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History of Chinese wine

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In China , wine could also be called the "Water of History" because stories about wine can be found in almost every period of China 's long story. The origins of the alcoholic beverage from fermented grain in China cannot be traced definitively. It is believed to have 4,000 years history. A legend said that Yidi, the wife of the first dynasty's king Yu (about 2100 BC) invented the method. At that time millet was the main grain, the so-called "yellow wine", and then rice became more popular. It was not until the 19th century that distilled drinks become more popular. Traditionally, Chinese distilled liquors are consumed together with food rather than drunk on their own. Although China has a 6,000 year history in grape growing, and a 4,000 year history in wine making, it was not until this century that Chinese wine was recognized in the West.

Wine and Chinese people

Without a doubt, wine occupies an important place in the culture and life of the Chinese people. Wine was intimately connected with most Chinese men of letters. It was also an inseparable part of the life of ordinary Chinese people. The banquets of ancient emperors and kings could not take place without it. Every sort of wine vessel thus became an important kind of sacrificial object. Inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells as well as bronze inscriptions preserve many records of Shang-era people worshiping their ancestors with wine. There were many famous Chinese poet or artist who crafted their masterpieces after getting "drunk". The famous poet Li Bai of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) is known as the "Immortal of Wine" because of his love of alcohol. Guo Moruo, a modern scholar, compiled statistics about Li's poems and found 17 per cent of them were about drinking. Early writers liked drinking and thought it an elegant way to pass the time. Apart from the taste of the drink, they also concentrated on the process of drinking. They created many games to go with drinking sessions involving a knowledge of history, literature, music and poetry. In ancient times, before a battle, a general would feast his soldiers with alcohol and meat. If they won the battle, they would be rewarded with good wine. If a warrior fell in battle, his fellows would scatter wine on the ground as part of a memorial ceremony.

Wine culture in China today

Ordinary Chinese people today have always just used alcohol to help them celebrate the happiness in their lives. In China , a banquet known as "Jiu Xi" means an alcohol banquet and the life of every person, from birth to death, should have pauses for drinking banquets starting a month or 100 days after a baby's birth when the parents invite people in for a drink. When someone builds a new house, marries, starts a business, makes a fortune or lives a long life, he should invite people in for a drinking session. In modern times it is a pity that the games that go with drinking are not the elegant ones of the past that involved poetry or music. Today, drinkers just play simple finger-guessing games along with a lot of heavy drinking. It also seems today that friendship depends only on the volume of drink being consumed. "If we are good friends, then bottoms up; if not, then just take a sip" is a common phrased exchanged during gatherings.

Chinese wine General Classification

Chinese wines can be generally classified into two types, namely yellow liquors (huangjiu) or clear (white) liquors (baijiu). Chinese yellow liquors are fermented wines that are brewed directly from grains such as rice or wheat. Such liquors contain less than 20% alcohol, due to the inhibition of fermentation by ethanol at this concentration. These wines are traditionally pasteurized, aged, and filtered before their final bottling for sale to consumers. Yellow liquors can also be distilled to produce white liquors, or baijiu (see below). White liquors (baijiu) are also commonly called shaojiu, which means "hot liquor" or "burned liquor", either because of the burning sensation in the mouth during consumption, the fact that they are usually warmed before being consumed, or because of the heating required for distillation. Liquors of this type typically contain more than 30% alcohol in volume since they have undergone distillation. There are a great many varieties of distilled liquors, both unflavored and flavored.

