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China’s domestic wine market benefits from foreign know-how, yields promising vintages

www.scmp.com by Nellie Ming Lee10/09/2018  

From Shandong to Yunnan, Chinese winemakers are drawing on old-world expertise to create the potential classics of tomorrow

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Buying wine from almost anywhere in the world is easy – it’s just a click away, of course. But many of us in Hong Kong forget that wines are being made on our doorstep: while China is fast becoming the world’s largest consumer of the grape, an increasing number of tipples are made there, produced by winemakers who learned their trade elsewhere.

Some such winemakers have been at it for decades, and many have links with French producers. Made-in-China wines are no longer something that you try just out of curiosity – some are genuinely worthy of a place on the world stage, and interesting wines are now being created across the country.

Shandong province, which has a long winemaking history, is considered the finest region, with some even referring to it as China’s Napa Valley. It has a moderate climate and mild winters, although rainy summers increase the chances of mould growing on grapes.

Yantai is Shandong’s largest and best known growing area, producing about 40 per cent of China’s wine. Wineries of note include Great Wall, Chateau Changyu-Castel and Qingdao Great River Hill Winery (located on the other side of the Shandong peninsula).

The best grapes grown there? Cabernet gernischt is popular, with many claiming the varietal was brought over by European missionaries in the 1880s. Recent DNA testing has concluded that the grape is actually carmenere, and the palate is slightly green – some dried bell peppers with dusty red plums. It is lighter than Chilean carménère, but body and acidity are present in decent vintages.

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French-trained winemaker Gao Yuan at her family-owned Silver Heights winery, in Ningxia.

The Ningxia Hui autonomous region, in north-central China, is mountainous, with widely dispersed deserts, and vast sums have been spent on converting arid land between the Yellow River and Helan Mountains into vineyards. This has given rise to sparkling wines from Chandon China, owned by French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH (which also owns Mo?t & Chandon, ensuring the mainland winery enjoys excellent access to support and know-how).

The Helan Mountain winery, meanwhile, is funded by another French company, Pernod Ricard, which owns Jacob’s Creek in Australia’s Barossa Valley and has flown in many of its winemakers to help nurture the fledgling vines. Another Ningxia winery of note is Silver Heights, whose winemaker, Gao Yuan, trained in Bordeaux, where she met her husband, Thierry Courtade, who was the cellar master at Chateau Calon-Ségur.

The best grapes? Cabernet sauvignon and merlot, both showing clear and expressive fruit flavours, and natural acidity and tannins that are not too heavy. Ningxia’s climate is perfect in summer, with warm days and dry nights, but extra care must be taken in the severely cold winters, requiring vines to be well covered.

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Vineyards cling to the steep slopes of northern Yunnan. Picture: Alamy

In China’s southwest, Yunnan is a mountainous province that borders Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. Here, what might become an iconic wine has emerged due to the talent, hard work and generous funding of LVMH.

Ao Yun launched its 2013 vintage to great acclaim. It is a blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, with firm tannins yet lively fruit with a balance of flavours – dark berries, some smoked black tea, pencil shavings and dried herbs, with a little dried black pepper.

Modern drinkers in China, it appears, have come a long way from baijiu, the strong, distilled spirit made from fermented sorghum that has a distinct aroma of sweaty gym socks with yeasty, overly ripe pears. One day, and not too far away, I’m sure, Riedel will create a glass specifically for a Chinese wine.