China wine barrel market: Oaky insights from Amy Lee of cooperage Berthomieu / Ermitage

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Amy Lee talks oak at Northwest A&F in China

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By Jim Boyce

While wine makers, distributors and writers tend to be the key sources for stories on the China scene, talking to the suppliers of bottles, barrels, corks and other crucial items is also revealing. I recently interviewed Amy Lee, who handles the China market — plus California, Washington, Oregon and India — for cooperage Berthomieu / Ermitage.

Lee has a decade of China experience, including stints at such as Harvest Wine International and wine importer / distributor  Montrose. I asked her about the overall market, the use of oak by winemakers here, and her own project in Oregon. She came back with some finely detailed, tightly-grained answers.

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The wine sector has seen rapid growth during the past five years, particularly the Ningxia region. What do you expect in general over the next few years and specifically for the barrel sector?

The rate of development of vineyards and wineries in Ningxia is truly mind-boggling. We’ve been visiting the area with our brands, Ermitage & Berthomieu Tonnellerie, for just a couple of years and have seen unprecedented growth. Projects such as those involving Emma Gao [Silver Heights] and Rong Jian and Li Demei [Helan Qing Xue] are truly setting a great standard for quality for the region to grow from. We’ve also begun to see some positive movements of collaboration of knowledge and talent in the area: winemakers sharing information about what works and doesn’t work as the vineyards are planted and cellars emerge.

That said, the area also has huge challenges. Not everyone is coming into this with much knowledge and we have heard stories of government officials helping specific producers or suppliers and not others. Perhaps this will change with the new administration in Beijing.

From our side with barrels, we see great opportunity for growth in the region. That said, you have to have good fruit to make good wine. Our barrels aren’t a solution for bad practices in the vineyard or the cellar. We’re looking forward to being more involved as the wine industry in China progresses and matures.

I’ve tried quite a few wines where light fruity wine was overwhelmed by oak. Have you found this? Is there a knowledge gap in China when it comes to oak use?

Absolutely. Again, you can’t make excellent wine from inferior fruit. It all starts in the vineyard. The most expensive well-made French oak barrel on the market won’t make up for what is lacking in the fruit. It can help mask those flaws, but the key is starting with well-managed vineyards, vines with some age. So many vineyards in China are very young and it takes around five years for vines to start producing fruit with interesting aromatics and flavors. It just takes time.

I agree there is a disproportionate amount of locally produced wine on the market in China that is over-oaked or not produced with the best match of oak product. Many producers are using very inexpensive oak alternative products rather than barrels, basically oak powders and chips, to give the essence of oak aromatics and flavors as well as added tannins to round out some structure in the wine, the mouth feel.

A lot of these products are the waste material from the stave mills — the factories where the whole logs are turned into the long pieces or staves that then make the barrel — or the waste material from the cooperage where the barrel is made. This can be problematic in that much of this waste material either is from part of the tree called the pith that tends to be much more bitter than the portion of the tree from which the staves for the barrels are taken, or the material is not properly seasoned — the wood for barrels is aged for a minimum of 24 months to take out bitter flavors and harsh tannins.

There is definitely a place for these products, it is just a matter of sourcing from reputable producers. The economics don’t work out to use new barrels on every wine. We have a general rule of thumb that if the wine is under USD22 (~rmb140) per bottle, it is generally not seeing any new French oak. A new French oak barrel is approximately USD1000 (~RMB6200). A new American oak barrel is approximately USD350 (~RMB2200) per barrel. The forestry practices and production methods are much different. Oak alternatives are radically less expensive.

Another challenge we see in China is the mismatching of toasts, forests and seasoning of the barrel to the wine. For example, a grape such as Sauvignon Blanc may not need any oak at all, expressing itself in a bright and fresh way through aging in stainless steel. A big tannic Cabernet Sauvignon may benefit from quite a lot of new oak in its aging process, using a more aggressively toasted barrel, tighter grained forest and longer seasoning of stave wood, bringing forward richer flavors and aromatics. and broadening and softening the palate of the wine.

We often see the misuse of toast levels, where a heavier toast barrel is used on a wine that can’t stand up to it. In the end, you are left with a wine that tastes and smells like barrel char / smoke rather than fruit. Ideally, the barrel is there to lift the fruit, add complexity in aromatics and help the wine structurally, thereby rounding and smoothing out tannins, adding mid-palate structure and adding to the length of the finish.

So much of the problem in China with misuse of oak has truly been a lack of access by winemakers here to people with much knowledge about barrels as well as a lack of options in suppliers. That is changing. Ten years ago, you could buy Radoux and Demptos. Today? You have so many options of quality barrel producers. I am happy to be a part of that new movement with Ermitage and Berthomieu. This is just the beginning of a very positive influx of suppliers for Chinese wine producers.

You supply barrels to two of China’s better wineries, Grace Vineyards and Silver Heights. How have those relationships developed over the years? Who else does your company count among its clients in China?

We have been so fortunate to work with Grace Vineyards and Silver Heights. Both producers are truly utilizing production methods that would rival any top producer globally. They make huge efforts to ensure the health and success of their vineyards and thus have solid fruit to work with in their wines. When they don’t have a good vintage? They don’t produce their best wines. The juice is moved into other labels therefore not damaging the quality standard that has been set for their top tier wines.

