Jo goes to China
A friend of mine posted a link on their Facebook page to the Ningxia Winemakers Challenge, so out of curiosity I opened it. 60 winemakers to be selected from around the world to be flown to Ningxia, China, to make wine from the same vineyard of grapes. Competitors could return up to 3 times a year over 2 years to check on their wine, then in 2017 the wines will be judged and money awarded based on the medal they achieved. All flights, accommodation and meals to be covered by the competition. It almost sounded to good to be true, so I thought why not? And here I am now, sitting in my room at my host winery, getting ready to make wine from some Chinese Cabernet Sauvignon.
Organisation of the event was a bit haphazard leading up to it. All we knew was that we had to be in Ningxia by September 20 and stay for a minimum of 15 days. Not much other information. 5 days before I was due to leave I still didn't have my flights. They came through in the end and I arrived in Yinchuan (capital of Ningxia provence) on Saturday 19th at about 5pm, after an unscheduled delay in Beijing after missing the connection. A casual dinner in the hotel that night and a chance to meet the other participants, although there were still about 10 winemakers yet to arrive.
On Sunday morning we visited Chateau Changyu-Moser, a Loire styled chateau on the outskirts of Yinchuan. They had quite the visitor experience with a lot of history about winemaking in the region. Except no wine tasting!
Chateau Changyu Moser
After lunch was quite a strange affair. We went to the big agricultural expo building for the ballot to see who got which winery and which part of the vineyard. We were all chatting and laughing when we walked into the building, to find a big room with about 4 rows of chairs in a big U in front of a stage. There were a number of people sitting in the chairs with one row empty (apparently for us) and a large number of photographers and camera crews standing around the stage and the chairs. We took our seats and then listened to a very long speech in Chinese. Finally it was time for the ballot. There were 48 winemakers (12 pulled out) and 48 wineries. The representative of the first winery went up on stage and a computer program started cycling rapidly through the names of the winemakers, then the representative called 'Tíngzhǐ' (stop) and the name of their winemaker was displayed. I was selected quite early in the process and was warmly greeted by a man in a business shirt and slacks. I had no idea what the name of the winery was, but when I was guided to take the seat next to him at the inner row of chairs, he gave me his business card. Senmiao Blue Valley Vineyards. I had a name but nothing else. The process continued until every winery and winemaker were paired up. Then the same process for vineyard selection, although it was the winemaker that got to call 'Tíngzhǐ' or 'Stop'. I was allocated block 39, again this didn't really mean anything to me. We were told the vineyard was Cabernet Sauvignon, at least 10 years old and at least 3 hectares each, with a maximum crop of about 5.5T/ha.
Once the formalities were over we had a chance for a quick chat with our host wineries before heading back to the hotel. The winemaker at my host winery was a young female and I was told the winery was only 5 years old and that they had a hotel at the winery where I would stay.Then back to the hotel in Yinchuan and down the street for some traditional hotpot.
Monday morning we were up early and on the bus for the 1 1/2 hour trip to the vineyard. We were met by our host winery and taken to our individual block. The trellising was almost non-existent, the soil quite sandy but didn't look too vigorous so I was hopeful. At this point in the competition we were all worried that the Cabernet wouldn't be ripe until when we were due to fly home because we had heard they were still harvesting chardonnay in many parts of the region. One taste of the grapes put that worry to rest. The fruit was quite sweet, the seeds were brown and crunchy and the flavour was remarkably good. I walked up and down the rows and was quite impressed by what I saw and tasted. I think I can make some decent wine from this fruit. The manager of the vineyard was with us and he told us it was the best block on the vineyard. But then maybe he told everyone that... A quick baume check revealed the sugar content to be about 13.5 baume - which meant it was nearly ready to pick. Acid was a bit low but that is easily fixed!
Block 39 Cabernet Sauvignon
Today I was picked up by my host winery and I finally found out what my winery was like and where it was located. I think I struck it lucky. The winery is set in a complex of business that include the winery, cellardoor, vineyard, a hotel, restaurant and bar and botanic gardens, among other things. The winery is quite impressive to look at, not quite as ostentatious as some of the others we saw, but grand none-the-less. And it actually houses the winery! Many of the others are just show pieces for the visitor experience and the cellar is somewhere else. The accommodation is great and the botanic gardens are just stunning, it'll be so great to getup and walk through them every morning. We had a quick meeting this afternoon to discuss winemaking and have planned to pick the vineyard this Saturday and Sunday.
Stay tuned for further updates - I hope to add a blog every few days
The Senmiao winery
The onsite hotel
The entrance to the botanic gardens