Oct 09: Despite the severity of temperature with the vines needing burying under the earth during the extreme cold winter Ningxia has seen unprecedented growth during the last 30 years and boasts of some excellent red wines made primarily with Cabernet Sauvignon, Marselan and Cabernet Gernischt, writes Subhash Arora who was recently in the region for the second time and tasted several wines and after visiting several key wineries finds the wines of excellent quality but prices high
Flourishing Wine-producing region
Ningxia has today become a brand as popular as Barolo, Brunello ,Burgundy or Barossa. The eastern foothill of Helan Mountain in Ningxia is recognized as one of the most suitable regions for growing grapes and producing high-end wine. Since 2013 it has also the protection area for national products with geographical indications (GI). The soil here is permeable and rich in minerals. The day and night temperature difference is high (over 12°C and the rainfall is very low-less than 200 mL annually. The dry region also means lesser problems due to fungus, pests and other diseases.
Drip irrigation is compulsory and the nearby Yellow River which cuts through the region, provides water for irrigation. The grapes are perfumed and have deep colour due to good pigment formation. The gravel soil is similar to that of Bordeaux- the main components being sediment, rock fragments and pebbles. The strong sunshine gives relatively ripe grapes with good acidity due to the day-night temperature difference.
At present, the planting area of wine grapes at the eastern foothill of Helan mountain is 570,000mu (94,000 acres; 1 acre= 6.07 acres). This is about one fourth of total grape producing areas and is currently the largest wine producing area in China. It has 90 wineries operating in this region with 36 grape varieties being in use. Half of this area is in Yinchuan. Most of these wineries are at the altitude of 1100-1200 m though the Helan Mountain is over 3500 m high at its peak.
About 60 winemakers from 23 countries reportedly help modernise the region and keep up to date on the viticulture and wine making process. Exports have been slow to take off primarily due to high export prices. But savvy producers like Changyu Moser have made sure quality wines are available even in the European supermarkets.
Grapes of Ningxia
Red grape varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Gernischt (Carmenere) , Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Malbec, Marselan (Cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache) etc . White grape varieties are Chardonnay, Italian Riesling, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Vidal for ice wine. Red grape varieties account for around 92%.
It has an annual output of about 120 million bottles of wine, annual sales of 5 billion Yuan ( $1=7 Yuan/RMB). Ningxia wine has won more than 700 medals in national and international competitions, said Chen Kangren ,Vice Mayor of People’s Government of Yinchuan at the opening Address of BRWSC event for which we had been invited.
Two thousand years ago, Ningxia was on the Silk Route from China to Europe during flourishing trade but fell on poor times over centuries till in the 1990s when a Conference on viticulture concurred that the Terroir in the East Helan Mountains was perfect for wine grapes and the area ought to be developed to its potential. It was an amazing push by the government at bullet speed and when in July 2016 Xi Jinping, President of the Republic of China visited the region and said this had the most potential to make wines of international quality the development picked up at super-fast speed with over a 100 wineries today.
Ningxia was a province till 1958 when it was made an autonomous region because of its being the base for Hui Muslims. It is one of the 5 such regions that include Inner Mongolia across the Helan Mountains bordering Ningxia and Tibet. A third of the population is Muslims.
Challenges faced by Ningxia
Since land in China is owned by the government, companies have to negotiate long-term land use rights to grow grapes, or contract with local grape growers and try to get a better quality with the problems being similar to those in India where farmers insist on higher yields.
Another Problem in China is that there are no wine standards and one has to depend upon the popularity and reputation developed by the wineries. China has not yet joined OIV which gives a certain set of standards. For instance, OIV standard that the region can only produce wine with no less than 85% of the grapes from the region in order to mark the region as the origin of wine. Ningxia is no exception. Don’t be surprised if a major chunk of the grapes used are from another region or even country! But Ningxia seems to be confident of its future and there are several producers like Silver Heights, Grace Vineyards, Changyu Moser XV, Chandon, Pernod Ricard, Silver Heights ,Helan Qing Xue Vineyard and Chateau Hedong, which command a premium.
The winter temperature goes down to sub zero and -20°C when the vines have to be buried under the earth for about 4 months making it expensive.
Wine Destination to visit
New York Times selected Ningxia as one of the 46 best ‘must visit’ destinations in the world and proclaimed it makes the best wine in China. Jancis Robinson says there is no doubt that the future of Chinese wine lies in Ningxia.
My interest in Ninxia was piqued when I attended a seminar in 2016 on the Chinese wine regions by Demei Li, an internationally well known wine consultant, enologist and Asst. Professor at the University in Beijing, whom I have known for almost 15 years. Someone asked him which was the best region with maximum potential and his instant answer was ‘Ningxia.’ I started reading up on my own and when an opportunity came last year I grabbed it immediately. I came back with more doubts than before but did not lose heart. I know China is like the onion skin- you keep on peeling one by one to get different flavour and texture.
Indian Student Winemakers in Ningxia
I had also already heard about the region through a programme from 2015-2017 where 48 budding winemakers had been invited from the world including 2 from India to make their wine and the top wines were to be awarded.
Ningxia Wine Challenge brings Experience to Two Indians
Two Indians at Ningxia Wine Challenge
When I was invited for the 3rd time to attend #BRWSC2019, I said yes instantly and don’t regret the decision and will be ready to go again to visit more wineries and taste more wines from Ningxia. The next edition will focus on the wineries I visited. For a few related earlier Articles, visit:
3RD Edition of BRWSC highlights Ningxia as Top Wine Region of China
BRWSC 2018: Huge success showcasing famous Ningxia Region in China
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