Grape production in China: Turfan – Oasis in the far West

June 7, 2007

Today I want to take my readers on a long trip to the Far East. China is our destination. That wine is produced in China, is “no news”. When we were living in Beijing in the early 1990s, we were very pleased to find Qingdao Huaguan Chardonnay, Great Wall and the Dragonseal reds. Today, shops in the big cities are well stoked with wines from all over the world. Wine consumption is increasing. The internet is full of news and analysis about Chinese wines and wines in China ( I found on the net a lovely 200 pages book manuscript of the late Pieter Eijkloff with the title: “Wine in China – Its history and contemporary development”. There is so much to read about wines in China, incredible.

In 2005 my wife Margit and I, visited the most Western part of China and we stayed a couple of days in Turfan. The main motive was sightseeing and to get to know this part of China which we had never visited before despite the fact that we resided almost six years there. Turfan is a very fertile oasis in the middle of the dessert along the Silk Road. it is located in a depression about 30 m below sea level and the Turfan basin extend to about 50,000 sqkm.

A mosque in Turfan

The pictures below give you an idea under what condition grapes are produced in this region with an extreme climate, very short, but hot summers (up to + 40 Celsius) and very long and ice cold winters (up to -20 Celsius). There is only minimal precipitation, on average about 20 mm per year. When we were there it “rained”. That’s what the local guide told us, otherwise we would not have notices. It was just a bit humid.

A typical vineyard near Turfan in spring

During the winter months the canes are buried in the ground to keep them alive. In spring they dug out and “hung” over various kinds of racks. Because wood is so scarce, we find all kinds of material where the vines are hung up. According to our guide there are many hundreds of different varieties. Unfortunately, our guide was not a grape expert.

Vines in the two-row system

Vines in the one-row system

However, we visited a family and could buy some of their produce. Traditionally they produce raisin not wine. Most Uigurs are Muslim therefore they do not drink alcohol. The grapes are dried in open barns.

A drying barn

Margit buying raisin in the market

In the local supermarkets of Turfan we could get a good overview on what wines were on offer. The sales prices drive tears into the eyes of an Australian primary producer. My vintners heart almost broke. What a pittance of a price for the producer will be left when all the costs of the agents are deducted!

The vines are irrigated with an age old irrigations system, called the Karez system. The water from the surrounding mountains, mostly from melting snow, is brought to Turfan through a sophisticated system of wells and deep channels dug by hand and lined with sheep skins. Thousands of kilometres of underground water channels can be found. From this precious resource mostly vegetables and fruit are grown.

Vines coming from a “central point and hung in squares”

Most meals we had included of some kind of mutton dish. We enjoyed the rustique but delicious cuisine of the Uigurs. After many beers and some “schnaps”, we also tried some of the reds. I do not remember the brands but we loved the drop. Traditional dances were presented and in one location the local invited us to dance to their music to which we joyful obliged. It was a very memorable visit to this most Western part of China and its friendly people in the bubbling markets. Needless to say that I brought back some of the traditional head gear and an lute like instrument.