Friday, September 7, 2012

The Ningxia Wine Region and Arriving in Yinchuan at the Yuehai Hotel, China

August 29, 2012 – The next morning we drove to Beijing Airport to catch an Air China flight departing at 10:30am to Yinchuan in the Ningxia Province. Yinchuan is located in the middle of China and is a 1.5 hour flight from Beijing. We met several other professors and wine experts at the airport and traveled in a group to attend the 1st International Wine Festival and Horticulture Conference where we all were scheduled to give presentations. The government of the Ningxia region had invited us and covered all travel expenses.

The Ningxia Wine Region

Ningxia is one of 8 wine regions in China, but has recently become famous because it produced the first Chinese wine to be recognized by Decanter Magazine as winning the top Red Bordeaux Varietal Over £10 International Trophy. The wine is Chateau Helan Qingxue Jiabeilan 2009 and is a blend of 80% cabernet sauvignon, 15% merlot, and 5% cabernet gernischt (also known as Chinese Cabernet or Cabernet G).

The region is probably more suited to winegrowing than some of the other regions in China primarily due to its terroir. The vineyards are situated at the foot of the Helan Mountains at an elevation of 1200 meters (3600 feet). The highest peak is 3556 meters. The vineyard soil is alluvial, washed down from the mountains to the foothills and plains. It consists of sand, schist, and small pebbles.

The climate is Continental, but dry with very little humidity compared to other Chinese wine growing regions. It is hot in the summer with average temperatures of 29 C during the day, but cooling down at night to 17 C, which helps to preserve grape flavors. The mean monthly sunshine hours in the summer average 280 hours. Winters are cold (2 C daily average and -10C at night) with some snow, so the vines must be buried which is a very labor intensive process. Water is abundant with the Yellow (Yangtze) River running through the area and many lakes, so irrigation is not an issue.

The first vineyards were planted in the 1970’s, so it is a relatively new area. Currently there are 30,000 hectares planted with cabernet sauvignon being the most widely planted red grape, followed by merlot and cabernet franc. In terms of white varietals, muscat is most predominant followed by riesling.

Ningxia now has 38 wineries with approved plans to increase to 70 in the next few years. Indeed the giant wine corporation, Changyu, is preparing to open a very grand “chateau style” winery and visitor’s center in October of 2012, and Chandon just broke ground in April of this year to begin building a very large winery to make sparkling wine in China.

The City of Yinchuan

The capital of Ningxia is Yinchuan, a “smaller” Chinese city of 2 million. It has recently gone through a building boom as the government has poured in much money to support the dual industries of wine and coal. Impressive buildings, wide boulevards, and newly planted trees are everywhere. There are still pockets of poverty, but they are quickly being covered up.

After departing the airport with its beautiful modern architecture – and literally being met with a red carpet and plush van – we passed a large welcome sign surrounded by flowers, and then were passing over the very wide and yellow-colored Yangtze River. Next we saw large ponds of pink lotus flowers, and then passed many high-rises still under construction before arriving at the very grand Yuehai Hotel – rated #1 on TripAdvisor.

The Yuehai Hotel

The 5-star hotel looks like a huge Chinese palace as you approach, with tall pillars and two Chinese lions on each side of the circular drive. The lobby, however, is even more impressive with tall white pillars, marble floors, and golden chandeliers. The hotel boasts two restaurants, a wine bar (but no wine by the glass), regular bar, gym, pool, sauna, massage parlor, and an extensive conference center and meeting rooms.

We were greeted by a large welcome committee that took our luggage and escorted us immediately to our rooms. My room was lovely, with floor to ceiling windows looking out across a large lagoon and Chinese gardens complete with pagodas. Everything was state of the art, with a large king size bed, TV, computer, wonderful shower with two heads, and more than twenty different light switches. I found out later that the hotel was built by the government and they spared no expense on the construction and facilities.

We stayed here for three nights, and it was an enjoyable room and hotel. The only issues had to do with service details, which would prevent the hotel from being 5-star in other countries, but instead be rated around 4 stars. Examples include my room not being clean one day until I called, flowers missing out of empty vases, cigarette containers in the hallway not cleaned soon enough, etc. In talking with other Westerners at the conference who live in China, they mentioned that there was much focus and training in the hotel and restaurant industry on “service” because it is a concept that is perceived differently in China.

In general though, we were made to feel like royalty during our visit to Ningxia, with fabulous banquets and wonderful gifts of wine, fruit, plaques, and dried wolf berries (a specialty of the region). All of the government officials we met and who hosted us were very hospitable and seemed intent on making our stay pleasant and memorable.

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