Wine (Chinese: 葡萄酒 pútáojiǔ lit. “grape alcohol”) has a long history in China. Although long overshadowed by huangjiu (sometimes translated as “yellow wine”) and the much stronger distilled spirit baijiu, wine consumption has grown dramatically since the economic reforms of the 1980s. China is now numbered among the top ten global markets for wine. Ties with French producers are especially strong, and Ningxia wines have received international recognition.
:”The Song of the Grape” (葡萄歌), by Liu Yuxi (772–842)自言我晉人 We men of Tsin [Jin 晉 = Shanxi], such grapes so fair,種此如種玉 Do cultivate as gems most rare;釀之成美酒 Of these delicious wine we make,令人飲不足 For which men ne’er their thirst can slake.爲君持一斗 Take but a measure of this wine,往取涼州牧 And Liang-chow’s [= Liangzhou’s] rule is surely thine.During the Tang dynasty (618–907), China started to import grape wine from Central Asia. Tang tricolor figurine of a Sogdian wine merchant holding a wineskin.Illustration of the cultivation of grapes and winemaking in Materia Dietetica (Shiwu Bencao 食物本草), Ming dynasty (1368–1644)
Use of wild grapes in production of alcoholic beverages has been attested at the Jiahu archaeological site (c. 7000 BC). High quality wine called qióng jiāng yù yè(Chinese: 瓊漿玉液) is mentioned in the Complete Tang Poems (Quan Tangshi), an 18th century collection of around 50,000 poems compiled during the reign of Emperor Kangxi. The phrase, which translates literally to “jade-like wine”, but has an idiomatic meaning along the lines of “wonderful wine”.
In 1995, a joint Sino-USA archaeology team including archaeologists from the Archeology Research Institute of Shandong University and American archaeologists under the leadership of Professor Fang Hui investigated the two archaeological sites 20 km to the northeast of Rizhao, and discovered the remnants of a variety of alcoholic beverages including grape wine, rice wine, mead, and several mixed beverages of these wines. Out of more than two hundred ceramic pots discovered at the sites, seven were specifically used for grape wine. Remnants of grape seeds were also discovered. If grape wine consumption was once present in Bronze Age China, however, it was replaced by consumption of a range of alcoholic beverages made from sorghum, millet, rice, and fruits such as lychee or Asian plum. In the 130s and 120s BC, a Chinese imperial envoy of the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) named Zhang Qian opened diplomatic relations with several Central Asian kingdoms, some of which produced grape wine. By the end of the second century BC, Han envoys had brought grape seeds from the wine-loving kingdom of Dayuan (Ferghana in modern Uzbekistan) back to China and had them planted on imperial lands near the capital Chang’an (near modern-day Xi’an in Shaanxi province). The Shennong Bencao Jing, a work on materia medica compiled in the late Han, states that grapes could be used to produce wine. In the Three Kingdoms era (220–280 AD), Wei emperor Cao Pi noted that grape wine “is sweeter than the wine made [from cereals] using ferments and sprouted grain. One recovers from it more easily when one has taken too much.” Grapes continued to be grown in the following centuries, notably in the northwestern region of Gansu, but were not used to produce wine on a large scale. Wine thus remained an exotic product known by few people.
Illustration of the cultivation of grapes and winemaking in Materia Dietetica (Shiwu Bencao 食物本草), Ming dynasty (1368–1644)
Not until the Tang dynasty (618–907) did the consumption of grape wines become more common. After the Tang conquest of Gaochang – an oasis state on the Silk Road located near Turfan in modern Xinjiang – in 641, the Chinese obtained the seeds of an elongated grape called “mare teat” (maru 馬乳) and learned from Gaochang a “method of wine making” (jiu fa 酒法). Several Tang poets versified on grape wine, celebrating wine from the “Western Regions” – that from Liangzhou was particularly noted – or from Taiyuan in Shanxi, the latter of which produced wine made from the “mare teat” grape. Meng Shen’s 孟詵 Materia Dietetica (Shiliao Bencao 食療本草) and the government-sponsored Newly Compiled Materia Medica (Xinxiu bencao 新修本草; 652) record that Tang people produced naturally fermented wine.
French wine was the first foreign wine imported into China. In 1980, at the beginning of Chinese economic reform, Rémy Martin ventured into China to set up the first joint-venture enterprise in Tianjin: the Dynasty (Wang Chao, 王朝) Wine Ltd., which was also the second joint-venture enterprise in China. Over the years, the company developed over 90 brands of alcoholic beverages, and its products won numerous awards both domestically and abroad.
