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Meet the maker of China's top wine
By Gao Ceng

Winemaker Li Demei compares himself to a glass of Domaine Chevalier, saying both he and the wine are "low-key and implicit enough to be easily missed, but recognized as a top Bordeaux white due to its depth and profundity."

The 43-year-old winemaker, a native of Shandong Province, says his greatest pleasure is using his "wine language to establish a dialogue" with the wine drinker.

This language, in his words, "transcends time and space," describing the climate of the vintage, whether the summer is hot and dry and the winter frozen, whether the vineyard grows on a misted mountain or beside a beautiful river, whether the soil is rich in clay and mineral content.

Li, one of the first French-trained Chinese winemakers, established his name on the world stage in 2011 when his Jia Bei Lan 2009 produced in northwestern China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region won a top global honor in a blind tasting ? the highest award ever given to a Chinese wine. Li's blend of reds from northwestern China received the Red Bordeaux Varietal International Trophy by the Decanter World Wine Awards.

"Big, with quite leafy black fruit and exciting minty perfume. Medium-bodied, supple, graceful and ripe but not flashy. Excellent length and four square tannins," declared the judges at Decanter.

After years of Chinese wine being dismissed as "plonk" by many Western oenophiles, it seems the era of quality Chinese wine is dawning and Li is one of the pioneers.

"My life changed after my wine was honored," said Li during an interview with Shanghai Daily early this month when he attended a major Bordeaux wine tasting in the city.

Li is now the consultant winemaker for several wine operations in northern and western China. He lectures in viticulture and wine appreciation at the Beijing University of Agriculture. He's also written a book in Chinese, "Communications from a Chinese Winemaker" (2012).

His third and latest wine, Skyline of Gobi, a red mainly of Merlot grapes, was bottled on January 18, 2013 in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in far western China.

After the award, some international wine critics and journalists rushed to contact Li about visiting Chinese vineyards.

One of them, Australian master Andrew Caillard, traveled to the vineyard Li manages, Helan Qing Xue (literally Sunshine and Snow on Helan Mountains), in an isolated desert mountain range on the border of the Ningxia Hui and the Inner Mongolia autonomous regions.

That's where the award-winning wine was made, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Gernicht.

Caillard was shooting a new documentary film, "Red Obsession," about the shift in wine consumption power from West to East. Li is depicted as a representative of new Chinese wine production. It is to be released this year.

At the same time, many Western wine media and experts have questioned the superiority of Li's wines and the timing of the award in 2011 to apparently coincide with the launch of the Chinese-language version of Decanter magazine. French wine in Chinese bottles is how some describe Li's efforts.

"Being honored and doubted are both to be expected," Li says, who has now produced three wines in China. The first (a red and a white) in 2003 in a Sino-French demonstration project outside Beijing; the second Jia Bei Lan in Ningxia, and the third Skyline of Gobi. Volume was low in the first two wines. Li hopes Skyline of Gobi, with a larger volume, will be widely distributed and more affordable.

Jia Bei Lan was first produced in 2005 and achieved a high quality in 2008, when it garnered nearly all the awards from Chinese wine associations. The 2009 vintage is even better, according to the vintner. Only 20,000 bottles were produced. It sells for around 800 yuan (US$128) a bottle; that's considered astonishingly high for a Chinese wine, especially given low labor costs.

"I've studied overseas for years, clearly knowing that any outstanding achievement by Chinese, especially in areas where China is not traditionally strong, will be doubted," Li says.

The vintner spent two years in Florida in the United States, studying gardening, and two years in France learning viticulture.

"I have never replied publicly to such doubts since I believe my wine stands the test of time," he says.

"Moreover, such skepticism is inevitable for a New World wine country lacking experience and unrecognized by the Old World during its early stages of development, especially China," Li adds.

Counted rigorously, China has only 16 years of winemaking experience, he says.

Wine challenge in China

Compared with New World winemakers, such as those in Australia and America, Chinese winemakers face far more difficulties and challenges because of the growing climate.

They may be working the same grapes, but the conditions are very different.

Australian, American and Chilean winemakers are fortunate because they can start by imitating the viticulture mode from Old World wine countries such as France and Spain.

They share similar oceanic climates, warm and dry in the summer (not too hot) and cool and moist in the winter (not too cold).

By contrast, China has a distinctive and less-than-ideal climate in many places. Summers can be hot and humid, which easily rot grapes; winters can be too cold and dry. Even in Ningxia, which is comparatively cool, grapes are threatened by over-cold winters and lack of rain in winter, says the winemaker.

