Amazing grace

Updated: 2012-04-06 07:54

By Mark Graham (China Daily)

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Amazing grace
Judy Leissner says expansion is on the cards, with two more vineyards planned. Mark Graham / For China Daily

Chinese winemaker's creations delight connoisseurs worldwide

On regular visits to France, Chan Chun-keung developed a taste for the fine wines that were served at dinners, and started to idly wonder if China was capable of producing a top-class vintage.

To satisfy his curiosity, the businessman sought expert professional advice, bringing in viticulture experts to the Yellow River region of China, which appeared to have promising prospects.

The answer from them was affirmative - the climate and soil were not at all dissimilar to those in the most renowned wine-producing region of all, Bordeaux.

Armed with that positive research, and the entrepreneurial spirit that had served him well in other ventures, Chan built a grand, French-style chateaux in the countryside outside Taiyuan in northern Shanxi province, an area largely known for its coal production, rather than making wines.

The boss brought the necessary vines, equipment and barrels from Europe, hired a French wine-maker, and put his American-educated daughter Judy Leissner, a former investment banker, in charge of the $5 million (3.8 million euros) project. Ten years after its launch, Grace Vineyard is now producing 2 million bottles of wine a year, with its products featuring on the wine lists of some of the finest hotels in China, including the five-star Peninsula hotel chain and on the drinks list of airline first-class cabins.

"The history of it is that my father traded a lot with the French, and became very good friends with one of his regular contacts," Leissner says. "When my dad went to visit they always had a glass of wine, and he decided it would be great to have a winery, in France or South Africa, or Australia. In the end he decided on China.

"When we started, we had no experience of retail or marketing, as our family business was in utilities. At first we let staff in China do design and packaging but people thought it looked like a soy sauce bottle - the packaging was not very good. We got questions like 'why is it so sweet'? That was a bitter experience for us. We redesigned it and it was a lesson learned.

"What distinguishes us from other wineries is quality. We are serious about wine.

"It is my very firm belief that wine is here to stay in China. If you look at statistics, it is increasing every year. It will not be sudden, it will be gradual. A lot of Chinese go and study abroad and come back with Westernized behavior. You don't need to teach people how to enjoy life: when they have money, then they will learn how to do it very quickly," she adds.

"Chinese like warm things, they don't like cold things because it is bad for their body, but if you look around beer is popular now. They said Chinese don't like strong wine, they don't like tannins, but if you look at tea it has very strong tannins. It is a matter of habit and exposure. When I started drinking I didn't like the taste but you slowly get used to it and then you start to miss it."

In the early years Grace had plenty of hiccups, but the company was helped by positive wine-critic reviews, including approving noises from the wine guru Jancis Robinson, and media interest in the novel project. The company also had a stroke of good fortune: Shanghai-based Alberto Fernandez of the Spanish wine giant Torres was impressed by a tasting of Grace wines and suggested a distribution deal, allowing the various vintages to grain a high profile in restaurants, bars and stores.

The arrangement with Torres means that Grace wines are now popular throughout China, and enjoy healthy sales on the Internet. The Grace Vineyard cabernet sauvignon, which sells for about $13, is considered by connoisseurs to be the equal of imported products of a similar price - or even superior.

The main grape varieties grown on vines planted in the loess soil at Grace are cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and chardonnay, with small quantities of riesling, chenin blanc, pinot noir, shiraz, marselan and aglianico. All flourish in the terroir of the Yellow River Valley, which has fertile soil, abundant sunshine, significant temperature differences and the right amount of annual rainfall.

Grace continues to add to its stable of wines, most recently through collaboration with the Torres family, which involved wine makers flying in from Spain to supervise production of Symphony, a muscat wine, which retails for $15 a bottle. Company president Miguel Torres, a regular visitor to China, was involved in the project.

"We have very good experiences with them, and Symphony is a good wine," Torres says. "There was nothing similar in China. There are many chardonnays and many sauvignon blancs but nothing like this, made from the muscat grape.

"I think Grace makes the best wine in China. It sells out all the time so we figured we should work with them more. I asked my daughter to go and look at the winery and after that we decided we would do white wine with them - Symphony. I hope there will be more cooperation, possibly a red in future."

Other wines in the Grace range include Deep Blue, a blend of merlot cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon that sells for $50 and the flagship Chairman's Reserve, also a blend of merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, which sells for $70.

The vineyard is such a novel and successful venture that it now features in the MBA program of Harvard Business School. A team from the university spent six months on site, conducting interviews with management and wine-making teams, material that was incorporated into a case-study for students.

The in-depth document explains how Leissner helped found the winery and then went on to develop quality control, branding, marketing and sales.

As well as garnering keen interest from Harvard, the vineyard has received other accolades. The British magazine Decanter gave a high rating to Deep Blue; the wine was also selected for the business and first-class cabins of Cathay Pacific planes, the first China-made wine to make it onto the menu in the airline's 60-year history.

"These achievements are not just luck, or chance," Leissner says. "They are the results of the diligence and perseverance of every member on Grace's team. Together with their expertise and passion for wine, it is our ultimate goal and satisfaction to bring the unique taste of Grace wines to the world and produce the best wine in the country. With the support of wine-lovers world-wide, Grace Vineyard will see an even brighter future."

The existence of such a winery, funded by a private Chinese individual, says a lot about the changes in the nation during the past 20 years. When the owner, Chan Chun-keung, left the mainland for Hong Kong in the mid-1970s after completing studies at university in Taiyuan, he could little have imagined that his return, almost three decades later, would be as a vineyard-owning entrepreneur. Or, for that, matter, that he would have a daughter running the operation.

For Leissner, the project that was originally a fun and challenging diversion from her role as managing director of the parent company Everbest Century Holdings group has metamorphosed into a job that occupies 70 per cent of her time. Expansion is on the cards with two more vineyards planned.