Images of Rasteau

 

The village of Rasteau, on a south-facing slope.

 

The cliff running down to the river shows the three types of clay: a thin layer of red clay, followed by deep yellow clay, followed by deep grey (sometimes called blue) clay.

 

The Coulon family of Domaine de Beaurenard in Châteauneuf-du-Pape have had land in Rasteau since 1980. New growth in one of their two biodynamically-farmed parcels.

 

And oyster shells in their vineyards.

 

Elodie Balme

 

Julie Paolucci and Nicolas Brès, Domaine La Luminaille

 

Robert Laurent, Domaine Combe Julière

 


Images of Côtes du Vivarais

 

Alain Testut, president of AOC Côtes du Vivarais

 

David-Alexandre Gallety, Domaine Gallety

 

Domaine Gallety

 

Rachel and Raphaël Pommier, Domaine de Notre Dame de Cousignac

 

The chapel of Notre Dame de Cousignac

 

Sébastien Etienne, grape grower for UVICA

 


Beyond Burgundy: The New World finds its way with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

From big-fruit ‘varietal wines’ to joyless Burgundy-lite pastiches, the New World has taken a while to get its head around Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But there is a third way – and it’s working.

What does New World Chardonnay taste like? What about classic New World Pinot Noir? It’s a question that was easier to answer in the 1990s, when the ‘international style’ was easy to spot among leaner, more savoury Burgundies.

But since the mid-2000s, the major New World countries have been chasing a more elegant expression of these most quintessentially food-friendly grape varieties. Today the lines have become blurred with their Old World counterparts. But what has driven this rapid stylistic evolution?

Have we gained ‘Burgundian’ finesse the world over at the price of diversity? And does the increased focus on terroir herald the end of a discernible ‘New World’ style?

Grape expectations

Burgundy is the benchmark, as the origin of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It has been the heartland of these grapes for two thousand years and it is home to 1,200 delineated ‘climats’. Some, such as Clos de Bèze in Gevrey-Chambertin, were referenced as far back as the 7th century. For an industry that fetishises provenance and heritage, this is stuff money can’t buy.

And speaking of money, at the top end, the Côte d’Or enjoys some of the highest price tags of all. That’s as it should be. In terms of these two grape varieties, the best of Burgundy is yet to be equalled. If you make Chardonnay and Pinot Noir anywhere in the world, it must be hard to put Burgundy out of your head entirely.

All wine regions evolve, but ancient ones such as Burgundy with rigid appellation systems and longstanding traditions do so very slowly. This has been the New World’s major advantage and to some extent its biggest enemy. Producers are relatively free to experiment and change course to accommodate shifting consumer tastes and fashions. It’s the rate of evolution of these two key varieties outside France over the past 25 years that is most extraordinary, however, and most consumers are still catching up.

‘It’s no doubt that New World Chardonnay, in its previous guise, kickstarted a wine revolution,’ says Ronan Sayburn MS of 67 Pall Mall. ‘New World Chardonnay arrived and offered rich, ripe sunshine-in-a-bottle, that was inexpensive and easy to understand.

‘With pictures of surfboards and beaches on the labels rather than old castles, they offered accessible and fun wines without pretension.’

New World Pinot Noir was similarly easy to enjoy, being sweeter, oakier and friendlier than consumers had encountered before. Tim Lovett, senior winemaker at Leeuwin Estate in Western Australia, has observed wine styles changing over time. Although there has always been a variety of interpretations of Chardonnay across his native country, he says that in the late 90s the prevailing one was full-bodied, noticeably oaky and very ripe in flavour profile.

These wines found favour with certain critics at the time, but gradually winemakers and wine lovers bored of them, finding them tiring to drink and lacking in finesse. By the early 2000s, a move towards a fresher, more drinkable style was underway. For Chardonnay, winemaking held the key; for Pinot Noir, the answer was found in the vineyard.

Lovett explains that Western Australian producers started picking their Chardonnay earlier, meaning lower sugar levels (so less potential alcohol) and higher natural acidity. To this, he adds higher turbidity (more suspended solid matter) in the juice pre-fermentation and malolactic fermentation as drivers of a more contemporary style.

