Extremely cool(-climate): winegrowing in Mongolia
To start the year we would like to introduce you to a highly unique example of our consultancy work. Mark Wenhui Bao gained experience as a wine-maker in New Zealand and two years ago planted a trial vineyard in Inner Mongolia. International and native grape varieties grow there under extreme climatic conditions. We made contact through his entry in Jancis Robinson’s international writing competition, which is highly inspiring and worth a read. Mark wrote about his goal to establish winegrowing in his home region permanently. It could be surmised that it would not be easy, just from the prevailing conditions. The majority of Inner Mongolia is above 1,000 metres in altitude. The climate is continental, tempered by long, sometimes very cold winters. Summers are short, and mostly humid. Spring features strong winds and rapidly rising temperatures. Precipitation is between 100 and 500 mm. The annual sunshine hours are 2,700 (compared to Germany - 1,800 hours). Dryness continuously increases from south east to north west. In the west of Inner Mongolia are deserts, like the famous Gobi.
In order to gather as much experience as possible from the small area available to him, the vines have been planted very close together, at just half a metre apart. For balance the vines are being grown at two different heights - those that are particularly sensitive to cold are positioned down low and the more resistant varieties above them (Fig. 1). As a result the foliage overlaps. Mark Bao uses intensive, precise defoliation. Canopy from becoming too dense. Unlike the customary practice in China, the extremely low temperatures will not be countered by burying the vines. Mark Bao regards this to be an economically unsustainable effort in the long term. Instead he strives for high frost resistance by planting material selection and vineyard structure. The new field is protected, as a temporary and experimental site, with a polytunnel. “Protection” is a relative term, though, in view of temperatures of -25 °C for weeks at a time (Fig. 2).
Bao’s personal international experience has been combined with the world’s most frost-resistant grape - vitis amurensis - when selecting varieties. This wild grape, which originated at the Amur, is supposed to be used for breeding. China has been conducting corresponding breeding trials for some time, although mainly for table grapes so far. Trials using this grape variety have also been conducted at the Magarach Institute in the Crimea, Hungary, and at the Julius-Kühn-Institut in Siebeldingen. Together with its frost resistance, amurensis is also known for another characteristic: wines with very high acidity (Tab. 1).
27. August 2020
Total acidity (g/L)
Tab. 1: Analytics from Mark Bao, done two weeks before the (early) harvest. The site’s extreme climate permits a surprisingly high sugar maturity, but also keeps the acids stable on sometimes extreme levels.
The amounts of more than 20 g/L acid measured in 2020 are typical, but can also fall significantly with greater maturity. Amounts in the region of 10 to 12 g/L total acidity are realistically feasible if the vintage allows. The question therefore arises as to what type of wine can be obtained from amurensis grapes. Base wines for production of sparkling wine or brandy, not requiring extensive deacidification, suggest themselves, for example. Sustainability is of crucial importance to Mark Bao. This is why he is looking beyond the grape varieties and growing methods currently available. In the future he hopes to be able to breed a grape vine as a C4 plant from established varieties. C4 plants are significantly more drought resistant. He regards the option of genetic modification as a key-technology to achieve this. Until then, he needs to address a very serious problem though, that may be unique in the wine world: wild dragons (Fig. 4).