, vanilla and cocoa – aged 6 months in French and American oak barrels. Rich palate with lots of tannins. Fruity finish. 14% vol. Cellar price : 110 USD (environ 82€)
-“Jen Shiang N°1 white 2011“, from Peng Chiun Ding Estate
A white wine made from local grapes : hybrid creations of the owner which do not have names, but numbers. Muscat nose, dried fruit and candied lemon. Fresh and sweet in mouth. Easy drinking wine, good as an aperitif. 12% vol. Cellar price : 30 USD (about 22€)

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-“Nature & Dainties red 2012“, from Peng Chiun Ding Estate & “Imperial red wine Black Queen 2013“, from Sunshine Unbosom Estate
Red wines made of Black Queen** and aged in stainless steel tanks. Nose of currants and sour candy. Little tannins. Crispy and fresh on the palate. 12% vol. Cellar price : around 20 USD (about 15€).

« Miss Grape 2014 »

We ended this week of wine discovering in the Changhua County with an unexpected and enjoyable Sunday. Mr Ke Cheng Fang, the Vice Governor of the County wanted us to meet up to discuss the richness and the diversity of Changhua agriculture.

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The County is renowned throughout Asia for its production of flowers, grapes, grapefruit and red dragon fruit. And I can confirm that the fruit we have enjoyed during the promotional discourse were absolutely delicious.
To follow was the election of “Miss Grape 2014”, to which we were invited. This is an annual election broadcasted live on television across the country and highlighting, in its way, the virtues of local agriculture. The presenter was raging while the contestants were parading and votes appeared gradually on a screen as the viewers voted by remote control.

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The moment was nice. If someone had told me that I would see these Taiwanese contestants with grapes sewn into their dresses and hats…

Oolong – Tea’ Rolls

While recovering from our emotions, we left to the North to discover Oolong, an unique Taiwanese variety  of shrubs, giving teas with exotic fruit flavours. Producing a bag of Oolong tea is a « true work of ants »: only the young shoots of each shrub are harvested twice a year, ie the equivalent of 3 to 5 leaves per shrub. Imagine the number of shrubs needed for a cup of tea…

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Here each tea service is a ritual, a kind of testimony of gratitude to this noble product, drank and enjoyed around the world. Firstly water is poured at 90°C to open the tea leaves, and then discarded. The same is done for each cup to warm the container. Then hot water is added to the cup for about one minute – at the discretion of the master, and we drink the tea very hot, at 42 ° C. This process is repeated ten times, and then the tea leaves are changed to continue the tasting (good aromas of mango, pineapple and passion fruit…).

JB, Zhang Jia-xian & Ludo

JB, Zhang Jia-xian & Ludo


We learned that it is the fermentation of the leaves which gave power to the tea and modified its perfumes. For example green tea is unfermented tea – or very little, up to 15%. Conversely the black tea is 80 to 100% fermented. The more the tea is fermented, the more subtle the fragrance, developing  notes of damp earth and undergrowth.
One has to understand that Oolong is rare and precious. It tends to grow in mountainous areas, over 1500m in altitude. So to better understand the culture of this unique tea, we spent the night in the mountains, in the middle of a plantation, with Mr Zhang Jia-xian, a humble and talented producer. We dined under the stars sipping two Italian reds : a Langhe Rosso 2010 from Mustela and a Nebiollo d’Alba 2010 from Negretti. A little bit of Paradise.

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In closing of this magical moment, we lunched along the coast enjoying some seafood. We had the opportunity to enjoy two new culinary experiences : eating small whole local crabs – it’s good, crispy and it melts on the tongue. And something a little more adventurous – crunching a fish eye… much less appetising – it is viscous and cartilage… the second eye  remained on the soup plate !

Before leaving Taiwan for further Wine Explorers’ adventures, we simply had to experience  Xiao Long Pao, a culinary specialty invented by Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese chain of restaurants very famous in Asia (originally from Shanghai).

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Xiao Long Pao are among the best dumplings in the world. They are fresh pasta stuffed by hand with a preparation of pork and soup, which is accompanied by a sprig of fresh ginger and dipped in vinegar and fermented soybean sauce. An explosion of flavours and textures, between the hot soup and the freshness of the vinegar, crunchy ginger and fudge ravioli.   We have not recovered yet… To be enjoyed urgently !

