Yunnan province in southwest China grows grapes with beautiful names like Crystal, French Wild and Rose Honey.
These are believed to be the descendants of vines the phylloxera louse devastated in France from the mid 1860s to the mid 1890s. French missionaries brought these grapes to Yunnan about two centuries ago, and this is the only place where they are now found.
It is believed the Chinese also introduced clones of these grapes from Indonesia and Vietnam in the 1950s, as did missionaries from the Shangri-La region in Yunnan’s north.
Professor Li Demei at Beijing University of Agriculture considers Yunnan has the best conditions in China for making fine wine. The province is so warm that it does not need to employ the expensive practice of burying vines each year to protect them from the winter cold, as happens in the north.
A previous column reviewed Tibetan Dry wines from Shangri-La Winery. This column will focus on the Yunnan Red Wine Company based in Mi Le, near Yunnan’s capital of Kunming.
Vines at Yunnan Red are planted at about 1,800 metres, making it one of the highest vineyards in the world. It is located close to the Tropic of Cancer, which means the cool nights from the high altitude are balanced by the warm climate.
Winemaker Shan Shumin is the winery’s general manager and also responsible for daily production. He offered a tutored tasting at the vineyard of three wines made with Crystal, Rose Honey and French Wild. I’ve not encountered these varieties before, so it was difficult to find a point of comparison.
The 2009 Crystal is a delight, with aromas of mango and passionfruit. It was similar to a ripe South American sauvignon blanc but with more style.
The wine has a clean finish with good length. Its acidity balances the fruit’s intense flavours.
The phoenix on the label is an acknowledgement of the local ethnic minorities. The web site shows the artworks on bottles: http://www.yunnanhong.com/
The 2008 Rose Honey smelled exactly like the grape’s name. Despite its age the wine still had good acidity and structure, the latter the result of time in new and older French and American oak.
The 2008 French Wild was more tannic, though those tannins were soft. It tasted like a Bordeaux blend – black fruits and cassis.
Shan Shumin said the winery had made huge efforts to improve quality. In the 1980s Yunnan wines had a bad reputation because they were diluted with water to increase production. “Now we have high standards, a very hygienic production process, and we guarantee the quality of the fruit.”
The view from the winery is magnificent. It sits atop a hill looking down a long valley with its 4,000 hectares of grapes. Local farmers also sell grapes. Yunnan Red produces about 10 million bottles a year.
Balmy breezes caress one’s face when we sit on the balcony overlooking the valley. A church was built about five kilometers from the main buildings, in part to acknowledge the vineyard’s early links with missionaries. The area has a rare beauty.
Yunnan Red was established in 1997 and is currently owned by a Hong Kong consortium. Staff come from a range of ethnic minorities as well as Han Chinese. Yunnan has the most ethnic minorities of any province in China.
Rose Honey is the most planted grape. It is also sold as a table grape. Almost all the company’s wine is sold in southern China.
Shan Shumin believes Yunnan is ideal for grape cultivation provided winemakers choose the right grapes. Grapes like Crystal and Rose Honey have adapted to local weather conditions.
Wu Kegang and Chen Yong of the Yunnan Highland Wine Company published an academic paper in 1999 proving Yunnan plateau was an “excellent grape growing area”. Soils in the valleys were rich in trace elements and minerals that helped grapes grow, and strong ultraviolet light restricted diseases.
“Fresh air, clean water and no fertilizers or pesticides make grapes on Yunnan plateau a pure, environment-friendly product,” they wrote.