Overseas Report: Grace Vineyard, China

This site may be called Great British Wine, however China also has a young, developing wine industry. I felt my excellent visit to Grace in Shanxi deserved an article.

I've been wanting to visit a Chinese winery for some time, and Grace Vineyard in Shanxi seemed like the perfect choice. I first became aware of the existence of Grace two years ago during the wedding ceremony with my wife in China. We were given a case of their 2010 Cabernet Merlot by a guest. Whilst that wine was a fairly average table wine, I noticed it was local from Shanxi. My wife was born in Taiyuan, the capital of the Shanxi province of North China.

Chateau at Grace Vineyard

More recently I discovered the Tasya's Reserve series of wines on sale in Selfridges on Oxford Street, coincidentally also from Grace. We tried the Tasya's Reserve Chardonnay 2010 for Chinese New Year in UK, it was a clean and elegant Chardonnay, although pricey at £29 a bottle. I then started to see a few articles and followed Grace online, and decided it was a must-visit during my next China trip...

The day did not start well, the morning clouded by the first sign of rain after a week in China. As we pulled up at the elegant minimal entrance, suddenly a beam of sunlight appeared. Whilst driving down a path surrounded by acres of vines (200 acres in fact), the sun shines through, the clouds dissipate revealing the most vivid blue skies I've seen during my stay. Parts of Shanxi are not the cleanest, with air pollution from industry and coal mining. Grace Vineyard is set away from this in a rural farming area. The difference in air quality once out of the car was startling and immediately noticeable.

We were met by two very friendly young ladies, one English speaking called Xiao Yan, who became our tour guide. We entered into their hospitality area, a small French-style chateau building which housed the bar, restaurant and guest rooms. The building was elegant and typical of the luxury style developments that you see in China. We were taken across to the large processing facility, starting with a video introduction about Grace.

Founded in 1997, Grace Vineyard was a partnership between Frenchman Mr. Janvier and Chinese Indonesian Mr. Chun-Keung Chan. The two had met and formed a great friendship, they decidied to start their own winery and begin their retirement together. With the assistance of Bordeaux wine scholar Dr. Denis Boubals, a location near to the Taihang Mountain Ranges in Shanxi Provence was selected. Clean air and natural surroundings, distinct weather seasons with long frost free periods combined with sandy soil qualities made it the perfect location for growing Cabernet Sauvignon and other grape varieties.

Grapes growing in Grace Vineyard

Traditional grape cultivation, with manual harvesting and secondary hand sorting of grapes ensures only the best of each harvest are selected prior to de-stemming and crushing. The processing plant has a vast array of fermentation tanks from 1 to 90 tonnes in size. The winery utilises secondary French oak fermentation for all of its higher level wines, whilst using a more primitive oak chipping integration for its entry table wines.

Perhaps one of the most prominent themes you notice at Grace is the passing of tradition, both in terms of the manual harvesting and production processes to the family nature of the business. Grace is now at the helm of Mr Chan's daughter, Judy Liessner. A most inspirational young Asian lady, and a winner of international recognition and Business Entrepreneur awards. It's clear that this is only the beginning for a very promising winery in China.

We then continued our tour into the wine showcase room, where the full range of wines is proudly displayed. The three entry wines consisted of the Cabernet Merlot, Chardonnay and a Rose blend, costing 60-72 RMB (approx £7-£8). The next level of wines is the Premium Series, which consists of two whites; a Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc as well as a Cabernet Merlot. All three premium wines incorporate partial oak barrel ageing and cost 125 RMB (approx £13). There is also the Symphony Series of two wines, a partnership with Spanish winemaker Torres including a Muscat costing 178 RMB (approx £18).

Grace Vineyard wine showcase

Perhaps the most internationally famous of the wines is Tasya's Reserve series. Named after CEO Judy Liessner's eldest daughter, this elegant black and gold labelled range includes four wines; a Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. All costing 199 RMB (approx £20), these lovingly crafted wines have been getting global attention, sold in Selfridges, and served in Shangri-La amongst other 5 Star hotels around the world.

The ultimate wines in the range include the Deep Blue, an elegantly smooth tannin infused red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot aged in 50% New French oak. This costs 306 RMB (around £31). The top level wine is the Charman's Reserve. At 568 RMB (nearly £60) this is a little beyond my comfortable drinking price point. It is a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and has been produced every year since 2001 using only the finest grapes, except in 2007 which was a poor harvest due to excessive rain.

