Friday, November 6, 2015

Ningxia, China wine: Will our grandchildren compare it to Napa?

If wine were made by lofty dreams, government 5-year plans and Great Wall-sized determination, Ningxia will be among the top world producers by the time our grandchildren begin drinking wine seriously.

Welcome to Napa Valley, where it took some 100 years to develop the area into a world class wine region. Napa Valley, California, USA.

Welcome to Ningxia Wine Corridor, where they plan to develop a world class wine region in a decade. Yes, that is a dust devil in the background. Ningxia
Lately the international wine media has been touting Ningxia as the Chinese wine region to watch. (I actually think there is another Chinese region much better suited to growing wine grapes.) But where the heck is this Ningxia?

Located about two hours flight time east of Beijing, the whole state-level area is officially called the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, in recognition of the Hui people, one of 56 officially recognized nationalities in China.   

The main wine region is mostly centered around Yinchuan and northwards between the Helan Mountain range and the Yellow River. The whole surrounding area is pure desert—as in pretty much nothing grows there desert.

The Ningxia government has a big vision for this dusty desert bisected by a winding ribbon of newly laid concrete. They call it the Helan Mountain Grape Culture Corridor. The road winds along side of Helan Mountain Range which separates Ningxia from Inner Mongolia. (Some call the mountains Helanshan, meaning 'fine horse' in Mongolian.)

This is the Ningxia Wine Corridor. While it might not seem like Napa Valley's Highway 29 and Silverado Trail just yet, the Ningxia government has big plans and a big budget. They spent millions just for the irrigation system to water those scrubby trees edging the road, according to one Ningxia winemaker.

The scale of the Ningxia Wine Corridor makes Napa Valley AVA look like a gentleman’s backyard vineyard. Several knowledgeable Ningxia winemakers told me that by 2020, expansive plans call for 1 million mu of planted vineyards (for Americans, that's about 164,737 acres or for the rest of the world 66667 hectares). For those counting, that's about five times the total land—not just vineyards—making up Napa AVA.

Those tiny black dots at the bottom of the photograph are people planting grape vines in virgin soil that has never seen agriculture before. That is a real desert dust storm at the base of the 2000 meter-high Helan Mountain range, sometimes called Alashan Mountains by older Chinese. The highest peak is 3,556 metres (11,667 ft). Ningxia Helan Mountain East Wine Region, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

Nothing has ever been planted before in this plot prepared for grape vines for Silver Heights Winery.  Hey, did you happen to see the silhouette of a face on Helan Mountain (upper right).  Some say that is Chairman Mao overseeing the development of the wine region. Keep a sharp eye out for the Chairman in other photographs.    Ningxia, China.

With Helan Mountain in the background, this freshly planted vineyard is next to the newly built Ningxia's wine association building.  While getting accurate statistics in China can be challenging, I've heard that there are something like 80,000 acres of vineyards planted in Ningxia now. (That includes all the newly planted ones like those in this photograph.) But plans call for more than 160,000 vineyard acres by 2020. In Napa Valley AVA, there are 45,000 vineyard acres.

Since the government has declared the grape industry as "one of the six pillar industries" in Ningxia province, the investment is astounding, as is the expected return. We're talking achieving 100 billion RMB (almost US$16 billion) in output in less than 10 years. And jobs, while often flowery, government reports claim the area will eventually create 100,000 jobs.

Since the Ningxia is considered by some wine writers China's most promising wine region, Chinese and foreign wineries flock to the area. This optimistic sign pictures the green future hopes of a French winery which has planted a vineyard near the Helan Mountain Grape Cultural Corridor. Note that the portion of Helan Mountain range in the background looks like the profile of a sleeping former chairman Mao Zedong, who supported the grape wine industry so that people would not use  food crops to make alcoholic drinks. (Keep looking for the Chairman's profile.) Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China.

While driving through the dust and heat of new Ningxia Wine Corridor, you can experience the government's commitment to converting the desert into a world-class wine region.

Huge canals are built to supply life-giving water to vineyards from the Yellow River.
Ningxia Wine Corridor, China.

This is part of the canal project looking towards Helan Mountain. Ningxia Wine Corridor, China.

Water is the lifeblood for newly planted vines in a plot owned by Emma Gao's Silver Heights Winery. Ningxia Wine Corridor, China.