David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars in Sonoma puts the transformation of Californian Chardonnay down to two principal movements: ‘The triumph of the Burgundian method’ and a ‘march to the coast’. Since his first vintage in 1978, winemaking in California has changed radically towards a more Burgundian style. Previously there was overnight skin contact, the juice was racked off the lees, malolactic fermentation was blocked, the wines were overoaked and sterile filtered. These are all things he avoids today.

Two other Chardonnay winemaking techniques that Ramey singles out that have made a big difference are juice browning and whole-cluster fermentation, both of which he claims to have pioneered in California. Juice browning is the practice of exposing grape juice to oxygen before fermentation – alarmingly the juice goes from green to a murky brown as certain compounds oxidise (rather like a cut apple), but the wine runs clear after fermentation.

For him it produces a finer, paler wine that’s lower in tannin. He started using whole clusters back in 1987, which he believes lead to greater delicacy and ageing potential. When Ramey says the ‘march to the coast’, he refers to growing grapes closer to the ocean, particularly at the wind gaps – breaks in coastal ridgeways that draw in cool air and fog from the ocean. These moderate the climate and help to produce more elegant wines. Interestingly, Ramey now believes that Napa Valley is too hot to grow Chardonnay successfully.

Elegance through viticulture

Finding the right sites, particularly where temperature is moderated by altitude, aspect or climate, was the key for many in the evolution of Pinot Noir. Gordon Newton-Johnson has been making wine at the family winery in Hemel-en-Aarde in South Africa since the mid-90s. South African Pinot Noir at that time wasn’t terribly inspiring. ‘Some wines were insipid, others over-extracted or blended, and the muddled message held little to no terroir expression at all,’ Newton-Johnson says. This, though, wasn’t just down to site.

‘A major catalyst for change was the introduction of new, quality vine material, especially those of Raymond Bernard’s “Dijon clones”,’ he says. ‘The change in Pinot Noir was immediate, providing a much-improved varietal base from which to work. ‘A new generation of producers were naturally drawn in to the vineyard on seeing the limitations of the winery. There was much better exposure to international benchmarks and creating networks, so the knowledge base blossomed.’

It’s not just plant material and site selection that made a difference in terms of New World viticulture. Exposure to different winemaking cultures has also been crucial.

Paul Pujol of Prophet’s Rock in Central Otago, New Zealand, spent six years working abroad, including stints in Alsace, Sancerre, the Languedoc and Burgundy. The modern wine industry in New Zealand only dates back to the 1970s, so to work in regions that span centuries was eye-opening for him.

‘There is a tremendous amount to learn from working in different places,’ says Pujol. ‘Some is technical and some is cultural, or the human element, which is also very important. You see a different mindset when a vigneron is from a multi-generational producer, which is so common in France. They are so conscious of their small part in a business that runs both before and after them.’

It’s not just plant material and site selection that made a difference in terms of New World viticulture. Exposure to different winemaking cultures has also been crucial
‘In the winery, the same range of techniques are available anywhere,’ he explains. ‘But what you notice most in France is how winemakers have adapted what they do to the vineyards they work with, rather than imposing a style or range of techniques on a site.

‘This sensitivity to exploring and finding out how to express a site in the purest sense, without an overriding winemaking signature, is one of the greatest lessons I took from my time in France.’

From sun to site

As consumer tastes moved to a more elegant style of wine in the 2000s, it’s no surprise that those producers of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, free from the constraints of tight appellation legislation, looked towards the classics for inspiration. This inevitably led to a proliferation of more Burgundian styles, but there’s been another movement since then that has further contributed a sense of finesse.

‘With the advent of non-interventionism in winemaking,’ says Newton-Johnson, ‘I feel many producers began to see glimpses of real identity from their vineyard sites. I think it’s fair to say that our philosophy is more Burgundian than 20 years ago.

‘I believe our most compelling wines are a consequence of where they have been planted, and that has been progressive in discovering our identity. Regarding these grapes as a medium of interpretation rather than a variety opens a whole new realm of potential.’

Hands-off production methods have been adopted more and more by leading estates worldwide, often with the aim of accentuating site over grape variety, and the result is often wines with more subtlety and character – it produces elegant wines, but wines with a local elegance rather than a Burgundian one.

