The Chinese wine industry occupies the most important position in the economic development of Ningxia. This region has good conditions of sunny days and warmth. It has an arid and semi-arid climate, it is easy to carry out manual irrigation thanks to the Yellow River that flows through the area. The first and only provincial-level of development bureau for wine in China was founded here. The government gives great support to the technical training, seedling introduction and infrastructure such as land, road and water and power utilities construction. The wines produced in this region have won many awards in both domestic and international wine competitions, and have attracted big investments, making Ningxia a star region in China.
During the 4-day stay, I visited the following wineries in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and tasted their wines besides visiting vineyards and wineries. Here are the wineries visited:
Camouflaged structure, big museum, a big banquet hall to receive large groups of wine tourists but with a small production of 200000 bottles (16,500 cases), it is difficult to project a profitable future for this winery because of seemingly huge investment to attract wine tourists.
Unlike several other Chinese wineries I had visited earlier, Chateau Yuanshi has been designed smartly to merge with the natural surroundings, with an elegant Chinese-style garden fitting snugly into the natural landform of the Helan mountains.
Built a decade ago from stones excavated from the discarded quarries that were used to plant the grapes, the concept is the brainchild of two brothers who gave it a distinctly local, Chinese feel. One feels as if entering a very old winery from a past dynasty, but the concept must have cost them a pretty penny even though it is a visitor-friendly winery.
The garden in the winery has a gazebo overlooking the tranquil ponds; the furniture has been made from wine barrels to give it a rustic look with a restaurant with huge sitting capacity but with minimalist facilities and look. There is a very artistic boutique and tasting area with subdued lighting beneath which stretches on extensive wooden table. One passes through what appears to be a museum with interesting murals and wine related artefacts. But with over 100 hA the production of 200,000 bottles of wine a year even if the price is very high, it is difficult to maintain those prices in order to sell more wine.
As in many other wineries, they have engaged a French-trained winemaker Yang Weiming. His brief is to make wines that are not only suited to the local palate but also to showcase the terroir of the Helan Mountain for producing high quality wines. Despite the elevation of over 1100 meters in the region, acidity is undermined by the pH levels in the soils and freshness is the primary concern. As Chinese buyers get more sophisticated with time, they would demand more freshness.
An interesting but rather disturbing aspect was that an excellent dinner was served but without any Presentation of their wines, journalists could pick up or ask the lively, young female sommeliers for any label. At the end of the evening, I asked some of the members of the entourage if they remembered the name of the winery. They were embarrassed into admitting they did not, except that the evening was an excellent experience.
Wines are apparently expensive. A red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (76%) and Marselan with 15.7% alc that won a Bronze medal at Decanter Asia Wine Awards 2019 sells online for 680 RMB (($96).
The owner of the relatively new winery, Mr. Shao, a man of modest demeanour was waiting to welcome us to his winery as we reached. He was in a good mood as 2019 has been a very good year for his crops. He has been working on making his vineyards organic for the last 3 years. He started the winery about 8 years ago and surely has a big investor backing; he is already making 400,000 bottles with 100 hAs of vineyards. He grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Marselan, Chardonnay and Moscato.
Water is a big problem in this area, with a mere 200 mm of annual rains. Sometimes the cover crops create problems, he admits. As in the case of many wineries, there was nothing that grew here 8 years ago as he started the project. But the wines we tasted were indicative of a success story. Selling at around $30 each, the Chardonnay 2018 and Cabernet Sauvignon (80%) Merlot blend were both excellent wines. It was interesting that Mr. Shao has no foreign winemaking experience though he worked with a local winery earlier (he declined to name the winery).
This looked like a ‘real’ winery with investments made in a prudent fashion and not too much emphasis on wine tourism, though it had a very decent tasting room and a clean and hygienic winery. He lamented the high prices because of high distribution cost; it is not easy to distribute wines, he said. Also the problem of burying the wines in winter is expensive. All facts considered, these appeared to be realistic prices. No wonder his wines are well received abroad and he has already exported 6,000 bottles to France and expects to increase exports.
Chateau Great wall Terroir
The Great Wall Tianfu Winery in Helan Mountain East is a large and complex winery and is a part of the winery chain of the state-owned COFCO. Called Great Wall wineries, they are divided into five sub-brands, namely- Chateau Sun God Great Wall, Great Wall Five-Star, Changli Huaxia, Ningxia Terroir and Penglai Coast. The Great Wall Terroir (Tianfu in Chinese) was set up with combined services of science research, plant, winemaking and wine tourism, culture experience, dining and conference, for a total investment of $70 million. Its location in the GI protected area of Helan Mountain East and the busloads of tourists arriving and departing during our visit showed it is an important winery for wine tourism.
The winery is at an altitude of 1266m. They own 1,500 hAs of vineyards managed by a staff of 10 winemakers. The 164,000 sq. m winery and the 43,000 sq. m wine cellar are equipped with the most advanced technologies to soft treat the grapes and wine: gravity-fed fermentation, cross- flow, filtration, energy saving…. Great Wall Tianfu Winery has apparently become the most powerful dark horse in the east of Helan Mountain. The very size and equipment makes you wonder if it is a bulk wine producer of Chile, Australia or if it is a big petro-chemical plant!
