By Jim Boyce
Two years ago, I interviewed Zhang Jing, winemaker at Helan Qing Xue in Ningxia, just after she returned home from a three-month working holiday in Australia. She talked about lessons learned Down Under, the move toward fruitier wine in Ningxia, and more. See the interview here. I met Zhang again last week and we talked about another recent trip–this time she went to New Zealand–as well as the Ningxia wine scene. Some comments…
On her recent trip to New Zealand:
When people look at New Zealand, they often only think of Marlborough and Sauvignon Blanc. But New Zealand has many regions and the cool climates there produce very high-quality wines.
My favorite place was Central Otago, I liked how they approached the process — the fruit, the freshness, the way they bottle. I liked their focus on elegance and length. They were less New World and more Old World style.
I also went to Waiheke Island and visited Stonyridge, where I did barrel tasting. Stonyridge produces a Bordeaux blend and it’s fantastic. I compared it with [our brand] Jia Bei Lan and said, “Oh, this is very good!”
On changing attitudes in Ningxia:
A few years ago, we were worried about getting enough sugar, but now that’s easy. Our focus now is acidity and fruit maturity. In 2013, every winery probably got 14 or 15 degrees of sugar, because more wineries delayed harvest time and allowed the grapes to mature. But that meant sugar was higher and that can be a problem. We want to keep that balance of sugar, acidity and fruit maturity.
On developments at Helan Qing Xu:
We have to keep on improving. As the saying goes, good wine comes from good grapes, and two years ago we planted about 150 mu (10 hectares) of new vineyards, about a 10-minute drive from the winery. Those are planted with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. We also improved some of our equipment, including the tanks.
On comments by critics Michel Bettane and Thierry Dessauve that Ningxia’s sandy soil limits its ability to make great wines:
Stephen Spurrier, chair of the Decanter World Wine Awards, compared wines from Grace, Zhongfa, Silver Heights and Helan Qing Xue. He said the one word to describe [Helan Qing Xue wine] Jia Bei Lan was complexity.
You mentioned the idea that sandy soil can’t make good wine. The wine regions near Helan Mountain have different soil types, including gravel, where roots can go deep.
Also, the terroir of Ningxia will take a long time to understand. First, we need to make wine without defects, not just one winery, but the whole region, for 30 to 50 years, and we can slowly refine something from terroir and say this is a Ningxia wine.