Category Archives: Q&A

Ningxia Wine Challenge Q&A: Professor Ma Huiqin on grapes, marketing & more

Originally published on July 23, 2012

By Jim Boyce

Professor Ma Huiqin of China Agricultural University is not only an expert on wine marketing and grape molecular biology, but also for more than a decade has taught a wine appreciation course at the school. Since finishing her postdoctoral studies at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, Ma has completed stints at the ESA Group in France and The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and has done academic collaboration with scholars on every continent. She is helping to organize a wine conference that starts in Ningxia in late August.


You are helping to organize the conference for the Helan Mountains East Piedmont Wine Festival. Who are some key speakers?

The key speakers will include professor Liz Thach, who is also a Master of Wine, from Sonoma State University in the United States, and professor Luigi Bavaresco, the director of Centro di Ricerca per la Viticoltura in Italy, as well as other grape and wine scientists.

Ningxia held a similar conference three years ago. What is the difference now and then?

I think Ningxia has more confidence in its grapes and wines. The government has put more energy into improving the industry and more emphasis on.internationalization. By internationalization, I do not mean a focus on exporting wines, but on introducing international standards and improving wine quality to a more widely acceptable level. In the past three years, we have seen many developments in these areas.

What grapes best match the conditions in Ningxia?

At present, the winning red wines in Ningxia are mainly made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. I know a few wineries trying other noble varieties and also lesser known varieties in China such as Marselan. This region is still pretty new and I believe in about 10 years we will have a better idea of what grapes work best.

Given your trips to Ningxia, what initiatives do you think are necessary?

There is a need to establish standard viticulture processes for this area of China, which has a continental climate and requires grapevines to be buried during the harsh and dry winter. Innovation in grapevine training system is not only important for berry quality, but also crucial to controlling production costs, and especially labor costs, and to moving to mechanization or partial mechanization in the near future and thus making for a sustainable wine industry.

There is also a need to boost human resources and increase the number of qualified winemakers, wine salespeople, viticulturists, cellar door managers and wine tourist guides. More training in languages such as English and French is needed, since foreign language education in high schools and universities is currently far from the standard required by the industry and for international communications.

You also focus on wine marketing. As Ningxia has a small local market, and will need to sell an increasing amount of wine outside the region, what is your advice for wineries?

Ningxia is experiencing a sharp learning curve and could meet some surprises during the process. My perspective is a good quality-to-value ratio is very important as more and more consumers buy wine for its taste rather than as a status symbol. Ningxia can also try to promote the unique characteristics of its wine. In the future, it will be wines that are reasonably priced and that offer something special to consumers that will bring the best profits.

Ningxia Wine Challenge Q&A: Winemaker Emma Gao on grape sourcing, Cabernet Gernischt & more


By Jim Boyce

Emma Gao is the winemaker at Silver Heights, a family-owned operation that she runs with her father and sister in Ningxia and that has gained a reputation for making some of China’s best wines since the first vintage in 2007. The Chinese edition of La Revue du Vin de France recently named Gao — who has a Diplôme National d’Oenologue from Bordeaux — the country’s winemaker of the year. Her flagship wines The Summit and Family Reserve are distributed by Torres China.


Which grape varieties do you use? How many bottles do you make a year?

We use Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Gernischt and Cabernet Franc. For 2011, we made enough for 40,000 bottles, which will be used for our top labels — The Summit and Family Reserve — and our entry-level wine. We change the blends each year. For example, in 2010 we used a fifty-fifty blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Gernischt for our 6,000 bottles of The Summit.

Your first vintage was 2007. What was your biggest lesson from that year?

I was worried about volatile acidity and very much relied on sulfur dioxide (SO2). The SO2 hampered the color and fruitiness of the wine. Since then, I add as little as possible and the results are much better.

After four vintages, which one is your favorite, and why?

The 2008 was better than the 2007, and the 2009 was better than the 2008, so that was encouraging. But the best I think is the 2011, because I am focusing less on manipulating the grapes and more on revealing their nature.

Your family planted a new vineyard in Ningxia. What is happening with that?

