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Ultimate Guide to Chinese Wines

Rice wine is currently the most popular type of wine to come from China.
Bob Stefko/The Image Bank/Thinkstock

It's widely believed that the future growth of the world wine industry rests with emerging markets like China. In 2009, China was the fifth largest wine consuming country on Earth, and one of the top 15 wine producers. Between 2006 and 2009, China's production figures increased by 17 percent, and its consumption figures increased by almost 16 percent. That's during a period when rates for heavy hitters like France, Italy and Germany either dropped or stayed relatively flat.

This means that China and the rest of Asia will have a lot to say about the future of wine. Where current taste in China may still run to rice wine with a little brandy for special occasions, growers have been investing in vineyard space since the 1980s for Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sylvaner, Welschriesling and other classic European grapes varieties. In provinces like Shandong, Hebei and Tianjin that have a relatively cool climate and strong coastal influences, there has been an evolution in the landscape, setting the stage for China to take a leading role the international wine market, both as a premier producer and consumer of fine, export-quality wine.

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These aren't isolated growers experimenting with new ways to exploit the low-end market, either. International players like Pernod Ricard and Remy Martin have provided some of the expertise necessary to help China expand its offerings. Actually, China has grown grapes for about 4,000 years or more. There are 2,000 old poems that reference a fermented grape drink, but for the most part, Chinese grapes have usually been grown for their fruit, not their juice -- or for barely passable bulk wines.

China has a burgeoning economy and a huge population with enough potential disposable income to make it important and possibly vital to the future health of the wine industry. The international wine community is watching China and its large producers like Grace, Dynasty and Great Wall to see if its fondness for Western culture extends to fine fermented beverages, too.

On the next page, let's take a look at the Chinese wine you may be most familiar with: rice wine.

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It's almost impossible to separate Chinese culture from its primary crop of rice. Rice is a main dietary staple as well as the basic ingredient in China's most identifiable contribution to the world of regional wine: rice wine. There's a big difference between grape wine and rice wine, though. Conventional wines are usually fermented from fruits that have high sugar content. As the fruit ferments, yeast converts the native sugars into alcohol.

Although rice wine is described as a wine, it's brewed from a grain, like beer, in a process designed to convert the grain's starch into the sugars needed for the rest of the process. This step isn't necessary in grape winemaking. The end result tastes different from both beer and conventionally made wine. It has a uniquely light, smooth flavor and higher alcohol content than either beer or wine, sometimes as high as 25 percent.

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The rice wine you're familiar with from your local international food market or sushi restaurant may be clear, pale yellow or tan in color. Different provinces within China, and other Asian countries like Vietnam, Japan, Korea and even India have their own versions of rice wine that can be very different from what Westerners expect. In some, rice wine can be cloudy and opaque; in others, the wine can be a rich mahogany color or even brown. Many rice wines are sweet, but some are dry. The aroma, taste, alcohol content and color of rice wine can change from batch to batch, too.

The most famous rice wine hales from Japan, not China. We call it sake, but in Japan, sake can refer to any one of a number of alcoholic beverages. Like Japanese sake, Chinese rice wine can be served with a meal or as a dessert, and either warm or cold.

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Related Links

Sources

  • Clarke, Oz. "The Essential Wine Book." Fireside Books. 2001.
  • Eijkhoff, Pieter. "Wine in China." 10/15/2000. (6/19/11). http://www.eykhoff.nl/Wine%20in%20China.pdf
  • Fact Sheet. "Rice Wine." (6/19/11). http://www.fatsecret.com/calories-nutrition/generic/wine-rice
  • McCarthy, Ed & Mary Ewing-Mulligan. "Wine for Dummies." IDG Books Worldwide. 1998.
  • Sesser, Stan. "Giddy Times for Chinese Wines." The Wall Street Journal. 3/26/10. (6/19/11). http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704207504575130192071419922.html
  • Vinography "Chinese Wine - Too Good to Be True." 12/27/10. (6/19/11). http://www.vinography.com/archives/2010/12/chinese_wine_too_good_to_be_tr.html
  • Wine Institute. "World Wine Consumption by Volume." 2009. Trade Data and Analysis. (6/30/11). http://www.wineinstitute.org/files/WorldWine%20ConsumptionbyVolume.pdf
  • Wine Spectator. "Global Wine Consumption Inches Ahead." 7/24/08. (6/30/11). http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/Global-Wine-Consumption-Inches-Ahead_4201
  • Zraly, Kevin. "Windows on the World - Complete Wine Course." Sterling Publishing. 2008.

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