WineExplorers’Cheers,
JBA

 

*Pergola : for more information, cf article on Japanese wines
**Black Queen is a Japanese hybrid grape variety 

Thank you to Mr Sanza Bulaya, Mme Daisy Hu, Mr Hammer Huang, Mr Yusen Lin et Pr Liang-Chih Chen for their warm welcome.

And during this time in Hong Kong

We had a little detour in Hong Kong at end of May – even though there are no vines growing there (at the moment) – to attend Vinexpo Asia-Pacific, the leading event in the wine and spirits industry in Asia, where we could glean valuable contacts for the rest of the Wine Explorers’ adventure !

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We took this opportunity to interview Guillaume Deglise (CEO of Vinexpo), Yang Lu (Corporate Wine Director for Shangri-La Hotel Group), Debra Meiburg MW (wine writer, wine speaker and wine educator) and Eddison Leung (Buying Manager for Watson’s Wine).
These four key players in the wine and spirits business gave us their views on the wine market in Hong Kong and China. They talked about the importance that we give today to the concept of “terroir” in the wine world – an issue at the heart of current concerns. Finally, with friendship and humour, our four guests shared their feelings about the Wine Explorers’ project.
Crossed interviews…

WINE EXPLORERS : Hong Kong, the strategic center of wine in Asia ?

Guillaume Deglise

Guillaume Deglise


GUILLAUME DEGLISE : Hong Kong is an amazing market. This is “the” hub for Asian markets with the proximity of China and especially with the cessation of duties since February 2008, which makes it an essential platform. And then there is the proximity to other Asian markets in the South which are being developed with growth rates in double figures, something quite unique. This is the area which currently attracts all the attention.
EDDISON LEUNG : Hong Kong is the window of China. Here the wine business has been very active for twenty years now and a variety of wines, ranging from easy drinking quaffers to fine wines, is offered to an audience of sophisticated consumers who are well educated in this regard and have purchasing power. The average purchase prize is between 60 and 120 euros.
DEBRA MEIBURG MW : Hong Kong has often been one of the transiting cities for China. Once the Hong Kong Government removed the luxury taxation, the duty, wine became a luxury product that was actually tax free. There is no other metropolis in the world which has attempted this. The wine market absolutely exploded. So it’s been a bit chaotic, but on the up side, it gave to the Media the  opportunity to create some order from this chaos by doing market research, building trade resources and providing guide books to help the consumers.

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WE : Is China a mature market ?

YANG LU : The Wine Market in China has shown phenomenal growth in the last 4-5 years. However, the Chinese market is not as big as people think. Although there are 1.5 billion people in China, wine consumption is still very low. In general, wine is perceived as a luxury item in China, a lifestyle. For some it has already become an investment product. I hope that wine will reach more regular consumers. The purpose of wine is firstly to provide pleasure, otherwise we are missing something.
GUILLAUME DEGLISE : China is far from being mature and we have all reason to believe that it is in its infancy. At the distribution point, the potential is enormous : especially in large cities. But with the development of other cities that already have millions of inhabitants, we can expect very strong distribution. Consumption per capita is only 1.5 liters in China. It is 50L in France, 45L in Italy and around 30L in the United States. And then there is the emergence of what we call the “middle class” : new consumers who arrive with high purchasing power and who can have fun with wines from all origens.
DEBRA MEIBURG MW : Wine has been so successful in China because it’s an affordable luxury. These days maybe less and less so, but wine gives one a sense of pleasure and achievement. I can afford this very special drink to share with my friends. You can’t share a Ferrari with your friends, but you can share a bottle of wine with a table full of friends, and everyone shares in the pleasure. China is the fifth largest producer of wine in the world –  it’s a little difficult to calculate the statistics because China imports quite a lot of bulk wine, which is mixed with the local production – but this will definitely help to educate the Chinese consumers.

