introduction to Ningxia
We’ve spent one week in the Province of Ningxia, which is one of the main wine regions in China. The Chinese wine industry is quite recent in China, especially in Ningxia, where the oldest vines are 30 years old.
Chinese people are used to drinking rice alcohol rather than wine. Thus, the rice production is mostly dedicated to alcohol, and China is facing a lack of rice to eat. To limit this trend, the Government is trying to encourage the wine consumption, providing infrastructure to get electricity and water to wineries. Indeed, in the 1990s, the Government helped to turn this aride land between the Yellow River and the Helan Mountain into a potential site for vineyard development. Hence, the Ningxia has seen an explosion of wineries number, with currently more than 80 wineries in the region.
The Ningxia benefits from a dry climate, with extreme temperatures (from +40°c in summer to -30°c in winter). Because of these cold winters, they have to bury their vines with sand and earth to protect them from December to April. It is the only way to keep their vines alive. This handmade method requires a lot of workforce, so it represents a large cost for the wineries, which leads to expensive bottles of wine.
Chinese people prefer red wines in general, red being a symbolic colour for them. The main grape variety in the Ningxia is Cabernet, with a high level of sugar and moderate acidity due to the hot temperature and the sunlight. They also grow a lot of Marselan, which is a mix between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. This grape variety has become very popular in the region since 2009, when a Chinese wine from the Ningxia won an international price at the Bruxelle competition.
Silver Heights is a Franco-Chinese vineyard, at the foot of the Helan Moutain. Its history goes back in 1999, when Gao Lin planted Cabernet Sauvignon from France, convainced that the Nigxia Province will become one day a great and well known wine region. He encouraged his daughter Emma to travel to France to attend a Master of Oenology in Bordeaux. There, she did several internships notably in famous wineries such as Chateau Calon Ségur, where she met the winemaker Thierry, her future husband. In 2005, Emma decided to come back to China. First, she worked a bit for Torres China (one of the most prestigious wine importers). Then, she has started to make her own wine at her parent's farm in collaboration with her father and her husband Thierry. When she presented one bottle of her Cabernet Sauvignon to Alberto Fernandez, the managing partner of Torres China, he was impressed and suggested that Torres would distribute it. This marks the beginning of Silver Heights!
The mountain, located in western Yinchuan, is a natural rampart against cold northwest winds and creates good climatic conditions for agriculture. The land that Gao Yuan chose was virgin soil, but the sandy and mineral-rich soil is perfect for growing grapes. The vineyard is located at 1300 m altitude at the foot of the mountain and enjoys a good sunshine without too much rainfall. Good conditions to grow grapes. At Silver Heights the main varieties planted are red varieties: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Marselan.
Nowadays, they produce 4 differents wines: Emma's Reserve (100% cabernet Sauvignon), The Summit (65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot), Family Reserve (80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot) and finally Family Reserve Chardonnay ( 100% Chardonnay).
Since their first vintage in 2007, Emma and Thierry have been acclaimed by national and international experts for the quality of their wines.
During our stay, we had the chance to meet the friendly Thierry, who explained us all the fascinating story of the family. How appreciated it was to meet there a French speaker to learn more about the Ningxia region and China in general! He showed us the cellar, the vineyard and we had a great tasting session with him!
Located in northern China, in the heart of Ningxia province along Helan Mountain, one of the largest wine-growing areas in China, Chandon China was founded in 2013 and was one of the first foreign-funded wineries taking roots in Ningxia. Moet & Chandon wanted to be part of Chinese consumers lifestyles.
The estate's first sparkling wine, launched at the end of 2014, reflects its roots: it subtly combines Chinese audacity and modernity with French ancestral tradition and savoir-faire.
The vineyard has a continental climate with environmental and geological conditions that have pushed the team to develop this vineyard in this terroir. In addition, the great differences in temperature during the night and day make it an ideal setting for the cultivation of chardonnay and pinot noir, their only two grape varieties that are essential for the production of sparkling wines using the traditional Champagne method.
The vineyard uses organic practices even if they don't have an organic certification for now.
Nowadays, Chandon is the first and only one in China which has a 100% production of sparkling wines, therefore they focus on the Chinese market. They don't export but they have the license, for now they want to convince chinese people with their excellent sparkling wines and to aim selling in duty free in big airports like Singapore or Hong Kong.
Another interesting point is that they don't use barrels anymore. Indeed, in May 2017 they decided to stop using barrels because they don't like the baky taste and they want more a fruity style. They prefer to keep the freshness of the fruit for chinese people who love sweet wines. Furthermore, they adapt their products for the Chinese tastes and they created a range “Chandon Me” which is a demi-sec sparkling wine, the sounds “Me” is similar to a Chinese word that means sweetness. What a great idea!
During our stay, we had the chance to meet Lin LIN, the assistant winemaker, who explained us the story of Chandon China. We had a tour in the vineyard and the cellar and then we continued our visit to the tasting room. We had the chance to taste the two categories of their sparkling wines : « brut » and « demi-sec ».
