This year, as harvests started in vineyards from Beijing to Xinjiang to Yunnan, I was following Ian Dai — the rogue Chinese winemaker behind Xiaopu.
Ian uses grapes from almost every wine region in China, so it was an excellent opportunity to get a perspective of what is happening with wine in China — at one point we went to eight provinces in less than a week.
My main takeaway was this: Ningxia (one of China’s most celebrated wine regions) is also, ironically, one of China’s worst places for interesting wine. Ningxia is flat and its terrain unvaried. Even some of the largest vineyards there see only a few meters in elevation variation.
Despite that, Ningxia produces some seriously good wines. Wineries like Domaine Des Aromes and Silver Heights call the Helan Foothills their home. Their wines are a testament to the incredible quality that is produced in Ningxia today. But it’s when you venture beyond better-known regions that you can sense Chinese wine’s incredible potential.
Wine is grown all over China, and it has been for decades. I’ve even heard mentions of vines being brought here as early as the Qing Dynasty. Beyond Ningxia, near the edge of the Gobi Desert, wine is grown in the mountains of Yunnan, in beautiful vineyards in Xinjiang, along the coast in Shandong, in Dongbei and Inner Mongolia up north, next to the Great Wall near Beijing, and in the hills of Sichuan and Gansu. Tibet even boasts the highest vineyards in the world.
So why do we mostly talk about Ningxia, followed by Shandong? In a word: government. The local government has heavily supported vineyards over the past decade, helping grow the industry to bring revenue to the region in ways other parts of the country haven’t.
This is Yunnan, near the border of Tibet. Specifically Jiangpo and Ruiwa villages, just down the road from Ao Yun (the vineyard producing what is often referred to as China’s best wine). Ian believes this area presents a huge opportunity for Chinese wine. Those slopes are up to 1000 meters tall, giving you temperature fluctuations from top to bottom that go from southern France to Bordeaux to Champagne as you climb.
You’ll find fruit growing at the bottom in sandy soil, agave on the rocky slopes, and pine trees and limestone on the top. This creates the possibility to create diverse, interesting wines. Even Ao Yun isn’t making full use of this climate variation. Their vines are only spread across elevations of 200 to 300 meters. But just imagine a single vineyard that experiences the temperatures and soils that compose three of France’s most famous wine regions. That’s a huge opportunity for Chinese wine.
When you think of wine regions around the world, wine fits nicely into the lifestyle; the cities nearby are brimming with wine bars proudly serving local wine. Yinchuan (the capital of Ningxia) however, not so much. It’s still very much a baijiu city. But other regions are close to cities experiencing a growing interest in wine, like Xiaojin, a few hours’ drive from Chengdu, or Tianshui, a short train ride from Xi’an. There are plenty of new buzzy wine bars showing up on the scene in both cities every year.
You can’t pop a champagne cork in central Shanghai without it landing on the doorstep of a wine bar, but the metropolis is not a great representation of the rest of China, and the belief that it is an indicator of the future of Chinese markets can be somewhat misleading. So seeing curiousity about wine brewing in cities just down the road from up-and-coming wine regions really means something.
All this talk about wine in China would make you think that consumption must be skyrocketing right? Nooopeee. Wine drinking in China has stayed the same, if not decreased, over the last couple decades. Wine used to be thrown back at dinners and events in the same way baijiu is now. It was mixed with cola, it was cheap and easy. That’s not the case now, and to make matters worse, imported wine is also flowing into the market, eating into the local wineries’ market share. Yet this is forcing them to up their game, working towards more interesting wines — natural wine, white, rosé, sparkling, even orange wine — rather than the classic big red Bordeaux style.
“Certified passion” is the phrase that comes to mind when I see yet another friend who doesn’t work in the industry getting a WSET 2 (an international wine tasting certificate). This passion is definitely spreading across China. The days of blindly believing that the best wines are from Bordeaux are starting to fade. There is a swelling wine knowledge that has jumped beyond Shanghai’s city limits and is growing in places like Changsha and Chongqing. This shift is giving a fresh momentum to a new wave of winemakers like Ian Dai.
As we caught our breath in vineyards on the Tibetan border at 3100 meters, sipped Pinot Noir in the green hills of southern Gansu, paired sparkling with spicy dumplings on the edge of Lugu Lake in southern Sichuan, and nibbled grapes in the vineyards at the foot of the Great Wall outside Beijing, it became clear to me: China is well on its way to becoming a world class wine country.
Images courtesy Graeme Kennedy. Article banner photo shows a Hui woman harvesting Pinot Noir grapes in Ningxia.
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