Just to give a sense for the impressive growth and intensity of investment over the past several years, these are 12 of the more than estimated 50 wineries that have sprouted in the Ningxia desert.

Moët Hennessy's Domaine Chandon Ningxia
Moët Hennessy broke ground on April 2012 on Domaine Chandon Ningxia of this modern winery to produce sparkling for the Chinese market. Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China.
Pinot noir in the desert anyone?
Formal tasting and dinning room at Domaine Chandon Ningxia. You can see the stainless steel tanks through the glass windows. Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China.

Silver Heights Winery, Ningxia
French-trained winemaker, Emma Gao and her father working pump-over hoses at family-owned Silver Heights winery, Yinchuan, Ningxia Wine Country, China.
Tired of depending on local farmers, Emma Gao and her family of Silver Heights Winery have purchased land parcels near Helan Mountain to plant their own vineyards. Did you happen to see Chairman Mao staring skyward from the mountain ridge in the background? Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China.
Masked against the dust, a female worker harvests Cabernet Sauvignon grapes destined for Silver Heights winery from a farmer near Yinchuan, Ningxia Wine Country, China.

COFCO's Great Wall Winery, Ningxia
COFCO's Great Wall Winery at the base of Helan Mountain.  State owned, COFCO  is China's largest food processing, manufacturer and trader.  Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China.

Pernod Richard's Domaine Helan Mountain, Ningxia
From the informal front entrance, Pernod Richard's Helan Mountain winery looks like a Soviet-era factory. Inside is a different story. Ningxia Province, China.
Pinot noir grapes on sorting line at Pernot Ricard's Domaine Helan Mountain winery, Ningxia Wine Corridor, China.
The scale is impressive. Stainless steel fermenting tanks at Helan Mountain winery, Ningxia Wine Region, China.
Nothing goes to waste in China. That's about a quarter mile of grape seeds from Helan Mountain winery this Worker spreads to dry for sale to the cosmetics and aromatherapy industries.
Ningxia Wine Region, China.

Ningxia Chateau Lanny Winery and Resort
Local government-owned estate chateau Lanny (sometimes seen incorrectly spelled Lanyi) Winery and Resort near Yinchuan, in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China.
Chateau Lanny uses a trellising system to support vines that looks more like those used for table grapes. If you look carefully, you might see Chairman Mao's profile in Helan Mountain. Ningxia Wine Corridor, China.
If you get tired of tasting wine or have a few too many "ganbeis" (the Chinese bottoms up way of drinking), you can sleep the night away in one of Chateau Lanny's guest rooms. Ningxia Wine Corridor, China.

  Changyu Moser XV, Ningxia
Changyu is China's largest winery. So naturally they have a huge presence in Ningxia. This is the nightly light show at Chateau Changyu Moser XV just at the outskirts of Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China.
Just to make sure that visitors get the idea that they are at a winery, Chateau Changyu Moser XV placed this huge grape sculpture as a not-so-subtle hint.  Yinchuan, Ningxia Wine Region, China.
No winery should be without Medieval-era armored guards. Obviously, no shoplifting here.  Regardless, Changyu provides a Disney-like experience at Chateau Changyu Moser XV in Yinchuan, Ningxia Wine Corridor, China.
Changyu believes in educating visitors at their newer chateaux. Chateau Changyu Moser XV is no exception.  Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China.
An interactive video game in the visitor's center is very popular among the younger visitors. On another note, the Chinese seem to enjoy photographing foreigners and I happened to be the only one available that day at the chateau. Chateau Changyu Moser XV in Yinchuan, Ningxia wine region, China.
And what would a chateau be without vineyards.  Chateau Changyu Moser XV in Yinchuan, Ningxia Wine Region, China.

Dragon's Hollow Vineyards, Ningxia
David Henderson, founder of Dragon's Hollow Vineyards, started a number of business and schools before in 1988 creating Montrose Food and Wine to become obtain the first direct license to import wines into China. Then he started Dragon's Hollow with the novel idea of exporting all of his wine. All of the vines he harvests fruit are part of the Helan Shan (Helan Mountain) estate. Ningxia Wine Country, China.
Henderson currently uses the Pernod Richard's Helan Mountain facility, to make his wine. Here Ms Zhou, in light tan coat and head winemaker at Helan Mountain winery, checks one of Dragon's Hollow's rented tanks.  Ningxia Province, China, Asia

