Enormous amounts of money and Austrian expertise are creating a stunning winery nearer to Beijing than the Loire

Wine consultants are those rare breed of people who can fly into a different country each week, pitch up at a winery, help the local people through a particular tricky bit of blending or tasting and fly out again. They bring an international palate, vast amounts of experience and in some cases a name that can be bandied about to give credibility to the wine.

Austrian Lenz Moser has done more than that. As consultant to the Changyu winery in China he has taken up residence in China for long stretches of time, he is trying to learn Mandarin and the winery where he consults now bears his name.

Austrian wine consultant, Lenz Moser

And what a winery! This is no standard concrete box with a designer reflecting pool in front. This is 70 million euros worth of a Loire style chateau with turrets, gardens, a museum and an 800 barrel-cellar. It would look perfectly at home in France, but instead it is 750 miles west of Beijing, in Ningxia which is fast becoming the ‘hot-spot’ of Chinese wine production.

Sheltered by the Helan mountains from cold winds and the bleak Gobi desert, this region supports grape growing particularly well. The vineyards are mainly located on the eastern foothills of the mountains at around 1100 metres above sea level. The region receives around 3000 hours of sunshine a year, perfect for ripening, but the continental climate means that while day-time temperatures are warm, the nights are cool, allowing the grapes to retain their freshness and fruit.

Another vital factor for vine growing in Ningxia is that winter temperatures go down to minus 25 degrees C each year which can have a devastating effect on the vines. Prolonged cold can burst vines open, so they are pruned after harvest and before temperatures plummet, the soil is banked up on each side of the vines and they slumber through 4 months of harsh winter weather buried under the soil.

Vineyards surround Chateau Changyu Moser XV

‘I first went to China in 2008 to explore the wine regions’, said Lenz when I met up with him at the London Wine Fair, ‘and I fell in love with the country. Since then I have made 42 trips to China. I tasted the wines from Changyu and thought they could be improved, so I stayed for 3 months initially to find out more about grape quality in the region. Because it is so dry here, irrigation can be controlled to restrict the size of the berries. Smaller berries means there is a higher skin to juice ratio and so you get more flavour in the wine. We found some vines that are 18 years old and started working with them, as well as planting 60 hectares of vines around the chateau.’

‘Now we are making a Moser XV Cabernet Sauvignon, a rosé and a top wine called Chateau Changyu Moser XV.’

‘Did you expect the winery to bear your name?’ I asked. ‘Absolutely not, it is a great honour.’ ‘And why does it have XV attached to the name?’ ‘This refers to the 15 generations of my family who have been involved in grape growing and winemaking in Austria.’ The name Moser is certainly well known, but tracing back 15 generations took a certain amount of research. ‘At first we could only find 14 generations, but after visiting libraries and various registers we discovered the name and vineyards of our 15th generation ancestor. This is fortunate because 14 is not a lucky number in Chinese.’

Moser XV 2015 is an unoaked Cabernet Sauvignon from Ningxia (Tesco £8.50, selected stores, available online at £51 for a 6-bottle case) and it is not just a curiosity, it is genuinely good. With soft, rounded cassis and red-berry fruit, it has good depth of flavour, a pinch of spice and the kind of style that I would guess to be worth a lot more than its current price tag. There are two more quality tiers, available at Berry Bros, at £19.95 and £59, which I haven’t yet tasted, but they are clearly making statements about the quality of Chinese wine. Confusingly they all seem to have much the same name, incorporating Moser XV, Changyu and occasionally Chateau.

Changyu is the largest wine producer in China and it can challenge many others in the rest of the world. It produces 150 million bottles of wine a year from 9 properties scattered across this vast country. Each winery looks like a fairy-tale chateau with a state of the art winery behind the scenes. I visited two of these properties several years ago – one was still a building site and I was amazed by the detail and the romance that was incorporated into the buildings. A hotel and restaurant was planned and there was talk of a golf course being built. Clearly investment in Chinese wine is on the grand scale.

With a population that is discovering wine on an exponential scale, why is Changyu bothering to export to the UK? ‘We could sell all we produce but we need to benchmark our wines with those in the rest of the world’, said Lenz. Wine consumption in China has moved rapidly through various stages. From an almost standing start 20 years ago, it has gone from the comical view of good wine diluted with Coke, through the over-the-top packaged ‘gift’ market wines and now, mainly through educated 25 year old women it has hit the main track. They have driven consumption to a massive 1.5 litres per head, which does not sound much compared against the UK’s 21 litres and France’s 43 litres, but when you consider that China’s 1.5 litres is calculated across a population of 1.4 billion people, that is a sizable amount of wine. Pretty soon they won’t need to export to ‘benchmark’ their wines, they will be able to drink as much as they can produce. Buy some while you have the chance.

Sainsbury is also listing two Chinese wines from Changyu. Changyu Noble Dragon Riesling 2013 (£9) comes from Yantai and is light, fresh and simple while Changyu Noble Dragon Cabernet Gernischt 2013 (£10) has bags of lightly perfumed fruit. Even though these wines come from the same Changyu company, I think Moser XV from Tesco has a distinct edge on quality.

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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