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STORY OF YUNNAN’S ROSE HONEY GRAPES

In the mid 18th century, a young French missionary took a long journey across the world and eventually departed India and journeyed to Yunnan through the Ancient Tea Horse Trail.  He found his last destination to be the Cizhong Village, in the MiLe County in the Lancang River Valley (highland valley) in Yunnan Province of China.  The place was described and defined as the inland area of Shangri-La by an English man called James Hilton 100 years later.


The missionary brought along the scripture from God, and built a church house in Cizhong which is standing and well protected even now. This church eventually became the Cathedral of the Yunnan Deanery of Missions Etrangeres de Paris (M.E.P.) in 1921, and housed many French clergy until the last one returned home in 1951.


As Yunnan was a great deal away from France, he and other Frenchmen brought in from France an old vine species – Rose Honey that was one of the proud varietals of France at that time.  The missionary taught the people in Cizhong how to grow grapes and make wines from them.  The winemaking techniques and skills can be seen in Cizhong even now.  As the French-built one meter wide railway expanded, the vines were grown along for generations.  Nowadays, the vines grow prosperously in a dry and hot valley – MiLe, and make this magic dry hot valley a superb quality grape growing area in the world’s highest elevation. In fact, this area has become known as the “world’s” only wine production area above 1,500 meters.


Many familiar with China and Tibet, may have heard about China’s “Shangri-La,” a region in the northwest of China’s Yunnan Province bordering Tibet and Sichuan that was officially renamed in 2001 after the location of a mystical Himalayan paradise in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon.  The goal of this naming campaign was to heavily promote and extend tourism throughout the region, a strategy that has proved highly effective for the local government with the number of both Chinese and foreign visitors continuing to grow annually and with the increasing expansion of a tourism industry catering to the desires of travelers wanting to experience both Tibetan culture and local natural wonders.


Grapes on vine in a village near the Yunnan Tibet border 

Over the last decade, a significant corporate and agricultural development project in the region has involved the growth of a Tibetan wine industry among rural villages on the upper Lancang (Mekong) and Jinsha (Yangtze) rivers.  About nine years ago, the provincial government approached villagers across the region’s warm and dry rivers valleys and encouraged them to begin growing grapes to annually sell to the newly established Shangri-La Red Wine Company, a new corporation with close government ties that markets its wine as being distinctly Tibetan and coming from “Shangri-La.”  As part of this program, villagers were given grape seedlings and concrete trellises to support their new vineyards.  Slowly, more and more villages have caught on to this practice and pattern of agriculture to the point that in several areas, fields have been transformed into monocrops, though this is not the case is all locations.  Indeed in some of the region’s villages, a diversity of crops including wheat, barley, buckwheat, corn, and in the southernmost areas rice, are all grown.


Retreating to the relative safety of Cizhong, which is shielded from the fierce winds of the Tibetan Plateau by a 1000 meter high gorge, the missionaries gathered what was left of their flocks and started again. They planted Rose Honey vines, a spindly plant producing a purple blushed grape that was popular for making altar wine. A few years later the Great French Wine Blight forced the grape’s extinction in Europe.


Despite Cizhong’s 2000 meter altitude, poor soils and bitterly cold winters, Rose Honey flourished, the grapes ripening each September, just days before the forests blanketing the gorge’s slopes turned a medley of crimson red and yellow hues. Wine making was rudimentary, of course; breaking skins between their weathered fingers, the congregation would bury the grape juice, sometimes with skins, leaves and twigs, in clay amphorae for up to six months and wait for it to turn to wine.


A hundred plus years on and the villagers of Cizhong still produce wine from the same vines in the same method that the last missionaries taught them. The results are a little rustic. Left to mature in a wooden barrel, the ten year Rose Honey I try shows several characteristics of a great wine- dark cherry in colour with a plush blackberry nose and syrupy texture- but like all of Cizhong’s wines, it has long acidified and turned to vinegar. But as China continues to develop a love for red wine (together with Hong Kong, China recently took over from France and Italy as the world’s largest consumer of red wine), the government of Diqin Prefecture, where Cizhong is located, is hoping to leverage the wine making spirit of its early French inhabitants and turn Diqin into China’s Bordeaux.


From the barren terraces etched into the slopes below the Mingyong Glacier of Meili Snow Mountain, to the moonscape setting of the Tibetan village Benzilan and the forested valleys of Tacheng, where the golden monkey- one of the world’s most endangered primates- lives, the subsistence farmers of Diqin have been abandoning their traditional crops of wheat, corn and barley to grow vines. For many peasant farmers of Diqin, growing vines is a bonanza. Scratching meagre existences out of the squalid soil, many earn 300- 400% more growing vines than they did growing corn and wheat, with less back breaking work to boot.


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