Eddison Leung

Eddison Leung


EDDISON LEUNG
 : China is a growing market which showed a vast improvement for 4 years now. Today the majority of purchases average between 10 and 30 euros. While 2-3 years back it was mainly in the 10 euros or less price bracket. China is a major producer of wine, which is not a threat to imports, on the contrary. At the moment 80% of wines consumed are domestic wines. There is a lot of potential.

WE : Is buying wine in China considered to be foremost fashionable or about passion ?

DEBRA MEIBURG MW : In China I think, wine started out mainly as a badge of achievement, a sign of success, a signature of luxury. And in a way, it was a little bit showy of the mark, but the market is maturing now, and we have serious and sincere connoisseurs buying wine. Sometimes the Chinese market is misunderstood, thinking that people are pouring wine only to show off their wealth. But in fact, what I see is people pouring wine for friends to show their respect.
YANG LU : At this stage wine is still a fashion product. And there is nothing shameful about that. It’s a new market, especially mainland China. If one looks at Japan 20 years ago, or the United States 30 years ago… you will see the same thing : people start out drinking wine as a stylish and trendy product. Education is paramount.  The more we study, the more we will learn. And the more we learn, the more we will enjoy all kinds of wines from all over the world. We are getting there very fast.
EDDISON LEUNG : There is a bit of both. At present, the emphasis is still on fashion, this is the reality. And same goes for all other luxury goods in Hong Kong and China.  This is the usual way for learning here : we like fashion first and then we buy for passion.

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WE : The 5 wine producing countries/regions to watch in the coming years ?

EDDISON LEUNG : 5 countries in which I see great potential to follow…
-Uruguay, Mexico and South America in general
-Slovenia and Greece
-and of course the most important for me, China
GUILLAUME DEGLISE :
-Austria, still not well enough known, or known only by wine lovers
-Uruguay, THE new destination in South America
-Loire Valley wines in France : the perfect balance
-Georgia, where there is a beautiful story and still unknown wines
-South Tyrol in Italy, which has extraordinary wines, especially white
YANG LU :
-Rhone Valley in France, North and South
-Germany for the rieslings
-South Africa
-Washington State (USA)
-and of course, China
DEBRA MEIBURG MW : I think I’ll have to consider the Asian influence, because this is the fastest growing market in the world and certainly has the most potential. So what Asia will be interested in will be:
-certainly South Africa
-Italy without a doubt
-Chile, which has worked so hard in this market
-New Zealand
-and China itself.

Debra Meiburg, MW

Debra Meiburg, MW


WE : What do you think about the concept of “terroir” ?

GUILLAUME DEGLISE : I believe in the notion of terroir for great wines. Today you can make wine in many countries, and the Wine Explorers brings us the evidence. We must also examine new techniques. Take a vintage like 2013 in Bordeaux, judged a little challenging. The wines are still pretty darn good for a difficult vintage. 25 years ago it would have been complicated. Today with the new techniques we can make excellent quality wines with great terroirs even in difficult years. And we can certainly make quality wines – average but acceptable – in some new countries ; with soils that are poorly mastered for example. The concept of terroir is very important for fine wines and it must be defended ; as with the appellations systems in Europe for example. This is crucial.
YANG LU : Terroir is a tricky topic. I believe in it, but I don’t speak of it every day. I think the word is over used, abused and almost becomes a marketing word sometimes. But don’t get me wrong, I do believe in terroir! Terroir is very unique and has a fantastic advantage : diversity.
In Chinese, terroir is called the « Tian Di Ren », 3 words in Chinese :
-Tian means SKY, which can be thought of as climate : the kind of climate you are in, the weather, the rainfall, the sunshine…
-Di is earth : which refers to the slope of the vineyard, the aspect, the altitude, the soils, the subsoils, depth…
-and Ren, the human being. The people who make the wine, they are the real masters of wine.
So for me terroir consist of these 3 simple Chinese words : « Tian Di Ren » : sky, earth and the human beeing.
DEBRA MEIBURG MW : When I think about terroir I think of the weather, the climate. I also think of the soils and the site : the slope, the direction, the angle, the relationship between the site and the sun. And most definitely you have to include people, because at the end of the day, even though winemakers are fond of saying that the wine makes itself, it’s simply not true. A soft touch and a hand on the wine, really helps it to reflect the site, the soil and the weather. These things are all important.

