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China's Grace Vineyard

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By Zoltan Szabo

Yiyuan means "garden of grace" in Mandarin.

Since moving to China to pour at Osteria, I had an unbelievable, eye-opening visit at Grace Vineyard up in the small little village of Dongjia, near by the City of Tai Yuan in the Province of Shanxi (NE from Shanghai, 2 hrs. flight-away) the other day. The geographical positioning of the vineyard is along the 37 degree northerly latitude, and it's really cold up there in the winter! I saw vines buried with top-soil, so they are protected from winter "kill". Summers are hot and wet! Its a fungus paradise....think of rot galore! Also, I learned that the area is considered the 10th most polluted place on the planet due to the extensive coal mining.

However, despite all these harsh conditions, grapes are grown in a deep, rich and fairly well drained sandy gravel and clay soils. The wine that's made there... they are not bad! Actually, some are good to very good! Stay tuned, more to come soon.

I've listed Grace Vineyard's Chairman's Reserve 2006 Estate Grown Cab. Sauv.-based Bordeaux blend on Osteria's wine list, and already I've sold a couple of bottles of it to clients who usually drink Bordeaux, Napa Cabs, or Meritage and so on and so far the comments were very favourable. Although the "Chairman's Reserve" does not compare to any other reds I've tasted before, stylistically nor aromatically and flavour-wise, it does have an original flair to it showcasing certain aspects of the terroir where it is from. However, for a fraction of a second when first smelling and tasting it I thought of similarities with a Niagara Peninsula Bordeaux blend coming from a vintage with below average temperatures: meaning a cold vintage! There were some underlying green, vegetal aroma and flavour nuances masked by polished French oak "treat", with the mid-palate being sweet fruit-packed (chaptalization?!) and the finish displaying interesting gamey, herbaceous and spicy accents. With its medium plus weight and enough acids combined with gritty tannins it can age for a short term for sure...and I'd love to re-taste it 5 to 8 years from now! It does, indeed, have appeal and a little Chinese grace to it! So, the Zman (and that's yours truly) scores it 89/90 out of 100. More to come.

I will also list Grace's 2007 Premium Chenin Blanc and will pour by-the-glass at Osteria starting next month. That's what I was served upon arrival at Grave and also with our lunch and I liked it very much! The 2007 vintage was one very "wet", so many of the "premium" wines were not even made, this Chenin is an exception. There's a bouquet of apples and apple blossoms, fresh-made honey; light and fresh with tart apple flavours and good length; its a tasty little wine with med-strength acidity making it food-friendly as well; very pleasant! Drink now for maximum enjoyment!

Some more notes from the tasting:

2005 Chardonnay Reserve, "Tasya".
Tasya is the name of Judy's daughter; Judy runs Grace Vineyard and is the daughter of the principle, a Hong Kong-based Chinese-Indonesian businessman. Its tropical tasting, with floral, creamy oak, and vanilla notes.  Medium bodied and juicy with citrus fruit on the mid-palate giving it a refreshing vibe and ripe summer fruit finish.

2006 Chardonnay Reserve, "Tasya".
Nose of quince, cedar, honeysuckle, camomile flower. Medium bodied with apples, yellow plum and gentle oak flavours can be found here. Spicy, orange toffee, green mango finish.  30% malo, whole cluster pressed, made by the new Aussie winemaker, Ken Murchison from the Macedon Ranges in Victoria. Ken has his own small winery there called Portree.

2006 Deep Blue
A Merlot-based Bordeaux blend. I understood that Deep Blue is the title of a book about business strategy or something along those lines regarding marketing and such. Upon first reading Judy was inspired by it and set about developing the business side of the winery; no price "war" or distribution of Grace wines via wholesale channels. Instead she chose to focus on quality wine production with the desire of selling to whomever will buy these wines from the restaurant sector. Also, she targeted collectors and the novice wine buffs to promote her wines and, of course, personal consumption of the wines.  There are many spring and summer BBQ affairs organized at Grace for friends and family. Wow! I like her philosophy! I bet that we would get along just famously! (Grace Vineyard's wines are distributed by Torres China, one of the land's finest wine purveyor). Rich aromatics of black and blue fruit, deep spice, herbal and floral, with intriguing accents of plums, oak tar and fertile, fresh-turned earth. Medium bodied with sweet, dried berry fruit flavours, integrated, soft tannins and caramel, orange marmalade finish.

