The morning sun is already high in the translucent sky, and a gentle, cooling breeze sweeps the endless plains on the outskirts of Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia in China. As the mist slowly evaporates to expose a breathtaking view of the rugged Helan Mountains, scores of women dressed in jeans, light jumpers and colorful head veils crouch along rows of vines, expertly cutting the dark-colored, ripe grapes and collecting them in green plastic cases. It’s harvest time, the most important period of the year in this small autonomous region at the gate of the Gobi Desert.
Ningxia is the hidden gem of north-central China. Looking at its majestic peaks and orderly vines stretching as far as the eye can see, it is difficult to imagine that a little more than 20 years ago, the region was just a forlorn stretch of sand inhabited by subsistence farmers. “When I was a kid, I used to dig holes in the desert. I would hide there and play together with my friends,” remembers Ren Yanling, 42, while sitting in her laboratory during a rare break.
This energetic, hard-working woman nicknamed “Linda” was born in the village of Yuquanying, close to the Helan Mountains vineyard where she works as chief winemaker for the famous French multinational Pernod Ricard. Her parents were already growing grapes back in the ’90s. “When I was 15, I would sneak out to have a sip of our family wine,” she recounts laughing. “My parents didn’t allow me to drink, but I really enjoyed it.”
Sharp and confident, with a characteristic penetrating gaze, Linda is part of a group of strong-willed, talented female owners, winemakers and managers who are leading China’s wine revolution.
Some of these female pioneers are as young as 26. Others have been in the business for decades, perfecting their skills in historical Bordeaux wineries and partnering with top international brands.
They head some of the best and most successful wine estates of the region, bringing a touch for detail and a quality oriented philosophy that has been instrumental in the industry’s recent boom.
“Women have an innate maternal instinct. Making wine is like taking care of a baby,” explains Zhou Shuzhen, 57, who was among the first winemakers of the region and works for several estates, including the award-winning Kanaan winery. “You have to be patient and present at all stages. These are characteristics all women have."
Thanks to these women’s vision and commitment, what was once an impoverished rural province has turned into winemaking’s new frontier. Nowadays, Ningxia hosts more than 40,000 hectares of vines and 199 wineries; the majority boutique estates focused on highly praised, quality vintages. Ningxia’s wines have already won several prestigious international competitions and are served in top restaurants, hotels and stores from Europe to Australia, from North America to Dubai, and Hong Kong to Britain. Their success is the harbinger of a new, self-confident China willing to confront the rest of the world.
The beginnings weren’t really promising. While China has produced wine for millennia, the country’s modern relationship with it developed only since the ’80s, when the government decided to discourage the widespread consumption of baijiu, the traditional grain-based liquors that were diverting billions of kilos of precious staple food for the production of alcohol. Chinese state officials started praising the health benefits of wine instead, while technicians and agrarians traveled to Europe to acquaint themselves with a product with witch nobody was really familiar.
“At that time, China was producing a blend of grape juice, sweetener and alcohol. It wasn’t exactly wine,” remembers Zhou, a former schoolteacher who in 1983 was part of a group of nine people selected for a pioneering winemaking course in Changli. There, she took part in one of the first vinification experiments in contemporary China. “It was a dry red wine. We were using some local grape varieties, but we were not very familiar with fermentations,” recounts the woman with the thoughtful smile of someone who has come a long way. “The result was a very alcoholic and harsh wine. The color was very dark but it didn’t have much flavor.” The wine was presented to a local government official who deemed it disgusting, comparing it to soy sauce. The disappointed winemakers quickly got rid of it, exchanging it for some apricots at a local market.
Despite these initial setbacks, the wine industry of Ningxia kept developing in the following decades under the direction of the regional authorities. Land was being reclaimed from the desert and planted with trees and grapes imported from Europe, while water from the nearby Yellow River provided the necessary irrigation. Wine producers were granted discounted land leases and started hiring foreign consultants, while the Ningxia government offered scholarships for oenology studies and hosted several international wine competitions. These concerted efforts slowly started to pay off: Ningxia’s wine boomed around the year 2007 and is now the region’s second biggest industry after coal.
Just like in the legendary Wild West, the region is abuzz with pioneers hoping to turn wine into the next gold. Some of the wineries are grandiose chateaus built in a French style at a cost of millions of euros, others are prefabricated metal cubes or basic houses opened by aficionados with limited means but a serious passion for wine. Among the latter is Helan Qingxue, hosted in an anonymous two-story building whose terrace allows spectacular views of the nearby mountains. The winery was opened in 2005 by two experienced wine veterans and a young, talented winemaker. Eight years later, its 2009 Grand Reserve won an international trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards and was instrumental in giving exposure to the local industry.
