Fol­low­ing grapes on a fun­neled path

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - By RAYMONDZHOU and ZHANG YU in Zhangji­akou

Grapes are grown al­most ev­ery­where there is hu­man habi­ta­tion.

But most vine­yards take up vast tracts and are not too close to hu­man dwellings. In Xuan­hua, 150 kilo­me­ters north­west of Bei­jing, grapes are the main­stay of res­i­den­tial back­yards.

Within the 12-km old city wall are 1.5 square km of vine­yards out of a to­tal of 9.7 squarek­mof land. That is the fig­ure from 2013 when “Ur­ban Agri­cul­tural Her­itage of Xuan­hua Grape Gar­dens” was listed by Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion of the Unit­edNa­tions as a “glob­ally im­por­tant agri­cul­tural her­itage sys­tem”.

For a reg­u­lar tourist, that honor is not as eas­ily rec­og­niz­able as the name “milk grape”, which ac­counts for 80 per­cent of all grapes grown in this 600-year-old town, now a district of Zhangji­akou, He­bei prov­ince.

How­ever, this pop­u­lar moniker is a mis­nomer. The Chi­nese term “as used here is ac­tu­ally short for “cow’s ud­der”, the shape of the lo­cal va­ri­ety. But since it shares the same two char­ac­ters as the Chi­nese word for milk, it has led to the mis­un­der­stand­ing that the crop could con­tain the same taste or nu­tri­ents as milk.

Apart from the name, Xuan­hua grapes are unique for their fun­nelshaped trel­lises. In­stead of rows of vines, grape gar­dens look like a can­vas of upside-down um­brel­las, with the vines slant­ing into a round pit about 3-5 me­ters in di­am­e­ter and 0.2-0.4me­ter in depth. Inside the pit is a mound 1-2 me­ters in di­am­e­ter with a 30-35-de­gree slope, and this is where all the roots go. A whole trel­lis is 10-15 me­ters in di­am­e­ter and rises up to 3me­ters in height on the pe­riph­ery.

A fun­nel-shaped trel­lis needs half of the soil of a reg­u­lar one and it saves 40 per­cent of wa­ter. There are other ben­e­fits such as block­ing the sun, re­duc­ing tem­per­a­tures and rais­ing hu­mid­ity in summer. This has made such graperies a perfect shel­ter from the summer heat. And the lo­cal govern­ment is en­cour­ag­ing tourism an­chored around this ad­van­tage. Ac­cord­ing to Chi­nese his­to­ri­ans, this form of grape trel­lis was pop­u­lar in an­cient times, but some­howit has faded out andXuan­hua is the only place where it has been pre­served.

One ex­pla­na­tion for the shape lies in its ori­gin in Bud­dhist tem­ples, where early grow­ers framed a trel­lis like a lo­tus be­cause both the flower and the round shape are aus­pi­cious sym­bols in Bud­dhism. There is also the story of a Tang Dy­nasty (AD 618-907) mil­i­tary of­fi­cer named Liu Peng, who in­tro­duced grape plant­ing to this place in the year 774.

Mu­rals from 1093, un­earthed in 1993 in a lo­cal vil­lage, de­pict wine drink­ing and — if that’s not solid enough ev­i­dence— there were clus­ters of grapes in the tomb, dried but clearly dis­cernible, and a glass of pink liq­uid, which was later tested and con­firmed to be wine.

There are 40 some va­ri­eties of grapes grown in Xuan­hua, one of which, the grape, is fer­mented by the GreatWall Win­ery, lo­cated in a neigh­bor­ing county, into a dry white wine as well as a bub­bly that is served at up­scale ban­quets. But ac­cord­ing to ZhangWu, pres­i­dent of the Xuan­hua Grape Re­search In­sti­tute,

ni­u­nai” in Xuan­hua are known for their fun­nel-shaped trel­lises.

the milk grape — the most renowned kind— is not re­ally fit for mak­ing wine be­cause it con­tains too lit­tle sugar and acid. But it can be cooked as a dish.

Be­cause Xuan­hua grapes are a niche prod­uct un­fit for large-scale plant­ing, the num­ber of hectares has var­ied over the ages by many fac­tors. The im­mi­nent chal­lenge is the en­croach­ing ur­ban land­scape, which has made in­tra-city grape plant­ing eco­nom­i­cally un­fea­si­ble.

To dis­cour­age farm­ers from sell­ing their plots to prop­erty de­vel­op­ers, start­ing in 2010 the lo­cal govern­ment doled out sub­si­dies of 15,000 yuan ($2,252) per hectare. Back in 1988, it spon­sored the first grape fes­ti­val to raise aware­ness.

Even though milk grapes fetch a pre­mium price on the mar­ket, farm­ers, mostly the el­derly, find it hard to make enough money out of the ef­fort. This can be changed by boost­ing tourism with re­lated ser­vices and rev­enues as well as spe­cial winer­ies that use the Xuan­hua va­ri­eties. The trel­lises that yield the best wine, say ex­perts, should be 50 years old and they are easy to find in Xuan­hua. There’s one vine that leg­end puts at 600 years old and, like a vin­tage wine, it is marked with a red bow tie.

lon­gan

CHEN XIAODONG / FOR CHINA DAILY

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