When did you first taste wine? “I was 22 years old, at a tasting class in Orange, a small village in Provence, in the south of France. My father had sent me there to study wine at viticulture school. There was a teacher talking about wine, and there was cheese and bread. I didn’t understand how to drink it so I got drunk very quickly. I just thought, ‘It’s drinkable so it’s OK.’ I couldn’t appreciate it. Before that I had only drunk beer and sweet sparkling wine from Russia.”
Why did your father want you to learn about wine? “He had started a vineyard for a big chemical company that invested in viticulture, growing grapes for export. In 1996, he went to France and Germany to learn about viticulture and a year later came back to plant grapes. In 1999, I was doing logistics for a Korean export company in China and my father called and asked if I would like to study French and winemaking in France. As soon as I heard ‘France’ I was excited. I didn’t know anything about winemaking.”
Tell us about your studies. “For six months I studied subjects such as how to look after the vineyard, how to make wine, sales. Wine tasting was a night class and my classmates were sociable – they invited me to visit wineries with them. We ate well, too. I started to like the wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape – the white wine is so delicate.
“I also went to Bordeaux to study at the prestigious oenology department at the University of Bordeaux. It was really tough: we had to learn chemistry, viticulture, soil, sulphites, microbiology. There were a lot of terms I had to learn – all in French. I asked my father to send me Chinese chemistry books, but there wasn’t anything on oenology because China didn’t have any books on it at the time. I think I was the worst student in the class but I did my best. Then I did a year learning wine management. I was trying to get my master’s degree but didn’t get the diploma because I was pregnant at the time.
“I met my husband, Thierry [Courtade], during my internship at Château Calon Ségur, in Saint-Estèphe, in Bordeaux. He’s from that region. His parents work at Château Phélan Ségur. His whole family is in the wine business.”
How did you start making wine in China? “After six years in France I got a call from a Chinese company looking for a winemaker and I wanted to experiment with making wine in my country. I was seven months pregnant when I went to the winery in Xinjiang with my husband. There I got to bring up my daughter and make my first vintage in China, called Les Champs d’Or. Three years later I called my father and told him I wanted to make quality wines. He told me to come back and he would build a little winery for me in Yinchuan, in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, where my family is from.
“He helped me to buy grapes from other farmers. This was a good way for me to experiment, and every year we changed suppliers to try different grapes. So Silver Heights’ wines from 2007 to 2011 all have the French ‘Emma Gao’ style, which is elegant, but they aren’t like each other. In 2012, we started to plant our own vineyard on beautiful virgin land.”
What’s Ningxia like for developing vineyards? “It has a continental climate. It’s between Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi province; it’s frontier land surrounded by desert, and the Himalayas stop humidity, so Ningxia is dry. There is no rain, no water, no humid air. We get lots of sunshine. There is a mountain range called Helan Mountains that isn’t very high, runs north to south and blocks the cold from Siberia and stops the sand from the Tengger desert. The Yellow River passes through. Ningxia also has 72 lakes.
“In Silver Valley, we planted our vineyard near the mountains, at an altitude of 1,300 metres. There is stone, sand and clay from the Yellow River. At that altitude, we don’t need to use pesticides so we can make organic wines. We have cool nights and this helps the grapes retain their acidity. We can make wines with ageing potential but we have a long way to go. We plant syrah, marselan and malbec grapes.”
How does your father feel about your career?“He is very proud. He’s 72 years old and at the vineyard every day.”
What do you think of the growing interest in wine among young Chinese? “A lot are taking WSET [Wine & Spirit Education Trust] courses. They visit our winery, and aren’t necessarily in the wine business. They are passionate and some really fall in love with wine. Some quit their jobs and found companies to do online wine sales, or open a studio for wine tasting.”
Emma Gao was in Hong Kong to speak at the WineSPIT Conference 2017.