List famous Chinese liquors, wines

Fen jiu - this wine was dated back to Northern and Southern Dynasties (550 A.D.). It is the original Chinese white wine made from sorghum. Alcohol content by volume: 63-65%.
Zhu Ye Qing jiu - this wine is Fen jiu brewed with a dozen or more of selected Chinese herbal medicine. One of the ingredients is bamboo leaves which give the wine a greenish color and its name. Alcohol content by volumne: 46%.
Mao Tai jiu - this wine has a production history of over 200 years. It is named after its origin at Mao Tai town in Guizhou Province . It is making from wheat and sorghum with a unique distilling process that involves seven iterations of the brewing cycle. This wine is made famous to the western world when the Chinese government served this in state banquets entertaining the US presidents. Alcohol content by volume: 54-55%.
Gao Liang jiu - Goa Liang is the Chinese name for sorghum. Besides sorghum, the brewing process also use barley, wheat etc. The wine was originated from DaZhiGu since the Ming Dynasty. Nowadays, Taiwan is a large producer of gao liang jiu. Alcohol content by volume: 61-63%. Mei Gui Lu jiu (rose essence wine) - a variety of gao liang jiu with distill from a special species of rose and crystal sugar. Alcohol content by volume: 54-55%.
Wu Jia Pi jiu - a variety of gao liang jiu with a unique selection of Chinese herbal medicine added to the brew. Alcohol content by volume: 54-55%.
Da Gu jiu - Originate from Sichuan with 300 year of history. This wine is made of sorghum and wheat by fermenting in a unique process for a long period in the cellar. Alcohol content by volume: 52%.
Yuk Bing Shiu jiu - a rice wine with over 100 year history. It is made of steamed rice. It is stored a long period after distillation. Alcohol content by volumne: 30%.
Sheung Jing (double distill) and San Jing (triple distill) Jiu - two varieties of rice wine by distilling twice and three times respectively. Alcohol content by volume: 32% and 38-39% respectively.
San Hua (three flowers) jiu - a rice wine made in Guilin with allegedly over a thousand year history. It is famous for the fragrant herbal addition and the use of spring water from Mount Elephant in the region. Alcohol content by volume: 55-57%.
Fujian Glutinous Rice wine - made by adding a long list of expensive Chinese herbal medicine to glutinous rice and a low alcohol rice wine distill. The unique brewing technique uses another wine as raw material, not starting with water. The wine has an orange red color. Alcohol content by volume: 18%.
Hua Diao jiu - a variety of yellow wine originates from Shaoxing , Zhejiang . It is made of glutinous rice and wheat. Alcohol content by volume: 16%.



   This vast and most populous country of the world with its indigenous vine species (vitis amurensis, vitis thunbergii) has a very short western-style wine enjoyment. Wine is still poorly and assuredly not understood. Young people living in major cities ( Beijing , Shanghai , Canton , Xian) with money in their pockets want to experience and experiment new tastes.

To them wine is a novelty and an “in“ alcoholic beverage. Drinking merlot with coke may revolt a western wine enthusiast, but to a Chinese, sweet and alcoholic means more than fruity and dry. Some even add a few cubes of ice to cool it!

Chinese have been enjoying alcohol for millennia but wine as an alcoholic beverage was and still alien to their palate. When Chinese drink alcohol the expectation is to experience a burning, stinging, harsh, inebriating beverage rather than a smooth, fruity, refined and refreshing liquid. In fact, there is no Chinese word for wine. The word used for it is CHIEW, which can mean distilled or fermented beverage.

Historical documents show that grape seeds were brought to China from Uzbekistan by general Chang Chien during the Han Dynasty between 121- 136 BC and planted in Xingjian and Shaanxi (Xian). There are vague references to western style wine being made as early as 7th century AD. Records show that substantial amounts of grapes were imported from

Tashkent presumably to make wine.

After Chinese armies invaded Turfan, well known for its very mild winters and growing out-of-season vegetables and fruits to export all over Asia , vines were imported and planted. Subsequently the vitivinicultural industry grew in central China especially in Kansu and Xian provinces. There have been attempts to make wine from vitis vinifera grapes planted in Shantung north of Shanghai , but all were at best successful in a limited fashion.

"Wines" were made from millet, sorghum, and rice, but they were more brewed beverages than what we know and consider being wine. Chinese serve alcoholic beverages at eh beginning of a meal while listening to music and always with food. Such beverages were always served in small cups resembling sake cups than wine glasses! Even today during state banquets staged for foreign dignitaries, wine glasses with which the leaders toast each other are small and look more like cups than wine glasses as we understand them.