After trying to make wine by sourcing grapes from different places with different soils in Ningxia, we found that the best grapes are growing in stony areas. My father found an area dominated by clay and mica about 30 kilometers from Yinchuan, near the famous Helan Mountain rock paintings. He planted the vines this spring and we are looking for this vineyard to start showing its potential in five years or so.

What advice would you give to a foreign winemaker who comes to work in Ningxia?

Do not simply use the same viticulture methods as in other places. For example, because of the climatic conditions, viticulture in Ningxia is very different from many parts of Europe.

Many outside of China are unfamiliar with the grape name Cabernet Gernischt.This grape has been identified as everything from Cabernet France to an unknown cross to Carmenere. Can you tell us more about it?

This variety usually exhibits some green pepper features when used in the rest of China. In Ningxia, it gives some tomato leaf and somewhat rose-like aromas. Because it lacks acidity, is is best for blending.

We had an Italian winemaker from Antinori visit and he said this grape is Carmenere for sure. When he looked at the vines and tasted the wine, he said he found the same features in Italy, where the climate makes ripening difficult for this variety. My father manages our vineyard and always tries his best in the field, so we luckily have the best Cabernet Gernischt in the stony areas of Ningxia.

Ningxia Wine Challenge Q&A: Lilian Carter on working at Helan Mountain winery


Originally published on July 13, 2012

By Jim Boyce

To give some perspective to winemakers interested in applying for the Ningxia Wine Challenge, we are featuring some interviews with people involved in the Ningxia wine scene. First up: winemaker Lillian Carter, who worked from August 2008 to December 2009 as winemaker / winery manager for Pernod Ricard at Helan Mountain winery, a joint project in Ningxia. Carter is now with Oakridge Wines in the Yarra Valley and has also worked at Domaine Chandon, also in the Yarra Valley, and Orlando Wines in the Barossa Valley.


What were the biggest adjustments for you in working in Ningxia?

Adjusting to a foreign language and culture, as well as a different way of working. Of course, it is always very challenging. It is also a hugely rewarding experience.

What kind of grapes and soil did you work with in Ningxia?

Generally the soils are sandy and poor quality but for grape vines this is not necessarily a bad thing. The red grape varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Gernischt are by far the most commonly planted as the wines from these varieties are popular with consumers. Unfortunately they are late ripening varieties and are not especially suited to the climate of Ningxia, which has a short ripening window.

As the local wine industry matures, I would love to see vineyards planting lesser know varieties better suited to Ningxia’s climate. I’ve seen a few good examples of Shiraz and I’m sure it is a variety with potential for the region. Chardonnay and Ugni Blanc predominate amongst the white grape varietals, but overall, white grapes represent only a small percentage of grapes planted and wines made. I hope this will start to change as Ningxia Chardonnay has the capacity to make lovely wines.

What similarities did you find working in Ningxia and other parts of the world?

People involved in growing and making wine are incredibly warm, generous and passionate — no mater where in the world you are. Also, largely the technologies and wine-making equipment available are similar.

What was the one thing you did that most improved the wine?

We simply identified sections of the vineyard that had the greatest potential. We worked closely with the farmers, in the lead up to the growing season and we harvested the grapes when they tasted full of flavour, without any green characters.

Did you find there are any specific characteristics in well-made Ningxia wines?

It is pretty easy to produce a ‘well-made wine‘. It’s much harder to craft wine that reflects the environment where the grapes are grown. For a wine to truly express a sense of place the fruit must be in good condition and the grapes and wine should be handled appropriately in the winery. Too many wines from Ningxia are harvested when they are not phenologically ripe so it is impossible to find the true terroir in the wine. Once this problem is overcome, you will see wines that show the real personality of Ningxia.

What was your favorite Ningxia food to eat with your wines?

There are far too many! The lamb dishes were delicious, but now that I am back in Australia, I really miss the fried green beans and pork, which is seasoned with peppercorns and other spices.

What would be your advice to a foreign winemaker who is going to work in Ningxia?

Leave you preconceptions at the airport. Spend time reading about China’s long history, understanding the people and the region’s many dishes. Take a Chinese language course to help understand the basics, and try to practice, even if the waiter laughs at your attempts to order noodles. And visit the Xia imperial tombs and the remnants of the Great Wall that exist in Ningxia.

Carter chills out at Helan Mountain.