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WE : What are your thoughts on the idea that “great wines” are exclusively terroir wines ?

GUILLAUME DEGLISE : We must link great wines and the heritage, the history. The big difference regarding wine today between Bordeaux and China lies in the 300 years gap. It’s not really a matter of terroir. This is about the history, the heritage, the knowledge of soils… the tradition. History will always be history.
DEBRA MEIBURG MW : You can make a drinkable wine anywhere in the world, but to make a great wine, you need a great  terroir. On the opposite side, you can get delicious, very affordable wines with mass production but sometimes struggle to get a top class luxury wine when speaking about volumes.

WE : If you had the opportunity to buy a vineyard tomorrow, where would you like to have it ?

EDDISON LEUNG : If I have the opportunity to buy a vineyard, it will be in Bordeaux. I am fascinated by the history of the Bordeaux region.
DEBRA MEIBURG MW : I think this will be one of the toughest decisions of my life. South Africa would have to be on my list and of course my dear Sonoma County (California – USA), my home town.
YANG LU : In France, in Saint Joseph. Just on the slope off Tournon. I dream of it every day.
GUILLAUME DEGLISE : In Provence, in the South of France.

Yang Lu

Yang Lu


WE
 :
What are your thoughts on the Wine Explorers project ?

GUILLAUME DEGLISE : First of all, Wine Explorers is a very innovative project, because nobody has done it yet. And at the same time we are a little jealous because we would like to be a little fly on the camera to know exactly what you’re going through. What excites me about this project is that we are in a world where we need to go super fast, where we want to sell everything very quickly. And you are taking 3 years to go meet people, ask questions, and get back to us with something fresh and really new.
EDDISON LEUNG : This is a unique, ambitious and courageous project. We all dream of doing such a project, but it is still difficult to implement. I share a great enthusiasm and passion for Wine Explorers.
YANG LU : I hope you can complete it and I support you very much. On the other side I envy you very much, because for me if you love wine, if you want to study  wine, you need to go to the source, to the vineyard, to talk to the vignerons, to the people who make the wines. And that’s what you are going to do for the next 3 years. It must be a great journey.
DEBRA MEIBURG MW : It has to be the world’s best road trip. To be able to spend time with the wine producing communities around the world and the key markets for wine must be an amazing experience. And taking the time that the Wine Explorers’ project is taking will really allow for in depth knowledge. And hopefully it will educate the wine world. I’m hoping that you will allow me to drive the van !

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In conclusion we want to show you another side of Hong Kong. A face shown less frequently, but which is of rare beauty : the mountainous jungle. Because if Hong Kong is known as the “city in 3D”, it is because living space is rare : 80% of the land consist of mountains. And the wet climate of the territory is home to a dense tropical flora.
We had the chance to do some treks during our stay. It climbs, it is high, you sweat… but at the end the landscape is like a postcard.
If you love wild rides : Hong Kong is for you!

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

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*Thank you to Matthieu Naudy for being our guide and allowing us to another side of Hong Kong.

Coco Farm & Winery – featuring the 2 Great Ladies of a beautiful project

“We venerate Tradition and always try Revolution“, IKEGAMI CHIEKO.

 In our article on Japanese wines we spoke about the Coco Farm & Winery estate, a great example of oenotourism and the integration of disabled workers (the students).

IKEGAMI CHIEKO (à gauche) & MACHIKO OCHI (à droite)

IKEGAMI CHIEKO (à gauche) & MACHIKO OCHI (à droite)


In this article we will focus on this estate started by Noboru KAWATA in 1984 in Ashikaga (Tochigi prefecture) which is today in the good hands of his two daughters : Ikegami CHIEKO, responsible for the Winery, and Machiko OCHI, responsible for the Center.

WINE EXPLORERS : Can you tell us a bit about your background as an introduction ?

