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China Wasteland Blossoms Into Organic Vineyard

WUWEI — Twilight is falling at the edge of the Tengger Desert, and the vines stretching out row after row are a snapshot of peace and serenity. A towering red castle-like building standing not far from the vineyard displays the name of the property — Weilong (Grand Dragon) Desert Oasis Organic Winery.

“We are about to start the September grape picking,” says Ding Weijie, the manager, after a busy day of work that included the final day of the China Organic Wine Festival.

Wuwei, in the northwest Province of Gansu, has been a key link on the North Silk Road since ancient times. With abundant natural grape-growing conditions, the city formerly known as Liangzhou has also had a very long wine history.

Ding began putting down roots here 10 years ago when he came from the eastern province of Shandong. “Now due to our large grape-planting base, Weilong has become the local government’s best calling card for showcasing a vineyard,” he boasts.

In fact, a decade ago when China’s organic wine market was barely at the cultivation stage, Weilong was already laying the groundwork. Good organic wine needs an optimal grape-planting area, and organic standards call for care and production to be with natural means.

For nearly two years starting in 2002, Weilong’s chairman Wang Zhenhai traveled across nearly half of China, accompanied by Bruno Zappia, an Australian viticulture expert, looking for an area to plant, ideally near the 37th parallel north, considered the best latitude for growing grapes.

Paradise conditions

Ding still remembers the first time he saw Wuwei — a boundless expanse of sandy land with typical gritty soil and an unspoiled ecological environment far from human habitation and pollution. The local officer accompanying them on the site exploration told them it had an average annual rainfall of 191 milimeters (7.5 inches) and an annual average of 2,725 hours of sunshine.

“For Bruno Zappia this matches almost exactly the grape-growing paradise he had long dreamed of,” Ding recalls.

Li Wuwei, a prominent Chinese wine expert and vice president of the Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University, notes that Wuwei is situated in a typical temperate arid desert and semi-desert area. It has drought climatic conditions and sufficient light to limit and reduce common fungal infection in moist areas. This gives it an clear advantage for organic viticulture.

Weilong did not hesitate to sign an investment agreement with the Wuwei authority and set forward a plan for producing high-end organic wine, as soon as possible.

After 10 years of hard work, the organic grape paradise that Bruno was seeking has become a living reality. By September, the eye sees green stretching out into the distance, a wonderland. The scale of the vineyard, some dozens of square kilometers, is so vast that it’s more like an ocean of vines.

But an even more important feature of this grape-planting base is the management model. All production costs such as land, vine, water, ecological fertilizer, planting techniques and training are all a direct investment of Weilong, the wine grower. Not only does Weilong have complete control over the grape’s quality and quantity to meet its organic standards, the farmers are also paid salaries just like workers in an industry, Ding explains.

Steady income

“This model provides farmers with a stable revenue while at the same time achieving the closest integration of the enterprise and the farmers,” Ding says. “Industrialized and standardized operational requirements ensure a good quality of organic viticulture and thus guarantee the quality of the organic wine.”

From choosing the varieties of vine to planting to the use of fertilizer and the timing of the harvest, all procedures follow organic operation requirements “so that we can ensure the wine’s authentic organic quality right from the start,” Ding adds.

As China’s top organic winery in terms of output, sales volume and market share, Weilong has also helped to change the local region’s industrial structure. Located at the east end of the Hexi Corridor, though a combination of sun, climate, water and soil, Wuwei is considered to be one of the most ideal production areas for organic wine in China, and among the world’s best.

Situated at the foot of the magnificent Qilian Mountains, Weilong’s planting base has not only transformed the appearance of a vast sandy tract with a harsh environment and poor development, but also the livelihood of local people.

“Weilong’s industrial input has been a real economic boost to the area,” says one official. “Organic farming has turned many square kilometers of wasteland into an oasis.”