In Yunnan’s mountainous landscape lies a predominantly Tibetan and Naxi village where the majority of residents are practicing Catholics and the local wine is the legacy of French missionaries.
The missionaries arrived in this region along the Mekong River in the 1800s, bringing along with them the “Rose Honey” grapevine to make a dark red, syrupy sweet communion wine. They also built a Catholic church and converted many of the mostly Buddhist locals, causing conflict. The church had to be rebuilt in Cizhong in 1914 after Buddhists burned down the original and killed two missionaries.
In the meantime, back in France, an infestation of phylloxera, a pest that feeds on grapevines, was wreaking havoc on prized vineyards; Rose Honey grapes did not survive in France, but they continued to grow in Cizhong. In recent years, villagers have gone from producing wine for communion to producing it for sale, bringing income to what was long a poor area.
Religious practice here has been influenced by Yunnan’s many minority cultures, including those of the Tibetan people and the Naxi people, a matriarchal group, so visiting the church and attending a mass in Cizhong offers a unique experience unlikely to be found anywhere else. Similarly, visiting the local winemaker will allow you to taste wine made from a grape not cultivated elsewhere.
A 2018 damming project has decreased the amount of land available for vineyards, and some land previously under cultivation has been paved over to build homes for those resettled after the damming project. Time will tell if winemaking will survive in Cizhong or if, in a few years, the stone church and the remaining faithful will carry on without the help of Rose Honey grapes.
Know Before You Go
Cizhong is located in Deqen county of the larger Deqen (also called Dechen, Deqing, and Diqing) Autonomous Prefecture, a mountainous region of China’s Yunnan province. Visitors say that some roads leading to Cizhong can be narrow and muddy. Cizhong is accessible via car and public transit. To get there via public transit, fly to Shangri-La, then take a bus to Deqen county. From there, shuttle buses to Cizhong leave daily.
Only two vineyards in Cizhong still cultivate Rose Honey grapes. One of them is on the grounds of the old church, and the other, owned by local tour and trekking guide Wu Hongxing, sells its wine in a shop next to the church.