Exclusive: 2016 Chinese wine region harvest report (Part I)

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Read the exclusive harvest report from Professor Li Demei on the 2016 vintage of Chinese wines. The first part of the report features regions including Ningxia, Xinjiang, Hebei and Shandong.

The Chinese wine industry saw several major events in the year 2016. To name a few:

There were heated debates over several trademark disputes, and the Chinese customs have applied stricter controls over wine imports through online shops; Bordeaux, after Champagne, gained the legal status of protected geographic indication (GI) and a collective trademark. Bordeaux continues to lead the imported wine market in China. Last but not least, China has become the main export market for Australian wines.

Imported wines have gained more exposure in China than ever, while the Chinese domestic wine industry is marching into a new era. Although in general the Chinese wine trade is still in a period of adjustment, we are starting to see many trending new brands.

Now let’s take a look back at the 2016 vintage in China.

Ningxia

Helan Mountain East region of Ningxia has been a highly active region in the previous years, and have created quite a few well-known domestic brands.

Image: Ningxia farmers sorting grapes. Credit: Li Demei
Image: Ningxia farmers sorting grapes. Credit: Li Demei

Region: Yinchuan

The majority of vineyards in Yinchuan are situated in the Yongning county in the south and the Xixia area in the west.

There are also plantings in the Helan county of the northeast. However, most of these are newly planted vineyards and therefore are not yet fully productive.

1. Xixia area

Farmers in the Xixia area dug out their buried vines at the end of April, later than an average year. This is due to fluctuating temperatures in spring; in order to avoid sudden drop of temperature, many vineyards decided to delay unearthing their vines.

Even so, when bud break started at the beginning of May, the temperature dropped sharply. Young buds in several vineyards were damaged, which later led to a reduced crop.

From mid-May until mid-July, the local weather was fairly stable. Increased rainfall from mid-July, however, brought uncertainties to the fruit.

The Xixia area started its Merlot harvest on 26th September and Cabernet Sauvignon on 1st October, both three to four days earlier than usual. Rainfall during the harvest period brought about some obstacles to picking.

In general, the 2016 vintage has been a small crop for the Xixia area due to the sudden drop of temperature in late spring. Despite increased rainfall during the latter half of the year, the quality of the fruit is at the top end of average.

At the beginning of November, local growers started to prune their vines and bury them, to prepare for the region’s severer winter. The process was finished by mid-November.

2. Yongning county

Similar to the previous years, vines in Yongning were mostly dug out at the end of April, with Domaine Chandon being an exception; the LVMH-owned estate dug out its vines on as early as 28th March, same as an average year for the producer.

The late spring frost in May had less impact to the Yongning county compared to Xixia, leading to a regular growing season.

The temperature rose sharply from 25th June. At the end of July, the continuous hot weather sped up the accumulation of sugar and reduction of acidity in berries.

Domaine Chandon started to pick its Chardonnay on 8th August, and patches of Pinot Noir four days later. The producer received good quality fruit for their sparkling wines.

The Yongning county saw more rainfall than previous years when white varieties reached full ripeness; this has led to some decline in white grape quality. Red grapes, however, matured late enough to avoid the rain. Most wineries in Yongning started picking Chardonnay on 22nd September, Merlot on 27th September and Cabernet Sauvignon on 1st October. Winter pruning and vine burying were completed at the end of November.

It is worth noting that for its sparkling wine production, Chandon sprayed and foliar-fed fertilisers to its vines in early September, when the weather was mild with little rain. This process has helped vines to replenish nutrition after harvest, and has sped up the maturation (ignification) of shoots, therefore improving the resilience of the vines.

Region: Qingtongxia county

Wine growers in Ganchengzi area of the Qingtongxia region dug out their vines on around 4th April, same as an average year. Due to the flatness of the Ganchengzi area, strong wind helped to reduce the risk of late spring frost, which hit other parts of Ningxia.

The local weather was comparatively dry during May to July, but saw increased rainfall in August. The cool weather brought by rain to some extend influenced the maturation of the grapes, and delayed the harvest by three to four days. Growers picked Merlot on 25th September and Cabernet Sauvignon on 6th October. From 28th October, growers started their regular winter pruning, after which they buried their vines to endure the fierce winter.

Xinjiang

Xinjiang is another highly active wine region in China besides Ningxia.

Image: Vineyards in Xinjiang. Credit: Li Demei
Image: Vineyards in Xinjiang. Credit: Li Demei

With its massive landscape and scattered wine planting areas, Xinjiang wine regions have very diverse terroirs.

In early summer of 2016, a report called Exploring and stabilising the stylistic characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Manas County of North Tianshan Mountain, Xinjiang was published. The research on the local terroir is expected to have significant impact on the development of Xinjiang wine industry.

