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It was the year 1910 when French missionaries planted an acre of vines around a handsome stone church in Cizhong, a small hamlet of white washed cottages snuggling a turbulent Mekong River in far northern Yunnan, China’s mountainous south-eastern province. French missionaries had come to Yunnan hoping to convert its unruly Tibetan tribes with Christian gospel. They hadn’t had much luck; enraged by the newcomers, in the early years of the 20th century, Tibetan Buddhist lamas went on a rampage, burning missionary churches and beheaded their congregations.
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.
Not everybody is convinced. “It's high value, but very risky”, says Brendan Galipeau of the University of Hawaii who is researching the prefecture’s wine economy for his dissertation in anthropology. While many farmers are making more money now than they ever have, logistics and changes in the weather and seasons mean it’s not always sustainable. “You can eat corn and wheat”, he says. “You can feed it to your animals. But you can’t live off grapes”. Until now the market has been dominated by local wine makers Shangri-La and Sunspirit, both who started planting vines ten years ago to produce mediocre drops for the domestic market. But as French wine giant Moët Hennessy - who produce Dom Perignon as well as Premium Cru Supérieur Château d'Yquem - currently tend to 30 hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes in Benzilan village, with plans to launch their first vintage together with a visitors centre this year, Diqin’s wine industry may just end up on the world wine map.