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 turmeric, 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 turning in 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.
A hundred years on, the villagers of Cizhong still produce wine from cuttings of those early vines using the methods handed down by the last missionaries, who left in 1949 on the eve of the Communist Revolution. The results are a little rustic. The first wine I try, over dinner at the Songtsam Cizhong Lodge, is clearly off—an intense hit of acid followed by a very odd but distinct taste of yak cheese.
Lui Wan Zhen’s winemaking skills fare better. A Christian of the Naxi ethnic group, he learned the craft from his grandmother. Sitting in the sunroom of his family’s blue-and-white-tiled courtyard house, Lui pours me a 10-year-old red that has been aged in oak barrels purchased in northern China. It shows several characteristics of a great wine—dark cherry in color with a plush blackberry nose and syrupy texture that sticks nicely to the side of the glass. Except, like all the others I try in Cizhong, it has long since acidified and turned into vinegar. Sharp and rich, it would fit perfectly with some olive oil as a salad dressing.
“It’s really good for the digestive system,” says Lui, reading my mind as I ponder the health benefits of antioxidant-rich vinegar. Lui produces around 500 liters of the stuff a year from his organic vineyard, selling what he doesn’t drink at home to the few intrepid tourists who make the six-plus-hour drive from the nearest airport.
Cizhong’s little Romanesque church is still standing too, surrounded by the thick blackened trunks of the original rose-honey vines. The resident priest, Father Yeoh, a jovial man with two missing front teeth, tries his hand at making wine from them, although he admits he isn’t very good at it yet.
That night I attend mass. It’s a balmy night for October, still warm enough to forgo a jacket. Still, such weather hasn’t persuaded the local faithful to venture out. Only five people have come to hear Father Yeoh preach about community and forgiveness. All are elderly: two Tibetan women brandishing walking sticks, their heads wrapped in pink and blue scarves, sit next to Lui Wan Zhen’s mother, across the aisle from a pair of Naxi men in faded blue suits.
It makes for a surreal experience, sitting on a pew in a French-built church high in the remote mountains of northern Yunnan, surrounded by century-old grape vines. Bordeaux may be more than 8,000 kilometers away, but for a brief moment, I feel transported to its distant climes.
Where to stay
Songtsam Lodges operate five small luxury hotels in off-the-beaten track locations in Diqing prefecture, including Songtsam Meili (doubles from US$225) in the tiny village of Gujiunong, which overlooks the peaks of the Meili Mountain Range; and Songtsam Cizhong (doubles from US$220), set amid vineyards and rice fields near the banks of the Lancang River (songtsam.com).
This article appeared in the February/ March 2015 issue of DestinAsian Magazine.