Posted on | September 3, 2013 | 1 Comment
By Jim Boyce
‘Flying winemaker’ Brian Wilson of Wine Solutions first landed in China in the year 2000, one of many stops on a twenty-year route that has included the United States, France, Bulgaria and, of course, his homeland of Australia. He remains on the search for new adventures. I asked him about his first experiences in China, the biggest changes and challenges in this market, and his favorite local wines.
You flew into the wine sector here more than a dozen years ago. What was your first project?
My first project in China was in 2000 in Zaoyang (see photos above and below) which is a three-hour drive north of Wuhan in Hubei province. I was asked to go and evaluate a derelict winery that was built by the French in the early 1970s and assess what was needed in order to process the native grapes that were grown in the local forest.
The people there said the grapes had been growing for a thousand years and they had never been used to make wine. The first year we made small batches from over a dozen different native grapes and worked out that three of them were well-suited to making wine. The following year we sent pickers out to get only these three varieties and made bigger commercial quantities which received high acclaim.
You have since done others projects in China. Could you tell us about another one?
Another of the early projects was planting a vineyard at Yau Kang Zhen. This was a real lesson in how thorough and detailed the Chinese can be when good communication happens.
We were taken out to see a field that was designated for the vineyard and we made decisions on row orientation and vine spacings. The area was about 350 mu (almost 60 acres). All looked great except for concerns of a clay layer two feet below the surface.
Upon returning about a month later, we saw that each row had been dug out and the trenches were four feet deep. These were subsequently filled with a layer of sand, then seaweed and other organic nutrients, before the topsoil was returned to each trench.
The vineyard was then planted to 15 different varieties — 10 of these were for wines and five were for table grape production. We imported the container of seedlings from Australia.
A lot of my learning of the Chinese wine culture came from exporting Australian wine and setting up a distribution and sales team. Our base was Suzhou and our sales team had to be trained from scratch. In 2002, our initial approach was naive and we made slow progress. It was thought that our quality would stand out when compared to the local coloured alcohol product that was being passed off as wine, and then once shown the difference our product would sell itself.
It wasn’t to be this way. We had to find out what our new customer wanted and work out a way to keep our quality yet make the wines more user friendly. Our wines are now full flavoured with great vibrant colours without the aggressive tannins and obvious acids.
What has been the biggest change in Chinese viticulture and wine-making since you first visited China? What is the one change that would have the biggest positive impact?
The biggest change in the viticulture is the awareness that ripeness is important. In the earlier days it was common to receive grapes between 8 to 10 Baume and as such the flavour ripeness was not there. A grape was just looked upon as an ingredient that started the winemaking process. It took all the winemaking tricks in the book to give the wine body and character. Now, however, there is more awareness on the management of flavour in the vineyard and all grapes are not treated the same.
In winemaking, the biggest change would be an acceptance of the fact that we do things for a reason and all compromises have an impact on quality. An example would be that in the earlier days the wineries would not understand the need for hygiene and tanks and equipment might be rinsed with a litre of water before use. Today I find the better wineries have a more modern approach to cleanliness as they have seen the impact on the eventual quality.
The next thing to be changed comes with experience. As the local winemakers get more years under the belt they will naturally develop the ability to ‘step back’ and look at the overall picture. They will see how small decisions and compromises in the beginning have an impact on the final product. Once they develop a deeper understanding of the overall process, they will see how it all interlinks
If you had to pick three Chinese wines to recommend, what would they be?
One of the better Chinese white wines I have had is the 2010 Grace Vineyard Tasya’s Reserve Chardonnay. It showed good varietal peachy character and a great length of palate. I think Grace Vineyard is currently the leader in producing consistent quality and my recommendation to a newcomer of Chinese wines will be to start with any of their wines. The 2010 Grace Vineyard Deep Blue is typical of the soft-bodied, full-flavoured good fruit wine that I believe will excel in the Chinese market.
I am also excited by the wines made by Emma Gao at Silver Heights. I think she sees the inherent potential in the fruit and brings out the best in her wines. I have tried ‘The Summit’ and enjoyed it very much and am happy to recommend it.