Winemakers at Pigeon Hill, one of the biggest wineries in China’s Ningxia region.
Food

The desert in China where wine is made

Mar 11, 2019

An arid region on the edge of the Gobi Desert has become an uncanny home to some of China’s most active wine producers.

Just 30 years ago, large swaths of land outside Yinchuan, the capital of China’s Ningxia region, were just forlorn stretches of sand inhabited by a smattering of subsistence farmers.

“When I was a kid, I used to dig holes in the desert,” says 41-year-old Ren Yanling, the chief winemaker at the Helan Mountain winery. “I would hide there and play with my friends.”

But starting in the 1980s, land reclamation and irrigation began making agriculture possible. With the import of European grapes, Ningxia’s wine industry took off. By 2007, wine was the region’s second-biggest industry, after coal.

“Everyone loves and supports each other because we share the same dream,” which is to promote Ningxia’s wine, says Zhang Jing, owner of Helan Qingxue winery.

China’s taste for wine began taking root in the 1980s and ’90s, as its economy was opening to the world.

“We were not very familiar with fermentation.”

“At the time, China was producing a blend of grape juice, sweetener, and alcohol,” says Zhou Shuzhen, who was one of the first winemakers in Ningxia. “It wasn’t exactly wine. It was a dry red wine. We were using some local grape varieties, but we were not very familiar with fermentation.

“The result was a very alcoholic and harsh wine,” she recalls, “with a very dark color and not much flavor.”

The wine was presented to a local government official, who deemed it disgusting and compared it to soy sauce.

But Ningxia’s terroir—sandy and dry, with long hours of sunshine and low levels of precipitation, which reduces the need for pesticides—meant the potential was there. Aspiring winemakers went to Europe to learn the tricks of the trade, and soon, the industry blossomed.

Zhang Jing, right, co-founder and winemaker at Helan Qingxue, tastes a glass of newly harvested grape juice.
Zhang Jing, right, co-founder and winemaker at Helan Qingxue, tastes a glass of newly harvested grape juice. / Photo: Matilde Gattoni

Now, China is the world’s sixth-largest producer and fifth-largest consumer of wine. Still, the population is fairly new to the drink, with average consumption per capita at 1.7 bottles a year.

Ningxia’s boutique wines are slowly making their way to Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong. With vines being less than two decades old, what Ningxia wines lack in complexity and structure is compensated by their fruitiness, freshness, and minerality.

But most mainland palates are still not accustomed to the drink.

“Many don’t know Ningxia and still think our country cannot produce good wine.”

“We are not worried about the quality of our wine,” says Lily Zhang, owner of the Copower Jade winery, “but about the Chinese consumers. Many don’t know Ningxia and still think our country cannot produce good wine.”

A lack of recognition, both national and international, has made marketing difficult.

“Promoting our wines involves a lot of tastings, dinners, and word of mouth,” says Gao Yuan, co-owner of the Silver Heights winery.

“It took Europe hundreds of years to understand how to produce and market good wine.”

“We are very young, and we need time to learn how to do things properly,”  says Sun Qiuxia, manager of a wine cellar in Yinchuan. “It took Europe hundreds of years to understand how to produce and market good wine.”

Also difficult is working with the local climate. During the winter, temperatures in Ningxia can fall as low as minus-30 degrees Celsius (22 below Fahrenheit), which means vines have to be buried in the winter and dug up in the spring.

It is a costly and risky process that destroys 3 to 5 percent of the plants each year.

Seasonal workers harvest grapes at the Helan Qingxue winery.
Seasonal workers harvest grapes at the Helan Qingxue winery. / Photo: Matilde Gattoni

Zhou, the veteran, believes Ningxia wines do not yet match the quality of their French, Italian, or New World counterparts, but she is convinced the region has what it takes to compete internationally. In 2011, a milestone came when a Helan Qingxue Bordeaux blend won the highest honor at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

“I feel privileged and proud to witness the stage this industry has reached,” Zhou says. “More and more Chinese winemakers are touring the world and learning new techniques, which helps us improve. We still have a long way to go, but I am very confident in our future.”

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

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