Nicknamed huozhou or ‘Fire Land’ for its excruciating summer heat, Turpan is China’s hottest city. Surrounded by the Taklamakan desert and flanked by the red ‘flaming’ foothills of the Tianshan Mountain Range, Turpan sits 150 meters below sea level. Although it may seem unlikely, this region is becoming known for some excellent wines and is also China’s largest grape growing region, according to CGTN.
Sunset in the Puchang Vineyards. Image via Kevin Yang
When you start exploring wines from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, one name quickly rises to the surface: Puchang vineyard. According to Kevin Yang, a Brand Representative for Puchang, the vineyard sees only 16 to 22 millimeters of annual rainfall and sometimes 300 days a year without frost. The irrigation, however, is all snowmelt from the nearby Tianshan Mountains which flows through canals to the fields. With 2,000 years of grape growing history in Turpan, the ancient canal systems are an ingenious method of facilitating agriculture in an otherwise inhospitable environment. The climate, in turn, provides protection from the fungal and pestilent antagonists of grapes. Without the need for pesticides, Puchang has obtained Chinese, EU and French organic certifications.
The winery, originally Xinjiang Turpan Winery, planted the vines in the early 1970s. Among a wide variety of grapes tested in the region, close relations with the Soviet Union led to the planting of lesser-known grapes from what is now Georgia, Yang tells That’s. Saperavi and rkatsiteli are grown alongside well-known cabernet sauvignon and muscat vines. Beichun, one of the award-winning varieties on offer from Puchang, is a hybrid grape developed in the 1950s to survive harsh Chinese winters. It is the lovechild of muscat and a wild mountain grape from Jilin, the province sharing a border to the southeast with North Korea.
Wines are aged in oak for 12 to 36 months before bottling. Image via Kevin Yang
Since changing ownership and becoming Puchang Winery in 2008, the roster of clients and partners has come to include prestigious names like Joël Robuchon, The Hong Kong Jockey Club, BVLGARI and Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts.
Not wanting to be corrupted, we buy a bottle of 2018 Puchang rkatsiteli on JD.com before reaching out to the winery to answer questions.
Rkatsiteli from a range of ages retails for RMB268. Image via Puchangwine.com
White wine has been paired with fish since time immemorial. But with the omicron variant’s fingers creeping around Guangdong’s neck, flying to the far Northwest to go pike fishing on Ulunggur lake is out of the question. Instead, we grab the bottle out of the fridge and stroll over to the neighborhood Dongbei joint with the freshest oysters to do our tasting.
We order a plate of the standard BBQ oysters on the half shell with chilies and garlic and another three of their signature Japanese-style cheese baked oysters. The flavors of garlic and chillies are a bit strong for reviewing an unbeknownst white wine, but we aren’t in the mood to make special requests over the cacophony of dice and yelling.
If a restaurant serves only beer and baijiu, it's probably acceptable to bring your own wine. Image via That's
Thankfully they bring an actual wine glass and not a tumbler or a baijiu snifter. Completely unfamiliar with rkatsiteli, we pour the first glass and give it a sniff. It’s boozy and clean on the nose, but has no sign of flowers or fruit. This can be good news or bad, depending on what the wine is packing down below. Like an Ikea scented candle, the familiarity of fruitiness can sometimes be interpreted by the mind as sweetness. A dry white wine with a strong fragrance of apple or peach can be a very approachable wine for someone hesitant to trade in their vodka slimes and surrender to their early thirties. Rkatsiteli, however, is not a beginner’s white wine.
Square structures on the horizon are traditional vented huts for making raisins. Image via Kevin Yang
We taste it before the food arrives and, to our delight, the terroir shines. Terroir is a French word used to describe the soil and climate of a wine region which provides an unreplicable flavor. The Taklamakan desert is a slightly alkaline mixture of red clay, sand and mineral-rich gravel which gives the rkatsiteli a striking minerality. It tastes the way that the back of a waterfall smells — like rocks being pulverized by the elements. It’s a perfect wine to compliment the stoney zinc flavor of filter-feeding bivalve mollusks and has a prominent acidity to wash the garlic from our gums. Overall, it’s an excellent bottle with high acidity and all the complexity we want from good wine. It’s boozy but refreshing, like soju. It’s crisp but not fruity, like an underripe wax apple. It has the trace minerals of a mountain stream and it warms the gullet like a flask of Finnish vodka sipped swinging on a chairlift. This wine is probably good for your health.
The wine we tried can be purchased from Puchang Vineyard at the QR code below:
[Cover image via Wikimedia]