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CHINESE WINERIES BORDERING NORTH KOREA MAKE RED ICE WINE FROM OWN HYBRID VARIETY
By Siulan Law Mathews DipWSET
The Jian County of China’s Northeastern Jilin Province sits on the western shore of the Yalu River which defines parts of the border between China and North Korea. Here the local wineries have been successful in making a red ice dessert wine with China’s own hybrid black variety called Beibinghong which literally means “Arctic Red”.
The local government is keen to expand production of this iconic sweet wine. With research and policy support from the central government, the Yalu River Valley wine region has been set up with 333 hectares already planted with brewing quality Beibinghong, their target is to expand plantation to 2000 hectares.
Known to Chinese people as the frontline of the Korean War fought in 1950s, the Yalu River Valley presents very tough conditions for viticulture with its severe winters frequently recording temperatures below -20C.
The normal European wine grapes (Vitis viniferas) like Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir all struggle to survive here. But not for the Beibinghong variety.
This hybrid black grape was developed by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences by crossing a local Asian variety (Vitis Amurensis Rupr) with a European variety (Vitis viniferas), taking the hardy characteristics of the former and the nice flavours of the latter.
Beibinghong is cold and disease resistant, its strong root system and high growth vigour allow it to survive temperatures as low as −40°C without the need to bury its vines (a practice still deemed necessary in China’s Northwestern Ningxia wine region) thus saving inputs in vineyard management.
The vine exhibits resistance to grape white rot and grape anthracnose which can severely damage Vitis vinifera grown worldwide.
Beibinghong’s berries have high acidity, high tannin and polyphenols, high dry extract and high nutrition. It has relatively low sugar level, low juice yield, and requires low fermentation temperature.
Robert Geddes MW, who recently visited the Yalu River Valley, said the Beibinghong variety and the red ice wine style produced are both worth watching. He noted that other ice wine producing regions in the world have not yet seen a black variety dedicated for ice wine. With its beautiful bright red colour, he believed that the Beibinghong red ice wine is truly a Chinese wine, developed by the Chinese people on Chinese soil.
In making ice wines, winemakers will leave fully ripened berries on the vines into the winter. Harvesting typically takes place early morning when temperature is below -8C when berries are frozen. When pressed, the ice in the berries will be separated leaving behind highly concentrated grape juice with very high sugar content. When fermented, the high sugar will kill off the yeasts before fermentation to dryness leaving behind residual sugar. The result if a sweet wine with low alcohol level.
Majority of ice wines are made from white varieties, some Canadian wineries occasionally produce ice reds from European black varieties but there have been no regular productions so far.
The Beibinghong red ice wine is certainly a Chinese specialty. Will it help China make a mark on the world’s wine map? It’s something really worth watching.
(The writer can be contacted at: SLawMathews@thewinechronicle.com)