Wine enthusiasts sample some of the vineyard's produce. A surprise hit was the 2005 Marselan. [Photo by: Marc Checkley]
Standing in the middle of a vineyard in Huailai County, Hubei Province, a two-hour drive northwest of Beijing, one could think they were in France or Italy.
There are endless rows of vines, whose grapes were recently harvested for this year's vintages. The fresh air, crisp breeze and dry soil are the ideal elements to grow grapes that are processed to make such well-known Chinese wines as Great Wall, Dynasty and Dragon Seal.
While the tradition of making wine from grapes dates back some 4,000 years, the industry has only begun to flourish in the past 20 years. Other than Hebei Province, other wineries can be found in such areas as Shandong, Zhejiang, Qingdao provinces, and Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
A tourist from Glasgow, Scotland samples savignon blanc direct from the vine! [ Photo: Marc Checkley ]
Haulai's Sino-French Chateau, is a joint venture between France and China that began 10 years ago. Then premier-to-be Wen Jiabao visited the wine country and declared there should be a vineyard near Beijing. The contract was signed between the two countries two years later and Huailai was chosen for its good climate, temperature and soil for growing grapes. It also interestingly shares the same latitude with Bordeaux.
The 22-hectare vineyard is located 500 meters above sea level, with hotter summers and cooler winters than Beijing by four to five degrees during the day, and up to 10 degrees in the evening.
Thirty-year-old vice-general manager and winemaker Zhao Desheng speaks fluent French, having studied viticulture in Bordeaux for a year and a half before he began supervising the vineyard.
"Before I went to France, I was influenced by French culture and wine and decided to study winemaking," he says.
Zhao says 16 grape varieties are grown here, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Reisling, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, Viognier, and Marselan, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache.
They are harvested by hand between September and October and then taken to the distillery where they are cleaned and crushed. The juice is then placed in stainless steel tanks for fermentation before aging in French oak barrels and then filtered and bottled.
Wine is a tricky business at the best of times. Zhao says Chardonnay, Reisling and Sauvignon Blanc grapes perform best, while Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Marselan are more difficult to grow. Pinot Noir, added Zhao, was the most difficult.
He gave the eclectic international group of wine devotees an opportunity to sample some of the wines created at the Sino-French Chateau. And for a very young winery, the wines show much promise for the future.
An interesting discovery was the 2005 Marselan. The varietal is one of the newest entrants in the wine fraternity. Exuding the smoothness of Cabernet Sauvignon with the sweet aftertaste of Grenache, it was indeed a one of the winery's best blends.
A Frenchman who lives near the famous Chateauneuf du Pape wine region, was impressed by the Chinese vineyard and pronounced the wines he sampled as very pleasant.
Zhao says Sino-French Chateau is still in an experimental stage and only has limited wine production at the moment. But in the coming years he hopes it will produce higher quality yields, which could see more local wines on China's tabletops.
Location: Dong Hua Yuan, Huai Lai District, Hebei Province
Tel: 0313-6849 882