Ningxia's Wineries Brew up Vintage Success

ByZhao Yimeng and Hu Dongmei July 28, 2020
Ningxia's Wineries Brew up Vintage Success
Liu Li and her husband ride home after work last month. [For China Daily/Chen Zebing]

 

The Region's Winemakers Are Creating Jobs and Raising Living Standards. 

On a summer afternoon in a winery in Yinchuan, capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Liu Li explained the winemaking process to visitors.

"Among all fruits, only the sugar in grapes can be made into good wine. Quality is what we pursue. By scanning the QR code on each bottle, you can see its history-from when and where the grapes were picked to how the wine was aged in an oak barrel," she said.

As director of a plant at the Chateau Lilan winery, the 38-year-old is familiar with every step in the process of making a bottle of red wine and the sophisticated machinery involved.

"We women hadn't seen this equipment before working here, nor did we dare operate it. However, we were encouraged to learn skills in the winery, despite our limited knowledge and abilities," she said.

Before 2013, when she moved to Yinchuan's Minning Township, where the winery is located, Liu was an unemployed mother of two in Guyuan, an impoverished city in the south of the region.

She farmed a small piece of land at home while her husband was a migrant worker at an urban construction site, bringing in just enough money to make ends meet. "We lived just above starvation level," Liu said.

The family was relocated to the capital in the north of Ningxia as the regional government worked to lift villagers out of poverty. In her seven-year journey from field laborer to plant director, Liu has seen her monthly salary double to 5,000 yuan ($712) and she has learned many new skills.

Despite her success, Liu doesn't regard herself as a professional vintner because she has gained all her knowledge and techniques from training sessions and practice at work.

"The winery provided women like me with job opportunities, and we got to earn money and learn new skills," she said.

Her husband now oversees a 60-hectare vineyard, where he prunes, fertilizes and assesses the growth of the grapes. As they work in the same business, the couple can encourage and support each other.

"We not only turned the tide financially, but also changed mentally. My husband is an expert viticulturist and I know all about winemaking, so we have both made progress by learning from each other," Liu said. She added that their steady jobs enabled them to buy a car in 2016 and they sometimes take their children on trips.

"We have benefited a lot from the relocation policy and the winery, so I hope my children will become teachers or doctors in the future as a way of saying 'thank you' to society," she said.

Hai Fugui moved to Yongning county, Yinchuan, eight years ago.

In 2016, his attention was attracted by a tractor that was passing his house. As a motoring enthusiast, the 38-year-old wondered what the tractor was doing there, so he spoke with the driver who told him that jobs were available in the vineyard at Chateau Lilan.

After a week's training, Hai became a winery employee, driving a tractor to weed the fields and inspect the vines to ensure they remained free of pests.

Earning an average monthly salary of 5,500 yuan, Hai's income is double that in his previous job as a foreman at a raspberry canning plant.

"I love my work. I never feel tired, just a little hot sometimes under the burning sun," he said. He bought his dream car in 2017 and sometimes takes his family of seven on trips to nearby scenic spots.

Ningxia's Wineries Brew up Vintage Success
Liu (R) Inspects cakes of wine in a cellar. [For China Daily/Chen Zebing]

 

'Golden Strip'

The winery Liu and Hai work for is located in the eastern foothills of the Helan Mountains. Situated on the 38th parallel, the narrow corridor between the mountains and the Yellow River is one of the world's so-called golden strips for wine grape cultivation.

The mountains block the extreme cold from the north and also hold back sandstorms from the Gobi Desert in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Meanwhile, the Yellow River irrigates the arid land, which receives just 200 millimeters of precipitation a year.

The long, sunny days in the region ensure the buildup of sugar in the grapes, while the wide fluctuation in temperature between day and night helps to control the level of acidity. The mineral-rich, aerated soil aids steady grape yields.

Working from the philosophy that "great wine starts in the vineyard", the vintners have used the geographical advantages to earn acclaim in the burgeoning industry and provide jobs that help local people shake off poverty.

Nearly 100 wineries have been built in the region, according to the local wine bureau.

Ningxia's Wineries Brew up Vintage Success
Field worker Wang Caixia picks grapes in a vineyard. [For China Daily/Chen Zebing]

 

Wine grower Wang Caixia has worked in the Chateau Zhihui Yuanshi vineyard for more than 10 years.

The 55-year-old never expected to see President Xi Jinping standing in the local fields, but last month, during an inspection tour of Ningxia, Xi visited the vineyard and said the wine industry has great prospects, especially as the living standards of Chinese people continue to rise.

"I was too excited to speak when I saw the president. He was standing in the field, chatting with a dozen vine growers," Wang said.

She earns 2,000 yuan a month doing work such as using a seed drill and picking grapes with other workers in the 66.7-hectare vineyard. "I don't want to leave the vineyard. Staying at home doing nothing is not satisfying. I'm really happy working here," she said.

Though she grows some of the best grapes in China, Wang said she is unable to comment on the taste of the wine. "I can't tell if it's good or not, but I know our grapes are great and tourists like our wine," she said.

For Wang, the winemaking process is a mystery, but taking care of the grapes, the most important raw material, has given her an interesting and moderately prosperous life.

