|French winemaker Thierry Courtade and his wife Gao Yuan pose at their winery, Silver Heights, in Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (MA LI)
In the midst of a concrete jungle in Yinchuan, capital of northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, lies a hidden gem, going by the not inauspicious name of Silver Heights.
Silver Heights is not only one of the highest Chinese wineries (1,200 meters above sea level) but also is one of the few, true, family-run wineries in the country. Its success began with a passion for wine and came to fruition thanks to years of painstaking work by two generations of the founding family.
Silver Heights' founder Gao Lin used to be an administrator in a state-owned winery. He first entered the wine business in the 1990s. It was his visionary foresight and belief that Ningxia had the potential to produce fine wine that led to the establishment of Silver Heights.
Ningxia has a long history of winemaking. Local sculptures dating back to as early as the 12th century depict farmers harvesting grapes. The region lying between the Yellow River and the edge of the Helan Mountains is blessed with ample sunshine and a great depth of stony soil that forces the roots of the vines to venture deep into the ground in quest of water and minerals. This terrain is ideal for viticulture.
At the turn of this century, the local government provided the funding and training necessary to develop the wine industry and was keen to foster quality. A decade later, the authorities decided to set up a Wine Road between Yinchuan and the Helan Mountains. The results are truly astonishing: Wine fever has spread very rapidly across the region and vineyards now stretch as far as the eye can see along this corridor from heaven.
Silver Heights advocates traditional technology, where every detail and process is seen to and completed by hand. The love for wine and the love for the land are the driving force behind every bottle, and this passion and sincerity are reflected fully in the wine. Since the release of the winery's first vintage in 2007, its wines have become widely recognized and much sought after.
A labor of love
The winery is now headed by Gao Yuan, part of the second generation of the family, daughter to Gao Lin and holder of a Diplôme National d'Oenologue from Bordeaux, France. She is one of few female Chinese winemakers in the industry.
Gao Yuan honed her winemaking skills during internships with renowned estates in Bordeaux, most notably Château Calon-Ségur, between 2000 and 2004. She returned to Yinchuan in her early 30s and joined Torres, a Spanish producer-distributor, to learn the business side of winemaking. She also started to grow vines on land provided by the local government close to the Helan Mountains. The results were so encouraging that Torres offered their assistance in the labeling, packaging and distribution.
World-renowned wine critic and certified Master of Wine Jancis Robinson lent her nose to support Silver Heights. "Silver Heights is another bright light to have emerged on the modern Chinese wine scene," she wrote in The Financial Times as early as April 2010.
Though Gao Yuan's two hectares of land on the slope of the Helan Mountains produced only 6,000 bottles for the 2008 vintage, Robinson gave the wine an amazing 16+/20.
Gao Yuan hammered home her vision in an interview with CNN in June 2011, "My intention is to make Bordeaux-style wines, in line with my training. The extreme climate conditions here in Ningxia will always make spicy wines, which I believe is the typical style of the Helan Mountains area."
Her efforts were once more rewarded in August 2012 when the Silver Heights Family Reserve won the Best Chinese Red Wine Award.
More than perfect
Gao Yuan's wildest dreams have been fulfilled: Her French-style reds are on the wine list of luxury hotels alongside the most famous Bordeaux. This success came, however, with a price as Gao Yuan has been separated for long stretches from her French husband Thierry Courtade and their daughter Emma.
Courtade, 41, born and bred into a family of winemakers in Saint-Estèphe in the heart of the Médoc region in Bordeaux, was a cellar master in Château Calon-Ségur for 24 years.
Gao Yuan first met Courtade in 2000 when she worked as a trainee in Château Calon-Ségur. "I fell head over heels in love," a beaming Courtade explained. "We got married in France and had a daughter. In 2004, my wife went back to China and worked at Silver Heights with her father."
Courtade finally decided to leave France and moved to Yinchuan in 2012 to join Silver Heights. "The time was ripe. Château Calon-Ségur had been sold and my wife and my in-laws persuaded me to take the plunge. No regrets whatsoever," Courtade said.
As we go down the stairs leading to the cellar, the aroma of Cabernet Sauvignon quickly fills the air. In a nod to tradition, Courtade is keen to point out that the wooden barrels, the steel vessels and the machinery come directly from France. Inside those barrels, the 2013 vintage is slowly ageing. Courtade offers a shot of this promising vintage and although the grapes suffered from the draught that summer, the fragrant herbaceous Cabernet and Merlot aromas are still heavily pronounced. But the Holy Grail is located deeper in the cellar, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon that is Courtade's best-kept secret. "We only make a few thousand bottles for our regular clients."
Courtade's friendly banter is infectious, and after a few glasses of his nectar, the cellar resonates with laughter. Gao Yuan joins us and invites us for some refreshments under a pergola.
My Japanese colleague inquires about their love story, being especially curious as to who proposed first. "I just told him: You've been courting me all this time, so marry me now!" quips Gao Yuan, looking at her husband. Courtade shrugs facetiously his shoulders in a typical French way and with his broad Gironde accent, tells me, "I didn't have any choice, did I?"
Copyedited by Eric Daly
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