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How Ningxia is overturning all doubts about Chinese wines by James Suckling and Zekun Shuai02/11/2020  

You may know Ningxia, located in north China, because of its desolately beautiful desert topography, or for its ancient tomb sites or its mountain scenery.

More likely, though, these days you’ll know Ningxia for its wine. The dry, compact continental-climate autonomous region tucked between the much larger Gansu province and Inner Mongolia is home to nearly 200 producers under the appellation of the Helan Mountain Eastern Foothills. Some 80 producers have their own winery, and many are newcomers, eager to tap into a growing sophistication in the industry that’s seeing Ningxia wines win acclaim the world over.

Ningxia is often described as China’s answer to Bordeaux. For red wine at least, it’s known for Bordeaux varieties. And inspired by Bordeaux’s classifications, the Ningxia Wine Federation, the young regulatory board, has adopted a five-growth classification system since 2013 to assess and rank producers every two years.

We recently interviewed winemakers and owners from Ningxia to learn how this promising wine region has kept on improving, year on year. Wines with colour and richness abound, but what about finesse?

Helan Qingxue in winter, when vines are buried deep in the soil to hibernate

Ten years ago, when James Suckling was still the senior editor at Wine Spectator, his only memorable Chinese wine then was from Shanxi, the Grace Vineyard Chairman’s Reserve 2006, which was rated 86 points. Now, it’s a totally different story. More than half (55 per cent) of the 150 wines tasted last year by from China got 90 points or above, and Ningxia is at the centre of this dramatic progress.

Many excellent red wines are full-bodied with concentration and sleek tannins. A few possess the composed finesse we’ve long been looking for in wines from Ningxia.

“Most Chinese consumers are just starting to get used to drinking wine, so some have to rely on their baijiu experience,” said Liu Jianjun, a young, soft-spoken independent winemaker who makes aspiring wines with his garage wine project, Lingering Clouds. “And when they describe a wine, descriptors for baijiu like ‘perfumed’, ‘smooth’, ‘soft’ or ‘aggressive’ are frequently used. So some sweet fruit with a moderate level of very ripe tannin and lower acidity might do the trick.”

Cabernet Sauvignon is the unabashed mainstay in Ningxia, responsible for around 70 per cent of the red varieties, with Merlot coming a distant second (just more than 15 per cent). Over the past few years Marselan, the Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache cross, and Merlot have also found success and popularity, not only in Ningxia but also notably in Xinjiang, Shandong and Hebei provinces.

“Last year, we harvested our first vintage of Malbec,” said Zhang Jing, winemaker at Helan Qingxue, an established producer in Ningxia that was promoted to the much-coveted Second Growth status by the Ningxia Wine Federation in 2019. “At the moment, the result in the barrel is excellent. We’ll see if the final wine is good enough to be bottled on its own.”

“Syrah might be a good bet as well,” said Wang Fang of Kanaan Winery. A few producers have made good progress with it. Zhang of Helan Qingxue also told us that she’d like to try Tempranillo in Ningxia, as the variety ripens almost at the same time as Merlot and is quite hardy to drought. The grape is so pliable for wines of very high calibre,” she said.

Wang Fang of Kanaan Winery

Pinot Noir in Ningxia can be a bit of a wild card in this extreme climate of dry and hot summers and short growing season. However, Chateau Chanson and Helan Qingxue have made their interpretations of the grape, and the recent vintages we tasted were much better than expected.

Pricing seems to be another issue for Chinese wine. Many people point out that excellent Chinese wines are very expensive, and at the same time they don’t have enough confidence to buy the inexpensive bottles.

But Ningxia might be the first region to change this perception. With more quality wines being made by more than just a few producers, we can presume that the high prices will eventually settle to a reasonable point. There are already many good-value wines under US$30 (S$41) from Ningxia. But for the leading producers, especially the boutique ones, price won’t go very low, as the cost of production is still high in Ningxia for smaller businesses.

“Against all the odds, Ningxia is the hub of modern Chinese wineries,” said Liu. “They’re less scattered than in other regions, like mountainous Yunnan (where the premium and expensive Ao Yun is produced), and they’re supported by the government. Most importantly, it’s hard to find anywhere else in China like Ningxia where people are so serious and all-out about making excellent wine,” he assured us.

Over the last decade, many newcomers who invested in the wine industry in Ningxia also realised that great wine isn’t made by people wearing suits and ties in a fancy “chateau”, but by people with dirty hands and sweaty faces in dusty vineyards.

At Silver Heights, wines were aged in this small cellar (Image: James Suckling)

Today, Ningxia is making excellent wines and the top bottles are already standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the finest Bordeaux (see our story in the September issue on a blind tasting in Hong Kong that pitted top Chinese wines against top names from Bordeaux).

Eight of the best

Our favourite Chinese wines to date from Ningxia’s Helan Mountain Eastern foothills.

Kanaan Winery Crazy Fang 2013

Score: 94

Aromas of currants and berries with fresh herbs and tobacco. Perfumed. A pretty red with currant, sweet tobacco and spice flavours. It’s long and racy. Beautiful focus and persistence. Excellent wine. Drink or hold.

Jade Vineyard Aria Reserve 2015

Score: 93

Beautiful tobacco with sweet berries and cherries. Hints of spice and chocolate. Full-bodied with ripe, velvety fruit and a long, balanced finish. Some stewed fruit. Shows ripeness with balanced, polished tannins. Impressive length. Drink after 2022.

Chateau Mihope Reserve Dry Red 2017

Score: 93

Opaque, black hue. Tons of new leather, almost rubber, tar and meatiness with blackberries and dark chocolate. Lots of richness, concentration and fruit sweetness, yet the tannin is very polished. Better after 2023.

Helan Qingxue Vineyard Jiabeilan Reserve 2014

Score: 93

Very classy nose with Bordeaux flair. Developing complexity now with cedar undertones. Solid fruit and more restrained savouriness here. Nicely balanced with black olive and cassis character. Long. 80 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 12 per cent Merlot and 8 per cent Cabernet Franc. Drink now or hold.

Independent winemaker Liu Jianjun’s 2017 Cabernet blend was named after his own beard (Image: James Suckling)

Lingering Clouds Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Red Beard 2017

Score: 93
Pretty aromas of cherries, flowers and violets follow through to a medium body with fine, integrated tannins and a bright, fresh finish. This shows poise and focus with a precise and fine palate. 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 20 percent Merlot. Drink or hold.

Silver Heights Emma’s Reserve 2015
Score: 93
Aromas of tobacco, cedar and currants with a medium body, soft and silky tannins and beautiful fruit at the finish. Needs time to open, but very attractive already. Drink or hold.

Domaine Cheng Cheng Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Jingjia 2015
Score: 92
Serious depth and complexity. The tannin here is so good. Tightly bound and fine. Full-bodied. Plenty of dark berries and black tea. Leave this in your cellar for two to three years.

Lilan Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Ningxia Lancui 2017
Score: 92
A powerful red with plenty of richness and concentration. It has a nice core of ripe black fruit, bitter chocolate and spices. Full-bodied with toasted-wood character, yet shows outstanding balance and potential to age well. Long, fruity and chocolatey finish. Drink after 2022.