A recent invitation to a tasting of Chinese wines from Ningxia by a friend who had just returned was too good an opportunity to miss. A small select group of interested palates collected on a blustery Monday night for the tasting. Expectations were varied but curiosity had certainly been piqued.
The presentation was excellent and the wines certainly looked the part with some very smart packaging. However, though showing promise, the wines did not quite live up to their labels, or their price tags. There is still plenty of experimentation and exploration going on as producers strive to learn more about which vines are best suited to their soils and their extreme climate. As with many relatively young markets, the most suitable varieties are not always the same as the varieties and wine styles popular with the consumers which can prove to be a difficult line to walk for the producers who need a strong domestic market but want to focus on quality.
Kanaan Winery Riesling 2013
Though perfectly drinkable, the wine lacked the precision or persistence I would look for from the Riesling grape. There was little in the way of aromatics with a neutral nose and palate, though on the plus side it did have a fresh acidity and some textual weight. The little fruit character there was showed oxidative notes leaving a bitter tang to the finish.
Jia Bei Lan Unwooded Chardonnay 2014
This was certainly the most appealing of the whites we tasted with ripe melon and apple, a creamy mid palate and good concentration of fruit. It was certainly not a complex wine but it was well proportioned, fresh and perfectly drinkable. Jia Bei Lan is starting to move away from plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon which they feel it doesn’t suit the climate, towards Chardonnay, Tempranillo and Syrah.
Li Lan Winery Lancui Pinot Noir 2013
An attractive nose of perfumed cherry is sadly dominated by lots of sweet oak. The core of the wine has ripe soft red fruits but these flavours were again lost amid aggressively spicy oak and a warm finish. There is certainly potential with the fruit quality here, but they need to pull back from the heavy handed oak use and let the fruit sing.
Li Lan Winery Lancui Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
This told a similar story to the Pinot; attractive, fresh, supple cassis fruit dominated by excessive spicy oak. There was a lack of integration in the wine with both warmth and sharpness clashing on the finish. The potential is there, just some more experimentation is needed with both the viticulture and the winemaking to achieve more balance. This is of course a long process as only one variable can be changed at a time to assess the impact on quality.
A soft, broad nose with very chocolatey oak, the body was surprisingly light and soft with some sappy red and black fruit and a herbaceous note but the oak char dominated the finish leaving a sense of bitterness.
Jia Bei Lan Grand Reserve 2009
An intense wine with dark fruit, earthy richness and firm, dry tannins. The acidity is fresh and there is a combination of dried over ripe, and bright crunchy fruit on the palate and again, plenty of oak hitting the finish.
It was a fascinating snap shot of just one production region in the vast wine landscape of China. It is a region that poses many climatic challenges with hot dry summers and extreme cold in the winter which can kill the vines. Though the wines are not quite hitting the high quality mark yet, there is plenty to be excited about. As investment in viticulture and winemaking continues and more importantly they take the time to experiment, we can expect to see a significant improvement from the East.