Friday, December 20, 2013

A Snapshot of Wineries and Vineyards in the Ningxia Wine Region of China

(Dec. 10, 2013) According to our host, Mr. Cao, Ningxia now has over 100 wineries, with a plan to grow to over 1000 in the next decade. I visited 6 wineries on this trip as part of the conference, in which we lectured on best practices in wine tourism in the morning and visited local wineries in the afternoon. Each of these wineries is described in more detail in other posts.

Vineyard Acres in Ningxia Now Equal Approximately 57,500 Acres

We were informed that Ningxia now has 300,000 to 400,000 mu of planted vineyards. A mu is the term for a Chinese acre, which equals 1/15th of a hectare. A hectare equals 2.47 acres. Therefore if the average number of planted vineyards in Ningxia is 350,000 mu, then this divided by 15 mu = 23,333 hectares, or 57, 657 acres. The first vineyards were planted in 1982.

Ningxia Grape & Wine Production Regulations

Ningxia is one of the few wine regions in China to establish regulations on production. Because of this, they have been invited to become an OIV observer, which is a great honor. Currently the average grape production from vineyards is 500kg per mu. This equates to 7.5 tons per hectare, or 3 tons per acre.

In terms of winemaking regulations, 75% of the grapes in a bottle must be grown in the Ningxia region. In addition, 85% must be of the same variety and vintage in order to list varietal and vintage on the bottle. These standards are similar to those established by other major wine regions of the world.

Soil and Climate of Ningxia

The soil consists primarily of sand and rocks, with many alluvial fans flowing down from the Helan Mountains (9,000 feet tall) that shelter the northern side of the vineyards. The climate is Continental with average summer highs of 74 F, though when I was there last August it was much hotter. Since this is a desert climate with lots of sunshine, the rainfall is quite low at around 8 inches, but almost all vineyards have drip irrigation now. The Yellow River flows through the town of Yinchuan and near the vineyards. Elevation of the vineyards averages 3,000 feet, with most vines established on the flatter plains of the alluvial fans, but a few planted on the foothills of the Helan Mountains.

Main Types of Grape Varietals Grown in Ningxia

As Ningxia is a new region, winegrowers are still experimenting to determine the best type of varietals to grow in their climate. Therefore, they have currently planted 40 varieties, but the main ones are:

Cabernet Sauvignon – though no one seemed to know the exact clones they are using, the cabs from this region are medium-bodied with a lighter non-opaque color. They are also more fruit forward with concentrated red and black berry flavors and spices. Ningxia wineries have won the most awards on their cabernet sauvignon and cab blends, including the 2011 Decanter International Trophy.

Merlot – I tasted several merlots on this visit, and was surprised to see that they are usually darker in color than the cabs, with savory meaty flavors and some herbal components. The tannins are smoother than the cabs, but these were not the fruity sipping merlots you find in most New World wine regions. Again no one was sure which clone they were using. It seemed to me that this merlot clone was better used for blending than on its own.

Chinese Gernischt (also called Chinese Cabernet or Cabernet G) - this varietal is thought to be related to Carmenere or Cabernet Franc, but no one is sure yet as the DNA profiling has not been completed. This is a varietal that, in my opinion, should only be used as a blending grape and in no more than 5% of the blend. It has very astringent tannins, green notes, and can taint the wine with a sharp, acrid note if too much is used.

Italian Riesling – floral, fruity with some tropical notes of pineapple. It is light, fun and approachable with a crisp acidity. This grape seems to do well in Ningxia and would be an easy export product if priced correctly. The few I tasted were $20 and $30 per bottle, when they probably should have been priced around $18.

Other more common grape varietals include: chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet franc, and vidal blanc.

Rootstock and Trellis Systems

Interestingly 50% of the vines are on their own roots, with almost all having been imported from France. When I asked if they were concerned about phylloxera, I was told that they don’t think this is an issue because the climate is too cold and the sandy soil helps deter the disease. The other 50% of the vines are planted on rootstock, with the most common ones being ISO4, 110R, and Ramsey.

The trellis system is primarily vertical shoot positioning (VSP) with cane pruning. The trunks of the vines are not allowed to grow tall, because they must be buried during the harsh cold winters. Therefore, each November the vines are pruned back to the ground, and in the spring the shoots are repositioned on the wires to grow up to 5 feet tall on long skinny canes, similar in appearance to a bush.

I was told that more than 50% of the vines are now being buried mechanically. Because of this they are getting rid of the tall cement pillars they were using in the vineyard and replacing them with stakes. Despite the mechanization, they still need workers to hand prune the vines and put the shoots back in trellis system each in Spring.

Average Vineyard Worker Salaries

Regarding vineyard worker salaries, I was told it ranged from 1500 – 2000 rmb per month, depending on experience and gender (women are paid less for some reason). Taking an average wage of 1750 rmb/6 = $286 per month, or $13.60 per day, or $1.70 per hour. I found the gender discrimination to be strange, because many Chinese women hold top positions as winemakers, winery general managers, and owners.

Though the pay may be low, the worker housing I saw was quite nice. Many of the houses I saw at Xixia King Winery were new and spacious. However, I was told there is an issue with the younger generation leaving the vineyards and moving to the city to work. Therefore many of the vineyard workers are from older generations.

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