YINCHUAN, China — While Chinese wine connoisseurs spend lavishly at auctions for rare and esteemed foreign wines, inside China there are many working to improve the international reputation of the domestic wine industry. The desert-like region of Ningxia enjoys the best conditions in China for growing wine grapes, according to the local government.
This area around the Helan Mountains is a key part of Ningxia's government’s five-year plan to make this an official wine-growing region.
The area is home to a host of wineries, such as Jiabeilan and Domaine Helan Mountain. One of the smaller wineries is Silver Heights
, which was started in 2007.
Winemaker Emma Gao grew up in the area, but is one of the few Chinese to hold a French national certification for winemaking.
"When I was growing up in the 1980s, the wine we drank was sweet, which is how we thought all wine was. We would even add some other beverages to it, so that it would be more palatable. If it was like a proper red wine, very tannic, we would not like it very much," said Gao.
Gao says times are changing, though, and more Chinese people are developing a taste for Western food and wine.
"There is already a huge potential market of 1.3 billion customers. Even if just one percent of the population drinks a glass of wine a day, the result you get from this is pretty clear," she said.
Wines from Ningxia, including one from Silver Heights, caused a small stir last December when they beat similarly-priced wines from Bordeaux in an informal blind-taste test in Beijing. One of the contest's organizers, Jim Boyce, runs a Chinese wine blog called grapewallofchina.com
"The reality was five French and five Chinese professionals picked Ningxia, the top four wines of the 10 were from Ningxia. Does that mean Ningxia is better than Bordeaux? No, of course not," he said. "The best Bordeaux wine is still better - but it does mean there is a capability here to make wine that can compete at a certain level."
Silver Heights is largely the realization of a dream - cherished by 70-year-old wine lover Gao Lin, who funded his daughter's wine education in France.
"I told her if you study wine-making, the goal is very clear - we can have some fields here and we can cultivate grapes," she said. "Afterwards, you can come back and work here. So, I can give you money to pay for your education. If you study other subjects, then I will not provide any financial assistance. You will have to support yourself."
Emma Gao acknowledges her father's strong influence in her choice of careers, but says she also had an epiphany moment - when she began to love wine too.
"I was tasting 13 or 14 different kinds of chardonnay," she said. "It was all excellent and I tasted a blooming spring flower, different kinds of fruits, a nutty taste, all of these tastes were delightful. Afterwards, I did a lot of other tastings, in places like Burgundy, the Loire Valley - every area has its unique wines and tastes."
Gao says Ningxia wines also have distinctive characteristics. Her winery produces only red wines, which judges have described as spicy, and reminiscent of roses, tomatoes and black fruits.