Grace Vineyard chief winemaker Lee Yeanyean has a unique view on Chinese wine given he works at the company’s operations in both Ningxia and Shanxi. In this Q&8, Lee covers everything from grape potential to ganbeis to burgers.
1 What’s the biggest difference between growing grapes and making wine in Ningxia and Shanxi?
The biggest difference is acidity. Shanxi always has beautiful acidity—sometimes too much—while Ningxia tends to have much less due to all that heat. Also, the amount of irrigation required. The soil in Shanxi has naturally good water- holding capacity. We can work with no irrigation throughout the growing season. In Ningxia, our vineyard was previously desert, with a poor subsoil for holding water. So, we need plenty of water to make sure the vines stay happy.
In terms of ripeness, on a scale of 1 being less ripe to 10 being superbly ripe, Shanxi tends to be 6 to 8, while in extremely dry years, like 2015 and 2019, we might get near 10. (A score of 6 is not necessarily bad, it just means more finesse and freshness and less punchiness.) Ningxia, on the other hand, can easily get into the 7 to 10 range, but with a bigger alcohol profile.
2 What’s your favorite Ningxia dish, not counting burgers at the airport?
Burgers! Still burgers! Because to get a good burger we usually need to drive at least two hours from either winery. So, a burger is part of my “harvest ritual” now. And also, because of vintage, I can easily get them at the airport on the way out of either Shanxi or Ningxia!
For local foods, it would be La Mian ?? (“pulled noodles”) with extra chili and the fried noodles La Bao Mian???—it reminds me of Mee Goreng from my hometown.
3 You’ve worked on a few Ningxia vintages now. What’s your favorite?
All of them. I love the diversity of the vineyards throughout Ningxia. There is so much potential yet to discover.
4 You guys released your first Ningxia Shiraz. Do you think Shiraz could become the region’s best variety?
Shiraz was my first glass of wine—at a college party 20 plus year ago. So, I really like it. We planted vines in Shanxi in 2007 but it failed because of too much moisture. I insisted to plant them again in Ningxia and the results are “so far so good.” I think the potential is there but we don’t yet fully understand this variety.
In terms of best grape, we can grow every variety and could get the viticulture right in terms of correct site, management and so on, so all could potentially be the best. We need more time.
5 What world wine region does Ningxia remind you of most?
I think Ningxia is unique. I am surprised at how quickly an experienced drinker can identify the wines in a blind tasting as Ningxia. I saw it when I showed our Shiraz in Shanghai this year during a dinner.
6 If you were a grape variety, which one would you be?
Hmmm, Saperavi? Unpredictable.
7 What’s the most wine you have ganbei’d (consumed “bottoms up”) in one night?
The most ganbeis? It wasn’t a wine, it was a local baijiu called ??? (er wo tou) in Shanxi.
8 What’s the scoop on the 2021 vintage, what can we look forward to?
I’m a little concerned about physiological ripeness. The harvest is a bit early, with high sugar, but the flavor is not quite there yet.
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