Chinese Wine Culture(s): Part I

Chinese Wine Culture(s): Part I

Chinese Wine Culture: Any informative guidebook or primer in Chinese history/culture will allude to China’s enduring and extensive gastronomic heritage. Unsurprisingly, wine of various sorts and myriad other fermented beverages have played their parts in centuries of culinary and social evolution, marking the rise and continuity of Chinese culture itself. That culture has been extraordinarily adept in absorbing influences whilst keeping them ‘Chinese’: whether in the forms of Buddhism or Islam. But the gastronomic inheritance is arguably much more ‘resistant’ and more continuous; and the pragmatic, philosophical approach of Confucianism has meant the Chinese have never really gone in for en masse religion, at least in its more metaphysical ‘Western’ forms.

Ancient Chinese wine vessels
Ancient Chinese wine vessels
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The romance of wine is, however, a lasting source of veneration. All forms of alcohol are classed as jiu, (酒), grape wine being putao jiu (葡萄酒). No one knows precisely what kind of wine the early Chinese poets celebrated, but various types made from fruit (especially plums), rice or sorghum are likely. One poem from the early Tang Dynasty is specific, however, its first line reading ‘Beautiful grape wine in a moonlit cup’ – but most texts stick to jiu alone. I freely admit to being neither

a Chinese historian nor a Chinese literature specialist; but it’s safe to say the wonders of Tang Dynasty poetry would be unimaginable without wine and, further back, whole dictionaries have been devised to explain the types of plants and foodstuffs that appear in the early literature.

Clearly, the association between wine and literature in many cultures is seemingly a given. But the relationships are especially acute in the case of China: whether in the poetry of Li Bai – who famously drowned in a drunken attempt to embrace the moon reflected in a river – or, at a further cultural remove, in the work of Scottish poet Frank Kuppner, whose A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty (1984) and Second Best Moments in Chinese History (1997) feature venerable scholars getting drunker and drunker on wine (and much besides). My own Chinese name, Du Mu Kang (杜慕康) – devised by poet Wang Ao (王敖) – derives from the legendary Chinese ‘discoverer’ of wine, Du Kang, whilst nodding at Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu. The Chinese never
Poet Li Bai with winePoet Li Bai with wine

seem to get over the symbolic resonance of these three characters, just as they are equally amused for a foreigner to have adopted them. What’s in a name?

Wine production from vitis vinifera grapes is, however, a late 20th Century phenomenon in China. Certainly, some of these grapes were introduced by 19th Century missionaries: Beijing’s own Dragon Seal winery having originally been the play-thing of a determined French abbot. China also possesses indigenous or semi-indigenous grapes (pic of grapes) of its own. But, like native American vines, although hardy, these can produce ‘foxy’ or musty aromas. As the early plantings of vitis vinifera vines were intermixed (as in the case of ‘Cabernet Gernicht’) international visitors eventually brought preciser cuttings, largely from France.

Grace Vineyards grapes
Grace Vineyards grapes
Patrice Noyelle, now head of Pol Roger Champagne, was among the first, who, marrying into the Mommessin family of Burgundy fame, brought Chardonnay cuttings to the Huadong winery of Qingdao.

However, China has great problems producing healthy grapes, at least for wine production. Rain at harvest, rot and mildew – brought on by

excessive humidity and poor vine ventilation – as well as too fertile soils all gravitate against quality wine production; not to mention a complex agricultural system unused to viticulture and the hassle of having to bury most vines manually during winter. Against this background, it’s impressive what Grace Vineyard (Shanxi Province) has achieved in particular; which, along with Dragon Seal, is among the few wineries producing drinkable wines
Grace Vineyards Deep Blue wine
Grace Vineyards “Deep Blue”

made from exclusively Chinese grapes. But how do these domestic wines stack up against foreign imports? What are these two wine markets like? And what wine drinking cultures seem to be evolving in the modern PRC?