IKEGAMI CHIEKO : I was born on the 15th of October 1950. After graduating from Tokyo Women’s University I started working for SOSHISHA, a publishing company in 1972. One day I decided to take an oenology course at Tokyo Agriculture College and found it fascinating. So naturally I joined the Coco Farm & Winery in April 1984.
I have been the Vice Presidente of the Coco Farm & Winery since 1989, and in 2009 I was awarded the titel of executive officer by the Tokyo Agriculture University. I’m also the Chief Governor of COCOROMI GAKUEN (a facility of social welfare) and a member of the Union Japonaise des Œnologues.
MACHIKO OCHI : I’m the second daughter of Noboru KAWATA. I was born on the 23rd of January 1956. At the university I majored in social welfare. I immediatly started working for COCOROMI GAKUEN. And before I took over my father’s position (Chief Administrator of COCOROMI GAKUEN), I worked in vineyard as a grape grower.

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WE : How was the Coco Farm & Winery’s vineyard born ?

IKEGAMI : When Noboru KAWATA (founder of COCOROMI-GAKUEN) was the teacher of a special class for mentally and intellectually challenged junior high school students, he found that his students always looked like they were feeling nervous at their school desks. However they acted very differently in the mountains.
Because their intellectual abilities were impaired, the families of these students thought they could not amount to much. Thus, their developmental needs were not a priority. However, Noboru had a different idea…
For these students, only hard work at the farm could possibly highlight their capabilities. He created the vineyard for the students in order for them to be able to experience the joy of harvesting and to end up in the vineyard at least once a year, to provide them with something that could give them a sense of selfworth.  He wanted them to be able to be proud of what they can accomplish and since there is such a strong link between what ones does and who one considers oneself to be, he wanted them to be able to link themselves in this manner to their occupation.
MACHIKO : Our father chose grapes from many other fruit because it could be turned into wine. He always enjoyed wine for the joy of sharing it.

WE : What are your students doing at Coco Farm & Winery ?

MACHIKO : Students perform a multitude of different tasks throughout the year which includes the following :
1. Putting paper umbrellas around all grape clusters
2. Cutting the grass in the vineyards
3. Pruning
4. Shedding vine leaves
5. Taking care of the young shoots
6. Harvesting the grapes
7. Collecting the pruned shoots
8. Spraying the vineyards with the required chemicals
9. Crushing and pressing grapes
10. Working on the bottling line
11. Assisting packaging for shipping
12. … and so much more !

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WE : Are visitors sensitive to the fact that challenged people are working in the vineyards ?

MACHIKO : Half of the people don’t notice that fact nor do they care about it. The other half is very impressed that they are working in this way.
IKEGAMI : But in the end it is always an exciting thing to work in a vineyard with the aim of obtaining the highest possible quality of grapes, regardless of who tends to the vines.  

– – – – – –

This vineyard in the mountains, North of Ashikaga, is a physical challenge to work in: it has a steep slope of 38 degrees average of inclination ! We tested it, it’s really abrupt. Why did you choose to plant vines here ? “Because at the time it wasn’t possible to obtain agricultural land on flat ground, only on the steep slopes of the mountains“, said Machiko.
However, the southwest exposure offers very good conditions for the ripening of the grapes. And the steep slopes allow efficient drainage of rainwater between mid-June and mid-October. Rather important considering the average annual rainfall of between 1,100 and 1,200mm per year! And for the students this exercise of endurance is very beneficial: “they learn patience, it allows them to work with the seasons and sometimes lead them to improvisation working on sloping land, which is very stimulating“, Ikegami added.
Moreover these are excellent soils for growing vines: a mixture of graphics, basalt and Jurassic shale.

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And when they are not working in the vineyard, the students are involved in transporting the logs, from the farm to the edge of the forest. Because it is here first moistened, then stored in columns of sections aligned in nature – where it will later develop shiitake, the delicious Japanese mushroom that goes wonderfully with soups, meat and fish.

– – – – – –

WE : Oenotourism is highly developed on the Estate. Is it one of the key of Coco Farm & Winery’s success ?

IKEGAMI : From its origen wine has had a very strong connection with food. It must remain something fun for people coming from the vineyard and the cellar, to sit in the restaurant and to order wine. On the other hand, COCOROMI GAKUEN is a center of social well-being in which it is not common to have any fun. So it would be very nice if the many customers who visit COCOROMI GAKUEN do so not only for comfort, but also to enjoy the environment related to the wine.
And we must always keep in mind that a winery shouldn’t only be a cash machine; we must continue to improve wine quality and customer satisfaction above all. Wine tourism is an important point, but it is the general harmony reigning over the domain that is our strength.

