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
Photo credit: tsa.uconn.edu
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