Imperial Horse, Ningxia
While Dynasty has been making Imperial Horse wine in Ningxia for many years, every time I go by the facility, there doesn't seem to be much activity. Perhaps I visited only on some surprise national holiday. Imperial Horse winery, Ningxia, China

HeLan Qing Xue Winery, Jai Bei Lan wine, Ningxia
This is where the Ningxia buzz started. At the 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards, their Jia Bei Lan (also spelled JiaBeiLan) Grand Reserve 2009 was awarded the International Trophy for Red Bordeaux Varietals over £10. There was lots of speculation about how a Chinese winery beat some of the world's best Bordeaux-style wines – including those from the Médoc and St-Emilion.  HeLan QingXue Vineyard and Winery, Yinchuan, Ningxia Wine Region, China.

Founded in 2005, Helan Qingxue Vineyard and Winery was the first demonstration vineyard in Ningxia. The idea was to be a government-based, winery-funded association and role model for new owners considering a wine operation in Ningxia. No longer a winery association, its founders now run the estate as viticulturist, winemaker and manager. Controversy swirled who was the actual winery of the 2009 Decanter awarded wine as Li Demei, a professor at Beijing Agriculture College was a consultant there at the time.  HeLan QingXue Vineyard and Winery. Yinchuan, Ningxia Wine Region, China.
As at many Chinese wineries, labels are hand glued onto the bottles at HeLan QingXue Vineyard and Winery. Yinchuan, Ningxia Wine Region, China.

Ningxia XiXiaKing Chateau Yuquan Winery 
Chinese style Yuquan International Wine Chateau of Xixia King fronts one of their vineyards. Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China.
After seeing dozens of Chinese wineries in all sorts of architectural styles, I found it refreshing to see more traditional Chinese design used at Chateau Yuquan. Ningxia Wine Region, China.
The grandious lobby of Chateau Yuquan.
Opened in 2014, the lobby of Chateau Yuquan's hotel gives a hint of the rest of the interior. Besides guest rooms, there are all sorts of game rooms. The hotel complex is next to the Chateau.  Chateau Yuquan, Yinchuan,  Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China.
In the display area, traditions are integrated. Here ancient Chinese businessmen drink Chateau Yuquan wine in tea cups. Chateau Yuquan, Ningxia Wine Region, China.
Chateau Yuquan, Ningxia Wine Region, China.

Ningxia Daylong Winery
With it's fairytale castle-like architecture, Ningxia Daylong Winery, run by the Thailand-based Daysun Investment group, has the Ningxia Chateau Lanny Winery and Resort's young vineyard in the front yard and Helan Mountain as a background. Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China.

Ningxia XiXia King
XiXia King has great plans to build an entire wine complex on the property. Some of those plans have been built—Chateau Yuquan and the nearby hotel. According to the company president, future plans call for Huang Yangtan Xixia Culture Grape Town and Nuan Quan Holiday Grape Town.
Established in 1982, Xixia King is the oldest and probably still the largest winery in Ningxia, with over 130,000 mu (that's more than 21,000 acres) of vineyards. (Mu is the Chinese measure of land area with approximately 6 mu to an acre.) That's nearly one-half the total vineyard acreage of Napa Valley AVA. Ningxia Wine Region, China.
Production area XiXia King winery.
Bottling line XiXia King winery.

Chateau Yuanshi, Ningxia
This is one of my favorite Chinese wineries as it is built from natural stone taken from the site, built in a local architectural style and crafted by local masons.  Here sunrise touches the natural stone buildings of Chateau Yuanshi Winery near Yinchuan city in Ningxia Wine Region, China.
All of the buildings are made of natural stone found on the property. The owner grew up on the site.
Chateau Yuanshi Winery near Yinchuan city in Ningxia Wine Region, China.
This stone mason told me that it would take him two days to carve this single stone for a new building at Chateau Yuanshi Winery near Yinchuan city in the Ningxia Hui Province wine region next to Helan Mountain.
Worker topping off French oak barrels at Chateau Yuanshi Winery near
Yinchuan, in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China.
One of the tasting rooms.
Chateau Yuanshi (Yuan Shi) Winery designed in local Chinese architecture style and build from local stone near Yinchuan, in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China.

The twenty two words of Chinese I know can go a long ways in the Ningxia vineyard.

All photographs and text © 2015 Janis Miglavs

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