BEIJING -- Think of wine tours and what comes to mind? Chateaux in France? Bucolic scenery in New Zealand? Hip cellar doors in California?
The Ningxia Hui autonomous region?
If you are a Chinese wine lover, then visiting Ningxia or Shanxi province to sample a few reds might not be such an outlandish suggestion. But for most foreign tourists, China is better associated with the Great Wall than great drops of the good stuff.
Enter one of the more novel Chinese tour companies going around, China Wine Tours. Run by Marc Curtis from the United States, CWT has been taking groups of mainly US tourists to some of China's top wineries for about three years.
"The first question I always get is, 'There is wine in China?'" Curtis says.
"The initial reaction before they go is real curiosity, real wonder if it's going to be even drinkable and then when they try some of the really good wines they are quite pleased."
Curtis says some of the bigger wineries, such as Great Wall and Dynasty, are catering well to tourists, but his picks of the bunch in terms of quality are some of the smaller wineries.
"The best winery for a long time has been Grace Vinyard in Shanxi, but it's getting a real challenge now from Ningxia, Helan Mountain and the Yellow River areas, which have become quite the region for growing wine grapes," Curtis says.
"Silver Heights seems to be topping the list now as the best wine being made in China ... wineries in Ningxia are definitely moving up fast on the 'Wow! I gotta try this' list."
Curtis' tours combine wine tasting with some of China's better-known tourist attractions, such as the Terracotta Warriors and the Great Wall, but his central passion is exposing Chinese wine to the wider world.
"The concern for quality, especially in these small boutique wineries, is making quite a difference," Curtis says. "The unfortunate thing is, these smaller wineries do not make enough to export, so the only ones exporting at this point are the large producers whose quality is real questionable.
"My concern, particularly in America, is that people try something like Great Wall or Dynasty out of curiosity - and they try these wines once and that will be it, because the quality is just not up to world standards. So I think it's better when people come here and try the wines because the quality is good."
Curtis says he tries to limit the tours to between two and four a year, and says the best time to visit is harvest time in the fall.