Young Company Has Current Annual Capacity Of 10,000 Bottles
Recently referred to as “a hard-working woman who knows how to make wine” by the Chinese writer and critic Chantal Chi, Silver Heights proprietor Emma Gao (高源) is one of a small but dedicated group of winemakers creating artisanal Chinese wine that goes against the country’s reputation for “quantity over quality”. Known as China’s first boutique “micro-winery”, Silver Heights currently produces around 800 cases of wine per year at its roughly five-acre vineyard on the eastern slopes of Mount Helan in China’s northwestern Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. There, at the family-run winery, the Bordeaux-educated Gao has spent the last four years producing a selection of reds that she hopes can confidently stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those from California or Australia. Already, Gao has found favor with the wine distributor Torres China, which carries Silver Heights in its portfolio, and among wine critics like Lisa Perrotti-Brown, who scored Gao’s 2007 Summit a respectable 82 earlier this year.
Recently, Jing Daily exchanged an email Q&A with Emma Gao, covering a range of topics from what sets Silver Heights apart from other Chinese wineries to how best to pair her wines with Chinese cuisine. (Translated from the original Chinese by Alicia Wang and Wang Xiayu)
Jing Daily (JD): Can you give us a little background about your company, in terms of production capacity and types of wines currently in production?
Emma Gao (EG): The current annual production of Silver Heights is 10,000 bottles. Among these, we produce 3,000 bottles of “The Summit”, 3,000 bottles of “Family Reserve” and 4,000 bottles of “Val Enchantee”.
JD: You studied winemaking in Bordeaux, and now produce Bordeaux-influenced wines. With the popularity of French Bordeaux wine among Chinese wine drinkers, do you find this Bordeaux connection to be a major selling point for Silver Heights wines?
EG: Yes. Like other countries around the world, the Chinese tend to get to know wine through Bordeaux. Cabernet Sauvignon is grown all over China, but Ningxia gets 3,200 hours of annual sunshine, which is perfect for ripening Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. One of the reasons we’ve gotten attention is because we’re one of the few wineries in China to have just the right conditions to make a traditional Cabernet Sauvignon wine.
Unlike Bordeaux’s mild oceanic climate, where grapes have a longer growing period that makes for a more complex wine with a lingering aftertaste, Ningxia has an extreme continental climate. We’re at an altitude of 1,200 meters with huge temperature shifts between day and night. During the winter, the grape vines are buried underground and the grapes have a shorter growing period. Usually, wine made under such conditions tastes less complex and has a shorter aftertaste. But the wine we make is full-bodied and spicy, with blackberry notes and hints of mineral.
At the University of Bordeaux, I slowly digested everything I learned from my textbooks and put it into practice to try and make great wines. Luckily, the large vineyard my father used to manage provided me with high-quality grapes.
So if grapes are the father of our wines, the Bordeaux Berger oak barrels we use are the mother. Our 12-month fermentation and aging schedule is extremely important [to the wines].
JD: What is your most popular wine among Chinese wine drinkers? Non-Chinese wine drinkers?
EG: Among many of our Chinese customers, the most popular is “The Summit”, because it’s our most high-end wine. It’s our most expensive and probably our best. It’s great for entertaining guests.
Among non-Chinese drinkers, our most popular is “Family Reserve”. You can drink it right away, it’s reasonably priced and it’s very aromatic.
But I’d say, on the whole, that the most sought-after among both domestic and international customers is The Summit.
JD: What are your largest markets currently? Top-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, or smaller second-tier cities?
EG: We’re mainly focusing on top-tier cities via our distribution through Torres China. But we’ve also seen some local VIP group purchases.
JD: Who are your main customers?
EG: [Hotels and Resorts like] the Grand Hyatt, Park Hyatt, Kempinski and Amanresorts. We also sell to institutional clients like the Shenhua Ningxia Coal Industry Group and the Ningxia Education Bureau.
JD: Where are your wines available?
JD: How are you getting the word out about your brand? Social media and Weibo? Advertising?
EG: We work with Torres China on promotion, and also rely on word-of-mouth advertising via wine lovers.
JD: Are you seeing more Chinese becoming interested in wine appreciation and drinking at home, rather than simply drinking at banquets or work functions? Can you tell us a little about the consumer trends you’re noticing?
EG: People in major cities who are interested in wine, and have an existing habit of drinking wine regularly, enjoy wine at home, while in places like Shandong or Ningxia, people still tend to have wine at work-related or social occasions. However, I believe in the near future, more people will consider wine appreciation to be a normal part of their family life.
JD: Has the severe weather we’ve seen in China this spring and summer affected your current crop?
EG: The weather this spring was not really normal. In Shandong [province, northeast China], they had a dry and cold winter, and the late spring caused a large number of grape vines to die off, particularly late-maturing varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Tannat. But since we bury our vines in the winter in Xinjiang and Ningxia [in the west], our crops weren’t really affected by the unusual weather. Spring was as sunny and clear for us as usual so the grape vines got plenty of sunlight. Now the vines are bearing fruit, and will start to ripen within the next two weeks, through to harvest season in October.
The rainfall in Ningxia is rather low (200 mL), so we don’t have to worry too much about pests or crop disease.
JD: What Chinese foods pair best with your wines?
EG: Braised duck (红烧系列的鸭), Braised fatty pork (东坡肉), Inner Mongolian roasted whole lamb (内蒙烤全羊), Peking Duck (北京烤鸭), Cantonese roast goose (广东烧鹅), Shandong braised fish (山东大酱焖鱼杂), Northeast China rib stew (东北炖排骨), and Ningxia hand-pulled lamb (宁夏的手抓牛羊肉) all pair very well with our wines.
Silver Heights wines are available online through Torres China, or at hotels and resorts including the Grand Hyatt Shanghai, Park Hyatt Beijing, Kempinsky Yinchuan, and Amanfayun Beijing. The Jing Daily team would like to thank Emma Gao for taking the time to speak with us.