China’s wine regions: Shanxi
Known as a major coal mining province in China, Shanxi’s coal production has fuelled the country’s fast-track economic development for decades. Its ancient courtyards, traditional Yaodong or cave dwellings are dotted around the landscape of the arid Shanxi Plateau, part of the Loess Plateau in northwestern China. Winemaking in the northern province is limited but the province is said to be among the first places in China to experiment with winemaking; Qingxu County, south of its provincial Capitial Taiyuan, has records showing winemaking history that dates back to 2,000 years.
The inland region enjoys a typical continental climate, and most vineyards are located either on on terraced hills or in the foothills of the mountain range in the southeastern part of the province. Its wine production in 2015 was 4,700 kilolitres, far below Xinjiang’s production.
Leading wineries in the region include Grace Vineyard, Qingxu and Château Rongzi. Located 800 to 900 metres above sea level, Grace Vineyard in Taigu county, 40 kilometres south of the provincial capital Taiyuan, is leading the pack, producing wines from Bordeaux blends to lesser known varieties, such as Aglianico and Marselan.
The winery takes up about 50% market share in the local province in terms of wine sales, with the rest being Changyu and Great Wall, according to a report by Hua Xia Wine News.
While high quality winemaking is already evident, there remains an experimental element as winemakers are trying to find consistency in quality. The local silty sand soil provides vines with good drainage and conductivity but with strong winds blowing down from Shanxi Plateau, it is also subject to erosion. Based on the soil composition and analysis, starting from 2006, Grace Vineyard started to plant Aglianico and Marselan, and additional new varieties have been planted since 2013 in small quantities including Saperavi, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
Its vineyard sites in Taigu, for example, enjoy an average of 190 free-frost days annually, the winery says, but diseases still threaten production, which are mainly spider mites and trunk disease. In recent years, the winery has expanded its foothold and purchased more vineyard sites in Ningxia and neighbouring Shaanxi provinces.
Judy Chan, CEO of the family-owned boutique winery, chats to dbHK about making wines in China, how Chardonnay differs in Shanxi and Ningxia provinces as well as the challenges of managing her winery.
Is winemaking a new concept in Shanxi province? From technical point of view, why did you choose Shanxi over other regions?
It was 20 years ago (this year is Grace Vineyard’s 20th Anniversary). I believe that each region in China (above the Yellow River) has its own character. The key is to find which grape to grow where. For instance, I believe Chardonnay is a great one for Shanxi. It has better acidity than Ningxia. Shanxi has a very large difference between day and night time temperature. Our sandy soil is well drained and we have plenty of sunshine.
As a Chinese winemaker, what are the biggest common misconceptions the international trade have about winemaking in China?
I believe most people still think that China only produces low-end wines. It was the case in the past, but more and more producers are focusing on producing better quality wines. We put a lot of effort into Research & Development, like what to plant, where to plant, what wine to make. Without an AOC-like system, we have more freedom to experiment.
Compared with other wine regions in the world, what are the problems unique to winemaking in China?
We have to bury the vines in winter, which is costly, labor intensive and affects the way we prune. Also, we tend to have summer rain in August which can be a big problem in certain years.
Managing Grace Vineyard, from first founding the winery till now, what was the biggest challenge you encountered?
It seems like we just keep having new challenges every year. I guess this is what keeps me going every day. Grace Vineyard was one of the few wineries in China really that focused on producing quality Chinese wine. It was a concept unheard of and it wasn’t easy to convince people that we walked the walk, talked the talk. Also, many people at that time didn’t even know we produced wines in China. I remember we were at a wine exhibition back in 2003, a guy came and wanted to taste the wine. He asked where the wine was from. When I told him it was from China, he turned around and left. Now, it’s very different. Partially it’s because many people have heard of Grace Vineyard and are curious about wine from China. We have been one of the busiest booths at Vinexpo Hong Kong for several years in a row.