China’s Bordeaux: winemakers in ‘gold rush’ to turn desert into vineyards

International wine giants and the super-rich are ploughing their fortunes into an arid corner of Ningxia region

China's Bordeaux: winemakers in 'gold rush' to turn desert into vineyards

This, says Emma Gao as she races through the sun-scorched countryside of north-west China in a dusty Nissan Livina, is la Route des Chateaux.

There are almost 40 different entrepreneurs maybe more. Every day it is changing, the Chinese winemaker explains, slaloming between French, English and Mandarin as she tours her 70-hectare (170-acre) vineyard at the heart of a region government officials are calling Chinas Bordeaux.

Gao, a 40-year-old who trained at Bordeaux Universitys oenology institute, was one of the first vintners to set up shop in this arid corner of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, more than 600 miles west of Beijing. Armed with a 300,000 yuan (32,000) loan from her parents, she founded Silver Heights, her award-winning boutique winery, almost a decade ago.

China's Bordeaux: winemakers in 'gold rush' to turn desert into vineyards
Emma Gao, founder of Silver Heights winery, at her vineyard on the eastern flank of the Helan mountain. Photograph: Tom Phillips for the Guardian

In 2012 she opened a vineyard on the stony eastern slopes of the Helan mountain, wagering that its parched land could produce world-beating wines. There was nothing, Gao recalls, weaving through newly planted lots of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, marcelan and petit verdot.

Four years on and a scramble for land is under way here as Chinese and international wine giants and super-rich would-be vintners follow Gaos lead, ploughing fortunes into Ningxia wineries.

Its a gold rush, says Fongyee Walker, a Beijing-based wine buff who learned her trade as the head of the Cambridge University Blind Wine Tasting Society and has made numerous trips to Ningxia province.

China's Bordeaux: winemakers in 'gold rush' to turn desert into vineyards
Chinese drinkers consumed 1.86bn bottles of vin rouge in 2013. Photograph: Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty

Visitors to Helan county, which authorities liken to Napa valley in California, can be in no doubt they have landed in Chinas wine heartlands.

A highway running north-south through the region is dotted with signs guiding drivers to an abundance of chateaux with Chinese characteristics. There is Chateau Lanyi, Chateau Xunniu, Chateau Yu Fang, Chateau Ge Liqi, Chateau Flower Red and Chateau Zhi Hui Yuan Shi. Further along you reach the Domaine Pu Shang, the Domaine Ming Lu, the Domaine Cheng Cheng and, finally, the Domaine Heyu Xinqin Zhong.

In late May, as teams of migrant workers unearthed fields of vines, buried to protect them from Ningxias punishing -25C winters, dozens of excavators could be seen carving out new vineyards from the regions rocky soils.

Less than 60 years ago China was gripped by one of the worst famines in history as Mao ZedongsGreat Leap Forward push for industrialisation devastated the economy and killed up to 45 million people. Since then, decades of dramatic economic growth have transformed the country not just into the worlds second largest economy but also one of its biggest wine producers, with more vineyards than France.

Chinese drinkers consumed 1.86bn bottles of vin rouge in 2013, making China the worlds largest red wine market.

China's Bordeaux: winemakers in 'gold rush' to turn desert into vineyards
Barrels of red wine in a cave cellar in Danba county, Ganzi Tibetan autonomous prefecture. Photograph: How Hwee Young/EPA

As that love affair has intensified, cash-flush wine fanatics have gone on a global spending spree. More than 100 of Bordeauxs estimated 7,000 chateaux are reportedly owned by Chinese tycoons such as Alibabas founder, Jack Ma, who has snapped up two such properties, the Chateau de Sours and the Chateau Prenne, this year alone.

Now, the chateaux are springing up back home too, with Ningxia, an impoverished coalmining region south of the Gobi desert, becoming ground zero for budding Chinese vintners. There are 207 registered wineries in Ningxia compared with just one in 1983, according to Gao Lin, Emma Gaos 72-year-old father and business partner.

Foreign wine producers are also joining the rush. In 2013 Mot Hennessy opened the Domaine Chandon, a 6,300 sq-metre winery producing sparkling wine, not far from Silver Heights.

Walker, the director of Dragon Phoenix wine consulting in Beijing, says that with time and training China could produce top-quality wine. I believe very firmly that you can make good wine anywhere if you put enough love, energy and effort into it. I dont think there is anything sacred about the rocks of the Mdoc or the schist of the Mosel.

China's Bordeaux: winemakers in 'gold rush' to turn desert into vineyards
Villagers in Bagou, Sichuan province, toast a birthday with wine. China is the worlds largest market for red wine. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty

But comparisons to Bordeaux or Napa are Communist party boosterism. Its like comparing a painting painted by a toddler and a painting done by an artist, she says.

Gaos husband, the French winemaker Thierry Courtade, was less coy about Ningxias potential. [My dream is] to be as good as Bordeaux, says the 46-year-old, who worked at the heart of Frances wine industry, at the Chateau Calon-Sgur, before relocating to Helan county three years ago. We are almost there.

With experts warning that climate change could decimate production in the worlds premier wine regions, Gao says Ningxia could provide a key alternative to places such as California, Bordeaux and Western Cape in South Africa.

I think it could be the new world of the New World, she says at her fathers small family vineyard in Yinchuan, the provincial capital. We dont promise. We just try. We believe.

Chinese wines have received mixed reviews since they entered the international stage.

In some, critics have detected hints of dirty sweat socks and cleaning fluid and a foul chemical taste or even a smell of baked dead mouse. Others have deemed some Chinese wines entirely respectable and competently made, if lacking distinctiveness.

China's Bordeaux: winemakers in 'gold rush' to turn desert into vineyards
Ling Shixiong, Silver Heights vineyard manager. Photograph: Tom Phillips for the Guardian

Gaos reserves have fared better. Less than a decade after she imported her first grape press from Italy, Silver Heights produces about 60,000 bottles a year. They are mostly sold in upmarket restaurants and hotels in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Walker describes her as the best of the best in China.

Other regional producers have also earned plaudits with Ningxia merlots, ross and syrahs picking up a record number of medals at last years Decanter Asia wine awards.

Gao, the granddaughter of Peoples Liberation Army soldiers who preferred shots of throat-singeing baijiu to decanters of burgundy, says a new generation of Chinese oenophiles meant her industry, which has been hit by President Xi Jinpings anti-corruption campaign, has a bright future.

But vintners urgently need to tackle prejudice against made-in-China vintages. Our people do not believe in our products, she admits. Even our toilets we buy from Japan. We buy milk powder for our babies from Hong Kong or France I buy my toothpaste from Australia.

China's Bordeaux: winemakers in 'gold rush' to turn desert into vineyards
A vine manager checks grapes in west Shanxi province. Photograph: Adrian Bradshaw/EPA

There are other hurdles. Experts fear the dramatic influx of wine producers to Ningxia means there will simply not be enough water to support the industry. Winemaking requires on average six to seven litres of water for every litre of wine, says Walker. Where is it going to come from?

Soaring land prices are also causing small producers such as Gao to lose sleep. Before it cost nothing; now its very expensive. Maybe 10 times more, she says.

Over a chilled glass of her 2014 Ningxia chardonnay, Gao concedes that comparisons with Bordeaux may have been premature. [Perhaps in] a thousand years, she laughed. But, in some ways, the winemaker says her home in Chinas harsh interior reminds her of France: We have sunshine like Avignon.

Additional reporting by Christy Yao

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