At the last Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, no fewer than 14 medals – 5 gold and 9 silver – were awarded to Chinese wines. Most of the talk about the development of the Chinese wine industry centres on quantity and not quality. Projects involving several tens of thousands of hectares are emerging in the various Chinese provinces and these newfound accolades underscore the extent to which these Chinese ‘chateaux’, which often have French consultants, have scaled the heights of winemaking in record time. Wine is a prestige item that is often given as a gift or uncorked at ceremonies. It is not customary to drink it with food – tea and beer are still the preferred drinks. Wine is still relatively expensive and the finest offerings from prestigious chateaux can cost up to 50 or 100 euros a bottle. The price tag can be ascribed to the substantial investments required for new infrastructures, the cost of protecting vines from the frost in winter and the lifespan of the vines which is no longer than twenty or so years. To get to grips with what can only be described as a winemaking revolution, Momento travelled to three different Chinese provinces.
Domaines Taila in Shandong
This mammoth project involves 2,000 hectares surrounding a lagoon and should ultimately become home to nearly 300 chateaux. Chen Chummeng, 45, began his career as a chef before making his fortune in real estate. In 2010, he planted the first vines on his estate which is designed as a condominium of wine chateaux that he hopes to sell to other Chinese billionaires. The Chinese rapidly latched on to the concept of ‘chateau’ which in the collective psyche epitomises power, nobility and wealth. Here, in Taiyihu, the moniker is used for real five-storey chateaux complete with towers and keeps, unlike in Bordeaux where it is often used as a brand name. Each single vineyard, which is fermented separately in every chateau’s winery, covers between 10 and 20 hectares. As is often the case in China, Mr Chen is an impatient man – relying on his army of subservient staff, he manages his project at breakneck speed. 140 hectares are already bearing fruit and 8 chateaux in a range of styles broke ground in record time. This architectural medley of buildings which unabashedly sit side by side have been given highly evocative names such as Chateau Margaux, Petrus, Petersberg, Bodega Akershus, Bodega Oceanus, Chateau 007, Villa Zenato and Villa Boglietti. The wine tourism aspect of the project has been well thought out too. Sandy beaches, a luxury hotel, restaurants, wine bars, a heliport, golf course, marina and the compulsory church for wedding ceremonies are all designed to attract wealthy holidaymakers. Gérard Colin, a French winemaker, is the estate’s consultant. He has lived in China since 1997 and developed, amongst other projects, Lafite’s Chinese wine estate. He explains to us that the relatively mild climate here and gravely soils that promote deep vine rooting enable him to stand out from the fairly monotonous range of copycat Chinese wines. He successfully highlights sense of place by crafting fine wines with pronounced minerality. His 2014 Chardonnay, which won a gold medal, shows remarkable finesse and delicacy. The finish is marked by tropical notes. This is an amazing wine, particularly on the nose where the minerality is reminiscent of Sauvignon.
Chateau Bolongbao in Fonghang, Beijing
Located in the South-East of the megacity that is Beijing, Fonghang is one of the city’s five districts. Poorer than others in economic terms, the government launched a project to convert its coal industry into vineyards in 1998. Most of the vineyards are planted to Cabernet-Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Chardonnay and currently cover 1,300 hectares with 13 chateaux. The farms benefit from substantial technical and economic support from the government – in exchange, they have to subscribe to an appellation of origin scheme. Only grapes grown in the region can be vinted, for instance. Chateau Bolongao was the first vineyard established in Fonghang and since 2005 boasts triple organic certification – from China, the European Union and the United States. This was a personal choice by its owner, Mr Tang, and its winemaker, Mr Fei, who is an oenology graduate from Dijon. Despite high levels of humidity, he manages to make short shrift of powdery and downy mildew using only copper sulphate. The forty-five-hectare vineyard is low-yielding (less than 3 tonnes/ha). A sizeable technical team of 100 vineyard workers can been seen amongst the vines every day. No chemical fertilisers are used – peanuts are grown instead between the vine rows and are subsequently ploughed back into the soils as green fertilisers. The vineyard is irrigated twice a year, in the spring and after the harvest to prevent the vines from breaking when they are laid down on the soil and covered with earth to withstand the extreme winter temperatures which drop below 20°C. This technique is essential for preventing vines from dying as a consequence of the extreme frost but it is quite punishing for the plant, hence its frailty in comparison with vines in Europe and a lifespan only half as long.
Mrs Tang and Mr Fei in front of their vines which will be laid on their side and covered with soil over the winter
The Cellar of Bolongbao
Château Bolongbao – Peanuts are grown between the vine rows
Chateau Yuange in Ningxia
Before vines appeared, Ningxia was no more than an arid expanse of sand and pebbles in the foothills of the Helan mountain range separating it from Mongolia. Annual rainfall of no more than 200 ml makes irrigation unavoidable. Water from the Yellow River has made it possible to plant nearly 40,000 ha, divided between approximately 100 farms. Converting these desert-like areas into fertile plains has required a colossal amount of work to prepare the soils, as evidenced by the tonnes of pebbles removed from the vineyards that now line the roads. The moderate-sized Chateau Yuange, in which 7 million euros have been invested, has just 20 ha of Cabernet-Sauvignon and Merlot vines. This was the first chateau in this young wine region to make its own wines in 2010. There is no lavish chateau building here but an imposing, elegant winery with an undulating roof which seems to float like a flying saucer instead of vineyards lost amidst the desert. At weekends, the lush green landscape attracts visitors from the city of Yinchan, an hour’s drive away. Clovitis, a Franco-Chinese team of consultants, handles technical management of the winemaking. The wines are inspired by Bordeaux and matured in French oak casks. The palate is fruity, well-structured and marked by toasted oak.