Ningxia - the future of fine wine in China?

Maybe, but not for me, not yet.

I recently got to taste a large number of wines from Ningxia, heralded by China as its best fine wine region. So much so that from just one wine a few years ago, and 3,000 hectares of vines, there's over 40,000 hectares now. So really, whatever I think of it, it's big.

Its biggest peculiarity comes from its freezing desert winters, when it's so cold the vines have to be buried under layers of sand and soil. Other than the insane labour costs (supposedly 1/3rd of a vineyard's expenses) covering and uncovering them, I've always been to afraid to ask if ever someone has forgotten where they buried a vine or two, and ended up with only half a vineyard. Maybe one day I'll find out.

At any rate, some of the selection actually impressed. My biggest complaint, by far and away, was the alcohol levels. I think the lowest was 14%, and there were one or two over 16.5%. For a continental cool-climate Bordeaux blend, this is just terrible, and it really showed on a lot of the wines. I assume it's fully intentional, and really doesn't help to dispel the myth that Chinese consumers and producers just want big reds.

I found the names disconcerting and confusing - but I'm sure I could get used to that. I'm guessing it's partly a Ningxia problem, and partly a EU-available-selection problem, but these were all big wines from big companies with big budgets and bigger price tags, rather than the small-quantity family-produced wines I'm maybe more likely to come across (and whose names I am more comfortable with).

On the whole, despite my complaints about the alcohol, on the whole I was pleasantly surprised by the structure and balance some of the wines showed, far more than the nose which was often dull if not downright sulphured and/or rubbery. I started the tasting expecting to slate every single wine, but actually some (maybe even most?) were drinkable, and a handful actually quite nice - a huge surprise. Both worrying and encouraging though!

Lux Regis Shining Moon 2017 1/5

Awful, disgusting, terrible

Saint Louis Ding Farsight Organic Merlot 2013 3/5

Smells a bit dirty, fruit too overt, nice round body, actually great acidity and structure, promising.

Li Family Collections Syah 2015 3/5

A bit leather, a bit steely, thin, good lasting tannins

Great Wall Terroir 2016 1/5

burnt rubber, dull, blunt, water, bad

Lilan Lan Cui 2015 3/5

mint, medicinal, red fruit, vegetal, meh

Zihui Yanshui Son of the Mountains 2013 3/5

Bordeaux blend, lovely and vegetal, tobacco, really round smooth body, structure, a bit of a let down from nose, good tannins

Holan Soul King 3/5

A little creamy lots of red fruit, vegetal, decent body

Helan Jiabeilan Reserve 2/5

Very muted but heady, not much else

Yuanrun Marselan 1/5

A little pepper, vegetal, some fruit, no acidity, 15.5% not really coming through until finish, a bit off

Xianglu Reserve 2/5

A bit of red fruit, otherwise just oak. I think this is the successor to the one that won a trophy at Decanter. Maybe it was a better day, bottle, year, who knows, but this was not trophy-worthy.

[lots of chinese characters - I think Pinot Noir?] 4/5

Ripe red fruit, a little jammy, a little green, very very soft and elegant tannins, a pleasant surprise - I only wish I could decipher my photo of the bottle to find out what this actually was.

Yi Shuang Reserve 2014 3/5

Very waxy, very green and vegetal, round fruit, again a bit rubbery but otherwise again surprisingly balanced, nice balance, nice acidity

Yuanrun Dry White 3/5

Very aromatic, dry, a bit confected, ok acidity, not much to say, a bit rubbery on the finish, actually ok

I wasn't told the price of any of these, but I suspect they were all €40+ a bottle. As a curiosity, once or twice, I might get one or recommend them, but as things stand today in 2020, if this is the best China can offer, there's better value for money elsewhere.