The Wine of Shangri-La

China Wine Online are reporting that Pierre Lurton, General Manager and Chief Winemaker of Chateau Cheval Blanc and d”Yquem, is searching for land in Shangri-La in Yunnan province for a new vineyard:

Pierre believes the south west of Yunnan is the best area for wine grape growing at the moment, which is different from Chateau Lafite, who focused on Shandong province.

Pierre said, “we have studied the soil, environment, climate and geology of Shandong, even made an on- the – spot investigation on seaside lands. I think Chateau Lafite chose seaside lands as vineyard due to tourism concern. However, we intend to brew a great wine combining Chinese terrior and French characteristics. Shangri-La is the top choice for the great wine.”

Shangri-La is a mythical earthly paradise set high in the mountains, safeguarded by wise monks, where men and women live amid spectacular scenery and never grow old. It was popularised by writer James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon in 1933 (he also wrote Goodbye Mr Chips).

Several places have claimed to be the location for Hilton’s Shangri-La but it seems Pierre Lurton might be on to something. Yunnan is the most south western province in China and borders Tibet in the north west, Burma in the west, Laos in the south, and Vietnam in the south east.

Yunnan has the largest diversity of plant life in China and has over 600 rivers and lakes. Zhongdian is a primarily Tibetan county in the north west of Yunnan and in 2001 the county changed its name to Shangri-La to attract tourism.

It seems that Zhongdian’s claim to be the mythical Shangri-La is not that far fetched. Apparently James Hilton’s inspiration for his book Lost Horizon came from the writings of the Austrian-American explorer, Joseph Rock.

At the time when Hilton was writing Lost Horizon Rock had just published a series on his travels in Yunnan and South West China, in the National Geographic Magazine.

The valley of Shangri-La in the book is dominated by the mountain peak Karakal and it’s thought that Hilton used Rock’s description of Mount Kawa Karpo (also known as Snow Mountain) for his own Karakal.

What’s more Kawa Karpo also contains another essential component of the Lost Horizon story: French priests. In Hilton’s Shangri-La, the Lamasery (Monastery of Lamas) is presided over by a high Lama who turns out to be a 200 year old former French priest, Pere Perrault.

In real life Rock described how he met a French priest in the remote hamlet of Cizhong in Yunnan, below Mount Kawa Karpo. And somewhat like the monks of Shangri-La who ate berries to maintain health and stay young, the French priests of Cizhong planted grapes and made wine. The vineyard is still there today and is still producing wine!

One of Beijing’s largest wine companies, Jinliufu Wine (VATS), took over the Yunnan Shangri-La Winery and produce wines from the grapes grown there. The Chinese names for the grapes are French Wild, Crystal and Rose Honey and the company is interested in finding out whether these grapes are in fact pre-phylloxera grapes brought to Yunnan from France by the missionaries.

It would be bit of a marketing coup if Pierre Lurton did establish a Chateau Shangri-La – we will have to wait and see!

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