An impressive but focussed array of wines. Not an overcrowded range, each wine tier has its place and features distinctive branding appropriate to its price point. The wine showcase room also featured a display of the wine label ranges, both old and new. There is also an illuminated 3D model of the vineyard highlighting which grapes are grown across the impressively large site. Unsurprisingly, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the land share, with a decent amount of space also allocated to growing Chardonnay.

We move on through a corridor with a long wall plastered floor to ceiling with press cuttings about the winery, the inspirational CEO and the wines. Opposite this, a wall featuring traditional Chinese poetry, which my wife tells me is very significant but also very hard to translate. We continue past a laboratory. This is the one place I am told I can't take a picture, as there were boards with all sorts of formulas and annotations (perhaps the secret formula to a superb 2015 vintage?).

Oak barrels at Grace Vineyard

We move into the production facility, greeted by a vast array of polished steel fermentation tanks. Impressively, the facility is spotlessly clean, you get a real sense of pride from the way the company presents itself throughout. We move through to the bottling room, where freshly filled bottles of red wine whizz past in excited fashion.

Now on to my favourite area. We descend down a staircase, it's getting darker and a coolness fills the air. After passing through a few doorways we enter the main barrel cellar. A beautiful aroma of French oak and fermenting red wines fills the air, it's intoxicatingly addictive. The oak barrels are neatly arranged and fill the room, save for a central pyramid cloaked in a mysterious black cloth. I spot the glimpse of champagne bottles. The pyramid shape is of course an array of French riddling racks. This year will see the release of Grace's first sparkling wines. Two Blanc de Blancs will be released in August made from the excellent 2009 Chardonnay harvest. I'm intrigued on how these will compare to both Champagne and, of course, English Sparkling Wine.

A darkened bottle cellar contains reserve wines from all previous vintages, from the early initial bottles of 2001 through to the recent award winning and critically acclaimed vintages. The last part of the winery tour takes us through a cave like corridor with a cultural room in the end. A few select bottles are positioned on antique Chinese furniture. Finally, we walk through a long tunnel with each range of wine atop large old oak barrels. We walk up a winding spiral staircase and arrive back in the chateau.

Wine Bar at Grace Vineyard

I take the opportunity to ask Our guide Xiao Yan a few more questions. I learn that Grace Vineyard currently produce around 1.5 million bottles annual. They also have vineyards in Ninxia and Shaanxi, so there is clearly room for expansion. What will be interesting and key to continued quality is if the same traditional manual processes and family ethic continues as recognition and ultimately volume increases. Unlike the superpower wineries of Changyu and Great Wall, Grace have focussed on smaller batches and quality, with the intention of growing the export market for Chinese wine. They strive to produce quality Chinese wines that will compete with the worlds very best. However, with an ever increasing clique of Bordeaux drinking business men and women in China, surely it's only a matter of time that wines such as Deep Blue and Chairman's Reserve become the wines of choice domestically?

And so onto the wines themselves; unfortunately Grace don't currently have the facility to offer wine tasting by the glass (presumably due to the low frequency of visits - perhaps an enomatic machine would help here?). Instead you can order full bottles for drinking at the bar or with a meal in their restaurant. We were driving back with family so could only try one (though I bought several more to take away), so went with the Deep Blue 2011. Full tasting notes can be found below, but we all found it to be a deliciously smooth and balanced red wine. We drank alongside a delicious meal of simple home cooked Chinese dishes. The food was light and not spicy or too rich. I would say more Cantonese in style including several cold vegetable dishes along with hot dishes including black bean beef, shredded lamb and delicious locally sourced vegetable plates.

It was a perfect end to the tour; drinking one of the wineries best wines (and the best Chinese red I have drank to date) alongside subtle well matched Chinese food with a view overlooking the beautiful gardens and acres of vines. After eating I take a look around the grounds, from the beautifully kept gardens to the vineyards. Row upon row of well maintained vibrant green vines planted in light sandy soils. The sight of tiny grapes growing on the vines is the symbol of hope, what interesting new wines will this years harvest bring?

Truly a most memorable experience, I'm sure this will not be my last adventure to Grace Vineyard.

Vineyard at Grace

Grace Vineyard Deep Blue 2011

Grapes: 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot
Price: 306 RMB (approx £31)

By far the best Chinese red wine I have tried, so elegant, smooth & refined. Rich sweet vanilla tones on the nose with ripe plums, blackcurrant and berries.

The palate has a smooth elegance. It's balanced and subtle, but still deep and layered. Though light in complexion, the fruit flavours are rich and vibrant. Mix of black fruit, slightly tart cherries with smoother plum flavours. A slightly savoury mid taste with coffee and tobacco flavours. But the best part is the super smooth, silky tannin finish.

What We Thought:

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