However, most of its products were exported abroad in the first two decades due to the low income of the local population, and it was not until after the year 2000 when the economic boom finally provided the domestic population with sufficient disposable income to support the domestic market; this relatively recent occurrence coincided with the increased popularity of French wine in China. Other companies, including China Great Wall Wine Co., Ltd, Suntime and Changyu, have also risen in prominence, and by 2005, 90% of grape wine produced was consumed locally.
Also, as globalization has brought China onto the international economic scene, so too has its winemaking industry come onto the international wine scene. China has a long tradition of the fermentation and distillation of Chinese wine, including all alcoholic beverages and not necessarily grape wine, but is one of the most recent participants in the globalization of wine that started years ago in Paris, when several countries such as Canada realized that they may be able to produce wines as good as most French wine.
Quite recently, Chinese grape wine has begun appearing on shelves in California and in Western Canada. While some critics have treated these wines with the same type of disregard with which Chilean and Australian wines were once treated, others have recognized a new frontier with the potential to yield some interesting finds. Others have simply taken notice that China is producing drinkable table wines comparable to wines from other countries. Among the latest developments is the production of organic wine in Inner Mongolia.
As of 2012, a small number of large companies, such as Changyu Pioneer Wine, China Great Wall Wine Co., Ltd. and the Dynasty Wine Ltd., dominate domestic production. The total production of wine in 2004 was 370 thousand tons, a 15% increase from the previous year. The total market grew 58% between 1996 and 2001, and 68% between 2001 and 2006.
Notable wine-producing regions include Beijing, Yantai, Zhangjiakou in Hebei, Yibin in Sichuan, Tonghua in Jilin, Taiyuan in Shanxi, and Ningxia. The largest producing region is Yantai-Penglai; with over 140 wineries, it produces 40% of China’s wine.
China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region have an ancient history of viticulture going back to around the 4th Century BC, when Greek settlers brought the vine and more advanced irrigation techniques. However new archeological evidence has shown this to be untrue, because China produced grape wine, rice wine, mead (honey wine) 9000 years ago (7000 BC). The area around Turfan was, and still is, particularly noted for its grape production, and production of grape wines is mentioned in the historical record as well; Marco Polo mentioned that Carachoco (the name he used for Turfan) produced fine grape wines. The modern wine industry is largely patterned after French methods with a concentration on varieties like Cabernet. However, the Uighur traditional technique has survived especially in counties surrounding Kashgar. The Uighur home-made wine generally called “museles” (from Arabic “المثلث “, meaning “the triangle”) is still being brewed by households in many villages. Unlike wines west of Xinjiang, the brewing of museles requires crushing of local varieties of grapes by hand, then strained using the Uighur atlas silk, then boiled with amount of water equal to the juice and desired portion of sugar, until the volume of the mixture is down to the original volume of the juice, then stored in clay urns together with folk recipes varying by localities—in some counties, traditional Uighur herbal medicines, and goji, mulberries, sea-buckthorn, cloves, etc. in others, and even raw and unfeathered pheasants or poussin in others. The brew usually takes more than a month to accomplish. It is then un-urned, filtered and bottled to be stored for long periods. In some villages, the ritual of communally gathering a mixture of folk muselesbrews in a large village urn marks the occasion following the harvest and process of grapes. Museles is now being standardized by the wine producing industry in China and marketed under the brand-name of Merceles.
In September 2011, Ningxia winery Helan Qingxue won the Decanter World Wine Award‘s Red Bordeaux Varietal Over £10 International Trophy for its 2009 Jiabeilan, a Cabernet sauvignon blend. This win was widely considered an upset, with some wine experts even questioning the veracity of origin of the wine. On 14 December 2011 in Beijing, in a competition tagged “Bordeaux against Ningxia”, experts from China and France blind-tasted five wines from each region. Four out of five of the top wines were from Ningxia.
In the “Bordeaux against Ningxia” wine challenge held in Beijing in October 2011, Grace Vineyard’s 2009 Chairman’s Reserve, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, was voted best.
A Primer to Chinese Wine (Regional Guide with Maps)
January 6, 2020 – Updated on December 2nd, 2020
We can’t ignore the incredible growth of Chinese wine over the last few years. The country already outpaces many classic wine regions (in terms of production), coming in at 9th place in the world (2018).
Everything moves quickly in China, and so does the wine industry.
It’s time to take a closer look at Chinese wine to learn the wine varieties, the regions, and the unique terroir.
