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Tiansai Soars with Marselan

Tiansai of Gobi is situated in Yanqi, Bazhou prefecture, Xinjiang province. I visited, last week, for the third – or was it the fourth – time.

Proprietor CHEN Lizhong and consultant winemaker LI De Mei were there and conducted a tour of the vineyard and put on a tasting. The best wine, though, was tasted at a dinner on the final second night.

After graduating from Beijing’s prestigious Renmin University of China Law School, Chen Lizhong was assigned to a court and worked as a judge for several years. Then in 1992, she resigned her post and started Beijing Shihe Auto Company which is involved in transportation (and which she still owns). In 2007, Chen spread her wings beyond the Chinese capital. She went to the far-flung western frontier of the country and invested in a taxi company in Bazhou in Xinjiang. Whatever new challenges presented themselves, her legal and judiciary background served the entrepreneur well. Chen transported the importance of rules and procedures and being methodical in her work to her new grape mission.

After graduating from Beijing’s prestigious Renmin University of China Law School, Chen Lizhong was assigned to a court and worked as a judge for several years. Then in 1992, she resigned her post and started Beijing Shihe Auto Company (which she still owns). In 2010, Chen planted her first vines in far-flung Xinjiang province.

Another entrepreneur who came to Bazhou around the same time was WANG Xiaowei who invested in real estate and wood furniture companies. The two business people came together to found Tiansai of Gobi which planted its first vines just shy of 10 years ago in 2010. As is common in those who seek out the vine, both Chen and Wang are wine lovers. Loving wine, though, is not enough qualification to ensure you also produce good wine and make a success of a winery. Much more is at stake. Fortunately for Tiansai Chen Lizhong possesses lots more of talent, fortitude, and perseverance.

Prior to sinking vines in Yanqi, Chen has visited other wine regions in China. She considered their differing climate and weather conditions. After taking all that into consideration, Chen settled on Yanqi in Bazhou. At the time, it was just barren, desert land all around. Today, Yanqi is home to some of China’s top wineries, including Tiansai. There is, however, no shortage of challenges along the path to making exceptional wine.

‘Xinjiang has a unique climate. The weather is extreme. In summer, the days are long and hot. But, there are big differences in temperatures between day and night. There is very little rain and it is very dry. There are hardly any pests or disease. Yanqi is a well-known place to plant fruit. Grapes mature very well and the harvest can take place as early as in late August,’ Chen informed.

LI Demei is consultant to Tiansai. He is an Associate Professor at Beijing Agricultural College. Li is the “Father of Marselan in China”. He first planted the hybrid in China’s first joint Sino-French government vineyard in Hebei outside Beijing in 2001. Marselan is a crossing – between cabernet sauvignon and grenache – made by the late Frenchman Professor Paul Truel in 1961.

The dry weather and poor soil make for good, even great wine. Water being scarce, there are however underground springs. Just as summer can be very hot, so winter is extremely cold. In Yanqi, they have to bury the vines in autumn and bring them out of the ground in the spring so as to avoid the freezing weather which can dive to minus 25 º Celsius . The extreme, arid climate and dry weather (about 80 mm of rain a year) means there are practically no agricultural pests in Yanqi nor problems with mildew or rot. The soil being sandy (with clay and pebbles), phylloxera has not also rear its ugly head.

The total vineyard size of Tiansai is 93 hectares. These include cabernet sauvignon 36 ha; merlot 14 ha; syrah  13.5 ha; marselan  12.5 ha; chardonnay  10 ha; and cabernet franc  7 ha. The first plantings were cabernet sauvignon and merlot in 2010. Then followed syrah, cabernet franc and chardonnay in 2011. In 2014, marselan and petit verdot were added. There is also a bit of malbec. Even viognier and petit manseng.

Chardonnay is something of a star wine for Tiansai. Their Selection won Gold at Chardonnay du Monde 2018 in Brussels. Both Tiansai Selection and Reserve Chardonnay have also scooped Silver Medals at London’s IWSC – International Wine & Spirit Competition – and Decanter World Wine Awards. The chardonnays are elegant, fresh, with good intensity of fruit, and balancing French oak. Three tiers are produced, starting with Classic, Selection, and highest tier Reserve. Personal favourite is their Selection.

Tiansai also produces a delicious Selection Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot. And a stunning Selection Cabernet Franc. Last week, though, I tasted the best red Tiansai has produced. It also happens to be one of the very best marselan I have come across in China (see Wine of the Day).

Tiansai winery and its buildings have been built to inspire associations with the swan, with outstretched wings and a tower that resembles its elegant long neck.

The swan is the most representative symbol of Bazhou prefecture.

Tiansai winery and its buildings have been built to inspire associations with the elegant bird, with outstretched wings and a tower that resembles its elegant long neck. More so than even the winery, what makes you think of the swan when coming into contact with this Yanqi estate is its proprietor Chen Lizhong. The Beijing lady is the personification of grace, decorum, and consideration. Whether journalists or her staff, all are impressed by how well-mannered, unassuming, and courteous Chen is.

With its Marselan Grand Reserve 2015 attaining such intensity, persistence and elegance of fruit, both Tiansai and Chen Lizhong are airborne on a soaring flight.

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