Adventures in Winemaking: Establishing a Vineyard in Yunnan

Alex Xu is a fine wine pioneer on a journey to grow compelling Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from his recently planted vineyard (淼庐 Miao Lu) in China’s mountainous, southwesterly province of Yunnan. His approach to winemaking is rooted in a love for the place and the process, taking him on adventures across the world of fine wine to perfect his craft. Mentored by the best in the business, including Aurum in Central Otago, Bindi in Australia and Dujac in Burgundy, Alex hopes to learn and grow alongside his vines to one day produce beautiful wines that challenge the perception of the term ‘Made in China’…

 

What was your introduction to wine?

I didn’t grow up in a family where wine was on the table every evening. My father was a busy man, and wine was around only on the occasion he was able to relax – dinners with family friends, celebrations, and vacations abroad. Though limited, my interaction with wine as a child showed me that it was meant to give pleasure, it was better with food, and always best when shared.

The first wine I can remember tasting was a glass of 1999 Gibbston Valley Pinot Noir. Our family was on holiday in New Zealand in 2001, and it was the first time I had seen my father really at ease. We were at the dinner table one evening and he handed me a glass of bright, ruby liquid. “Smell it, taste it”, he beckoned. I could see my mother wasn’t too thrilled, but he assuaged her and nodded at me to continue. Apparently, I took one sip, grinned broadly and proclaimed “it tastes like strawberries!” My parents giggled at my enthusiasm and my father said, “that’s why I like Pinot Noir better than Cabernet”. Though I’ve grown to love many other wines since that day, my love for Pinot Noir has always been the greatest.

 

What was the “eureka” moment that made you want to make wine in China?

It was the summer of 2015, I was just finishing construction on my restaurant (Baoism) in Shanghai when I became quite ill. I decided on a trip to our family home in Yunnan to recover in the fresh air, under clear skies. As we were driving up the dirt road to our village, I noticed people excavating large, melon sized rocks out of the ground to the side of the road and asked a friend, “what do they do with those?”. He explained that there had basically been no agriculture around our village for the last 40 years, the soils were too rocky and poor, nothing would take. Land surrounding our village had been sitting fallow, so rocks were used to build courtyard walls. Thinking of my visits to wine regions, I asked if the soils drained freely. He replied, “no matter how hard it rains, puddles never form”. Something clicked in my mind – I thought, maybe we can grow vines here.

 

Is the plan to produce the best quality wines in China whatever the cost?

My goal during this early period in the vineyard’s life is to learn and define what I value most in wine. To that end, I am reading and tasting constantly, and trying to learn the craft from those whose wine I admire most. All I can hope to achieve is to grow and make wine that is true to what I value.

Other than that, I hope to do justice to the beauty, the people, the food and culture of our region. If we can make wine that we ourselves are proud of, I know that people will find our wines compelling. I hope that we can bring pleasure and provoke curiosity about Yunnan to those who taste our wines.

With that in mind, I have planted a small experimental vineyard of just over three hectares. I’ve seen many other wineries in China plant hundreds of hectares at a time without really understanding what they were getting themselves into. I want to start small, to learn the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of farming our site before thinking about producing wine… let alone expanding.

Being a totally new region from a young winemaking country, I know that I only have one chance to make a first impression. I’m in no rush for our first crop or first release. I want to take the time to get our vineyard healthy and established, to understand the nature of our site, and how best to guide our fruit into wine that gives deep pleasure and speaks of our place.

Once I feel we have a good understanding and consistency, I hope to grow our vineyard size slowly. My goal is to be at a size where I can give my total focus and attention to each and every wine in the cellar, where the work can be done by a small team of 4-6 people. My current thinking is that falls somewhere between 15-20 hectares, no more.

I don’t have $20 million to throw at this project, but thankfully, I don’t think that’s what it will take to produce the kind of wine that I value.

What have been the biggest successes and challenges to date?