These relatively restrained New World wines focussing on finesse, balance and terroir were often overlooked by the critics of the day, who were still in thrall to ‘big flavour’. It took collective movements such as the Swartland Revolution in South Africa, from 2010 to 2015, and particularly Rajat Parr and Jasmine Hirsch’s In Pursuit of Balance in California, from 2011 to 2016, to push these styles into the collective consciousness.

Andres Ituarte of Le Coq d’Argent agrees. ‘I don’t think New World wines are becoming more Burgundian, they are just becoming better balanced,’ he says. ‘Look back at that Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay. It’s no less woody than 25 years ago, but it is way more zippy and elegant.

‘With Pinot and Chardonnay, we are seeing restraint being used in the winery because of the understanding in the vineyards. The New World is just catching up with the Old.’

The end of the New World as we know it

Describing a New World wine as ‘Burgundian’ may once have been received positively by winemakers around the world, but as they endeavour to express their wines’ own local character, it might now be considered less than flattering. Adelaide Hills, Martinborough, Sonoma and Walker Bay are, after all, highly contrasting terroirs.

The push for elegance and finesse can sometimes go too far, however, as certain winemakers compete for the most delicate, structural style – a practice that’s been described in some parts as ‘reverse willy-waving’. Ronan Sayburn encountered this style recently in Australia.

‘I was surprised by some of the Chardonnay being far too lean and acidic, lacking fruit and body,’ he says. ‘[One was] described by one winemaker as ‘fishbone Chardonnay’, the implication being there was no flesh or meat to the wine, just structure.

‘Care needs to be taken with going too lean. New World Chardonnay became popular because of its vivacity and ripeness; elegance is great as long as the wine has flavour and as long as it remains fun. That’s why we liked it in the first place.’

David Ramey recognises a similar phenomenon in California. ‘The middle ground in California is what’s happening now – not the overblown styles, not the “12.5% and no new oak” – but the 13.5% wines without excess new oak. That’s what’s happening in California and it’s often better than white Burgundy and half the price.’

For UK sommeliers, such as Valentin Radosav at Gymkhana, price is increasingly a concern. ‘Burgundy is very expensive. Each year the price goes higher and the quality remains the same,’ he says.

‘This pushed me to look for alternatives from other countries like Portugal, Central Europe, South America, South Africa. I am a huge fan of Chardonnay (Restless River) and Pinot Noir (The Drift Farm) from South Africa. They offer great value for money and are wines with a lovely ripeness and complexity.’

As Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the New World gain in finesse, increasingly they can do the same job as many Burgundies on a wine list – but at considerably lower prices. Many casual wine drinkers in the UK still associate New World Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with a ripe, high-alcohol, oaky approach. Some wine professionals turn their noses up at these styles, though their popularity persists.

Though these versions are on the way out, they’re still easy enough to track down if they resonate with your clientele or work with your cuisine. It’s hard to imagine a time when Burgundy will no longer be the global benchmark for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, varieties that express terroir like few others. Warm climate New World iterations made a huge impact in the 90s and ‘classic’ examples still have their fans today. But their rapid evolution still has much to thank the motherland for: practical viticulture and vinification techniques, quality plant material and its role as a cultural, even spiritual, guiding light.

Increasingly, though, New World regions and sub-regions are finding the confidence to follow what the land dictates, rather than chasing the tastes of consumers and critics. In doing so, we’ve witnessed the gradual relinquishment of the ‘international style’ in favour of unique expressions of terroir. The future of each region will increasingly diverge as a result. In other words, rather than the end, this is really the beginning.

First published in Imbibe on-trade magazine.


