Through the Grapevine
Grape Farming in Central Taiwan’s Changhua County
Text: Dallas Waldie
Photos: Maggie Song
Taiwan is not known as a great grape-wine country, but grapes are indeed cultivated on this island. Travel in Taiwan visited an orchard in central Taiwan to find out more about local grape cultivation.
Central Taiwan is the ideal location to grow grapes on this island, due to its moderate climate. In the south it is too hot, and the north’s abundant rainfall is detrimental to optimal growth as well. The central region’s climate offers that happy medium grape farmers desire. Furthermore, the fertility of the soil in central Taiwan is boosted by the nutrients absorbed from several rivers that flow from the soaring central mountains, including the Zhuoshui River, the island’s longest river and a key water lifeline. The warm weather year-round also allows farmers to cultivate two crops a year.
To learn more about Taiwan’s grape cultivation, we head to Changhua County, which is just south of the central metropolis of Taichung. We go to the grape fields of Dacun Township, south of Changhua City. To get there, we take an express train from Taipei to Changhua and then a local train to Dacun. Upon arrival at Dacun’s railway station, I spot a 10-foot-high statue of grapes across the road – we’ve clearly come to the right place.
We are greeted by local farmer Mr. Wu Shu-chun, who runs a grape orchard on his Jiaxiang Farm in this rural part of the county and has agreed to show us around. From the station it’s a short ride to his farm, and on our way I notice the stark difference from the bustle of life in Taipei that I’ve become accustomed to. However, as I hail from the countryside myself, the fresh air, fertile terrain, and unobstructed landscape that vanishes into the horizon are all refreshing to my senses.
After arriving at the farm, we sit down for a chat with Mr. Wu, who serves us a sample of the orchard’s produce. The grapes are succulent as can be, and virtually explode as my teeth dig in. The farm itself is quaint and traditional. I don’t see any pieces of heavy equipment or high-tech gizmos.
The grapevines are entwined around iron frames which, despite looking rather primitive, are said to be able to withstand typhoon-force winds. Mr. Wu informs us that the total area of the orchard is approximately 6,000 square meters (about 1.5 acres). The 36,000 bushels of grapes produced on Jiaxiang Farm each year are all cultivated and harvested by hand by the farmer and four laborers.
Inside a weathered aluminum warehouse, three women are sorting the freshest possible batch of grapes at a casual pace, preparing them for shipment. I’m surprised to learn that Mr. Wu, along with a few other farmers in the area, uses an approach different from the usual for distribution – his farm delivers grapes directly to the doors of its customers. This not only eliminates the middleman and increases profit, it also allows for direct communication between the farmer and his customers (who, as Mr. Wu tells us, have no problem complaining about this year’s grapes being smaller than last year’s!).
Maintaining a healthy relationship with customers is crucial, since new clients are often derived through recommendations by satisfied existing customers. “Quality over quantity” is the motto that is insisted upon when it comes to grape cultivation in Dacun.
“Quality over quantity” is the motto that is insisted upon when it comes to grape cultivation in Dacun
In the early stage of each harvest, a huge chunk of grapes is cut from each vine in order to optimize nutritional intake for the remaining, more promising, fruit. The less-satisfactory grapes are used as fertilizer. The grapes left dangling are covered with eco-friendly bags, which reduce the amount of viruses, pesticides, and bugs that come in contact with the fruit.
With high pressure from clients and intense competition from other farmers, quality is of the utmost importance. Eco-friendliness is also a priority in the fields of Dacun. To reduce the use of pesticides, Mr. Wu calls on a trusty gang of bug-eating ducks to patrol his fields. Homemade bug traps are also used. Pheromones attract pests into a vessel from which they cannot escape.
The steady rainfall of central Taiwan also reduces the need to irrigate the fields, and the fertilizer used is 100% organic. Only in the relatively drier winter season might there be a need for man-made showers.
Most of the farming is done outdoors, but a small fraction of grapes are cultivated in greenhouses. This is to ensure there will be stock when holidays like Mother’s Day and Chinese New Year roll around.
After five months of meticulous care, the grapes are ripe and ready to harvest – every June and December. We’ve arrived just in time for the June picking, but still too late, it initially seems, to grab a box to take home – we’re told everything is already been spoken for! Luckily, Mr. Wu soon lets us know he has a secret stash, ensuring us that we won’t go home empty-handed.
The earth of farms in Dacun Township is made up of sediment from the Zhuoshui River. It is rich in nutrients, notably calcium, which helps to create a grape that provides a lush, juicy sensation on your palate. The flavor of these grapes is pleasant, and not overly sweet – just enough to put a smile on your face.
The flavor of these grapes is pleasant, and not overly sweet – just enough to put a smile on your face
However, the township’s location is also the source of a serious drawback. Even though precipitation is comparatively lower in the central plains, Taiwan’s inevitable generous rainfall results in rapid growth that aesthetically hinders the grapes.
In other words, if you’re looking to decorate your mantle with grapes like an ancient Greek, you might want to consider picking up imported varieties. For those solely concerned with rich flavor and texture, however, Mr. Wu has the right product!
You’ll find most Taiwanese don’t eat the skin of grapes. I have also acquired this habit. To peel the fruit properly, place the grape in your mouth with the hole from the stem facing the back of your mouth. After a light pinch to the backside with your teeth, the flesh will slide right out of the skin like it was meant to be. Once the skin is separated, remove it with your fingers like a candy wrapper. It may seem like a hassle, but afterwards it’s much easier to isolate the seeds.
There is also a wide assortment of processed products available to keep grape-lovers happy all year round. The obvious ones include wines, jams, and juices, but on this trip I am also introduced to grape vinegar and grape noodles. Grape vinegar can be used as a low-fat salad dressing, in cooking, or even consumed on its own. I’m told not to take too much on my first sip, and to my surprise find that, for a vinegar, the taste is not at all unappealing.
The grape noodles are not at all what you might think. Although they have been dyed purple by the grape juice, the amount added isn’t enough to affect the taste. It’s just a little something to make them look prettier and more festive.
If you’d like to get your hands on any of these goodies, you can get in touch directly with the farmers of Dacun. Jiaxiang Farm can be contacted via e-mail, phone, or even the LINE app, which the staff occasionally use to mass-message clients. Either that, or go straight to the source.
If you want to stay in the area or visit a leisure farm, Iku Vineyards & Gasthof Vitis offers a secluded getaway in the Dacun countryside in a spacious European-style abode where everything grape-related is obtainable. Of course, locally grown grapes are also readily available at brand-name supermarkets and street-side markets around Taiwan. Whenever you make a purchase, look for firmness and strong color – and don’t let aesthetics hobble your judgment.
When I began writing this article, I had a full bowl of Taiwan-grown grapes beside me. It has since been reduced to stems, skins, and seeds. As during my farm visit, they have had a “potato chips effect” on me – the same effect they will no doubt have on you when you try them.
English and Chinese
Jiaxiang Farm (佳香農場)
Add:20, Lane 131, Sec. 2, Jiadong Rd., Jiadong Village, Dacun Township, Changhua County (彰化縣大村鄉茄苳村茄苳路二段131巷20號)
Tel: (04) 852-7533, 0926-584-829
Iku Vineyards & Gasthof Vitis (雅育休閒農場)
Add:328, Sec. 2, Qixing Rd., Gongqi Village, Dacun Township, Changhua County (彰化縣大村鄉貢旗村旗興路二段328號)