Chinese Wine Takes Off in the Competitive Global Industry
In recent years, the world has seen China’s meteoric rise to become a superpower in the global economy. Now, the oldest living civilization on earth has set its sights on the international wine industry, and it looks like success is right around the corner for this global giant. Ever since the country became the biggest market for Bordeaux, international wine companies have been clamoring for an in on China’s booming wine trade. But success runs both ways—China has also recently started exporting its own grape wine.
In 2014, the country ranked as the seventh largest wine producer in the world—just behind Australia and Argentina. An impressive feat, considering the speed by which China has developed its local wine market in the last few decades.
A Head Start on Viticulture
Chinese viticulture is believed to have started in 4600 BCE, when the ancient Greeks planted the first vines in the country. This theory was established when a joint Sino-USA archaeology team discovered traces of alcoholic beverages, including grape wine, in an archaeological site northeast of Rizhao in 1995. Upon testing, it was determined that these remnants were about 4,600 years old. This meant that the Chinese had early knowledge of winemaking. Though attempts to produce wine from grapes were successful, the practice died out in the Bronze Age. This was around the time when the early Chinese began favoring rice wines and fruit liquors over their grape counterparts.
Interest in grape winemaking experienced a small revival during the time of the Han Dynasty, in 206 BC to 220 AD. This was after the dynasty’s imperial envoy, Zhang Qian, opened relations with other kingdoms in Central Asia. After a trip to the ancient Dayuan kingdom—Fergana province in modern-day Uzbekistan—envoys from the Han dynasty brought grape seeds back to China. The grapes were grown near the kingdom’s capital, Chang’an. Once wine was produced from these early vines, Cao Pi, emperor of Wei, praised the wine for its sweetness. At this time, however, grape wine was still considered a rare and expensive commodity. Vine growth was also limited to a very small area.
But all this was about to change. The liquor’s popularity grew widespread during the Tang Dynasty in 618 to 907AD. From then on, grape winemaking became an integral part of Chinese culture.
The Onset of Modern Winemaking
Modern viticulture was introduced to the country in 1892, at the establishment of the Zhanyu Winery—later called the Changyu Pioneer Wine Company—in Yantai, Shandong. Its founder, Chinese diplomat, Zhang Bishi, employed the use of winemaking techniques, new machinery, and wine storage methods to make premium-quality liquor. The liquor was then aged using oak barrels instead of traditional urns. This new way of doing things made it possible for wineries to refine their processes while improving the quality of the wines.
Under Communist rule in 1949, vineyards were nationalized. The goal was to mass-produce the liquor, with little focus on increasing its quality. Wineries began mixing additives to the alcohol—a trend that wouldn’t be banned until 2003. By the end of the 1970s, there were over 100 wineries in the country, causing wine production to skyrocket.
In the early 1980s, China began importing wine from France. This led to a lucrative partnership with French Wine and Cognac company, Rémy Martin. The joint venture became known as the Dynasty Wine Corporation.
The Emergence of a 21st Century Winemaking Giant
Today, China has more than 400 wineries spread out in over 100,000 acres of vine area. These vine areas are located in the country’s foremost wine-producing regions, which include Ningxia, Beijing, Taiyuan, Yantai, Tonghua, Zhangjiakou, Yibin, and Yantai-Penglai.
In 2014, the country’s annual wine production was at 11,780 hectoliters. Around 40 percent (40%) of that number was produced in the Yantai-Penglai region, which boasts of over 140 wineries.
Ningxia, on the other hand, is home to some of the highest-quality wines in the country. One of its red wines won a Decanter trophy in 2011.
Recommended Contemporary Chinese Wines
These days, most of the wines in China are made using traditional French grape varieties. The following are just some of the most celebrated contemporary wines in the country.
Chardonnay – Chardonnay is arguably the most popular type of white wine on today’s market. Its flavor depends on three factors: the ripeness of the base fruit, whether or not it’s been oak-aged, and its acidity levels. If the chardonnay is ripe, then its fruit flavors lean toward the tropical. At first sip, you can expect a touch of sweetness akin to that of ripe mangoes, jackfruits, or pineapples. If unripe, the chardonnay will be on the zestier side of the spectrum, with underlying notes of high-citrus fruits like lemons and green apples.
When it comes to oak-aging, if left unoaked, this wine should have the freshness and acidity of similar wines like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. While oak-aged chardonnay is usually buttery and full-bodied, with hints of caramel, vanilla, praline, and pie crust.
Cabernet Sauvignon – Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most well-known reds offered by China. This wine is generally full-bodied with big notes of dark fruit flavors like black currant, black cherry, or blackberry. Oak aging typically lasts from 9-18 months. The oak-aging process usually brings a savory element to this wine. Expect hints of vanilla, black pepper, or tobacco.
If you’re a fan of this particular red wine, consider getting a bottle from a winery in the Ningxia region. The region has a reputation for churning out excellent Cabernet Sauvignons, and we’re sure at least one of their bottles would be right at home in your wine cellar.
Merlot –If you’re a fan of reds but don’t necessarily like a heavy mouthfeel or a long finish, then Merlot may just be the right wine for you. A good Merlot is characterized by its subtle notes of raspberry, black cherry, or plum, and its easy tannins. The softness of its flavor and its smooth mouthfeel make this wine one of the most versatile liquors in terms of food pairing.
Carignan (Red) – For fans of savory wines, there’s always the red Carignan. Characterized by its bold mix of contradictory flavors—try licorice, blackberry or black cherry, and cured meat!—this wine makes an exciting and exotic addition to any wine vault.
With offerings such as these, it’s no wonder why the country is regarded as a global force in the wine industry. So the next time you’re planning a wine tour, consider China.