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China's wine pioneers up against climate, stereotypes

Rush to capitalize on China's budding love affair with wine

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Emma Gao studied wine-making in France. Now she and her father Lin Gao run a vineyard in Ningxia, China. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

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The ground is dusty, but on either side the rows of vines are lush.

"These are Merlot grapes, the ones we're harvesting today," says Emma Gao. "We'll pick the Cabernets in another two weeks. They need more sun to get sweeter."

Gao is a wine pioneer in this dry corner of China about 900 kilometres west of Beijing and 1,200 metres above sea level. Separated from the Gobi Desert by just a thin row of mountains, Ningxia is an autonomous region that used to focus on coal mining, not winemaking.

It is now being touted as "China's Bordeaux" — Asia's version of the famous wine region in France.

'The soil is different, the climate is different. In China, we have to learn our own secrets to viticulture.' - Emma Gao, winemaker

That's where Gao learned her craft. Seventeen years ago, when there was scarcely a grapevine sticking out of the ground here, Gao's father sent her to Bordeaux University. She came back with a French accent and a love of winemaking, ready to produce "vin rouge à la Chine."

"We start with zero, oui?" she says. "The soil is different, the climate is different. In China, we have to learn our own secrets to viticulture."

Her father and business partner says his friends all told him he was crazy to invest his savings in Silver Heights, their family vineyard. "They said the conditions here are so bad, you'll die trying. But we proved them wrong," says 72 year-old Lin Gao.

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Emma Gao's vineyard produces about 60,000 bottles a year, including a Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon that are currently China's top-rated wines. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

In fact, the area is experiencing a gold rush now, with other winemakers, big and small, buying up land all around Gao's 70 hectares. Her vineyard produces about 60,000 bottles a year. That includes a Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon that are currently China's top-rated wines, having recently received a score of 91 points out of 100 from international judges — considered in the "exceptional" range.

This comes at a time when wine consumption in China is growing dramatically, up more than seven-fold since Gao started her winery in 2007, to about 450 million cases a year. Accurate statistics are hard to find, but some industry research suggests China may soon be the largest single market for red wine in the world.

The well-off young people taking a wine course in Beijing on a recent Saturday are leading the way. Despite paying more than $2,000 for the classes, they are not looking for jobs in that field. They simply want to appreciate a drink that has come to symbolize social sophistication among China's growing middle class.

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Lin Zhang, who attends a wine course in Beijing, says wine is a 'very important part' of the lifestyle for China's young people. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

"They're really picky, the young generation," says Lin Zhang, a building manager and 20-something wine student who sniffs and sips glasses of imported wine, taking careful notes. "They're picky about their lifestyle, and wine is actually a very important part of their lifestyle. I think we should actually develop this culture so we can spread it."

Wine industry in its infancy

The instructor is one of China's leading wine experts, Canadian Fongyee Walker. Based in Beijing, she is an international judge and China's only top-rated Master of Wine, a title given by the industry's professional body.

She says China's wine industry today is where Canada's was in the 1970s — undeveloped and unappreciated. It's also in a country where wine is still regarded as a western novelty.

"In Canada, wine is much more of a casual, personal thing," Walker says. "It's less loaded with the social connotations that we get in China. And people who are engaging in wine in China are still the tip of the tip."

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China's affluent young people can pay upwards of $2,000 to take a wine course to appreciate a drink that has come to symbolize social sophistication among China's growing middle class. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

Who are the ones taking this course? "The ones who want to be known as the 'wine girl' or the 'wine guy' with their friends. It gives them status," says Walker.

Many of them choose imported wines over domestic ones, which are often considered very poor quality. Walker says a decade ago, there were virtually no Chinese wines she would even taste. But things have changed.

Walker thinks China's vintners should aim for the sort of wines with which Canada has succeeded: quality wines made by relatively small vineyards.

"You have to persuade people to drink it because it's good," she says. "China should move in the premium direction rather than producing bulk wine."

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Wine consumption in China is up more than seven-fold since Emma Gao started her winery in 2007. Other winemakers are buying up land all around her 70 hectares. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

That seems like a challenge, because it goes against the reputation Chinese products have, even at home, as mass-produced and cheap. That's how so much else has been made here for years.

Winemaker Gao agrees. "Because Chinese people, they believe that only France, Italy or Australia make good wine. Not China." Foreign buyers could be even harder to convince.

The challenge of grape-growing

Winemakers face other challenges, too, in a country that has yet to figure out the best kind of grapes to grow, along with where and how to grow them.

Many areas are too wet or too dry, too hot or too cold.

This year, Gao lost one whole section of Pinot Noir grapes after a hot spell burned the skins, then extreme rains brought disease. She still hasn't decided if that variety will grow well here.

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One challenge for winemakers in China is figuring out the best varieties of grapes to grow, along with where and how to grow them. Many areas are too wet or too dry, too hot or too cold. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

And every winter it gets so cold in Gao's vineyard that each of her vines has to be buried 20 or 30 centimetres underground by hand to keep them from freezing. Some areas in Canada do the same thing, but it's rare in the wine world. It's also costly and shortens the life of vines.

But for Gao, winemaking has been a leap of faith and a labour of love.

"It's something very touching," she says as she watches the grapes being picked by workers all around her, filling baskets. "It's like our babies. We take care of them since April until now."

It's a love affair with wine that Gao hopes is just starting for China.

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