Ningxia is a significant wine-producing region in the central-north of China. The wide, heavily irrigated valley between the Yellow River and the base of Helan Mountain has proved to be one of China's most promising vineyard areas. A range of wines are made here from grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Gernischt and Chardonnay and they vary in quality from insipid to excellent.
While Ningxia covers 25,000 square miles (66,000 sq km), most viticulture takes place in a 100-mile-long (160km) river valley in the very north of the region. Here, the Yellow River provides sufficient water for irrigation and the arid landscape has been transformed into arable land well suited to the production of wine.
A sub-region of Ningxia, Helan Mountain, is particularly well regarded and in 2003 became China's first official appellation, recognized by the Chinese General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine. A 2009 Helan Qing Xue Jia Bei Lan Cabernet blend made in Helan Mountain won a major trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards in 2010, although skeptics were quick to question the exact provenance of the wine, some suggesting that the grapes were not even from China.
Ningxia has a thoroughly continental climate, its eastern border lying some 600 miles (950km) from the nearest ocean. The summers are hot, although the high altitude of the vineyards (some more than 4000ft/1200m above sea level) helps to create a suitable climate for wine-growing. At this altitude, intense sunlight during the day is followed by much cooler nights. This diurnal temperature shift – which is exacerbated by the lack of moisture in the air – helps to slow ripening in the grapes, leading to a balance of phenols and acidity.
The short growing season in Ningxia is followed by a long, cold winter, and vines must be protected from freezing temperatures with an insulating mound of dirt piled around the base of the plant. While this is an expensive and time-consuming task, the abundance of labor in China means that it is much easier than in other parts of the world, adding a human element into the overall terroir of Ningxia.
The land at the base of Helan Mountain is part of the Yellow River floodplain, and the soils have been deposited over time by both the river and from material washed down from the mountains. These pebbly, sandy soils are free draining and have low fertility, which lessens both vigor and yield in the vine, leading to smaller, more-concentrated berries.
The terroir of Ningxia has not escaped international attention, and companies such as Pernod Ricard and Moet Hennessy have interests in the region, along with some of China's largest producers. However, the quality of Ningxia wines thus far has attracted some criticism, and commentators have been quick to point out that the slower-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon grape variety is perhaps not suited to the shorter growing season here. But Chardonnay and Riesling perform well, and some vignerons have expressed interest in experimenting with Syrah and the production of sparkling wine.