Ningxia (宁夏) may be covered by vast stretches of desert but it is also home to China’s most promising wine region. Along the foothills of Helan Mountain 贺兰山, neat rows of vineyards flourish on sandy terroir and plenty of sunshine. Most of Ningxia estates are growing red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Gernischt and Merlot. After all, a bottle of Ningxia red pairs deliciously with the region’s signature lamb cuisine.
I took a trip to Ningxia this September with a couple of friends that love wine & wanted to explore somewhere off the beaten track. Having visited most corners of Shanghai’s concrete jungle, we were all getting the travel itch. Thankfully, our friend A took the initiative to plan a 5-day getaway to Ningxia which included wine tasting, desert glamping & trying out local cuisine.
Perhaps the highlight of the trip was our time spent in Tengger Dessert, which is on the border of Ningxia and adjacent to Gobi Desert. Named after the beautiful Mongolian word for “sky,” Tengger Desert is a sight to behold with its rolling sand dunes and golden sunsets. A 3-hour drive from Yinchuan city, the long journey to Tengger Desert will feel worth it once you’re sitting on soft sand dunes with a glass of wine.
First, visit the ancient ruins of the Great Wall
To better understand Ningxia’s history, we started our trip with a visit to Shuidonggou National Park. Acclaimed as “the birthplace of China’s prehistoric archaeology,” Shuidonggou National Park is the earliest Paleolithic site in China. A guided tour took us along the ruins of the Great Wall before venturing into hidden caves where soldiers use to set traps for nomadic intruders.
While a bit tiring, trekking through the National Park was a fascinating look into how China’s peripheral regions developed throughout history. Local guides have many stories regarding Mongolian horsemen and nomadic invaders–make sure to ask about them!
Vineyard #1: Visit the family-owned Silver Heights Winery
We started our trip with al fresco wine tasting at Silver Heights 银色高地酒庄. Considered one of China’s leading winery, Silver Heights is run by Emma Gao & her French winemaker husband. I first heard about Silver Heights via one of my favorite Chinese podcasts 杯弓舌瘾 (all about alcohol & spirits). Emma joined as a featured guest one episode and discussed her journey of studying winemaking in Bordeaux before taking over the family business in Ningxia.
Silver Heights may be serious about their wines but the winery’s environment was unpretentious and fun. We sat on a small patio to sample Silver Heights’ entry collection ‘The Last Warrior’ and a bottle of their flagship wine ‘The Summit.’ The first was a delicious blend at a great value and the second Bordeaux-style blend had a memorable finish. People also rave about the 2009 Emma’s Reserve–it’s on our list for next time!
Vineyard #2: Sunset at Domaine Des Arômes with biodynamic wines
Domaine Des Arômes is the smallest vineyard in all of Ningxia, yet it was the vineyard that stole my heart. Upon arriving, we were warmly greeted by Lao Bai the goose, Dolly the labrador, and Peng Shuai the charming owner. As Peng took us on a short tour, he detailed the winery’s biodynamic transition and focus on soil maintenance. Like Domaine Des Arôme, more and more wineries in Ningxia are turning towards biodynamic viticulture.
For our tasting, Peng led us into the underground cellar with a long tasting table. Once our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we tried 5+ wines from various years. Among them, the bottle we all fell in love with (and bought) was the 2015 Arômes, a fruity blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The 2013 Chardonnay was also brilliant as it was one of the few whites we thoroughly enjoyed this trip. Just make sure to not forget the time. Watching sunset at Domaines Des Arômes, slightly wine drunk, was magical.
Vineyard #3: Wine & dine at the well-designed Xige Estate
Xige Estate is one of the sleekest & newest wineries in Ningxia. With state-of-the-art equipment and well-designed social spaces, Xige Estate is a modern symbol of China’s wine ambitions. Throughout our guided tour, we were thoroughly impressed by Xige’s combination of technology and winemaking. The pure scale of the stainless steel tank rooms (one for red and one for white) was a sight to behold.
Before our wine tasting, we enjoyed a nice lunch at Yuge Organic Restaurant. We reserved one of the private dining rooms (plushy couches and a nice terrace) so we could unwind a bit. The proper wine tasting took place in Xige’s Library Room, which was bright and airy with its floor to window ceilings. Among Xige’s wine ranges I personally preferred the Jade Dove Single Vineyard line. In particular, the 2017 Cabernet Gernischt was spicy and fun–a bottle that would go well with a nice steak.
Drive to the stunning Tengger Dessert
After our vineyard tours, we drove over to Tengger Desert for a change of scenery. With beautiful sand dunes and stunning night skies, Tengger Desert was so much fun to explore. In the daytime, we enjoyed a variety of desert sports such as camel riding and sand dune surfing. In the evenings, we watched sunset turn the desert sky into fifty shades of blush orange.
Glamping at Golden Sand Sea Tourism Resort was a great way to fully experience Tengger Desert. With only 16 glamping tents in total, the resort area was well-equipped with basic necessities. Wifi connection was spotty at times but it was the perfect excuse to unplug and relax. In order to have the best vantage point for sunset, we did a light hike right before dinner and took a bunch of movie-esque photos. It is hard to capture the beauty of the desert in words, much better to go experience for yourself.
Before flying out, eat all the local foods at Hong Liu Zhi (红柳枝) in Yinchuan
Before we flew out, we made sure to thoroughly explore Yinchuan city and its rustic eateries. Once a key trading spot along the Silk Road, Yinchuan is now the capital of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. The culture of the Hui ethnic minority (Chinese Muslims) can be felt most through food. Lamb is the main source of meat with plenty of grilled flatbreads, noodles and spices. Locals also love eating 沙葱 ‘sha cong’, which is a desert herb unique to the region and high in nutritional value.
Among the many restaurants we tried, Hong Liu Zhi was our favorite one. They whipped up some of the best lamb skewers I’ve had in China. Unlike ones that are overly tough, these skewers perfected the meat-to-fat ratio and literally fell off the stick. We also discovered ‘Eight Treasures Tea’ 八宝茶–a sweet tea blend that locals love to have with every meal. The challenge was always how much could we eat & drink before we hit a food coma.
Compared to Bordeaux or Napa Valley, Ningxia wine tourism is still in the nascent stages. But in the vineyards I recommend above, there was a joint vision to elevate Ningxia wine to new heights. As a disclaimer, we did visit some wineries I would not recommend. Some felt overly-industrialized while others I simply did not enjoy as much.
Overall, from wineries to desert sunsets, I was thoroughly charmed by Ningxia on this trip. I’ll be planning a return trip very soon.
Domaine Des Arômes
Address // 1855 West Beijing Road, Yinchuan City 宁夏贺兰山东麓银川市北京西路1855号
Email // firstname.lastname@example.org
Golden Sand Sea Tourism Resort (Tengger Desert)
Address // Golden Sand Sea in Shapotou District (between Yinyan Road and Xiaohu Road)
Tel // 0955-3951666
*Chinese language service only, can reach out to local tour guide to help book
Address // 银川市兴庆区文苑西巷14号