An Australian Winemaker’s Chinese Experience
There is no Australian winemaker making a greater impact in China than Ken Murchison, who operates the viticulture and winemaking at one of China’s few genuine quality-driven wine producing operations, Grace Vineyard.
Murchison, who for the last quarter century has also operated his Portree vineyard in the cool climes of Lancefield in Victoria, has responsibility for the viticulture and winemaking for Grace Vineyard, whose reputation already extends well beyond China’s own domestic borders. Over the years I have tasted a number of wines from this maker, across its four tiers of branding quality, and on each occasion have been happily surprised. Some of its higher-end blends of the cabernet family of varieties are particularly convincing, in a style heavily influenced by Bordeaux, while the Chardonnay can look quite smart and polished in more of a New World fashion.
The challenges involved in growing grapes in China and Australia could hardly be more different, as Murchison explains: ‘Instead of working with one or two vineyards, we have to liaise with 500 different growers on 180 ha of grapes. It’s an enormous communication issue’, he says. On that note, he has recognised that it’s essential for him to have access to quality interpretations skills throughout the process.
Grace is sited in the Shangxi province, where the annual rainfall is around 450 mm, much of which seems to fall in Hunter Valley-like fashion around the time of harvest. It’s the timing of the rainfall that has the major impact on wine quality. Late summer can very quickly become winter, with temperatures occasionally way too cold to help get grape up to a desirable level of sugar and flavour. If the growing season starts with a cold April spring in China, it can be as short as 170-180 days, about three weeks less than most cool Australian regions.
Because the Chinese wine market has been most strongly influenced by the red wines of Bordeaux despite their tenuous links with much of Chinese cuisine, around 90 of Grace Vineyard’s plantings are the red Bordeaux varieties of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc; the remainder largely being chardonnay and chenin blanc. Recent plantings have included shiraz, petit verdot and marselan riesling.
‘We’re right on the edge of being able to ripen cabernet a late-ripening grape’, says Murchison, who explains that the winery is well equipped to being able to manually sort under-ripe bunches out from the crop that is processed into wine.
Australian grape growers would simply not believe that there exists topsoil with the same sandy loam profile all the way down to at least 100 metres, yet that’s what Grace Vineyard is planted on. ‘It’s extremely well drained’, says Murchison, ‘and I reckon the vine roots are about half way to Australia by now.’
Murchison’s main challenge has been to re-educate the farmers, now grape growers, on the land, that their traditional practices of heavy irrigation and regular fertilizing from their fruit and vegetable days actually have a negative impact on grape quality. ‘It’s all flood irrigation out here, and instead of having them do it 5-6 times a year, it’s now down to once or twice. That’s really reducing our vigour problem’, he says.
The vines are trained low to the ground at Grace Vineyard, where the winters are so extreme they need to be pushed flat onto the ground and then covered with soil as protection against the cold. Imagine having to do this in Australia!
Now engaged in his fifth Chinese vintage, Ken Murchison typically spends a three and a half month spell at Grace Vineyard to oversee the later stages of ripening, the harvest and the fermentations. He’s then back in China for around three two-week visits throughout the year. By the end of vintage, though, he’s beginning to look forward to home at Portree. ‘Shanxi is fairly isolated, and while I thoroughly enjoy Chinese culture and cuisine, it’s very hard to find a western restaurant at our nearest city of Taiyuan, despite the fact that around five million people live there.’
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