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China's Wine Egg Hatches by 05/05/2019  

A new winery development in Ningxia is impressive, but Jim Boyce points out that it's a gamble.


Xige Winery | The latest addition to Ningxia's wine scene is impressively large.

An egg-shaped complex called Xige in Chinese, and known informally as Pigeon Hill in English, has risen from the dusty fields of Ningxia in north-central China. Residents of those windswept plains have witnessed inspiring blueprints transform into a sprawling winery nestled within a curved stone wall during the past two years. And now the first wines are set for release.

But Xige (She Guh) is more than just another fancy winery. The Ningxia region's government hopes it might be a kind of Penfolds, a respected high-volume national brand that makes everything from palatable entry-level wine to the finest reserve cuvées. And, by doing so, that it can help the rest of the wine industry, because birds of a feather flock together, right?

The project exposes a challenge faced by Ningxia and the China wine sector at large. In less than a decade, Ningxia went from virtual unknown to aspiring virtuoso, winning more than a thousand medals and kudos from the world's leading gatekeepers. But that critical success was not fully reflected in sales and meant pressure for both the government and industry.

To be fair, this isn’t all Ningxia's fault. Long before the region joined the wine scene, bigger producers set the stage for a credibility crisis by leveraging consumer ignorance and stressing marketing over quality. When quality finally did start to rise, many consumers, who then knew a thing or two about wine, were turning up their noses at local brands in favor of imported ones. The chickens had come home to roost.

Can a 25,000-square-meter winery help scare them off?

To be sure, Xige has plenty of bells and whistles. It controls the biggest and oldest swath of vineyards in Ningxia, with some 1000 hectares, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, dating to the 1990s. There are also 300 hectares of newer plantings, including of Malbec and Marselan.

Those grapes go to a modern facility with 10 million liters of capacity and loads of top-notch equipment, from a German press to a VinWizard tank control system from New Zealand, to the thousand barrels used for the 2017 vintage alone.

On top of this is a team of local and international experts.

The key here is owner Zhang Yanzhi, who poses a double threat as both Bordeaux-trained winemaker and head of importer and distributer Easy Cellar, which already handles major brands. This distribution network might well be the X-factor for Xige, given that finding a route to market has proven tough for others. Zhang also has financial support: according to local media, Xige initially had funding of $40m, raised with support from Ningxia's Wine Trading Expo Center.

Zhang's team includes chief winemaker Liao Zusong, who worked at Grace Vineyard, one of China's best operations, with stints at Bass Philip and Mollydooker in Australia. Also on board as consultants are Bruno Vuitennez and Valerie Lavigne, while Christelle Chene has joined as export sales director.

It sounds like all the ducks, er, pigeons are in a row as the first wines are set to roll. The initial three-tier wave includes entry-level N28. It's also called Helan Hong, named after Ningxia's mountain range, and is one of the wines endorsed by government to represent the region. (If you attend official functions, you might down a few glasses.) Given the Penfolds analogy, N28 is not exactly Rawson's Retreat as it will retail at $24, but I'm told less expensive options will be coming.

One level up is N50 Old Vines, made with fruit from those 20 year-plus vineyards. And next is the Jade Dove series, including single-vineyard Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Gernischt.

The top tier, Xige Reserve, is still maturing in barrel.

Most of the wine should be siphoned into Easy Cellar's network, with some going to corporate and hoped-for export clients.

Oh, and Xige's hotel should be ready in a few weeks, making it easy for guests to guzzle wine and then nap it off.

Xige is nothing if not ambitious, but that also brings risk. What if this blend of high-end equipment, vineyards and consultants, with strong government, financial and distributor support, doesn't meet expectations? What then? And what if the wines are a success but Xige's superior scale undercuts smaller wineries rather than boosts them?

All this makes Xige somewhat a gamble. Then again, much of Ningxia's wine development could be seen in that light.

In any case, the wheels are in motion. Xige samples were presented at the huge annual wine show Tang Jiu Hui in Chengdu in March. Xige was also part of a multi-city tour, led by Jeannie Cho Lee and Ma Huiqin, to promote Ningxia wine. And the winery has hosted a steady flow of visitors, including a slew of officials, as it prepares to take center stage.

Interestingly, Xige is not in the shadows of the famed Helan Mountains, home of the region's best-known wineries, such as Silver Heights, Legacy Peak, Helan Qing Xue, Kanaan and Chandon. Instead it sits further south, past the tail end of that range, where the wind is stronger and winter harsher.

The vines here have a unique history, a maverick one. If they could talk, they might tell of once being part of a joint venture with Pernod Ricard. Or, more recently, of providing grapes for Ningxia Winemakers Challenge, in which 48 contestants from 17 nations competed in a $100,000 winemaking contest.

Or of a story rooted much deeper in the past. In 1997, China's President Xi Jinping visited Ningxia as a Fujian province official on a poverty reduction mission. One result was to shift people from the harsher areas of Ningxia to those not far from Xi Ge. And one sector that has since arisen in those parts is wine. In fact, Xi Ge's first vines were planted the same year as Xi Jinping visited. Those who believe in fate might see this as another X-factor that will decide the project's success.