Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Chateau Bacchus – The Fairytale Wine Estate of Ningxia, China

Sunset at Chateau Bacchus
(Dec. 2013) - Chateau Bacchus was a great winery to visit in that everything about it was “over the top.”  It was extravagant, from the red carpet they rolled out to greet us, to the status of Bacchus standing proudly in the courtyard, and the fancy King Louis 16th d├ęcor dripping with chandeliers, gold leaf and rococo furnishings. 

Red Carpet Treatment at Chateau Bacchus
The winemaker gave us a tour of the winery with its marble floors, and showed us the new membrane filter machine.  Everything was state of the art and impressive.  Chateau Bacchus has 1700 mu of vineyards and produces around 60,000 bottles per year (5,000 cases).  They actually have a special type of wine club in which members pay 30,000 to 50,000 rmb ($5 – 8K) per year to have a small private wine closet in Chateau Bacchus’s cellar.  It is so popular, they have a waiting list for it.  They have another program where members can buy a barrel of wine for 100,000 rmb ($16,600)! 

Orchestra That Played for us at Bacchus
We were fortunate to have a lovely dinner here where we were joined by the owner, a beautiful Chinese woman.  During the meal we had a 2008 Chateau Bacchus Merlot which was big, meaty with a hint of dark chocolate on the finish and a very high alcohol level.  In addition we enjoyed a 2010 Chateau Bacchus Cabernet Sauvignon that was very ripe and concentrated, similar to a syrah.  We ended with an excellent Chateau Bacchus Vidal Blanc Late Harvest, which was exquisitely made with perfect balance and pure fruit flavors of dried apricot and honeysuckle. 

After dinner, we walked to their concert hall and were delighted to listen to a full orchestra and an opera singer.  Though the orchestra was a group of local amateurs, they were all very enthusiastic with their brass instruments, and the opera singer was excellent. 

A Positive Encounter With Chateau Lilan Wines 

We left the winery under a sky filled with stars in a bitter cold night, and headed back to the Kempenski where the five of us shared two bottles of Chateau Lilan wine.  I should mention that we actually didn’t know the name of the winery at first, because the labels were written in Chinese.  It was only later that we found out, when the sales manager contacted us on WeChat.  He said he is considering adding the English name of the winery to the labels. Yes! 

Chateau Lilan Cabernet Sauvignon
The two bottles of wine had been given to us earlier in the day as a gift from the chateau owner, another beautiful Chinese lady.  We opened the Chateau Lilan Cabernet Sauvignon first and thought we had walked into Australia – it was so ripe, fruity, concentrated berries, and plush tannins.  Yum!  The second bottle was a Chateau Lilan Pinot Noir.  It was a big chewy pinot with dark cherry, mushroom and higher alcohol, reminding me of a Santa Lucia Highlands pinot noir.  Yet both were from Ningxia, and both were delicious! 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Xixia King Winery – Largest in Ningxia, China

Standing in Front of Xixia King Winery
(Dec. 2013) We visited Xixia King Winery on a sunny winter afternoon, and I was very impressed with all of the large signs and entry gates signaling the approach of the huge Chinese style visitor’s center, which is named Chateau Yuachan.   

Xixia King is the oldest winery in Ningxia having been established in 1982.  They are also the largest, farming over 100,000 mu (1/3 of the vineyards in Ningxia) and, have extensive housing for their workers.  It was originally a cooperative and has 14 farms.  Today is it owned by the regional government, and there are plans to expand even further with additional brands and new “chateaux” on the property.  They plan to call it “Grape Town” and eventually have 6000 people living and working on the property. 

Musuem Exhibit of Ancient Xia Tribes Drinking
We were greeted by the winemaker, Evan who spoke perfect English.  He escorted us through the large and very fancy chateau where we saw special tasting rooms for VIPs, and the excellent museum they built to tell the wine history of the world as well as Ningxia’s.  In the museum they describe the Xia Dynasty, which lived in this area and created the famous tombs that are a top tourism draw today.  The Xia Dynasty was also famous for drinking and writing poetry.  The brand “Xixia King” was named after an ancient warrior who became king.  His symbol is shown on each wine bottle – a warrior with a large sword riding a horse. 

Giant Xixia King Bottle on Highway
Evan continued his tour by showing us the future location of Ningxia’s International Wine Center that will showcase the wines of the world, as well as Ningxia gold medal wines.  He also showed us where wine club members could make their own wine and bottle it.  We concluded the tour with a barrel tasting of the 2013 Italian Riesling and cabernet sauvignon.  Though both were very young, they were fresh with vibrant fruity flavors.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Chateau Lanyi – Winery of Rocks and Music, Ningxia, China

(Dec. 2013) - In the afternoon we visited  Chateau Lanyi (also spelled Lanny), which has as its symbol the native grey-blue rock of the region. The tasting room is fittingly designed in a Chinese style with a long low building and wide porch with posts. There is also a restaurant, game room, and beautifully decorated hotel rooms on site. The front of the property has a small pond, picnic tables with Chinese roofs, and a table grape vineyard in addition to the wine grape vineyard where tourists can walk in arbors under hanging grapes in the summer.