Images of Lirac, March 2019

Eric Pfifferling, Domaine L'Anglore

 

Carbonic maceration lessons with Eric

 

Ermitage de la Sainte Baume

 

Plateau de Vallongue, Lirac

 

Limestone pebbles, Saint-Laurent-Les-Arbres

 

Rodolphe des Pins, Domaine de Montfaucon

 

Bush vines planted in 1870, Domaine de Montfaucon

 


Images of the Luberon, February 2019

View from Bonnieux
Valentine Tardieu-Vitali, Château la Verrerie
Clay limestone bench under the Montagne du Luberon
Nathalie Margan, Château La Canorgue
Bonnieux from Château La Canorgue
Philippe Tolleret, Marrenon

The kingdom of the blind

Most wine professionals have a story of when they aced a blind tasting, a well-worn tale of olfactory deduction that would have Sherlock Holmes slack-jawed in amazement. It inevitably concludes with a self-deprecating comment along the lines of ‘normally I get it completely wrong of course’ in the hope that the taster can both impress and not come across as a shameless show-off. Blind tasting is not only an entertaining sport; it’s widely accepted as the best way to run major wine competitions and it’s often the way that consumers prefer critics to taste wine. When it comes to wine criticism, however, blind isn’t always best.

There are some undeniable benefits to blind tasting. Removing the producer’s name and any indication of market value from the equation gives a taster the freedom to assess what’s in the glass with greater objectivity. It makes it easier to reward little-known or relatively modest estates when they excel, and simpler to reprimand the big names when they slip up – two of the most important functions of any wine critic. Blind tasting makes the critic focus on every bottle; there is no space for laziness or sloppiness. And it continually hones the skill and knowledge of the taster in the process which is beneficial for the critic, the producer and the reader.

It’s worth noting that double-blind tastings, where you don’t even know a wine’s country of origin, aren’t terribly instructive. It makes it impossible to judge a fundamental characteristic of any great wine: typicity. How can you tell if a wine is a good example of its type when you don’t have the slightest clue what it is? When tasting blind, it’s important to taste within a defined style.

Blind tasting does have its drawbacks however. The most irritating – but least discussed – downside is the unpalatable fact that wine doesn’t always behave the way it’s meant to. (If this weren’t a fact, there’d be far fewer wine merchants around selling disappointing Burgundy.) Some wines show inexplicably well on the day of tasting; others show peculiarly badly. It can be attributed to any number of factors: the wine going through a ‘closed’ or ‘dumb’ period, the critic’s mood, even atmospheric pressure or tasting on a root day… But often there’s no obvious explanation.

Also, critics make mistakes – and it’s more common to reach the wrong destination when you’re travelling blind, with no landmarks or directions to lead the way. Until we can design a more reliable instrument than the tongue, we will have to rely on men and women to critique wines, and that means having to accept a degree of human error. Some critics would never admit to such a thing in public; professionally it’s safer to project an image of infallibility. But in private, most will admit to calling it wrong from time to time, particularly when tasting blind.

Critics of blind tasting state, quite correctly, that it bears no relation to how most normal winelovers approach a bottle of wine. Tasting a wine when you’re aware of its identity is a more natural and less convoluted way to go about it. And, after all, the enjoyment and value of a wine isn’t just about what’s in the glass.

Crucially, when judging a wine, knowing its identity gives you context. When you know the producer, you can see how the wine in question compares to previous vintages, if it’s above or below their usual standard, if there’s a change of style or direction... Importantly, you can make a judgement regarding value for money. It also lets you take into account outlying styles that flirt with winemaking faults which could risk getting thrown out of blind tastings.

There’s a danger however of critics giving a wine ‘the benefit of the doubt’ when they can see the label on the bottle but what’s inside isn’t performing as they’d expect. In this way, sighted tastings can unjustly end up favouring the status quo – the longest established, most revered producers tend to come out top. If there’s any doubt over how a wine is showing, it’s better all round for the wine to be removed from the tasting and looked at again at a later date.

Blind and non-blind tastings have their own particular advantages and disadvantages. As always in wine, it’s best not to be dogmatic: I’d argue that the way to get the best advice to the prospective wine buyer it to combine the two. Firstly, to taste wines blind, to mitigate confirmation bias as much as possible. Then to reveal the identities of the wines to see if this sheds any light that would further inform the decision-making process for buyers. Knowing the wine’s track record would also help refine drinking windows.

To some critics, this might sound like ‘cheating’ – adding in commentary to a tasting note after their judgement has been passed. But it’s important for tasters to remember that the process isn’t about them. It’s about getting the best possible advice, by whatever means, to whomever is considering spending their hard-earned money on a case of wine.