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WE : Are you having difficulties working with mentally and intellectually challenged people ?

MACHIKO : They tend to be very honesty, and very rigid. So we always have to behave in the right way. They are fantastic people.

WE : Why do you have such a great diversity of wines in the range ?

IKEGAMI : Coco Farm & Winery always try to listen to the « voice » of the grapes – telling us which wine they want to become.
Also we don’t use cultivated yeast. We ferment only with natural ones. We venerate what the grapes want to be. The number of wines in the range is decided naturally. And we have quite a few products in the range now, mostly made from Muscat Bailey A, Norton, Tana, Riesling Lion*, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Manseng.

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WE : Which are your 2 most successful wines ?

IKEGAMI : Our sparkling wine NOVO, a pure Riesling Lion made in the traditional method champenoise.
And DAIICHI GAKUSHOU (“first movement”), a red Muscat Bailey A – which is one of typical Japanese grape varietals. We use natural yeast, no chemical treatment, just leaving the grapes to do what they want to do. No filtration and a long aging. This wine is the first trial and the first step to Japanese wine growing.

WE : Will you increase the number of students in the coming years ?

MACHIKO : We would like to, but I’m not sure that we will be able to. The current students are getting older and many of the new students have more severe problems. And it’s hard to find staff, many people don’t like this type of work which is rather hard and dirty.

WE : Any new wine coming soon in the range ?

IKEGAMI : I don’t know if we will add a new wine to our range in the near future, but it is possible. “We venerate Tradition and always try Revolution“.

Wine Explorers’cheers,
JBA

 

*Riesling Lion is a crossing between Japanese Koshu Sanjaku x Riesling. With the same parents of the variety Riesling Forte.

For more information : http://cocowine.com

 

 

Japan, a timeless country

 Welcome to the land of the Rising Sun.

Let yourself be guided by the energy and the unique atmosphere which surrounds you. Thank you for removing your shoes and leaving them at the entrance. At homes – as in many restaurants – it is customary to wear slippers (Geta Kiri) or socks, it is a sign of respect guided by tradition.

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Tokyo, a unique megalopolis in the world

Japan is full of traditions, and of contrasts too! Tokyo is the ultimate example of this. Welcome to another world, another time, far away from all established codes, very much at odds with our daily Western lives.
Take a guided tour, visit neighborhood by neighborhood. During the day, enjoy the beauty of the imperial park at Kokyoo, walk around the Shinto shrines in Meiji Jingu Shinto, stop in front of the Sensoji temple in Asakusa, then get lost in the maze of streets of the traditional district of Jimbocho. You will feel a Zen atmosphere, calm, soothing, where tranquility reigns supreme.

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When night falls, the scenery change. The curtain falls. The offices empty. The accumulated stress from work must be removed – because in Japan you spend your live at work and conversely work guides your life. So people tend to loosen their ties after hours and go to party with friends, drinking in the Japanese bars of the Golden Gai in Shinjuku, slum it in Roppongi’s bars, sharing a drink in good company in the maid café of Akihabara, « remaking » the world admiring the lights of Shibuya..

It is said here that if you’re not born Japanese, you’ll never be considered truly integrated in the Japanese culture – even after an expatriate life spent in the country, even when fluent in the language.  Because only a Japanese person can  really understand  Japan… from the inside.
I could write pages (and pages) here about the beauty of this country of contrasts. We have fallen deeply in love with Japan.

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But let’s talk wine ! Because even if the country is known worldwide for its Nihonshu (the real name of Japanese Sake), as well as for whiskey – Japan is the n°1 whiskey producer worldwide… yes, yes! – it’s for the wine that we are here, we are the Wine Explorers after all! And as far as that is concerned, it is all good, vines grow almost everywhere in Japan, from Hokkaido in the North – where you can find nice Pinot noir, to Kyoto and Kobe in the South.

