Take That France! : The Growing Popularity of Chinese Wine

By: Justin Chan

Are you ready to swap your Bordeaux for a Ningxia? A what, you may ask? According to a recent blind taste test of wine experts, it seems as though Bordeaux winemakers may have just met their match...in East Asia!

Grape wine has a long but ambiguous history in China. Although it has become widely popular nowadays, it was a little-known beverage until globalization exposed millions of Chinese to its acetic and astringent flavor. Scholars say that the first documentation of westernized wine came as early as the 7th century, although evidence suggests that grape seeds were brought to China from what is now considered Uzbekistan during the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD). The large importation of grapes during these early years, however, did little to maintain the appeal of grape wine among the Chinese, and the beverage was soon replaced by alcoholic beverages made of millet, sorghum and rice.

It was not until the 19th century that wine became popular again in China. By then, the country had gone through several dynasties without seriously focusing on grape wine production or importation. In 1892, however, Zhang Bishi established the Yantai Changyu Pioneer Wine Company, planted vineyards and hired an Austrian winemaker to re-introduce grape wine to the public. He was one of several pioneers who profited from the wine business. Tsingtao, which was founded by the Anglo-German Brewery Co. Ltd., also benefited from the growing popularity of wine.

As wine became increasingly marketable in China, the Chinese began to favor producing it in bulk quantities rather than focus on improving its quality. In 1949, the government confiscated many wineries and operated them so that they could increase production. In most cases, the wines were incorrectly mixed with water, fermented cereals, coloring and sugar and tasted nothing like authentic wine. The shoddy tastes made it difficult for the West to embrace Chinese wine, and many were inclined to import wine elsewhere.

Today, the reputation of Chinese wines has drastically changed. While wines from regions such as Bordeaux still remain popular in China, domestic wines are gaining more and more attention at home and abroad. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, a mixed panel of experts compared wines from the Chinese province of Ningxia and those from Bordeaux. The 10 judges conducted a random taste test, and four of the top five favored wines came from Ningxia. The top-ranking wine was the 2009 Chairman's Reserve from China's Grace Vineyards, and the only Bordeaux wine to make the list was a 2009 Saga Medoc from the Barons de Rothschild Collection.

Undoubtedly, the recognition Ningxia wines have received lately marks a turning point in the history of Chinese grape wines. While some Chinese wines are still known for tasting horribly similar to medicine, others like those produced in Ningxia hope to attract all types of customers with their sophisticated flavors. As China's economy continues to grow, European and American wine industries may soon find themselves competing heavily against their East Asian counterpart.

Have you tried Chinese wine yet?

Photo: toyohara

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