Life Lessons with Emma Ding of Jade Vineyard

Emma Ding left a job in banking to establish China’s Jade Vineyard, where she says they are aiming for "iconic" winery status. Here, she talks of her racing horses, a passion for painting and those that inspire her – from Frida Kahlo to Maria Callas

Words by Adam Lechmere

Emma Ding from Jade Vineyard
Emma Ding first established Jade Vineyard in 2013 in China's Ningxia province

Emma Ding is the owner of Ningxia’s Jade Vineyard, one of China’s newest producers: 15 hectares of mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Marselan planted in the desert-like foothills of the Helan Mountain range in the easterly province of Ningxia. It’s arid land, some 1200m above sea-level – in winter the vines must be buried in mounds of earth in order to survive temperatures that can plunge to minus 25C; in summer, highs can reach up to 35C, but due to the light-coloured, rocky soil, ground temperatures can be considerably higher.

This is the terroir that Ding first saw in 2013, and she instinctively knew it was where she would make wine. “In 2012, my heart told me, ‘You should have a vineyard – and you should establish it in China.’ After a very short period of research, in the spring of 2013, I came to Helan Mountain. When I saw this place, I decided after fifteen minutes that it was what I wanted.”

Ningxia Jade Vineyard Winery
At Jade, Emma Ding has planted 15 hectares of vines as well as building a dramatic winery and visitor centre

A graduate with a master’s degree in economics from Nankai Institute, Ding had followed a conventional career in banking. It was in 2005 that she decided she wanted to do more with her life, and so she left to look for something more fulfilling. “I didn’t have any plan for a career – I wanted to try everything. If it wasn’t right, I would change direction.” Something of a francophile already, she took French lessons and inspiration came with an article on wine given to her as a homework assignment.

“I can’t remember exactly what the article was,” she says, but she was intrigued enough (she hadn’t drunk any wine or spirits before that) to go out and buy a bottle of Margaux Cru Classé Château Ferrière, and a Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre’s Henri Bourgeois. “I immediately understood what was meant by balance, complexity, and finish – it felt amazing. Then coincidentally, about two days later, I read a report in a Chinese newspaper about the wine import market, which made me think there was a huge gap in the market for fine wine in China.”

It took Ding precisely a week to decide she was going to start importing French wine, and by 2008, using savings and the proceeds of selling her house, she had opened her own wine retail operation Cave d’Emma. Within two years she had two shops and a wine club.

Jade Vineyard vines
Ningxia Jade Vineyard Winery
Jade Vineyard sits at the foot of the Helan Mountains, where temperatures can range from minus 25C in winter to 35C in summer

Moving from retail to actually producing the wine seemed a natural progression. Having identified the site, Ding and her team, including Shuzhen Zhou (one of China’s most respected winemakers and a veteran of Ningxia) and viticulturalist Wenyang Zhao, spent three years bringing the virgin land to a plantable state, removing thousands of tons of rocks from the light, alluvial soil.

It’s a very considerable investment (Ding is not saying how much), which includes the construction of a dramatic winery and visitor centre, its clean white walls hung with Ding’s abstract paintings, which also adorn the labels of the wine.

The wines themselves have been enthusiastically received by international critics. The IWSC gave the 2017 Hyacinth Cabernet Sauvignon 95 points and praised its harmony and “excellent winemaking”; at the IWSC 2020 Jade was awarded the “Wine Discovery 2019” Trophy.

Emma Ding of Jade Vineyard at the IWSC awards ceremony 2019
In 2019, Emma Ding received the Wine Discovery trophy from the IWSC for her work as a new producer at Jade Vineyard

These are expensive wines – the flagship Cabernet, the Messenger, retails at around $180 a bottle (so far they are only available in China and Hong Kong) but that’s in keeping with Ding’s ambition for Jade to be internationally and domestically recognised as an “iconic” winery.

That is no small ambition for an operation whose vines are still only four years old, but Ding appears to be a person who knows what she wants. In terms of the wine’s style, for example, she was never in any doubt.

“From the beginning we never copied the style of Bordeaux or any wine region. We first wanted to understand the nature of our vineyard, to see what it could give us and then to combine with Chinese culture to create a style of our own.”

Jade Vineyard
The signature light-coloured, rocky soil of Ningxia, which significantly increases the temperature at ground

What was your childhood ambition?

As a child I hoped I would get anything I wanted when I grew up. At the time my wishes weren’t that ambitious: chocolate, picture books, dolls and so on.

What do you know now that you wished you’d known when you were 21?

I wish I had known that I should have tried harder when I was 21. Now I know everyone can forge their own life path.

What exercise do you do?

I have just begun to play tennis every week. Before I did yoga maybe twice a week.

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?

I’d like to be less shy. I don’t like going out to social events – I prefer to host guests at my home.

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?

My clothes and accessories, and then two racing warmblood horses, one which was born in Holland, the other in Belgium. [Warmbloods are crosses between heavy draught horses and lighter, athletic breeds]. They don’t compete in major races but they have won a lot of trophies.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?

I am very happy in Beijing, where I live now. I like huge international cities that have a rich history, multiple cultures, diverse artistic trends and a rich, fast exchange of information. For the same reason I like London, Paris and Los Angeles.

Night on Beijing Central Business district buildings skyline, China cityscape
Beijing at nighttime: Ding prefers to spend her time in diverse, multicultural cities with artistic undercurrents

If you could do any other job what would it be and why?

I’d be an actress, or a painter, because I like to create, and to express myself, and I like to see my work under the spotlight. I paint in oils and watercolours – the images on several of our labels are my paintings.

What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island?

Any record by Maria Callas.

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?

I haven’t made any money yet. I invested all my money in my dream career, Jade Vineyard. We expect to break even this year and start to make a profit in 2022. I don’t like money, but when I started running a company I realised how necessary it is.

Emma Ding's art
A keen painter, Emma Ding's artwork has made it onto the labels of Jade Vineyard's wine
Emma Ding painted labels

If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?

It’s impossible but I would abolish war.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Eating food high in sugar and calories.

What’s your secret talent?

Mathematics and very good memory. I always got straight As, from primary school to university.

When were you happiest?

That’s a secret!

Who do you most admire?

The Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. With talent and instinct, in spite of physical limitations, she found the freedom to pursue love, and to search for the meaning of life.

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo photographed by Nickolas Muray
"She found the freedom to pursue love, and to search for the meaning of life." Ding cites artist Frida Kahlo as an inspiration

What’s your greatest regret?

My greatest regret is that I wasted a lot of time before starting Jade.

What time do you go to bed?

It’s very bad, but not till long after dark. I have tried to adjust my schedule to get to bed before midnight.

What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?

The operas of Maria Callas, Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Piazolla and other classical or pop music.

What’s your favourite thing in your wardrobe?

My double-layer, high-gauge, white, pure-cotton, hand-embroidered night robe.

What’s your favourite restaurant?

Hakkasan in London.