Ningxia Wine Challenge Q&A: Winemaker Craig Grafton of Helan Mountain

In the lead up to the Ningxia Wine Challenge, we are posting some expert views of this region of China, including from professor Ma Huiqin and winemakers Emma Gao and Lilian Carter. Here is another one, from winemaker Craig Grafton, an Australian who has worked since 2011 for Pernod Ricard in Ningxia at its joint project, Helan Mountain. Grafton has also made wine throughout Australia, including the Barossa Valley, Clare Valley and Yarra Valley, has done vintages in Bordeaux, France and Sonoma Valley, California, and has degrees in applied science and viticulture from Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia. Here is Grafton’s take on Ningxia.

Grafton (left) with China wine vet David Henderson at Helan Mountain.

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Q: What are the biggest differences and similarities between being a winemaker at Helan Mountain and being a winemaker elsewhere?

A: The biggest differences I have experienced between Helan Mountain and other wineries at which I have worked would be the climate, particularly the cold winter, and the Chinese culture. The cold winters at Helan Mountain have us burying the vines to protect them. This is not ideal and we are exploring alternative options.

The Chinese culture is amazing and Ningxia is very different from anywhere else I have worked. The Helan Mountain team spend a lot of time together during the harvest period and we will often have lunch and dinner together. So the team spirit is very high.

The biggest similarities I have experienced of Helan Mountain and other wineries at which I have worked would be the eagerness to produce good wines and the varieties we are growing.

The winery team is very interested in making quality wines. This is a common trait at many wineries at which I have worked. The wine industry seems to attract people who are interested in good wine and good food — a great combination.

Many of Helan Mountain’s varieties are common across other regions around the world, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. At Helan Mountain, we are keen to develop and showcase the Ningxia terroir in our wines.

Q: We have seen some good wines in China but they have tended to be in modest quantities. What are the keys to getting both production and quality?

A: It is exciting to see the rapidly improving quality of Chinese wines, even if it is in smaller quantities. This proves China has the ability to produce world class wines. The key to improving quality and increasing volume is balance.

It is imperative that vineyard practises continue to be maintained and improved upon, thus providing suitable quality fruit, and that the winery have adequate capacity to be able to maintain a quality focus on the handling of this fruit into wine.

Helan Mountain has been embarking on a vineyard improvement plan that will continue for the next few years and we are carefully redesigning and improving winery infrastructure to allow the quality of our wines to continue to improve.

Q: What grapes work best for you at Domaine Helan Mountain and what grapes do you see as having the most potential in the region?

A: The varieties that are currently performing the best at Helan Mountain are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. These varieties are producing seriously good wines that are world class.

We also have limited plantings of Pinot Noir that does well in the region in most years. The limited growing season and cold winter has the Helan Mountain team exploring other varieties that may compliment the portfolio of quality wine. The issue of burying the vines to survive the winter is an area in which we are undertaking numerous trials and we are also researching cold-resistant varieties.

Q: What is the biggest change you made to wine-making practices at Helan Mountain, and why?

A: The use of barrels to mature the Helan Mountain wines has been the biggest single change to wine making practise. We also, for the first time, barrel fermented the best parcel of Chardonnay from the 2011 vintage. This has given better oak integration and improved mouth feel in the resultant wine.

We are continuing to work hard with our passionate Chinese winemakers and cellar team to maintain and improve the quality of the wines produced at Helan Mountain. We believe we can continue to improve wine quality, while consolidating the improvements already undertaken.

There have been many improvements at Helan Mountain with the more notable ones being: winemaker vineyard visits and specific block selection becoming standard practise, smaller tanks of varying capacity for better ullage management, improved winery hygiene, and changing vineyard practises to give smaller, more intensely coloured and flavoured fruit that ripens earlier.

Q: What is your favorite food in Ningxia?

A: I am continually amazed at the quality of food from the Ningxia region and detailing just one favourite is difficult. But I would have to say my personal favourite would be the local lamb. It appears so simple, yet is very tasty and goes perfectly with our Helan Mountain Special Reserve Pinot Noir!

Q: When you are not drinking wines from Helan Mountain, you are drinking wines from…?

A: I have been a winemaker for a long time and I appreciate well made wines from all over the world. I have been enjoying Chardonnay lately, mostly from the Adelaide Hills in South Australia . However, I have recently returned from visiting the Champagne region in France, where Mumm and Perrier Jouet were fantastic matches with the local food.

Q: What advice would you give to a foreign wine maker who is going to work in Ningxia?

A: My advice to any winemaker visiting Ningxia is to come with an open mind, embrace the local culture and attempt to learn as much of the Chinese language as possible. Most people in Ningxia are very welcoming and friendly to foreigners and I find many locals who are keen to chat.

I would also recommend learning and attempting to master the Chinese dice game called liar’s dice or chuīniú. This will give you many hours of entertainment, and most likely a little pain, too!

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