Neither blind nor sighted tasting is perfect when it comes to wine criticism. It’s a well-known fact that the most reliable way to grade a flight of wines is to drink them with a bunch of wine-loving friends over dinner and see which ones get finished first. But when that’s not possible, tasting with one eye open could be the best option.

Image © Chris Nguyen via Unsplash

First published in timatkin.com.


Images of Vinsobres, Feburary 2019

Vinsobres, the most northerly Cru of the Southern Rhône
In the village of Vinsobres
L-R: Laurent Reinteau, Cellier des Dauphins; Anais Vallot, Domaine Vallot; Philippe Chaume-Arnaud, Domaine Chaume-Arnaud; Pascal Jaume, Domaine Jaume; Mickaël Jaume, Cave La Vinsobraise (standing far right).
Lieu-dit Les Préaux, on the Plateau
Cédric Guillaume-Corbin of 6-ha Domaine La Péquélette - 'the smallest' in Provencale

 


Images of Séguret, February 2019

Séguret
Different terroirs: mountain, première terrasse, vin de pays at the bottom
On the slope near the village, Domaine de Cabasse

 

A view of the Dentelles from the top of the mountain

 

 

Domaine Jean David, co-owner and winemaker Jean-Luc Auffrut in the background

 

Christian Voeux, Domaine de l'Amauve

 

From the mountain
All images © Matt Walls

Images of Beaumes de Venise, January 2019

Beaumes de Venise
Beaumes de Venise terroir, near Lafare
Rocalinaud
The view from Rocalinaud
Romain and Elisabeth Hall, Domaine des Bernardins
Romain Hall, Domaine des Bernardins
Sabine and Isabelle de Menthon, Chateau Redortier

All images © Matt Walls


Crab brains and Cabernet

The last twenty metres of road aren’t yet tarmacked on the way to He Jin Zun winery in Ningxia, northern China, so we get out and crunch over the gravel on foot. Consultant winemaker David Tyney bounds out to greet us and walks us through the building site past rows of gleaming steel tanks into the noisy winery. He’s from New Zealand but most other employees are locals. A dozen women in colourful headscarves are huddled over the speeding sorting table, an older man forks piles of discarded stalks, some younger ones tip crates of grapes into the press. Tyney surveys the busy scene. “None of this was here two weeks ago,” he says, “it was just a dirt floor.”

Other vast buildings are being hurriedly pulled up nearby. “We’re waiting for the concrete to dry before we can pick the Cabernet,” says Tyney, only half-joking. This year they’ll produce 800,000 bottles. Next year they’re aiming for 2 million. For a wine region, the scale of ambition and the pace of change are breathtaking. Ningxia faces significant hurdles: a mismatched food culture, an extreme climate and uncertainty over grape varieties. But they have proved that good wine can be produced here and I’ve never seen a region so determined to succeed.

From desert to vineyard

The jagged Helan Mountains run north to south, rising to over 3,500m. They represent the border of Inner Mongolia and northern China. To their west, Alxa League in Mongolia; to their east, Ningxia province in China. Ningxia’s wine region inhabits a dusty strip of land around 120km long that lies between the foot of the mountain range and the Yellow River.

Thirty-five years ago, this was a coal-mining community in a desert. The soils are a beige sandy loam that get rockier the closer you get to the mountains. It doesn’t rain much – at best 150mm a year. By itself, the land supports little more than some tufty dry grasses. But by tapping the Yellow River local governors realised they could grow much more. The poor soils weren’t suited to all crops. But grapevines prospered.

To begin with, winemaking was led by large government projects set up with help from the armed forces. Observing the possibilities, private companies and family enterprises followed. The floodgates really opened when Helan Qingxue winery won the ‘Red Bordeaux Varietal Over £10’ International Trophy for their Jiabeilan 2009 Cabernet blend at the 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards. In 2012, the government set up the Ningxia Wine Bureau to support the burgeoning industry. Now it’s home to 86 operational wineries farming 38,000 hectares of vines, and this is expected to double in the next 10 years. The capital Yinchuan has been re-imagined as a pristine modern city housing two million people.

