Following grapes on a funneled path
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.