Located in the central northern part of China, Ningxia has emerged over the past decade as one of the shining stars of the Chinese wine industry. Many trace Ningxia’s rise to prominence to its success at the 2010 Decanter World Wine Awards, when a Cabernet blend (Helan Qing Xue Jia Bei Lan) from Ningxia’s prestigious Helan Mountain region took home the highest award possible at the competition. That was followed up in 2011 with the famous “Bordeaux vs. Ningxia” competition, in which Ningxia producers once again took home top marks, outpacing their Bordeaux competitors.
The primary grape varieties from Ningxia include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Gernischt, and Chardonnay. Recently, there has also been talk of planting other grape varieties (including Syrah) due to concerns that the relatively short growing season in Ningxia may not be optimally suited for the slow ripening Cabernet Sauvignon grape.
In 2003, Helan Mountain became the first official appellation in the Chinese wine industry. Since that time, the Chinese government has provided extensive support for the region, including technical training, infrastructure support and agricultural initiatives. Helan Mountain also has the first and only provincial-level wine development bureau, specifically geared to making the area surrounding Helan Mountain a new, world-class wine region.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Ningxia is the nearly 100-mile (150-kilometer) river valley in the north of the region. This is a wide, heavily irrigated valley between the Yellow River and the base of Helan Mountain. Thus, while Ningxia is generally known for its dry, high-altitude vineyards, the surrounding river valley ensures that there is enough irrigation to make up for the lack of rainfall and the arid to semi-arid conditions. Moreover, due to the higher elevations in the region (1,200 meters above sea level), there are significant diurnal temperature differences, with long daylight hours followed by cooler nights.
In general, Ningxia has a continental climate, the result of being located nearly 600 miles (950 kilometers) from the nearest ocean. While China’s other top wine regions are largely located in coastal areas to the east of the nation, Ningxia has a much more central location. As a result of this geographic location, Ningxia has a short growing season and long, cold winters. To protect the vines from the freezing winds of Siberia, grape growers need to bury these vines under mounds of dirt. This is a very time- and labor-intensive process, but one that is common in almost all of China’s wine regions.
As a result of the spectacular success of wines from Ningxia on the world stage, international companies such as Pernod Ricard and Moet Hennessey have invested in the region. Moreover, China’s top domestic wine producer – Changyu Pioneer Wine Company – has built Bordeaux-style chateaux in the region.
To further increase the prestige of Ningxia wines in the world, there has been a new effort to get Ningxia wines carried by top restaurants, hotels and wine merchants around the world. With significant support from the Chinese government and a strong track record of success for Bordeaux-style red blends from the region, the race is now on to find other grape varieties – such as Chardonnay – that can also be superstars on the world stage.