Next time: the Chinese domestic market…

~Edward Ragg, China Correspondent


About the Author:

Based in Beijing, Edward Ragg reports on the ever-changing and developing wine industry in China and abroad. Edward Ragg is co-founder, with his wife Fongyee Walker, of Dragon Phoenix Fine Wine Consulting, Beijing’s first independent wine consulting company. A former Captain of the Cambridge University Blind-Wine Tasting Team and a Landmark Tutorial Scholar (2010), he has judged at the International Wine Challenge (UK), Shanghai International Wine Challenge, China Wine Challenge, Wine 100 (Shanghai) and was guest international judge at the 2012 McLaren Vale Wine Show. Ragg holds the WSET Diploma and qualifications from The Court of Master Sommeliers and Society of Wine Educators. He is a WSET Educator and WSET Level 3 Assessor. A writer in a number of fields, his books include A Force That Takes (Cinnamon Press, 2013), Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction (Cambridge University Press, 2010), and Wallace Stevens across the Atlantic – co-edited with Bart Eeckhout – (Palgrave, 2008). He contributes regularly to poetry magazines and wine journals (selections from his poetry can be found in Lung Jazz: Young British Poets for Oxfam [2012] and the Carcanet anthology New Poetries IV [2007]). He is Associate Professor in English at Tsinghua University and brother to Michael Ragg, MD of Burgundy producer Mischief & Mayhem.


  1. Richard Smith February 13, 2009 at 11:51 AM - Reply

    Okay, I was keeping this a secret for my Monday evening post after a staff tasting but, one of my favorite wines right now is Great Wall 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon from, yes, you guessed it, China! At $14.00 a bottle this wine is an excellent value, spare and elegant in the European style. I would guess that many, if not most, would identify it as a Bordeaux. Well worth hunting out.

  2. Edward Ragg February 18, 2009 at 10:54 PM - Reply

    It’s a while since I’ve tried the 2003 Great Wall Cabernet Sauvignon. Great Wall makes a huge number of wines and, unfortunately, quality can be hit and miss. But I’m glad you’ve found a reliable example!

  3. Richard Smith February 18, 2009 at 11:16 PM - Reply

    FUnny you should say that. The first two bottles i had were great but the one I broght back to the office for a staff tasting was tainted. Now I have to find another bottle or two to prove my case for Chinese wines! Very frustrating.

  4. Edward Ragg February 21, 2009 at 5:56 PM - Reply

    Great Wall is a massive company and it can be tough working out the provenance of what’s in the bottle, to be honest. Also, Chinese wines can suffer from storage and transport problems before they even leave for an international market. If you want something more reliable, I’d go for younger vintages of Grace Vineyard’s wines or Dragon Seal’s (if you can find them – they are not exported much…).

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  7. Jim Boyce February 23, 2009 at 6:03 AM - Reply

    Based on tasting wines from dozens of producers here in China, I find Grace Vineyard to be the only winery here making a consistent portfolio of decent wines (I would add the Sino-French Demonstration Vineyard but it is a noncommercial project). Grace wines have also made their way on to the by-the-glass menus at five-star hotels in Beijing (I first saw it at Ritz-Carlton here three years ago) as well as high-end venues such as Maison Boulud. I just posted the Grace 2008 vintage report today and put it on the Grape Wall of China blog (link below), and it sounds like they got a good crop, as they had drier and hotter weather than usual. Hopefully, it means they will take their wines another step higher.

    Cheers, Jim Boyce

  8. Edward Ragg February 23, 2009 at 7:35 PM - Reply

    Thanks, Jim. Grace is undeniably the most consistent producer all round, but the wines have not travelled abroad much. As far as I’m aware the only place outside mainland China were Grace Vineyard’s wines can be found is Hong Kong.

  9. Jim Boyce February 24, 2009 at 11:56 PM - Reply

    I talked to the CEO of Grace. She says the wines are also available in Germany, Singapore, Malaysia, and South Korea, though only in very small quantities. I’m guessing this is because Grace has made a good name for itself and demand is outstripping supply.

    Cheers, Jim Boyce

  10. Edward Ragg February 25, 2009 at 1:13 AM - Reply

    That’s good to hear, Jim. I know those of us in China can appear prone to talking up Grace Vineyard. But in all the wines I’ve tasted here I have not encountered a more consistent winery.

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