Terroir and ‘Yin Di Zhi Yi (adjusting measures to local conditions)’

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Demei's View - Wine Communication from a Chinese Winemaker

A group of Bordeaux chateau owners visited the Ningxia wine region of China for the ‘Simply Bordeaux’ event organised by the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB) from 19 to 21 April. During the visit, they tasted local wines and spoke with local winemakers. I was invited to give a speech on the topic of ‘Practice of French wine making technology in China’, as I studied vinification in France and carried on the practice in China.

Image: Summer of the He Lan Qing Xue vineyard

Understanding terroir

I had the honour to take a placement at Chateau Palmer while studying in Bordeaux. After the placement, I was hoping to take a copy of the work records that I have done, such as tracking of grape maturity and detection in the process of fermentation – until then, I had always thought that there was some ‘know-how’ which made Palmer a great name. I was prepared to be refused when I apprehensively made this request. To my surprise, my supervisor Philip Delfaut, the technical director of the time, did not just granted my wish, but also offered me the similar materials from the previous year, because there were significant differences in natural conditions of the two vintages (2001 and 2000), and he believed I could gain more knowledge by comparing and studying the data.

Image: Late autumn at Sino-French Demonstration Vineyrad

The key factor to the style and quality of a wine is terroir, and terroir is not able to be taken or copied. What the Bordelais display in their wines is simply the awareness of their special terroir. From that moment, I had a more thorough understanding of terroir, and have since used it to guide my work.

This was also the case when I was in charge of the technical work at the Sino-French Cooperative Demonstration Vineyard of Vine Growth and Vinification. When French professionals came to the farm and gave field guidance, they often provided some technical plans. Occasionally I would say ‘no’ to the implementation of those plans. Some people asked me in surprise: ‘Are you questioning the French experts? ’ My reply was like this: ‘My French teacher taught me the importance of terroir. I have consistently been practising it in the Chinese vineyards up to this day. I am saying “no” because I would like to introduce the condition of this region more clearly, and to avoid any deviation caused by missing information in the decision-making.’ Even on the topic of how to protect the vines living through the winter, an appropriate technical plan was decided based on the local soil and climate condition after many discussions and debates.

Thinking about it, the phrase ‘Yin Di Zhi Yi’ (literally means adjusting measures to local conditions) in Chinese fully expresses the attitude of the Chinese towards the above issue.

Exploring and understanding the terroir, and developing the viticulture and vinification measures to the local conditions have always been my principle.

China is different from any other wine region in the world, as are the style and characters of Chinese wines. People doubted whether Jia Bei Lan was an authentic Chinese wine when it won the DWWA award. Jeremy Oliver commented on his blog that Jia Bei Lan, among a mass of wines he tasted every year, was different from any of the wines produced in the regions that he was familiar with. It appeared, in this way, that Jia Bei Lan was a milestone on my journey to the right direction of winemaking.

In the past few years, more and more investments have been made in the wine industry. It could be a real challenge to buy a plot in China (oh sorry, you can only rent a plot instead of buying one) to plant vines. In my opinion, the first thing to consider is:

1. To inspect if the place is suitable for vine growing

Most grapes cultivated in China are table grapes. It is more likely to have success in a region with a long history of vine growing with the right grape varieties. Investors do not have to conduct the experiment by themselves before making the decision – not to mention that short-term experiments are not reliable. Meanwhile, it is easier to recruit a workforce with experience in the vineyard in these regions.

Certainly there are many places in China that fulfil this condition. We have over four hundred thousand hectares of vineyards in nearly every province in China. However, southern China is too rainy in the summer, and most of their table grape varieties are the Europe and US hybrids that are relatively resistant to disease; but for the wine grapes, varieties from Europe are normally not applicable, as the key constraint is the wet weather in the harvest season.

Thus, a region with long history of vine growing has to meet the following requirement to becoming a suitable region for wine grape planting:

2. Less rainfall in summer and autumn

Plenty of sunlight and dry air is the ideal climate for the harvest season of wine grape, otherwise there will be lack of flavour in the fruit, or rot problem in the grape bring about by the damp weather. We cannot pray for the sunshine, but we could choose the area that is waterless in summer and autumn. So the problem of high humidity is solved, yet crop cannot grow without water, and excessive drought may prevent the grapes from surviving. Therefore, there must be abundant water resources in the area for irrigation.

The main concentration of the regions which meet the above two conditions is in the arid and semi-arid climate region of northern China. It may be the ideal area for our vineyards of wine grape if there were rivers, lakes or snowmelt resources in the district.

People may raise a query here: manual irrigation is not allowed in French vineyards, is it? Why do you emphasise manual irrigation? There is abundant of natural precipitation in French wine region, and the soil moisture content is enough for the growing of grape – taking Bordeaux as an example, the average annual rainfall in this area is around 1000 mm, so manual irrigation is not essential; but the annual rainfall in the semi-arid region in China is often less than 200 mm.

This might be another illustration for ‘adjusting measures to local conditions’. It is not an easy task to produce wine under the Chinese soil and climate condition. We do not have a history to support the practice, nor can we indiscriminately imitate foreign experiences. It seems a long-term project in China to continually explore and understand the terroir, and to develope the viticulture and vinification measures to the local conditions.

Translated by Nina Fan Feng / 冯帆

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