The pride and satisfaction for this historical achievement still permeates the winery and its staff. “Ours is a small boutique winery. Even if it is not run by a family, it feels like one. Everyone loves and supports each other because we share the same dream,” explains Zhang Jing, 42, the vineyard’s co-founder and winemaker, and the main architect of Helan Qingxue’s successes. A petite woman with a vibrant, contagious laughter, Zhang exudes a sincere passion and engagement when speaking about the job she loves, even though her career requires significant personal sacrifices. Zhang spends entire weeks away from her husband and 10-year-old daughter, especially during the harvest, when winemakers need to supervise every single detail, from the picking of grapes to their sorting and fermentation. “I get a lot of support from my family during this time,” she acknowledges with a grateful smile. “My daughter understands, even if she misses me a lot."
Zhang’s first contact with wine dates back to 1998, when she got a job at a local wine association after graduation. “I was meeting a lot of experts from China and abroad, and I loved it straight away,” she says. “I was fascinated by their tasting abilities and the way they could detect different flavors. How could they pick all those characteristics by just smelling wine?” Zhang’s philosophy about picking only the best grapes and focusing on a small but high quality production has made the fortunes of the winery. Helan Qingxue’s production is barely 60,000 bottles per year, and its wines are constantly ranked among Ningxia’s best. “We have room for improvement as the vines get older and the flavor gets better,” says Zhang, who reckons her personal journey has just begun. “Each year, I am more experienced and confident, and it reflects on my wine.”
Although China has several wine producing regions, Ningxia has long been identified by local and international experts as the best, thanks to an exceptional combination of sandy and dry terroir, high altitude, long sunshine hours and low precipitation, which significantly reduce the need for pesticides. Around 90 percent of Ningxia’s wine production focuses on red, with cabernet sauvignon as the most popular variety (others include merlot, marselan, malbec, shiraz, pinot noir and, for white wine, chardonnay and Italian riesling). The quality is surprisingly good considering that the industry is new and that most of the vines are less than 20 years old. What Ningxia wines still lack in complexity and structure is compensated by their fruitiness, freshness and minerality, which could become the region’s defining characteristics. “Our wines need to express the personality of Ningxia,” says Zhang animatedly. “They have to find their own way rather than imitate the European or the New World ones.”
Yet producing wine in Ningxia still comes with significant challenges. Vines are buried every winter to survive the frigid temperatures — which can drop to minus 27 degrees Celsius (minus 16.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — and unburied in spring. It is an expensive and risky process, which kills between 3 to 5 percent of vines every year. Despite the challenges, the future of Ningxia looks promising. The wine boom has attracted big international players such as LVHM (the luxury brand owning Moët & Chandon) as well as local investors such as Lily Zhang, 48, the elegant owner of the newly opened Copower Jade, a state of the art chateau belonging to the family’s oil company based in Hong Kong.
Lily and her husband are longtime wine lovers who originally wanted to buy a chateau in France, but were persuaded to invest in Ningxia instead by a local wine expert. Lily never regretted the choice and recently relocated from Hong Kong to Yinchuan to promote her wine. Copower Jade cost almost 19 million euros ($21 million) to build and won the 2018 RVF China Winery Design Award, yet Lily would like it to remain a family-run business, just a bit fancier.
“The first thing we want to focus on is grape growing. We have 11 varieties, and we want to make sure all of them have a good performance,” she says in a brief pause during the château’s grand opening. “We are not worried about the quality of our wine but about the Chinese consumers. Many don’t know Ningxia and still think our country cannot produce good wine.”
Conquering the national market will be Ningxia’s most arduous challenge for the coming years, as Chinese palates are not accustomed to wine and educating them might take time. “Promoting our wines involves a lot of tastings, dinners and word of mouth,” echoes Gao Yuan, 42, who heads the Silver Heights vineyard with her French husband, Thierry Courtade. Emma, as Gao prefers to be called, started producing wine in 2007 on a one-hectare (two acres) property bought with her mother’s lifetime savings. She managed to produce just 3,000 bottles, but the wine was so good that the wine distribution company she was working for begged her to resign and produce wine full time. Today Silver Heights sells its products to top hotels and restaurants in China, as well as in France, Japan, Canada and Hong Kong.
As the night prepares to fall on this faraway enchanted land, the workers return to the wineries carrying cases filled with the precious fruit. The grapes will immediately be sorted, pressed and put in steel tanks to begin fermentation, the first step into their long journey to become wine. Zhou knows very well that this job requires time and infinite patience, a real commitment for life. “Every time I taste wine from a different barrel I get surprised about the way it keeps changing and evolving,” she says passionately. “Winemaking is an endless research. You cannot be conservative, you need to be creative and innovative.”
Ningxia wines still have a long way to go before being able to match the quality of their French, Italian or American counterparts, but Zhou reckons the region has all it takes to make a name for itself. Its passionate, determined women are a perfect balance of humility and ambition, willingness to learn and self-confidence, and embody the main qualities of a region that breathes and lives at the rhythm of wine. “I feel privileged and proud to witness the stage this industry has reached. More and more, Chinese winemakers are touring the world and learning new techniques which help us improve,” she concludes with satisfaction. “We still have a long way to go, but I am very confident in our future.”
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