48 Winemakers, 18 Nations | Unprecedented Wine Contest Underway in China

ningxia winemakes challenge II (3)

By Jim Boyce

An unprecedented viticultural–and cultural–experiment is underway in the Ningxia region of China where 48 winemakers from 18 nations are practicing their craft as part of a contest with over USD110,000 in cash prizes. (See list of candidates below.)

The Ningxia Winemakers Challenge is a two-year project organized by the region’s wine federation with support from the grape industry development bureau. Each of the 48 winemakers has been teamed with a local winery and assigned a three-hectare plot of grapes to make wine.

With nationalities spanning Argentine to Australian, Italian to Indian and South African to Swedish, the winemakers trickled into the region over several weeks until everyone was on hand on September 20. That day, each winemaker was partnered with a winery via a lottery system, followed by a second draw to decide which plot each team would use from a collective vineyard. (See photos below.)

The next morning, the teams made their first vineyard visit, with many picking grapes for lab analysis–they were generally positive about the fruit, which was far superior to that used in a smaller 2012 contest with seven foreign winemakers. In the ensuing 24 hours, the winemakers left the hotel where they had stayed and headed to accommodations provided by their partner wineries.

It quickly became evident their experiences would vastly vary. Some wineries are near the capital of Yinchuan, others are over 100 kilometers away. Some have all needed equipment, others require sourcing and creativity. In terms of accommodations, the range is from spartan to the Kempinski.

There have also been hiccups when it comes to communication, with some language gaps, to scheduling, with some frustration over itineraries, and, literally, to entertainment, with some winemakers getting a great deal experience with the tradition of ganbei, that is, draining one’s glass of alcohol in one go. None of this is surprising given the uniqueness and scale of this event.

In any case, most winemakers will stay for about 20 days, with additional visits to come over the next two years before the wines are judged in the fall of 2017. At that time, wines scoring in the top 10 percent will be awarded rmb100,000 each while the next 20 percent get rmb20,000 each. Winemakers are also entitled to 2,000 bottles of their wine.

Suffice it to say, the world of wine has never seen a contest quite like this and it symbolizes the spirit of a region growing by leaps and bounds. Virtually unknown even five years ago, Ningxia has emerged as one of the planet’s most intriguing places, with some of its wines winning praise from critics like Jancis Robinson, Michel Bettane, Thierry Dessauve and Jeremy Oliver and recognition from contests like the Decanter World Wine Awards and Concours Mondial de Bruxelles.

Wine grape vineyard coverage has grown more than ten fold in Ningxia since 2003, to nearly 40,000 hectares, and the number of approved operations now stands at 72 wineries, according to government officials, with more growth planned. The region has also reached out to the world by joining the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV), by sending fact-finding delegations to wine regions in Argentina, Australia, France and New Zealand, and by organizing events like harvest festivals, trade fairs and the Ningxia Winemakers Challenges.

I’ll be posting lots more about this event in the coming weeks.

Disclaimer: I have consulted on this project since May and also on the contest launched in 2012.

ningxia winemakers challenge blog photos
The ceremony for pairing wineries and winemakers.
Ningxia Winemakers Challenge 2015 Map at the Competition Vineyard
Teams check the location of their plots in the collective vineyard.
Ningxia Winemakers Challenge 2015 Checking Grapes at the Competition Vineyard
Checking fruit quality and collecting grapes for lab analysis.
group photos nwc 2015
Ningxia Winemakers Challenge candidates visit Changyu Moser XV.
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And taste wine at Yuanshi, a stunning operation that makes excellent use of local stones and wood.
NWC candidates appear on China’s national network CCTV.
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Many winemakers brought wine with them and had a tasting session during the first week.
nwc mid-autumn festival wine tasting in ningxia.jpg
A tasting of 30-plus Ningxia wines was organized last Sunday during the mid-Autumn festival.

The 48 NWC Candidates

Pablo Laborde, Argentina

Mariana Páez, Argentina

Juan Pina, Argentina

Cesar Gastón Sepúlveda, Argentina

Mike Gadd, Australia

Paul Gobell, Australia

Tony Kallaske, Australia

Mathew Kirby, Australia

Joanna Marsh, Australia

Stephen McEwen, Australia

Kelly Pearson, Australia

Chris Sargeant, Australia

Mathias Regner, Austria

Alexander Velianov, Bulgaria

Jose Hernández, Chile

Jacqueline Lizama, Chile

Maria Tapia, Chile

Pierre Viala, France

Priyanka Kulkarni, India

Parikshit Teldhune, India

Denise Cosentino, Italy

Alessio Fortunato, Italy

Gianpaolo Paglia, Italy

Mauricio Ruiz Cantu, Mexico

Leonardo Ricardez, Mexico

Vadim Burunsus, Moldova

Peter Bristow, New Zealand

Jennifer Bound, New Zealand

Glenn James, New Zealand / Australia

Peter Mackey, New Zealand

Andrew Powley, New Zealand

Steve Simpson, New Zealand

Spring Timlin, New Zealand

Joel Santos, Portugal

Justin Corrans, South Africa

Alwyn Liebenberg, South Africa

Carsten Migliarina, South Africa

Elena Alejos, Spain

Ana Pecero, Spain

Ruben Rodriguez, Spain/Australia

Slavina Stefanova, Sweden

Stuart Rusted, UK

Matthew van der Spuy, UK

Sarah Williams, UK

Nova Cadamatre, United States

Chris Chang, United States

Brian Cheeseborough, United States

Brent Trela, United States

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