The most rewarding part of the journey so far has been building and working with my team. I have wonderful consultants who have been with the project since day one, who realise how special the place we’ve planted is, and really understand what I’m trying to achieve. My vineyard team are incredibly dedicated, with a great problem solving attitude, and who I trust deeply with any and all tasks when my attention is needed elsewhere.

For bigger tasks like planting, shoot thinning, hand hoeing, and pruning, we bring in seasonal workers from the village to help. I love seeing how my core team teach and train the villagers on the details and potential pitfalls of each task, leading by example and keeping everyone accountable.

Often times, my team will think of a potentially more efficient way to complete a project and run it by me. I really value this kind of active problem solving, and I always try to give them the freedom to experiment and compare outcomes. As all of them have been involved since planting and were raised in our village, I feel that they have a great sense of ownership in the project as well.

The biggest difficulty has been learning the different challenges in each season. We’ve planted in a totally new region, without neighbours or elders to consult with or learn from. Our closest vineyard neighbours are 1.5 hours away, and deal with very different varieties, soil types, rainfall and altitude – so the seasonal challenges aren’t always directly comparable.

With that comes much more trial and error, comparing the many ways to handle the various pressures we have through the season. For example, we learned this past year that plant cells at altitude need much greater water uptake to maintain internal pressure. Our vineyard is at 2,800m, and the results are quite drastically different from vineyards at even 500m. We learned the hard way that vines can begin to suffer hydric stress very quickly at this altitude, even if the soils feel ‘moist’ to the touch. We’ve installed soil moisture probes to better understand how our soils drain and retain water. This data will help us learn to irrigate more efficiently and effectively in the early years of the vine’s life, when it needs the most water to establish its trunk and root systems.

Is it difficult to import vines from outside of China?

It can be. Import permits for agricultural products like grafted vines in China are tightly controlled and are granted on a case by case basis. We called Mercier nursery in France early on and were told no one they knew had been granted an import permit in the past two years.

Instead of jumping through bureaucratic hoops, I chose to work with three Chinese nurseries who bought all their original vine material from Mercier three years ago. One of my team members had previously sourced material from them to establish LVMH’s Ao Yun project, and I travelled to each site to examine the quality of work.

Even then, there were hiccups. 6,000 of our vines arrived with plastic wrapped around the graft union. In developed wine regions, these are biodegradable and decompose after a few weeks. It turns out that these weren’t, and we didn’t realise this until the vines had started growing around the wrap and were being strangled. I called the nursery to confirm that the wraps needed removal, and they replied “don’t you have anyone technically trained?”. I felt exasperated. No one had mentioned anything to us when the vines were shipped, nor had any of my viticulturalists seen anything like this. All we could do was to go vine by vine and remove the wrap – six thousand times over! Such is the price one pays for the privilege of establishing a new wine region. What seemed absurd and frustrating at the time, has become something I think back on and laugh about; another layer in how I remember our first growing season.

 

Can you tell us more about the Yunnan region?

In some ways, Yunnan reminds me of what New Orleans is to America. Not in its landscape, climate or geology, but rather in how unusual and individual its culture and food are, and how it has a certain mythology and mysticism surrounding it in Chinese lore.

Bordering Tibet and Sichuan to the North, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam to the South, the food of Yunnan takes many influences from its neighbours. The cuisine is very regional and diverse – it’s playful, it’s fragrant, it can be bright, it can be earthy, it can be both. Yunnan is the land of truffles, porcini, matsutakes, morels and 800 other edible mushrooms. We are the land of Pu’er tea, Xuanwei ham, tobacco, and coffee. These are intensely flavorful and textural products, but Yunnan doesn’t make heavy food. Even the humble potato, we make light and playful — shredded, spiced, or mashed. The food of Yunnan is always balanced, fresh and fragrant – livened with spice, vinegar, lime, and herbs; intense and vibrant at the same time.

