When it comes to wine, China is not known for being cutting edge. Compared to the big wine countries, winemaking here – despite developing fast in the last couple of decades – is still in its infancy. It has also been largely inspired by France’s fine wines and has emulated the world-famous traditions of Bordeaux by producing reds mainly from cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot.
But all this is set to change with a crop of innovative winemakers, both new and already established, who are looking to find more inventive, local personalities for Chinese wine.
They are “rethinking what to do in terms of getting away from that Bordelais Grand Cru Classe model of producing reds from bordelais varieties and exposing those wines to large amounts of new oak”, says Edward Ragg MW (Master of Wine), who co-founded Beijing-based Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting with his wife Fongyee Walker MW.
Producers are experimenting with unusual, sometimes indigenous grape varieties, embracing organic, natural or biodynamic viticulture and expanding their winemaking methods and styles.
While cabernet sauvignon remains by far the most widely planted wine grape in China, representing an estimated 63 per cent of all wine grapes, Puchang Vineyard, for example, is having success with saperavi and rkatsiteli, two varieties of Georgian grapes that it cultivates organically in the bone-dry Turpan basin of Xinjiang. It also grows locally adapted varieties, including 01 beichun, a hybrid of wild, Chinese- origin grapes from Jilin and muscat from Xinjiang, bred in 1954. Canaan Winery in Huailai is also growing a wide range, including riesling, gewurztraminer and pinot noir.
“Canaan is probably China’s most professional wine producer because of its vine nursery, international viticulture standards and some impressive wines made from a wide variety of grape varieties. It has only just begun to release its wines and the future looks very promising indeed,” says Ragg.
Spirit of innovation
Grace Vineyard, one of China’s first producers to attract international attention, pioneered wine production in Shanxi. The highly respected family- owned winery has deliberately moved on from the bordelais model by experimenting with traditional-method sparkling wines, using varieties such as aglianico, syrah and marselan. It has also partnered with local grape growers in Xinjiang and beyond to experiment with new types of wine.
“We tell them what we want from the grapes – more ripe, more acidic – and we make the wine at our wineries. We’re still working on these wines; they’re not ready as a commercial product yet,” says Hong Kong-born Judy Chan, who runs Grace.
Chan has also experimented with planting a wide range of grape varieties. Many, including nebbiolo, riesling, chenin blanc, petit manseng, pinot noir and sangiovese, have failed. It is trialling more varieties at both its Shanxi and Ningxia vineyards. “We need another 50 years at least to know what to plant and where. Ideally, my ancestors would’ve done this 100 years ago, so we could just enjoy the fruits of their work now,” she laughs.
An unusual direction
While Grace is experimenting with a wide variety of grape varieties and regions, China-born German Wang Fang of Kanaan Winery is particularly passionate about riesling. But Helan, Ningxia, where her winery is located, and its climate are highly unsuited to riesling, so growing the grape has been a challenge.
She lost her entire harvest in 2016 as it was too hot, and then there was too much rain. But, in 2018, Wang was able to make a 100 per cent riesling wine. “It’s a great risk to try to grow it here, but it’s a special grape – gifted by God, I believe – so I was determined,” she says.
Along with riesling, Wang also grows sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet gernischt. And, unusually for a Chinese winemaker, she makes a rose, too.
Emma Gao, owner and winemaker of multi-award-winning Silver Heights Vineyard in Ningxia, has also done her fair share of experimenting. She transformed Helan Mountain’s dry, rocky soil with only 0.2 per cent organic matter by planting grass and using the manure from cows, chickens, goats, horses and donkeys that she raises. “Bringing a desert with very rocky soil to life was challenging.”
Since starting the vineyard in 2012, she has employed natural farming techniques and the ancient Chinese principles of the Jieqi calendar of solar terms that governs agricultural arrangements. She also has Chinese and European organic certification for 45 of her 70ha under vine.
Since 2017, she has converted to biodynamic viticulture with a sustainable system using natural materials, soils and composts that was designed by Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. “We have to preserve our land and precious soil and be sustainable because we don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children,” she says.
Silver Heights’ new wine collection, Jiayuan, is its first natural range using a minimal intervention approach that focuses on wild-yeast fermentation, zero filtration and minimal sulfur. Only 3,000 bottles of each of the three single-varietal cuvees will be produced. “We believe it is the purest expression yet of our land on Helan Mountain,” says Gao.
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Also in Ningxia, Domaine des Aromes, founded by husband and wife Peng Shuai and Sun Miao, follows organic and biodynamic principles. But it has eschewed certification as it is “expensive and not particularly useful,” according to Sun.
The couple both studied and trained at biodynamic wineries in France. Peng’s first job was at Domaine Emmanuel Giboulot, a prominent organic winemaker in Burgundy.
As their 7ha of vineyards were originally uncultivated land and therefore had not been “improperly used by human beings”, there was “no challenge in transforming it into biodynamic”, says Sun. “The biggest difficulty for us is that China is a place with extremely fast development and high efficiency. We have to slow down when growing grapes and making wine.”
The team of four at Domaine des Aromes produces only 10,000 bottles of wine a year, which have a cult following among middle-aged, well- educated customers in China. “Chinese people have a natural understanding of nature and cosmic forces, which makes consumers accept and appreciate natural or organic wine. But I don’t like to use it as a marketing tag, because keeping natural and pure should be the basic attribute of fine wine.”
Organic wines have a well-established market within China, especially in the first-tier cities and often with the younger generation of drinkers. Ragg points to Shanghai and Chengdu as the two cities with the most adventurous drinkers. “Look at the natural wine bars that have sprung up in Shanghai,” he says.
Gao sells 75 per cent of her wines domestically that are available at such places as natural wine bars and Michelin- starred restaurants. The remaining 25 per cent are exported mainly to the US, UK, Singapore, Japan and Denmark. “There are a lot of people knowledgeable about wine and organic wine nowadays in China, but we still have a long way to go,” she says.