Last summer I had the good fortune to attend a seminar on wines from Ningxia, China’s premier wine region. The seminar was taught by Houghton Lee and Tommy Lam, wine educators. They were fascinating, informative and prepared with a 60-slide presentation. Houghton is the Hong Kong Liaison for the Society of Wine Educators and Tommy has the same title for China. This was my first real foray into Chinese wines. Apparently Ningxia is a young and dynamic region. There are roughly 6.3 million people in the region which they compared to the state of Tennessee. They also mentioned the Hui minority group, a Muslim community as making up 1/3 of the area and that it is 25,000 square miles or about the size of West Virginia. They point out that Ningxia, like France and Italy is between the 30th and 50th parallels. China has begun producing a lot of wine but their drinking per capita has not changed all that much.
China is a very ancient wine producing country. In fact, the title of their seminar was “Old World or New World or Unique.” In 15BC, the Qin Dynasty emperor built an advanced irrigation network in the Helan Mountain foothills. During the years 620-900 AD, there were vineyards in the Tang dynasty. However, the first international varieties were brought to Ningxia’s Yuquanying Farm. In 2003, the first Geographical Indication Protection (GIP) status was approved for Helan Mountain East Foothills. There are five subregions in the GIP and one additional subregion in Ningxia for a total of 6 subregions.
David E Henderson began Dragon’s Hollow winery in Helan Mountain in 2003 and in 2011, the Jiabeilan Grand Reserve 2009 won the International Trophy for Red Bordeaux Varietals at Decanter World Wine Award. These two dates are pretty significant for the Chinese wine community and I heard the same facts this past week when attending another seminar on Chinese wines in New York City. There were 100 wineries operating last summer.
Apparently wine tourism is a huge business in China and chateaux are being created specifically to host tourists.
In terms of the topography in Ningxia, Houghton said that “the whole country is like steps going down from west to east and suggested looking at the direction of yellow river. The river flows North rather than South. The Helan Mountains are also a huge factor in the area as they block the harsh and cold winds. The highest peak in the mountain chain is 3556m (11,666ft) and the range extends for 200 km (138mi). Most of the vineyards in the area are located at very high altitudes, 3600ft-4260ft (1100-1300m). According to Houghton’s presentation, this puts the range somewhere between Valle d’Aosta and Rioja Alavesa in terms of altitude of vineyards. The climate is dry continental and the soils are alluvial fans or a gravel, sand and clay texture from the mountains. There are more stones as vineyards get closer to the mountains. Frost is an issue both early and late in the season. The area is very arid although they do have a short rainy or Monsoon season.
The Helan mountain range also has 30 or so passes and these allow currents of air to get through to the vineyards thereby created notable thermal excursion, hot desert air during the day and cooler temperatures at night.
In terms of the grapes, they have a host of international varieties planted as one might expect and also a couple of Chinese varieties: Bei Mei and Bei Hung which I had never heard of before. They are the local hybrid of Muscat Hamburg and Vitis Amurensis – both are cold-resistant. Interestingly, they grow also grow Marselan, a red French wine grape variety that is a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache created in the 1960s that you usually see in the Languedoc in France and in a few other places such as California and in Girona, Spain. I used to work with a producer who makes wines with Marselan. I am a fan and that is why today’s wine of the week is Marselan driven.
One of the most fascinating aspects of viticulture in this area is the practice of “banking” or burying the vines to protect them from the harsh cold. It can be -7oF (-22oC) in January. They bury the vines in October-November and unearth them in March-April. They also bury them to prevent dehydration. The practice of burying the vines also leads to different trellising techniques. They use something called a single Dragon backbone and a Chang system which looks like one of the Chinese characters or an inclined Cordon de Royat which is said to give growers flexibility in terms of height and canopy placement.
The whole area is a very complex and somewhat inhospitable so those who work that land seemed to have a pioneering attitude, sort of like the one from Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come…
My wine of the week, Domain Pushang Marselan 2014 is made from 90% Marselan and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. It ages in oak, 30% American and 70% second use barrels for 12 months. They make 40,000 bottles and have 16 acres. Their first vintage was 2013. The winery is owned by a young couple and is in the subregion of Yinchuan The wife is the enologist. Surprisingly, at least to me, a lot of the winemakers were women at the wineries and at the winery I was introduced to last week as well. This was quite unexpected. I have in my notes that the wine had black and red fruit, pepper, juicy tannins, minerality and a rich, full finish.
I also liked another wine at the tasting from Kanaan winery Pretty Pony 2013 that was 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot with aging in French and Hungarian oak. That one had a lot of eucalyptus prazyne and oak notes.
The wine from Jiabeilan was also interesting and elegant. Made by another female winemaker, Helen Zhang, also made in the subregion of Yinchuan, it was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (60%) and Merlot (40%). Black and red fruits, oak, pepper, dusty undertones and chocolate lifted off the palate. Acidity and alcohol were also nicely balanced.
Gaoyuan Silver Heights also had a female winemaker, Emma Gao. Also from the subregion of Yinchuan, it was a Cabernet/Merlot blend, 65%, 35%. It was the first of the wines to show a floral note
For longer and more complete tasting notes on all of the wines, please read these two posts I found while looking for the winery’s website: on Vintrinsic by Roger C. Bohmrich MW and by Dwight Furrow at Food and Wine Aesthetics. A real treat, I am happy to have revisited this tasting today.