"We don't have any experience adapting to the weather, but have had to create our own mode from scratch," says Li.

He spent years developing ways to adapt to Chinese weather, including burying his vines in winter to protect them from cold and digging them out in spring. He still does that.

"I wouldn't dare to say that I have found way to completely break the limitations of climate, but I have made a big improvement, which is reflected in my latest Skyline of Gobi," he says.

Chinese business people tend to want high returns on short-term investment, but this approach limits the development of the wine industry, which usually needs more than 10 years to recover costs, according to Li.

Respect terroir

After his wine became world-famous, Li has received numerous invitations to make wine at wineries in China and overseas.

"No matter how much wineries pay, I must have freedom to manage the vineyard, which means respecting the terroir," Li says.

Terroir refers to climate, geography, soil and how they affect and interact with each other, giving distinctive characteristics to particular vineyards in particular years.

Li attributes the success of his Jia Bei Lan 2009 to the great vintage, good weather and interplay of many factors.

"In wine I try to represent all the natural advantages of terroir, while avoiding mistakes during the winemaking process, slightly adjusting the blending and barrel aging according to the climate conditions of a particular year," Li says.

Lu Yang, considered the top sommelier in China and Asia, reads Li's philosophy in his wines.

"I have tasted different vintages of Jia Bei Lan, and they are slightly different. Generally, I get a strong expression of Ningxia terroir from the wine, with the aroma of dried mushroom and herbs," says Lu, now wine director at Shangri-La International Management Group.

Li says the only wineries with which he will cooperate are those that operate their own vineyards and allow the winemaker to be involved in vineyard management.

"If a winemaker cannot control the original ingredients, the grapes, winemaking will be filled with too many uncertainties and the continuity through vintages cannot be ensured," Li says.

Today Li works in a vineyard covering 133 hectares in Yanqi, also known as Karasahr in central Xinjiang on the Silk Road. He only cultivates 100 hectares of grapes, however, saving the remainder for a time in 10 years or so when he has a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the terroir, knowing which grape variety suits the soil and climate.

He describes wine reflecting Ningxia terroir as having "good acidity and fresh aroma, some notes of white fruits brought by the cool weather. Xinjiang terroir produces wine with "deep color, rich aroma and intense flavor," he says.

"Respecting nature doesn't mean a loss of my wine personality, which still takes time to cultivate and mature. Although different vintages have differences, there is something subtle, invariable and eternal there. If I capture such subtlety, then my personal style is formed," says the winemaker.

However, Li's approach differs from that of some French winemakers, says Yao Shangyong, a certified wine taster, who once made wine with Li.

"Unlike many French winemakers throwing themselves into representing terroir without considering the wine drinker, Li balances the terroir with drinkability. After all, not all the characteristics of terroir present in wine are pleasing to many drinkers," says Yao.

American, French roots

"Demei's wine presents much Old World style, elegant, implicit and balanced, showing his French roots," says Li Meiyu, sommelier at Park Hyatt Beijing and the winemaker's friend.

But Li Demei's interest in winemaking arose in the New World.

He graduated from China's Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University in Yangling, Shaanxi Province, with a major in gardening. He studied meterology, geology, chemistry, soil, fertilizer, plant biology and other subjects.

At the age of 26, he went to Florida State University Southwest Research Center to continue gardening studies.

"At that time, I only knew that there is a by-product of the grape called wine and I never thought of making wine until one day in my second year in America," Li recalls.

It was November 1997 and he and a friend were driving in northern California when they got lost and found themselves in a vineyard in the Napa Valley.

"I was very impressed. It was an autumn day and all over the hills there were rows of colorful grapes, light yellow, green, golden, pink, red, deep purple. From then on, I started thinking of viticulture and used my camera to capture the vineyard colors," Li says.

Three years later he took part in a two-year Sino-French project in viticulture, oenology and winery management in Bordeaux at the prestigious ENITA (Ecole Nationale D'Ingenieurs Des Travaux Agricoles).

He immersed himself in the French language, often sleeping no more than four hours a night.

He then received an internship at Chateau Palmer, ranked third-growth in Bordeaux, becoming the first Chinese to work there.

"Palmer was a turning point in my life where I harvested my wine philosophy and winemaking attitude," Li emphasizes. Before ending his internship, he was given permission to copy the working notes on wine growing and winemaking over the years. Staff gave him their own notes.

