Chinese wine has had a number of false dawns in the UK and other key wine markets around the world. But just as it seems to be gaining some traction, interest wanes and producers have turned back to building domestic sales instead. But as the country finally emerges from its prolonged Covid lockdown, Christelle Chene, international affairs director at the Xige Estate in Ningxia – widely recognised as the premium winemaking region of China – makes the case for why this new ambitious, influential producer has its sights on making not just its name overseas, but for premium Chinese wine as a whole.
The Xige Estate is one of a number of companies to have made major investments in Ningxia, a region the Chinese government has identified as being a key part of the country’s growing wine industry. Here’s how Xige hopes to make it in the UK with a new exclusive distribution deal with Propeller.
For someone born and bred in Burgundy it is ironic Christelle Chene is making her name in the wine industry by travelling all the way to north west of China and the remote region of Ningxia.But she has no intention of returning to France any time soon.
For it’s not just for a career in wine that Chene has been willing to make her home in a part of China she admits did not know even existed 20 years ago. She has fallen in love with the country as well.
It all started when she took part in an introductory lesson in Chinese at school. Initially fascinated by the calligraphy and symbols of Chinese writing, she shocked her family by enrolling to do a course in Chinese and Asian management studies at university.
“I first fell in love with the language,” she says. It was a love affair that first took her to Wuhan where she got a job working for the marketing body in charge of promoting Bordeaux wines in the region, before going on to represent the Francois Lurton group and the Rhone’s Celliers des Dauphins in China as a whole.
That’s when the worlds of wine and China first came together, she adds. A combination that now sees her in the vital role as the international face for the Xige wine estate in Ningxia.
A wine company that in less than five years has emerged as one of the biggest, most influential producers in the country, making premium, quality tiers of wine from up to 2,300 hectares of vines at its state-of-the-art 25,000 square metre winery.
It is all the work and vision of founder Chinese entrepreneur, Zhang Yanzhi, who has made it clear he wants Xige to be the stand out, most prominent wine producer in the country.
It is already on the right track. Its first release of 1m bottles of wines in 2019, from the 2017 vintage, sold out within a year and its target is to be producing up to 7m bottles in a few years time. The winery, which claims to have the sophisticated winemaking machinery in China, has the capacity to go up to 10 million bottles.
Right place, right time
He certainly invested in the right place, taking on what was 1,000 hectares of 23 year old vines previously controlled by the state owned winery, in the Dove Mountains in the Ningxia. The foundation on which it has been able to focusing its efforts on producing high quality, premium wines.
Chene first met Yanzhi through his Beijing Easy Cellar wine distribution business when she was working with Bordeaux wines and she jumped at the chance of working with him at Xige. Even if it meant moving to the remote region of Ningxia, close to the Gobi desert, where there are few western comforts.
“I had been in China for about 10 to 12 years and I had not thought once about going to Ningxia when I did in 2019. There were no Europeans there at the time, and particularly not anyone who is there all year round. But I wanted to be right next to the winery and be part of winery life. It meant living in the middle of nowhere for close to two years,” she says.
Conditions in the area, though, are changing fast as the Chinese government has pledged to see the amount of vines planted in Ningxia increase from close to 40,000ha planted now to 100,000ha by 2035. China’s president, Xi Jinping, declared Ningxia as a priority for “inclusive development” and job creation when he visited the region in 2016 and he returned in 2020 to see how things were developing.
There is now specific funding to help Ningxia producers promote their wines both in China and overseas, says Chene, and it has been established as the country’s first ‘Pilot Zones” for wine development.
“This is a region that has been building its reputation for producing quality wine since about 2012,” says Chene, which is when Yanzhi first started carrying out trials to assess its winemaking potential. “That said even in 2017 when Xige first started it was not a well known region in China.”
The key, she believes, is to match good winemaking skills with the ability to sell, market and promote it, which is very much where she comes in. “People were making good wine here, but did not have the teams to promote it. They did not have the distribution network to sell it to.”
Xige’s strategy, she adds, from day one was to build a business with the scale and volume that would be “able to have an impact” in the overall Chinese wine market.
That’s where the clout and influence, and distribution of Yanzhi’s Beijing Easy Cellar business has had a clear role to play in getting its wines into the diverse Chinese wine market.
The reaction to the release of its first wine was better than it could possibly have hoped for – seven out of the nine wines released from the 2017 and 2018 vintages scored over 90 points in Wine Advocate and James Suckling gave its 2020 release 93 points.
“That’s when it exploded the Chinese market,” says Chene.
