The Budding Wine Region of Yunnan

  • A grape grower on her vineyard in Tacheng Valley, in the far northwest of Yunnan.

    A grape grower on her vineyard in Tacheng Valley, in the far northwest of Yunnan.

  • The nave of Cizhong's church, where mass is read to a dwindling audience.

    The nave of Cizhong's church, where mass is read to a dwindling audience.

  • The village's old stone church.

    The village's old stone church.

  • Cizhong's vinegary wine comes from vines planted by French missionaries more than a century ago.

    Cizhong's vinegary wine comes from vines planted by French missionaries more than a century ago.

  • The Mekong River carves through a gorge below the road to Cizhong.

    The Mekong River carves through a gorge below the road to Cizhong.

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A world away from Bordeaux, old-word grapes are finding new purchase in the high-altitude terrain of China’s Diqing prefecture.

By Leisa Tyler

It’s early evening as Xiao Yu Ying plucks a small bundle of grapes from a spindly vine. Pea-sized and pink-skinned, the fruit are plump and sweet with a distinct tartness. Xiao doesn’t have to look at a calendar to know that it will soon be harvest time. Autumn is encroaching; the thickly forested slopes of Tacheng Valley are already washed in fall colors, a palette of tur-meric, sunflower yellow, and fiery red.

A sprightly septuagenarian with an oversize laugh that begins as a tremor in her slender shoulders before erupting as a full body lurch, Xiao is new to grape growing. She used to plant corn and wheat on her four mu (about a third of a hectare) of land, enough to feed her family and livestock with some left over to sell at the market. Then the local government approached Xiao and the other farmers with plots of land on the valley’s north-facing slopes to grow grapes for ice-wine production. Xiao says it was too lucrative to pass up: she can earn four times as much from grapes as she ever could from grain. Even in a bad year, like 2013, when torrential summer rains caused an outbreak of mold, she still cleared double, and with half the effort. But having tasted the wine, she tells me she’s not quite sure what the fuss is about, erupting into another body-shaking giggle.

Tacheng Valley lies in the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, a sliver of land in northwestern Yunnan province that encompasses the upper Mekong (known here as the Lancang) and Yangtze rivers. With poor soils, long summers, and plenty of clean water tumbling down from the Tibetan Plateau, Diqing is being tagged as Asia’s answer to Bordeaux, albeit one with vineyards situated well above the 2,000-meter mark. And its wine business is booming. From the terraced fields cut into the slopes below the Mingyong Glacier of Meili Snow Mountain, to the moonscape setting of the Tibetan village Benzilan and the forests of Tacheng, farmers like Xiao have been uprooting their traditional crops of wheat, corn, and barley to grow vines.

Since the early 2000s, the market has been dominated by local ice-wine makers Shangri-La and Sun Spirit, which produce mediocre products aimed squarely at the domestic market. But with French luxury wine behemoth Moët Hennessy and Western Australia’s Cape Mentelle Vineyards currently tending more than 30 hectares of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc grapes, Diqing is one step closer to securing a place on the world wine map.

Yet not everybody is convinced. “Wine is a high-value cash crop, but a very risky business,” says Kunming-based academic Brendan Galipeau, an expert in the prefecture’s burgeoning wine economy. “Farmers are making more money now than they ever made. But few companies, apart from Moët Hennessy, know how to properly tend the grapes. Every year the harvesters come late, the grapes have started to dry up, and the villagers often can’t sell them. This produces food security issues. You can eat corn and wheat; you can feed it to your animals. But you can’t live off grapes.”

Still, with Moët Hennessy’s winery at Adong village planning to launch its first “Bordeaux-like blend” this year alongside a new visitors’ center, the prospects for Diqing’s unlikely harvest seem bright.

Wine isn’t as alien to Diqing as one would suppose. In 1910, French Jesuit missionaries built a bell-towered stone church and vineyard in Cizhong, a hamlet of whitewashed courtyard houses that peer over a turbulent stretch of the Lancang River north of Tacheng. Here they planted a variety of grape known as rose honey, first brought to Yunnan from France in the mid 1800s to make altar wine and now extinct in Europe. Flushed with a purple hue and producing a crimson drop with a slightly sweet nose, the grapes flourished on Cizhong’s gentle slopes, protected from the fierce winds of the Tibetan Plateau by a 1,000-meter-high gorge. Winemaking back then was rudimentary. Harvested each September when the sun had started to wane, the grapes were hand-squeezed before being buried in clay amphorae to ferment.

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