Ningxia Winemaker's Contest to shine spotlight on rising Chinese region
Will China ever move from being mainly a producer of high volume and low quality wines to a producer of wines to rival the best of the rest of the world?
The country has a wide variety of climates and soils, and optimists have always said it will produce good wine when those elements are married with the right grapes and know-how.
Winemakers in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region believe they are already producing quality wines and this September's Ningxia Winemaker's Contest is an attempt to shine an international spotlight on their efforts. But it will also help them improve further by bringing foreign expertise to the area.
The region mostly grows the classic red varieties cabernet sauvignon and merlot; and chardonnay and welschriesling for whites, although some grapes for wine production are brought in from outside the region.
"Part of the motivation behind the project is both to raise the profile of Ningxia as a quality producer and to facilitate knowledge exchange, both professional and cultural. It is kind of cool how some of the winemakers who have come out for this and other projects have later seen Ningxia delegations visit them in their home country," says Jim Boyce, a Beijing-based wine consultant and writer who is the contest's spokesman.
Jancis Robinson visited the province and is impressed by its potential. Michel Bettane, Thierry Desseauve and Jeremy Oliver have also given positive reviews of Ningxia wines. Judges at the 2011 Decanter awarded an international trophy to Ningxia winery He Lan Qing Xue - the Red Middle East, Far East & Asia over £10 Trophy for a 2009 Bordeaux blend called Jia Bei Lan.
Ningxia has 25,000 hectares under vines and is home to more than 50 wineries, between the Helan mountain range and the Yellow River. That geography offers both shelter from the wind and good irrigation.
The competition is part of an ambitious plan to boost the area's profile. Building on a history of hosting wine conferences and expos, the region also hopes to become a centre for wine tourism.
This year's challenge is the second co-organised by Ningxia's Grape Industry Development Bureau and the International Federation of Vine and Wine of Helan Mountain's East Foothill.
The first was launched in 2012 and was judged in 2014, with Australian winemaker David Tyney winning. That contest saw winemakers from Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain and the US compete for 190,000 yuan (HK$240,000).
Robinson said at the time: "Both in the awards and at several wineries it was clear that Ningxia's raw material [assuming that is what we were tasting] is impressively consistent."
The second contest is upping the ante with a prize pot of 840,000 yuan. There are places for 60 competitors, 50 of which have already been taken by winemakers from 20 countries. The top 10 per cent of the wines in the contest - six wines - each get 100,000 yuan and a gold medal, while the next 20 per cent - 12 wines - each get 20,000 yuan and silver.
"The winemakers will each have three acres [1.21 hectares] of vineyard to source fruit and will make several thousand bottles of wine. It will be in barrel so staff at the wineries will be able to hand general management and the winemakers can come back several times, fully funded, to check the wine," says Boyce.
The winemakers will live in the region for several weeks, selecting grapes, overseeing fermentation and hopefully learning more about the region, with the organisers funding living expenses.