Sunday, August 30, 2009

Vineyards and Wineries in Heshuo, Xinjiang, China

(8/21/09) The next morning we met at 9am in the lobby and then drove to the restaurant – scene of the banquet from the night before. Breakfast is more challenging for me to eat in China than other meals, because they eat a lot of vegetables and a milky rice porridge that reminded me of cream of wheat. Fortunately they also served hard boiled eggs, doughy white buns, and fresh melon and grapes which I ended up eating all 8 days for breakfast. They also serve green tea mixed with salty soy milk, which is a little difficult to get used to. Kindly, Demei brought packets of powdered coffee which I blended with warm milk.

The Heshuo portion of the conference (we were to travel to Turpan for the next part) started at 10am with Chinese officials and research professors providing an overview of the local wine industry. This was all translated from Chinese to English for us by Demei – a winemaker and researcher himself. We learned that Xinjiang is the 2nd largest grape producing region (80% table; 20% wine) after Shandong near Shanghai. Heshuo and a large vineyard called Suntime produce the most wine grapes, with the Heshuo region currently producing 3,000 hectares and plans to increase to 7,000.

The region is high desert with sandy rocky soil – perfect for wine grapes. It is in a valley (3000 feet) surrounded by tall mountains (over 19,000 feet in some locations) and is close to a large body of water (Lake Bosten). Summers are quite hot at 40 C degrees (high 90’sF), but winters are freezing – dropping below -25C. This issue requires that they bury all grape vines during the winter – an incredible amount of labor as there are currently no machines invented that can handle this type of operation. However, since the going rate is 60 RMB ($10 US) per day for labor, the cost is not yet that high.

As mentioned previously, because of the pristine protected climate, all grapes are organic – they even use natural fertilizer. The wines from here tasted much better than those I tasted in Beijing 2 years ago, and didn’t possess that acrid taint that seemed to reflect the pollution in the skies of Beijing – though to their credit, I saw less pollution in Beijing this time. Furthermore, I learned that much of the wine produced in Xinjiang is shipped in bulk to supplement the wine made by the 4 large producers in the Beijing and Shandong areas: Cofco (owner of Great Wall brand), Changyu, Dragon Seal, and Dynasty.

Currently in Heshuo there are only 4 wineries, but the local growers want to increase this number so they can produce more fine wine, rather than just be a bulk wine producer. At the break, we tasted the wines of Aromatic Garden, Champion Dragon (as mentioned previously), and an all organic winery called Refine. Unfortunately 3 of the 4 Refine wines – three 2005 Cabernets with varying oak applications and a 2005 Riesling – were oxidized, most likely because they didn’t use SO2 according to organic winemaking standards. The one that wasn’t oxidized – an unoaked cab – had a nice red fruit nose, was medium bodied with an elegant mouth feel, but ended with a bitter finish. We never did find out the name of the 4th winery. During the break, they paired the wines with table grapes and different varieties of Chinese cookies. I found that, amazingly, their soft easy-drinking cabs went quite well with mooncakes!

They only plant 4 different varietals in Heshuo: 60% cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, and Riesling. The Chinese still produce 90% red grapes, because they believe red wine is more healthy than white. Personally, I think that many Chinese do not like the taste of wine, and only drink it because it is fashionable and because the government encourages it. Besides, since they gulp it in toasts, they really don’t taste it. When they asked us for ideas on new grape varietals to plant, I suggested that they not only research what will grow well in their climate, but conduct some market research on Chinese taste preferences (as the Australians have done in China) to determine what will sell in their market. It is highly probable that white, rose, and sweeter wines will eventually sell better, as beginning with more tannic red wines is often difficult for the novice wine drinker.

In the afternoon, we had a field tour and visited several vineyards and a winery. Spacing is 3.2 meters by 60mm (approx. 12 x 3 feet). The reason the middle aisles are so large is to allow them to lay the vines down and bury them in the winter. They use an unusual training system of single cordon which is tied vertically to the wire and pruned to 2 buds per spur. This is the same method they use for table grapes, and according to the viticulture professors with us, is probably not the most efficient. All vines are irrigated using water from Lake Bosten or snow run-off in the mountains. No rootstock is used, as the vines are all on their own roots. In most parts of the world this is unheard of due to disease risks – but here, in this remote valley, they are still safe with this practice. Hopefully it will stay this way.

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