Wine On A Mission

inputtime: 2017-06-23 09:19:31

A scenic valley in Shandong province is eager to show itself as China's best wine country. Mike Peters reports from Penglai, Shandong province.

If you don't know what's coming, the first sight of the Treaty Port Winery is quite a surprise: A stone Scottish castle that seems to stand guard over the river valley below.

In 2004, when Chris Ruffle began looking for a potential winery site in East China's Shandong province, he was all alone in the Penglai valley. Little more than a decade later, Ruffle can point to another winery in any direction from Treaty Port's scenic overlook.

In fact, as representatives of the Penglai wine bureau are eager to tell us a little later, there are 66 companies and 33 chateaux now in operation here, and a few more are under construction.

Most of them have their eyes on one particular neighbor: Lafite's China chateau, and the local Party chief who has joined our group of wine enthusiasts proudly notes that Lafite will deliver its first vintage at Penglai in 2018.

That much-anticipated wine from the most iconic French brand, the local industry hopes, will seal Penglai's claim to be "China's top wine area".

Penglai, perched on the Bohai Sea near South Korea and Japan, is already famous for producing gold, Fuji apples, automobiles, auto parts and ships. There are two national first-class ports, which carry apples to Japan and other goods everywhere.

But wine is a multi-dimensional prize, which aims to generate agriculture jobs, vintages with a reputation and tourists eager to visit tasting rooms and dip their noses in a few glasses.

At Treaty Port, our noses are in Ruffle's 2014 rose, a pleasant bubbly that's mostly grenache with a little sangiovese to give some floral notes.

As we sip, Ruffle explains that getting wineries up and running isn't the only challenge to putting Penglai on the wine map. The biggest challenge, in fact, is coming up in a few weeks: August.

In this part of Shandong province, you see, it rains every August. A lot. That's not welcome so late in the growing season, when growers want hot, dry days to develop the grape sugars. Rain so close to the fall harvest can mean fungus diseases and rot, so local growers are vigilant in August but proactive from day 1.

"From bitter experience, we've learned to train our vines to spread higher off the ground," Ruffle says. "That means less splash-up from the ground in rainy season. We also favor grapes like marselan, which is both mildew-resistant and grows in big, open bunches that allow good air circulation."

Treaty Port's vineyard team cultivates a dozen different grapes, from staples like cabernet sauvignon and syrah to less well-known varieties like petit manseng.

"We ended up with so many sort of by accident," Ruffle says with a grin.

"But all that variety has been a blessing in disguise. When the weather varies so much, grapes that don't do well one year may be great the next. In the recent harvest, syrah was the star; the year before it was petit verdot.

Despite August rains, the Penglai region enjoys many natural advantages: annual average rainfall of 704.5 mm, 217 days free of frost, 2,536 sun hours, and a significant temperature difference between day and night. The soil is rich in organic materials, and the pH of the soil is around 6.5 with 30-percent sand, a very suitable environment for the roots of the vines.

Competition in China

While Penglai is an up-and-comer on the wine scene, it has some competition for the title China's best wine region. Nearby Yantai has been growing grapes for wine-making for more than 100 years, ever since Changyu Pioneer Wine Co, China's oldest and largest winery, was started in 1892 by Zhang Bishi.

Then there is the trendy Ningxia Hui autonomous region in China's west, with plenty of sunshine, dry air and cool nights, thanks to the confluence of river and mountains. The local government there is spending millions to promote Ningxia's blossoming reputation as a boutique wine hotspot, and old established Shandong wineries like Changyu have established outposts there as well. The Shandong crowd likes to sniff at the Ningxia hoopla, insisting that since the region gets so cold in winter that the vines must be buried to insulate them from the snow, it's not quite in Shandong's league. But in fact, most of the big producers grow the bulk of their grapes in the remote and cold west areas, including Gansu but especially Xinjiang, so Penglai will have to fight for the title of "best in China".

Eye on tourism

It's prepared to do so.

Local officials are convinced that the combination of quality wines and eye-candy architecture will feed Chinese travelers' growing taste for wine tourism - plus, these wineries are close enough to Beijing and Shanghai for a long weekend visit.

And while there are a number of French-style chateaux here, there are some interesting variations - from Ruffle's Scottish castle to a Tang Dynasty-inspired complex.

Consultant Thomas Yeung of Shanghai-based Metro Town notes: "Wines here pair with seafood very well. They are generally medium dry, less tannin and acidic," he says. Since this part of Shandong is a seafood center, these local wines add something special to the culinary showcase.

The local university also boasts an enology school with hospitality training as well to support the industry with graduates focused on the wine business, winemaking and sommeliers - not to mention savvy young drinkers that will shape future trends.

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