Ningxia's Wineries Brew up Vintage Success
Tourists enjoy a tasting session at a winery in Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, last month. [For China Daily/Chen Zebing]

 

Boutique Operations

In recent years, the local government has encouraged the establishment of boutique wineries with premium vineyards to counter the region's reputation for poor-quality wine, made on an industrial scale-a charge many owners hotly refute.

The timing for fine wine is ripe, as hundreds of family-owned boutique wineries are building their own brands and producing quality vintages with a wide range of tastes for the potentially huge markets at home and overseas.

In boutique operations, the owner or main vintner is involved in every step of the winemaking process, from planting to selling, and may even sample the product and discuss the taste with visitors to ensure a high-quality product.

"A glass of red wine is informative: From the color, we can see if the grapes were bathed in plentiful sunshine or precipitation and we can even smell the age of the vine," Shao Qingsong, CEO of Chateau Lilan, said.

"The best way to boost our competitiveness is to 'light up' every brand. We shine like dotted stars in the sky as separate wineries and sparkle like fire as a unified force in the Chinese wine industry."

Some owners believe that the wines produced in the region will gradually equal those from traditional heartlands, such as Bordeaux in France and the Napa Valley in the United States.

Since 2011, Ningxia has been leading the Chinese charge and winning medals at the Decanter World Wine Awards, the world's largest annual wine competition.

Last year, 60 Ningxia wines won bronze medals and higher, including six golds, according to DecanterChina.com.

In 2013, Ningxia became the first Chinese region to introduce a winery classification system, which ranks producers on five levels. By updating the rules and rankings every two years, the system-modeled on the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, the world's leading method of grading wine-evaluates the level of Ningxia's vineyards to boost production of high-quality wine.

The region has also established China's first wine bureau-the Administrative Committee of the Grape Industry Zone of the Helan Mountain Eastern Foothills-to manage the sector's development.

The committee formulates policies and technical standards to regulate processes, from importation of seedlings and the management of vineyards and winery establishments to winemaking and marketing.

The Ningxia Agriculture and Rural Department and the regional finance department plan to provide 30 million yuan to subsidize local wineries and help them overcome difficulties caused by the COVID-19 epidemic.

Last month, the central government approved funding of 26.45 million yuan to support a research program that aims to make breakthroughs in winemaking techniques in the Helan Mountain foothills.

Professionals from the nine participating institutions and universities, including the Institute of Botany at the China Academy of Sciences, will provide environmental monitoring and study various technologies to help protect the vines from the winter cold.

Those technologies are expected to reduce the cost of grape cultivation by 20 to 25 percent and boost the overall earnings of the region's wineries by 25 to 30 percent, according to Xinhua News Agency.

Ningxia's Wineries Brew up Vintage Success
Liu pours water from a wine bottle as practice while a colleague is observing. [For China Daily/Chen Zebing]

 

Exports Rise

The provincial wine bureau said Ningxia had 211 wineries with 38,000 hectares of vineyards and annual output of 130 million bottles by the end of last year.

The output value of the regional wine industry reached 26 billion yuan last year, and Ningxia's wine has been exported to over 20 countries and regions, including Germany, the United States, Belgium and Australia.

The industry provides 120,000 jobs every year, and it accounted for 28 percent of the 900 million yuan earned by local farmers last year, the administrative committee said.

The 22 wineries in the region that are open to visitors receive over 600,000 visitors every year, so some of the jobs are related to tourism.

Chateau Zhihui Yuanshi, which helped to develop wine tourism, received 150,000 visitors last year, according to owner Yuan Hui. Last month, after the COVID-19 pandemic had been brought under control in Ningxia, groups of visitors from Yinchuan arrived on a sunny afternoon for tours and tastings at the picturesque winery, which was built on the ruins of a quarry and is decorated with various stones and types of wood.

After touring the facility and tasting different wines, the visitors were invited to purchase a few bottles. Xue Fei and her colleagues from Yinchuan visited as part of a team-building exercise. It was Xue's second visit to Zhihui Yuanshi and the second time she had bought wine there.

"This vintage tastes a little sweet and is fragrant, so I think it is suitable for women," she said, carefully pondering the sample. The 40-year-old real estate worker and wine buff said she and her colleagues were keen to buy some of the winery's produce.

Ningxia's Wineries Brew up Vintage Success
Liu and her family prepare vegetables for dinner. [For China Daily/Chen Zebing]

 

Transition

Cai Donghong was busy billing customers at the front desk in the winery's hall. She used to work in the fields, but was transferred to work as a cashier. "Gaining more knowledge has been the biggest benefit," she said, referring to the change.

An immigrant from a poor area in the south of the region, Cai has learned communication skills and winemaking techniques during her time at the winery, which is close to her new home. "I can take care of my children while still working and earning," the 34-year-old said.

Ma Yongming, an official with the administrative committee, said that by 2022 the region expects to reach annual output of 500 million bottles and provide jobs for 150,000 people.

He estimated that Ningxia will receive at least 1 million tourists a year by then, which will help build it into a wine tourism hub capable of going toe-to-toe with the world's top producers.

 

(Source: China Daily)

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