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This report was first published on www.Jancisrobinson.com

Pudao’s GM Marcus Ford has been tasting and judging Chinese wines since 1999, thoughts and impressions on a recent Beijing tasting of Ningxia's most recent vintages follow.

Unfortunately I don't yet know the identities of the wines we tasted: 47 wines produced by local producers in the morning and the international winemakers' wines in the afternoon. As for the international winemakers' wines, of the three whites, two were really lovely wines and clearly a step up from anything we had seen in the short flight of six whites made by local producers we had tasted in the morning. If most of the morning’s whites had been a bit thin and in some cases astringent (somewhat phenolic), the two best wines showed a much more rounded textural element with much better fruit concentration.

Apparently, David Tyney, who produced both the winning white and winning red, had done a very severe selection of the fruit and used only half of what was provided. Lesson learned?

The reds were also really consistent with much cleaner fruit flavors, a gentler handling of oak than the local wines, and all were well balanced and clearly well made. I think in general there was a much gentler touch to the winemaking in the international winemakers' wines - making the best of the fruit they had rather than pushing to make a formula or style.

From what the wine makers told us, it did seem a bit chaotic in terms of execution. The poor local winery workers were astonished at the different approaches each of them had, and horrified at the amount of time spent on the sorting table. Apparently, they had little support in terms of translators. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall!

It would be fascinating to hear more from them about their experiences, something that time sadly did not allow. [I am doing my best to persuade a competitor or two to file a report- JR]

As for the 47 wines tasted blind from Ningxia wineries during the morning, the one sparkling wine was lovely with some autolytic notes and lovely creamy mouth feel. This was proper fizz well-done [and presumably from Chandon's new winery described glowingly on our Members'forum by Fongyee Walker recently.

[The picture below was taken on Marcus tasting Ningxia wines in 2012 - JR]

The six whites were all over the place really. The fruit was very much in the canned pineapple spectrum on the nose, with pear drops being a common descriptor for me. There were some really thin wines with odd aromatics and some strange bitter phenolic notes too.

We tasted five flights of reds and I'm not quite sure exactly how they were organized but my overall impressions were as follows.

I have now participated in six major blind tastings of Chinese wines with a focus on Ningxia and it does seem that lessons from the past are being learnt thanks to input from the likes of Jancis and other international writers and winemakers [see most recently 53 Chinese wines tasted blind - JR]. In previous years there would have been a significant percentage of wines which I would hesitate to recommend, for being faulty either because of oxidation, or excessive reduction, or over-extraction, or weird oak and very green, or unripe fruit characters. The 'sweet and sour' impression that was once so prevalent seems now to be less so.

This year’s flights had far fewer of these characters. Yes, there were some very odd wines but only 20% of the wines we looked at fell below a commercially acceptable threshold in my book. In very general terms, there were far fewer excessively oaked and over-extracted wines(thanks, JR), very few oxidized examples and the wines in general were much cleaner and fresher than they used to be. There is still a certain greenness about the fruit but it seems brighter, with the freshness of Cabernet (or Cabernet Gernischt in some cases)rather than the rawness of capsicum. From what I understand, most of the wines we tasted were labeled Cabernet Sauvignon rather than Cab G but I honestly didn’t feel a very strong sense of traditional varietal character in many of the wines. Perhaps Ningxia has dropped its emphasis on Cab G as their signature. Now whether that is a marketing decision or a winemaking one, I am not 100% sure.(^-^)

My one major reservation about all these wines and tastings is not levelled at the obvious progress Ningxia is making in quality terms but relates to the distribution and marketing of these wines. With the honorable exceptions of Jiabeilan, Silver Heights, Helan Mountain, Grace and a few others, almost none of the wines we have tasted in these panel events has any kind of commercial distribution. There is no clarity on what the wines cost to the consumer. I worry that all these tastings and all the accolades are merely an exercise in marketing the wines into the luxury category. Ningxiais also talking about an official classification (à la 1855) for the wineries, which again concerns me [sounds barmy and a century or so premature to me - JR]. The Chinese are diligent mimics of what goes on elsewhere in the world and sadly that may also include a pricing strategy or policy that reflects current Bordeaux positioning. If Ningxia is to be relevant to the Chinese consumer and the world at large as a serious wine region, then they must make these wines relevant to a broader public. The vast majority of these wines never reach a supermarket, wine shop shelf or a wine list in a restaurant or hotel. Until that happens I remain sceptical of the whole process.