Towards the end of the 19th century Zhang Bi Shi a government employees established the Chang Yu Winery in Yantai after returning from a foreign posting. He planted vineyards using Welschriesling from Austria , and employed the Austrian consul as his winemaker. There are no records of the taste of the wine! The other winery of some reputation was Quigdao ( Tsingtao ) more famous for its beer than wine, which was established by Germans as Melco Winery. It still produces floral white wines with an oily texture and dark yellow colour, indicative of oxidation through excessive aging!

 French interests to cater to the diplomatic community and foreigners founded Shang Yi winery in Beijing .

By 1949 all wineries were confiscated, and then government operated with the objective of increasing production, rather than improving quality. Managers blended wine with water, fermented cereals, colouring matter and sugar, to create a concoction that tried to resemble wine! Those who knew anything about wine rejected these products out of hand; those who knew nothing about wine could not afford it!

Today China 's statisticians calculate the total vineyard area to be 65,000 hectares spreading from Xinjiang in the northwest to Shandong , Lianoning and Jilin in the northeast. Most of the fruit is for eating or meant to be dried rather than to make wine. In fact all wineries combined vinify only 20 per cent of grapes harvested. Since 1980's the government encouraged foreign investment in the beverage alcohol industry. The first western company to establish a joint venture with Tianjin

Fram Bureau was Remy Martin of Cognac fame. The Huadong winery in Quingdao ( Tsingtao ) was established by Hong Kong interests and is now managed by an English multinational distiller. Pernod-Ricard established a winery in Beijing (1987) and Italians, not to be outdone started the Marco Polo winery in Yantai (1990). Seagram, the former Canadian liquor multinational, is involved in a winery project ( Summer Palace ).

All the above imported vitis vinifera cuttings, selected suitable sites and planted vineyards according to the latest research with regard to trellising, spacing etc.

Some old vineyards were planted by Russian scientists who naturally used their own grape varieties namely Rkatsiteli and Severnyi and others with Black Hamburg better known for its sweet fruit and wines.

Huadong winery decided to plant 50 hectares of chardonnay in Shandong and make dry wines to cater to the ever-increasing number of tourists, and young, moneyed, nightclub visiting well-educated Chinese market. The wine are excessively acid, light, lack body and extract, but this is due more to the age of vines and excessive yields than expertise in wine making! There is no phylloxera problem, but humidity causes mildew, white rot, oidium just to name a few diseases that plague vineyards in China .

Varietal wines are now being marketed with little success since grape names mean little or nothing to the average Chinese consumer. This is the reason for mixing merlot with coke, and chardonnay with sweet, clear aerated soft drinks.

Sometimes even red and white wines are mixed, sweetened with soft drinks, and ice cubes are used to cool the drink!

Chinese traditionally like oxidized alcohol, a left over of rice wine production in previous centuries, and fashion grape wines after that model. In fact, in many Chinese food recipes you are advised to substitute rice wine with dry sherry.

Presently 200 wineries try to compete with imported wines from France , Germany , Italy , the USA and Canada . Ice wine from Canada seems to have hit a soft spot in the hearts of well- heeled Chinese, since they so like sweet wines, and the more expensive it is the more cherished it becomes.

Imports increased significantly from 1996-1998 from US $ 10 million to 50.0 million mostly due to government decree encouraging wine consumption. The population in general seems to prefer liquor to get inebriated quickly after consuming relatively small quantities.

Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Rkatsiteli, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot are some of the grapes planted which thus far yield low alcohol, medium to light bodied wines.

Since there are no laws regulating the industry, a varietal wine can contain up to 49 percent of another grape than the label states, which would help understand why some Chinese wines undrinkable, others barely acceptable!
Red wines seem to be a tad better than white, but overall the industry still needs improvement as do consumers palates.


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