Looking west

With little in the way of winemaking history in China and no indigenous wine grapes, where do the people of Ningxia look for guidance and inspiration? A drive around the region makes it abundantly clear. Some wineries, such as Château Changyu Moser XV (who part funded this trip, along with the Ningxia Wine Bureau) wouldn’t be out of place in the Médoc. And that Decanter Trophy has confirmed their belief that Bordeaux blends are the future. Some might scoff that a region that can’t survive without irrigation isn’t naturally suited to making wine. But once upon a time, Bordeaux was a swamp.

Cabernet Sauvignon is by some margin the most popular grape, followed by Merlot. Carmenère, known locally as Cabernet Gernischt, is also fairly common. Red wine makes up 90% of production. White wines are mostly made from either Chardonnay or Welschriesling, referred to locally as Italian Riesling (unrelated to the Riesling of Germany). They also make a little icewine.

Culture clash

Though red wine is more popular here, at the dinner table white wine often feels more suitable. Large dishes to be shared are delivered when ready, and they keep coming – fried egg with fresh tomato, deep fried eel, lambs’ trotters, honeysuckle buds, fish cooked in boiling stock, spicy soups… it makes any efforts at wine matching redundant. I can confirm that crabs’ brains and Cabernet are not a match made in heaven.

I found myself thirsting for off-dry Riesling, Fino Sherry and sweeter sparkling wines, but even though white wines are a more natural fit with spicy, sometimes oily dishes, its unlikely we’ll see plantings increase. Warm or hot drinks are considered healthier than cold drinks, and red is seen as a lucky colour in China – and these things matter.

Beer and baiju (a high-strength spirit) are much cheaper and more popular than wine. I was told that total baiju sales top €80 billion a year, while wine sales were just €8 billion. Wine tends to be stocked only in high-end restaurants and is still seen as a prestige drink, but it’s growing in popularity.

Mastering the vineyards

Cabernet Sauvignon might be king, but Bordeaux this is not. High altitude viticulture (vineyards sit at around 1,100m, higher than England’s highest mountain), a lack of rain and a continental climate make for extreme conditions.

There are some benefits – big differences between day and night temperatures bring freshness to the aromatics. There is little in the way of disease or pests to contend with – even 135ha vineyards such as Pernod Ricard’s Helan Mountains can operate organically except from some fertilizers.

The main challenge is the climate. “Minus 15 is when you expect to see damage,” says operations manager Mike Insley. “At minus 18 you expect to see some vine death.” With temperatures regularly dropping to -25 ̊ C in winter, like everyone in Ningxia, he has to get the vines pruned and buried under half a metre of earth by late November. That’s right; all the vines in the 135ha estate are taken off their wires, lain down flat, the earth between the rows is dug up and piled on top of them as insulation. It’s a laborious and expensive yearly exercise but without it the vineyards wouldn’t survive. The oldest vines in the region were planted at Legacy Peak winery in 1997; I wonder whether vines much older than this will withstand such treatment.

When the vines are dug up again in March, budbreak happens within days. But the growing season is short – and the grapes must be picked before the frosts that can hit as early as mid-October. Summers can be hot but some estates still have difficulty in achieving physiological ripeness, resulting in green, herbaceous flavours and bitter tannins. Huge sums have been invested in top-of-the-range winery equipment all over Ningxia, but what’s needed now are skilled vineyard managers with the local knowledge necessary to tackle these unique challenges.

Grape expectations

There has been some early success with Cabernet, but experimenting with earlier-ripening grapes would be sensible. Charismatic ex-fashion designer Shao Qingsong at Lilan Winery believes “we still need to find suitable varieties for this region.” Like many local winemakers he’s trialling Marselan, a crossing of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. There are some successful examples but it’s a puzzling choice for such an ambitious region – after all, who can name a world-beating Marselan? Looking for a grape that your region can ‘own’ is understandable, but I wonder how much South Africa has really benefited from such a close association with Pinotage.

