Meet the challenge winemakers: Carl van der Merwe from Demorgenzon Estate

“My ultimate philosophy is to intervene as little as possible and allow the inherent quality of the origin to be expressed whilst always being aware of global quality levels and styles and what wines I will be competing against in various price levels,” states Carl van der Merwe, when asked about his approach to making wine.

Van der Merwe has a decade of wine-making experience in Stellenbosch, South Africa, first at Quoin Rock Estate and now at Demorgenzon Estate, where he is also general manager, which means involvement in budgets, product design, marketing, and vineyard management, among other areas.

With a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural, Oenology and Business Management from University of Stellenbosch in hand, van der Merwe had stints at Winecorp and international harvest experience at Chateau Pichon Longueville and Chateau Chasse Spleen in Bordeaux and at Bookwalter Winery in Washington State. He has toured wine regions that range from Rust in Austria to the Loire Valley in France to Ribera del Duero in Spain to British Columbia and Ontario in Canada.

When asked what grape he would work with, if he could only pick one, van der Merwe said that he adores Pinot Noir and Riesling but he would choose Cabernet Sauvignon.

“Across a selection of different countries, Cabernet Sauvignon is capable of producing wines of great depth and complexity with a freshness and ability to mature,” he says. “I love the structure of Cabernet and am fascinated by its reaction to soil moisture levels and the resultant structure in the wine.”

Meet the Challenge Winemakers: Penny Jones from Petaluma

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When asked about her proudest wine achievements, Penny Jones, senior winemaker at Petaluma Winery in the Adelaide Hills region of Australia, cites “largely unseen changes to the Chardonnay production process.”

These changes, she explains, reduced the handling of the fruit and juice and, in turn, raised the quality and longevity of the final product. Given this answer, it is not surprising she cites “fastidious attention to detail” as part of her philosophy of making wine.

Jones has been at Petaluma since 2004 and works with South Australian grapes from that region as well as from the Clare Valley and Coonawarra. The varieties included Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurztaminer, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. She handles daily wine-making duties and is also involved in marketing, hosting overseas guests, dealing with trade customers and managing budgets.

“The Ningxia Wine Challenge offers a tremendous opportunity to put my current skills to the test in an unfamiliar landscape, whilst meeting with nine other winemakers from around the globe, each with their own wine-making philosophies, no doubt vastly different from my own,” she stated, when applying for the contest. “The opportunity to learn new techniques and philosophies from this vast knowledge base, and deal with unfamiliar varieties, is incredibly exciting.”

And she brings some China experience.

“I traveled alone to Beijing, China via train from Hanoi, Vietnam in 2010, and spent three glorious weeks visiting friends in Beijing,” she states. “I love exploring international cultures — with a heavy focus on the food — and am fascinated by the ancient history of China and the more recent developments in wine production there.”

Jones holds a Bachelor of Agricultural Science in Oenology from University of Adelaide, where she won several academic awards, including the Leo Buring Gold Medal Prize for most distinguished student in oenology.

Ningxia Wine Challenge: The Expert Panel Selects Ten Candidates

By Jim Boyce (Originally published on August 2, 2012)

(Note: One of the ten finalists withdraw shortly after this list was announced and the info below is the most up to date.)

The Ningxia Wine Challenge will fund ten winemakers to visit the Ningxia region, join harvest and make one red wine and one white wine this fall. As noted a few weeks ago:

The Ningxia Wine Challenge is an opportunity for people who seek an adventure, enjoy cultural exchange and are interested in learning about and making wine in one of the most promising wine regions, Ningxia, in one of the most promising wine countries, China.

The participants will meet local winemakers and share ideas, meet their fellow visiting winemakers, and try wines from the region. They will no doubt also attract media attention, attend dinners with officials and winery managers, and have a chance to explore the cultural, historical and culinary offerings of Ningxia.

More than 50 winemakers of 15 nationalities have applied since the project was launched on July 13. On Sunday, we sent all complete applications — 46 in total — to a panel of five experts from five nations. The panelists were asked to consider two key factors.