Our vineyard sits at the foot of a perennially snow-capped mountain, but there are tropical regions just hours away. China is 91.9% homogenous, but Yunnan is shared by 25 different ethnic groups. Yunnan is home to much of China’s birds, fish and mammals, and has as much flowering plant diversity as the rest of the Northern Hemisphere put together. Part of that biodiversity is vitis vinifera, planted in the 19th century by French Missionaries and cultivated continuously ever since. All of this is to say, Yunnan is a wondrous and unusual place, even in a country as large and wild as China.

People sometimes ask me, why not a vineyard in California, Australia or New Zealand? Why bother establishing a new vineyard, let alone in a totally new wine region? The first reason is that I’m Chinese, and I feel very proud to be. I have a deep desire to make something beautiful, to share and highlight the wonderful place that is Yunnan. I believe that the wine of our region can and should reflect the intense and vibrant character of its cuisine. In a small way, I also hope to make something that might change how people think about the words ‘Made in China’.

 

How far along are you into the project? What is your time frame, when do you first hope to produce wine?

I began the project in late 2015, spending the next year and half on climate and soil analysis, sourcing, vineyard planning and design.

In May of 2017, along with 20 villagers, my team and I planted out 13,000 vines on just over 3 hectares. We had multiple teams throughout the vineyard, one to guide the tractor as it ripped the soil for each row, one to mark out the boundaries of each block and measure a 20 degree line, one to measure and mark the 1 x 1.8m spacing and location for each vine, another to install stakes and metal wire along each row, ensuring the vines were planted perfectly straight, and finally a team to plant each vine by hand. Safe to say, we earned our cold beers at the end of each day.

2019 will be our third season of farming. We’ve been working hard this past winter, installing soil moisture probes, a new irrigation system, and hoeing the soil undervine (by hand) to add compost. This season will be all about further establishing the trunk – getting strong vegetative growth, honing in our irrigation program, and continuing to learn how best to farm for balanced soils and balanced vines. We’re considering putting in a cover crop when the vines are strong enough to handle the competition, potentially this season or next. We will plough these back into the soil to continue the theme of building greater organic matter, water retention and microbial life in our soils.

We’ve had Japanese beetles come through the past two years for a brief but intense period, eating shoot tips and tender leaves. With young vines this can set back growth quite drastically, instead of growing vertically, it expends energy regrowing leaves and a new shoot tip. We’ve been lucky to contain the damage mostly to three blocks. With that said, my biggest goal this year is to find a permanent preventative solution, which means lots of research and further trials of biological and non-chemical pest control methods.

I hope that our first harvest will be 2020 – though I’m not sure I will release any of it commercially. Like many a first crop from young vines, it will be small, but potentially of great quality. I’d like to take the opportunity to experiment with different picking choices and vinification regimes to see what brings out the best in our site. Our first few years will likely be full of small ferments by block and clone to understand the character and profile of each. From there I hope we can start to fine tune picking times and vinification choices to the character of each block, and begin see if certain blocks are more complete on their own than others, and if others are better together than alone.

I want our first release to be one that speaks coherently of our place, and compellingly of what we value in both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Until then, I’ll hold the wines back to see how the various trials age and develop; perhaps I’ll consider a library release one day for the wines that show promise and interest.

Are there other projects in the vineyard you are excited to share?

I took two members of my team to Barolo and Burgundy for a week in January to work and learn from G. Rinaldi, Dom. Arnoux-Lachaux, Dujac and the Bret Brothers. Our purpose was to learn how to work with and implement Poussard pruning, which focuses on maintaining and balancing sap flow, and minimising the number and size of pruning wounds each year. Simonit&Sirch (who teach an adapted version) and others have shown that this drastically reduces the risk of trunk diseases like Esca, as well as extending the lifespan and productivity of old vines. Dujac converted most of their vineyards to Poussard a few years back with great results – especially with their old vines. Jeremy Seysses of Dujac encouraged me to consider implementing Poussard as early as possible. After research, it’s something I believe to be best practice within the realm of pruning, and will become a bigger part of mainstream viticultural discourse in the near future.

