SHEN Yang, estate director of the Domaine Chandon China winery in the northwestern Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, pops the cork from a bottle and pours a flute of China’s first sparkling wine made in the finest tradition of the Champagne region of France.
Sparkling wines made outside the Champagne region are prohibited from being called “champagne,” but many premium sparkling wines made across the world are as highly rated as their French cousins.
The 66-hectare Domaine Chandon vineyard in Ningxia is an investment by LVMH Moet Hennessy, the Paris-based luxury products giant.
“Since the first Chandon winery was established in Argentina in 1959, the brand has been exporting the expertise of Moet Chandon, the world’s largest champagne producer, across the world,” Shen says in an exclusive interview with Shanghai Daily.
Chandon Ningxia was founded in June 2013 to help Moet tap into its second-largest global market.
“Unlike still wine, where excellence is largely due to terroir, sparkling wine owes its style and quality to blending and fermentation, which are core competencies of the leading champagne houses,” says Lu Mengxi, a wine writer in China who has studied viticulture in France.
Terroir is a French word wine connoisseurs use to refer to the soil, climate and weather that give wine from a particular region its distinctive taste.
“I believe that every Chinese student studying wine in France has a dream of one day making a Chinese wine as good as the French,” Shen says. “My dream is coming true.”
Shen, 37, was born in the southwestern province of Sichuan. He graduated from university there with a degree in finance, then decided to follow his passion and moved to France to study winemaking.
The first two wines produced under the Chandon Ningxia label were unveiled last September. One is a brut; the other a rosé.
Shen organized a blind tasting competition last year, stacking up the two wines against other sparkling varieties from Spain, Italy and Australia.
The jury of prestigious judges included Li Demei, a top Chinese viticulturist and agriculture professor at Beijing University of Agriculture; Ma Huiqing, a professor at China Agricultural University; and Zhao Fengyi, a leading wine educator in China.
The two Chandon wines won top marks in different categories.
“The wine was outstanding,” Ma says. “It had balanced body and good drinkability, with a rich fruitiness.”
Zhao calls it a French wine with Chinese characteristics.
“Chandon doesn’t just blindly copy the foreign winery,” she says. “It has its own distinctiveness. I was impressed by its natural freshness and fine bubbles.”
Life in Ningxia
Shen reckons it’s a champagne moment for sparkling wine in China.
“Sparkling wine is expanding but it still lags behind domestically produced reds,” he says. “It now makes up only about 3 percent of the market. Compare that to a mature market, like Europe or the US, where sparkling wines command up to a 10 percent market share.” Chandon Ningxia is targeting middle-class budges with a price tag of 168 yuan (US$26.9) a bottle. Shen says sales haven’t been affected by the Chinese government’s anti-corruption campaign targeting extravagant lifestyles.
Globally, the market share of sparkling wines is expected to rise to about 9 percent by 2018 from 8 percent in 2013, according to the latest report by Vinexpo.
Shen likes to quote a French phrase to explain his life in remote Ningxia: “Pour vivre heureux, vivons caché.” That roughly means “to live happily, live hidden away.””
Well, Ningxia is certainly off the beaten track where China is concerned. And Shen says that’s good because distractions are few and he can get on with his work.
Ningxia, a sparsely populated, somewhat poor autonomous region, sits largely on the arid loess plateau of the Yellow River. It’s a region of the Hui people, a Muslim minority.
Shen was based in Shanghai, working in marketing for Hennessey cognac, when LVMH tapped him to head up the Chandon project four years ago. That meant moving his wife, a winemaking consultant in her own right, and their infant son to a remote area not considered a dream spot to live.
The winery at the start was a barren eastern slope of Helan Mountain, where the altitude is high and the air is dry. It was considered an ideal environment for chardonnay and pinot noir grape varieties used in sparkling wines.
“The area had a big temperature gradient between day and night, which produced grapes with a diverse range of sweetness and acidity, benefiting our blending,” says Shen.
He invited Xia Guangli, who had worked for 20 years at the Huadong Winery in Qingdao, to be his chief winemaker.
“I think she is the most experienced viticulturist in China when it comes to white wines,” Shen says. “And white wine is the most important prerequisite in making sparkling wines.”
Interestingly enough, most of the winemakers in Ningxia are women. Shen says he believes women have very sensitive palates that can result in elegant wines with distinctive finesse.
“Xia is an artistic winemaker,” he says. “I, as the boss, have to make sure we strike the right balance between an ‘artistic’ product and a marketable one. Premium wine, after all, has to be a commercial product.”
Shen says one night in Ningxia stands out in his mind.
