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Wineries of China: CHANGYU

Posted: Friday, 17 April 2015 16:32

Wineries of China: CHANGYU

April 17: Most people still do not associate China with wine other than perhaps Rice wine or wine from the Gouqi Berry but Changyu is the oldest established wine company in China founded in 1878, writes John Salvi, the chief winemaker and Honorary Owner of Château Changyu Balboa in Xinjiang Province, from China

Click For Large ViewChangyu claim to be responsible for bringing Cabernet Gernischt into China for the first time soon after their foundation. Confirmed by DNA and José Vouillamoz, co-author of “Wine Grapes”, this varietal is in fact the Bordeaux grape variety Carmenère, now popular in Chile.  There is a rather charming story that the name Gernischt was given by a German who when asked if the grape variety that the gentleman saw in China was Cabernet, he replied « Gar nicht » (absolutely not).

Wine-making not new

Thus we can see that we are wrong in thinking that wine-making in China only started recently.  The first winemaker for Changyu, at the end of the 19th century, was Baron Balboa, an Italian nobleman and their most recent winemaker is another Italian nobleman, Count Umberto Salvi.  But it is true that, China has never had an autochthonous grape variety – all cultivars have been imported.

However, in the last few years planting vineyards has increased exponentially and today there are not far short of 150,000 hectares of vines – the surface area in Bordeaux under vines.  Planting continues with ever greater velocity.  Changyu alone has almost 24,000 hectares in 6 provinces; State owned Great Wall and Dynasty have even more!

It is a real château, about twice the size of Pichon Longueville Baron and built from scratch in 18 months.  I have an office in it the size of a ballroom. Its grand opening ceremony was on 12th August 2013.  It has not far short of 3,500 hectares of vines making predominantly red wine.  So far we have planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Gernischt, Syrah, Chardonnay and some Riesling.

Xinjiang Province with extreme weather

The climate in Xinjiang is extreme.  The temperature in summer hovers around 42°C with peaks of 45°C.  It reaches down to -28°C in winter and therefore the vines have to be buried under some 20 cms of soil. They are then uncovered again around 10th April.  Thus the vegetative cycle is relatively short and the vigneron must use all his skill to give the grapes maximum flavour and bouquet compounds.  Water supply is unavailable and the vine must therefore make do with the average annual rainfall of some 300 mm.

Xinjiang is as far west in China as you can go and has one border (closed) with Pakistan and another with Mongolia.  A lot of it is desert but there are some of the most beautiful mountains in the world in the south.  At a point in Xinjiang one is at the furthest remove from any sea or ocean on the entire globe.  It is a semi-autonomous Province with a military government and some 60% of its population is Muslim.  In airports and public places everything is written in both Chinese and Arabic. The food has a strong Muslim influence.  No restaurants serve pork, but the lamb is tender, delicious and cooked in a hundred delectable ways.  There have been some racial problems recently in Urumqi, which has somewhat dampened the budding tourist industry that was only just developing.

One would have expected that with the ever increasing and gigantic population of China manual labour would be no problem.  This however is not the case even in as remote a Province as Xinjiang. It seems to be the dream of all Chinese to migrate to the cities even if it is extremely difficult or impossible to find work there.  This problem is not helped by the fact that the Government encourages this move for its own reasons.  A huge vineyard, like the one that I look after, requires a great deal of hard manual labour and to date we have very little mechanisation.

Problems and Challenges

There are quite a number of technical problems associated with winemaking in the extreme climate of Xinjiang, which are well known to all oenologists who work under similar conditions.  The principal one is probably tannins.  Because of the extreme heat and the paucity of water the tannins tend to be dry.  Also, in order to fix the colour (the Chinese, like the English, prefer their red wines to be deep-coloured) tannin has to be added even though there is already an ample sufficiency in the wine.  It is difficult to make added tannin integrate totally and harmoniously into a wine and the winemaker requires all his knowledge and skill to succeed.  The perfect solution to the problem has not yet been found but I am getting there.

Another problem is deposit.  Like a number of other countries, notably Japan, the consumer refuses to accept the very slightest trace of sediment or deposit in a wine, however fine.  This means that the wine must be totally stabilised before bottling.  This is easy enough to do, especially by cold stabilisation, but I do not like this and would prefer not to have to do it.  I am happy to say that I have discovered the solution.

As I am sure, everybody knows that nobody actually OWNS the land in China.  All land belongs to the State.  The only vineyards that are 100% secure are those owned by the State.  One can, and does, have long-term leases, but if for some unforeseen or unexplained reason the State deems it to be imperative then it can reclaim the land without recourse or discussion.  This means that for small vineyards, which do not satisfy the authorities as to their profitability or how much value they are to the State, or grease the necessary palms to their satisfaction, there is always a risk, however small, that they may have their land taken from them or be obliged to do something else with it.

Changyu are dedicated to making honest, quality wine.  They do not import bulk wine and blend it with their own production as is commonly done in China.  They are realistic and we do not expect to make great wine, but decent, well-fruited, balanced, easy-to-drink and pleasurable red and white wines.

So far Changyu have not really tried to export.  They were present at Prowein and this year for the first time they are putting some samples into International Tasting Competitions.  In fact they have already put samples of their special, sweet, botrytised wine, but no red or white table wine. When and if they decide that they really wish to make a major effort on the export market I predict that the wines will create tremendous competition for many far better established exporters.

Corruption Drive a Blessing

The present “corruption” drive in China that has hurt very badly and hugely reduced the sales of luxury goods, particularly wines and spirits, must be golden opportunity for the sound, good and honest reasonably priced wines such as those that I produce in Xinjiang.  This is surely the ideal moment to increase marketing efforts and thrusts and persuade the rich and demanding customer that they can find excellent and enjoyable wines to drink even if they do not cost a fortune.  Pleasure can also lie in value for money and many of these are balanced, fruity, smooth and thoroughly enjoyable.

Future is exciting

Changyu is looking to the future.  Near the city of Yantai (where they have their head office, in the Province of Shandong), they are building the “City of Wine”.  It is so enormous that it totally defies description.  It will be ready next year and contains everything thinkable concerned with wine.  It is by far the biggest thing of its kind in the world and will attract millions of visitors.  Changyu also has a fabulous museum and is determined to show the world that China has a very real and very deep wine civilisation that is far from new, but already steeped in history!

John Salvi MW

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