SCMP Dec 19, 2010

A wee drop of jiu


Chris Ruffle concedes people may be a bit surprised when they suddenly lay eyes on his hotel-cum-winery in the Shandong countryside.

'When Chinese come over the crest of the hill, I think they're a bit surprised,' says the British fund manager, who has been doing business in China for close to three decades. 

The object of attention is an authentic Scottish castle built of granite blocks that sits on a craggy hill overlooking Qiushan Lake, complete with a blue Scottish flag flapping in the wind atop a turret. The castle is the work of Yorkshireman Ruffle and well-known Scottish architect Ian Begg, who earlier helped the fund manager rebuild an original castle near St Andrews.

The castle is furnished with imported oak-panelled walls, poster beds, period furniture, rugs, paintings, sash-and-case windows and antiques from Ruffle's personal collection. The imposing banquet hall, with seating for 60 diners, and snappy black and white tiled floors, has a painting of Sir Henry Wotton, Queen Elizabeth's ambassador to Venice, hanging above a marble fireplace. Guests to the castle are greeted by local Chinese staff in tartan outfits - one possibly shy Chinese staff wears a kilt over his long pants.

The hotel has six rooms - four old European style and two Japanese (Ruffle lived in Japan for several years).

The Oxford-educated Ruffle describes his castle as being 'truly reminiscent of the highland comforts enjoyed in another era by a Scottish chieftain and his family'. He adds that the structure also incorporates all of today's modern comforts.

The hotel also includes a restored courtyard guest house in the rural village of Mulangou, a short walk from the castle. The five rooms, once part of a peanut oil factory, have heated kangs (the heat comes from electricity and not the traditional coal used by Chinese farmers).

But the real business here is not about recreating an ancient Scottish living style in the Shandong countryside, but producing a decent new world wine with Chinese characteristics, that Ruffle hopes some day will be a favourite in both China and around the world.

Ruffle's Treaty Port Winery operates a 21 hectare estate, where 13 varieties of organic grapes are raised. The castle sits atop a state-of-the-art wine-producing facility - designed by Australian organic wine expert and producer Mark Davidson - that is built against the granite hillside. A glass window in the castle overlooks the basement factory, where one can look down on a network of steel gantries sitting above some dozen 20-tonne wine vats and oak wine barrels imported from France. 

'My approach with Chris at Treaty Port is to learn what can work and what may not work so well,' says Davidson, 'but we have already made some strides in the sustainability of the vineyard, put in a modern technical winery and produced a couple of very decent wines.'

Ruffle says the Chinese are really just only starting to learn about wines, and so far 'are going for the big foreign names'. He says his goal is to develop a real Chinese wine within 10 years 'and not a pale imitation of a Western wine'.

'I want to do something that will especially go with Chinese food - something a little fruitier and sweeter, and not just another French wine,' says Ruffle.

'We're really just starting from zero. When I first came Dynasty was the only thing. There really was not a great wine culture and Chinese preferred baijiu [white wine].' 

The Treaty Port winery is situated on the north coast of Shandong, an area referred to as China's orchard for its abundant apple, peach and apricot orchards, between the old treaty ports of Chefoo (present-day Yantai) and Dengzhou (present-day Penglai). 

The winery is breaking new ground in that the wine is made from organic grapes, which Ruffle hopes will set his product apart from competitors. The downside is that one mu of land can only produce 500 kilograms of grapes, compared to 2,500 to 3,000 kilograms for non-organic varieties. Furthermore, the grapes are smaller, and there's more of a problem with bugs.

The positive side is a better grape and hopefully a tastier wine. 'You can taste the difference,' says Kang Yuanli, manager of the vineyard. 'The grapes are smaller but the sugar content is higher,' he says. 

Kang says the sugar content can be as high as 22-30 per cent, compared to just 12-15 per cent for non-organic grapes. While output at Treaty Port is not high, the quality is good. 'The fruit flavour of this kind of wine is very strong,' he says. 'I like it very much.'

The Chinese wine expert, who worked for several Chinese wineries before coming here, is now a proponent of organic grapes.

'A lot of wine is produced in China, why can't it be exported?' he asks while walking through the vineyard. 'Because what we produce uses a lot of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Western consumers can tell as soon as they taste it.'

'It's not that I am a zealot about things organic, and we won't make a big thing about it on the labels,' says Ruffle, 'but I am worried by the Chinese farmer's love of poisonous chemicals. 

'Since we started the vineyard six years ago, I believe that we have made a contribution to the environment of the valley, as indicated by the growing bird population,' he says. 'With all the scandals about tainted food that we've seen recently, I am sure the Chinese consumers will come to appreciate this approach.' 

The idea was born in May 2004 while Ruffle and wife Tiffany were visiting a winery in Shanxi province that was run by Gerard Colin, a well-known French winegrower, which he said turned out a 'drinkable wine'. 

Ruffle recalls being miffed a few years earlier when he offered an American some chardonnay to go with his Chinese meal that was produced by the Huadong Winery in Shandong province. The American 'wine snob' replied: 'Ask me in a hundred years.'

Ruffle asked Gerard Colin if there might not be a more suitable place in China to produce wine, and the Frenchman introduced him to a valley in Shandong, suggesting a small winery could be set up there for about US$1 million.

He visited the area and was immediately taken in by the beauty and good weather. A few months later while sitting in an airplane flying over the Pacific, he began to sketch out the first plans for a castle-cum-winery in the Shandong valley. 

The project, which began in 2004 and was not finished until 2009, is a textbook example of what can go wrong when doing something new in China. Begg's designs had to be translated into Chinese and at times it was difficult getting certain concepts across to the Chinese builders. Two local construction foremen were flown to Scotland to tour castles to get a better feel for what they were building - with limited success. Chinese regulations also forced some major redesigns, such as downsizing of the spiral stairway. 

There were several international wine experts who left midway due to disagreements, and a parade of local officials, some of whom had to be either cajoled or bribed. Builders did shoddy work that had to often be redone. When Ruffle tried to bring in vines from France, the paperwork proved insufficient and a Chinese friend had to pull some strings to get permission for the imports. Pruning was done at the wrong time of the year based on suggestions of local experts, and that was also a disaster. Six five-tonne stainless steel tanks that were ordered came late and proved to be poorly designed. Other wine-producing equipment arrived but somehow never made it off the boat and was redirected to Singapore, not to return until several months later.

'When we thought things couldn't get worse, and were waiting for the typical dry autumn weather to start, the area was hit by the tail-end of a typhoon, which flattened several of the trellises,' says Ruffle, describing the weather as the worst in more than 10 years. The storm wiped out the 2010 batch of grapes. He is not completely satisfied yet with the quality of the first batches of wine, describing it simply as 'not bad'. 

'If you didn't know it was Chinese and I put it in a glass you'd quite enjoy it,' he says. He adds with a laugh that his wife calls the winery 'my local charity', but he remains undaunted.

The venture took the first step from charity to money making in November when more than 5,000 bottles of 2009 vintage marselan and merlot rolled from the Treaty Port winery. 

Treaty Port consultant Davidson described the batch as Treaty Port's 'best thus far', declaring that the new boutique product is above the local average and 'a premium product in China'. 

In the meantime, Ruffle recognises it will take time to perfect production. 'It will take another five years before we can produce a really good wine,' he says with confidence. 'There are no shortcuts in making wine. It's all about patience.'