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Young winemakers dream big in China’s Bordeaux
From:Shanghai Daily  |  2018-08-06 16:29

IN the early 2000s, the eastern foot of Helan Mountain in northwest China was nothing but a vast expanse of Gobi desert. Today, young people here are busy tasting a variety of wines in vineyards dotted throughout Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

“I insisted on studying for a Master’s degree in winemaking in 2007, though my parents worried it would be hard for me to find a job. But they were wrong,” says Liang Hong, 33, a winner of several international wine medals.

Ningxia’s abundant sunshine, irrigation from the Yellow River, the right temperatures and good air circulation, reminds Liang of what he learned in college about the ideal climate for growing wine grapes.

The secret to great wine starts in the vineyard, and it takes over a decade from planting the grapes to making the wine. For Liang, a decade of wine production has shown how the wine industry in Ningxia has developed, and it has made his dream come true.

As China is becoming a large wine-consumer and producer, at the turn of the century the local authorities in Ningxia began to transform the rocky Gobi into an oasis by carting rocks and leveling the ground. The rocky, sandy soil was the icing on the cake for him.

After years of hard work, the vineyards at the foothills of the mountain, often referred to as China’s Bordeaux, now cover 200,000 hectares, accounting for one-fourth of China’s grape planting area. Around 120 million bottles of wine are produced in the area annually, bringing in wine lovers worldwide, according to Li Wenchao, an official with the region’s grape industry bureau.

In the new wine-making schools in Ningxia, over 1,500 students take three-to-four-year courses, learning through practice and experience. Such courses provided Liang with a broad expertise in grape planting and wine production.

From 2007 to 2009, Liang was sent to Ohio State University as a visiting scholar. He also worked briefly in New Zealand as a winemaker. The mechanization of wine production abroad impressed him.

“We made all our wines by hand, but the chateaus in New Zealand mainly use machines to harvest and ferment white grapes, and they still produce premium wines,” he says.

Li Wenchao, once a winemaker, speaks highly of the career.

“A young winemaker who has two to three years of experience can earn 150,000-200,000 yuan (US$22,000-29,000) a year. And they are highly respected in the industry,” he says.

The wine-making industry in the Gobi has attracted about 200 winemakers, mostly young people like Liang.

“To me, winemakers do not really produce wines, but try their best to restore the original flavor of the grapes. We need to highlight the unique advantages of our grapes. That is the standard of a qualified winemaker,” Liang says.

“Ten years ago, Chinese wine brands could hardly find success in international contests. Not anymore. I expect to improve the quality of our wines and help our chateau strengthen its competitiveness on the global arena.”