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Chinese ice wine is heating up the competition

gbtimes.com by Asa Butcher27/04/2018  

Ice wine, a type of dessert wine produced from grapes harvested while frozen on the vine, is produced in regions that regularly see the air temperature drop below the necessary minus 8C. Canada and Germany are currently among the world's largest ice wine producers, but China is starting to heat up the competition.

Last year, ice wines from wineries located in the northern Chinese provinces of Jilin, Heilongjiang and Shanxi won three out of the five gold medals awarded to Asian wines at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2017, one of the largest and most influential wine competitions.

One winery in Xinjiang, northwest China has been in business for over 50 years, taking advantage of the perfect conditions that the region offers for wine production. Located near Yining City in Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, we visited Xinjiang Yizhu Wine Co Ltd to learn about the industry and taste some ice wine.

Unique microclimate

Founded in 1964, Xinjiang Yizhu Wine is situated in the north of the autonomous region, close to the Dzungarian Alatau mountain range and Borohoro Mountains. The vineyards sit on the sun-kissed Ili valley plain 600 metres above sea level where the grapes thrive in the unique microclimate and their roots soak up the snowmelt.

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Mr Zou Xinshan, chairman since 2011, tells gbtimes.com that the remote location means difficult access to the market and adds cost, but it is vital to wine production. "The location determines the climate and soil, and these elements have a great impact on the quality of grapes. It’s why people say that wine is not brewed, it’s planted."

Xinjiang spans an area of more than 1.6 million km2, which is larger than the combined area of France, Germany, Spain and Portugal. It is continental in size and vast expanses are covered in uninhabitable deserts, but conditions in the pockets of oases can be just perfect for wine growers. In fact, Zou boasts that they have a soil and climate advantage over other winemakers in China.

The large difference in night and day temperatures, combined with a climate that ensures low temperatures of the required minus 8C and below, enable them to produce ice wine with much higher sugar content, says Zou. They pick the frozen grapes at night, immediately press to obtain a more concentrated grape juice and produce a tremendously sweet ice wine.

Growing wine culture in China

Xinjiang Yizhu Wine, which also produces red and white wines, works in accordance with the Canadian Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) Standard, a regulatory and appellation system which guarantees high quality and authenticity of origin. This is in part to fight against the rise in fake ice wine being made by Chinese counterfeiters who mix wine with sugar and add labels of fictitious Canadian wineries.

The counterfeit trade has grown in response to the growing wine culture in China, which Zou says has changed a great deal over the past five years. "Chinese people are more aware of the benefits of wine now. The number of people who understand and appreciate wine is increasing. Therefore, people are getting more demanding of the wine industry," he notes.

Zou, who has almost 20 years of wine industry experience, recalls that wine has always been sold in China's markets, but it was primarily purchased for wedding ceremonies. "Now they’ve started to consume wine because of its health benefits. What is important is that people can now afford it. It’s a matter of spending power," he observes.

At present, most of their customers are private consumers along with a few companies in northwest China. However, they do sell across the country and are considering exporting again to Hong Kong, as well as taking advantage of the Belt and Road initiative—a proposal by China to boost trade and infrastructure investment in over 65 countries from Asia to Europe and Africa.

"Xinjiang is an important hub along the Belt and Road, and we are very close to the border town of Khorgas. This is a great advantage to promote our brand and expand our market in future," considers Zou.

Happiness and good health

Xinjiang Yizhu Wine was one of the first enterprises to produce dry wine and ice wine in the autonomous region, starting out as a small business. Today, the winery has approximately 40 full-time employees, generates US$7 million in annual revenue and has vineyards covering 12,000 acres.

Its products have won dozens of national and international honorary titles and awards, and they are now negotiating with winemakers in Australia about cooperation in technical aspects such as processing. Zou adds that wine producers from Chile and France have also visited them in the past, recalling that the French winemakers were jealous of the excellent quality of their grapes.

Memories of praise from foreign contemporaries bring a smile, so we asked what he enjoys most about working in the wine industry. "This is a career that brings happiness to other people. China has a long drinking culture. Drinking wine brings not only happiness but also good health, so this is a happy business," he answers. We suspect, however, a gold medal at the Decanter Awards could see that smile quickly return.

isit the Xinjiang Yizhu Wine website (in Chinese) for more information.