Vive le Yunnan? Shangri-La Jones and the Lost Vines of France

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Yunnan Red Wine Company vineyard (J. Boyce)

– By Jim Boyce

Are grape wines from southern China’s Yunnan province – considered by some the location of Shangri-La – made from the survivors of vines devastated in France by phylloxera from the mid-1860s to the mid-1890s?

An intriguing question, not only because of its Indiana Jones-type feel (hence the title) and its historical and East-West angles, but also because Yunnan wines – made from grapes known as French Wild, Crystal and Rose Honey – may be among China’s best bets for getting on the world wine map.

The history of vines in Yunnan seems as disjointed as China’s own over the past century. This is what I have gleaned so far, with major credit going to Ma Huiqin, professor at China Agricultural University and walking wine encyclopedia, and Campbell Thompson, who evidently spends even more time reading about wine than he does drinking it (he notes that the science of studying grapevines is called ampelography).

From The Wine Report 2008 by Tom Stevenson:

“… Table grapes have been growing here (Yunnan) since Christian friars brought vines from France in the mid-1800s for their early missions…”

From a Time magazine article: “China is a newcomer to the wine world, and while much of its produce has yet to make par, there are three wonderfully unusual varietals that show promise – French Wild, Rose Honey and Crystal Dry. Old records show that missionaries originally brought these vines to China’s Yunnan province from France some 200 years ago (an origin confirmed by DNA testing) – and it’s believed that they may be extinct in the home country itself.”

Re Vines, Grapes & Wines: The Wine Drinker’s Guide to Grape Varieties (1986; republished 2002). This book mentions there are about 6,000 identified varieties of vitus vinifera, the species of the vine really suitable for fine wine. Of these, approximately 1,000 are used for winemaking today. Neither Chrystal Dry nor Rose Honey are mentioned. (Thanks to Campbell for this research.)

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From my December interview with Zhang Ning, chief winemaker of Yunnan Red Wine Company, on French Wild grapes.

“The background of this grape is interesting. Our vines come from at least two sources.

“The first source is from Chinese abroad who brought back clones from Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and Vietnam, in the 1950s. The vines were introduced from a Chinese refugee farm (Hua Qiao Nong Chang) which was established in the 1960s in Yunnan. We are not sure where the original vines came from.

“The second is from Ci Zhong Church in the Shangri-La region in Yunnan province. We assume these vines came from missionaries.

“We have heard there are four different clones of French Wild, but we only have two types in the vineyard. Most of the information we have is anecdotal and the full story still needs to be told.

Finally, and more sobering, Ma says, “I think the vines came around 1880 to 1900, but I need to do more checking.” As for the Time article statement about DNA tests, Ma, a molecular biologist, says, “We need more detailed information to support that conclusion.”

According to several sources in Yunnan, dozens of missionary records, written in French, exist in a county library there and may provide clues. I will post more about the “Shangri-La” vines as information becomes available.

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