“Just landed in Beijing en route to Ningxia for the weekend, to visit wineries there.”
I tweeted that sentence a few weeks ago upon arrival in China, fully aware that I may never again string together that particular sequence of words. We weren’t talking about landing in San Francisco en route to Sonoma, or Paris en route to Champagne, or even Cape Town en route to Stellenbosch.
This was China and Beijing, en route to Ningxia, and the potential was ripe for parallels and contrasts between those wineries and others in wine growing regions that I know or understand better. The experience would be eye-opening; that was almost guaranteed, and I was far from disappointed.
Though it’s challenging to capture the experience in seven pithy takeaways, I’ve tried here to orient the experience around “common ground themes” that are consistent to any wine region. You’ll recognize the themes below; what’s new, to varying degrees, is how they look, in China.
One: Earliest History
The earliest mention of vitis vinifera vines in China dates to the Han Dynasty in the records of Zhang Qian, in the second century.
Two: Current Footprint
China is now the third largest market in the world in wine consumption, as measured by value. It is the sixth largest market for production, and counts for the second most acreage planted to vine in the world.
Wine grapes are grown in many different areas of China; Ningxia is one of the most promising regions. Though the region as a whole covers about 25,600 square miles, most viticulture happens in a 100-mile river valley in the north of Ningxia.
Three: Who Harvests the Grapes?
It’s a question that I ask everywhere I go, and replies in Ningxia mirror most I’ve heard in other wine growing areas of the world. At Château Zhihui Yuanshi, for example, the ten vineyard workers used to live in a very poor area in the south of Ningxia before moving north for work; now their families have also moved and settled near to the winery. At Château Moser, which is an entirely different scale of operation in Ningxia, the winery contracts with approximately 500 different families to buy grapes. The size of each family’s vineyard is less than 20 hectares, and contracts are typically on a five-year basis. Tiansai Vineyards in northwestern China, in the region of Xinjiang, employs 30 families (about 70 people); they are farmers who came from highly populated regions such as Hunan.
Four: Climate and Labor Challenges
Ningxia endures a long, cold winter to complement its short growing season. To protect the vines during the winter, an insulating mound of dirt is piled around the base of the plant. (A similar technique is practiced in vineyards with a similar climate, such as those in Vermont.) It’s an expensive, time-consuming and labor-intensive process, but a necessary one that is completed by the region’s abundant workforce.
Imagine the landmass of China divided by a line running east-west, with two-thirds of the country north of the line and one-third of the country south of the line. Any vitis vinifera vines north of the line would need to be buried during the winter in order to protect them and ensure their survival.
Ningxia is located in the central-north area of China, in the valley between the Yellow River and the base of Helan Mountain. The river is a source of irrigation and the mountainous Ningxia sub-region, China’s first official appellation (designated in 2003 by the Chinese General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine), is particularly well-regarded. Ningxia is located to the southwest of Beijing, about a two hour flight away from the capital city.
Six: Common Grapes
Most wines are made from international grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay. Less familiar grapes include Cabernet Gernischt and Marselan.
Seven: Consumption Patterns by Wine Style and Origin
The year 1996 was a turning point for wine consumption in China. Before then, most consumption was white wine; after that date, consumption has been primarily red wine.
The trend line of domestic wine consumption in China is going down, but the quantity of wine imported to China persistently trends upward. The top five importers to China are, in order, France, Australia (whose positive numbers have been the most consistent of all), Spain, Chile and Italy.