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China: The Gouqi Berry Wine of China

Posted: Thursday, 08 November 2012 13:30

China: The Gouqi Berry Wine of China

November 06: We all know that the official definition of wine is the freshly fermented juice of the grape, but in China the fermented product of the Gouqi Berry is also called wine, which should strictly be termed fruit wine, writes John Salvi MW who recently visited the winery in Ningxià owned by M. Zhang Jinshan who was recently in the news for buying Château Grand Moueys in Bordeaux

Click For Large ViewFor most of us a visit to China is something unusual and special and for me a visit to the relatively tiny and distant Province of Ningxia, in deepest China, was especially so. Ningxia is 1,200 km from the sea with a continental climate. It is the smallest of the Autonomous Regions of China known as Ningxià Huizú Zizhìqū (Ningxia Hui), created in 1958 as part of the People’s Republic of China.

It is the Great Loop of the Huang He (Yellow) river and is surrounded by Inner Mongolia to the North, Gansu to the south and Shanxi to the east. Its borders merge with three deserts. Most of it is at 2,000 meters altitude and the climate close to the Helan Mountains is ideal for grapes with a rainfall of some 200mm/year. Hui means Moslem and the original Province was created for them in 1928. Today about 80% of the population of a little fewer than 6 million is Hans and the other 20%  is Mandchous, Mongol, Tibetan and Dongxiang. Ruins of the Great Wall can be seen in east Ningxia. The Tengger Desert lies behind the Yellow River.

I was invited to Ningxia by M. Zhang Jinshan who had bought Château Grand Moueys in Bordeaux a few months ago. I had thought to report on his wine activities in China and his plans for Grand Moueys, but I discovered on arrival that wine is only a very minor part of this remarkable man’s empire, a mere 54 hectares of vineyards and an import company. I have therefore focused in this article on wine from the Gouqi berry upon which his fortune is founded. Indeed, he is the undisputed king of the Gouqi Berry (in the UK usually Goji Berry).

King of berries

Gouqi berries are a species of Boxthorn of the family Solanaceae. Commercially known as “Goji berries” and often referred to as the “king of berries” these are bright red berries that grow on bushes and have remarkable and universally accepted nutrient and antioxidant properties. The English name is Wolfberry, but they are also known as Mede Berry, Barbary Matrimony Vine, Bocksdorn, Duke of Argyll’s Tea Tree, Murali and Red Medlar.

Strangely, the Solanaceae family also includes the potato, tomato, eggplant, chilli pepper, tobacco and deadly nightshade! In Europe they are chiefly sold in health stores, but in China everywhere. M. Zhang makes wine with them and has patented it universally throughout the world. He sells 30 million bottles a year within China – YES 30 million!

Ningxia Province produces most of them and here alone there are some 15 million Mu (15 Mu = 1 hA). He also sells Gouqi brandy (Cognac in China), Gouqi tea from the leaves of the bush, sun-dried Gouqi berries, and Gouqi oil in capsules for rubbing into the skin or taken as a health supplement. The Duke of Argyll imported the bushes into the UK in the 1730s where it was used for hedging and still is today. It is legal in the UK to sell the wolfberry as food.

In China, dried wolfberries as a food are traditionally cooked before consumption. Dried wolfberries are often added to rice congee and almond jelly as well as used in Chinese tonic soups in combination with chicken or pork, vegetables, and other herbs such as wild yam and liquorice root. The berries are also boiled as an herbal tea, often along with chrysanthemum flowers and/or red jujubes, or with tea, particularly puerh teas.

Click For Large ViewThough M. Zhang is not involved, but various fruit wines containing wolfberries (called gǒuqǐ jiǔ; 枸杞酒) are also produced that are a blend of grape wine and wolfberries. Since the early 21st century, an instant coffee product containing wolfberry extract has been produced in China. Young wolfberry shoots and leaves are also grown commercially as a leaf vegetable.
An unsupported Chinese myth relates that Li Qing Yuen, who consumed wolfberries daily, lived to the ripe old age of 252 (1678-1930) due to the vitamin C content of Goji berries

The Gouqi millionaire

M. Zhang, the Gouqi millionaire was born on 8th November 1963 in Zhong Wei, Ningxia. He is married to Cao Jingjiang and has a son, Zhang Hao, and a daughter, Zhang Le. He studied and took an MBA at the People’s University of China and is an Economist.

