Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Chateau Yuanshi Winery – Luxurious Stone Winery Designed with Local Chinese Desert Architecture, Ningxia

(Dec. 2013) - This winery is massive and very impressive as you approach and see the tall stone walls designed in the traditional Chinese fortress style of the region. It includes pathways paved in native stone and breath-taking art sculptures designed of wood and petrified rock.

The owner is a very gracious Chinese woman who has hired a French winemaker from Bordeaux to produce some excellent local cabernet sauvignon. Production is around 150,000 bottles (12,500 cases).

The winemaking facility is state of the art, with new stainless steel fermenters, and top of the line basket press. Hundreds of French oak barrels line the long cellars, and plaques proclaiming their wine awards in Chinese wine competitions decorate the walls. The winery is so fancy that it reminds me of tours through some of the top French chateaux.

As we pass through the barrel room we are asked to sign a barrel – a custom they use for visiting dignitaries. They point out signatures from other famous visitors, and we are made to feel important to participate as many photographers take photos of us signing the barrels.

We end in a tasting room with a very long magnificent wooden table with a strip of the local soil running through the middle of it to showcase the unique sandy rocky quality of the local terroir. We taste the 2010 Chateau Yuanshi Cabernet Sauvignon, which is quite enjoyable. It is a dark ruby red color with a mixed black berry nose. The berry notes carry through on the palate with plush concentration and velvety tannins. The finish is medium to long with moderate complexity.

After the tasting, a bevy of newspaper reports with cameras, and the local television station interviews us, via interpreters, regarding our thoughts on the wine and the region.

Later we enjoy a traditional Chinese dinner at this winery seated at a round table with the lazy susan in the middle. Dish after dish of local delicacies arrive, and once again, I am very impressed with the variety of vegetables – spinach, beans, cooked lettuces, mushroom dishes, and many others. Lamb is the specialty of the region, and we have this in the local soup as well as mixed with vegetables. Chicken, beef and fish dishes are also served.

During the meal we start with the 2011 Chateau Yuanshi Cabernet Sauvignon which is a much leaner, astringent vintage with strong green pepper notes. Fortunately they switch back to the 2010, which was delightful to pair with the food. The Chinese prefer red wine with their food, and I must say I enjoy the fruity warm tannins of the cabernet with the spicy salty food. It warms up my mouth and my stomach. Though they produce a lot of Italian Riesling in Ningxia, it was rarely served with food.

We did several “gambei’s” (toasts) with the meal, prompted by the owner. Fortunately she did not expect us to slam back the wine as was required on previous visits. We each sipped from our glasses that were kept filled at a continual 2 ounce pour rate by the served who hovered around the table. A lovely dinner, and a great first day on this trip to Ningxia.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Yuange Winery – Modern Chinese Architecture With Ice-Covered Pond and Geese, Ningxia

(Dec. 2013) - The first winery we visited was Yaunge, which is owned by a woman with a female winemaker. (NOTE: Many Chinese women seem to be involved in the wine business here, and have the roles of owner, general manager, or winemaker). The architecture is modern Chinese with large brick walls made of native stones and artwork that includes beautiful statues carved from native wood.

The winery is is situated on the edge of a pond, which was covered with ice when we visited. A curved bridge allows you to walk across the pond to the vineyards, which were buried in the sandy earth due to the cold winter weather. As I crossed the bridge, I was delighted to see a pen holding white geese complete with a small house so the geese could stay warm.

The tall mass of the impressive Helan Mountain Range rises up beyond the vineyards, and the sky is a pale blue with a temperature hovering around 12 F on this December afternoon. We pass a pile of grape vine cuttings, and I’m told that the vines are pruned almost to the ground before they are buried. Approximately 50% of the vine burying operation is now mechanized, which saves much time and lowers labor costs.

Back in the winery, all of the equipment is new with shiny stainless steel tanks, 100% French oak barrels, and small crusher destemmer equipment and basket presses. We learn they have 20 hectares (49 acres) of red grapes and 7 hectares (17 acres) of white with an average production of 6 tons per hectare (approximately 3 tons per acre). They produce around 3000 cases per year.

I am impressed with the labeling and logo of the winery, which is a striking gold color with a distinctive circle in a spiral pattern (see photo). It reminds me of a modified yin-yang symbol.

