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Historical documents show that grape seeds were brought to China from Uzbekistan by general Chang Chien during the Han Dynasty between 121- 136 BC and planted in Xingjian and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, 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 1996-2008 from US $ 10 million to 100 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.
Regardless, world famous First growth Bordeaux chateau wines like Chateau Lafite, Chateau Margaux, Château Haut-Brion, and Chateau Latour enjoy extraordinary popularity not so much because of their refinement and excellent flavour but for the prestige and their elevated prices. Wine njoyment is a status symbol, and the more you can afford to spend the more respect you seem to generate.