“The winery was still unfinished,” he says. “Workers were putting in a final spurt of work to complete it. They were adjusting the lighting. Suddenly, light flooded the vineyard, complemented by the starry sky above. I gazed at that scene with a sense of achievement and awe.”
Shen tells his favorite time of the day is sunset, when the work day is over and he sits with a glass of fine wine in the dining room of the winery. Another productive day well spent.
The winery, designed by an Australian architect, combines post-modern elements with Ningxia characteristics. The green roof is layered with soil and plants, integrating with the backdrop of the surrounding vineyards. The walls are yellow, harking to the winter atmosphere at the vineyard. This is probably the only winery in China with its cellars at ground level.
“The soil on the rooftop shields the building from the harsh winter cold and helps maintain stable temperature and humidity inside,” Shen says. “The design also enables easy access for trucks servicing the winery.”
The French connection
Chandon Ningxia describes itself as “eco-friendly.” It uses natural gas instead of coal gas and is equipped with expensive drip irrigation to save water in one of China’s driest regions. All wastewater is recycled. Organic fertilizers are used to nourish the soil.
The winery so far isn’t open to the general public, but it has attracted public interest. Five doctors from Shanghai recently showed up unannounced on the doorstep for some wine tasting.
“They didn’t have a reservation to visit us,” Shen says. “But I still welcomed them and offered them some wine. They left with cases of wine in their car trunk. We do accept some reservations to visit the winery, and we give visitors a 10 percent discount on case purchases.”
Wine is more than a business, says Shen. It is also a passion. He first became interested in winemaking 20 years ago, influenced by an uncle who lived in France and worked in the wine trade.
“He used to bring French wine and cheeses to China when he visited us,” Shen says. “That was my baptism in winemaking.”
Though he studied finance at university, Shen says he decided to pursue his passion after graduation. He enrolled at the Macon Davaye agricultural school in Burgundy, France. During his stay in France, Shen visited most of the big wine-growing regions and was the first Chinese to obtain a Brevet de Technicien Superieur certificate in winemaking.
“To pass the exam there, I needed to master all the skills necessary in a winery and vineyard, from fixing a tractor and spraying insecticides to handling fermentation and conducting laboratory analysis,” Shen says.
He later attended Montesquieu University in Bordeaux to further hone his skills. There he met other overseas Chinese students interested in viticulture, including Li Demei and Gao Yuan, chief winemaker at Silver Heights, one of China’s most famous wineries.
He toyed with the idea of staying in France after his studies were completed but decided in the end that China needed people with his skills if it were to develop a credible wine industry.
How do those bubbles get there?
Most people have tasted champagne or sparkling wines, but few know the process that puts those titillating bubbles in a bottle. Here’s a quick explanation.
Although eight grape varieties are permitted in the production of French champagne, the most widely used are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. The grapes are harvested by hand and gently pressed.
Then the first fermentation takes place, producing a wine high in acidity. Most of this fermentation takes place in stainless steel.
After that, the blending process begins. Vintners select from multiple vintages in the region to create their signature brands.
Then comes the second fermentation. The wine is bottled, with added sugar and yeast. As the yeast consume the sugar, they produce carbon dioxide – the bubbles in the wine. The second fermentation takes between one and two months.
Following that, the wine begins a period of aging to allow it to interact with the dead yeast, or “lees.” This part of the process, called “autolysis,” greatly influences the flavor and texture of the finished champagne. Aficionados often liken the flavors produced to those of baked bread or roasted nuts. In France, vintage champagnes must age a minimum of three years on the lees.
The last step is called “riddling.” It removes the dead yeast cells and sediment at the bottom of each bottle. That can either be done by hand, by slowly turning the bottle a little bit every day until it is vertically upside down, or it can be done automatically by machine. By hand, the process can take two months; by machine, about one week. Once the wine bottles are upside down, the yeast in the neck is disgorged by submerging the bottleneck in cold brine, thus quickly freezing the dead yeast matter. When the cap is removed, pressure from the dissolved carbon dioxide explodes out the yeast plug.
Before the champagne bottle is corked, a measured amount of aged champagne and cane sugar are added to the wine. This so-called “dosage” determines the final sweetness level and distinctive style of the champagne.
The champagne, now fermented, blended, fermented, aged, riddled, disgorged and dosaged, is ready for final bottling. After a cork is inserted, a protective wire cap is placed over the bottle to help secure the cork and bottle. The wine is then shaken vigorously to help integrate the wine. The finished wine then rests anywhere from several weeks to several months or even longer before it is sent out to wine shops and restaurants.