All About Chinese Wine
Wine culture is relatively new in China but in a short period of time it grew to be the 5th largest wine consumer in the world.
What’s more intriguing is the development of China’s own wine industry. The Eurasian grapevine first came to China during the Han Dynasty, around 2,200 years ago. Yet, it’s only been since the 1980s that we’ve seen China devote itself to modern winemaking.
China is a vast region, with various winemaking terrains and climates.
- Near the coast, Shandong has high rainfall and monsoons during the growing season, which widely affects wine quality.
- Further inland you’ll find Ningxia’s wine region. The Helan Mountains straddle the Gobi Desert and create arid growing conditions.
Key Wine Grapes to Know
- Cabernet Sauviginon, Cabernet Gernischt (aka Carménère), Merlot, and Marselan are the primary grapes in Chinese wine production.
In China, Cabernet is KING.
In the early stages of the Chinese wine boom, Bordeaux’s influence was principle. Varietal selection, winemaking techniques, and even wineries mirrored the famed French wine region. However, long before Cabernet Sauvignon, another grape held favor: Cabernet Gernischt.
Cabernet Gernischt arrived in China during the 19th century. The name loosely translates from German to “mixed Cabernet.” The noted grape geneticist, José Vouillamoz, researched it and figured out that Cabernet Gernischt is, in fact, Carménère!
The grape is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. Perhaps this explains why domestic Chinese wines often have a bell pepper (pyrazine) flavor – a common trait of the Cabernet family, particularly Carménère.
Another oddity in Chinese wine production is Marselan, a red grape originally from Southern France. First bred in 1961 by Professor Paul Truel, it’s a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. Marselan demonstrates good resistance to powdery mildew. Thus, it performs well in humid regions (such as Shandong). These wines are medium-bodied and Cabernet-like.
Chinese Wine: Dominated by Big Brands
Unlike other wine regions, government support and influence plays a key role in the winemaking of China.
Big brands like Great Wall and Changyu flood the market. These wines win at distribution, filling shelves across China’s immense country. They provide affordable wine, but, regrettably, do not paint a positive image of China’s winemaking potential.
Fortunately, we’ve seen smaller producers start to emerge; most notably from Ningxia, Xinjiang, and Yunnan. These wineries craft terroir-driven wines and lead the way with experimentation.
Chinese Wine Regions
There are 12 major wine regions in China, with five regions known for both quality and production.
Shandong Province – Yantai, Penglai, and Qingdao
Shandong has been China’s largest wine region, producing over 40% of the country’s wine. This is where China’s first modern winery, Changyu, started in 1982.
Yantai and Penglai sit along the same latitude as Bordeaux, so it is easy to point out the similarities between the two wine growing regions. Within Yantai, several large wineries mimic the same style of architecture as Bordeaux, with lavish French-inspired châteaux.
In 2018, the famed French producer, Château Lafite Rothschild, revealed their first Chinese brand, Domaine de Long Dai, located in Penglai. The Bordeaux producer started investing in the Qiu Shan Valley in 2008, planting 75 acres (30 hectares) of Cabernet Sauvignon, Marselan, and Cabernet Franc on granite-based soils.
The climate in Shandong is distinctly maritime. Its proximity to the sea, with monsoons and high annual rainfall, makes for wine growing challenges and difficulties. There exists high disease pressure during the growing season (not unlike Bordeaux). And, it’s here that you’ll find plantings dedicated to Cabernet Gernisht, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Ningxia – Eastern Helan Mountain Foothills
Ningxia is home to the most critically acclaimed wines in China. The region specializes in Bordeaux varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Gernischt (Carménère). It became famous after a hyped “Bordeaux vs. Ningxia” blind-tasting competition gave the region four of the top five wine placements.
The region is home to about 93,900 acres of vineyards (38,000 hectares), making it the second largest wine region in China. Most of the ~200 wineries found here work vineyards on the low foothills of Helan Mountain.
In 2013, Ningxia established its own classification, which is modeled after the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux. Revised every two years, the top wineries are divided into “grades.” Currently, 35 wineries are listed on the regional classification system.
What’s unique about Ningxia is its relative isolation and climate extremes. The region sits on the eastern edge of the Gobi Desert, where workers bury vineyards each year to survive the winter.
Additionally, Ningxia is situated at an extremely high elevation (for wine growing), with vineyards at 4,000 feet (1,200 meters). This increases solar radiation and grapes produce more anthocyanin (the red color in wine).