Yamanashi, Japan’s main region of production

At the feet of Mount Fuji, less than two hours travel by train going southwest of Tokyo, in the Yamanashi Prefecture, you will find the main wine producing area of Japan. An initial improvised excursion allowed us to visit some wineries and to taste their wines : Château Katsunuma, Chânmoris, or Château Mercian.

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We learned that the cultivars Koshu and Muscat Bailey A are respectively white and red traditional Japanese varietals. These two hybrids are more resistant than traditional varieties to moisture, rain and summer typhoons. Koshu is usually a very light white grape, with floral notes.  Muscat Bailey A is easily recognizable in a blind tasting: regardless of how the wine was made, it always has a delicate nose of crushed strawberries.
We also learned that in Japan most of the vines are planted using pergola trellissing: it expands the leaf surface height and thus increases plant density (number of vines per hectare) to protect the soil against erosion –  which can be extremely threatening on hillsides – as well as against vine diseases.

Pergola vines

Pergola vines


Then came the time of invitations: at Suntory Winery where they produce great wines, especially a delicious sweet white wine similar to a Sauternes (and where we had the chance to try young fried vine shoots during lunch time…delicious !). At Katsunuma Jozo Winery, where we tasted the most amazing and finest Koshu, and finally at Coco Farm & Winery, a unique place where the vineyard workers are people with disabilities. Japan is indeed a wine country !

Zoom on Coco Farm & Winery, a model of humanism

North of Tokyo, in the Ashikaga area, is the Coco Farm & Winery estate, a true example of oenotourism and the integration of disabled workers. 5 hectares of vines were planted in 1984 by Mr Noboru Kawata, the founder of the winery, on volcanic soils dating as far back as the Jurassic era. In total there are more than 15O disabled workers, divided between the vineyard and the farm, who live here in harmony, everyone moving at its own pace.

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The winery offers twenty different wines for tasting and sale, including a delicious sparkling brut, 100% Riesling Lion (a hybrid of Riesling and Koshu St Jacques). Everything here is stamped with the colours of the winery : cutlery, tablecloths, napkins and aprons, wine accessories, wooden boxes, baskets…; carefully designed to satisfy the customer. Even the wine is pampered : the winery is lulled by Mozart. These sound waves seemed to have had beneficial effects on the wine !

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The restaurant is full. The atmosphere is warm. Tourists flock from all over Japan and even far beyond. Life is good at the Coco Farm & Winery.

Some wines which we particularly enjoyed during our stay

The climatic conditions in Japan are challenging for viticulture. However… There are some very nice wines. Proof :

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*Aruga Branca Pipa Koshu 2010 from Katsunuma Jozo Winery
What delicacy to be found in this 100% Koshu white wine! A pure delight. Aged for 7 months in French oak barrels, the wine developed notes of honey, apricot and acacia. A delicate mouthfeel, lively and very long. A beautiful bold finish. This is Koshu.
*Tsuki o matsu 2012 (“Here comes the moon“) from Coco Farm & Winery
A surprising white wine, 100% Kerner, with a nose of rhubarb and kiwi. Lively and fresh on the palate. Very nice tension. Perfect to start a dinner with friends; or in good company.
Cellar price: 3,000 ¥ (around 21.5 euros)
*Kaze no rouge 2011 from Coco Farm & Winery
A red wine with 75% of Zweigelt (one of my favorite Austrian grape varieties) and 25% Merlot. Notes of spices (white pepper) and black fruit on the nose. Fresh mouth with crispy fruit.
Cellar price : 2,700 ¥ (around 20 euros)
*Japan Premium Shiojiri Muscat Bailey A 2011 from Suntory Winery
100% Muscat Bailey A. Fermentation in stainless steel tanks was followed by  barrel aging for a year. Here they have chosen to leave some stalks during the fermentation. Nose of crushed strawberry, raspberry (more discreet). Mouth with a touch of caramel and red fruits (strawberry). Slightly sweet.
Cellar price : 2,600 ¥ (around 19 euros)
*Tomi Noble d’Or 1997 from Suntory Winery
A surprise: a botrytis wine in Japan, 100% Riesling, aged 5 years in tank, with flavours similar to Sauternes. Nose of candied fruit, gingerbread and honey. The balance in mouth is beautiful, with candied dried fruit (apricot, citrus). Fresh final with a nice sugar/acidity balance that gives complexity. Small production : less than 1,000 bottles.
Cellar price : 57,000 ¥ (around 392 euros…still)

