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China’s wine regions: Xinjiang

Bordering Mongolia, India and Kazakhstan, Xinjiang is home to the world’s second largest shifting sand desert – the Takla Makan – which accounts for two thirds of China’s desert area. Winemaking or even growing profitable crops seems highly unlikely, and yet this outpost in northwestern China has grown to be China’s biggest winemaking region.

About 1.56 million mu (100,000 hectares) of land are under vine in Xinjiang, of which only 250,000 mu (16,700 hectares) are used for winemaking. Vines are to be found in four areas including northern Xinjiang on the north side of the Tianshan Mountains, Yanqi, the Turpan Basin and Hami area, and the Yili River valley. The main grape varieties planted here are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay with an average annual production of 100,000 tonnes.

The region has very pronounced seasons, especially winter and summer. In the winter temperatures can drop to below 30 degrees Celcius and vines are often buried to survive the severe weather.

In this interview with dbHK, Chen Lizhong, owner of Xinjiang’s Tiansai Vineyards in Yanqi, opens up about the challenges facing a Chinese winemaker, the common misconceptions surrounding vinegrowing in China as well as the technology being used to improve viticulture in Xinjiang, as well as cost control and simple environment data monitoring. 

As a Chinese winemaker, what are the biggest common misconceptions the international trade have about winemaking in China?

Probably the biggest misconception is that most people believe that China is not a winemaking country and lacks experiences in viticulture and winemaking. Therefore, they conclude that wines are imported foreign goods. Of course, this is one of the challenges we have to confront. But for winemakers, when confronted with a totally new environment of climate and terroir, especially with Xinjiang’s desert conditions, how to make quality wines is a challenge for any Chinese or international winemaker. For example, burying grapevines is something new for most winemakers around the globe. For us Chinese winemakers, we are always humble and eager to learn and explore for any kind of improvement. We also welcome experts and scholars to visit Xinjiang and inspect the region to discuss with us how to produce quality and popular wines in a never-seen-before kind of new winemaking region. 

What are the main challenges for Chinese winemakers to really crack the code on making quality wines?

First of all, we need data information on the local environment. The Yanqi Basin in Xinjiang, for instance, is an emerging winemaking region, we lack reliable and scientific data information on the region’s climate for reference. For years now, we have been exploring, making our wines and monitoring local environmental changes. But most of the problems occurred instantaneously such as the flooding that happened right before our harvest and then the heavy rainfalls and tornado before the end of our harvest [last year]. Since we don’t have any previous climatic records to compare or refer to, we found ourselves always just dealing with the aftermath, which had caused quite a lot of damage. If we do have more reliable, scientific monitoring information on local climate and environment or just a sound system of forecast and alerts, our damages could be minimised.

Secondly, another challenge is also with cost control. We are a production company but, at the same time, we have to deal with sales as well. Managing a winery is really a long-term project where you don’t really see the immediate returns. From our production perspective, we are still in the infant stage. In order to ensure our quality, we have to invest all the way, but we are faced with the bloody price war too. Although when we are setting prices for our wines, we do take consideration of consumer and the market’s acceptance, we still fall behind these mature and well accepted imported wine brands. In this aspect, we really hope that the trade and consumers can support our wines. Domestically produced wines have ‘irreplaceable’ brand recognition, product of origin and the possibility for a deeper experience (wine tourism etc). These can bring the market more vibrant opportunities.

Another challenge is time. Wine is, in a general sense, an agricultural product. It relies heavily on Mother Nature. Vines need at least five to 10 years of growing and usually came of age after 15 years. Most wineries in China like Tiansai are relatively new and some are still under construction. We need to wait for vines to actually mature before they are in their prime stage. So we have to wait, and it requires confidence in your vines and patience.

Managing Tiansai Vineyards, from first founding the winery till now, what was the biggest challenge you encountered?

There are so many challenges including building the team, dealing with natural disasters and brand promotion. The biggest challenge, however, is domestic consumers’ misconception about domestically produced wines. They believe that only imported wines are good wines. While we were doing marketing, we encountered a lot of this perception. But after they really got to know Tiansai, they were often amazed at our wines’ quality. But making more consumers to take our wines seriously still needs a long time.

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