In only two years, the Ningxia province has seen the construction, development and opening of what the government now qualifies as “the most modern winery in China”. When Zhang Yanzhi, a talented Chinese winemaker and wine merchant, was offered to acquire 1,000 hectares of 22 years old vines, he took his chance! They started to build their state of the art winery in June 2017, made their first vintage in October 2017 (under rudimentary conditions) and finished everything, including the restaurant and hotel, in April 2019. This impressive project required an investment of RMB 300 million, i.e. approximately EUR 40 million. The founder chose the name Xige, which means “Western Pigeon” in Mandarin, firstly after the big natural Lake Pigeon that extends in front of the property. “Western” is for the appellation “Western mountain” they’re under and more precisely their sub-appellation “Dove Mountain”.
When we arrived in the beautiful property, we were welcomed by a dynamic and welcoming French woman, Christelle Chêne, the International Affairs Director. We were very glad to be able to speak in French with her and ask all the questions we had on the complex Chinese wine industry!
Unlike most of other estates that recently decided to bet on Marselan, Xige Estate chose to put forward Cabernet Gernischt, a 100% Chinese variety derived from Carménère. This grape variety doesn’t have the good reputation it deserves for now mostly because of Changyu, one of the biggest producers in China and in the world, who focused more on quantity than on quality with its entry level Cabernet Grenischt wine. Christelle explained that people were used to considering this grape variety as cheap and bad with unripe green pepper flavors and would therefore harvest it whenever they had time, often too early. When Xige Estate acquired its 1,000 hectares of vines, most of them were Cabernet Gernischt: they did some researches, adjusted their methods and now believe it can produce great wines. For instance, they realized that berries and leaves colors change very early without meaning that it’s close to ripening: this variety reaches maturity more than two weeks after the classic Cabernet Sauvignon. Of course, they also have the usual Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon planted in the vineyards.
Christelle helped us to understand the characteristics of the province and defined Xige Estate’s terroir: the first and key element is Helan Mountains, a natural barrier against the cold. The second is the Yellow River from which they get water for irrigation after being filtered to get rid of muddy particles. The last element is the long sunshine hours combined with a dry climate: the Ningxia province is not subject to disease pressure and it’s therefore relatively “easy” to be certified organic. However, since this northwestern province on the edge of Gobi Desert has very cold winter, Xige Estate also needs to bury its vines at this time of the year to make it through winter.
With Christelle, we visited the entire winemaking facilities where 70 people currently work under the orders of a young Chinese winemaker, Liao Zusong, who started his career in Australia. Near the property, they had to build a small “village” with all needed facilities to attract employees and welcome them with their family.
First of all, we walked past a big screen showing information collected directly from the vineyards as part of their “Smart Agriculture” methods: thanks to sensors, they’re able to gather live data on wind, temperature, water absorption in the soil, etc.
Then, we headed to two different wineries, a small and a bigger one, with modern tanks imported from Europe (more generally, all the winemaking facilities are imported from France and Germany). All the tanks can be monitored and controlled, especially for temperatures, from an app available on their phones. Then, we arrived in a beautiful cellar with 2,000 new oak barrels, mostly from France. Christelle told us that these barrels will only be used 2 times! Finally, we saw the bottling line: for now, they produce 2 million bottles per year, they’ll soon reach 5 to 6 million bottles per year and the winery is designed for 13 million bottles per year.
As part of our visit, we also discovered the regional brand, Hé Lan Hong meaning “The red from Helan Mountains”, that has been developed and supported by the local government. The goal is to promote the Ningxia province with qualitative but affordable wines. Nowadays, only 4 wineries, including Xige Estate, can sell wines under this brand. Xige Estate produces Hé Lan Hong N°28, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon worth 28 dollars and Hé Lan Hong N°50, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Gernischt worth 50 dollars.
Finally, we had a wonderful tasting session in their beautiful restaurant!
grape varieties and terroir
story of Xige estate
Holan Soul, founded in 2007,is situated in the heart of Ningxia, along Helan Mountain. Holan Soul is a giant in the wine industry in China. This huge wine estate of 6,000 ha planted more than 2,000 ha of organic vineyards. They have more than 12 different grape varieties (60% of Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% of Shiraz, and 10% of Marselan). This is the biggest organic vineyard in the world ! And they have several organic certification. It’s very important for them to work organically as they have a lot of people working in the vineyard. (more than 2,000 during harvest).
It’s a Chinese estate but they have a French consultant from Bordeaux, the oenologist Stephane Toutoundji who often comes to help them producing their wines. They also benefit from ultra-modern installations for their wine production.
They produce a large range of different wines from the entry level wines on the market to the highest range with a bottle sold around 3000RMB (400e) on the domestic market. They do everything by hand to keep an high quality and the Chinese want to be reassuringly by being expensive.
The next step for this vineyard is to attract tourists, they are just situated along the Ningxia wine road and they think that this region is going to grow. The huge producer will build restaurants, hotels and a wine-theme park on his property in order to appeal chinese visitors to discover the wine industry.
Furthermore this promising vineyard plans to build 30 different wineries in the next 20 years… This is China ! Visiting this vineyard, and knowing this brand’s conquering made us aware of the the true scale of China’s ambition and its plans for world-wine domination.
We had the chance to have a tasting session with Leon the winemaker in their beautiful cellar.