Châteaux China

Image of Jancis Robinson

You know a wine venture is a success if you have the world’s most energetic purveyor of special glasses and decanters, Georg Riedel of Austria, volunteering to take part.

Two weeks ago, I flew to a remote province of China to participate in the inaugural Ningxia Wine Festival. But Riedel got there several days before me – and when I managed to visit the wine producer who first alerted me to the potential of Ningxia, vivacious Emma Gao of Silver Heights, I found that her collection of Riedel glassware took up almost more room than her tiny barrel cellar.

Ningxia is a small, impoverished province 550 miles west of Beijing. Until recently it was best known for its inhospitable mountains and desert, sheep and goji berries, but local government officials have become convinced that Ningxia’s future lies in wine. A campaign started in earnest in the late 1990s when the Ningxia Agricultural Reclamation Management Bureau swung into action, transforming the desert between the Yellow River and the eastern slopes of the Helan Mountains into potential vineyard by determined applications of irrigation water, cover crops and bulldozers. It was clear that cereals and corn wouldn’t do well there, but that the vines that produced a drink the Chinese were rapidly becoming interested in would thrive.

Before then there had been just one winery in the area, Xi Xia King, but, in a sign of the times, it is now engaged in a joint venture with LVMH to produce its first Chinese sparkling wine, supplying the raw material for the 5,300 sq m winery currently being constructed nearby. The result will be sold as Chandon, the international brand name for sister fizzes to Moët champagne.

LVMH is the second French drinks giant to have committed itself to Ningxia. In 2008, Pernod Ricard took out a lease on a substantial proportion of one of the first big vineyards to be reclaimed and sells competent varietals, mainly in China, under the Helan Mountain label. Others who have constructed or are constructing vast “châteaux” designed as tourist magnets include not just an array of private investors, but also two of the three big Chinese wine producers: Changyu (which, inter alia, is in partnership with Ch Lafite in China’s first wine region, Shandong, in the north-east), and Cofco, which makes Great Wall wines. Dynasty has been making Imperial Horse wine in Ningxia for many years.

A big advantage Ningxia has over many other Chinese wine regions is that the government owns the land, so can lease large tracts of it, which can be farmed exactly as the producer wishes, in a single transaction. In Shandong, for instance, the land is owned by thousands of smallholders. In Shanxi, where Grace Vineyards, for long one of China’s most admired wineries, is based, the bulk of the grapes have to be bought in and there is a constant battle to persuade peasant smallholders with no wine culture that, for example, small grapes packed full of flavour are more useful to a winemaker than large juicy ones.

But is the nascent wine region of Ningxia propelled by expediency and local government determination, or by the fact that it does actually produce superior wine? It was to try to establish this, and to act as one of a handful of judges in the first Ningxia Wine Awards, that I flew there.

We tasted eight white wines and 32 reds blind and were asked to mark them variously as deficient, commercially acceptable, good or excellent. In my four previous tastings of the best Chinese wines, undertaken roughly every two years since 2002, it was a struggle to find wines that qualified as commercially acceptable. This time, however, I found five that qualified as excellent, and only six that were less than commercially acceptable (due only to the very easily remedied fault of oxidation). Both in the awards and at several wineries, it was clear that Ningxia’s raw material is impressively consistent.

Moët may be betting on sparkling white (rosé doesn’t sell in China), but the great majority of what is currently produced in Ningxia is red – mostly Cabernet and Merlot, as is the Chinese way. The wines have an attractive frankness of fruit, rarely more than 13 per cent alcohol nicely balanced by natural acidity and, oxidation apart, were generally both clean and expressive. Although summer days are warm and (generally) dry, temperatures reliably fall at night at this altitude (over 1,000m) so that the growing season is not too short. But winters are almost as severe, and early, as they are in China’s westernmost wine province Xinjiang, so that here too, vines have to be buried every autumn to save them from freezing to death. For the moment the Ningxia government can provide relatively cheap labour, having moved so much of the population from the inhospitable mountains in the south to specially built settlements around the capital Yinchuan. But the continued urbanisation of China will surely start to make wine production in Ningxia much more expensive. And what, everyone wonders, will happen when those leases run out?

I did keep finding one very strong, unfamiliar flavour in our blind tasting though: a green streak accompanied by something peppery. This is the local grape speciality known as Cabernet Gernischt, which my Wine Grapes co-author José Vouillamoz’s DNA profiling has shown to be identical to the Carmenère best known in Chile. Chile’s climate is much warmer than Ningxia’s but, even there, Carmenère can be difficult to divest of its greenness, and in Ningxia this is a much more serious problem.

There are some who argue that Cabernet Gernischt should be promoted as Ningxia’s distinguishing mark, but I’m not convinced, especially since a significant proportion of the plants are affected by leafroll virus which exacerbates the problem by slowing ripening.

Perhaps it’s time Chinese wine producers ventured outside the confines of Bordeaux’s red wine grapes and perhaps Ningxia, suddenly China’s most wine-minded province by far, could lead the way? I’d love to see the Riedel Ningxia Syrah glass, or even one for Riesling.

Tasting notes on Purple Pages of

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