Throughout this new series of interviews with some of the world’s top winemakers we have heard differing stories of how vignerons have coped during the pandemic – the lessons learned and what changes they are implementing as they face the future. But what of winemakers in China? What has been the experience in the country where the virus started? For Emma Gao, winemaker at Silver Heights, she has helped the winery’s expansion both at home and abroad, experimented with new cuvées including her first Pet Nat and taken home some fundamental truths about wine’s place in the grand scheme of things.
“In the past 18 months I have learned to slow down and to be fortified in the idea humans and nature are the same thing. Part of the same energy,” says Emma Gao.
Silver Heights is one of China’s most exciting boutique wineries. Founded by father and daughter, Lin Gao and Emma Gao, in 2007 in the Ningxia province its wines have already been served at state functions and garnered critical acclaim. Emma Gao studied in Bordeaux at Calon-Ségur where she fell in love with and married its winemaker Thierry Courtade who returned to China with her and helps make the wine and oversee the winery’s expansion.
Peter Dean: How has life been for the past 18 months?
Emma Gao: Not bad. After years of preparation, we have finally opened our new state-of-the-art winery this summer, which will be the new site for our winemaking, hospitality and culture centre. I had more time to connect and to better understand our vineyards and our people. And to study!
How has the pandemic affected your winery?
Like everyone during the pandemic, our sales and logistics were disrupted but luckily, the spread was brought under control quickly and we even managed to grow last year, even with our small production, both domestically and abroad.
Has life returned to normal yet?
Thanks to China’s determined approach to the pandemic, we are back to a sort of ‘new normal’ fairly early on, for almost a year. We did wine dinners and events all year around. But, of course, we are vigilant and cautious.
What has been the hardest thing about adapting to the ‘new normal’?
Travel restriction probably. But I think it is correct to have safety of the people first. Hopefully, we will all beat Covid-19 soon globally.
Has anything good come out of it? If so, what?
I had the opportunity to focus on the vineyard much more, I am very happy with it. It gave us more time to really understand our land and mother nature. It’s amazing in a way that when a crisis like Covid-19 can halt all of our plans, Mother Nature carries on. It shows resilience of nature itself.
What lessons do you think have been learned in the past 18 months?
To slow down and to be fortified in the idea humans and nature are the same thing. Part of the same energy.
Has it led to anything new in the pipeline? Cuvées, varietals, styles etc?
We released a new collection of single varietal collection called Jiayuan (which means homeland in Chinese), which is produced biodynamically. The collection consists of three single vineyard, single varietal wines that are made from Pinot Noir, Marselan and Cabernet, respectively. The wines are made using minimal intervention and no filtration. Furthermore I experimented with a sparkling wine, my very first pétillant-naturel. The wine is called Bloom, a sparkling méthode ancestrale with a blend of Riesling Italic, Rice wine and Sauvignon.
In terms of the effect on your winemaking – how impactful has COVID been compared to Climate Change?
With climate change, we have seen more rainfalls in Ningxia, which could be a good thing for us because annual rainfall here is normally around 200mm. 2020 was a good year both for quality and yield but winter’s temperature dropped to -25° Celsius, which was the coldest winter in the past 60 years. Many trees were damaged.
What stage of the current growing cycle are you?
We are currently at the growing cycle of veraison (change colour to red). This year, the weather is dry compared to 2020, (37° Celcius, compared to last year’s 32°C). Grapes are a little strained. To avoid too much stress, we made a lot of effort to help the vines. Since we are using biodynamic practices, we sprayed herbal tea to help cool down the vines, and to slow down maturity to retain acidity, and get better and even ripeness of the grape seeds (unevenly ripened seeds shows bitterness).
Is 2021 going to be a good harvest?
Fingers crossed. We won’t know until we reach harvest.
Any characteristics to note?
We will be able to analyse characteristics once the grape harvest and fermentation are finished, when we taste the wine.
How have you changed your business model over the past 18 months?
We did not change our business model, thanks to a good team of people we work with.
Did you go Direct To Consumer?
Yes, we have been selling online since several years ago. In China it is an important and popular channel. So we did not have the sudden shift as many wineries might have experienced elsewhere.
Have you changed which countries you are distributing to?
In 2020 we had an important growth from export. We gained foothold in new and important markets such as the UK, US, Singapore, Belgium, Demark and Italy. In markets, where we were already present such as Japan, Canada and the Philippines, we consolidated the relations with our current partners.
Has exporting to the UK changed at all – is it logistically more difficult and if so – are other countries more attractive/ profitable?
We have a small production. We did not encounter many changes or new difficulties in exporting to the UK. UK has been always and will continue to be a key market for fine wines.
The wines of Silver Heights are imported and distributed by the Oeno Group.