Yunnan Village Turns ‘Grapes of God’ Into Big Bucks
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2017-01-31 08:04:42

This is the third in a series of stories exploring the importance of the Mekong River in China.

Decorated with Tibetan art and images of Jesus and Mary, the homes of villagers of Cizhong, in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, are distinctively different from others in the region.

A small Catholic church stands in the center of the village, and along Cizhong’s main road, a sign mounted to the exterior wall of a house reads, in both Mandarin and English, “French-style wine available here.”

The majority of wine consumed in China comes from abroad: In 2016, the country’s wine imports totaled $2.12 billion, up 18 percent from the previous year.

But there is locally produced wine, too, and in recent years, more and more vineyards have opened in China, especially in Ningxia, which has been dubbed the country’s Bordeaux. Few winemaking regions, however, have a history that goes as far back as Cizhong’s. Here, residents have been producing wine for more than 150 years — not to cater to demand from the middle class, but to serve during Catholic mass.

“The grapes were initially brought here by French missionaries,” said Yao Fei, sent from Inner Mongolia to be the village’s resident priest. “At church, we need [wine] for mass. It represents Jesus’ blood. Wine culture started in the church … and now in the village many people make it themselves.”

The grapes helped my family get out of poverty, and now we use all of our land to grow them.

After the original church was burned down in 1905 during a crackdown on foreign religions, the French rebuilt the church that stands today sometime between 1909 and 1919. Converted into a primary school in the 1950s, the building managed to survive through the Cultural Revolution. Today, the church is the area’s main landmark and the de facto center of Catholicism in Yunnan. More than 80 percent of the town’s population is Catholic. While the church holds spiritual value for Cizhong, its byproduct, wine, is now giving the village an economic edge.

“Ten years ago, it was very poor here,” said Zeng Alan, a farmer in her early 60s. Encouraged by the local government, Alan and her husband, Zeng Tei, started to expand the area’s vineyards beyond the few vines needed for sacramental wine to the more sizeable operations that now cover the surrounding hills. The grapes and the wine they produce now earn the Zengs as much as 70,000 yuan ($10,200) a year — far higher than the average income in Yunnan.

Zeng Tei, 64, tends to his small vineyard in Cizhong, Yunnan province, Feb. 13, 2016. Grape cultivation, first introduced to the region by French missionaries, has helped lift many villagers out of poverty. Luc Forsyth for Sixth Tone

Zeng Tei, 64, tends to his small vineyard in Cizhong, Yunnan province, Feb. 13, 2016. Grape cultivation, first introduced to the region by French missionaries, has helped lift many villagers out of poverty. Luc Forsyth for Sixth Tone

Most wine-producing regions in China are either too humid or too cold, making it more expensive to grow grapes. But in many areas of Yunnan, the valleys formed by the Mekong River — known as the Lancang in China — offer a dry climate, mild enough for the vines to survive the winters. Although growing wine in the mountainous area, where fields are often far apart from each other, is laborious, the climate and soil are ideally suited for high-quality wine, said Qu Xing, general manager of Bon-Wine Consulting. “The tastes of Yunnan wines are very distinct, and that makes them very attractive and interesting.”

So attractive, in fact, that high-end spirits group Moët Hennessy has invested in a vineyard in Deqin County, and is now selling wine grown and produced just a few kilometers from Shangri-La, and from Cizhong, for $300 a bottle.

“In Shangri-La and Deqin County, there’s been increased investment in the last four or five years ago,” Qu said. “The quantity of wine produced there is limited, so it can be sold for a high price, and now domestic investors are also entering the market.” Such investments are slowly putting Yunnan on the map of wine producers, but the huge profits that international companies hope to reap are out of reach for the farmers of Cizhong, where most of the wine is still produced the same way it was by French missionaries in the 19th century.

A Tibetan family in their living room in Cizhong, Yunnan province, Feb. 12, 2016. Luc Forsyth for Sixth Tone

A Tibetan family in their living room in Cizhong, Yunnan province, Feb. 12, 2016. Luc Forsyth for Sixth Tone

“The grapes helped my family get out of poverty, and now we use all of our land to grow them,” said Alan. “We’re much better off than before.” Her family started out with 10 vines; now they grow hundreds of vines on 2 mu of land (about one-third of an acre), producing about 5 tons of grapes annually.

The “French-style wine” that farmers like the Zengs produce sells for just $5 a liter. Indeed, with its shockingly high sugar content, Cizhong wine only outwardly resembles its French counterparts, though it’s still been a blessing for the farmers. “Before, I did very hard labor with no days off,” said Tei, wandering through his rows of grapes and plucking wilting leaves from the vines. “My burden is less now.”

Before, I did very hard labor with no days off. My burden is less now.

It hasn’t always been easy for Alan and Tei, though. Just a few years after planting their first vines, disaster struck. “At first, we were very happy with the grapes,” Tei recalled. “But in 2006 they got sick, and most of them died. Only one plant survived; it produced 2.5 kilograms of grapes.” Without much in the way of formal training, Tei nevertheless guessed that there was something special about that vine. The following season, he grafted branches from the hearty vine onto 10 sick vines — and to his relief, most of them flourished. Tei is clearly proud of this achievement, but wine experts say his profits will still be limited.

“I have tried a few wines while visiting the area, but unfortunately, I feel they were not necessarily made with high-quality potential grape varieties, and so there was a built-in ceiling [for the products],” said Sarah Heller, a wine writer based in Hong Kong. But the potential is there, she added: “Small-scale generally lends itself very well to grape growing; it’s a hugely hands-on process that requires personal attention.” Villagers making their own wine will remain a challenge, Heller believes, and in order to produce a high-quality product that can be sold at a higher profit margins, working with larger wineries is the best course.

The village of Cizhong sits along the banks of the Mekong River, Yunnan province, Feb. 15, 2016. Though the population of Cizhong is mostly Tibetan, more than 70 percent of the residents are Catholic, converted by missionaries who built a church in the village in the early 20th century. Luc Forsyth for Sixth Tone

The village of Cizhong sits along the banks of the Mekong River, Yunnan province, Feb. 15, 2016. Though the population of Cizhong is mostly Tibetan, more than 70 percent of the residents are Catholic, converted by missionaries who built a church in the village in the early 20th century. Luc Forsyth for Sixth Tone

With her family’s moderate wealth, Alan is now focused on making sure that her three children are getting a good education. Their eldest son is in college, for which they get some financial support from the government. Tei, however, said they could have paid for his son’s studies even without the extra aid.

“Growing grapes is just great,” Tei said cheerfully.

Alan and Tei have witnessed the influx of foreign investment to their area and are hoping that the wine industry started by the Catholic missionaries will become even more profitable as a business in the future. Until then, they’ll continue selling their wines and consuming them during mass and other celebrations, including Chinese New Year, which is just drawing to a close.

This story was published in collaboration with A River’s Tail, a yearlong exploration of the Mekong from the river’s delta in Vietnam to its source in the Tibetan Plateau. For more stories from the Mekong, visit www.ariverstail.com.

Additional reporting by Wang Yiwei.

(Header image: Zeng Alan pours homemade wine into plastic containers that she will later sell in Cizhong, Yunnan province, Feb. 13, 2016. Luc Forsyth for Sixth Tone)