Château Mihope has had some success with Viognier. Silver Heights are testing out Grenache, Mourvèdre and Zinfandel. Helan Quinxue is trialling Malbec and Tempranillo. According to Ian Dai, the only Natural winemaker in Ningxia, “Syrah has huge potential”. Personally speaking, I’d give Cinsault a try. But Lenz Moser, Austrian consultant winemaker at Château Chengyu Moser XV, believes Bordeaux blends are here to stay. “Why reinvent the wheel?” he says. “Let’s be pragmatic.” And he’s proved that consistently successful Cabernets are possible here.

Land of opportunity

So what is the unique style of Ningxia Cabernet – the goût de terroir? “I’m still looking for that Ningxia stamp,” admits Insley at Helan Mountains. “That’s one of the challenges for Ningxia – [defining] what makes Ningxia wine special.” The Cabernets I tasted were broadly a little lighter in body than those of Bordeaux, with concentrated bright fruits and a spicy vein running through them. But this is a young region with young vines, and any attempt at a definitive description of Ningxia’s style at this stage would be premature.

There are already five sub-regions and a nascent cru system, but it feels too early for this kind of detail. Very few Ningxia wines are yet exported, but as more find their way out of China this will shine a light on how the wines stack up in terms of style, quality and value. Dai agrees that wineries “have to be willing to compete with imported wines – and to export.” Despite the extraordinary amount of money, determination and energy being invested here, there are some things – like vine age and viticultural experience – that only come with time. “It used to be America,” says Moser, “but for me the new land of opportunity is China.” After visiting Ningxia, I can see why.

Some of the best of Ningxia

Château Chengyu Moser XV ‘Grand Vin’ 2017 (Ningxia, China)
RRP £65.00, speak to Berry Bros. & Rudd, soon to stock the 2015. 

100% Cabernet Sauvignon, 100% new French oak for 24 months. 
Austrian winemaker Lenz Moser has become something of a figurehead for the Ningxia wine industry and it’s not hard to see why. Under his consultancy, Château Chengyu Moser XV is now producing the best wines in the region, an impressive range from top to bottom. The 2015, 2016 and 2017 Grands Vins are all excellent wines, but the 2017 shows particularly well, the most refined of the three vintages. It’s powerful but lifted in character with a gentle spice aromas ingrained into the black fruit. Silky in texture, tailored, with a long finish. Should age with interest.
93 points, 2020 to 2033

Silver Heights ‘Summit’ 2014 (Ningxia, China; 14.5%)
NA UK 

60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 24 months in new French oak. 
Yuan Gau’s husband worked for 23 years at Château Calon Ségur in Bordeaux – she met him while she was doing a winemaking stage there. They now own a 70-hectare organic estate together in the north of Ningxia. Their inexpensive Last Warrior wines are good value; Summit is their top red. It’s a touch reductive on the nose but opens up with air. Medium-bodied, good freshness, actually quite light-bodied but has a good concentration of bright berry fruit and fine-grained tannins. A hint of greenness on the long finish but is nevertheless a very good wine.
91 points, 2018 to 2022

Helan Qingxue ‘Jiabeilan Reserve’ 2015 (Ningxia, China; 14.5%)
NA UK

100% Cabernet Sauvignon. 16-year-old vines, 14 months in 70% new oak. 
Their Jiabeilan Reserve 2009 won the 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards Best Bordeaux Varietal over £10 Trophy, a turning point for Ningxia wine that kicked off the development of the modern industry. Their 2015 is has a distinctly minty nose, alongside fresh and lifted blackcurrant fruit. It’s a light- to medium-bodied style of Cabernet with fine tannins and balanced acidity, leading to a tapered finish. Elegant and fresh, with less concentration and body than a typical Bordeaux, but also fresher than many.
90 points, 2018 to 2023.

Château Lanny ‘Reserve’ 2013 (Ningxia, China; 13%)
NA UK 

90% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. 
Menthol, polished woods and black cherry with an unusual and distinctive fresh herbal touch. Medium-bodied, fully mature now but still lively, with some mushroom and beef stock on the palate. Good acidity, good balance, some length.
90 points, 2018 to 2019.

