Ningxia (picture: Silver Heights)
China Wine

Ningxia adds six more ‘second growth’ estates but top tier still vacant

Ningxia, China’s premier wine region in northwestern China, has announced the latest additions to its winery classification system, expanding its second growths but with top tier still conspicuously void of any names.

Ningxia, China’s premier wine region in northwestern China, has announced the latest additions to its winery classification system, expanding its second growths but with top tier still conspicuously void of any names.

The ranking, primarily modelled after Bordeaux’s Saint Emilion winery classification, is assessed by Helan East Foothills Wine Bureau, OIV and an expert panel every two years, and each winery is scored on a 198-point scale based on criteria ranging from wine quality, vineyard management to winery reputation, hospitality capacity, vine age and among others.

Zhihui Yuanshi winery is among the first wineries to gain second growth status within Ningxia's wine classification system (pic: Discover Ningxia)
Zhihui Yuanshi winery is among the first wineries to gain second growth status within Ningxia’s wine classification system (pic: Discover Ningxia)

The new update saw six more wineries promoted to the “second growth” tier, bringing the total to nine. They are Zhihui Yuanshi, Helan Qingxue, Chateau Bacchus, Chateau Yuquan, Chateau Hedong, Legacy Peak, Lisi Winery, Chateau Lilan and Kanaan Winery.  

Based on the new ranking, Ningxia now has 15 third growths, 18 fourth growths and 15 fifth growths.

In the next update in 2023, most likely a first growth winery will be named out of the top three highest scoring estates, namely Zhihui Yuanshi, Helan Qingxue and Chateau Bacchus. However, wineries can be downgraded if there’s a slide in quality, fraudulent behavior, grave accident or found to have aided counterfeit wine production, according to official regulation.

Once a winery is upgraded to first growth, it would only be assessed every 10 years, according to the government.

The new ranking was unveiled in late September and local wineries are incentivized to participate as it is pegged to government preferential treatment and policies when it comes to wine development and promotion.

The ranking was first introduced in 2013 when China’s domestic wine production was in need for a more internationally recognized ranking system to promote Chinese wine to export markets. Naturally, Ningxia looked to Bordeaux, more precisely Right Bank’s Saint Emilion.

The Bordeaux 1855 classification system applies to Medoc and Graves and has since remain unchanged except in 1973 when second growth Chateau Mouton Rothschild is promoted to first growth. Across the Gironde River in Saint Emilion, classification is updated every ten years and wineries are evaluated based on a set of criteria including wine quality, market reputation and hospitality.

The newly expanded ranking grows in tandem with China’s grape ambition. The country has carved out a pilot zone to develop Ningxia’s wine industry in the hope that it would turn into a world-class wine region on par with Bordeaux or Napa.  

Vines in Ningxia (pic: Natalie Wang)
Vines in Ningxia (pic: Natalie Wang)

It aims to increase Ningxia’s annual wine production volume to 300 million bottles and its production value to RMB 100 billion (US$15.57 billion) by 2025, almost four times of its current industry size at US$4 billion.

Controversy

The ranking is however not without controversy, as a winery’s hospitality capacity is a key factor in classification. Ningxia’s more internationally renowned wineries such as Silver Heights and Moet’s sparkling wine producer Chandon are conspicuously absent from the list.

Meanwhile, Saint Emilion classification itself in recent years has raised plenty of eyebrows. Two of the appellation’s biggest names – Cheval Blanc and Ausone – both ranked at the top of the hierarchy, Grand Cru Classé A, had announced their withdrawal citing judging criteria that leaned heavily on marketing and tourism.

Its woes are also compounded when Chateau Angelus and Chateau Pavie owners are accused of rigging the ranking system in the last classification update in 2012, where both are promoted top the top tier of the ranking in the same league as Ausone and Cheval Blanc.

Speaking of the Ningxia classification, Cao Kailong, head of Ningxia Wine Bureau, said, “Considering that many appellations in the West mostly have the ability to receive tourists, putting the tourism reception capacity of wineries into the evaluation criteria is also a practice that follows our own characteristics. And the biennial evaluation is an incentive for wineries but also to avoid dragging down winery’s development by an obsolete system.”

The effectiveness of the ranking for export markets is still in question though it provides a reference for some wine drinkers and trade. Silver Heights, one of the best known Ningxia wine estates, accounts for 60% of Ningxia’s total wine exports. The winery is however not classified and absent from the list, while the top three on the list combined only takes up a small fraction of exports.

Ningxia currently is the only Chinese wine region that has a classification system. It has 211 wineries (110 under construction) and produces around 130 million bottles a year for an industry valued at RMB 26.1 billion (US$4 billion).

Scroll to next page to see Ningxia wine classification’s judging criteria and detailed list of all wineries.

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