China wine word: Lee Yean Yean of Grace on Shanxi, Sonata and ‘beer o’clock’
Lee Yean Yean has spent most of the past decade at Grace Vineyard in rural Shanxi province in northern China, far from his native land of Malaysia, and currently works as production manager. I asked him a few questions about his experience at Grace, his favorite wines, and what fans of the operation can look forward to.
How did a guy from Malaysian end up making wine in China?
Every time people ask me about this, my reply is always “accidentally“! I learned about Grace from a close friend in Malaysia. I sent an email to [owner] Judy [Chan] to join the vintage in 2006 and have been involved ever since. I never thought I would stay in Shanxi for so long!
What did you learn while working with Grace’s chief winemaker Ken Murchison?
Patience, passion and an appreciation for Aussie ‘beer o’clock‘. Ken is my “guru“. I would say 60 to 70 percent of my wine-making and viticulture know-how is from him, the other 10 to 20 percent is from experience working vintage, and the remainder is what I am now in the process of discovering.
What wines do you most enjoy working on at Grace?
Sonata [a Cabernet Sauvignon-Marsellan-Cabernet Franc blend], the Chardonnay sparkling wines and the wines that are made with our newer grape varieties, Marsellan and Aglianico, and look promising so far. We are also looking forward to some varieties we just planted last month, including Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Saperavi.
What’s the biggest challenge of making wine in Shanxi, given Grace also have vineyards in Ningxia?
In Shanxi, it is summer rain and angry growers — they want to pick and we want to wait! In Ningxia, it is the distance from Shanxi — and also angry growers.
What kind of surprises can we look for from Grace in the next few years?
I think some of the wines made from varieties like Aglianico will be exciting. I am not sure if we will launch a single variety of this, but we will definitely bottle some as “winery reference“. Also, we have a special sparkling wine, made with red grapes, that has yet to undergo a secondary bottle ferment but is looking good.