We taste the 2012 Chateau Yuange Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a medium ruby purple color with a nose of cassis and herbs. On the palate it has a smoky note with hints of minerality and rather astringent tannins. I am surprised by the higher alcohol, at around 14.5%, as most Chinese wines usually maintain a 12.5 to 13% alcohol level. The medium length finish is one of anise and leather. It has only received 6 months barrel aging, and in my opinion could benefit from more oak aging time to soften and integrate the tannins. Too young to drink now. I am amazed to learn the price is 588 rmb, or almost $100 US dollars.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Photos of Winery Architecture in the Ningxia Wine Region of China

(Dec. 2013) On my second trip to the Ningxia wine region of China, I was able to visit six additional wineries and drive past many others along the new Ningxia wine route. Presently they have 100 different wineries with a lofty goal to reach 1000 in the next decade. What surprised me the most was the different types of architecture used for the wineries. They ranged from traditional and modern Chinese, to French Chateau, Industrial and Urban Ghetto. Quite Fascinating. Following are some photos of these wineries.

Chateau Bacchus (Photo by L. Thach)

Xixia King Winery (Photo by L. Thach)

Yuange Winery (Photo by L. Lockshin)

Chateau Yuanshi Winery (Photo by L. Thach)

Chateau Deda (Photo by L. Lockshin)

Chateau Helan Quingxue (Photo by L. Lockshin)

Chateau Lanyi (also called Lanny) (Photo by L. Lockshin)

Silver Heights Winery with Winemaker Emma Gao (Photo by L.Thach)

Chateau Changyu Moser (Photo by L. Thach)

Domaine Chandon Ningxia (Photo by LVMH.com)

Tasting Room of Chateau Lilan (Photo by C. Lilan)

A Snapshot of Wineries and Vineyards in the Ningxia Wine Region of China

(Dec. 10, 2013) According to our host, Mr. Cao, Ningxia now has over 100 wineries, with a plan to grow to over 1000 in the next decade. I visited 6 wineries on this trip as part of the conference, in which we lectured on best practices in wine tourism in the morning and visited local wineries in the afternoon. Each of these wineries is described in more detail in other posts.

Vineyard Acres in Ningxia Now Equal Approximately 57,500 Acres

We were informed that Ningxia now has 300,000 to 400,000 mu of planted vineyards. A mu is the term for a Chinese acre, which equals 1/15th of a hectare. A hectare equals 2.47 acres. Therefore if the average number of planted vineyards in Ningxia is 350,000 mu, then this divided by 15 mu = 23,333 hectares, or 57, 657 acres. The first vineyards were planted in 1982.

Ningxia Grape & Wine Production Regulations

Ningxia is one of the few wine regions in China to establish regulations on production. Because of this, they have been invited to become an OIV observer, which is a great honor. Currently the average grape production from vineyards is 500kg per mu. This equates to 7.5 tons per hectare, or 3 tons per acre.

In terms of winemaking regulations, 75% of the grapes in a bottle must be grown in the Ningxia region. In addition, 85% must be of the same variety and vintage in order to list varietal and vintage on the bottle. These standards are similar to those established by other major wine regions of the world.

Soil and Climate of Ningxia

The soil consists primarily of sand and rocks, with many alluvial fans flowing down from the Helan Mountains (9,000 feet tall) that shelter the northern side of the vineyards. The climate is Continental with average summer highs of 74 F, though when I was there last August it was much hotter. Since this is a desert climate with lots of sunshine, the rainfall is quite low at around 8 inches, but almost all vineyards have drip irrigation now. The Yellow River flows through the town of Yinchuan and near the vineyards. Elevation of the vineyards averages 3,000 feet, with most vines established on the flatter plains of the alluvial fans, but a few planted on the foothills of the Helan Mountains.

Main Types of Grape Varietals Grown in Ningxia

As Ningxia is a new region, winegrowers are still experimenting to determine the best type of varietals to grow in their climate. Therefore, they have currently planted 40 varieties, but the main ones are:

Cabernet Sauvignon – though no one seemed to know the exact clones they are using, the cabs from this region are medium-bodied with a lighter non-opaque color. They are also more fruit forward with concentrated red and black berry flavors and spices. Ningxia wineries have won the most awards on their cabernet sauvignon and cab blends, including the 2011 Decanter International Trophy.

Merlot – I tasted several merlots on this visit, and was surprised to see that they are usually darker in color than the cabs, with savory meaty flavors and some herbal components. The tannins are smoother than the cabs, but these were not the fruity sipping merlots you find in most New World wine regions. Again no one was sure which clone they were using. It seemed to me that this merlot clone was better used for blending than on its own.

Chinese Gernischt (also called Chinese Cabernet or Cabernet G) - this varietal is thought to be related to Carmenere or Cabernet Franc, but no one is sure yet as the DNA profiling has not been completed. This is a varietal that, in my opinion, should only be used as a blending grape and in no more than 5% of the blend. It has very astringent tannins, green notes, and can taint the wine with a sharp, acrid note if too much is used.