Other than that, I’ve long been fascinated by the relationship between density, vigor, and vine physiology. Although our current site, at 5,555 vines per hectare, is already relatively high in density compared to most new world wine regions, I hope to plant a trial half hectare block at 12,000 vines per hectare in 2020 – after our current vineyard has settled in. After working with high density vineyards in Australia and Burgundy, I’m convinced that high densities will be a great match for our low vigor soils, and the vines will find better balance. Greater competition will encourage deeper roots, giving access to more consistent levels of water throughout the year. A larger effective canopy area will give greater photosynthetic resources to fewer bunches per vine, equalling greater intensity in each grape. What I’ve seen so far also tells me that there will be an altered relationship between sugar, phenolic and acid ripening rates – that we will still have the long and slow ripening that comes with a cool, high altitude region, but sugar, tannins and flavor will ripen faster than acidity, allowing us to pick at lower pH (higher acidity) than our current block.

 

In the meantime where else are you planning to gain experience?

I wrote earlier that my goal during this early period in the vineyard’s life is to learn and define what I value most in wine. A big part of that is benchmarking – learning the craft from those whose wine I admire most.

I’ve been lucky to work for and learn from three incredible families – Aurum in Central Otago, Bindi in Australia and Dujac in Burgundy. Each has taught me so much about making wine and running a family business. They inspire me everyday with their generosity, thoughtfulness, and dedication.

I’ll return to Bindi in the Macedon Ranges of Australia this March for another opportunity to learn from the amazing people there. Every minute spent there is a privilege, and I hope to return for as many Southern Hemisphere vintages as they’ll allow.

Every chance I get to taste a wine from Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey, I think to myself, “wow, this is everything I love about white burgundy” – I love the, purity, shape, energy, balance and texture of each bottling, from Bourgogne Blanc to Grand Cru. We had the opportunity to taste at the domaine after our vintage work had completed at Dujac. Tasting with Pierre-Yves, seeing how thoughtful and precise the work was, greatly reaffirmed my desire to work with and learn from their team.

Jeremy at Dujac was very kind to recommend me to Pierre-Yves and Caroline, and I’m very excited to say they’ve agreed to take me on for vintage 2019.

I also plan to apply for entry into the MW program this year, continuing to push myself to learn on all fronts.

 

What have been the most important things you have learnt whilst working in New Zealand, Australia and Burgundy?

At Aurum, I learned the fundamentals of winemaking, how to punchdown, how to dig out a tank, and that 90% of the work is cleaning. I learned the importance of good fruit and hygiene; keeping the winery clean and organised keeps your wine clean and your brain organised.

Central Otago has a reputation for making dense, structured Pinot Noir, but what drew me to Aurum was the finesse and elegance I found in their wines. Far from trying to imitate Burgundy, Aurum was all about embracing the things that make Central Otago unique – great depth of fruit and fine, powdery tannins from the high UV radiation, dry climate and schist soils, all through the lens of delicate extraction, heady perfume, and wonderful balance. I arrived at a time when they were a few years into giving up textbook winemaking – picking earlier, eschewing yeasts, enzymes, fining, filtering, and sulfuring reds only before bottling. It took courage and faith to trial these changes, but once Lucie and Brook (Lawrence) saw that the wines were better, they had the confidence to stick with them. Most importantly, this experience with Aurum validated my belief that new regions gain recognition and sustain success by focusing on quality, not quantity.

