Zoom sur le Xinjiang, vignoble chinois - Les Grappes

Zoom on Xinjiang, Chinese vineyard

In the space of a few handfuls of years, China has managed to create a vineyard area that comes neck and neck with the area of the French vineyard, which took centuries to develop and maintain. Nearly 800,000 hectares... placing them both behind the world's number 1, Spain (NB: let's be reassured, France remains first in terms of production!). The situation in China is due to an increase in wine consumption by its inhabitants, who dream of becoming a world player in the world of vines and wine. With the help of important western specialists in the field, the quality of their juices might even begin to please us one day. However, this is no easy task, given the Chinese climate and soils, however varied they may be from one region to another. Of the wine-growing regions, there are about ten in all, some more influential than others, some better conditioned to produce wine than others, as is the case in Xinjiang, in the northwest of the country, on the ancient Silk Road.

Xinjiang, an original geographical situation

On the border with Mongolia and Kazakhstan, the region of Xinjiang (translates as "new border" or "new market") is three times larger than France. It includes a vast plain, the Taklamakan desert, and above all, the Tourfan depression. The reason why we are interested in Xinjiang is that it is one of the only Chinese wine regions located in an environment still little modified by man and pollution, which gives it a natural quality.

Due to the Tourfan Depression, which happens to be the 4th lowest point in the world (154m below sea level!), the climate is very particular, continental, hot and arid, suffocating in the summer and freezing in the winter. On its mostly sandy soil, the drought is important, with very little rainfall (between 20 and 70 mm of rainfall year round). One thus observes, in Xinjiang, landscapes of the most luminous which can be obscured only by the sandstorms. And yet, in this drought, this "oasis" region, agriculture is possible thanks to an elaborate irrigation system that brings water from the Tian Shan mountains through underground canals. Yes, we are still a long way from the western ideal of the vine!

Drought, sand, frost and the vine

The cultivation of the vines can be classical, but there are many vines grown in pergola. The latter manage to be vigorous thanks to the rather fertile soil. Of course, vines do not grow everywhere in Xinjiang since, even though this region is three times larger than France, it has "only" 100,000 hectares of vines, on well-chosen soils! The hot and arid summer climate allows the grapes to reach maturity very quickly, the harvest can then be very early, in August.

Indeed, the grapes of Xinjiang require the winegrower to hurry up when winter arrives, which comes with its threatening frost, varying between -20°C and -30°C, from October onwards. This situation seems at first sight unthinkable for the survival of the vine, but the solutions are most creative. At the arrival of winter then, the vine requires an enormous amount of labour, just after the harvest, in order to cut furrows 50 meters deep under the ground (some species of vines are very difficult to cut).The vineyard technicians bury the stumps until spring to prevent them from rotting. Spring is the time when the vine cycle can resume "normally". Yes, it is possible.

These grape varieties buried in winter, who are they?

The grape varieties of Xinjiang, as for many regions of the New World, are based on our French classics: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling. To these grape varieties, we can add an autochthonous grape that we call the Chinese white grape, the Riou Ding Xiang, with muscat aromas, which is used in particular to make a sweet white wine. Being a vineyard still young in spite of everything, the grapes that grow there are only used to produce wine at 20% today.

Possible market share?

Even though wine represents only 2% of the alcoholic drinks market in China (compared to 40% for beer), its consumption by the inhabitants is on the rise, rising from 0.5L/inhabitant in 2007 to 1.4L/inhabitant in 2011 (a figure that has been increasing ever since).

The majority of the wines are sent in bulk to big houses elsewhere in the country to be bottled. Bottled for whom? Just behind Hong Kong and ahead of Australia and Belgium, we French people are the second largest customers in the market with a leading brand in Europe, Suntime! Concerning the prices, Chinese wines reach considerable prices, because this is how they evaluate a wine, often beyond its quality .

CITY/COUNTRY VOLUME (million litres) - Export share (%)

Hong Kong 2.81 - 76.57

France 0,23 - 6,27

Australia 0.09 - 2.45

Belgium 0.08 - 2.18

(Table: main customers by volume in 2014)

The soil of the Xinjiang region being relatively poor in organic matter and in phase with a very particular climate, the tastings are generally pessimistic. We hear that wines lacking acidity and having too high an alcohol content, producers prefer to extract the tannins to compensate for a lack of structure apparently due to the terroir. There is still a long road ahead (if it can be envisaged) for the wines of the "new frontier".

Mélany Bachmann (cellarman) for Les Grappes

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