Inside Grace Vineyard's Shanxi chateau

Flying north to the heartland of Shanxi for a tour of China's premier winery

It wasn’t long ago that many Chinese considered Coca-Cola a suitable mixer for red wine. But now, attempts to make wine merely tolerable have been replaced with a determination to procure the best, with some locals flaunting their wealth by stocking up on whatever boasts the highest price tag. This year it was reported that an anonymous bidder dropped half a million USD on cases of Chateau Lafite. Grace Vineyard, based in Shanxi province, hopes to turn the tables so that someday soon the French will be spending their euros on bottles of wine from China’s northwest.

Named ‘best winery’ 2012 by the Chinese edition of wine bible La Revue du Vin de France, the family-owned vineyard in Taigu has only been open for 15 years. Along with smaller operation Silver Heights in Ningxia, it remains one of the only internationally recognised Chinese vineyards. At May’s Decanter World Wine Awards, Grace won five of eighteen medals awarded to Chinese wines, with particular distinction given to their Chairman’s Reserve and Deep Blue. Chinese wine may have a long way to go before it is mentioned in the same breath as bottles from Bordeaux or Napa Valley, but Grace Vineyard is leading the charge.

This year, the 200-hectare estate is set to produce 2.5 million bottles of wine, four times that produced just five years ago. By the end of the year, China will overtake domestic wine production figures of New World giants such as Australia. White wine production marks the beginning of the season, when more than 1,000 workers from the area enter the fields to hand-pick every single grape. Early in September, Chardonnay grape picking begins, followed by Merlot in mid-September, Cabernet Franc at the end of the month, and Cabernet Sauvignon around the middle of October.

As of yet, the concept of ‘wine tourism’ hasn’t hit Chinese travellers as it has in established wine countries such as France, New Zealand or Spain. Château Junding in Penglai, Shangdong and Jade Valley in Xian are among the few locations to pioneer the market here, featuring hotel accommodation and lavish golf courses and spas as accoutrements.

Grace Vineyard offers something quite different, however. Founder Chun Keung Chen graduated from Taiyuan University of Technology in the 1970s then boomeranged back to Hong Kong to run his father’s business, which today includes water treatment plants. A self-declared oenophile, he opened the vineyard in 1997 with the help of Bourdeaux oenologist Denis Boubals. Part of the reason they chose Shanxi, he says, was because of his extensive coal mining interests in the region and the desire to ‘make up for the damage’ done to the environment there. Five years later, he handed the business to his daughter Judy Leissner, only 24 years old at the time. It’s a decidedly family-run business, one they hope to continue with the next generation.

The intention at Grace Vineyard is therefore to entertain each guest as if they were a family friend, similar to European châteaux and castles only open to the public for wine tastings. In 2009, the family stopped entertaining altogether for two years while Leissner oversaw a complete renovation of the ‘outdated’ property. Reopening in September last year, the house now features luxury decor and a particularly impressive dining room outfitted with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open onto a pleasant patio.

Our visit to Grace Vineyard starts with a two-hour flight to Taiyuan airport. Here, we’re greeted by a cheery driver who, on the 40-minute ride to the estate, declares his sworn allegiance to a 30RMB bottle of baijiu in favour of the stuff produced at the winery. ‘Like food that’s gone bad’ is his verdict on the drops produced by the country’s leading vineyard. We bump along dusty, unpaved roads until two blonde brick walls announce our arrival. The drive-in experience is rather like a wine tasting trip to California’s famed Napa Valley, with a tree-lined driveway that gives the impression that the car is driving straight into the heart of the vineyard.

When we arrive at the winery itself though, there’s a bit of a military feel, with the gated property flanked by security guards: the vineyard is only open to the public by appointment. Once inside, we’re free to explore the vineyard by bicycle or on foot. Our first hike is alone, down the winding paths of the Cabernet Sauvignon plots. All around, vines are weighed down with indigo clusters of grapes, which look more like blueberries. Oddly, onions and radishes grow among the grapevines (we later discover that they’re used for the meals served at the house).

