SHANGHAI | 20 Dec, 2020
The wine region of Xinjiang (also known as the Uighur Autonomous Region) borders multiple countries and is home to many ethnic groups. The area has been producing wine since at least the 4th century B.C., when Greek settlers arrived in the area and shared their advanced irrigation techniques. In fact, the famous explorer Marco Polo mentioned the grape wines of the Turpan region in Xinjiang in his travel logs.
Today, Xinjiang is the largest region for wine production in China, in terms of geographic size (but not in terms of sales or production). The primary viticulture focus of Xinjiang is sweet wines, due primarily to the local climate. The region is also known for its grape and raisin production. In terms of climate, Xinjiang experiences dramatic differences between daytime and nighttime temperatures. In addition, the level of rainfall is so low that it can result in near drought-like conditions. Due to these factors, wines from Xinjiang are generally high in sugar levels, with very low acidities.
There are several key areas for wine production in Xinjiang, including the areas surrounding the Tian Shan Mountains. On the northern slope of the mountains, there is the Manas Basin. And on the southern slope of the mountains, there is the Yanqi Basin. Two other important areas include Ili, near the western border of China, and Turpan, which encompasses nearly 70,000 square miles in eastern Xinjiang. The major geographical feature of Turpan is the Turpan Basin.
While modern wine production (especially Cabernet Sauvignon) is now taking place in Xinjiang, the region is known primarily for its Uighur traditional wines, which are essentially homemade wines produced in tiny villages using old folk recipes passed down for centuries. The wine, known as museles, involves crushing grapes by hand, straining the resulting grape juice, boiling the juice with water, and then storing it in clay urns. After a certain period of time, herbal medicines or other folk remedy ingredients (including mulberries, buckthorn, and goji berries) can be added to the wine. At that point, the wine is removed from the clay urns, filtered and then bottled for sale. To celebrate the end of a harvest, it is still a tradition in some villages to create a huge communal village urn of wine that will be shared later. When this museles folk wine is sold commercially, it is typically branded as Merceles.
Due to its remote location in China, Xinjiang has historically had lower than average levels of production and transportation infrastructure. Until recently, Xinjiang was known primarily for its unblended bulk wine that was traded with surrounding provinces. With the growing modernization of the Chinese wine industry, though, the focus has shifted to bottled wine.