China, wine super power and new Eldorado – Part 2

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

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

Château Junding (Shandong)

Château Junding (Shandong)


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

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Tianjin, pioneer region in Sino-foreign joint ventures

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

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

Dynasty

Dynasty


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

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

Hebei, the booming coastal region

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

Bodegas Langues

Bodegas Langues


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

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

Château Huaxia Greatwall

Château Huaxia Greatwall


Beijing, or when the vines caught up with urbanism

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

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

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

Château Lion

Château Lion


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

Shandong, a region with significant potential

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

Future Lafite Estate (Shandong)

Future Lafite Estate (Shandong)


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

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

Treaty Port Vineyards (Shandong)

Treaty Port Vineyards (Shandong)


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

And what do the wines taste like?

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

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

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

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

The Chinese wine barrel exists!

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

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

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

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA
 

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

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

 

Emma GAO, the great lady of Silver Heights

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

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WINE EXPLORERS : How did you become involved with wine ?

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

WE : How was the Silver Heights winery born ?

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

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WE : Why Silver Heights almost disappeared recently ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WE : Can you introduce your different wines to us ?

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

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

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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.