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How Emma Gao is turning Chinese wine into your next must-have drink

www.vogue.com.au by 06/12/2018  

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Winemaker Emma Gao pouring Chinese wine into the world’s wine glass.

On the first day of the annual autumn wine harvest, Vogue took a road trip with Lexus to northeastern China to meet the country's breakthrough winemaker, Emma Gao. The film is part of the four-part documentary series, 'Journeys in Taste', which celebrates pioneering tastemakers and the meticulous craft that underpins their vision and Lexus vehicles.

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Gao is on a mission to transform perceptions of winemaking in her native China. “Wine is not really in the culture, we make tea not wine,” says the entrepreneur, whose Silver Heights vineyard is at the forefront of the nation’s emerging wine scene in the Ningxia province. Bringing connoisseurship to what is a fast-evolving sector, Gao is the one of the few independent producers in an area dubbed the Napa Valley of China.

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Set in the foothills of the Helan Mountains to the northwest of China, this arid land is uniquely protected from the Siberian chill and desert heat of nearby Mongolia. “It’s not easy for agriculture,” she notes. “But it’s perfect for wine.” It was Gao’s father who first planted a vineyard, rejuvenating this rocky terrain - and sent his then 21-year-old daughter to study oenology in France. “I’d never even drunk wine before, but little by little I started to love it,” she says of the transformative experience. It was during her time at the Chateau Calon Ségur in Bordeaux that she met her husband, the winemaker Thierry Courtade, who acts as cellar master. Now, close to a decade since she produced her first vintage of 10 barrels, Gao’s operation has grown to cover some 70 hectares. It remains a resolutely family affair: the signature Silver Heights Cabernet Sauvignon Emma Reserve is affectionately called “Little Emma” after her 12-year-old daughter, who Gao imagines will in turn take over the business.

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Gao’s ultimate goal is to evoke a visceral response to her wine and ignite a lasting emotional connection. Every detail in this small-scale, slow-spun operation is carefully considered. The result is the distinctive point of view – and standout wines – that has seen Silver Heights challenge the status quo to compete with the world’s greatest estates.

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As Gao tours Ningxia at the wheel of the Lexus LC Coupe, its sharp lines and meticulously crafted structural blue stand out vividly against the rugged backdrop of the Chinese terrain. “I want my wine to be like the Lexus LC," she says considering her future, as the coupe’s wind-cutting silhouette seamlessly navigates the hostile environment. "Unique and surpassing expectations.”

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With the grapes primed for harvest, Gao is secure in the knowledge that she’s slowly building not just a business, but a holistic wine experience that has helped to transform this remote corner of China. Her far-reaching vision is entirely simpatico with Lexus's own underlying philosophy - that true artisanal design is as much about the journey as the destination.