In 2016, Xinjiang also hosted its first wine festival on 20th August; it then launched its first promotional campaign during ProWine, Shanghai. The move marked the local government’s first attempt to push local wines outside the autonomous region.

Region: Yanqi Basin

Growers in the Yanqi Basin area started digging out their vines in late March, same as the previous years.

During the first half of 2016, the Yanqi region saw scarce rainfall and sufficient sunlight. However, frequent rain in July, though in small quantity, had some negative impact on early ripening varieties.

Similar to previous years, local growers started picking Chardonnay on 21st August, Merlot at the beginning of September and Cabernet Sauvignon in mid-September.

Due to the rain in summer the quality of white grapes was average, if not lower than an average year. Red varieties were generally of good quality.

Growers gradually started winter pruning on 21st October; compared to 2015, they delayed burying their vines by around four days.

Region: Tianshan Mountain North Region (North of Xinjiang)

Manasi County

The local growers dug out their vines from the end of March, similar to the previous years.

In general the region saw more rainfall in 2016 compared to an average year, especially during May and July.

Local growers started picking Chardonnay in mid-September, Merlot in late-September and Cabernet Sauvignon at the beginning of October. The timing of harvest was around seven days earlier than usual.

Influenced by the rainfalls in summer, the quality of red grapes was less than an average year, with lower colour intensity and sugar level.

Winter pruning and vine burying started at early October, which was earlier than usual due to the quick drop of temperature in autumn.

Fukang

Grape vines in the region Fukang were dug out on 20th April, four to five days earlier than usual. The cold start of the 2016 growing season delayed flowering by around seven days.

The region saw sufficient sunshine and little rain before véraison, which speeded up the maturation process of the grapes. After véraison, however, increased rainfall triggered diseases in several parts of the region, causing a drop in fruit quality.

The picking started around a week earlier than usual: Local growers started harvesting Chardonnay on 13th September, and on 18th September they started to pick both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

In general, 2016 was an average, if not below-average year for Fukang region. The region started winter pruning and vine burying on 15th October.

Shihezi

Growers at Shihezi started digging out their vines on 15th April, a similar date to previous years. However, unstable weather and sudden drops in temperature afterwards led to delayed flowering. Increased rainfall in June and July further slowed down the metabolism of the vines.

In order to experiment making lower-alcohol wines, some local winemakers decided to pick their 2016 vintage early. Chardonnay was picked on 4th September; Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were picked on 8th September; both dates were roughly seven days earlier than usual.

Winter pruning and vine burying started at the beginning of October, also earlier than usual.

Region: Ily Valley

Growers in Ily Valley started to dig out their vines on 25th March, same as previous years. The region saw more rainfall than usual in mid-June to mid-July. Though less rain came after August, in general it has been a slightly wetter year than usual; as a result, some vineyards in the region suffered from serious vineyard diseases.

Seven days ahead of an average year, growers started picking Chardonnay on 23rd September, Merlot on 25th September, and Cabernet Sauvignon on 30th September.

Due to the rain during the maturation season, the quality of the fruits from this region didn’t reach its average.

Local growers started pruning and burying vines from 10th October, which was seven days earlier compared to previous years. Icewine harvest started at the end of November.

Region: Turban Basin Region

Turban

Growers in Turban started to dig out their vines from 25th March.

Increased rainfall during July and August made very little difference to white varieties, but caused serious diseases among red varieties.

White varieties including Welschriesling were picked from 25th August; Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were picked from 10th September and 20th September respectively, same as the previous years. Hit by vineyard diseases, the quality of red varieties was not as good as usual.

Similar to an average year, growers started to prune and bury their vines from 20th October.

Hami (Kumul) area

The Hami area started digging out their vines on 12th April, which was later than usual. Similar to the previous years, this area enjoyed a dry growing season and sufficient sunshine.

Growers started to pick their Chardonnay and Riesling on 5th September; they picked Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon on 16th September. It has been an average year in terms of quality of fruit and yield.

Pruning and vine burying started at the end of October.

Hebei

Image: A farmer delivers wine grapes in in Shacheng, Hebei. Credit: Li Demei
Image: A farmer delivers wine grapes in in Shacheng, Hebei. Credit: Li Demei

Region: Huailai

Wine growers started to unearth their vines from the beginning of April 2016, which was comparatively early. The early start was partially due to a shortage of local workforce.

The region saw more rain in 2016, especially in July to August, compared to an average year. Wet weather led to widely-spread downy mildew, grey rot, even sour rot in some vineyards.

The accumulation of colour and sugar in fruits was slow during the maturation season, which led to a generally less ripe year.

Local growers started harvesting their Chardonnay on 17th September—seven days later than usual; Merlot was picked starting from the beginning of October, same as previous years; the harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon started on 13th October, five days later than last year.

To sum up, due to increased rainfall, the fruit quality of the Huailai 2016 vintage was not as good as usual, and the yield was comparatively low.