The Restaurant at the winery is massive in size, giving a view of the vineyards and also the Western Xia Imperial Tombs , merely a couple of kilometers as the crow flies. An excellent dinner was indicative of the big surge of tourists, an hour’s drive away from the city of Yinchuan. The vineyard visit was also very informative before that.
The prices of the wines have been brought down to a more reasonable 200-300 Yuans ($30-40) during the last couple of years to make them more competitive.
Chateau Changyu Moser XV
Founded in 1892, Changyu is the oldest wine producer in China and has become the largest wine producer in Asia and the fourth largest in the World. Changyu Moser XV opened in 2013 in Yinchuan at a cost of $70 million. The government-supported winery, Changyu roped in Lenz Moser, the 15th generation winemaker from Austria who lent his name to the winery. He claims he has no stake in the equity of the winery.
Chateau Moser XV is located in Yinchuan Economic and technological Development Zone of Ningxia and combines grape cultivation, high-end winemaking, wine tourism and wine theme catering under one single roof and falls under the Helan Mountain East region. It owns 90 hA of vineyards. The Chateau and the beautiful restaurant where we had lunch with their wines after the Guided Tasting with Moser, were built in 2012.
This Winery produces the most high-end wine of Changyu Company. At present, the wines have been exported to many countries in Europe including France and received much praise from leading wine tasters. Keeping in touch with the reality, the wines have been priced at realistic levels too.
I had visited the winery last year and was very impressed with the Bordeaux style Chateau at enormous costs. The museum is also world class but despite the busloads of tourists the number is still between 25000-30,000 visitors (compare with Sula Vineyards in Nashik India welcoming 350,000 visitors every year), I was told; there are hardly any tourists in winter starting from October end and till March-coincidentally the time when the vines need to be buried under snow when the temperature touches -20°C. It was a shock when the guide told us there were no instructions for tasting. This was the first case ever of a visit to winery where the journalists were denied a wine tasting during a visit.
When I met Lenz in Europe later on two occasions, even he found it hard to believe. He promised that on the day I visited the winery next, he would personally be there and conduct the tasting. Sure enough, he caught the flight and arrived directly from the airport where we were being shown the winery by the assistant winemaker. The guided Tasting of 4 wines in the professional Tasting room was a highlight of the visit to all the wineries, with Lenz answering all questions in simple, understandable English and was very forthright in his opinion. No wonder, a significant chunk of the 600,000 bottles are being exported in several countries including Dubai where one hotel with 11 restaurants is serving their wines in all the restaurants.
Four wines were tasted –Cabernet Sauvignon white 2018 was a special wine, slightly pink in colour and nice structure; at 150 Yuan ($20) a very good value. The Grand Vin (Bordeaux style blend) at Y1000-1250 ($145- $180) sounds expensive but think Phelan Segur when comparing the taste, he says.
Domaine Chandon Ningxia
Domaine Chandon was founded in 2013 after the idea was conceived in 2009 and the government gave them several befits to set u a winery in the region. The exceptional climatic, environmental and geological conditions convinced the team of international experts to establish the estate in this protected terroir. The area is ideal for growing chardonnay and pinot noir, two varieties that are essential for creating sparkling wines using the classic method traditionnelle style (known as Method Champenoise in Champagne).
The estate is very impressive and modern with production facilities that are among the most advanced in the world: a pneumatic press, controlled temperature fermentation, and an automatic bottling and disgorging system. The estate’s first sparkling wine was launched in 2014, a year after it was launched in India by renting York winery. It is a reflection of its roots and subtle blends Chinese tradition and modernity with age.
The vineyards are pristine- the building is well made architecturally, giving an excellent panoramic view of the Helan Mountains beyond the vineyards. The Tasting room is exquisite with plush living room style sitting arrangement for tasting, if desired. We tasted the Chandon Brut from Magnum bottles; it was fresh, crisp, slightly yeasty in flavour and very pleasant mouthfeel. It was not surprising to see it win a Grand Prize (Grand Gold).
But what was really surprising and off-putting to the group was that they refused to taste the Rose Brut despite several requests. Either they felt it was not up to the mark (Chandon standards) or the group of international was not worth the cost of opening a couple of magnum (most suspected it was the former). Quite disappointing and a missed opportunity for Domaine Chandon which believes in impressing the visitors more with the real estate than the liquid!
According to Wang Qi, executive vice president of the China Alcoholic Drinks Association, Chinese chateau wines win several awards in the international competitions, they do not sell well domestically due to high prices and a lack of knowledge among Chinese consumers. The situation is changing now. The high prices earlier were reportedly due to investors' eagerness to recoup their investments within a short time frame. After years of market operation, prices of 90% Ningxia wines have now fallen back to much more reasonable CNY 100 to 300 ($14-42).
One thing is for sure- Ningxia will roar like a lion of wine in China in the near future. The government of China and Yinchuan are betting on the right horse. The prices are still high but good wines should be available at even better prices soon. Otherwise, the charm and competitiveness in the international markets of Ningxia wines may be lost. For a few earlier related Articles, please visit:
Ningxia-Flavour of the Decade Wine Region of China
3RD Edition of BRWSC highlights Ningxia as Top Wine Region of China
BRWSC 2018: Huge success showcasing famous Ningxia Region in China