"The French believe that you can copy their technique but cannot copy their terroir, including the soil and sunshine, which determines their wine," says Li.

In 2003, he returned to China, making his very first wines - one red and one white - in a Sino-French Demonstration Vineyard in Hebei Province. During the process, French winemakers visited and advised. Li frequently challenged the veterans and their advice on how to make wine in China.

They were shocked that a young Chinese winemaker, with only a few years' experience, would question experts with many years experience from a nation with a long winemaking history.

"I answered them without hesitation: 'It's terroir, the most important thing I learned form your country. Although you know more about viticulture, I know more about Chinese terroir'," Li recalls.

Life of a winemaker

"Being a winemaker is boring, hard and lonely but once you fall in love with it, it's also a job you will ever give up until you die," says the vintner.

Most of the vineyards in China are in remote and desolate areas where traditional agriculture cannot develop because those crops require different soil types.

"One-third of my time is spent in the vineyard, exposed to the sun and rain, turning over the oil and pruning, just like an ordinary farmer," he says.

There's no room for mistakes. Li checks the smallest detail, from picking the grapes to cleaning the crushers and filters. A decaying grape left inside a vessel can contaminate the wine with bacteria.

"It's also a risky job and even can be life-threatening, so a rigorous working attitude is required," says Yao, the certified wine taster who once made wine with Li.

Li insisted that the carbon dioxide level be tested each time before staff approached the fermentation barrel so they would not be suffocated by carbon dioxide fumes, Yao recalls. "This precaution is neglected by many local Chinese winemakers," he says.

Making wine, a living thing that changes and evolves over time, is filled with uncertainties.

"When I'm making wine, I'm not only making its present, but also putting his imagination of its future into the bottle," Li explains.

After the wine is bottled, and it ages with the cork, there is suspense because no one knows how it will taste until the bottle is opened some years later.

Unlike other jobs that can become routine through years of repetition, there is nothing routine about winemaking. "You never slack off for lack of curiosity, because in the world of wine, every day is a new day," Li says.

Some winemakers who are more than 80 years old still visit their vineyards regularly, though they lean on their canes. "I will probably make wine all my life," says Li, "and worry about my wine on my deathbed."

Chinese wine production

China is the world's sixth-largest wine-producing country, reaching 135 million 9-liter cases in 2011, ahead of Australia, and is expected to strengthen its position by 2016, according to the industry report by Vinexpo Asia Pacific released this month.

Around 57,000 hectares of vines are cultivated. Wine-growing areas include Shandong, Shanxi and Hebei provinces, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Among which, Shandong is known for its tidal and cinnamon soil and production of Cabernet Sauvignon; Ningxia features a cool climate and sandy soil, producing both red and white grapes such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay. Xinjiang is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Gamay and Riesling. It is considered by top Chinese winemaker Li Demei as a potential area for producing sweet wine.

Views on Chinese wine

Robert Parker

Influential critic with "a million-dollar nose"

The Chinese wine I served five years ago was good, but not inspirational. But what I tasted in recent years convinced me that China is a vast country with diverse soils and climates. I think it has a tremendous potential. No matter how good the Chinese wines have become, there will be skeptics."

Jerry Liao

Manager sommelier at Jing An Shangri-La, West Shanghai

The Chinese wine appellation system is still under an experimenting status, so that thus far there are many inferior wines, either domestically made or imported, labeled with an ambiguous origin. Some Chinese wineries are too volume-oriented to maintain their quality. But I am optimistic that China will be the most potential and dynamic market in the near future."

Steve Spurrier

Consulting editor of Decanter and also organizer of the Judgment of Paris

I tried an attractive Muscat made in China, very light, clean and aromatic. However, overall, for Chinese wine production, quantity is higher than quality."

Jancis Robinson

British wine critic, international authority and Master of Wine

I once encountered a wine made from 100-percent Chinese grapes that would surely be an absolutely perfect introduction to wine for anyone such as the more than a billion Chinese who have never so far tasted it. And with its convincing core of fruit, easy grapiness and sizzling crispness, it would be a suitable foil for all manner of mild, spicy, sweet and sticky morsels destined for their chopsticks. Ningxia seems to be the most popular area for the latest round of investment in Chinese vineyards. The climate here is much drier than that of Shandong Province on the east coast, where so many of the first vineyards of the modern era are located."

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