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Is the Xige Estate China’s Penfolds?

The success of Australian wine in China has created a generation of Chinese winemakers who are looking south to rejuvenate their own wine dreams in China’s Ningxia region, including newly minted winery, Xige Estate.

Zhang Yanzhi, owner of Xige Estate, a newly minted Chinese winery in Ningxia

The RMB 300 million (US$44.5 million) winery nestled against the rolling Helan mountains has already been hailed by the local government as “the most modern winery in China” upon its completion in 2017, boasting a sleek design, Chinese motifs and state of the art winemaking facilities.

It was one of the three wineries that Ningxia government cherry-picked to present to a Hong Kong delegation last week. The other two are GreatWall’s Terroir Winery and Chandon China, Moet Hennessy’s Chinese sparkling wine operation.

Compared with volume-driven GreatWall’s operation in Ningxia and foreign funded Chandon China, Xige Estate perhaps is the most fitting or most ambitious among the trio to symbolise China’s greatest wine dream.

Its founder Zhang Yanzhi, a bespectacled and well-versed winemaker and merchant in his own words “has never parted ways with wine since he was in his early 20s”.

A trained viticulturist in China and France, Zhang later founded Beijing-based Easy Cellar which parachuted to fame after it created what now Chinese wine trade calls “Penfolds miracle”. The company sold RMB 20 million worth of Penfolds Max series in 2016 within 15 days after the wine was unveiled in China. The same year, the company’s wine sales reached RMB 100 million, before doubling to RMB 210 million the following year.

Asked about his venture in Ningxia, Zhang replied: “I am a winemaker and I thought I can’t just be selling wines. I want to make a wine that can represent China so since 2012 I have been visiting different wine regions in China searching for land and eventually picked Ningxia.”

The choice was not by accident. Ningxia, a land-locked region in northwestern China on the edge of Gobi desert, in recent years has been tapped as the premier wine growing region in China, with favourably long daylight hours for grape growing and ripening, aided with its dry climate that has helped stamp out threats of major diseases. Its annual rainfall stands at 200 millimetres compared with Bordeaux’s 800-1000 millimetres, making it possible for a growing number of wineries to practice organic winemaking and in a few cases, biodynamic and natural winemaking.

It’s now home to 87 wineries and responsible for 25% of China’s annual wine production, and Zhang’s winery is by far the biggest entrant into Ningxia’s nascent wine scene.

Xige Estate is designed to mimick China’s ancient moat (护城河). In addition to winery, it has 22 guest rooms and a restaurant that can accommodate more than 100 diners.

The winery imported state of the art winemaking facilities from Germany and France, and also employs a winemaking team of 70 people led by the young and dynamic Chinese winemaker Liao Zusong, who honed his skills in Australia with wineries such as Pinot expert Bass Phillip and Shiraz specialist Molly Dooker.

With all the hefty investments, the idea was simple: “creating the best Chinese wine, not just for quality but also volume,” Zhang stated, adding the winery’s production volume is designed for 13 million bottles a year with three tiers of wines ranging from RMB 100 to RMB 600 a bottle.

About 20% of its production will be exported, Zhang revealed with the majority sold in China.

Given his volume and experience with Penfolds, it’s hard to resist the comparison with the Australian flagship wine. But when asked by dbHK if his winery aims to become China’s Penfolds, he’s quick to state, “better than Penfolds”, throwing a jab at the Australian brand saying it’s becoming “too commercial.”

Conscious that making a good quality wine from China is no small task, Zhang spoke frankly that the biggest misconception international consumers have towards Chinese wine industry is that Chinese wines are undrinkable and good ones are too expensive.

Part of the problem, as he observed, is that a few historic and dominant Chinese wineries have become complacent and lost drive for innovations.

“Our goal is to challenge this misconception,” he explained. “China’s wine industry is mostly led by local governments such as Yantai [in eastern Shandong, home to China’s oldest winery Changyu Pioneer Wine Company]. This combined with the vast size of the Chinese wine market has led some historic companies to be complacent without a sense of urgency. For export-driven countries like Australia and Chile, they have a sense of crisis and are quick to get on the track of internationalisation.

“We have been dealing with imported wine business for many years, and noticed that consumers are getting more educated. I think it’s time for boutique and quality conscious wineries to start over again,” he argued.

This also echoes a growing sentiment among the Chinese trade that well-crafted Chinese wines will come to be more widely embraced by maturing Chinese drinkers, something that’s being talked about in the same breath as national pride and identity.

Aside from the usual Bordeaux varieties planted in the vineyards, the winery also planted Cabernet Gernischt, a variety despite being identified as Caménère has being held close to China’s heart. Additionally, it planted 7 ha of Pinot Noir, a plot reserved for a retired viticulture professor from Burgundy to experiment and create – if he succeeds one day – a “grand cru Burgundian Pinot in China”.

Currently Xige’s wine range consists of ‘Helan Red N.28’, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, ‘Helan Red N. 50’, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Gernischt, and the Jade Pigeon collection.

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