One of the most ambitious and fast growing wine regions in China today is Ningxia, at the foot of the Helan Mountains. But few people have heard about Ningxia which is not strange since it is a very young wine region. Substantial investments and savvy marketing are bringing Ningxia to the attention of international wine enthusiasts. Britt was recently there for the “Ningxia Helan Mountain East Foothills Awards 2017”. It was a long over-due update to the visit to China ten years ago. At that time, most wines did not merit a second thought. Today the situation is dramatically different. There are several producers in Ningxia making very ambitious wines, that compare well on the international market.
It’s a misty morning, pretty cool, even though it’s still August. The East Helan Mountains, which separates the Chinese wine region of Ningxia from the Gobi Desert and Mongolia, are barely visible. Normally, summers are hot here. The winters, on the other hand, are freezing cold. The temperature easily drops to minus 5 Fahrenheit (minus 20 C). The vines wouldn’t survive if they weren’t covered with soil after the pruning. From November to March, the vines are invisible and thus protected against the cold.
A shorter version of this article has been published on Forbes.com.
Ningxia is located west of Beijing, two hours away by plane. I went there at the end of August to judge Ningxia wines at the “Ningxia Helan Mountain East Foothills Awards 2017”. I also had the opportunity to visit some of the wineries in the region.
Ningxia is the most talked about Chinese wine region at the moment. Clever marketing people and ambitious winemakers are working hard to make their region well known. Twenty years ago, few had heard of Ningxia wines. Many of the estates here have been created in the last five to ten years. They are still learning. The producers themselves say they lack experience and technology. Many seek help and advice from French oenologists.
At the same time, they are impatient. They want to move quickly. They want to make Ningxia not only a well-known wine region but a well-known prestigious wine region. A ranking of the wine estates, inspired by the 1855 classification in Bordeaux, has just begun. Maybe it is a bit premature considering the youth of most vines and estates.
On the other hand, maybe it is the way to go. Classifications do add prestige to a wine region (but it can also bring problems, look at Saint Emilion). Being a classified estate can be seen as a justification for higher prices. Already, the Ningxia producers don’t hesitate to charge high prices for their best wines. In China, a high price in itself means prestige (as in many other countries).
Today, Ningxia has around 100,000 acres (about 40,000 hectares) of vineyards. It is a rather poor province and the state is encouraging the wine industry to develop. “The state gives money to people who settle here”, says Frenchman Thierry Coustade who makes wine at Silver Heights, a small winery. He has 38 hectares. The biggest winery here has over 7400 acres (3000 hectares). The wine estates in Ningxia come in different shapes and sizes. Most of them are privately owned, by Chinese or foreigners. The Chinese state is represented by Chateau Yunmo, owned by the giant food company COFCO.
The grapes from Yunmo, with its beautiful design, are used primarily for the Great Wall wines. But some are used for the chateau’s own label. The winemaker is Chinese but has previously worked in Chile, France and Australia. He came to Ningxia two years ago. I enjoyed the Chateau Yunmo wines; they are pleasant, with structure and freshness. Michel Rolland, a well-known Bordeaux oenologist, is their consultant.
The cold winter is, of course, a disadvantage for a wine region. Apparently, the vines will not live for more than 20 years. But it’s not a problem, says Thierry Courtade. “We can make top quality wines anyway”.
And other conditions exist for making quality wines. The summer is hot, but the temperature drops at night, which enables the wines to have a good acidity. It’s a dry region that only gets 200 mm of rain a year. This means, of course, that you must irrigate, but the advantage is that you rarely have problems with fungal diseases. Irrigation water comes from the nearby Yellow River.
Does the lack of diseases mean that it is easy to be organic? Perhaps. The giant Ho-Lan Soul has more than 7400 acres (3000 hectares) of vineyards, planted in 2007. “It was desert, only stone and sand before,” says Mr Chen Qi, Managing Director. He bought the land; just over 14,800 acres (6000 hectares), from the state and planted a little bit more than half with vines.
“Everything is organically certified, in China, the EU and the US,” he says proudly. “The air is clean, there are no factories, it is ideal for organic farming,” he continues. Pollution is a serious problem in China, being organic will attract consumers, he believes. 200 people work in the vineyard permanently and 2000 at harvest. Ho-Lan Soul also has a consultant from Bordeaux, the oenologist Stephane Toutoundji. This huge wine estate makes wines in all price ranges. In the very highest range, we tasted a delicious Syrah with an intensive grape character and a spicy, pleasantly balanced Cabernet Sauvignon.
Bordeaux is the big inspiration for many Ningxia producers. Red Bordeaux. Red is the lucky colour of the Chinese. Maybe that is one reason why mainly red wines attract the newly awakened Chinese consumers. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and the other Bordeaux grapes are planted in more or less all Ningxia estates.
One of my Cabernet favourites comes from Château Yuange, a winery of around 148 acres (60 hectares) and with a production of 150,000 bottles. The first vintage was 2010. The Château Yuange Cabernet Sauvignon has just the right balance and structure. The oak is discreet, which is good. There is a certain tendency here to give the wines a little too much oak.
Silver Heights also makes some very nice Cabernet Sauvignon wines, some of them blended with a little Merlot. Emma Gao Yuan runs the winery together with her husband Thierry Courtade. She comes from Ningxia. When she was a trainee at Château Calon Segur in Saint Estèphe she met Thierry who worked there. They started out in Ningxia in 2007 and 2014 they built their new cellar. They now produce 50,000 bottles. I like their wines; they have character and personality.
Syrah is, not unexpectedly, another popular grape in Ningxia. More unexpected perhaps is the Languedoc grape Marselan, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. It seems to thrive on the often very sandy soil here. It seems popular with the producers. Ho-Lan Soul makes an impressive 100% Marselan.
During my trip, I also tasted well-made and pleasant white wines from Chardonnay and Italian Riesling (Welschriesling). “There is not a big market in China for white wines,” said Yang Weiming, winemaker at Château Yuanshi. Although personally, he thinks white actually goes better with Chinese food. His unoaked Chardonnay is delicious. It has a classic, fine and pure citrus fruit on the nose and a distinct fatness on the palate.
To sell sparkling wines in China can be even more of a challenge. But that is not a reason not to try. Since 2014, Champagne Moët & Chandon’s owner, the French luxury group LVMH, is present in Ningxia with Domaine Chandon. The production is 220,000 bottles. The wines are light and fruity and entirely for the Chinese market. The most successful are the demi-sec with 45 grams of sugar. The Chinese like their bubbles sweet.
Overall the wines in Ningxia look promising. The wines have freshness and tannins, important ingredients in a red wine. If the winemakers are careful not to overuse the oak then the future could be very bright. The next step, apart from the budding classification, is to attract tourists. A Ningxia wine route is being planned. The biggest producer, Mr Chen Qi at Ho-Lan Soul, will soon have hotels, restaurants and a theme park on his estate. He is confident that more and more Chinese will discover the pleasure of drinking wine. And especially Ningxia wines.