An a bonus…*Aruga Branca Doce Icewine 2009 from Katsunuma Jozo Winery
The winery excels in the art of Koshu vinification and shows it here once again with this beautiful ice wine. Floral nose (rose, hibiscus). High acidity which refreshes the mouth. Final on apricots. A true dessert wine.

You might have noticed that the price of Japanese wines is high. There are two explanations for this: the production conditions are very difficult and in most cases yields are very low, below 5,000 bottles (or even less !).

Kyoto, Japan of yesteryear

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We hoped to have the chance to have a short visit to Kyoto. And then something extraordinary happened, we were welcomed for 4 days in Kyoto by Romaric, a listener of Le Mouv’ (a French radio station), who had heard of Wine Explorers during one of their broadcasts : Allo la Planète !

Kyoto, in contrast to Tokyo, is a city of absolute zen. Better preserved during the various wars in the country, the city is home to many temples and traditional neighborhoods like Miyagawacho, Gion Higashi or Gion Kobu. And if you’re lucky – very lucky, like Ludo – you might see, in the corner of an alley, a geisha… It is rather rare to meet one on the street. Geishas are usually only to be found in prestigious ocha-ya (“tea houses”), where they sing, dance and play traditional instruments.

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Do not hesitate to visit the City by bike: it is the best kind of transportation in Kyoto. In fact nothing could be easier than renting a bike in Kyoto: we were not even asked for any identification or for a security deposit… We simply paid when we returned the bikes. And it worked wonderfully! It makes one dreamy…

2 essential wine bars : JIP and Le Terroir

In Tokyo you will find the largest concentration of 3 Michelin stars restaurants (16 3-star restaurants, compared to the 10 in Paris). But you will also find amazing wine bars. Two essentials: JIP and Le Terroir.

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JIP is a classic wine bar, sober and clean, where we enjoyed tapas in a relaxed atmosphere. It is also – and most importantly – the place where you will find the most comprehensive collection of Japanese wines: almost all Japanese wineries are presented here.  However, do not search for foreign wines : there are none here.

Le Terroir, our favourite, remains “the place” to go in Tokyo for any wine lover, people are linked to terroirs, especially those of the Languedoc-Roussillon. Be prepared: you will find more than 500 wines here… all served by the glass! What logistical and technical prowess ! “Our customers trust us, allowing us to open bottles and giving us the opportunity to present it to several people during the same evening”, said Yves Ringler, the man of the house. There is very little loss in this way.

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No doubt because Yves is so passionate ! He is a wine lover, a man close to nature and passionated by Languedoc-Roussillon. When this epicurean decided to leave France a few years ago, it was to realize his dream to open his own wine bar. “I daily discover new amazing areas in this Languedoc-Roussillon. This is a real treasure in terms of diversity”. Here, only wines from small producers are sold, rare products from all prices ranges. Plus a superb collection of spirits and eaux-de-vie. And the icing on the cake, the food is creative. It is refined and dinner is a great experience. Go for it !

Japan gave us stars in our eyes. So before continuing our journey around the globe, lets end this part of our adventure with the inevitable, the Tsukiji market : the largest fish market in the world. Such a unique atmosphere and a place where you can attend the auction of red tuna.

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And we touched the sky : a breakfast at 5:00am, enjoying a bowl of rice with freshly cut red tuna sashimi.
Do not pour more, our cup is full.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA


For more information,
– Chânmoris : http://www.wine.or.jp/chanmoris/
– Château Mercian : http://www.mercian.co.jp
– Suntory : http://www.suntory.com/
– Katsunuma Jozo : http://www.katsunuma-winery.com/english/index.html
– Coco Farm & Winery : http://cocowine.com

 *Arigatōgozaimashita to Romaric, Christelle and Yann for being our guides in Japan, and to Sumie Horikawa for your great support.