The good earth in the region, made of sandy silt mixed with a bit of clay, is optimal for grape growing. Running 100 metres deep, the soil has extremely good drainage and is free of deep tangled roots that might interfere with the vine’s growth. The soil is so porous that we sink a few centimetres with each step. As we walk through the fields, pairs of tawny Shanxi farmers determinedly rip away the pumpkin leaves that grow among the vines to take home and feed their cows. The whole community, it seems, has benefited from the vineyard’s success.

Red grape varietals grow on the south side of the property. Grace currently grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, and a small portion of Chenin Blanc, Shiraz, Marselan and Aglianico. A trial run with Pinot Noir was disastrous, and the vine was entirely pulled out in 2003. This year, though, they’ll try again, with just 1,000 cuttings, which took the Government three years to approve. Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc trials are in play, too. In 2007, the rainfall was so heavy that it decimated the entire crop of grapes, producing nothing more than entry-level table wine. The next year, however, saw no rain during the harvest season and yielded an excellent vintage.

Chinese vintages are often compared to French wines and each year Leissner takes a core group of wine experts on trips around the globe, visiting places such as Bourdeaux to see how operations are run there. However, she declares that her ultimate goal is to produce a top quality vintage so distinctive that you could sip it and know instantly that it was from China.

On our second day at the estate, a fully guided tour begins with us sitting in a cavernous movie amphitheatre with cream-coloured leather seats to watch a ten-minute instructional video on the history of the company. A montage of sweeping photos of the property is featured before an interview with Leissner.

Underneath the château, walking through sterilised tunnels that stop every few metres for fingerprint security, we’re ushered silently past what looks like a high school chemistry laboratory: blackboards chalked with formulas, metal stools and beakers. Down another staircase, our next stop is the cavernous cellar. Here, a chemical odour mingles with the smell of aged oak barrique. Although they’re shown in the video, and we’re eager to try ourselves, barrel tastings are generally frowned upon because they disturb the fermentation process. The last stop is Grace’s ode to a Bourdeaux château, with gated rooms stocked high with all the vintages the winery has ever made.

Above ground, the guesthouse itself was constructed to look like a château on the outside, though the interior of the building is modern. Each room is sparsely decorated. Upstairs, our room has a long balcony and views of the vineyard from the bathroom. Walls are decorated with Leissner’s little girls’ drawings and grainy photos of the Chen family in the 1990s. Staying at the vineyard really does feel like crashing at a friend’s home. There’s little in the way of entertainment except for a pool table and an outdoor, full-sized basketball court, popular with employees in the evenings.

Meals consist of homemade local specialties such as deep-fried Shanxi bing, airy and delicious when spread with furu, clay-red fermented tofu with the melt-in-your-mouth consistency of pâté and a spicy bite, served with a head-dizzying glass of crisp, apple-tinged 2009 rosé. Shanxi is known for its handmade noodles, from their tomato-and-egg topped version of a bolognese to a buckwheat rendition of orrechiette, matched with a chilled bottle of Chardonnay. The staff are quick to suggest pairings for each dish, with a standard bottle usually starting at around 200RMB. Wines can be taken home in bulk too.

As for what will happen in the next 15 years at the vineyard, all the workers have a decidedly European reaction, shrugging and proffering yet another glass of wine. A stay at Grace Vineyard encapsulates the dolce far niente (‘beauty of doing nothing’) mentality that Chinese people are unused to but are striving to adopt from their European counterparts. For really, the beauty of a visit to Grace Vineyard is that there’s nothing to do but eat, drink, and sleep.

Essential info

For reservations, email or call 137 5344 6029. Double occupancy rooms are 1,120RMB/night and singles are 960RMB/night. Meals and wine are not included — lunch is 120RMB/person and dinner 160RMB/person, not including wine.

Getting there
Return tickets from Hongqiao Airport to Taiyuan Airport start from 1,100RMB on China Eastern Airlines, when booking through Ctrip. The vineyard can arrange airport pickup for 200RMB each way.