Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Napa Valley dreams brew in Jade Valley

There’s much to cheer about in China’s Shaanxi, which dreams of becoming the Napa Valley of the East, while prospects have dimmed for Japan’s TV makers. China Correspondent Grace Ng checks out the wine industry in Shaanxi and Japan Correspondent Kwan Weng Kin reports on Japan’s ailing TV industry.

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Guanyu 道 said...

Napa Valley dreams brew in Jade Valley

There’s much to cheer about in China’s Shaanxi, which dreams of becoming the Napa Valley of the East, while prospects have dimmed for Japan’s TV makers. China Correspondent Grace Ng checks out the wine industry in Shaanxi and Japan Correspondent Kwan Weng Kin reports on Japan’s ailing TV industry.

05 November 2011

The rich yellow soil of the north-western Chinese province of Shaanxi is famous for its unearthed mysteries, from terracotta warriors to Han dynasty chariots.

But few would imagine it could also be hiding the secret to a wine tourism paradise - China’s very own version of California’s Napa Valley.

In the province’s undulating sun-kissed highlands, which once yielded scented grapes hand-crushed into wine by Tang dynasty emperor Taizong, boutique vineyards are now producing Shaanxi versions of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and other wines.

Boosted by stunning natural scenery, ancient cultural sights and local government support, these small wineries are now hoping they can flourish one day into a vacation spot similar to California’s famous wine country.

Napa Valley is known for its scenic cluster of good vineyards, restaurants and resorts, which attract around five million well-heeled visitors a year.

China’s wine tourism, in contrast, has so far taken the form of vineyards like Chateau Junding in the coastal Shandong province, which has an opulent hotel, golf course and convention centre.

‘The wineries in Shandong look more like a Louis XVI palace or Disneyland,’ said Mr. Jim Boyce, whose blog Grape Wall of China features contributions from sommeliers and wine professionals in China and abroad.

‘Maybe that is what wine tourism is about in China for now: drink expensive wine, dine in private rooms and play golf. But that is not the Napa Valley style.’

But an increasingly affluent China is producing not just more wine drinkers but also more connoisseurs. Mr. Fang Lin, a wine maker at Jade Valley Winery, says: ‘It took decades for Napa Valley to become what it is today. We are just starting out, but the conditions here are right to create something similar.’

Located on the outskirts of Xi’An, where Qin dynasty emperor Shihuang and his terracotta army were buried, Jade Valley and other wineries like Kaiwei hope to tap the annual flow of 48 million tourists.

They also have the local authorities’ support and funding for wine and culinary tourism, which boasts an imperial heritage from the Tang dynasty.

Relics unearthed in the balmy Yao Zhou highlands, where Kaiwei has a vineyard, indicate that Tang emperor Taizong spent summers there feasting and making wine from wild ‘Dragon Eye Grapes’, named for their luscious, round clusters.

Today, Shaanxi’s vineyards are still ranked among the top 10 grape production zones in China.

‘Long hours of sunlight - from 5.30am to 8pm in summer - load the grapes with sugar,’ said Mr. Fang.

Annual rainfall in the Jade Valley, named after Yu Chuan, where the famous Lantian jade is found, is about 830mm - abundant, but not as heavy as Singapore’s 2,340mm, which would drown the vines.

The soil here has been identified by experts as particularly suited for early-ripening varieties like Pinot Noir, which need rockier soil for their roots to grip, as well as a crisp climate.

‘Here, the grapes also have a stronger scent tinged with yang mei (red bayberry),’ said Mr. Fang.

And Ms Jancis Robinson, a Master of Wine and Financial Times wine columnist, noted in her review that Jade Valley’s 2006 vintage was ‘delicate, fruity, perfumed and did actually taste of Pinot Noir - quite a feat for a Pinot Noir grown anywhere, let alone in the wilds of China’.

Over in the Yao Zhou highlands about an hour’s drive from Xi’An, the Yellow River-tinged soil yields plump grapes for red wines like Merlot and Cabernet Gernischt, which Kaiwei founder Li Guangwen has put in his ‘Tang dynasty’ series.

Guanyu 道 said...

‘The soil absorbs rainwater very easily. But it traps nutrients like calcium, magnesium and sulphur, which make the vines stronger and the grape colour brighter,’ said the Shaanxi native.

After amassing a fortune in mining and construction, he experimented in the late 1990s with growing hundreds of French imported seedlings in different parts of China before settling on Yao Zhou.

Now, he is planning a luxury resort complete with helicopter pads, where his mining tycoon buddies can build private vineyards.

‘I have quite a few friends interested. Each will invest just 100 million yuan (S$20 million) each, not much. We’re going to keep it small. Focus on quality, not quantity. Make it a green tourism area,’ he said.

Jade Valley, meanwhile, hopes to be the nucleus of a boutique winery cluster with Chinese characteristics, setting the tone with its architecture.

Founder Ma Qingyun, an architect named by Businessweek as one of the world’s top 27 designers last year, embedded the local flavour and natural rock into Jade Valley’s resort design.

The highlight is the ‘Stone House’, built for Mr. Ma’s late father, a Jade Valley native.

Experts say Shaanxi wines may take years to earn global recognition, but they stand a good chance.

Ningxia-based wine professor Wang Jinceng said: ‘In the meantime, they can focus on marketing themselves as a different wine experience from the mass-production sites with fake castles.’

Mr. Boyce added that what Napa Valley wannabes need - besides an array of top-quality wine and accommodation options all in an accessible place - are the right facilities.

‘Things like well-trained staff who can introduce the wines well and the willingness to offer free samples,’ he said.

Mr. Wang is optimistic.

‘China is changing so fast,’ he said. ‘Three years ago, we would not have imagined Chinese wines could win international awards. Who’s to say that we can’t create an oriental wine paradise in the next few years?’