The foothills of the Helan mountains, located in north-central China, protect from the Gobi desert a sea of vines that has led the name of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region to reach relevance on the oenological world map. “It took me five minutes to decide to build my own winery here,” says Emma Ding, founder of the exclusive Jade Vineyard brand, whose wines have received 110 international awards, including the gold medal at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles and in the Berliner Wein Throphy.
This entrepreneur from the port city of Tianjin abandoned her career in the world of finance in 2005 in search of new challenges. While reading an article in a French class, the inspiration came to him: he would import wines to Beijing. By 2008, his Cave d’Emma project added two shops and a wine club. “I traveled to Paris frequently. He tasted exquisite wines, none of which was Chinese. My heart told me that I should establish my own winery, in China, to create a quality wine, capable of expressing our culture ”, he recalls.
Although winemaking began in ancient China two millennia ago, it is not until the 1980s that one can properly speak of a wine industry in the country. In 1984, as part of a program promoted by the Communist Party to combat desertification and poverty, the eastern slopes of the Helan Mountains became one of the first places nationwide where vines were planted to produce wine. Located at more than 1,000 meters of altitude above sea level, with more than 3,000 hours of sunshine per year, little rainfall (about 220 mm of rain per year), low humidity, a thermal variation that ranges between 12 and 15 degrees, and a soil rich in minerals, the singular terroir from Ningxia favors the cultivation of grapes with a high concentration of flavor and tannins.
For Emma it is an almost mystical enclave: “It was like love at first sight, the mountains attracted me like a magnet”. But its romantic history is not the result of chance. The local government has been supporting the region’s wine with resources, infrastructures and promotional events for more than two decades, all with the aim of attracting investors and producers to create ─as it is commonly known─ “the Bordeaux of China”.
Until just over 20 years ago, the area between the Helan Mountains and the Yellow River was arid desert. Chen Deqi came to Ningxia in 2007, as the wine industry was starting to take off. He was part of a group of 80,000 workers and entrepreneurs in Fujian province aimed at industrializing the region. He then decided to go for organic farming and currently owns Ho-Lan Soul, the largest organic winery in the area. “Before, the Gobi desert was synonymous with desolation and abandonment; today, of wealth and wine ”, he comments. In fact, the vineyards and trees that local residents like him have planted help better conserve the land. The water coming from the Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese civilization, guarantees the irrigation of all these crops.
According to the 2020 report of the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV), China is the second nation with the largest area of cultivated vineyards in the world (855,000 hectares), only behind Spain ( 966,000 hectares). However, more than half of that area is destined to the production of table grapes, which is why in the international list of winemaking it occupies the tenth position (8.3 million hectoliters in 2019, while Italy, leader , registered 47.2 mhl). In Ningxia alone there are more than 33,000 hectares of vineyards, a quarter of the country’s total. 60% of Chinese wines come from the 211 wineries (a hundred still under construction) in this autonomous region, which have an annual capacity of 130 million bottles. The stamp Made in Ningxia It has been progressively gaining recognition overseas and, already in 2019, it boasted more than 800 international awards. The USA, Australia and the UK are its main destinations abroad.
Given the potential of this region of 7.2 million inhabitants, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs of China announced last June the creation of a “Comprehensive pilot zone for grape and wine development”, a pioneering project in the Asian giant with which it is planned to have a total area of 502.2 square kilometers. The goal for the next five years is to plant 66,667 hectares of vineyards to achieve an annual production of 300 million bottles, with revenues that would be around 100 billion yuan (more than 13.2 billion euros). The long-term goal is even more ambitious: by 2035, Ningxia aims to produce 600 million bottles and annually generate more than 200 billion yuan (about 2.64 billion euros), figures that would emulate the current performance of Bordeaux, considered by many. the world capital of wine.
Like Chen, brothers Yuan Hui and Yuan Zhi came to Ningxia from Fujian in the 1980s as part of that outpost. In 2007 they founded the Zhihui Yuanshi winery, which has the largest vineyard in the area (550 ha) and, in 2014, they opened a resort to promote tourism related to this drink. “More than 60% of our clients are tourists. Between January and August 2021 we have received about 250,000 ″, says Qiao Jing, who has been teaching this for more than 7 years. chateau Inspired by the Song dynasty. The Yuan winery is also one of the first to enter the rating system started in 2013 to evaluate these establishments, an initiative similar to that of Saint-Émilion in Bordeaux. Ningxia is the only Chinese region that has launched this 5-level ranking, which is revalued every two years and in which there are currently 57 wineries listed.
“We have learned from the French model and techniques, but here we use our own method. Between November and March, because the thermometers register up to 27 degrees below zero, we bury the vines so they do not freeze, a practice rarely seen in Europe, ”explains Zhao Wenyang, one of the few Chinese winegrowers in the region with training in abroad. Zhao, originally from Henan, studied Oenology in France, after working in a vineyard in New Zealand. Now, his work is key in Jade Vineyard. Although aware that his compatriots prefer other alcoholic beverages, such as baijiu (Chinese brandy) or beer, does not hide his optimism for the future of the sector: “The pandemic has benefited Ningxia’s industry. Imports declined and the population, who already know that we produce a lot of quality wines here, opted more for local products ”. According to data from regional authorities, Ningxia wine sales grew by 44.6% year-on-year in 2020.
It remains to be seen if, once international trade statistics return to pre-pandemic levels, this trend in favor of national brands will continue or if those foreign brands with the longest tradition regain lost ground in the sales ladder. The Asian giant can boast of exhibiting a very lucrative domestic market, which certainly takes pressure off Chinese producers when it comes to aspiring to internationalize their wines: by satisfying the palate of their countrymen, millions are assured.