In 1996 he founded the Ningxia Xiangshan Wine Group. In 1999 the Prime Minister of China, M. Zhu Rongji, visited the town of Zhong Ning and found Gouqi wine to be both delicious and very special. He felt very strongly that it was something that should be developed. He spoke to the Secretary of the Party Committee of Ningxia, M. Mao Ru Bai, who came to see M. Zhang and asked him to undertake the important task of doing so. Thus, in 2000, Ningxia Xiangshan Wine Group bought the ancient Gouqi Company in Zhong Wei and created a new company: Ningxiahong Chinese Berry Industry Group. This group has become, and is today, the largest producer of Gouqi wine in the world.

In the ancient rice-wine factory he set about developing Gouqi wine as well as continuing the traditional rice wine that the factory had been making since 1868. He patented the wine, as mentioned above. Sales prospered greatly. Indeed so well did the products sell that, in 2005, he built an ultra-modern and simply enormous factory in Zhong Ning. Here today the company, Ningxiahong Gouqi Industry Group Company Limited, makes the gouqi wine and gouqi brandy (Ning Xia Hong and Ning Xia Hong XO), as well as dried berries, tea and oil.

He processes some 7,000 tons of berries, 400 tons of grapes to make his true wine (Ning Xia Hong and Sha Po Tou) and 150 tons of grapes for his XO Cognac (this is the Ning Xia Hong XO that may be called Cognac rather than brandy in China). I visited them both, starting with the new one in the morning. It is positively vast but a must to sell those vast numbers of bottles. There is a gorgeous reception room where all the exotic packaging is on show, together with scrolls depicting all the health giving properties and ingredients. His original 1996 packaging presented the wine as “Goji Girl Wine”. I was shown a film describing the Gouqi wine making process. The packaging, like the berry, is red with gold. Hygiene is taken ultra seriously and absolutely everything is everything is spotless and sterile. One must step on a little machine that encases the feet in a pair of transparent plastic shoes.
Making of Gouqi-the fruit wine

The wine of Gouqi, which is really a fruit wine, is made very much like grape wine. The berries are picked off the bushes and pressed immediately. Picking is done entirely by hand. Yield is some 4,500 kilos/hA. Then they go into stainless steel tanks to ferment, using indigenous wild yeasts. Fermentation temperature is lower than for wine, around 18°-19°C, and is carefully controlled. Pumping over is done and fermentation lasts about one week. The new “wine” is kept on the lees and stirred. The lees absorb colour. Oak or wood is never used as freshness is vital. All the equipment is stainless steel.

Click For Large ViewAfter fermentation and about 6 months in stainless steel tanks to rest, it is filtered and bottled.
The colour of the fruit wine of Gouqi (white) is very, very pale, light yellow. Both the colour and the taste are vaguely reminiscent of sherry. I say vaguely because I would not like anybody to think that I am comparing it to sherry, it is quite different but is the nearest that I can come to a comparison with a grape product. Nobody that I talked to in Ningxia had ever heard of sherry so were quite unable to appreciate my comparisons or tasting notes. I have said that the distilled spirit is known inside China as “cognac” and tastes similar to a medium quality off-dry brandy.

After the visit to the plant I saw the Gouqi fields although there is a charming, small orchard of Gouqi bushes in the central, open-air enclosure of the factory. We picked and ate some berries off the bushes, which are the size of tea bushes. One can pick the ripe berries at least twice a year between July and December. They have a haunting, semi-sweet flavour, a mushy, pulpy consistency and are the size of a coffee bean. Picking is hard work, the sun is very hot and the work is done mainly by women and young girls who can earn up to 5 Euros a day. For the dried berries the fresh ones are laid on rush mats in the sun and are dried in 7-10 days. They are sterilised and hygienically packed with no additives.

The Gouqi fruit wine is the mainstay of the business and is hugely popular throughout China. M. Zhang sells it in every Province. He has Gouqi fields of his own but also contracts with huge numbers of growers and cooperatives who deliver to him the fresh picked berries. It requires a totally incalculable number of berries to make 30 million bottles of Gouqi wine and, as already said, Ningxia produces most of the world’s production.

It is vigorously supported by the Provincial Government and M. Zhang is a prominent figure here in Ningxia being also the President of the Ningxia Wine Association. M. Zhang would like to attack the export markets, where the Gouqi berry is unknown for its wine and only known in the form of juice, health products and dried berries. The wine is remarkably easy to drink, preferably lightly chilled, and has low acidity, virtually no tannin and about 12° of alcohol.

John Salvi Master of Wine

This is a fruit wine that would be in the same category of our own Indian lychee or mango wine- or apple, strawberry or cherries equivalent-editor


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