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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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…



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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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…



(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