Winter pruning and vine burying started at the end of October.

Region: Qinhuangdao

Wine grapes are mainly planted in Changli County and Lulong County of the Qinhuangdao region.

Changli

Similar to previous years, growers in the Changli County dug out their vines at the beginning of April.

Before véraison, Changli had little rain and sufficient sunshine. Vines experienced a healthy bud break and flowering season. When heading to summer, however, the region saw a huge amount of rainfall and even hail in some vineyards. September also saw more rain than an average year.

Most local wineries started picking Chardonnay at the end of September, with some not picking until the beginning of October. Merlot picking started from 5th October and Cabernet Sauvignon picking on 15th October, both around 15 days later than usual.

Due to increased rainfall during maturation, the 2016 vintage yielded grapes of below-average quality.

The region started winter pruning and vine burying at the beginning of November, which was similar to an average year.

Shandong

Image: Vineyards in Shandong. Credit: Li Demei
Image: Vineyards in Shandong. Credit: Li Demei

Region: Penglai

The bud break of vines in Penglai region started on 8th April, which was slightly earlier than usual. Similar to previous years, flowering season came during the latter half of May.

Vines in the Penglai region had more rainfall during the first half of the 2016 growing season than an average year, which contributed to fast-growing shoots.

Hail hit the seaside area of the region in the end of June, bringing white rot and grey rot to affected vineyards.

Véraison lasted for an exceptionally long period this year, followed by a sluggish maturation process.

Local growers didn’t start picking their Welschriesling until 15th September and Cabernet on 1st October; both dates were two to three days later than 2015.

Similarly to 2015, the region had less sunshine in 2016 than a usual year. Though the region had more rainfall during August and September, it also experienced hot weather during these two months. As a result, the fruit quality maintained more or less the same as 2015.

Region: Yantai economic and Technological Development Zone

Round-up

3000 mu (200 hectares) of newly planted vitis vinifera has started to yield fruit in the Yantai economic and Technological Development Zone, with the key varieties being Cabernet Gernischt. In addition, the region also has new plantings of Syrah and grapes for making distilled spirits.

The overall temperature of 2016 was higher than the previous years; however, fluctuating rainfall throughout the year brought about some risks.

After the dry weather in January to April, increased the region started to see increased rainfall at the beginning of May. Severe hail struck the region on 30th June.

In July and August, the region experienced higher temperature than 2015; rainfall level was regular, at 279mm. The region was frost-free for 224 days in 2016.

Key variety

Cabernet Gernischt is the key grape variety in the Yantai region. Bud break came on 7th April. The vines entered flowering season on 21st May.

Though the region saw some rain at the beginning of May, and the latter half of May was dry with an average temperature at 21︒C—which were favourable conditions for fruit set.

On 30th June, however, hail hit the region and consequentially caused white rot in some vineyards.

The vines entered véraison on 19th July. Harvest began in mid-October.

The 2016 vintage had a bigger yield than an average year, thanks to bigger and heavier fruit bunches.

Longkou and Laizhou

Longkou and Laizhou are both key wine planting areas in Yantai.

Bud break came at the beginning of April this year in these two areas, which was 10 years earlier than usual. Flowering season came in the latter half of May. The first half of the growing season was dry, though some vineyards were hit by slight hail in summer. Véraison came earlier than usual, though harvest started five days later than usual.

The fruit quality of the 2016 vintage in Longkou and Laizhou was average, if not above-average.

Laixi

Laixi attracted a lot of attention from the trade in recent years, though it only has a small patch of wine grape plantings located in Shankou Village in its mid-west.

The bud break of Chardonnay in Laixi came on 5th April; for Cabernet Sauvignon, it came on 12th April; both dates were around a week earlier than usual.

Three to five days ahead of previous years, the full bloom of Chardonnay vines came on 23rd May and 30th May for Cabernet Sauvignon.

The growing season of 2016 started dry with an average temperature 1︒C higher than usual. Without freeze, frost and hail, vines in Laixi were clean from diseases during this period.

However, the continuous rain and hot and humid weather in mid-and-late August made it difficult to prevent red varieties from vineyard diseases, including anthracnose.

Véraison started at the same time as an average year, though it lasted longer than usual for almost a month. Some varieties, in particular Cabernet Franc, suffered from uneven berry sizes.

The harvest of Chardonnay started on 25th August and Cabernet Sauvignon on 13th October; the picking process lasted for 15 days.

The local weather was dry, with sufficient sunshine throughout harvest. However, due to the arid weather during the latter half of growing season, the berry sizes were significantly smaller than an average year.

In general, the quality of dry red and dry white wines was significantly higher than an average year, with Chardonnays being exceptional.

Stay tuned for the second part of the China harvest report, featuring regions including Yunnan, Sichuan, Shanxi, Beijing and Inner Mongolia.

Translated by Sylvia Wu / 吴嘉溦

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