Aussies export their expert advice to China

Aussies export their expert advice to China

Name: Ken Murchison, Chan Chun Keung, Judy Leissner.

The contemporary wine industry in China began to take shape in the early 1980s, with the establishment of today's No. 2 and No. 3 wineries, Great Wall and Dynasty - and France was there again. Great Wall didn't have French equity participation but, nevertheless, has been heavily resourced through French technical inputs over the years. Dynasty, established in 1980 and initially known as the Sino-French Joint Venture, was a more conventional joint venture, with Remy Cointreau holding a 33 per cent equity stake and providing direct technical guidance.

Testimony to the level of commitment by the French to play a major role in China's wine industry is the Sino-French demonstration Vineyard - including a winery and research centre - on the verges of the Great Wall, north of Beijing. It is a joint venture between the governments of each country and is said to be the brainchild of Premier Wen Jiabao, following an inspirational visit to France in 1997. Its charter is for both sides to work together to find new, sustainable directions for the wine industry in China.

By comparison, Australian involvement has, until recently, been modest - though not insignificant. The first major Australian presence was at Hua Dong winery in Qingdao, Shandong Province, set up in the mid-1980s by Michael Perry, a Hong Kong-based Englishman with an intense interest in wine and more than a passing knowledge of Australia's wine credentials.

The venture materialised on a typical 'New World' formula with, until recently, predominantly Australian inputs. Many of the vines were brought in from Australia, along with people to set up and run the vineyard and winery, and some of the staff were trained at Charles Sturt University.

Huadong was the first Chinese winery to launch varietally labelled wines - a Chardonnay, a Rhine Riesling and a Gamay - and the first to declare vintage on the label. It signalled a new era when, in 1993, it took out major awards at WINPAC in Hong Kong, competing against top wines from Australia, New Zealand, California and Chile and followed up with awards in Europe and North America.

Another winery that has had a long-term reliance on Australian inputs is Qingdao Dongni winery. Victorian winemaker, Neil Robb (Redbank Winery), has been the winery's senior consultant overseeing vineyard management and winemaking since 1997. He says there have been plenty of challenges. 'The available technology and skill level in the operation is quite good, but the weather is always a problem, making it difficult to ripen fruit, especially late ripening red varieties.'

The Australian presence has grown significantly in the past few years and is now quite substantial. Unlike the French, Australia has not had the institutional framework to engage with the industry in China much beyond the promotion and sale of Australian wine.

The driver, rather, has been a growing understanding within the industry in China of what Australia can offer across the viticulture to winemaking spectrum and a strengthening determination to source it. They seek the potential to emulate Australia's progression from virtually nowhere in global terms to one of the industry's leaders today.

It is common to hear people in China's wine industry contrasting what they see as an open-minded, optimalising Australian approach with the approach by many European experts who they see as being determined simply to replicate their own traditions in the Chinese environment.

Laffer leads new charge
An interesting case in point is Pernod Ricard's new large-scale Helan Mountains Winery, in the western province of Ningxia. Former Jacobs Creek leader Phillip Laffer was drafted by his French employer in 2005 to orient the viticulture and winemaking operations. He says 'it is not our intention to be making 'Australian' wine here but, rather, to do what we need to do to produce the best possible wine with the resources we can muster.'

To help achieve that, there has been a succession of Australians in key roles in the vineyards and winery. The chief winemaker now is Susan Mickan, having succeeded Lilian Carter who worked the 2008 and 2009 vintages: her 2008 Special Reserve Chardonnay was awarded the Wine of China trophy at the Hong Kong International Wine Fair in 2009. Philip Deverell has had overall responsibility for viticulture until recently and is to be replaced by another Australian in this role.

Another leading winery that has switched from French to Australian primary inputs is Grace Vineyard, in Shanxi province. It was initially set up under the direction of Frenchman Gerard Colin but, for the past five vintages, has been overseen by Victorian viticulturist and winemaker, Ken Murchison (Portree Vineyard).

