Every now and then I like to push myself out of my comfort zone just to keep myself from being too comfortable in any single situation. This trip was so far out of my comfort zone, I wasn’t even in the same ballpark with it anymore. I did not know what to expect and since the details of what would happen when I arrived were quite fuzzy, I was going on pure blind faith that everything would be taken care of. I shouldn’t have worried at all. This was an experience like none that I have ever been a part of. The first few days were spent in the company of my fellow Challenge winemakers, 48 of us in all. As a group, we represent almost every major winemaking country, with varying experiences, languages, and careers. Everyone was super friendly and, as is usually the case with winemaking types, extremely passionate about wine and grapes. I had great conversations during these first days where we toured the Ningxia Provence by bus, visiting several wineries as well as our vineyard that we would be working with.
The selection ceremony came and each winemaker was paired with a partner winery and selected a vineyard block. This was done by random selection. I was extremely lucky with my pick. I am paired with a winery called Lansai. The winery itself is small by local standards but elegantly designed and stays true to the spirit of China with very traditional architecture, statues and reliefs of mythological and symbolic Chinese figures cranes, lions, birds, and of course the dragon, which is the most prominent of the symbols and was chosen to bring power to the winery. Even though the winery is not finished it has a powerful feel to it, as though the building stands in comfortable harmony with the land even though it makes such a strong statement on the landscape.
I decided to pick on Friday, September 25th, earlier than most of my contemporaries but there was 3 days of rain coming the next week and I had no time to waste given that I was flying home on October 3rd. If there is one thing I know from my years of winemaking, it is that 3 days of rain does not improve anything in wine quality that close to harvest. I was able to sort quite strictly at both the cluster and berry level. Ten percent of the fruit did not make the cut. The resulting juice was easy to work with and extracted quite nicely without the use of enzymes which so many people seem to rely on for fermentations. I was initially concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find the winemaking supplies that I normally use in the US, but it turns out that the suppliers have great representation in the region and I was able to find everything that I needed. The winery is very well equipped with both heating and cooling capabilities on all the tanks, a luxury which I have not had previously. The analysis was good from the sorted fruit and I am very happy with how the wine turned out. I was able to press off one tank at dryness before I left and am very pleased with the texture of the tannin. The seeds were quite green still so I wanted to minimize any harsh extraction while still providing great structure for the wine.
I had other great adventures while making the wine. I tried a Durnian fruit for the first time, and probably the last because the smell was almost too much for me to take. I celebrated the Chinese holiday, Middle Moon, with my Chinese host family who have welcomed me in with open arms and have supported my efforts for making the best quality wine with amazing enthusiasm. I have sampled much of the local food, minus anything spicy, and can report that it is delicious. In particular, I am in love with the egg based Chinese crepe that is served for breakfast here. I have already found a recipe and if it is successfully similar I will share it.
I returned from China yesterday and although I am a bit jet lagged still, I am happy that I have been able to participate in this incredible journey. I have left the wine in the capable hands of the Lansai winemaker, a young man named Mr. Wu, with detailed instructions on what to expect in the next few months before I head back to Lansai in February. All I can do is hope for the best and continue to make the most out of this incredible experience.