Italian Riesling – floral, fruity with some tropical notes of pineapple. It is light, fun and approachable with a crisp acidity. This grape seems to do well in Ningxia and would be an easy export product if priced correctly. The few I tasted were $20 and $30 per bottle, when they probably should have been priced around $18.

Other more common grape varietals include: chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet franc, and vidal blanc.

Rootstock and Trellis Systems

Interestingly 50% of the vines are on their own roots, with almost all having been imported from France. When I asked if they were concerned about phylloxera, I was told that they don’t think this is an issue because the climate is too cold and the sandy soil helps deter the disease. The other 50% of the vines are planted on rootstock, with the most common ones being ISO4, 110R, and Ramsey.

The trellis system is primarily vertical shoot positioning (VSP) with cane pruning. The trunks of the vines are not allowed to grow tall, because they must be buried during the harsh cold winters. Therefore, each November the vines are pruned back to the ground, and in the spring the shoots are repositioned on the wires to grow up to 5 feet tall on long skinny canes, similar in appearance to a bush.

I was told that more than 50% of the vines are now being buried mechanically. Because of this they are getting rid of the tall cement pillars they were using in the vineyard and replacing them with stakes. Despite the mechanization, they still need workers to hand prune the vines and put the shoots back in trellis system each in Spring.

Average Vineyard Worker Salaries

Regarding vineyard worker salaries, I was told it ranged from 1500 – 2000 rmb per month, depending on experience and gender (women are paid less for some reason). Taking an average wage of 1750 rmb/6 = $286 per month, or $13.60 per day, or $1.70 per hour. I found the gender discrimination to be strange, because many Chinese women hold top positions as winemakers, winery general managers, and owners.

Though the pay may be low, the worker housing I saw was quite nice. Many of the houses I saw at Xixia King Winery were new and spacious. However, I was told there is an issue with the younger generation leaving the vineyards and moving to the city to work. Therefore many of the vineyard workers are from older generations.

Second Visit to Ningxia Wine Region of China

(Dec. 9, 2013) Though the weather temperature averaged 32 degrees Fahrenheit (F) during the day with lows around 8F at night, my most recent trip to Yinchuan was filled with warm hospitality and many positive experiences. Yinchuan is the capital city of the Ningxia wine region, and a two hour flight West of Beijing. The local government had decided to host a 5-day wine tourism conference and invited me and two other colleagues, Larry from Australia and Damien from France, to speak.

I flew from San Francisco to Beijing, and was met at the airport by my good friend, Qin, who helped to organize the conference. Despite the fact that we raced through the Beijing airport clocking over a mile on my pedometer, we still missed the last evening flight to Yinchuan and had to stay overnight in Beijing. However, we were able to catch the first flight out the next morning and were in Yinchuan by 11am.

The last time I visited the Ningxia wine region was August of 2012, when the daily temperatures on the low 90’s, so to arrive in the dead of winter was quite different. Despite the cold, we had sunny blue skies all week, but there was no snow on the Helan Mountain range as I had hoped.

I was impressed with the progress that had been made in the city of Yinchuan since my previous visit. Now there were even more new buildings, grand boulevards lined with trees, and bustling modern shopping centers. Furthermore, everywhere I looked, building cranes dotted the sky as new structures were going up, proving that Yinchuan is one of China’s boom towns.

Enjoying the 5-Star Kempenski Yinchuan Hotel

This time the local government booked us into the Kempenski Yinchuan hotel, which was quite opulent and modern. It was decorated for the holidays with many lighted Christmas trees and soft Christmas music playing throughout the hotel. The service was exquisite, with an obviously well-trained staff that seemed happy to see me each day and eager to help with any request.

My room was large and beautifully decorated, with a welcome bowl of fruit consisting of apples, bananas and dragon fruit. The warm robe, slippers and comfortable bed made it a very cozy visit. Breakfast each morning with the huge buffet was a treat, with so many different types of food available. My colleagues and I also enjoyed the bar, and were very happy to find they had local Ningxia wine available by the glass. Two nights in a row we ordered the Silver Heights cabernet sauvignon, and it was excellent.

Number of Wineries and Vineyards Grow in the Ningxia Wine Region

The next day at the conference, our hosts showed us a large map of the Ningxia wine region, and I was amazed to see that in the year and a half since I visited, they had grown from 38 wineries to 100. In addition, they had planted more vineyards and now have around 57,500 acres planted to vines. NOTE: See other posts for more details on wineries and vineyards.