THE CHINA WINE REVOLUTION IS UPON US
With a healthy dose of European influence, a little-heralded region is blossoming into a hub of impressive oenophilic distinction. TOM PATTINSON reports
Perched on the isolated southern flank of the Gobi Desert, the Chinese province of Ningxia is known for its ethnic Hui Muslim population, its traditional boiled lamb noodles – and not much else. Remarkably, this dusty valley is now rapidly carving out a niche as the capital of China’s burgeoning wine industry, as dozens of independent vineyards are producing some outstanding wines in the foothills of the Helan Mountains. Already the leading consumers of wine globally, the Chinese are on the brink of being one of the largest producers as well – and Ningxia is where the best of them will come from.
The region’s unique conditions are an ideal environment to build a viticulture industry from the sandy soil up. “We are 1,200 metres high and we have an explosion of sunshine,” explains Emma Gao of Silver Heights, a local vineyard. “The 3,200 hours of sun [a year] is really good for red wine and we don’t need to use pesticides because of the dry climate.”
Gao’s innovations at Silver Heights are new for the region, but harmonise pleasantly with global expectations – and for good reason: she studied in France and is married to a French winemaker. The dark, fruity cabernet sauvignons and biscuit chardonnays she produces are rated very highly by international critics. “It’s Bordeaux style but the climate is totally different, giving the wine a more peppery taste,” she says.
The Bordeaux style – blending cabernet grapes with merlot – has been favoured in the region, mainly due to the long held notion in China that Bordeaux wines are the pinnacle of winemaking and, of course, can reach the highest prices.
Producers are experimenting with other varietals as well, but it’s more instinct than science. Six years ago, as the wine market was booming, Wang Fan, the owner of Kannan Winery, shifted her business from growing grapes to making wine. She is one of the only viticulturists in the area to produce a nice, crisp riesling.
Wang chose the grape for no other reason than that is her favourite wine, a taste she acquired from her years living abroad. Independent winemakers are not the only ones that have recognised the potential of Ningxia. Pernod Ricard took over one of the older vineyards, and now its Helan Mountain brand is producing more than 60,000 bottles of quaffable wine a year with significant expansion plans.
Chandon, meanwhile, opened a major facility in 2013 and makes a sparkling wine for domestic sale that “is as good as any global wine”, according to head winemaker Gloria Xia. The firm’s vast complex, complete with tasting rooms and restaurant, is of a quality that matches the other brands in the LVMH stable.
The drinkability of Ningxia wines was given its first major global verification in 2011 when the noted wine magazine Decanter awarded a first prize trophy in its blind tasting to a small winery: the Jiabeilan Grand Reserve 2009, produced by Helan Qingxue. “We don’t claim to be the best wine region in the world but we hope the award made people realise Ningxia has the potential to make more high-quality wine,” says Zhang Jing of Helan Qingxue.
Like many local winemakers, Helan Qingxue has support from the local government. Li Demei, professor of oenology at Beijing Agricultural College, and former trainee at Châteaux Palmer, consults for a number of wineries in Ningxia including Helan Qinqxue. “We’ve introduced more than 20 varietals and we have five years of results already,” he says. “The Ningxia government supports a lot of research projects; to introduce new varieties and to find which one is the best to adapt to Ningxia terroir.”
The largest and grandest of wineries in the region is the Chateau Chengyu Moser XV, an international partnership that involves the Chinese government and a European expert. The Chinese state-owned company Chengyu was the first winemaker in China and dates back over 100 years. A behemoth in domestic production, its exceptionally large volumes of wine can be found everywhere from supermarkets to state banquets. The firm’s partner, Austrian winemaker Lenz Moser, has helped raise both the quality and international standing of the wine.
“People don’t drink the wine, they drink the story,” says Moser. “In terms of the image of China being the epicentre of winemaking, I would say we are getting close. The fruit is out there, the climate is almost ideal, the vineyards are ten, 15 years old so it is a very, very good time,” he explains. “In the next ten years I can see China playing a major role in the international wine industry – that is inevitable.”