Grace Vineyard CEO Judy Leissner says 'Ken is a great asset for the company as he is knowledgeable and experienced'.

'He leads the team and provides them with direction and methods: he also brings diversity to the winery, and I think that's rather important, particularly as we want to foster a winery culture that is open and innovative,' she said.

'Ken definitely helps us to build ties with Australia - whether it's suppliers or information or BBQs!'

Treaty Port Vineyards, at Penglai in Shandong Province, is a very new venture relying on Australian operational direction: it has just bottled its first vintage (2009).

Owner Chris Ruffle, a long-term resident of China, says he asked Hunter Valley winemaker and vigneron Mark Davidson to help him after visiting his Tamburlaine vineyard in early 2009.

'I have been impressed with the steady quality of his wine, and his organic approach to grapegrowing, which is in marked contrast to the chemical-intensive methods used by Chinese farmers,' Ruffle said.

He said he had previously used French consultants from Bordeaux and Languedoc, 'but I found Mark more adaptable to local conditions whereas the French winemakers are burdened by centuries of tradition.'

'Mark has also helped us get official Australian approval to bottle Australian wine imported in bulk and we hope to extend this bottling service to other overseas wine producers who would like to develop the China market saving on considerable tax and packaging costs,' he said.

'The arrangement works well from Mark's point of view because he already had an export business into China, so was somewhat familiar with the market, and the North/South hemisphere split works well in terms of division of time.'

Aussies spread across China
Australians have become a principal resource for other ventures in far western China. Shandong-based Weilong (Grand Dragon) Winery, one of China's top five, has primarily drawn on Australian expertise to set up in Gansu Province what it claims to be 'the biggest organic winery in China, owning the largest organic vineyard in the world'.

Specifically, it claims to be agrochemical-free, chemical fertiliser-free and contaminant-free. Weilong makes a great promotional feature of the panel of six international professionals who are technically directing the project: five are Australians, one is Italian.

Sunraysia-based Bruno Zappia has been involved in the project for five years now and is the team leader. He is directly addressing the not insubstantial viticultural challenges, supported by the Italian, Eugenio Sartori, and Australians Brett Irvine and Bill Avery (who are primarily focussed on soil development and soil management). Winemaking is directed by Nigel Westblade, of Casella Wines, and he is supported in this role by Sam Brewer.
Bruno Zappia sees the major challenges in the project as viticultural. He says the short growing season makes it difficult to adequately ripen fruit, especially later ripening varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon (the Chinese industry's staple variety).

Other challenges are presented by the long and extremely cold winter and the resultant need to cover the vines with soil for protection, as well as the need to get growers to moderate water usage in order to manage yields and to avoid running down water sources.

Nigel Westblade says Chardonnay and Viognier are the best performing white varieties in local conditions and Merlot of the red varieties.

Sergio Carlei (Carlei Estate, Victoria) has been working with another western frontier pioneer, Vini Suntime, to work out ways to get the best from its massive plantings in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

He too sees a lot of work being necessary to appropriately manage the vines in the local conditions, particularly with pruning and canopy management. The approach to winemaking, he says, in some ways mirrors what was happening in the early years of the modern Australian industry where big scale and automation were the order of the day, rather than personal intervention in pursuit of style and quality.

Well-known and globally-based wine consultant Tony Jordan, who has been surveying progress in the new frontiers recently while advising Moet Hennessy on location options for a wine production base in China, sees considerable potential in these new areas, compared with the more established areas on the east coast.

He sees the need for adaptation in the vineyard, but is confident that the local mood is now more flexible and tending in the right direction. He says 'it can be done, and when it is done, the wines will more closely resemble Western quality standards, while offering local style manifestations, and we will eventually see this very substantial local industry playing a role on the global stage'.

There is no doubt that China will be an increasingly important player in the international wine industry. The increased involvement on the ground in China of open-minded Australians, backed up by a reverse flow of locals coming to Australia to get a first-hand understanding of what Australia can do for them, makes it likely now that Australia will have a prominent place in that future.

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