Uncorked: Emma Gao of Silver Heights

4th January, 2017 by Natalie Wang

Emma Gao, the formidable winemaker behind China’s leading boutique winery Silver Heights in northern China, is one of the forefront vintners revolutionising consumers’ attitude towards Chinese wines. A certified oenologist trained in Bordeaux, Gao studied oenology at Bordeaux University and later honed her winemaking skills at Château Calon-Ségur, where she met her husband Thierry Courtade, winemaker at the estate. Her first vintage, 2007, was greeted with applause from domestic and international wine experts. Her 100% Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Emma’s Reserve’ and a Bordeaux blend ‘The Summit’ are among the most prized China produced reds. In recent years, the winery expanded its range to include a white, a Burgundy style Chardonnay, and its most recent ‘The Last Warrior’ series. Emma speaks to dbHK about a 1985 Domaine Faiveley red that led her into wine industry, her dream dinner party and why she is 100% content with her life at the moment.

silver-heights-resizedWhat vintage are you?

1978. In Bordeaux,it’s an average vintage; in Burgundy, the “miracle vintage”; in Italy, an exceptional vintage; in Napa, an average-to-good vintage; and in China, a pre-historic vintage! So my vintage is very much all over the map, depending on which region you’re looking at. I personally find that comforting, as it shows the beginning of a trend towards the development of more terroirs in more countries. It serves as a safeguard of sorts – a bad vintage in one part of the world is offset by good-to-excellent vintages in other parts of the world!

What bottle sparked your love of wine?

When I first arrived in France, a friend opened a bottle of 1985 Faiveley Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru, one of Domaine Faiveley’s most complex, subtle, layered, and long-finishing wines. I was blown away. I had come to France to study oenology, but until that moment I hadn’t understood the full potential of wine or tasted a wine that was the very pinnacle of winemaking and terroir. It definitely inspired me to pursue my oenology studies more rigorously.

What would you be as a wine?

Probably a Rhône valley blend: very complex and warm, with a sunny entry but hidden depths.

Where are you happiest?

At my vineyard, on a beautiful clear summer day, when you can smell the scent of the pagoda trees and see the magnificent Helan Mountain rising over the surrounding green fields.

What’s your greatest vice?

Drinking, and good-looking men like my husband!

Best advice you ever got?

Alberto Torres suggested a few years ago that I try my hand at making white wine. I was sceptical, as I am much more familiar with red wines, but the first vintage of our Family Reserve Chardonnay in 2014 was an instant success and even received 91 points from Robert Parker. It’s so important to surround yourself with supportive people who push you to explore new paths.

Your cellar’s underwater, which bottle would you dive in and save?

I have to say that our still in barrel Emma’s Reserve 2015 may be our best wine yet. If the cellar were underwater, I would save a barrel of that, because I couldn’t bear to not see its full potential come to fruition.

What’s the best and worst thing about the wine business?

The best part is to seek changelessness in a constant flux of changes. The only thing that stays unchanged is style, and the constant change is always weather. The worst part is when we encounter climate calamities that could wipe out all our efforts.

What’s on your wine bucket list?

Oh, that’s a hard one! Honestly, there are still many wine regions that I haven’t had a chance to visit or get to know well. I guess my wine bucket list would be to taste wines from every corner of the world, from South America to Africa to Australia to Canada to Georgia to the UK, etc.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?

My great-grandfather, Mme Leroy (an absolute inspiration), Jancis Robinson, Zhuangzi, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (my two favourite philosophers – their writing on nature inspires me every day in my work in the vineyard). A small group of people, all with very interesting and unique perspectives on life.

Personal satisfaction (Parker points – out of 100)?

100! Right now Silver Heights is in a wonderful position. I feel that our team is coming together, with new young talents and our older, more experienced staff fitting together very well. Plus, we are on the verge of a big launch in Hong Kong (more news to come soon!), and it seems that the world is finally catching on to the great wines that are being produced in China. We’re finding our terroir and our place in the world, and that is very exciting and invigorating for me.

Which wine would you like to be served at your funeral?

The Last Warrior, our newest wine! I know it’s usual to pick a fancy bottle of Bordeaux for this question, but if I died tomorrow, I’d like everyone to drink the most recent wine I’ve worked on, to taste the results of my most developed winemaking skills and therefore to best understand who I was at the end of my life.

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