Winemaker Judy Chan can still recall the initial challenges when her father, C.K. Chan, handed her the reins of Grace Vineyard.
More from Zester Daily:
A former human-resources analyst, Judy Chan faced not only tough competition from imported wines and the three giant Chinese labels — Dynasty, Great Wall and Changyu — but being new to the business, she didn’t know how to price, market or package the wine produced from the vineyard.
“The first bottle label looked like a soy sauce bottle,” she said of her early days in the business.
I was introduced to Grace Vineyard wines and Judy Chan three years ago in Hong Kong, where the young vintner is based. I returned home from a recent trip to Hong Kong with two bottles of Grace Vineyard’s wines with the intention of conducting an informal tasting of made-in-China Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay with California wines.
Putting Grace Vineyard wines to the test
I gathered together a few winemaker friends for a casual wine tasting, using brown bags to wrap the selected bottles: the 2011 Grace Vineyard Deep Blue (a Cabernet Sauvignon-driven wine with some Merlot) and the 2010 Babcock Cabernet Sauvignon from Santa Barbara County’s Happy Canyon, both in the $45 price range, as well as two Chardonnays in the $25 price range, Grace Vineyard’s 2011 Tasya’s Reserve and 2011 Saintsbury from Napa Valley’s Carneros district.
In evaluating appearance, aroma, texture, aftertaste and overall impression, Grace’s Deep Blue rated higher than the Babcock. In the white category, Saintsbury topped Grace’s Tasya’s Reserve.
For the group, it was an interesting introduction to the Chinese wine industry, which, although relatively new on the international wine map, is producing noteworthy wines.
Taking over the helm
Judy Chan departed from Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong in 2002, when her father asked her to take over a 296-acre vineyard in Shanxi, China, about 370 miles west of Beijing, and an additional 163-acre property in Ningxia, China, 865 miles west of Beijing.
At the time, she knew nothing about wine making, but her father was introduced to the fine wines as an international dealer, trading raw materials such as coal from Shanxi to France. “People associate Shanxi with coal and pollution, so he wanted to contribute environmentally,” Judy Chan said of her father’s decision to plant vineyards in 1997.
The senior Chan selected Shanxi’s Taigu County, known for deep, sandy loam soil. During summers, the warm days (about 95 F) are followed by cool nights when temperature drops to about 60. White grape varietals are harvested at the end of August, with the red grapes following in the middle of October. Winters in the region are harsh and challenging, so vines have to be buried in the ground, Judy Chan said.
A focus on quality over quantity
With Gerard Colin on board as the winemaker, initial plantings included Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Chardonnay, vines imported from a nursery in Bordeaux, France. The first vintage in 2001 of 1 million bottles has grown to 1.5 million bottles annually. “It’s a decision we made,” Judy Chan said of the annual production figures. “I want to grow in quality not quantity.”
She said the current portfolio for Grace Vineyard includes 16 wines crafted by winemaker Ken Murchison. Varieties planted in Shanxi include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and the new additions of Marselan and Aglianico. In Ningxia, vineyards include the three Bordeaux varieties as well as Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir.
How are the flavor profiles different between the two regions?
The Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are dramatically different, Judy Chan said. The Shanxi wines show black fruit character with hints of spice and pepper producing softer wines than those from Ningxia, which are bolder in character with red fruit flavors and higher in alcohol levels.
Identifying a market
Retail prices for Grace Vineyard’s wines range from $9 for the entry-level Vineyard series, a fruit-forward everyday wine, to $76 for the high-end Chairman’s Reserve, a complex Bordeaux-style blend aged in French oak. The cellar-worthy wine garnered an 85-point rating from wine guru Robert Parker. A newer label, the People’s series, serves as a mid-range wine targeted to the young crowd and marketed in Shanghai and Hong Kong’s hip restaurants and hotels.
This year, Grace is set to release some new wines — Shiraz, Aglianico and Marsalen — as well as a sparkling wine.
Grace has come a long way over the past decade, branding itself as a boutique family-run winery with success in local markets as well as export markets including Singapore, Japan and the United Kingdom.
Judy Chan said building a winery from scratch has been an invaluable experience.
“My dream is to build small wineries in different parts of China, each with its own identity,” she said.
Main photo: Grace Vineyard’s Chairman’s Reserve. Credit: Copyright 2015 courtesy of Grace Vineyard