The Vineyard & Winery
Located in northwestern China, Ningxia is a small province with a long and proud history. Historically, it was a frontier region between imperial China and desert tribes. The Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC) built Ningxia’s first section of the Qin Period Great Wall to solidify their rule in the area. The Walls would be renovated, expanded, and ultimately mostly destroyed over the next millennia. Today, only about 517.9 km (355 miles) remain.
After the Qin dynasty, in 11th century the Tangut tribe had established a great and independent kingdom, The Western Xia (or Xi Xia) Empire (1038–1227 BC). This empire covered modern-day Ningxia, Gansu, eastern Qinghai, northern Shaanxi, northeastern Xinjiang, southwest Inner Mongolia, and southernmost Outer Mongolia, measuring about 800,000 square km (310,000 square miles). The kingdom was known for the ferocity of their warriors and the splendor of their tombs. Now, only the kings’ great tombs remain, and can be visited just outside of Yinchuan.
The towering Xi Xia Empire was eventually toppled by the Mongol invasion in the early 13th century-- led by none other than Genghis Khan. It was under Mongol rule that Muslims from Central Asia began migrating to the Ningxia area, leading to the creation of the modern day ethnic group the Hui.
After the 20th century, Ningxia’s population grew to 6.2 million. Its official name, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, reflects that it is the home to the Hui ethnic group, a Muslim population, and therefore follows different customs and traditions than other Chinese provinces. For example, although pork is to be found in the region, lamb is more common, and Ningxia roasted lamb is renowned throughout China as a delicacy. Muslim holidays are also observed in the province. Although Ningxia has historically suffered from impoverishment, government’s concerted anti-poverty efforts of the past 20 years have made impressive progress in lifting most of the population to a much higher standard of living. Modern day industries include mining, natural gas extraction, and goji berry cultivation. Investments have been pumped into development of infrastructure, industry, and local culture, as well as the region’s burgeoning wine industry.
The Helan Mountain Eastern Foothills are located in a unique location topographically. Situated northwest of the capital city of Yinchuan, this wine region lies between the western part of Helan Mountain and the eastern part of Yellow River. The mountains are particularly important to wine cultivation here, as they block the freezing winds that roll across the Tengger Desert. The Yellow River is similarly important, as it provides the irrigation necessary to cultivate the grapes in this arid place. Also of note is the altitude of the wine region, which ranges from 1,100 to 1,300 meters (3600 to 4260 feet) above sea level.
The climate is extreme dry, with an average precipitation of only 193mm (7.6in) between July and September-- similar to the Mendoza region in Argentina. What the region lacks in rain, it makes up for in sunshine, receiving 1700-2000 hours per year. Diurnal range can reach 12-15 ºC (21-27 ºF), a critical factor for achieving fully ripe grapes that retain their acidity.
There are two soil types in the Helan Mountain Eastern Foothills wine region: Sierozem and Eolian. Sierozem, a desert soil, is characterized by brownish gray color at the surface and lighter color below, and is based in a carbonate or hardpan layer. Different ratios of gravel, sand and clay within the Sierozem soil account for variations across wineries in the area. Eolian soil is made of wind deposited materials that consist primarily of sand or silt-sized particles. Silver Heights’ vineyards are all on Sierozem soil, with a high concentration of gravel.
One unique viticultural feature of the region is the practice of burying the vines under 30 cm (12 inches) of earth to protect them during the harsh, freezing winters.
“She’s considered the best winemaker, with practically the best wine, in all of China,” says Gérard Colin, “Emma put Ningxia on the map.” (The New York Times)
It is no surprise that Emma Gao and Thierry Courtade, both trained in Bordeaux, use classic Old-World techniques to produce Silver Heights’ wines. However, it is interesting that the very first task of the year is in fact a distinctly New World technique: the unearthing of vines in the beginning of April. This is a two-step process: first, the majority of the dirt covering the vines is removed by a tractor outfitted with a V shaped extension. Then, specially trained vineyard workers follow with shovels, carefully removing the last remaining soil and affixing the vines to the trellis. For our 45 hectares of land under vine, this process takes about two weeks.
After unearthing the vines, our vineyard management team would proceed according to organic principles-- limited use of fertilizer or pesticides, and carefully manage each vine by hand. During harvest, we sort the grapes to ensure quality. Depending on the wines being made, grapes will be destemmed and crushed. Grapes destined for red wine making would undergo cold maceration for up to seven days, during which they are pumped over several times a day. We ferment at cool temperatures and then press the grapes. White grapes are allowed to have micro-oxygenation during fermentation in order to develop self-protection against later, damaging oxidation, and are then pressed and fermented either in tank or in barrel. Malo-lactic fermentation is used for all of our wines, and for white wines, lees are left in contact for six months. Final fining is done using the traditional egg-white method of Bordeaux.
With a great passion of producing high-end Chinese wine, the founder Gao Lin established Silver Heights. The garagist winery began with a mere 10 barrels produced from less than a hectare of vines (2.5 acre) on a family run vineyard in Yinchuan.
Emma Gao joined Torres China as an executive, which is one of the biggest wine distributors in China. Alberto Fernandez and Damien Shee at Torres China tasted Emma’s first wine, which helped create Silver Heights’ brand.
Silver Heights wine was included by Cristal Edgar on the wine list of Aman Resorts, a luxury hotel chain, in Beijing and Hangzhou.
Four new larger tanks helped to boost production to 6,000 bottles.
Torres launched the sale of two wines, The Summit, made from the Helan Mountain vineyards, and The Family Reserve, from the sandy plot, with production of 2,000 bottles each.
Start of distribution of Silver Heights wines to 5 star hotels and top restaurants in key cities in China.
Silver Heights gained rave reviews for its 2007 vintage from wine critics Jancis Robinson and RVF (Revue du Vin de France).
Emma’s Reserve, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon that Emma had sourced from a special single plot, was ready for drinking after two years of ageing in magnums.
Gao’s family purchased their own vineyard of only 15 hectares on the eastern stony hills of the Helan mountain.
Production grew up for 40,000 bottles per year.
Production grew up for 60,000 bottles with 4 wines presented: a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon Emma’s Reserve, two Bordeaux blends (The Summit and Family Reserve) and a Chardonnay.
First year when the grapes used for our 100,000 bottles of wine production are completely grown from our own estate.
Silver Heights starts to develop a new vineyard, one hour drive from the old one, with more advanced equipment. Silver Heights’ vineyards grew to 70 hectares.
Silver Heights was honored and humbled to be chosen as the official wine for a state dinner between Premier Li Keqiang and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, where The Summit 2013 and Family Reserve Chardonnay 2014 were served.
Release of two new labels: The Last Warrior Red and The Last Warrior White.
Watson’s Wine, Hong Kong’s biggest wine retailer, has taken on exclusive on-trade distribution rights of Silver Heights in Hong Kong and Macau.
Start of the new winery construction, which will allow us to host guests. Meanwhile, we started the construction of a Culture Center at the family vineyard where Silver Heights first started.
Silver Heights is planning to expand its production up to 200,000 bottles of high quality wine per year.