As the plane was approaching Beijing, I was trying to recall the taste of some Chinese wines tasted a couple of months before. Now there was a chance to taste authentic Chinese wines. Was it possible that the Chinese were keeping their best and most precious for themselves?
No one can deny that Chinese chefs know how to delight the palate. Their regional cuisines (Cantonese, Shanghai, Szechwan and Chinese Imperial from Beijing) rank among the finest in the world. Even the Communist government recognized this important fact and took pains to ensure that foodstuffs were always available in abundance.
Practically all western-style food ingredients are available in Beijing, Shanghai, Canton and other cosmopolitan cities catering to tourists.
Eastern-style wine making in China has a venerable history. Rice wine and beer were made 4000 years ago. Vinifera vines arrived in China via Iran approximately 5 – 10 A. D but grape wine was made about 1000 years later.
During the Sung dynasty (11th century A. D), rice wine became popular among poets, mandarins, artists and courtiers. At the time, grape wine making was unknown in the country, but some farmers were learning the art from vintners in the Turfan Valley in Turkmenistan, where table grapes are still grown.
Legend has it that in 1322 the emperor ordered all the vines in China uprooted, but seemingly the edict never reached every part of the empire.
Marco Polo reported seeing vines in Taiyuan. Today every type of grape and rice wine, along with beer is produced.
In Chinese, jiu (chiew) is a generic name for alcohol and requires further specification. Grape wine is putao jiu. But even then an inexperienced waiter may be confused.
To Chinese, alcoholic beverage means mostly rice wine (not to be confused with rice beer) and beer. Distillates and grape wines are beverage categories of interest only to hip youth in big cities, mostly influenced by advertising and promotions staged by large multi national beverage companies with huge investments in the country.
Remy Martin, Seagram’s, Southcorp from Australia, Pernod-Ricard are only a few that come to mind.
Interestingly enough, Kittling Ridge, an Ontario distillery, produces and markets whisky and other distillates successfully in China.
Western wine marketers and wine conglomerates including Hong Kong entrepreneurs regard China as a potentially lucrative market and have been investing millions in vineyard development, wineries and marketing.
Vineyards are primarily located in Shandong, the Turfan Valley, Xinjiang, Jilin, Heliongjiang, Lianoning and Xindao (Quintao).
There is a virtual hodgepodge of grape varieties, some of which belong to cold-resistant vitis amurensis, and are better for processing into raisins than wine.
Russians, and western Europeans, introduced many grape varieties and a number crossbred by Chinese research institutions. Growers prefer Long You (Dragon’s Eye), Ju Feng Noir a.k.a Ji Feng (a hybrid of Kohox Jixiang developed by Dalian Institute in 1973), Rkatsiteli, Riesling, Welschriesling, Chardonnay and Sylvaner for white wines.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc are used mainly for red wines. Local red grape varieties are employed for processing only.
Chinese winemakers like to blend sorghum, grapes, and millet, resulting in oxidized, unbalanced and flat wines of no interest to western consumers.
European and Australian wineries with vineyards of their own produce western style wines that seem to impress tourists and young, affluent Chinese, but essentially this society lacks a wine-drinking culture.
Recently red wines are diluted with water and often served on ice cubes.
In Canton, one can still find tiger bone-, snake-, and ginseng wines in pharmacies; these are said to cure a variety of diseases.
Old-style red wines are hopelessly oxidized and resemble more poorly made tawny port, and white wines look more amber. Modern wines look and taste more like international style. They are palatable but lack depth due to the young age of vineyards.
Chinese take an entirely different view rice wine applying imagination, care and resources in its production. The yellow wine of Shaoxing (Shao Hsing) is legendary with its minerally taste. Hua Tiao is another sought-after brand.
In the past, some rifce wines were aged up to 100 years, but today, ten years seems to be the maximum. Excessively oxidized wines are made to rice wine vinegar often used in Chinese cooking.
Around Xiamen (Amoy), a sweet clay-jar-aged rice wine is produced; it is called Chen Gang (Sunken urn) – a wine that most western wine enthusiasts regard as an acquired taste. The population north of the Yangtze River likes white Kao Liang (sorghum spirit) called Kao Liang Chiew (Jiu), whereas “southerners” prefer yellow wine, made from gelatinous rice, sorghum and regular rice.
Rice wine yellow or white seems to have been created for local food, confirming the old adage: “ What grows together goes well together”.
Kwei Chow Mutai brand Mao Tai from Guigzhou at 55 ABV is internationally famous although it was only first introduced in 1915 in Panama. It is potent and most suitable for rich and fatty foods. Xifeng from Fengxiang south-west of Beijing , herb and bamboo-leaf infused Zhu Ye Xing, are two popular distillates with locals and tourists.
Chinese brandies come in two qualities – “simple” and “aged”. Both are consumed locally.
When it comes to beer, Chinese products may be considered as good as any brewed elsewhere. European-style breweries were set up starting 1898, first by Germans on the Shandong peninsula in Quingdao (Tsingtao), and still produce fine beers mainly due to the quality of local water. Since then Heineken, Tuborg, Allied Brewers, and some German and Hong Kong entrepreneurs set up breweries to quench the thirst of the huge population. Some have been successful in brewing and marketing, others were happy to cut their losses and abandon their business due to a variety of reasons.
Laoshan, Shanghai, Xian, Beijing, Tientan, Yinhua and Waxing are some of the local brands, which have loyal regional followings, mostly due to the lack of competition.
Surprisingly, often beer in China is served at room temperature, due not to ignorance, but lack of refrigeration facilities.