While there’s no evidence of reds being stashed under the bed, surging exports of Australian and Bordeaux wines to China’s status-seeking moneyed class is reinforcing the fact that a ‘vini-cultural revolution’ is in full swing.
Not content with cornering the market buying up some of the world’s prestige vintages, ( if you don’t believe me, check out the movie Red Obsession), a fledgling local viticulture industry is being established with an estimated 23,000 hectares under vines at more than one hundred wineries.
The man working in a vast hanger at Yunnan Red Wine Company near Kunming in Yunnan Province is dwarfed by a forest of forty gleaming steel vats each containing forty tonnes of fermenting red wine. The company began life as the state-owned and operated Shilin Wine Company but poor management sent it to the grape wall. Enter Hong Kong businessman Wu Kegang who was looking for a business in Yunnan not only with a commercial eye but as a tangible link to his wife’s family home. Like many of his Western business counterparts who rate owning a vineyard as a mark of a man’s status and sophistication, Mr. Wu enjoys the planting, vintage and drinking aspects that come with a trophy winery. Since purchasing the business in 1997, he has turned it into a highly successful winery producing 10,000 tonnes while attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year.
Strolling through the company’s gracious grounds, forty year-old trees create a serene European ambience. A towering white marble statue dedicated to the Goddess of Yunnan Red Wine is a striking feature amongst the greenery.
The 6.6 metre Goddess, a ‘con-fusion’ of Greco-Roman and Chinese styles, was commissioned from a Beijing artist at a cost of 1 million yuan, around AU$250,000. Erected in 2003, I’m tipping there were a few hangovers in 2103 when one hundred bottles of red wine stored in its base were uncorked!
The fine agricultural land around Mile county has high organic compounds and a fertility that suits grape growing. The Mile appellation was first discovered two hundred years ago by French missionaries who were passing through en route to Shangri-la and Yunnan Red Wine’s two main grape varieties introduced by the missionaries remain at the top of their best-sellers list. The almost translucent, fragrant green Crystal Dry grape is grown only in Yunnan while the sweet Rose Honey is one of the winery’s full-bodied revolutionary reds comprising 80% of their production.
In the long tasting room, large windows and a broad verandah provide misty vistas of vine-clad sweeping hills and small hamlets snuggle amongst the vineyard. Bottles depicting beautiful wine sirens on exotically graphic purple, pink and red wine labels are lined-up ready for our wine tasting. Sitting under a ceiling swathed in red banners, the two main grape varieties, Crystal Dry and Rose Honey, are proudly poured for tasting. Rolling Crystal Dry, a sticky sweet wine around a palate that’s been tuned to Pinot Grigio is a bit of a stretch but the reds, particularly the evocatively named French Wild Grape and Red Cloud Pearl are quaffable as we were destined to discover at subsequent banquettes during our visit to hospitable Yunnan!
There’s just time for souvenir shopping in Yunnan Red Wine’s smart gift shop for well-priced glasses and gift packs before we head to Mile market and the intoxicating imagery of rural China. In this area, farming is the staple industry where tobacco, corn, grapes and sunflower seeds are grown. The 1978 Reform allowed people, including the Hui local minority, to open their own businesses and further reforms have enabled families to purchase their lands which they farm for sustenance and commerce. Travelling to Mile, we share the road with tri-shaws, trucks and tankers and pass houses garlanded with sweet corn cobs drying in the sun in readiness for local market day.
A country’s cultural diversity can always be found at a local street market and in Mile, twinkling eyes are set in faces etched by a life of hard toil. Our guide Scott comments on the merits of living a relatively stress-free rural life where food is free of charge, sport is labouring in the fields and money is a luxury. “Life is like a cage: city people are like birds wanting to fly out of the cage while country people want to fly in”, said Scott reflecting on the growing numbers of farmers drifting into China’s cities looking for work and higher wages.
Despite this rush to embrace urbanization, down its dusty, narrow streets Mile has all the busy-ness of a Sunday city market. Women carry laden woven baskets on their backs, others have traditionally clad babies on theirs who peer at us with bright, inquisitive eyes. Ingeniously cobbled-together pieces of machinery rumble past including a make-shift tractor that looks as though it’s driven straight off an apocalyptic film set.
Along the roadside, a Yi woman in colourful dress sells tobacco while men sit and smoke long water pipes constructed from bamboo, PVC piping and anything else cylindrical that comes to hand. There’s the enticing aroma of fried potato pancakes, tied bunches of purple-etched green pole beans, sacks of arrowhead and kohlrabi that resemble un-detonated sea mines.
The scent of star anise, nutmeg and cloves pursues us through the market where locals take blue plastic bowls and fill them with noodles, fungi, seaweed and kelp. Wielding a spatula, the stallholder furiously slices and dices the mixture in a wok adding coriander, oil, salt, sugar, chilli and vinegar before up-ending the healthy blend into striped plastic bags. There’s pea jelly, rice shrimps, chunks of tofu and cones of brown sugar which, when beaten into an egg, is the local tonic prescribed for women after child birth.
As the wine is knocked back to enthusiastic cries of gan bei it’s apparent that China’s preference remains decidedly red.
China National Tourist Office – www.cnto.org
For more on what to see and do in Yunnan, visit www.travelchinaguide.com
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