Australian Lilian Carter ventures into China’s furthermost western province to engage in a project of a different kind – winemaking, writes Jeremy Oliver.
Talk to most Australian participants in wine in China and the stories you will hear will be of Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou. Or, if they’re more adventurous, perhaps some of the second and third-tier cities. Not so with Lilian Carter, who’s heading way out west, to Korla, a mid-sized city in the autonomous region of Xinjiang around 2400 km west of Beijing, placing it due north of Nepal. Why? She’s a winemaker, heading on a two-day journey from Melbourne to process the first vintage and commission the brand-new winery for the WangZhong Wine Company.
No stranger to China, Lilian Carter has previously operated the Helan Mountain winery in
Ningxia through the vintages of 2008 and 2009 for Pernod Ricard, in the process collecting the trophy for the best Asian wine at the 2009 Hong Kong International Wine Show with Helan Mountain’s 2008 Special Reserve Chardonnay. This time she is working with Professor Li Demei, a teacher at Beijing’s University of Agriculture, a winery and viticulture consultant in China and the author of a new book that provides a uniquely Chinese perspective on wine. I greatly admire Professor Li, who is not only Lead Consultant to WangZhong, but also consults to Helan Qing Xue in Ningxia, whose Jia Bei Lan red blend from 2009 is the finest Chinese wine I have tasted.
*Pictured: Lilian Carter at the Helan winery in Ningxia.
Once at Korla, Carter will have flown an hour south from the region’s very un-westernised capital of Urumqi, before a 40-minute drive back north over a spectacular, bone-dry range of mountains, then across a broad river valley and close to the edge of another range of startling beauty. Its 130ha of vines are planted to cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, chardonnay and petit mensang, the new vineyard faces slightly southeast, giving it a slightly warmer aspect in this cool location.
“When I first walked into the vineyard, I just thought – Yes!” Carter enthuses.
While the region receives a mere 60mm rainfall each year, it’s well supplied with irrigation water. It averages a summer top temperature around 32 degrees Celcius, with a winter low of minus 10. It can get down to a vine-killing minus 25 degrees Celcius, which is why it’s essential the vines are buried each winter beneath at least 30cm of soil.
The winery building itself is a very impressive construction in a modern Chinese ‘chateau’ style whose design has been based on the shape of a swan. It will ultimately process 1,000 tonnes of fruit, and has been set up to accomplish that with ease. Carter is expecting to handle 200 tonnes in 2012. Professor Li arranged for a staggered series of plantings to ensure a steady growth of production, so the vines planted in 2010 are now bearing fruit for the first time in 2012.
Once things get underway, Carter will be the only winemaker on the site. She has no idea of how many assistants she will have access to, but knows she won’t be short-handed.
“It might be an issue to match the tasks to those with the right levels of skill and experience,” she says, “and there’s bound to be some teething issues with brand-new equipment. But it’s so exciting to have a blank canvas to put my stamp on.”
*Pictured: The WangZhong vineyard and winery building in Xinjiang.
This project is a true frontier winemaking experience, which Carter compares to her first days in Ningxia back in 2007, when she was one of the few western visitors. While Korla is certainly more remote, she expects it to change quickly.
Considerably closer to Beijing, Ningxia is several hundred kilometres south of Xinjiang. Helan Mountain is one of this region’s larger developments and it was there that Carter first learned to deal with a viticultural challenge rarely experienced in Australia – that of a summer quickly becoming a serious winter.
“The local team knew they had to have the vines harvested by a certain date at which the weather usually changes by which time the vines need to be buried beneath soil to survive the winter. The issue can be that the flavour and sugar might not be fully there yet when they harvest. Our challenge was to try and identify the sites in the vineyard that had more potential, and to try to make from them the best wine that we could,” she says.
Carter is looking forward to more flexibility concerning quantity and quality at WangZhong Winery, especially since its vineyard is owned and operated by the owners of the winery. Furthermore, it’s indeed possible that the transition from summer to winter might not be as rapid.
“We believe we’re more able to dictate what happens. Quality is the target and we’ve already been reducing the crop to ensure the best possible ripeness,” she says.
Carter is excited about making wine in a brand-new region. There’s another winery nearby WangZhong, but she hasn’t yet had the chance to learn about it or its wines.
“In a number of ways this vintage presents the perfect opportunity to put my accumulated knowledge to the test – technical and otherwise. The winery is a standard Chinese design but with a new take, and it’s all been done with process in mind. We’ll be comfortable for storage space, capacity and equipment, so it’s really a matter of setting up the systems and training people, and getting them to think about wine differently from other food manufacturing processes. I’m really looking forward to the challenge.”
As a western winemaker working in China, Lilian Carter believes it will be easier for her to convince her Chinese team to follow her approach in the winery than the vineyard.
“You can prove ideas in a matter of months in the winery, but it takes longer to understand and meet the new challenges in the vineyard,” she says.
Also looking forward to the ‘extra-curricular’ aspect of exploring Xinjiang, Carter is excited about being so close to the historic trading routes across northern Asia.
“The food is great – eclectic and interesting,” she declares, “and I’m ready for 9-10 weeks of a new culture. There’s a lot of spectacular scenery in the region, so I expect the time will fly by.”
Few winemakers anywhere in the world are given an opportunity like that facing Lilian Carter, who looks forward to a future of making wine in both Australia and China, and to the exchange of ideas that will inevitably result, no matter how remote the location or how unusual the challenge. ■