A touch of glass

Updated: 2011-07-29 11:32

By Mark Graham (China Daily European Weekly)

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On her return to China six years ago, Gao worked at the Shanghai headquarters of Torres, the giant Spanish producer-distributor, to learn the business side of operations, ultimately leaving to concentrate on the process of wine making.

Torres now acts as distributor for the two Silver Heights wines, as it does for Grace Vineyard, another independent winery known for its emphasis on quality, not quantity.

Even senior staff at Torres China, where Gao worked for a time as a training officer, did not realize they had such a talented operator on their books. It was only when Gao hesitantly offered a bottle of Silver Heights for tasting to executives Alberto Fernandez and Damien Shee that her secret was revealed.

"She asked us if we would like to try the wine and when we did it was fantastic," says Shee, the Torres vice-general manager for China. "We realized this was a serious wine maker, which we should encourage. In terms of ranking, I honestly believe that it definitely deserves a spot in the top positions.

"We helped her with the labeling and packaging and distribution. They are wines that are able to be placed on an international platform and compete."

Silver Heights plans to increase production from the current 6,000 bottles a year by acquiring more land for vineyards on the slopes of the 1,200-meter Mount Helan, close to the current operation. Gao and her father, Gao Lin, are personally involved in every step of production, including pruning vines, picking grapes, checking fermentation, bottling wine and even sticking on labels.

Silver Heights makes just two red wines, both a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and cabernet gernischt grapes; the terroir where they are grown leads to different characteristics.

The Summit, which sells for 38 euros a bottle, is made from grapes grown on slate-like stone, which features some clay, while grapes for the Family Reserve, which retails for 28 euros, are sourced from vines close to a river, where the ground is stonier.

Ningxia is hardly renowned for its wine-making prowess - the eastern Shandong peninsula is home to most of the 400 or so major wineries in China - but the immediate region around Silver Heights is blessed with the right conditions, and climate, for making top-notch reds.

"We are surrounded by mountains, which break down the wind and stop the erosion," Gao says. "We also get a regular supply of water for irrigation from the melting snow and 3,200 hours of sunshine a year.

"We have very good grapes here, we don't have any disease and we don't use pesticides, only in special cases, so you can say it is an organic wine, unfiltered. It has a pure aroma.

"At the winery we do everything ourselves. Me and my father look after the wines, my mother is the analyst and my sister is the accountant. We do almost everything by hand bottling and labeling. I am used to the simple life out here on the vineyard. I grew up with no TV and only went out once a week. But I do love to come to Shanghai and Beijing to meet people."

Rural Ningxia is a world away from where the wines are consumed. Among the posh restaurants that stock Silver Heights are those at the Aman resorts in Beijing and Hangzhou, in East China's Zhejiang province where the bottles are listed alongside eye-wateringly expensive fine French vintages.

Gao is also in demand to act as consultant for other wineries, making her visits to the big city rare and much prized. Opportunities to see her French husband Thierry Courtade and six-year-old daughter, also called Emma, are even less frequent. Both live in France, where Courtade is the wine maker at Chateau Calon Segur.

Although she travels twice a year to France, Gao's main base will remain at Silver Heights.

"My ambition is perhaps to buy another vineyard; we are looking for investors but we are not in a hurry," she says. "It has to be investors who love wine. I would like to be a consultant for many wineries in China and help raise the standard of wine here.

"In the past people don't know much about wine. But they increasingly want to know. They know about the French paradox, where drinking wine has found to be good for health. The government is encouraging wine making and using it more and more at official functions.

"There is more investment in wine making and more interest in Western culture and lifestyle."

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