Winemaker Liang Ning of Ningxia winery Gan Lu—Sweet Dew in English—is making a name for himself with Syrah and recently branched out with Petit Manseng and Marselan. In this Q&8, I asked him about Syrah, the challenges of irrigation, his ‘Panda’ labels, what makes his region of Ningxia special, and more.
1 You are getting a good reputation for Syrah. Why has this grape done well?
I am working hard to make Syrah that represents the terroir of Ningxia. The vines in our vineyards are over 10 years old but are still very young compared to other countries that make high-quality Syrah.
The climate of Ningxia has some similarities with the Rhone Valley and with parts of Australia, but the variety of Syrah is not widely grown here, so I think there is still a lot of work to be done.
2 Your winery is called Gan Lu in Chinese and Sweet Dew in English. What is the name’s significance?
Our initial starting point was to make an international wine, an international winery. Such a winery does not need to be large; it is okay to be small and refined.
In terms of our name, we first registered the trademark “Gan Lu” in our personal names, then registered the company Ningxia Gan Lu Winery Co., Ltd.
The homonym of Gan Lu, which refers to the foot of a hill or mountain, can also mean something that is sweet or honeyed, essentially, sweet dew. I thought “Gan Lu” was not suitable for people without a Chinese background and decided to use Sweet Dew for the English translation as it would be easier for people to understand.
When friends see this English name, the first thing they wonder is whether or not we produce sweet wine. We have only been making dry wines until last year, when we made a sweet wine with Petit Manseng (see below), so I guess we now have something in line with our winery name.
3 Ningxia is quite a big wine region. What distinguishes your part of Ningxia—Qingtongxia—from other parts?
From north to south, Ningxia’s wine producing areas are divided into Shizuishan, Yinchuan, Qingtongxia, and Hongsibao, and each has its own unique terroir.
In Qingtongxia, the annual sunshine is higher, the soil is sandier and there is more wind. (You can see many wine turbines in Qingtongxia.)
Qingtongxia produces grapes with higher sugar content, better tannic ripeness and thicker skins, which means we make wines that are fuller and darker. Of course, we are also concerned about the risks of an imbalance of high sugar and low acidity.
4 Water is a big issue for Ningxia wineries and the Yellow River is crucial in providing it. What is Sweet Dew’s situation?
Northern grape growing areas in China need irrigation. In Ningxia, for example, our annual precipitation is 200 mm to 300 mm, but the annual evaporation is 2000 mm, and thus we are unable to collect rainwater.
We irrigate the grapes about six to eight times a year. If there is higher than average rain during July and August, the irrigation may be reduced accordingly.
Most of the grape-growing areas of Ningxia have adopted water-conserving drip irrigation—not many of them use flood irrigation—and that is also due to the government’s policy of helping farmers and finding ways to save water.
5 You made your first commercial Petit Manseng and Marselan last vintage. Why did you plant those grapes and how did your first wines turn out?
Ningxia is a new wine-producing area, therefore, the first grape varieties planted to develop the industry were well-known ones considered to be suitable for the climate of Ningxia, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Gernischt (Carmenere).
As Ningxia’s wine industry developed, wineries began planting and making wine with more grapes.
Those include Marselan, a red wine variety being planted more and more each year. With loose bunches, and small thick-skinned grapes, it produces wine that is dark in color and not too heavy in tannins. This wine is suitable for people’s tastes today. The Marselan I made in 2021 will be used for blending rather than for a single variety wine.
In terms of white wines, the most planted grapes in Ningxia are Italian Riesling and Chardonnay, with the area for Riesling gradually decreasing. Personally, I like white wines, especially dry white wines. But due to the relatively hot climate in Ningxia, Chardonnay and Riesling have not performed very well in Ningxia.
Therefore, when we decided on new grapes, we planted a small amount of Petit Manseng to produce a sweet white wine. Although it is not a dry wine, at least it is white, and can be regarded as one of our own.
6 One of your labels features a panda even though they don’t live in Ningxia. Why a panda!?
In countries that produce wine, we often see cultural elements of that country on labels. When it comes to China, the first impression of many foreigners is the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Great Wall—or a panda. Pandas are representative symbols of China, and as a Chinese, I want to share our cultures. Also, who would reject a cute panda wine label?
7 What is the best Ningxia food and best foreign food to enjoy with your Syrah?
If we just want to enjoy the wine, I think it best to try it without food. Taking the 2017 Syrah as an example, I recommend letting it breathe for one or two hours first.
If you do want to accompany it with food, I recommend something with spices or peppers. It should not be too spicy but something such as mutton skewers, roast lamb and spicy chicken. Our Syrah also pairs well with heavier cuts of steak.
8 Does Sweet Dew have any special plans for Year of the Tiger?
We have some plans, including adjustments in how we make our Petit Manseng.
There will also be two new labels on the market. One is the Petit Manseng, with the label designed by me, and the other is our 2019 Syrah, which has a very Chinese wine label. It’s inspired by the poem “Luming”, in the first collection of Chinese poems, called the Book of Songs. I hope everyone will like it.
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