One was qualifications, as the candidates will likely face some wine-making challenges in Ningxia. These qualifications include adaptability, as there are also likely to be language and cultural challenges.

The other was diversity, as one goal of the project is to increase links between Ningxia and the wine world. Thus, the ten candidates would ideally hail from a variety of backgrounds.

The judges were then asked to make two lists. The first list was of their ten candidates for the Ningxia Wine Challenge. I asked them to pick applicants of at least six nationalities. The other list was of five alternate candidates, of any nationality.

The judges sent their lists to professor Ma Huiqin of China Agricultural University and Jim Boyce of Grape Wall, who met today to tabulate results. They then met Cao Kailong, director of Ningxia’s Bureau of Grape and Floriculture Industry, to present those results.

The competition was tight given that 26 of the 46 applicants were listed by at least two judges. To determine the candidates, any applicant included on a “ten candidates” list by three or more judges was automatically entered into the Ningxia Wine Challenge. The remaining spots were filled with applicants included on a “ten candidates” or an “alternates” list by three or more judges. In other words, every final candidate was listed by a majority of the judges.

Here are the ten finalists, in alphabetical order, with country of nationality in brackets:

BENOIT BEIGNER
(France)

Currently creating his own vineyard at Chateau Pecany, Beigner has paired wine education with stints at some of France’s top wineries.

JESSE COOPER
(Canada)

Head consultant at Flying Broker, Cooper has also been involved with wineries in British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia in Canada.

JOSE HERNANDEZ GONZALEZ
(Spain)

Currently at Tinlins Winery in McLaren Vale, Australia. Gonzalez has had stops in France, the United States, South Africa and Spain.

PENNY JONES
(Australia)

Senior winemaker at Petaluma Winery, Adelaide Hills, Australia. Jones has also done a vintage in Oregon.

MANUEL ALEXANDER KOWALEWSKI
(Germany)

Besides working at a research center for viticulture and enology, Kowalewski has been involved in wine projects in Cape Verde, Portugal, Italy and Germany.

PATRICIA MIRANDA
(Chile, New Zealand)

Currently at Yealands Estate, Marlborough, New Zealand. Miranda is former winemaker at Isabel Estates and has done work in Austria, Germany, France, the United States, Australia and Chile.

ELENI PAPADAKIS
(United States)

Winemaker at Domaine Serene Winery in Oregon. Papadakis has worked at Bargetto Winery, Clos LaChance and Bonny Doon in California, and joined harvests in France, Chile and Germany.

DAVID TYNEY
(Australia)

Senior winemaker and manager at Marlborough Vintners in New Zealand, Tyney has worked at Giesen Wine Estate as well as at Constellation in California and Yalumba in Australia.

CARL VAN DER MERWE
(South Africa)

GM and winemaker at DeMorgenzon Estate, Stellenbosch, South Africa. Van der Merwe previously worked at Quoin Rock Estate in Stellenbosch and in Washington State and Bordeaux.

BRIAN WILSON
(Australia)

Head of Wine Solutions Consultancy, Wilson has spent the past 15 years working with wineries in places such as Bulgaria, France and China, and has a background as a winemaker at a handful of operations in Australia and the United States.

The organizers of Ningxia Wine Challenge thank the panel — Mihalis Boutaris, Lilian Carter, Li Demei, Liz Thach and Mireia Torres — for taking the time to go through nearly 50 applications and make some tough decisions.

Ningxia Wine Challenge Panel: Mihalis Boutaris, Lilian Carter, Li Demei, Liz Thach & Mireia Torres

A lot of factors to consider.

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By Jim Boyce (Originally published on July 27)

After the deadline for entering the Ningxia Wine Challenge — at 5 PM on July 27 — all of CVs and forms will be sent to a panel of wine experts who hail from five nations and have a link to China. The panelists will pick their top 15 candidates and those lists — and group email discussions where necessary — will determine which ten winemakers join the Ningxia Wine Challenge.

Panelists will send their rankings to Ma Huiqin of China Agricultural University and Jim Boyce of Grape Wall in order for double verification of the results. Director Cao Kailong of the Bureau of Grape and Floriculture Industries will have final approval of the candidate list.

