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.
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.