The winery is owned by Mr. Cao, who is the Director of the Bureau of Grape and Floriculture Development, and is responsible for managing the implementation of wine tourism development in Ningxia. He was also our host and the organizer of the wine tourism seminar. His enthusiasm and clear vision for the future of Ningxia was contagious.

After a tour of the property, we were treated to traditional Chinese music played on a guqin (a stringed instrument from the zither family) by a beautiful female musician. Next was a buffet dinner, and the opportunity to taste the 2010 Chateau Lanyi Merlot and two of the 2011 Chateau Lanyi Cabernet Sauvignons. The merlot was darker in color than the cab, with a very savory spicy note that caused me to ask the name of the clone. I had tasted several other merlots like this while in Ningxia, but unfortunately no one knew the name of the clone. It’s unique flavor profile made me think more of St. Emilion wines than Napa, and I wondered if it would be better used as a blending grape than on its own.

The cabernet sauvignons were light and fruity, with the unoaked one tasting more like Beaujolais. It was very approachable and fun, and also served with our lunch each day where it paired beautifully with the food. The 2011 reserve cab with more oak and Chinese Gernischt, had a slightly bitter and acrid taste at first, but after some air, it opened up a bit. The 2011 vintage was cooler, so I found many of the 2011’s to have a sharp herbal note. Definitely vintage makes a difference here as in other parts of the world. Many of the winemakers reported that they felt 2013 was going to be one of their best vintages.

The evening was very enjoyable. With the help of Qin as a translator, we learned more about the wine vision of Ningxia from Mr. Cao, and how the new classification system worked. We all were quite impressed with the strategic thinking and progress that has gone into developing the region.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Chateau Helan Quingxue – Winner of 2011 Decanter International Trophy, Ningxia, China

(Dec. 2013) - The next afternoon we visited Chateau Helan Quingxue which is housed in a more modest structure of red brick and reminded me of a combination of Soviet and Chinese architecture. Inside there is a modern winery with stainless steel tanks, a small barrel room, and a very large visitor’s center. Though not finished yet, this part of the winery is designed to showcase all of the wines of Ningxia so that visitors can taste all of the brands in one location.

We were greeted with much enthusiasm by the petite and vivacious winemaker, Zhang Jing. She speaks fluent English, and welcomed the whole seminar group of more than 100 people to the winery, switching easily from Chinese to English as she described the history and winemaking processes. She informed us that the name, Helan Quingxue, means “Sun on Helan Mountain,” which is a beautiful name, and is not to be confused with another winery in Ningxia called “Helan Mountain.”

We visited the vineyards, and I was impressed with how close they are located to the foothills of the Helan Mountain range. It makes an impressive scene with the orderly vineyards and the dark, magnificent rise of the mountain beyond. The vineyards were planted in 2005 and total 15 hectares. The winery produces around 50,000 bottles per year, or 4,166 cases.

We tasted a 2012 Italian Riesling Jaibeilan Dry White Wine and the 2009 Jaibeilan Cabernet Sauvignon “Baby Feet.” The Riesling was fresh and fruity with floral notes. It would be an easy sell in California. The cabernet was part of the same famous batch that won the 2011 Decanter International Trophy Awards, but “Baby Feet” refers to four special barrels that were set aside with more oak and “stamped” with the footprints of Jing’s baby, whom she carried and then delivered during the winemaking process. A very sweet story.

The 2009 Jaibelilan Cabernet Sauvignon “Baby Feet” is one of my favorite Ningxia wines. It has massive structure, concentrated dark berries, complex herbs notes, minerality, and a very long finish. Yes, it also has lots of expensive French oak, but it is well integrated and drinks beautifully with beef or game. The term “Jaibelilan” is the brand name they are using on their wines and means “jubilant.”

While there we saw a group of Chinese women applying labels to wine bottles by hand (See photo). This was my second visit to this winery, and I have to admit, that it was just as joyful as the first time last year.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Chateau Yuanshi Winery – Luxurious Stone Winery Designed with Local Chinese Desert Architecture, Ningxia

(Dec. 2013) - This winery is massive and very impressive as you approach and see the tall stone walls designed in the traditional Chinese fortress style of the region. It includes pathways paved in native stone and breath-taking art sculptures designed of wood and petrified rock.

The owner is a very gracious Chinese woman who has hired a French winemaker from Bordeaux to produce some excellent local cabernet sauvignon. Production is around 150,000 bottles (12,500 cases).

The winemaking facility is state of the art, with new stainless steel fermenters, and top of the line basket press. Hundreds of French oak barrels line the long cellars, and plaques proclaiming their wine awards in Chinese wine competitions decorate the walls. The winery is so fancy that it reminds me of tours through some of the top French chateaux.

As we pass through the barrel room we are asked to sign a barrel – a custom they use for visiting dignitaries. They point out signatures from other famous visitors, and we are made to feel important to participate as many photographers take photos of us signing the barrels.

