Monday, September 10, 2012
Visiting Silver Heights Winery in Ningxia China with Winemaker Emma Gao
August 31, 2012 - After lunch we boarded the van to drive about ten minutes down narrow dirt roads past poverty stricken shacks to arrive at Silver Heights Winery. Once through the modest gates, we saw a large garden and were greeted by owner, Emma Gao, who had a huge welcoming smile on her face and was followed by her 5-year old daughter’s puppy – a very young and adorable winery dog (see photo).
Silver Heights is a true urban winery in the sense that it is located in the city of Yinchuan, even though it’s vineyards are on the hillsides of Helan Mountain thirty miles away. Producing only 30,000 bottles or 2500 cases, Silver Heights specializes in cabernet sauvignon and cabernet gernischt. The winery was started in 2007, with 2009 being the best vintage so far, according to Emma, because it was a very warm year.
Emma received her enology training in France at the Ecole d'Oenologie in Bordeaux, and is married to French winemaker, who works at Chateau Calon Segur. They split their time between both countries.
Viticulture Practices and Burying the Vines in Winter
Since it is not possible to own land in China, Emma and her family have a lease on 15 hectares of vines for which they have 100% farming control. They produce around 35 hectoliters per hectare with 5,000 vines per hectare. Emma mentioned that they use flood irrigation right now, but hope to install drip lines. Powdery and downey mildew are both threats, as well as the neighbor’s sheep which often escape into the vineyard and try to eat the leaves and grapes.
Every winter Emma and her family must bury the vines so they do not freeze due to the very low temperatures. Emma described how they first irrigate the vines, then she and her mother bend the vine down to the ground and stand on it while her father shovels on dirt. After the vines are buried this way, they add more dirt with a tractor. She said about 5% of the vines are damaged each year due to burying.
This year they took out another 30-year lease on some land to plant 40 more hectares, or 600 mu, of a new vineyard. “Mu” is how the Chinese measure the land with one mu equaling 1/15th of a hectare, or around 1/7th of an acre. I asked Emma what happened when the 30-year lease was up, given the fact that they have to pay to install the vineyard and maintain it. She says she is not sure, but hopes the Chinese government will allow her to renew the lease. She mentioned that larger winery corporations are allowed to apply for 90-year leases, but they must pay much more money to do so.
In the meantime, while waiting for their vineyard to come online, Emma buys additional grapes from local farmers.
Winemaking Practices at Silver Heights
Emma proudly showed us her stainless steel fermentation tanks and small crush pad. She mentioned that the most important step she took to craft high quality wine was to sort the grapes herself by hand. Since the last two vintages (2010 and 2011) were both cool and rainy, she said it was very important to sort and throw out green and moldy berries. This does not always happen at some of the other Chinese wineries.
Next we descended into the small cellar that her father helped her build. The size reminded me of many small domains I have visited in Burgundy. She ages in both French and American oak, and only racks the wine twice. She uses very little SO2, only adding it at crush and before bottling.
We tasted several wines from the barrel, with her 2009 50% cab and 50% cab G being beautiful complex and spicy. My favorite however, was the 2009 Emma’s Reserve 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. It had incredible purity of fruit, fine-grained tannins and a long velvety finish.
I asked her why she didn’t make more 100% cabernet sauvignon, and she said she couldn’t get the grapes. However, Emma explained that she still liked to use cabernet G because it was considered the “Chinese” grape and gave a nice spicy, tomato leaf and yellow pepper note to the wine.
It was a very enjoyable visit to Silver Heights, and I am now a new fan of the winery and of Emma Gao. Before we left, she pulled some of the 2011 cabernet sauvignon from barrel and served it to us in an unusual carafe that looked like a curving snake or dragon (see photo). We will all impressed with the structure and lovely black currant aroma/flavors of the wine.