Marked by a vast expanse of parched land and the Gobi desert, quality winemaking is made possible by a rolling mountain range called the Helan Montains that block cold winds blowing in from the northwest and Tengger desert.
Winemaking is mostly located on the eastern foothills of the mountain range, an area that measures roughly about 200,000 hectares. In the past few years, there was what Fongyee Walker MW called a “gold rush” to build wineries there, after burgeoning boutique wineries such as Silver Heights won intentional accolades. This has drawn interest from Moet & Chandon and Pernod Ricard, both of which are making wines in Ningxia. The region has close to 100 wineries at the moment, and roughly another 100 under construction.
Ningxia’s current vine acreage is 610,000 mu (40,666 hectares). The local government is hoping to push the region’s vineyard acreage to 700,000 mu (about 46,667 hectares) by 2020, which will bring its annual wine production to 200 million bottles. The main grape varieties planted in the region are still dominated by Bordeaux varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Gernischt, a grape variety championed by China’s biggest winery Changyu as well as some white varieties such as Chardonnay.
In this interview with dbHK, Emma Gao, the capable winemaker of Silver Heights, delves into details about the challenges of making wines there, from sourcing grapes to what she calls “innate prejudice” toward Chinese winemakers from the international trade.
What’s special about making wines in Ningxia? From technical point of view why did you choose Ningxia over other regions?
“Ningxia has a couple of characteristics that make it perfect for grape growing. First of all, it is very dry, so we don’t have to worry about fungus or rot, which can be a huge problem in very moist wine regions like Burgundy. That already saves us a lot of worry and time!
“Secondly, Ningxia has a continental climate, which means that we have a very large diurnal difference– i.e. there is a large difference between the night and day temperatures. This is very helpful in grape growing, because your grapes can ripen well during the warm, sunny day, but then the cool nights help them retain their acidity. That balance between ripeness and acidity is crucial to making excellent wines. Geologically, our soil is also perfect: well-draining and stony, and of rather poor quality. That sounds like a problem for growing anything, but in fact when growing grapes, you want to have just the bare minimum amount of nutrients for your grapes. Otherwise the grape vine will grow too much wood, leaves, and other things that aren’t the grapes themselves, which is a huge waste of energy for the plant.
“Of course, Ningxia has its challenges as well!”
As a Chinese winemaker, what are the biggest common misconceptions the international trade have about winemaking in China?
“Well, to start, I’d say that there are many people who have supported Chinese winemaking and spoken well of it – Jancis Robinson MW, Michel Bettane, Andrew Jefford, the folks at Wine Spectator etc. We all are so deeply appreciative of their encouragement and help. And to be honest, there is still a lot of improvement to be made by Chinese winemakers in general.
“However, there definitely is an innate prejudice about us among many people in the international trade. They believe that Chinese winemakers can’t make quality wine, that Chinese winemakers aren’t as well-trained as foreign winemakers, and on and on. While it’s true that Chinese winemaking is fairly new, the Chinese invented compasses, paper-making, and gunpowder, and more recently, figured out how to raise a billion people out of poverty. If I remember correctly, three of the 10 tallest buildings in the world are in China, and frankly I consider WeChat a wonder of the modern age. So, I don’t think it’s really such a stretch to think that Chinese people could also learn to make quality wine. It will just take time and experience.”
What are the main challenges for Chinese winemakers to really crack the art of making quality wines?
“As I said, time and experience. Most winemakers are very young and have only made wine in one or two wine regions. I would love to see young winemakers and even students of winemaking traveling more, to South America, Australia, Europe, etc, to learn how wineries in those places are overcoming their regional challenges and working with their grape varieties.
“Each harvest that you work, each vintage that you make, adds a little bit to your understanding of winemaking. I have never met a winemaker who believes that they have ‘cracked the code’ – I’m sure that even renowned winemakers like Alain Brumont would say that they can still improve. Most Chinese winemakers are just at the beginning of their journey rather than the middle.”
Managing Silver Heights, from first founding the winery until now, what was the biggest challenge you encountered?
“Our biggest challenge has always been sourcing good grapes. Until we planted our own vines in 2012 and then were able to harvest them starting in 2015, it was a constant battle to find good grape-growers, convince them to sell to us and not anyone else, and make sure that what they sent us at harvest was what we had actually paid for.
“We would often find Cabernet Gernischt, which we prefer not to work with, thrown in with our order of Cabernet Sauvignon. We would have to send the whole truck back and frantically search for more Cabernet Sauvignon to make up that lost amount. It was a very frustrating and stressful experience, which is why we decided to plant our own vines despite the cost and energy required. I would prefer to have more work but be in control of my grape quality.”