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China to fast evolve beyond ‘safe’ Bordeaux blends

Published:  03 January, 2023

China’s burgeoning wine industry is set for its next phase of evolution, with dozens of ‘new’ varieties in the offing, according to Christelle Chene, international affairs director at Xige Estate.

French-born Chene, who has been with the Ningxia-based winery for 10 years, cited some “60 new grape varieties” in this flagship region alone, with producers increasingly looking to the best potential combinations of vine and terroir.

“This is a very new wine region and everyone wanted to have something safe,” said Chene, with regard to the dominance of Bordeaux-style blends.

“But in the last 15 years producers have been asking experts, to gain help and guidance… it was all about Bordeaux blends, but that’s been changing a lot in the past five to six years, with people experimenting and new plantings.”

Xige Estate itself (pictured), which was founded by investor and ex-Changyu winemaker Zhang Yanzhi as recently as 2017, buying 20-year-old vineyards but with the winery buildings finished in 2019, counts some 20+ varieties in its vineyards.

Syrah, Marselan, Dunkelfelder, Chenin Blanc, Ugni Blanc and Welschriesling are among the mix here.

“This is to decide what is best for our terroir,” says Chene, citing Cabernet Gernischt (possibly an evolution of Carmenere), Malbec and Chardonnay as among the first commercially available front-runners.

Such ambitions are likely to bear fruit in Ningxia, not least because of “a lot of government backing, a big push to develop the wine region”, with the 38,000ha currently planted targeted to expand to 100,000ha by 2035, with an eye on seriously growing exports too.

A further stylistic trend may help that goal; namely an increasing focus on fresher, paired back wines, which are becoming ever more popular with an increasingly wine savvy Chinese consumer, working across a wider range of China’s food styles and dishes.

Meanwhile, given that labour requirements in Ningxia (such as burying vines through harsh winter freezes, plus hand harvests) and typically low yields in this arid, high region of temperature extremes, are costly, this means most producers are inclined to aim for premium wines.

With regard to export, Xige Estate has set its sights high, aiming to combine significant volume from its 2,000ha of vines with premium tiers of wine, to be what Chene describes as “a voice for China in international markets”.

“We want to be an international brand and image for Chinese wines,” adds Chene, “and [UK boutique wine-focused importer] Propeller is the right partner as ‘the voice’ of Xige.

“Propeller is in independent retailers, and on-trade, where people can actually talk about the wines, to explain China and Ningxia and the wines,” she says.

There is evidence of grape fermentation in China thousands of years before Christ, with grapes travelling along the Silk Roads. However, with consumption later buried under a rising tide of popular spirits Baijiu and Shochu, it was the establishment of Changyu estate in 1892 that restarted serious wine production on a commercial and quality level.

Now though, just over a century later, and with the backing of government and investment continuing to flow in, companies such as Xige are confident of taking the reputation of China’s winemaking to the global stage.