I originally had considered planting other varieties to complement Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Working at Aurum helped me narrow my focus. I asked myself, would I rather be excellent at one thing, or moderately good at many? Looking at people I admire across industries, I know that it can take a lifetime to master one or two things. It always made implicit sense to me to simplify in any task I took on. Without doubt my greatest passion is for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and from then on I dedicated my focus to learning the craft, the idiosyncrasies of these two grapes, and to making the best possible expression of Yunnan Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

 

At Bindi, I learned the importance of defining what one values in wine. From the generosity of wines shared, the conversations we had around each glass, I learned that the best vigneron are constantly benchmarking and trying to learn. It was here that I truly began my journey to define and understand the wines most compelling to me, and to find the threads that connect them. All this set me on a path to get more out of each wine I taste. It is also where I learned to taste texturally, and to think more actively about how it added to my enjoyment of a wine.

What sets Michael (Dhillon) apart is an extremely defined understanding of what he values in wine. When making the choices to pick, pump, plunge or press, numbers were only ever for context. Instead, Michael was always tasting, tasting, tasting — building and refining his mental image of how the flavors, acidity, and textures would all fit together.

I also learned the importance of farming intensely, of being present and learning the idiosyncrasies of your place. I learned that terroir can’t speak clearly unless you have good, thoughtful farming.

Ultimately, what I took from Bindi is to define what I value most in wine for myself — to constantly taste, learn, and figure out how to get there. Wine can be grown and made in so many different ways; what might work in one place won’t work in another. I learned that I must look at my own land and consider what it will take to grow the most balanced and delicious fruit. If at that time I have a clear vision for what I desire in wine, the fruit will speak clearly about how it should be handled, what should or shouldn’t be done.

 

Being so enamored with their wines, much of what I hoped to learn at Dujac was technical. I peppered the team with questions to understand their picking decisions, how to work with solids and brown juice in Chardonnay, how to manage whole cluster ferments, maceration and lees in Pinot Noir. This ended up being only a small part of what I learned.

What I saw at Dujac was in many ways a continuation of what I had experienced at Bindi and Aurum – incredible care, dedication, clarity of values, and winemaking by taste and intuition and not by rote formula. I loved being able to understand the rationale behind every choice and decision – punchdown or pumpover? What is being achieved by homogenising the solids/lees in tank before barrelling down? Do you do that every year? What are the benefits and trade offs from pressing today or tomorrow? In exchange for my hard work, I was given a glimpse into the Dujac aesthetic and what they value through the many choices and decisions during vintage. It was a privilege to be amongst that team everyday.

I was also lucky to experience the frenetic pace of 2018. From this I learned that in a vintage of quality and quantity, one must always anticipate – to keep a clear head, to define outcomes, to have a strong team and to delegate.

One of the unexpected benefits of the vintage was the education for my palate. The Seysses family was very generous, allowing the interns to rotate and choose four bottles each evening for a round of blind tasting. Suffice to say there were many wines I will never taste again in my life. What made these wines most special were not price or rarity, but rather the stories and context given after the reveal – many of the wines having been made in memorable vintages at Dujac or by close friends of the Seysses family.

Through our daily tastings in the winery and at the table, I came away with a clear and defined idea of what I value most in wine, irrespective of winemaking or terroir. In Pinot Noir, wines that captivate me are always ones that emphasise perfume, purity and texture. In Chardonnay, the categories are much the same though expressed differently, with greater emphasis on acidity, phenolic grip and leesy viscosity that give wines a sense of energy and shape. I cant wait for the day that I get to pick my own fruit, experiment, make mistakes, and learn to make wine that is compelling and delicious.

That being said, all three places taught me a love for the process of growing and making wine.

The doing — the physicality, its tangible nature, the satisfaction given at the end of a long day — is my favourite part of the winemaking journey so far. During vintage, that constancy of doing can become a blur as exhaustion takes hold of both mind and body. Yet Lucie, Michael and Jeremy always knew what they wanted to achieve and what needed to be done next. I hope that one day, in the midst of vintage delirium at my own place, making my own wine, I can maintain that same clarity, focus, and poise that I saw while working at Aurum, Bindi and Dujac.

 

To read more about Alex’s journey and progress, follow his blog on Medium: https://medium.com/@alex_xu