Chinese Wine [Uncorked]

Li ZhengpingChinese Wine 3/e (translated by Shanghai Ego — really!). Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Many of my conversations with wine makers and wine sellers this year have looped back around to the question of China. China seems to be the Great Hope for people who see it as a vital future market and also a Great Mystery for those who haven’t yet figured out how to uncork it.

Great Wine Wall of China

Uncertainty is the Grape Wall of China to those who wish to penetrate its market borders. The known knowns are few and the unknown unknowns many, or so I am told. Talk about assymetric information inefficiencies! So everyone’s interested in learning more about wine in China.

Hence my interest in this slim (146 page) book from Cambridge University Press. It is part of the “Introduction to Chinese Culture” series of brief guides that includes ten published volumes (Chinese Clothing, Chinese Furniture, Chinese Music and more) with additional volumes (Chinese Gardens, Chinese Jade, Chinese Food, Chinese Tea and so on) set for publication in 2012.

The back cover description of this book reads.

This illustrated introduction to Chinese wine explores the history of wine production in China, the legends and customs that surround it and its place in China today. Traditionally, Chinese wine and spirits were made from grain, and had three important uses: to perform rituals, to dispel one’s worries and to heal. Today, wine is still believed to have a therapeutic benefit, but the Chinese beverage industry has expanded on a large scale and now includes famous brands of beer and, increasingly, vineyards producing red and white wine for global consumption. Chinese Wine is indispensable reading for both wine-lovers and all those with an interest in the transition from traditional to modern Chinese culture.

The book delivers on this promise with clear direct prose and beautiful illustrations. But it would be a mistake to read more into this description than there is.

Lost in Translation

The term “wine” can easily get lost in the translation. Wine here in the U.S. is grape wine for the most part, but wine in China is a much broader concept including fermented fruits and grains. Chinese Wine  examines grain wine, beer, distilled spirits and Chinese-made grape wine. Changyu, Great Wall and Yanjing brand wines receive special attention.

Grain wine, especially rice wine, is much more important than grape wine in this narrative. Why? The author explains that “Grape wine is easier to produce than rice wine. However, as grapes are seasonal and cannot retain their freshness for long compared to grain, grape wine-making technology was not adopted extensively in China.”

Whereas grape wine is made when the grapes are harvested, rice wine (like beer) can be made year round from stored rice — a practical advantage. But grape wine was favored in times when it was necessary to conserve grain stocks.

The cultures and traditions associated with Chinese wine are superficially very different from ours.  Wine is if anything much more important in China (if I have read this book correctly) than it is here, but the social rituals of wine drinking seem to be the point, not the beverage itself. Maybe this is not so different after all? Chinese Wine is making reconsider what I thought I knew about grape wine’s social function in the world of vitis vinifera.

An Afterthought?

Chinese Wine treats us to discussions of the origins of Chinese wine, the varieties of Chinese alcohol, rituals and traditions, legends (a very interesting group of tales) and finally, towards the end, a bit about imported wine and its growing popularity. Seriously, imported wine takes up just a couple of pages if you don’t count the photos, and the most important brand name mentioned is Gallo’s Carlo Rossi red (which is credited with boldly entering the Chinese market in 1992).

Is that it? Is imported wine in China just an afterthought? Probably not, although it is good to put things in perspective. I suspect that the author was chosen because of expertise in Chinese cultural history and so the book reflects this (and goes lightly on China’s recent fascinating with Bordeaux). Certainly everything I read suggest that market for grape wines in China is growing and maturing rapidly.

But it doesn’t hurt to remember that wine exports to China to do enter a sort of market tabla rasa. Just because there are few European-style wine traditions in China doesn’t mean there are no wine traditions at all. And the importance of grain wine should not be ignored.

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I called this entry [Uncorked] because none of the traditional wine vessels illustrated in the book looks remotely like anything that you could stop up with a cork, highlighting the differences between Chinese and European-style wines. The urns and pots are often beautiful. A feast for the eyes!

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