Some of China’s best wines – and China makes a lot of wine – are from Xinjiang Province. Forget the posturings of Great Wall, Dragon Seal and the often quite dreadful ‘surprise’ one can ﬁnd in a bottle, Xinjiang Wines are in a league of regional excellence all their own.
The very best ones are from Turpan, in the Taklimakan Desert, where the temperatures regularly hit 50 degrees in the summer and -20 in winter. So what the hell are wines doing being grown in the desert ?
It’s very much a Silk Road story, and a classic tale of ancient ingenuity. 2,000 years ago, en route to the fabled riches of China, for trading, the caravanessi on this route had traveled over the Tian Shan Mountains, which are glacial, frozen and very dangerous, decending all too brieﬂy into the lush meadows around what is now Urumqi, then crossing the Taklimakan Desert to get to the next stop over point – the legendary Dunhuang oasis. From there, you were pretty much home and dry. But getting across the Taklimakan is no easy task. It’s name, in Kazak, means “go in and you won’t come out” and it is a howling, nasty, gritted, sunblasted hell of a place to be wandering around in. So harsh indeed are the conditions that camels can’t make it across without perishing. Something had to be done to permit a regular ﬂow of traﬃc, and here, sharp eyed adventurers noticed Mother Natures great gift for providing a natural solution. Turpan – which only exists because of this quirk – is actually the second lowest place on earth, in the bottom of the Tarim Depression. The Tian Shan Mountains are glacial. Solution ? Build massive, underground channels, all the way from the source of the melt water in the Tian Shan, under the desert (so it doesn’t evaporate) – with gravity pulling it down into the Tarim Basin, and open it all up again at the lowest point – which happens to be Turpan. These channels, known as “Karaz” stretch in some cases over 1,000 km and date back two thousand years. They are still maintained and in use today.
Opening them up in Turpan revealed another secret – the basin was fertile. Long ago the bed of a prehistoric sea, irrigating the desert here meant things would grow. Now in very extreme climates, one plant in particular is highly valuable; the vine. It grows quickly, and if trellised, it’s leaves provide much needed shade from the sun’s piercing heat (The leaves are also edible). The vine obviously grows grapes, which are a highly nutrious form of food, proteins, and much needed vitamin c – and can be dried easily and packed together as a stable diet – essential for supplies on the caravanessi where volume and weight are at a premium. Grape juice is nourishing and delicious, and of course where people grow grapes – they inevitably turn to making wine. So Turpan, previously a barren, dry nothingness of a scorched wilderness, suddenly transformed into a vibrant, stop oﬀ market town – the cool waters of the karaz providing not just for grapes but also melons, apricots, nuts, dates….with a nearby small valley providing just enough shade and protection for the vines to withstand both the searing summer heat and the winter snows.
Xinjiang wines therefore have a long, noble and romantic history. The best-known is probably Lou Lan – named after the famed “Beauty of Lou Lan” a mummiﬁed girl of about 20 years at death, now over 3,000 years old, whose looks are exquisitely preserved – from the now lost to the sands ancient settlement of Lou Lan, 100 km further into the desert. The Lou Lan vineyards make a very good Cabernet Sauvignon (vintaged, unlike most Chinese wines) and a refreshing Sauvignon Blanc. These can be found for about RMB80 a bottle in many supermarkets. It is also possible to visit the vineyards in Turpan, it’s about two hours drive east across the desert from Urumqi. The Oasis Hotel is the place to stay (0995) 852 2491 and you can pick up all manner of fruits, nuts and excellent dates in the town. Enjoy the silk road desert ambience – order a plate of spiced lamb meat and salad – and wash it down with one of the most remarkable wines and wine stories to have ever evolved.