Sunday, September 6, 2009

Visiting Vineyards and Loulan Winery

(8/24/09) The next day of the conference was a field trip to several table grape vineyards, a raisin and dried fruit processing firm, and Loulan Winery in Shanshan County. They were harvesting the table grapes – primarily Thompson Seedless – using small wicker baskets. It was very charming to witness. I learned a lot about trellising techniques and pruning for table grapes, which are quite different from wine grapes. They were using a low pergola system and the grapes intertwined in the middle. The workers had to stoop quite low to harvest the bunches. It was exhausting to realize that in November, they would have to prune back the vines and then bury everything in the dirt to protect the vines from the harsh winter cold.

We also visited several modern irrigation systems connected to the ancient karezes which pull water from the snow-capped mountains. In the past they had used flood irrigation here, but now they have switched to drip. According to the viticulture professors with us, they are still using too much water and nitrogen (fertilizer) on the vines.

Loulan Winery was the last stop of the day, and is about a 90 minute drive from Turpan. As I was supposed to provide advice on wine tourism for the region, I observed our path carefully and in the first 30 minutes drive from Turpan, I felt hopeful. The highways were brand new and very clean. We passed well-marked tourist attractions such as signs to Grape Alley, the Karezes, the ancient cities of Jiaohe and Gaochang, the 1000 Buddha Caves and a camel riding operation. All of these appeared to be excellent additional tourist attractions – plus the landscape was very compelling with beautiful red and yellow rock formations.

Then we entered the mining and petroleum region of Shanshan County and the scenery changed abruptly. The roads were under construction; ugly shanty towns for workers lined the street, as well as garbage in the ditches. The sight and smell of poverty assaulted our senses. As we entered the major town in the region, I noticed they had planted flowers in the middle of the road in an attempt to beautify the area, but it didn’t cover up the poverty.

Arriving at Loulan Winery, we discovered it was a large industrial looking complex that would not be impressive looking to Western tourists. They did have a nice tasting room with a tasting bar, but it was over 90F and I shuddered to see all the wine on the counters in such high heat. When I asked to go to the restroom, I discovered another ancient trough in the floor. No – this wouldn’t work for wine tourism.

The operation tour of the winery was enjoyable, and they had kindly harvested some Riesling grapes (22 brix, 7 acid; 3.8 ph) so that we could see everything working. They brought the grapes in on small tractors and used a sorting table with 4 workers to pull out leaves. The grapes were destemmed and crushed using modern equipment, and then pumped into temperature controlled fermentation tanks. I was also surprised to see large rotary fermentors which they said they used for the red grapes. Total production is 2000 tons (approximately 170,000 cases – quite large). As mentioned previously, they age their reserve cab in 100% new French oak for 12 months. When I asked to see the vineyards, I was told there were a few hectares near the winery, but that the majority were 3 hours away in the Gobi Desert. We never did get to see the vineyard operations of this winery – disappointing.

We had tasted through all of their wines the previous day at the conference center during the breaks. My favorites were the 2006 Loulan Cabernet Sauvignon which had a rich red fruit nose with touches of berry and cassis; moderate tannins; and medium to long finish. However, when I tasted from another bottle later in the day, the wine was not nearly as good – bottle variation? The 2007 Reserve Loulan Cabernet Sauvignon, which we had at the banquet dinner the night before, was also enjoyable, but a bit too young with a slightly tart finish. We also tasted their Dry White, Semi-Sweet White, Chenin Blanc and Dry Red, but I was more impressed with the cabs. Apparently Loulan had won some awards in a London wine competition about 5 years ago, and their new general manager is trying to make this happen again.

Characteristics of Chinese Wines from Xinjiang Region

After tasting over 20 different wines from 4 of the wineries in the Xinjiang region (they only have a total of 12 wineries), I tried to identify the major characteristics. All of the wines were clean and fresh – probably due to organic viticulture, modern winemaking, and little to no oak – thus no bret. The majority have a fruity New World nose, but on the palate are thin with very little concentration/intensity, and no complexity. Most are low alcohol (12.5 to 13%), light to medium-bodied, and have a short to medium length finish. They make nice bulk wine, but I didn’t really find much that could be called great – at this point. I wonder if it is because they are picking the grapes at too low brix and they are not physiologically ripe. It also could be a matter of over-cropping. Furthermore, all of the vineyards are on the flat valley land (like the table grapes). I wonder why they don’t plant some wine vineyards on the hillsides closer to the water source and perhaps more interesting soil?

What is impressive about these wines is their labeling. Almost all of the wines were in very fancy bottles; many with gold engraving. They looked much more expensive than they tasted. I was also very impressed with the wine advertisements in magazines, on billboards, and on TV. Lots of fancy marketing….but perhaps more time and money should be put into viticulture if they are serious about making more prestigious wines and moving away from bulk production.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

After going through this article I have decided to bookmark this site found this really interesting & thanks a lot for keeping the blog Lively with such interesting blogs.