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China’s star winemaker mixes French training, native ambition

The New York Times by JANE SASSEEN18/11/2015  

On a fall evening in a fluorescent-lit classroom at Tsinghua University in Beijing, a dozen students listened intently. The speaker, Emma Gao, held a glass to the light and asked them to study the swirling liquid inside. Tsinghua is known as the “MIT of China,” but this was no freshman seminar in fluid mechanics. It was a gathering of the student wine club.


Gao, a diminutive woman with a quick smile, was conducting a tasting of recent vintages from her family-run winery in Ningxia, a remote Chinese region on the edge of the Gobi Desert. Behind desktops lined with glasses, the students sniffed and sipped, comparing a fruity red with a richer, oakier French-style wine.


Since her winery has begun to win international acclaim, Gao, 38, has emerged as the unlikely new star of an even more unlikely new Chinese industry. The winery, Silver Heights, has been a pioneer in China, bringing sophisticated Western winemaking techniques to what had been an industry focused on bulk production.



Emma Gao, winery chief

Age: 38

Education: Earned a Diplôme National d’Oenologue from Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences at France’s University of Bordeaux

Job: Runs her family’s Silver Heights Winery in China’s Ningxia region

Wines: New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov listed two of the winery’s bottles among five Chinese reds that he said lack “distinctiveness” but “can stand with pride among the ranks of commercial wines produced and sold all over the world.”

Sources New York Times, Silver Heights


Taking a cue from that boutique-winery model, Ningxia has ambitions to become the Napa Valley of China. Local winemakers have won prestigious awards, and plans are under way to double the region’s vineyards and create a wine tourism hub. Foreign investors have also taken notice. French Champagne maker Moet & Chandon makes sparkling wines there, while spirits giant Pernod Ricard is spending heavily to modernize its local winery.


“People know Napa makes the best wines in America and Bordeaux makes the best wines in France,” said Hao Linhai, a top regional official who oversees the industry. “When they think of Chinese wines, we want them to think of Ningxia.”


While China is better known for fiery, 100-proof baijiu than prized vintages, its fast-growing middle class is increasingly demanding Western delights. And that includes fine wine.


Overall, China ranks fourth in red-wine consumption, behind France, the United States and Italy. From virtually nothing in the early 1980s, it is now the world’s seventh-largest winemaker.


Aided by the same long-range planning and government support that have brought success in everything from textiles to high-end electronics, China made 120 million cases of wine in 2014. That’s a bit less than a third of what is produced in the United States and just behind the export powerhouses Australia and Argentina.


But Chinese wine is made almost exclusively for the domestic market, says Ma Huiqin, a professor at China Agricultural University in Beijing who works closely with Ningxia’s wine industry. And until recently, most of it was barely drinkable by Western standards, produced by giant industrial winemakers.


Now a new generation of Chinese winemakers is trying to upgrade quality in an effort to win over local wine drinkers as their tastes become more discerning.


Sitting in the courtyard of her family’s ramshackle compound outside the regional capital of Yinchuan, Gao, of Silver Heights, looked out over the vineyard her father planted nearly 20 years ago. Among the first in the region to plant grapes, he suggested she go to France to study winemaking in 1999. “I was 21. I said, ‘Sure, why not?’?” she said. “It was France that interested me, not winemaking.”


After earning a degree in oenology, she did a stint at the highly regarded Château Calon-Ségur, where she met, and eventually married, the winemaker. French attitudes made a deep impression. “I learned to focus on quality, to make the best wine you can with the material you have,” she said.


After Gao returned to China, the first vintage she and her father produced in 2007 was just 10 barrels, or 3,000 bottles. Today, Gao makes four wines, with total production of 60,000 bottles. A 2013 bottle of her Summit label sells for around $75.


“She’s considered the best winemaker, with practically the best wine, in all of China,” said Gérard Colin, a French consultant who helped Château Lafite Rothschild develop a winery in China. “Emma put Ningxia on the map.”


A poor coal region wedged below Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, with its hilly, arid scrubland, is ill suited for most agriculture. It’s dry and hot in the summer, with long, freezing winters. But its sandy, rocky soil proved ideal for growing grapes.


A decade ago, Ningxia had just a handful of wineries. Today, there are more than 70, with 40 more under construction, and the government plans to reach 200 by 2020. As elsewhere in China, red wines dominate, mostly the Bordeaux blends — principally mixtures of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc — popular in China.


Jancis Robinson, a British wine journalist, judged a blind tasting of Chinese wines in Shanghai last year. “Ningxia really did shine. They produced most of the top wines,” she said. They are now “very acceptable commercial quality wines.”


For Gao, that’s not good enough. Early one morning in May, she drove an hour out to the Helan Mountain foothills, where she is building a winery with more advanced equipment. The expanded vineyards will allow Silver Heights to grow to 200,000 bottles per year.


Surveying the waist-high vines jutting from the rocky soil, she said it takes five years or more before they produce the quality she requires. In a nearby plot, she has begun to experiment with pinot noir, chardonnay and other varietals.


“We want to try the land, to see what’s suitable,” she says. “We are not investing for one or two years; we’re investing for the next 100 years. Those will be wines for future generations to make.”


Gao worries that Chinese wines are still too expensive to compete in international markets. For now, expanding her vineyards and improving her winemaking are more important than exporting.


“We do not have time for that now,” she said with a laugh. “Maybe next year.”