My 2020 Wine Discoveries: Edward Ragg

What counts for a wine “discovery” in China? Given the relative novelty of Chinese wine production, at least from vitis vinifera, even choosing to plant a new grape variety—beyond the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon—is comparatively radical. This is especially true in a country that initially modelled its fine-wine aspirations on a Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé model. 

While Changyu winery, first established in Shandong’s Yantai, can trace its origins to the early 1890s—when Qing official Zhang Bishi was credited with introducing numerous vinifera varieties to China—the ravages of 20th century history and the redevelopment of viticulture as recently as the 1980s has ensured that China is itself on a significant path of discovery. Everything is so new. 

Yes, Cabernet blends from Helan Shan and Marselan from Huailai have distinctive features that enable talk of typicity of variety and origin. But it could be argued that in the absence of a traditional wine-drinking culture and without long-established regions of production, China has not yet been able to make points of difference a virtue. What’s new if everything is new? That depends on how you define novelty; and, admittedly, not every discovery needs to meet that test.

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Xige Estate is a new winery (the first vintage was 2017) that has progressed very rapidly along the quality scale.

However, if there is one thing modern China has shown, especially with regard to technology, is its ability to leap-frog. And while fairy-tale, look-a-like French châteaux can still be found in some Chinese wine regions, 2020 has shown how committed the more adventurous producers are to experimentation. The leap-frogging effect can be seen in wineries that have gone from making heavily oaked, overly extracted reds to natural wines from “funky” varieties. I’m not implying “natural wine” is necessarily the mecca of innovation, but it’s a big leap for China. 

Having spent much of 2020 outside the country looking after family in the UK, only returning to China in late September, I was especially keen, on completing quarantine, to get out to as many regions as I could: making trips to Shandong’s Penglai, Hebei’s Huailai and Ningxia’s Helan Shan. However, the below discoveries are arranged generally by style and variety rather than region, as, for this reviewer at least, some of the most exciting wines produced in China today are through stylistic and varietal innovation rather than through exploring regionality.

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Sunset over Ninxia Helan Mountain range at Silver Heights winery

This is one of China’s best white wines and shows the potential of Caucasian varieties in Xinjiang, only really a stone’s throw viticulturally from neighboring Georgia. Puchang Vineyard’s Saperavis—both the standard bottling and Reserve—are also among the better wines from this source. But this lovely Rkatsiteli is not only varietally true but also has the capacity to improve in bottle. 

I’ve put these pink wines together because of the relative rarity of rosé as a category in China and because, stylistically, they are so different. Lenz Moser has created the above Changyu Moser Blanc de Noir, made exclusively from Cabernet Sauvignon, principally for the European ontrade. It’s relatively pale, trading on Provence Rosé, but has some of the herbaceous character and bright acid of the variety and is also unusual for its exposure to new oak. 

The Chateau Nine Peaks Pinkker Rose, by contrast, is a more moderate pink in appearance and a fruitier, generous example, made from 70% Cabernet Franc and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s charming, and the herbaceous character is, likewise, well-managed. I hope other wineries will be brave enough to produce modern pink wines like these because, once you persuade Chinese wine drinkers to taste them, they are usually thoroughly enjoyed. 

The importance of Grace Vineyard in leading the way in modern wine production in Shanxi is well-documented. I’ve included their Reserve Aglianico here not only because it’s an attractive example of a less common variety for China but also because it illustrates how this particular winery was among the first to move away from the Bordelais model on which its initial wines were largely based. Another of my discoveries this year was Grace’s Interval blend produced in Ningxia. China has not been very enterprising when it comes to “red blends.” So, this 75% Syrah and 25% Cabernet is something of a find, especially given the quality (at 93 points this was also one of the higher-performing wines in my first China report). 

Canaan winery—based in Hebei’s Huailai—was similarly one of the higher-scoring producers covered. Among its encouraging and often impressive Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet wines, this Tempranillo stood out as a lovely example of the variety: almost like a pumped-up Ribera del Duero and with obvious aging potential from the strong 2014 vintage in Huailai. One to watch.

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View of the Tianshan mountain range behind the vineyards at Tiansai Skyline of Gobi

A further “alternative variety discovery” came with Chateau Nine Peaks, whose highest-scoring wines were the Qi Chardonnays. Winemaker Denise Cosentino—now with Lafite’s Long Dai—spoke to me of the faith Nine Peaks is putting in Petit Verdot in this coastal part of Shandong. I was certainly impressed by the varietal character shown in this wine with its dark mulberry fruit, touch of floral character and the coating tannins typical of Petit Verdot. 

In a similar vein to Grace’s Interval blend, the Nine Peaks’ Heaven Earth Mankind Qi Red is, in the 2018 vintage, one of the more exciting red blends to have emerged: this wine being 57.1% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28.6% Petit Verdot and 14.3% Alibernet (Alibernet being the Alicante Bouschet x Cabernet Sauvignon crossing Nine Peaks is also bringing to attention).

This wine is arguably less of a “discovery” given the prominence of Marselan now in China, but the sheer quality of Tiansai’s 2016 Grand Reserve and especially its capacity for aging shows what can be achieved with this variety, even as a single-varietal wine. I confess I’m a bit skeptical as to the merits of Marselan other than as a blending component. I hope to be proved mistaken. 

2017 Xige Estate Xige (First Label), Eastern Helan 
Xige deserves mention here as a different kind of discovery in terms of an estate that has progressed very rapidly along the quality scale. Xige’s first vintage was only in 2017, partly sharing winemaking facilities, at least for its whites, with Pernod Ricard’s Helan Mountain winery as the rest of Xige’s large winemaking operation was being completed. Cabernet Gernischt—a.k.a. Carmenere—has had a checkered history in China, often delivering very green (essentially unripe) wines with rustic tannins and not much by way of fruit. But Xige’s 2017 Jade Dove Single Vineyard version is a lovely example.

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Xige Estate’s new state-of-the-art winery and facilities

I refer also to Xige’s first label estate wine, a blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Gernischt (Carmenere), here in its inaugural release, as another very encouraging example of impressive quality. This wine is assembled from the best plots of Xige’s older vines—20-year-old plants qualify as “old vine” material in Ningxia—but it may be that the rigor of selection trumps the nominal old-vine element. Xige also has some lovely Malbec in the works. I hope they will bottle that as a single-varietal wine!

2017 XiaoLing, Cizhong, Yunnan
I began this post by implying that it is early days to discuss terroir in relation to China’s wine regions. My final “discovery” comprises the wines of XiaoLing, produced high up in the mountains of Yunnan (a region pushed increasingly into the limelight by LVMH’s Ao Yun). Like Xige, this is a very new producer, the estate only being formed in 2014. But with Bertrand Cristau’s management starting with the 2017 vintage, three distinctive wines have been produced, of which this is the top blend: the 2017 XiaoLing estate wine being accompanied by the 2017 Nuages de XiaoLing and 2017 Sentiers de XiaoLing. 

Obviously, it remains to be seen what these wines will convey in future vintages and the extent to which they may reflect their various vineyard sources. But with Sylvain Pitiot’s involvement (Pitiot ran Clos de Tart in its Mommesin years) and given Cristau’s own Burgundian background, it’s unsurprising the search for China’s terroirs, at least at XiaoLing, is already underway.

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