It has been more than four years since Helan Qingxue Vineyard put itself, Ningxia and China on the wine map, when its 2009 Jiabeilan Cabernet Sauvignon won an International Trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards. Sarah Kemp was invited to its 10th anniversary and a special vertical tasting.
I remember the phone call well. I was in my office and the final judging for the 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards International Trophies was taking place just a floor above me in the tasting room. ‘Sarah, you won’t believe this, but the Chinese wine has won the International Cabernet Sauvignon Trophy over £10,’ said Christelle Guibert, Decanter’s tastings director.
My immediate reaction was astonishment, and then the realisation that history had been made. I also grabbed an atlas to look up where Ningxia was…
The night the trophy win was announced – on 7 September 2011, at the DWWA gala dinner at London’s Royal Opera House – will forever stay in my mind. Nobody except the Decanter team knew who the winners were, not even the judges.
There was an intake of breath when the 2009 Jiabeilan Cabernet Sauvignon was announced as the winner and then massive applause as Decanter’s consultant editor Steven Spurrier presented the trophy to Helan Qingxue Vineyard’s consultant winemaker Li Demei, winemaker Zhang Jing and general manager Rong Jian. Social media went wild and top merchants texted contacts asking for bottles to be sourced so they could taste it themselves. History was made and everyone in the room knew it. The wine map had been redrawn.
‘History was made and everyone knew it. The wine map had been redrawn’
So it was with huge interest and pleasure that I accepted an invitation to Helan Qingxue Vineyard’s 10th anniversary celebrations in Ningxia. An eight-vintage vertical tasting of Jiabeilan, the wine whose fame Decanter had unwittingly brought about, was a highlight of
the weekend, held at Yinchuan’s Kempinski Hotel. Led by Professor Li, a vice-chair at the
Decanter Asia Wine Awards and DecanterChina.com columnist, the line-up of wines spanned 2005 to 2013 (there was no 2007).
What was evident was a consistency of style. Freshness appeared in all my notes, and I was struck how often the wines reminded me of Left Bank Médocs. My highlights were the 2009 and 2010, both beautifully balanced, expressive and very classic, but there was also huge charm in the 2005 and 2006. The most recent vintages, while tighter, had masses of promise; nothing extracted or overworked.
The next day Zhang proudly showed me around the boutique Helan Qingxue Vineyard winery. Sitting directly below the Helan Mountains – an unusual range in that it runs north to south – the verdant vineyards basked in sunshine with a gentle breeze.
In the winery were photos of the past 10 years. The pride and passion of the team here
are evident and their dedication to quality admirable. As with all fine-wine producers,
their ambition is to make the most out of their land, and even though they may be in far-flung China, the team shares the same values as wine producers across the globe.
I have no doubt we will be hearing more from this winery for many years to come.
Sarah Kemp is Decanter’s publishing director
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