Legacy Peak ‘Kalavinka’ 2014 (Ningxia, China; 14.5%)
NA UK 

85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot. 14 months in new French oak. 
Owners of the oldest vineyard in Ningxia; a plot of 21-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon near 1,000-year-old stone tombs dotted across the landscape nearby. Their Kalavinka is named after a stone icon found buried in the vineyard. Mature black fruit compote aromas, a touch minty, with some oak spice. Medium-bodied, good energy and concentration of fruit on the palate.
89 points, 2018 to 2020

Domaine Pu Shang Marselan 2016 (Ningxia, China; 14.5%)
NA UK 

90% Marselan, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. 50% new French oak.
A small family-owned winery established in 2009 which specialises in Marselan. Their 2016 has an attractive nose; raspberry and plum skin with a marked cedar note from the oak. Persistent bright red fruits on the palate pepped up with marked acidity but the overabundant oak leads to a slightly pinched finish. An easy thing to fix for future vintages – one to watch.
89 points, 2018 to 2020

He Jin Zun ‘Helan Hong’ White 2016 (Ningxia, China; 12.0%)
NA UK 

100% Welschriesling, unoaked.
The first vintage of this new government-owned estate run by energetic young New Zealander Dave Tyney. It’s a light, fresh, style with pear and a touch of banana. Light-bodied but good fruit on the palate and balanced acidity. A straightforward wine with good drinkability.
88 points, 2018 to 2019

Château Mihope Chardonnay 2017 (Ningxia, China; 13.0%)
NA UK 

100% Chardonnay.
A 100-hectare estate planted in 2013 by the electronic appliance manufacturer Midea Group. Their 2017 Chardonnay has a light macadamia oak sheen on the nose and a silky feel on the palate. Elegant, well balanced peach and apricot fruit.
88 points, 2018 to 2020

Chandon China Brut NV (Ningxia, China, 12.5%)
NA UK 

70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir.
Moët & Chandon’s 68-hectare outpost in Ningxia produces a white and rosé brut and a white and rosé medium-sweet style called Me (translates as ‘besties’). They only make traditional method sparkling wines, all for the domestic market. The white Brut in the best; soft fizz, well balanced, just dry enough to be described as a Brut. Good acidity and a touch of autolytic character. Pleasantly drinkable international fizz.
88 points, 2018 to 2019

Helan Mountain ‘Premium Collection’ Chardonnay 2017 NV (Ningxia, China; 12.5%)
NA UK 

100% Chardonnay.
Helan Mountain is a large estate now fully owned by drinks behemoth Pernod Ricard. Head winemaker Linda Ren made the 2017 Premium Chardonnay after a winemaking stage at Church Road in New Zealand. Tasting some older Chardonnays, it’s clear the new techniques she picked up have really benefitted her wines. It’s 60% barrel fermented, some old barrels, some new. Part whole bunch pressed direct to barrel. Part controlled juice oxidation, part wild ferment, part malolactic. It’s oaky on the nose, with some citrus notes. Medium-bodied with good intensity of fruit. It’s also pretty oaky on the palate, but has real vibrancy of fruit underneath.
88 points, 2018 to 2019

Yuanshi ‘The Soul of the Mountain’ 2014 (Ningxia, China; 14.2%)
NA UK 

72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Gernischt, 8% Merlot, 18 months in French oak.
Yuanshi is an extensive 1,500-hectare park (encompassing winery, hotel and 100-hectares of vineyard) established in 2008 by a local businessman who made a fortune in tree production and quarrying. Beautifully designed with expert local craftsmanship with incredible attention to detail, it’s one of the most visually stunning wineries I’ve ever visited. The 2014 Soul of the Mountain is lightly peppery in aroma, with vanilla-flecked blackberry and blackcurrant. It’s a medium-bodied, concentrated, fairly tannic style, not too green, with a savoury finish.
87 points, 2020 to 2025

Lilan Winery ‘Lan Cui’ Cabernet Merlot 2016 (Ningxia, China)
NA UK 

80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot. 12 months in French oak, 50% new.
A new project by fashion designer Qingsong Shao, this 100-hectare estate was planted in 2011. Medium ruby, fairly deep in colour. Blackcurrant and blackcurrant leaf. Medium to full-bodied. Acidity is firm, fruit is quite lush, but then slightly herbaceous on the palate, with some green tannin on the finish.
87 points, 2018 to 2020

All images © Matt Walls. 

First published on timatkin.com.