The History of Wine In China
China has an ancient wine industry dating back approximately 4,600 years. Winemaking came to Western China with the Persian Empire (before 651 CE) via the Silk Road Trading Route. The religion of the Persian Empire at that time used wine in rituals, which meant that making wine was an important skill. After the Muslim conquest, wine production and wine-making stopped in Persia (Modern Iran) because alcohol was prohibited. However, there were regions in the more distant parts of the Persian Empire such as Xinjiang, China that continued to make and drink wine.
In 1279 CE, winemaking came to Shaanxi, central China with the Mongolian invasion of China. These ancient local techniques which use the local grape varieties can still be found in wines made in peoples’ homes in these two areas.
Wine Consumption & Tourism in China
If you ask for a white wine in China, you’ll likely receive their national drink baijiu or shaojiu, which is a actually a distilled “wine” made from rice and sorghum. If you ask for red wine you will get the grape-based wine that North Americans and Europeans are used to. Rice wine is still more popular than grape wine at a consumption of about 5 million tons per year, while grape wine sits at less than one million tons consumed. In the grape wine market, red wine definitely wins out over white grape wine in China taking 80% of the wine market with Cabernet Sauvignon being the clear favourite varietal. Because the majority of wines made in China are not exported to the global market yet, you must travel to China to try most the wines they make. This makes for an excellent opportunity for wine tourism in China.
Wine Regions in China
Since the Chinese economic reforms of the 1980s and the general opening up of the Chinese economy to the world market, China has become one of the Top 10 Global Markets for Wine. In 2013, the Chinese population consumed 2.17 billion bottles. Currently, China has the 2nd largest amount of land dedicated to grape growing and wine production in the world. While the majority of China’s soil is not great for grape growing, the regions that stand out the most as having promising terroir are:
- Yantai, Shandong Province
- Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province
- Shaanxi (an ancient wine region, discussed above)
- Ningxia (an autonomous region)
- Xinjiang (an autonomous republic bordering Kazakhstan also an ancient wine region, discussed above)
How Many Wineries are in China?
There are over 400 wineries in China with many small wineries on the rise such as Grace Vineyards located in Shaanxi. Its 2010 Tasya’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon won the Decanter Trophy in May 2012. Many Chinese wine experts believe that Ningxia is the up and coming wine region as wineries there have learned to use their terroir properly and grow an excellent calibre of grape as well as produce international quality wines. In December 2011, Beijing hosted a competition “Bordeaux Against Ningxia”. They took five of the best wines from each region and the judges were 5 experts from each country. Ningxia won 4/5 competitions.
The Changyu Pioneer Winery in Yantai, Shandong Province is focusing not only on wine production and grape growing, but it is also pushing forward to position itself as the foremost promoter and educator on wine culture in China (as can be seen in the documentary below). With a plan to have eight Chateaus, in six regions around China, an innovative “International Wine City,” “Vine & Wine Research Center” and “Wine Culture Museum”, it is looking to draw in oenophiles from China and the world over. It is definitely something to think about for your next wine vacation destination.
China Great Wall Wine Company in Zhangjiakou
Despite some successes, many wine experts, both Chinese and internationally, believe that the wine-making industry in China is not at the international standard yet. They compare it to Australian or Chilean wines when they first entered the market. China still has quite a ways to go before its wines are consumed on a large scale internationally. Right now most of the wine produced in China is used for local consumption only.
Here are a few great choices for Chinese Wines to drink:
Wall Street Journalist, Stan Sesser’s article “Giddy Times for Chinese Wines” clearly highlights many of the issues with the current Chinese Wines:
“A decade ago, most Chinese wines couldn’t be swallowed. Recently, I bought 10 wines in Shanghai and invited three wine experts—Andy Lau, the sales director of ASC Fine Wines, a big Shanghai-based wine importing firm, and Yang Lu and Diego Zhang, both sommeliers—to taste them with me. I included three Grace wines. The other seven were from the three largest Chinese wine producers, Changyu, Dynasty and Great Wall. The tasting surprised all of us: All but one of the wines were actually drinkable, a couple even enjoyable. Here are highlights from my notes:
Changyu Nonvintage Cabernet, $5.40 (USD): The bad old times. An aroma that evoked dirty sweat socks and cleaning fluid and a foul chemical taste.
Great Wall ‘Dry Red Wine,’ $2.87 (USD): Clean and pleasant if light and simple, reminding me of the Charles Shaw “Two Buck Chuck” wines in the U.S.
Grace 2008 Cabernet, $10 (USD): Thin, with no varietal character.
Grace 2001 Merlot, $28 (USD): An enticing smell that within a minute disappeared; the wine was too old and turning to vinegar when exposed to air.
Grace Deep Blue 2008, $42 (USD): This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc showed good balance and attractive flavours, although I wished it had more depth.
Great Wall Cabernet 1998, $72 (USD): Real wine—deep coloured, full bodied, tannic but with a lot of fruit—that could have held its own with Cabernets from other countries. The surprise consensus winner.”
Watch this Documentary about Wine in China
This excellent documentary, “The Grape Wall of China” clearly highlights some of China’s strengths and weaknesses in their new burgeoning industry as well as the culture popping up around it.
Video: The Grape Wall of China
While the production industry is still getting off it’s feet, the consumer culture is soaring and as disposable income increases the demand will get only get higher. In 2009, Hong Kong surpassed both New York City and London to become the world’s top fine wine market.
The Major Grape Varieties Grown in China
Most of the wines produced in China are French, Italian and German varietals along with some grape varieties from USSR, Hungary and Bulgaria that they received at the start of the Republic in 1949. China has thousands of native grape species, but the most popular and the ones set to start being exported are Dragon’s Eye and Ju Feng Noir.
China has come a long way from “locals make wine in ceramic pots and wealthy people store tens of thousands of kilograms of wine, which could last for scores of years” a description of the industry from 138 BC by Zhang Qian in “The Record of a Grand Historian.” However, it may be another decade or more until your local wine retailer has a China section or until you see Made in China on your wine bottle in a fine restaurant, but next time you are on a Cathay Pacific flight, at Hutong Fine Chinese Restaurant in London (one of the first fine dining Chinese restaurants abroad to carry Chinese wines) or in China, take advantage of the opportunity and try some of the Chinese wine offerings. Gam bei (bottoms up) and kai pay (drain your glass)!
Do you live in Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong? Or are you planning to visit one of those cities? Check out our awesome wine events section and find an awesome local wine event.