NEWSWine growing on the roof of the world

Wine growing on the roof of the world

Tibetan retirees are realizing their wine dream, continuing the tradition of growing grapes, once founded by Catholic missionaries. Unlike many Tibetans who devote themselves to religious activities or pursue hobbies after retirement, Hua and Lu Sheng decided to plant a vineyard instead in the middle of the last decade (2015). In doing so, they became pioneers of the tentatively emerging modern viticulture and winemaking in Tibet. In the meantime, they teach other farmers and thus create jobs and income for the poorer population with the support of the regional authorities.

TIBET (Tsalna/Nam/Lhasa) – As retirement approached, Hua and Lu Sheng, a Tibetan couple of Catholic faith, moved to Lhasa from the Markam region of southeastern Tibet, close to the border with Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in southwestern China. Tsakhalo, the couple’s former hometown, was one of the first and last Tibetan stops on the Chama Gudao, the ancient tea caravan route, a network of trade routes that connected Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou with the Bengal region of India. Although their newly chosen domicile of Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, is some 3,600 meters above sea level and was considered unsuitable for viticulture, the two embarked on an ambitious project in 2015: they cultivated land and planted vines in Tsalna, a community on the outskirts of Lhasa.

Her knowledge of viticulture was more than sufficient at the beginning of her wine project, only the cultivation in the high altitude region was rather a risk. Lu Sheng learned viticulture and winemaking from her great aunt, a Catholic nun who cultivated grapes in the family. The great aunt as well as Hua and Lu Sheng belong to the Catholic minority – predominant in Tibet is Buddhism and the Bon religion. Lu’s husband, Hua, became enthusiastic about viticulture long before his retirement and thus learned how to handle the vines in the vineyard and vinify the wines in addition to his job. For their project, the winemaking couple involved the local government, which supported the project from the beginning as an initiative to fight poverty among the rural population as a newly launched program.

The Lhasa Wine Project

“The Lhasa region is an ideal place for planting French grape varieties that are resistant to cold, drought and disease and can adapt to the high altitude,” Lu states. “Thanks to the sunshine on the plateau and organic farming, our grapes ripen very well here in Lhasa. They show a balanced play of acidity and sweetness, as well as a high anthocyanin content,” Lu says. Anthocyanins are water-soluble pigments that accumulate in the grape cells and give the wine a strong color.

After three more years of experience, in 2018 the winemaking couple already had almost seven hectares of vineyards cultivated and under cultivation. In parallel, they were teaching interested farmers how to work in the vineyard and make wine. “The support from the government is a great advantage for our project, but the assistance from the villagers and interested farmers in the area is what moves us and the Lhasa wine project forward. Without this help, we would have struggled greatly,” Hua reports.

Viticulture based on the tradition of Catholic minority in Tibet

Hua used to work for Tibet Tianlu Co. Ltd, a Chinese road and bridge construction company specializing in projects in Tibet; his wife Lu was a postal worker. Both are of the Catholic faith and practice it. In the mid-18th century, Catholic nuns and priests brought both their religion and viticulture and winemaking to highland Tibet, known as the “Roof of the World.” Today, the tradition of producing wine here is based on this. The knowledge of this has been passed down from generation to generation within the Catholic minority in Tibet.

Since red wine represents the blood of Jesus in Christian theology, many Catholics long to produce their own wine. While in Tibet, wine-like beverages are mostly made from barley, the Sheng winemaking couple focuses on their own production and on teaching how to make wine from grapes. Some are already imitating them and so a modern, like in Europe prevailing, wine production can slowly develop in Tibet.

Viticulture improves living standards

Some 1.8 million yuan (about 250,000 euros) has been paid to Tsalna and Nam villagers for land rent and labor over the past three years by the cooperative founded by Hua and Lu. Meanwhile, production increased from two tons of grapes in 2018 to five tons in 2021, certainly a modest yield, but a welcome development for the rural region considering the project. “We have successfully taught local farmers how to grow grapes and make wine over the three years. They now have a new source of income in addition to traditional farming and livestock,” Hua says happily.

At the 19th National Congress in 2017, the Communist Party of China proclaimed the campaign to vitalize rural areas in the Tibet Autonomous Region. “Residents have embraced the wine project as a new source of income. Now farmers have mastered the skills needed to do so and are benefiting from labor and leasing. This improves their standard of living,” proclaims the prefecture in Lhasa. “Our helpers, as well as the farmers who now make grape wine on the side, still drink barley wine, but the grape wine tastes better to them and is also healthier,” Hua sums up.

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