Pinot Noir Day! China riffs on Burgundy’s favorite grape

Happy Pinot Noir Day! People like to compare China’s wine region of Ningxia with Bordeaux or Napa Valley, or even with Mendoza, but this Cabernet-dominated region also makes intriguing wine with Burgundy’s grape of choice, Pinot Noir. Given this series of Instagram posts about local Pinot, I thought I’d compile them here and note brands from a few other local regions. All while enjoying a few glasses for Pinot Noir Day–held August 18–including the sibling of my first million-point wine.


LANSAI

Lansai is a tribute to Chinese culture both inside and out, from the classical garden out back to the “kang” beds for the guest rooms. And Pinot Noir is among the grapes to find a home in the 200 mu / 13 hectares of vineyards that feature a mix of gravel and sand.

Perhaps tasty Pinot Noir shouldn’t be surprising here as the chief wine consultant, Deng Zhongxiang, graduated from University of Burgundy with a diploma in winemaking and has spent time at Domaine des Lambrays and Domaine de Vincent Girardin.

Lansai’s Pinot Noir uses fruit from 17-year-old vines and offers pleasant red berry, floral and vanilla aromas. Delectable with a nice touch of oak. This one stood out this year whether I was tasting it in Ningxia with Deng, in Beijing at a press event featuring a lineup of the region’s wines or in Chengdu at the massive annual Tang Jiu Hui fair.


Here’s the non-Ningxia entry on the list: Shi Bai Pian from Canaan winery in Huailai, just outside Beijing. This photo was taken at a tasting at Canaan with a team visiting from one of China’s top wineries. While taking notes on a range of Shi Bai Pian wines–the old sniff and spit method–we managed to drain two bottles of the Mastery Pinot Noir. We couldn’t find another bottle in the fridge or we would have made it three. In fact, I gave it one million points. Here’s the note:

Pinot Noir ‘Mastery’ 2017

“Wow wOw WoW, this wine teased and tamed our noses and taste buds with a steady flow of aromas and flavors during our two-hour tasting. I wrote down a dozen descriptions, led by fresh cherry, toasted nuts and vanilla. This one is fresh and elegant, with enduring berry intensity at the finish. It was the first bottle we finished — then we had another.

“As we are shifting from whites to reds, I’ve decided to also shift my scoring systems. Because the name of the game in China is higher, higher, higher.

“Score: 1.32 million. Yes, it’s true, this is China’s first million-point wine.”

Even better, these Pinot Noirs are reasonably priced when it comes to Chinese wines, and you can find them in a rising number of shops, wine bars and restaurants.


SILVER HEIGHTS

Silver Heights is a veteran by Ningxia standards, releasing its first wine nearly 15 years ago and expanding from a small operation within the city limits of regional capital Yinchuan to a far larger isolated operation near the Helan Mountain range. Like most Ningxia wineries, Silver Heights’ vineyards sees strong representation from Bordeaux blend grapes in the vineyards, but this operation also began producing a Pinot Noir called Jia Yuan about five years ago.

Given Silver Heights began moving toward a biodynamic focus at its new operation, the grapes are grown organically and the wine has a minimum of sulfur and no filtration. Expect a light-bodied and dry Pinot Noir aged in mostly new French oak, with plenty of red berry character—raspberries, strawberries and cherries—along with some licorice and spice.

Find Jia Yuan Pinot Noir in Hong Kong via Watson’s Wine or in Singapore via Bound by Wine.


MOUNTAIN WAVE

Mountain Wave ranks among the Ningxia wine brands making a splash by going beyond Cabernet–it counts Malbec, Marselan and Pinot Noir among its offerings. The operation got its start in 2014 and has 10 hectares of vineyards that translate to 30,000 bottles of wine annually. The team pursues organic practices in its vineyard, with the vine material imported from France.

Fruit for the 2019 Pinot Noir was harvested in late August. The tasting notes cite floral and fruit aromas – think violet and rose, cranberry and cherry – and a silky palate with supple tannins. Food pairing suggestions include roast duck and grilled salmon.

To get more info or to buy some wine, visit Mountain Wave’s WeChat page — 海悦仁和酒庄 / Haiyue Renhe Winery – on WeChat.



XIGE ESTATE

Xige Estate attracted much attention when it first opened: a sprawling modern picturesque winery that rose from the desert and raised hopes that, with a combination of high volume and high quality, it would boost Ningxia wine at a national level and, in turn, buoy smaller operations. It’s hard to believe construction on Xige only began in 2017—or that the team was in a position to harvest and make wine that very fall.

A major strength of Xige is access to about 15,000 mu or 1,000 hectares of vines of nearly quarter century-old vineyards, which is quite old by Ningxia standards, along with newer plantings. And that underpins a portfolio that includes a Pinot Noir called X, produced in small quantities but at a big price–CNY3000 or nearly US$450.

Chief winemaker Liao Zusong did bring some notable experience to the endeavor: he spent time at Australian Pinot Noir experts Bass Philip. And the judged result is a wine with cherry and violet character, and an elegant long finish. But good luck finding any: the wine is said to have been sold out for more than six months. The thirsty will either have to hunt down a bottle elsewhere or wait for the next vintage.


HELAN QING XUE

The history of Helan Qing Xue will most likely always be tied to Cabernet given, in 2011, it was the first Chinese winery to win an international trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards—in the category Red Bordeaux Varietal Over £10. But this winery also puts out tasty drops from other grapes, such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and is experimenting with the likes of Malbec and Marselan.

About that Pinot: it carries the name “Baby Feet”, a nod to the Cabernet-driven wine of the same name that helped propel winemaker Zhang Jing to prominence a decade ago. (The “baby feet” were those of her daughter, a print of which can be found on the oak barrel’s head.) This Pinot Noir is produced in very scare quantities and has earned much praise for its floral and red berry aromas and flavors, for its balance, suppleness and fruit purity, and for a smart finish with hints of earth and oak.


This, of course, is not a comprehensive list as there are many other operations across the country who are working with Pinot Noir, from Jade Valley winery in Shanxi to Lancui in NIngxia to sparkling wine producers like Chandon, as well as places as distant as Shandong and Gansu. And there are those who did nice drops in the past, from the team at Pernod Ricard’s Helan Mountain in Ningxia to Greek winemaker Mihalis Boutaris, who made nice Pinot Noirs at several sites in Gansu. Here’s hoping we see more of this grape in China.

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