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Xinjiang Wines to Crow about China

Xinjiang's Tiansai Vineyards salutes the Year of the Rooster with two commemorative vintages, Mike Peters reports.

Our host at dinner formerly worked as a judge in China's judicial system and as an automobile executive. Today, Chen Lizhong is the high-flying owner of Tiansai Vineyards, the Xinjiang winery known in English as the label Skyline of Gobi.

What's the best and worst part of her current business?

"The best part is that everyone is very optimistic, active and open-minded," she tells Hong Kong-based The Drinks Business in a recent interview. "The worst part is the constant drinking."

The worst part didn't worry her guests much last week at a wine dinner celebrating the imminent Year of the Rooster. Waiters offered generous pours of two commemorative wines that Tiansai has produced in a limited edition, 5,000 bottles each of a semi-dry chardonnay and a robust cabernet sauvignon.

"These zodiac wines are always very fresh - a quick bottling of the recent harvest," says professor Li Demei, the Chinese wine guru who is a consultant to Tiansai and a columnist for Decanter magazine. "There is no oak aging, so the fruit stands out."

The winery has been bottling zodiac-themed vintages for the past five years.

Tiansai Vineyards covers 330 hectares, located over 1,100 meters above sea level in Yanqi of China's northwestern Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. Its wines are produced mainly from Bordeaux grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot.

The dinner was held at Aria in Beijing's China World Summit Hotel, and guests had a chance to enjoy both Skyline of Gobi's 2017 Zodiac Rooster chardonnay and the drier 2014 Zodiac Sheep chardonnay with a Mediterranean Caesar salad and a tomato soup.

Roasted halibut and Angus sirloin courses were served with three reds, the 2017 Zodiac Rooster cabernet sauvignon, 2013 Zodiac Horse cabernet franc and the winery's 2014 marselan, a grape that is enjoying increasing popularity with Chinese wineries for the silky vintages it produces.

Li told the assembly of about 30 diners that he would be presenting three Chinese marselans, including the 2014 vintage from Tiansai, at the global ProWein show in Dusseldorf, Germany, in March.

Besides winning awards from the French guide Bettane and Desseauve, Decanter magazine and multiple competitions, Tiansai has captured the wine world's attention by being one of the first wineries in the region to be certified organic by Chinese authorities. In July 2014 the Chinese Wine Industry Association named it the country's model company for wine-grape planting.

In recent years, China has tightened its standards for organic labeling, in the wake of food-safety scandals and growing demand for naturally produced foods. In the past, domestic labeling of "organic" produce has been widely criticized as slipshod. However, rules and monitoring have improved so much that China was able to sign a landmark agreement with New Zealand in November that will see the two countries recognize each other's standards for organic products.

The deal is the first of its kind for China and will boost development of the domestic organic industry and bilateral trade, according to the Certification and Accreditation Administration.

Wine has been one of the agricultural products that has fueled rapid growth in China's organic industry, along with dairy products, rice and vegetables. Total sales reached 60 billion yuan ($8.78 billion) last year, twice as much as in 2013, says Wang Maohua, an official overseeing food and agricultural product certification at the administration.