Couple’s vineyard takes root in China’s Bordeaux
In his vineyard along the foothills of the Helan-Mountains, Frenchman Thierry Courtade is moving equipment with a forklift.
In about one month, the grapes in Northwest China’s Ningxia Hui autonomous region will be made into wine. Thierry is busy taking care of the plants, preventing pesticides and diseases.
“It’s his daily routine,” said Gao Yuan, Courtade’s wife. “Although he is the boss, he lives in the vineyard throughout the year and oversees everything from the soil to planting and the harvesting.”
The Silver Heights vineyard is one of many wineries enjoying success thanks to the fertile soils around Mount Helan, often referred to as China’s Bordeaux.
By the end of last year, about 40,000 hectares of grapes were being grown in Ningxia, with the majority of the crops to be made into wine, according to statistics released at the China-US Tourism Leadership Summit held recently in Yinchuan, the regional capital.
This makes the area the largest grape-growing region in China. There are about 85 wineries in Ningxia, which produce about 100 million bottles of wine annually, and there are 99 wineries under construction.
Thanks to the couple’s hard work, Silver Heights branded wines have won several awards. From 2011 to 2013, one of their wines was named the “Best Wine in China” by the China Wine Competition. In 2012, two of their brands won the gold and silver prizes in the French wine and Chinese wine categories.
However, the couple’s story is not one of overnight success. In 2000, Ningxia’s wine industry was starting to take off, with the government setting plans in motion to send young professionals to study overseas and help the local wine industry.
Gao Yuan’s father saw an opportunity and sent his daughter to a French vocational school for 10 months to learn about winemaking.
“My father said that after I returned, we would make the best wine in Ningxia,” Gao said.
Despite the language barrier, Gao excelled during the 10 months and was accepted on to a more advanced course in Bordeaux. During this time, as an intern at Chateau Calon Segur, Gao met her future husband.
In 2007, Gao left Courtade and their daughter to return to Mount Helan, where she and her father established Silver Heights.
The foothills of Mount Helan are a perfect location for growing grapes. The soil is full of minerals and the area has about 3,000 hours of sunshine each year, with annual rainfall of less than 200 mm. Located just 1,100 meters above sea level, it is easy to use the Yellow River for irrigation.
At 40 degrees north, the vineyard is located at the same latitude as the Bordeaux wine region.
With favorable weather, hard work and government support, Gao’s winery soon became one of the most successful in the region.
In 2008, its wines were given top scores by Jancis Robinson, one of the three top wine testers in the world. In 2012, Courtade joined his wife in Moun t Helan.
“He uses processes developed by his own family,” Gao said. “All our fine wine is made without chemical or physical filtration.”
Courtade said he is very happy to work in Ningxia, not only because he is with his family, but because he enjoys his work.
“I have high hopes for the wine industry here,” he said.
The local government is offering support for entrepreneurs such as Courtade and Gao, with the Belt and Road Initiative drawing an increasing number of consumers to Ningxia.
The regional government plans to extend the region’s grape-growing area to about 47,000 hectares by 2020, producing about 200 million bottles of wine a year.
“I hope to stay here for a long time and make the best wine in the world,” Courtade said.
Workers pick grapes at a vineyard on Mount Helan in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region.
An agriculture expert (left) checks grapes at a farm in Wuzhong city, the Ningxia Hui autonomous region.