2005 Premium Muscat
Red in colour, and only God knows what clone of Muscat it is made from!?! Locals use it as table grapes. Strawberry preserve, dried flower petals; Not too sweet and the finish is certainly dry. Very interesting. 30% of the juice was fermented on the skin and the rest pressed right-away, then blended together. Sugars were adjusted after alcoholic fermentation to about 30 grams per litre, and the wine was sterilized (to prevent risky secondary fermentation) and bottled at that early stage. It comes in 500 ml bottle.

2004 Merlot Reserve
Estate Grown.  The 2004 was considered a good vintage. Opaque with brick orange edge in colour. Sweet nose of raspberry, currants, fermented tobacco. Medium bodied with sweet fruit aspect, light tannins and a dry, dehydrated cranberry-tainted finish. Its a good one! Who cares about reverse osmosis, chaptalization, concentrating the juice and such. You go and try making wine in those conditions! I heard that the principal of Grace Vineyards even entertained the idea of building a massive hot house covering prime parts of the estate vineyard! What woudn't we do for the sake of making wine!

These folks at Grace got what it takes. And I am not even referring to money, rather burning passion and spirit. I understand that the owner of the vineyard made a lot of dough in exporting coal, so wanted to create something "green", just to give back to the community. Asides, think of what it takes, how much effort is involved when it comes to convincing the farmers who for generations grew orchards, soy bean and corn, to rip off those fruit trees and replant the land with grapes. Remember, we are in a country where the land is owned by the government and the farmer is free to use it under contracts as long as 30 and 40 years or longer.

Grace gets grapes off 200 hectares of land and produces a mere of 1,000.000 bottles of wine per year...And at that volume of production, and under Chinese terms, it is considered a "boutique" winery. I wonder if the LCBO will consider importing Grace Vineyard wines into Ontario, considering the size of the Chinese community across the province, and also the curiosity of wine drinkers in general. Who could resist trying a premium Chinese wine? I've tasted tank and barrel samples of the glorious 2008 vintage. It's the best year so far in the short 10 year history of the vineyard, producing the ripest and cleanest fruit. It is hard for me to judge wines so early on, but some of the reds were showing just great, especially the Cabernet Franc and Merlot, to be yet blended! So, watch out and be ready to grab some of these wines as soon as they will be released!

As I was standing in front of the main, somewhat European-in-design building of Grace Vineyard, atop of the Yellow Plateau, taking a final peak at the area on a grey and cold early December afternoon, just before heading back to the airport, I was thinking of destiny, and about my life. In this sentimental moment I understood how lucky I am. There I was in middle of nowhere in The People's Republic of China, a Transylvanian-born wine steward, based in Toronto, Canada, not speaking a word of the native language and communicating by body language and gestures only, drinking wines made in conditions that seem more of an endurance sport than anything else. An exuberantly happy feeling took me over and I was so thankful, and for a moment truly religious, for being able to celebrate life itself! So, I murmured a quiet grace, had another sip of wine and got into the car to catch my flight.

Oh my God, I love my job! A big thank you to Bruno at Torres China. And Love & Happy New Year to All!

Other interesting facts about Grace Vineyard and the wine industry in China

- Grace Vineyard will be opening a second winery, Terracotta Winery, to be completed in the next two years, in another province, just next to Shanxi.
It'll be a "show" winery with grapes coming from elsewhere and perhaps fermenting only taking place on its premises.

- There are HUGE wineries in China! For example, Sun Time produces table wine made from grapes coming off 5,000 (!) hectares...!

- Other very large size wineries are Great Wall, Dynasty, Chang Yu and Dragon Seal.

- The Shandong Peninsula boasts a few wineries in a semi-desert area by the sea.

- Orlando Winery bought a place in the very dry Ning Xiu province where they re-cultivate and plant grapes in sandy soils.

- Bo Long Bao Winery by Beijing practices organic (!) viticulture on about 70 hectares of land. But, there's 500-600 ml of rain coming down in that area.

More new wine notes here at Zoltan's Gremolata Blog.


Great article! I am presently considering filming about in China and that is just the information I need!
Post Reply By Charles in WHITBY on 1/13/2009 10:39:46 AM

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