And then came Covid…
Just as Xige’s wines were making headlines in China and all over the world Covid struck and its plans, like for the rest of us, went into lockdown.
Not that things at the winery have been totally closed for the last two years. Ningxia’s name both as a quality, respected wine region, but also a new area for domestic tourism has grown in that time and there has been plenty for the Xige team to be doing whilst its exports and international plans have had to be put on the back burner.
“We have focused on developing our mainland sales in China and across Asia and into Macau,” she says.
The combination of increased tariffs on hugely popular Australian wines and a slow down in imported wine getting into the country created a “vacuum” for premium wine in China that Xige, and others, have been quick to try and fill, she adds.
But if it is to get anywhere near its lofty ambitions then it needs to build a strong international network of growing export markets. Its first wines were exported in 2020 and from a very small base have seen 200% growth in 2021 and 550% growth in 2022, but it is a far cry from where it wants to get to with only around 40,000 bottles in export at the moment.
It is now ready to come to the UK for the first time and has just signed an exclusive distribution deal with Jamie Wynne-Griffiths and his breakthrough Propeller importer business, focused on introducing new premium wines to the independent wine merchant sector.
Wynne-Griffiths says he first became aware of Xige when he saw a social media post from Chene promoting its new vintages.
He explains: “That’s when I decided to delve a little deeper into the Xige project and realised its scale meant that there must be some wines nearer the value end of the price spectrum, which would enable more generalised distribution compared to the other premium and ultra-premium Ningxia cuvees currently in the UK. That would crucially help contribute meaningfully to growing Ningxia’s profile here, as well as Xige’s.”
After prolonged discussions in 2021 and early 2022 Propeller was able to organise a virtual tasting with merchants and potential buyers
“Everyone loved the wines and loved the packaging so it was a no-brainer to bring them to the UK,” says Wynne-Griffiths. Getting a shipment out of locked-down Shanghai was not so straightforward, however, and it was not until autumn 2022 that they first started to arrive in the UK. “A huge tranche went straight to LWC Drinks.”
“There has been a lot of interest already and now it is a case of making the most of the opportunity,” adds Chene during her recent visit to the UK just before Christmas.
“We want to work with an importer than can help us build the international image of Chinese wine,” she adds. “Finding the right partner in Propeller has been really important for us. We have talking with Propeller for some time and we are now excited to have our wines coming into the country.”
She adds: “We want to work with Propeller and be present in the important UK market and have the chance to talk to people properly about our wines.”
Xige is now exploring opportunities to exhibit either at Wine Paris or ProWein and to start to tell its story to an international audience.
New and different
What gives Xige’s wines an edge, is not just the accolades and points it has already been awarded, but the fact these are not supermarket driven wines, but styles it believes deserve their place on the best international wine lists all over the world.
What’s particularly interesting about what Yanzhi is looking to achieve with the Xige estate is that he is not just relying on power house global varieties to make their name around the world.
It has planted over 20 grape varieties in Ningxia including Malbec, Syrah, Marselan, and Dunkelfelder and is looking to see what Tempranillo, Grenache, Gewurtztraminer and Viognier can do in the area as well. But it is the work it is doing with the little known Cabernet Gernischt that Chene thinks has great potential.
She claims it was first introduced to China over 100 years ago “and people don’t really know a lot about it”. Tests and trials have picked up characteristics of Cabernet Franc and Carmenere, but it “does not smell or taste like either of those,” she says.
Ningxia has already proven its worth as a good home for Bordeaux varieties, but whilst Xige is happy to work with those, it also wants to explore and not just go down the “safe” route, says Chene.
Hence why it has been willing to experiment with so many other varieties and “look to do something different” and work with varieties best suited to its specific micro climate.
That does not mean picking the most obscure variety for the sake of it, but looking at what works best outside of the classic Bordeaux varietals.
“We are the first winery to be producing Malbec on a large scale and we are happy about that,” she says. “We want to show we have a lot more to offer than Bordeaux blends.”
Xige’s Wines in the UK
The wines in Xige’s range available in the UK includes the Jade Dove Collection and the XIGE N. Collection.
Jade Dove White 2018. RRP £22.95
Jade Dove Rose 2019. RRP £22.95
Jade Dove Red 2018. RRP £22.95
Jade Dove Single Vineyard Cabernet Gernischt 2018. RRP £37.95
XIGE N28 Chardonnay 2019. RRP £27.95
XIGE N28 Malbec 2019. £24.95
XIGE N28 Cabernet Sauvignon 2018. £24.95
XIGE N50 2018. £29.95