We end in a tasting room with a very long magnificent wooden table with a strip of the local soil running through the middle of it to showcase the unique sandy rocky quality of the local terroir. We taste the 2010 Chateau Yuanshi Cabernet Sauvignon, which is quite enjoyable. It is a dark ruby red color with a mixed black berry nose. The berry notes carry through on the palate with plush concentration and velvety tannins. The finish is medium to long with moderate complexity.

After the tasting, a bevy of newspaper reports with cameras, and the local television station interviews us, via interpreters, regarding our thoughts on the wine and the region.

Later we enjoy a traditional Chinese dinner at this winery seated at a round table with the lazy susan in the middle. Dish after dish of local delicacies arrive, and once again, I am very impressed with the variety of vegetables – spinach, beans, cooked lettuces, mushroom dishes, and many others. Lamb is the specialty of the region, and we have this in the local soup as well as mixed with vegetables. Chicken, beef and fish dishes are also served.

During the meal we start with the 2011 Chateau Yuanshi Cabernet Sauvignon which is a much leaner, astringent vintage with strong green pepper notes. Fortunately they switch back to the 2010, which was delightful to pair with the food. The Chinese prefer red wine with their food, and I must say I enjoy the fruity warm tannins of the cabernet with the spicy salty food. It warms up my mouth and my stomach. Though they produce a lot of Italian Riesling in Ningxia, it was rarely served with food.

We did several “gambei’s” (toasts) with the meal, prompted by the owner. Fortunately she did not expect us to slam back the wine as was required on previous visits. We each sipped from our glasses that were kept filled at a continual 2 ounce pour rate by the served who hovered around the table. A lovely dinner, and a great first day on this trip to Ningxia.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Yuange Winery – Modern Chinese Architecture With Ice-Covered Pond and Geese, Ningxia

(Dec. 2013) - The first winery we visited was Yaunge, which is owned by a woman with a female winemaker. (NOTE: Many Chinese women seem to be involved in the wine business here, and have the roles of owner, general manager, or winemaker). The architecture is modern Chinese with large brick walls made of native stones and artwork that includes beautiful statues carved from native wood.

The winery is is situated on the edge of a pond, which was covered with ice when we visited. A curved bridge allows you to walk across the pond to the vineyards, which were buried in the sandy earth due to the cold winter weather. As I crossed the bridge, I was delighted to see a pen holding white geese complete with a small house so the geese could stay warm.

The tall mass of the impressive Helan Mountain Range rises up beyond the vineyards, and the sky is a pale blue with a temperature hovering around 12 F on this December afternoon. We pass a pile of grape vine cuttings, and I’m told that the vines are pruned almost to the ground before they are buried. Approximately 50% of the vine burying operation is now mechanized, which saves much time and lowers labor costs.

Back in the winery, all of the equipment is new with shiny stainless steel tanks, 100% French oak barrels, and small crusher destemmer equipment and basket presses. We learn they have 20 hectares (49 acres) of red grapes and 7 hectares (17 acres) of white with an average production of 6 tons per hectare (approximately 3 tons per acre). They produce around 3000 cases per year.

I am impressed with the labeling and logo of the winery, which is a striking gold color with a distinctive circle in a spiral pattern (see photo). It reminds me of a modified yin-yang symbol.

We taste the 2012 Chateau Yuange Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a medium ruby purple color with a nose of cassis and herbs. On the palate it has a smoky note with hints of minerality and rather astringent tannins. I am surprised by the higher alcohol, at around 14.5%, as most Chinese wines usually maintain a 12.5 to 13% alcohol level. The medium length finish is one of anise and leather. It has only received 6 months barrel aging, and in my opinion could benefit from more oak aging time to soften and integrate the tannins. Too young to drink now. I am amazed to learn the price is 588 rmb, or almost $100 US dollars.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Photos of Winery Architecture in the Ningxia Wine Region of China

(Dec. 2013) On my second trip to the Ningxia wine region of China, I was able to visit six additional wineries and drive past many others along the new Ningxia wine route. Presently they have 100 different wineries with a lofty goal to reach 1000 in the next decade. What surprised me the most was the different types of architecture used for the wineries. They ranged from traditional and modern Chinese, to French Chateau, Industrial and Urban Ghetto. Quite Fascinating. Following are some photos of these wineries.

Chateau Bacchus (Photo by L. Thach)

Xixia King Winery (Photo by L. Thach)

Yuange Winery (Photo by L. Lockshin)

Chateau Yuanshi Winery (Photo by L. Thach)

Chateau Deda (Photo by L. Lockshin)

Chateau Helan Quingxue (Photo by L. Lockshin)

Chateau Lanyi (also called Lanny) (Photo by L. Lockshin)

Silver Heights Winery with Winemaker Emma Gao (Photo by L.Thach)

Chateau Changyu Moser (Photo by L. Thach)

Domaine Chandon Ningxia (Photo by

Tasting Room of Chateau Lilan (Photo by C. Lilan)