We’ve been working with the winemaking team at Grace Vineyard for several years now. We work together to make the best barrels we can to most appropriately match the style of wine that they want to produce from Chardonnay to Cabernet Sauvignon. We have spent several years tweaking our toasts, changing the combination of different forests that comprise the staves of the barrels, and selecting the best seasoning programs for them to get the best results in the finished wine. The efforts have been very successful. With Emma Gao at Silver Heights, our process is the same. We taste together, we discuss what is working, what could be better, then we do our very best to provide a barrel that will perform to her expectations — and we hope beyond!

The key to this whole process is that everyone is involved. The cooperage needs to understand what is happening both in the vineyard and in the winery and they need to be actively involved with the wine-making team to make appropriate suggestions. Cooperage sales people such as myself are working with hundreds of clients globally. We see it all. Most reputable barrel makers will be able to give valuable insight to winemakers when it comes to barrel decisions. It takes approximately three to four years from the time that the tree is felled in the forest to the time that our clients fill the barrel with wine. Making a quality barrel is a long and involved process as is the production of high-caliber wine.

Your company is big on the global stage but relatively small in China. What is the strategy for China? How does the company differentiate itself from its competitors?

We differentiate ourselves from other cooperages by being the best! Just kidding. We are pretty dang good though. In truth, we currently are the largest producer of stave wood in France and are the second largest cooperage group globally when you include our company’s four barrel brands and our new cooperage in the United States which produces American oak. We produce both French and American oak barrels from standard 225-liter and 228-liter sizes up to massive tanks used for vinification and aging of Cognac and wine.

Our business globally is very strong. Our brand has continued to grow in all markets, including China. That said, China has very honestly been a bit of a puzzle and a challenge for us as we come in as a relatively new player. We’ve struggled with finding the right people to sell our products, having tried out several different agents over the years and opting simply to sell directly ourselves. The main problems that we have faced with agents is a lack of knowledge on wine production and the ability of a hired sales person to give insightful and helpful suggestions to the wine-making team they sell to.

We have witnessed many cooperages that are represented in China who have agents that may have a business background, but have very little knowledge of the actual production of wine. We have decided it is better to wait and find the right person, than to aggressively hit the Chinese market with someone who can’t give good customer service. It’s a dilemma. We don’t want to miss out on sales, but we want to be careful to protect both our brand and our strong reputation as one of the top producers in the world. Currently, I service the China market myself from the United States, making one or two trips per year to see our clients and to check in on the industry as a whole.

One of the really exciting programs that we have become involved with is the Northwest A&F University Enology and Viticultural Department. They are now breaking ground on a new building that will house a teaching winery as well as their normal classes. I went out to speak to their department during my last visit in April and was thrilled to be greeted by nearly 200 incredibly enthusiastic students so eager to learn and explore information about this industry. I am certain that this new generation of winemakers and viticulturists will transform the industry in China.

The past two years we have also started doing an annual Ningxia Winemakers Dinner in Yinchuan. With the support of many of the local wineries near Yinchuan, we have had two truly collaborative events in which local winemakers bring their wines to share with the group and discuss and thus share knowledge. What we see globally is that in order to make a wine region successful, everyone needs to work together. If only a few producers are making quality wine, the region doesn’t grown in reputation. Only when the group as a whole is pushed to improve, does the real movement forward begin. We’re really proud to be a part of this momentum forward.

You also make wine. Would you tell us a little bit about your wines and how consumers in China can get them?

I do have my own label of wine called Rocky Point Cellars in the United States. It is a very very tiny Pinot Noir program out of the Willamette Valley in the state of Oregon. The project came about in 2010 when I had the opportunity to contract an acre of fruit from one of my favorite Willamette Valley vineyards called Le Cadeau. It is the rockiest hillside site I have seen in the state. Perfect for stressing Pinot Noir vines.

The Rocky Point wines are all vineyard-designated small production cool climate Pinot Noir now coming from the Dundee Hills and Chehalem Mountain AVAs. The weather in Oregon guarantees that every vintage is unique. In 2010 and 2011, we were biting our nails wondering if the fruit would get ripe enough before rains started in late October. It did. The wines are beautifully acidic and gorgeous in their aromatics but much leaner than other vintages. Perfect for Pinot Noir connoisseurs. In 2012, we were blessed with lots of sunshine which made for a much more opulent vintage: big dark boysenberry and fig aromas and a broad round soft palate with some great wood spice and nice tannins. A vintage that wine drinkers of all kinds will enjoy.

The most important element of this business is that I am learning every day. I consider Rocky Point a second graduate degree without the diploma at the end. It’s a labor of love and truly not glamorous. You have to get joy from getting dirty and working really hard for the hope of very small financial returns. I won’t be quitting my day job. At harvest, you’ll find me cleaning out the press and looking like a homeless woman: stomping around muddy vineyards, shoulder deep in grapes, picking ladybugs and spiders out of bins of fruit, and spending a lot of time cleaning and coiling hoses. I have a great winemaker that really makes all of this happen named Drew Voit who has his own label and also consults for a number of well–renowned wineries in Oregon. He’s the skill behind the brand.

I don’t have a distributor in China so anyone interested in buying can visit the website or the winery which is by appointment only. The website is under construction now but you can get the basic details at www.rockypointcellars.com. Oh, and go figure: the barrels are all Ermitage.

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