Located in the southwest of China, Yunnan is an up-and-coming wine region that is known for its humid climate, mountainous elevations and long growing season. The primary grape varieties grown in Yunnan are Rose Honey, French Wild and Crystal – all of them are hybrid varieties that were originally brought to China from France by missionaries in the nineteenth century. The exact provenance of the grapes is unknown, however, since the original vines from Europe went extinct during the phylloxera epidemic of the 1880’s.
The Yunnan wine region borders three other Southeast Asian countries: Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Vietnam. Yunnan is located at approximately the same latitude as the Sahara Desert in Africa, but the region also has hilly and mountainous elevations of nearly 6,000 feet (1,800 meters), which creates much cooler temperatures at night. Near the Tibet border, these cooler elevations can actually be as high as 8,200 feet above sea level (2,500 meters). The region also has very mineral-rich soil, which contributes to the very unique terroir. Similar to the more famous Chinese wine region of Shandong, Yunnan has vines that can survive winters without artificial protection, thanks to the extensive sunlight at very high elevations. The total size of the region is 394,000 square kilometers (152,000 square miles).
There are three primary river valleys where grape growing has developed most extensively: the Mekong River Valley, the Dadu River Valley, and the Min River Valley. Wineries that have recently been established in these river valleys include the Shangri-La Winery, the Spirit of Highland Winery, and the Baima Winey. Due to the hilly terroir and mountainous elevations, vineyards tend to be very spread out, with very little plots spread out over a wide distance.
While Yunnan has a relatively short winemaking history, dating back only to the 1980’s, it has already attracted plenty of international attention. For example, Moet Hennessy established the Shangri-La Winery in the north of Yunnan, while famed Bordeaux winemaker Pierre Lurton (best known for his role at Cheval Blanc and Chateau d’Yquem) has been scouting out possible locations for a new winery.
The best-known wine company currently in Yunnan is the Yunnan Red Wine Company, which produces red wines with special flavors. These wines are made with local hybrid grape varieties that are very popular in the villages of Yunnan. Yunnan Red Wine Company was founded in 1997 and is based in Kunming, China.
While Yunnan is not yet on the same level as China’s more famous wine regions – such as Shandong and Ningxia – it is growing rapidly, thanks in part to viticultural growing conditions that are very unique to the region.