Call it a collective epiphany. Seven years ago, I gathered a handful of wine aficionados and journalists in Beijing to crack open a few bottles from a tiny family-owned winery called Silver Heights.
China’s leading wine distributor, Torres, had just taken on the brand from the little-known Ningxia region.
They sent me some samples and asked for feedback. To put it simply, we were wowed.
And, as it turns out, just had a small taste of what was to come en masse from this corner of north-central China.
As recently as five years ago, few people knew much about Ningxia.
Health buffs might have sought out its nutritious goji (wolfberries), academics might have studied the Hui people—about a third of the population—and history buffs might have read about the region’s ancient grotto paintings.
For the rest of us, it drew a blank.
As far as wine regions go, Ningxia has emerged as swiftly onto the world scene as a cork bursting from a Champagne bottle.
‘Ningxia now has some 180 wine operations and over 35,000 hectares of wine grapes—Napa Valley has about 20,000 hectares’
Not only does it have a key grape-growing area nestled between the protective Helan Mountains to the west and the life-sustaining Yellow River to the east, but Chinese consumers also have ever-growing spending power for luxury goods like wine while the government has a mandate to make the industry a success.
It seems someone put in some overtime: Ningxia now has some 180 wine operations and over 35,000 hectares of wine grapes—Napa Valley has about 20,000 hectares.
The region hosts a steady flow of wine fairs, conferences and foreign experts, its wineries have racked up over 100 awards in international and domestic contests, and a colorful cast of characters has emerged.
There are challenges—Ningxia wines are typically expensive and hard to find—but there are worthy labels with nationwide distribution worth checking out.
The ‘garage winery’ of Silver Heights is one of them.
The early vintages were made in a shed on the outskirts of regional capital Yinchuan—with tastings done in the cramped cellar or at the kitchen table—and used grapes from many parts of Ningxia in order to see which places produced the best fruit.
Now the Gao family has a new and much bigger operation near the mountains, with vines sourced both from France and China.
As in most parts of Ningxia, French varieties dominate: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot showing the most promise.
Silver Heights is also on the verge of producing Pinot Noir and Petit Verdot, wines that would give the region some much-needed diversity.
Leading wine writer Jancis Robinson visited Ningxia in 2012 and described winemaker Emma Gao—who earned her master’s degree in oenology in Bordeaux, where she also met her winemaker husband, Thierry Courtade—as ‘the most naturally vivacious wine producer I have ever met.’
Gao’s wines might be seen as quite the opposite: dark and brooding, best eased out by decanting and drinking the wines over a few hours. The Family Reserve is a good starting point and is available from Torres or its Everwines shops.
Another early star was fellow modestly sized winery Helan Qing Xue. Its breakthrough came in 2011 when it beat premium French brands to win an international trophy in the Decanter World Wine Awards—a first for a Chinese wine—for best Bordeaux-style blend over £10.
Winemaker Zhang Jing trained in China and France, and has honed her skills with trips to Australia, the United States and other regions.
Her mostly Cabernet ‘Baby Feet,’ with an imprint of her daughter’s feet on the barrels, won kudos and is symbolic of an industry in its infancy.
While Helan Qing Xue wines are pricy, the entry-level label—called Qing Xue—is fresh, fruity, elegant and more accessible than the heavier higher-priced options. It’s available via Vinehoo.
‘As in most parts of Ningxia, French varieties dominate: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot showing the most promise’
A short drive away, Kanaan Winery is a more recent star.
Owner Wang Fang, who calls herself Crazy Fang, spent a decade in Germany before returning home determined to produce her favored varietal, Riesling.
Fang succeeded and also produced a delicious semi-sweet white blend, thus making two wines that buck the red trend in China.
Bucking is the right word, as all Kanaan wines feature horses on the labels. ‘I like horses,’ Crazy Fang says.
Both white wines are worth a try, as is the Cabernet-Merlot Pretty Pony, a rich and fruity wine with a touch of spice. Kanaan is distributed by Summergate.
THE PRICE IS RIGHT
Helan Mountain, owned by global drinks giant Pernod Ricard, has seen a slow but steady rotation of winemakers from Down Under, including Lilian Carter in 2008 and, more recently, Craig Grafton.
This Aussie know-how has resulted in consistently reliable wines, with the buttery Reserve Chardonnay getting the most praise.
More importantly, Helan makes wines that retail below 60 RMB (US$8.50), providing a risk-free entry point for those who want to try Ningxia wines without emptying their pockets.
Finally, there is Chandon China, owned by Moet & Chandon, which brought the bubbles.
It released its first Ningxia sparkling wines in 2015 to much fanfare and praise, not only because the quality was good, with refreshing citrus and stone fruit aromas and flavors, but also because the price was fair, with bottles retailing for 180 RMB (US$26).
These hardly exhaust the Ningxia options—Legacy Peak, for example, makes arguably the country’s best Chardonnay—but they provide a starting point for tasting some of the region’s best reds, whites and sparkling wines.
Grab a few bottles, give them a try, and see if you agree that Ningxia is one of the world’s most promising wine regions.
Do you have a favored wine from China? Share your thoughts with us with #momentum.travel.
Photos: Alamy/Jim Boyce