Hebei – Hualai and Changli
Surrounding China’s capital city of Beijing is Hebei. Hebei is the 3rd largest wine producing region in China, with 32,130 acres (13,000 hectares) of vines. It is home to one of the largest domestic producers: Great Wall. In fact, wine is the main industry in Hebei, with a market of 10 billion Yuan (USD $1.4 billion).
Hebei has various terroirs, from floodplains to mountain ranges, but there are two distinct winemaking regions: Huailai and Changli.
Huailai Wine Region
Huailai is situated northwest of Beijing, in the hills. The best vineyards are at higher altitudes, up to 3,200 ft (1,000 meters), where a dry climate prevails throughout the wine growing season. With vineyards only two hours from China’s capital (and 21.5 million people), Hauilai is a local tourist destination.
Changli Wine Region
Changli is situated near the Bohai Sea, where high humidity and disease pressure go hand in hand. Winter is cold and dry with freezing winds from Siberia. Because it’s so cold, vines get buried by hand to survive the winter.
Xinjiang – Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region
Xinjiang is a bit of a quandary. Supposedly, it produces as much as 100,000 tons of grapes on just 16,000 acres (6,470 hectares) each year. This remote region in northwest China shares borders with Kazakhastan, Tajikstan, and Afghanistan. The region has very rugged conditions with low rainfall and high temperature shifts between day and night. Because of this, grapes produced here tend to have high sugar content and low acidity, making for sweet and somewhat flat wines.
Additionally, transport is very difficult into and out of the region. So, most wines are shipped in bulk to large wine companies for blending. Against all odds, the region still shows potential because of its agricultural history with raisin production.
Within this area, there are two regions with geographic indications of interest: Turpan and Hoxud. Wines planted here include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Chardonnay.
This is Himalayan terroir, as Yunnan straddles Laos and Myanmar. Normally an area along the tropics would seem like a very unlikely place to make quality wine. But, with the high altitude of the Shangri-La Mountain range being around 8,530 feet (2,600 meters), it’s possible to grow quality wine grapes here.
Considering that, Moët Hennessy recently invested in the region, planting 500 acres (Cabernet varieties), intended to be managed by more than 120 Tibetan farmers.
- Shanxi – This is a plateau area very close to Beijing. While still quite small in terms of production, the region’s clay-based Loess Plateau soils show potential for Chenin Blanc, Merlot, and Cabernet varieties.
- Liaoning – This is in the far northeastern area of China and is known for ice wines of the French-American hybrid: Vidal.
- Heilongjiang – Found along the border of Russia, this region is known for ice wines.
- Tianjin – A small, historic area just outside Beijing, Tianjin is known for sweet wines of Black Muscat.
- Jilin – More known for ski resorts than wine, Jilin has an intriguing cold-climate wine variety called Amur (Vitis amurensis).
- Gansu – East of Ningxi, this area has difficult transport issues.
- Henan – Very small, Henan is challenged by hot and humid climate conditions.
Last Word: Global Benchmarks to Localized Taste
The growth of the Chinese wine industry suggests that there is keen interest for local wine communities around the world. China’s reliance on French wine as the benchmark of production continues to support the classic model of wine in the world. But, is this what’s best for Chinese tasting standards? Traditional Chinese cuisine begs for zesty white wines and rosé. And yet, dry, full-bodied red wines are the most important category in the wine growing industry here.
Regardless, the devotion China has demonstrated to producing both great quantity and quality wine is truly remarkable. The rest of the world can also learn from how the Chinese tackle their unique agricultural challenges.
- Chinese wine production plunged from 7th place in 2017 to 9th place in 2018 with 6.29 million hectolitres of wine. We suspect data-intake and wine fraud may be part of large difference.
- Cabernet Sauvignon is the preferred choice for Chinese consumers according to IWSR, All Beverage Alcohol China, Domestic Volume Report 2018
- The 12 Wine Regions You Need to Know (China Wine Competition)
- Wine Intelligence report China 2018
- News brief on Chateau Lafite’s Shangdong winery: Domaine de Long Dai from drinksbusiness.com
- Domaine de Long Dai website
- “Ancient World” wine regions within political departments of China Researchgate.net
- Xinjiang Wine region indications of Hoxud County and Turpan via decanter
- A fun free-for-all article by Jancis Robinson on Chinese wine producers
- Another great article about Chinese terroir
About Émilie Steckenborn
Emilie Steckenborn has lived in Shanghai, China for over seven years and is currently the Head of Education for Asia & MEIA at Treasury Wine Estates. Her passion for wine, food, beer and cocktails are brought to life through Bottled in China podcast and blog.