The panel members, in alphabetical order….

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Mihalis Boutaris of Greece

Fifth-generation winemaker Boutaris graduated from University of California at Davis with a Master of Science in Horticulture (viticulture and enology). He has made wine in Chile and France, at his family’s Kir-Yianni Estates in Greece, and in China, his most recent project a new estate near the Maiji Mountain in Gansu Province.

Lilian Carter of Australia

Most recently a winemaker with Oakridge Wines in the Yarra Valley, Carter has worked at Domaine Chandon, also in Yarra, and Orlando Wines in the Barossa Valley. In China, she was winemaker and winery manager from August 2008 to December 2009 for Pernod Ricard at the Helan Mountain operation, a joint project in Ningxia.

Li Demei of China

Wine lecturer, writer and consultant Li Demei is known for his work at winery Helan Qing Xue in Ningxia and Sino-French Demonstration Vineyard in Hebei. Li trained as an oenologist at ENITA de Bordeaux, interned at Chateau Palmer and teaches at Beijing Agricultural University. He recently published this book that looks at wine from a Chinese perspective.

Elizabeth Thach of United States

Thach is a professor at Sonoma State University, where she teaches about management and the wine business. She has written several wine books, consults to multiple wineries and became a Master of Wine in 2011. In China, she will present a paper in Yinchuan, Ningxia, in September and visited Beijing in 2007 and Xinjiang in 2009 — read her blog posts about the latter region here.

Mireia Torres of Spain

A member of Spain’s Torres wine family, she is general manager of Jean Leon and Torres Priorat, and previously was technical director of wineries in Vilafranca del Penedès, Rioja, Ribera and Priorat. Torres studied viticulture and oenolgy at École Nationale Supérieure Agronomique de Montpellier. In China, she participated in a joint project with Grace Vineyard in Shanxi to produce a muscat called Symphony.

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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

Make wine in China? Ningxia Wine Challenge to fund 10 foreign winemakers

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Originally published on July 13, 2012

By Jim Boyce

The government of Ningxia will invite 10 foreign winemakers to visit this fall and each make a red wine and a white wine, with the best ones eligible for prizes that total rmb200,000 – about USD30,000 or EUR25,000.

Called the Ningxia Wine Challenge, the project was initiated by Cao Kailong, who is director of the region’s Bureau of Grape and Floriculture Industry and active in other initiatives to develop links to the wider wine world, including Ningxia joining the International Organisation of Vine and Wine earlier this year as an observer.

Ningxia, officially known as the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, is in northwestern China. It includes the area east of the Helan Mountains, home to dozens of wineries that are increasingly attracting the attention of wine critics and performing well in competitions. Cao says the goals of the Ningxia Wine Challenge include increasing the region’s global profile and bringing its winemakers together with their foreign counterparts to exchange ideas and practices.

Some details about the Ningxia Wine Challenge:

  • Ten foreign wine makers will travel to Ningxia on August 31 to attend the festival and participate in the grape harvest. The wine makers will each hand-select grapes from the same vineyard. They then will each produce one red wine and one white wine at the same facility. The grape varieties to be used will be revealed after the wine makers arrive in Ningxia. (Note: Expected white grape harvest to start ~September 10 and red grape harvest from September 20 to early October .)
  • The organizers will cover the cost of transportation and accommodation for each wine maker’s initial trip to Ningxia and for up to three return visits. When not in Ningxia, the wine makers may contact assistants there to help with monitoring and other tasks involving the wines.
  • A panel of judges from overseas and China will judge the white wines in September 2013 and the red wines in September 2014. The prize for the top wine in each category will be rmb50,000. The prizes for second place and third place will be rmb30,000 and rmb10,000 respectively. Two “honorable mentions” in each category will receive rmb5,000.
  • The deadline for applications is July 27 at 5 PM in the location of the applicant. A panel of five judges from five countries will decide on the ten wine makers who will participate and announce their results by August 1.

For more information, email info (at) ningxiawinechallenge.com.