China's winemakers riding high

John H. Isacs
This week, three top winemakers in China share their challenges.
John H. Isacs
Chinas winemakers riding high
Ti Gong

Yunnan producer Chateau Roduit uses the ancient art of winemaking with clay vessels at 3,300 meters.

Credit for the improving reputation and quality of China wines must be given to a growing cadre of intrepid and pioneering winemakers. Many are Chinese who studied in France, Australia or elsewhere; while others learned their trade at local institutions and some are transplanted foreigners. Collectively they are embellishing the reputation of China wines.

From coastal regions in Shandong and Hebei provinces to arid lands boarding the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas, winemakers in China are using their expertise, experience and patience to overcome a plethora of potential pitfalls and obstacles to make wines that are garnering worldwide acclaim.

This week, three top winemakers in China share their challenges.

Deng Zhongxiang is a consulting winemaker for Chateau Lansai and several other top wineries in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. He reflects on the progress they’ve achieved, “After nearly 10 years of rapid development I think the most difficult stage of acquiring and using the necessary advanced technology has passed. Ningxia wine equipment and technology has improved, and there aren’t major difficulties in the technical winemaking process. We’re now able to make very good wines.”

“The difficulty we face today is how to distinguish small plots of land and intimately know the terroir,” said Deng who studied at the University of Burgundy and worked at prestigious producers in Bordeaux and Burgundy. “This is the most important issue we face now and into the future. It takes a long time to explore the characteristics of the terroir, identify the right variety for the plot, and design the right winemaking process for that variety. Verifying the success of a variety is a gradual process. Established international wine regions have spent hundreds or even thousands of years to get terroir-specific answers; while, we have just started this important journey.”

Liao Zusong comes from a family of doctors but he chose a different route by studying and making wines in Australia. Today, he is the head winemaker at the impressive Xige Estate Winery in Ningxia. “In vineyard management my biggest challenge is execution,” he said. “Even if there is a good plan, it’s still difficult for site personnel to implement according to our original plan.”

Yves Roduit is a third-generation winemaker from Switzerland. Today he and his wife Hélène, a Tibetan, own and manage Chateau Roduit in Deqin County in Yunnan Province. “Since 2014, I’ve implemented treatment plans in our Himalayan vineyards without any pesticides or acaricides and also no herbicides. I have reintroduced small predators that eat bad small animals and pests. This allows us to completely eliminate any treatment that is harmful to the health of our employees and the environment,” he said.

“Unfortunately, some neighboring vineyard owners don’t share this essential respect for the natural environment, and quite frankly what angers me most is that some of these are Europeans who should know better. Every year my job is made extremely difficult by irresponsible actions like using harmful products like pesticides that kill the beneficial predators that I’ve reintroduced. As a result, I lose a few thousand kilos of harvest every year. When it comes to vinification, we work everything by hand. No machines are used and therefore the work is arduous and we must be extremely responsive. Furthermore, since 2018 we do all vinification in clay pots that unlike oak barrels don’t hide flaws. We must get everything right,” he added.

In honor of Roduit and his fellow high-altitude winemakers, let’s take a look at one of the wine world’s most beautiful and challenging wine regions.

Chinas winemakers riding high
Ti Gong

Yunnan

Situated at southernly latitudes between 20 and 28 degrees, the sizable region of Yunnan seems a very unlikely place for making quality wines. However, selected high altitude areas of Yunnan have a fortuitous combination of moderate rainfall, ample sunshine and pronounced diurnal temperature variances as well as a growing residence of experienced winemakers that allow them to produce some of China’s most promising wines. Premium winemaking may be new, but wines have been produced for over a century.

Responding to Pope Gregory XVI’s call to evangelize the Kingdom of the Snow; in 1846, French missionaries arrived at the gates of today’s Tibet Autonomous Region. These resolute believers founded missions in villages of Cizhong and Badong on the western bank of the Upper Mekong River and because wine was needed for the Sacrament, they became the first to plant vines in the Tibetan marches. These early vines were hybrid varieties like Rose Honey, French Wild and Crystal that disappeared from France after the 1880s phylloxera epidemic.

After more than a century of winemaking, the last missionaries reluctantly left China. Fortunately, local Tibetans continued artisanal production and kept the art of winemaking alive. Since the 1990s, local authorities along the Mekong and the Yangtze rivers have encouraged the cultivation of vines and winemaking; albeit with more mainstream grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Gernischt, Merlot and occasionally Chardonnay. A new and promising age of Yunnan winemaking had begun.

Chateau Rodiut not surprisingly makes some of my favorite Yunnan wines. The 2018 Chateau Roduit is a 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon wine aged 24 months in clay pots.

The wine has exceptional purity with a fine balance between lively fruit and velvety tannins with impressively long finish. Two additional wines of note are the Assemblage and sweet wine Cuvee Helene. Other recommended Yunnan producers are Ao Yun, a sizable LVMH venture making pricey wines, and Shangri-La Winery. 

Where to buy in Shanghai

ProLeVin, Room 505, No. 2, Lane 280 Hongjing Rd, 5429-2138

Chateau Rodiut

Chateau Roduit Assemblage

Chateau Roduit Cuvee Helene

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