Silver Heights is located on the eastern slopes of Mount Helan in Ningxia Autonomous Region. Grapes are harvested at an altitude of 1,200 meters, making it one of the highest vineyards in China. Blessed with ample sunshine and a great depth of stony soil, all of which forces the roots of the vines to venture deep into the ground for water and minerals, the terroir is ideal for viticulture. Exquisite French oenology techniques were employed for the wines, imparting influences from the Old World.
“Women are in the vanguard when it comes to wine appreciation in China,” says Emma Gao, head of the vineyard. “When shopping for wine, they want to make an educated selection based on their knowledge of wine culture, not just the price.”
Emma is the holder of a Diplôme National d'Oenologue from Bordeaux, France and one of few female Chinese winemakers in the industry.
Emma honed her winemaking skills during internships with renowned estates in Bordeaux - Château Calon-Ségur and Château Lafon-Rochet.
She was born and raised in Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia, a remote and impoverished province in northwest China. After studying literature, she was able to study economic agriculture in Leningrad, where she moved with her father at the end of the Soviet era. Soon after this, her father spent several weeks in France.
“It was my father who began to appreciate that wine can have a civilizing influence”, says Emma.
And this led to the family’s decision to start a winery in 2007, before the provincial government began its determined transformation of the eastern piedmont of Ningxia’s Helan Mountains into China’s most exciting center of wine production. Here began Emma’s commitment to wine.
“My training in France is my guiding light,” she says. “I always want to make Bordeaux-style wines, in line with my training. The extreme climate conditions here in Ningxia will always make spicy wines, which I believe is the typical style of the Mount Helan area.”
Ningxia is reputed to have the poorest soil conditions agricultural products such as rice but as Emma explains, “Grape vines are the most hardy of plants, able to adapt well to dry, stony soil, making it actually very suitable for vineyards.”
“One needs time and experience to fully understand the terroir here in China,” Emma continues in her gentle northwest intonation. “We need to have both the patience of the French and the mentality of the Chinese, especially when working with the local farmers. As Chinese wine grows internationally, we want to be at the forefront, offering the best that there is. Silver Heights is small but will be great.” Pausing for a moment, Emma smiles quietly. “We do a lot of face-to-face promotion. Some local wine lovers call us to share their tasting notes and emotions and this is one of the best things in my life!”
Wine, Emma says, is a core element of her soul. Indeed, as Benjamin Franklin stated: Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.
“Wine is a romantic passion and an honest relationship that enhances my life and my imagination. Drinking wine makes me remember my best memories. I drink wine for health too, but mostly for pleasure: to enjoy life.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, Mr. Sun Yat Sen, founder of modern China, spoke for the first time of his vision for “a self-reliant nation”. The idea has been rooted ever since and reinforced by historical events.
Growing wine grapes in a desert isn’t normally a formula for oenological excellence, but in the arid mountainous region of Ningxia, some 900 kilometers west of Beijing, the local government has reclaimed desert-like expanses, irrigated them profusely, planted them with cabernet sauvignon and merlot and started a campaign to transform this rugged backwater into China’s answer to Bordeaux. The plan is already working. The French beverage giant Pernod Ricard has invested in the Helan Mountain brand, and LVMH — the luxury group that owns some of the top Champagne houses in France — is teaming up with the region’s oldest winery, Xi Xia King, to make sparkling wine. Numerous other wineries — some with cut-and-paste French chateau architecture — now operate in Ningxia, including Silver Heights and Helan Qingxue, which picked up top honors this year at the inaugural Ningxia Wine Awards.
Independence is a heady draught, and if you drink it in your youth, it can have the same effect on the brain as young wine does. It does not matter that its taste is not always appealing. It is addictive; with each drink you want more. Maybe Red China is taking on a whole new meaning.
Chinese fine wine? Santé!