News Special Coverage Industry Overview Supply & Demand Price Reference Forum

China Wine Catches up to History by Jim Boyce12/04/2024  


"I loved it immediately."

In 2012, Bertrand Cristau stood two kilometers high in the snow-capped mountains of Yunnan province, in the very spot a French missionary named Jules Dubernard settled in 1865.

Dubernard’s book had inspired Cristau, a businessman with 30 years of China experience, to find this place known as Shangri-la, where his 19th-Century forebears had come, bearing vines to make wines for religious rites, and were still fondly remembered. He was destined to follow in their footsteps.

"Making wine there was not a scientific choice," he says. "It was to support the local farmers, who are proud of those French roots."

Cristau's Xiaoling Winery now flourishes and is symbolic both of the fine wine emerging in China and the rich history behind it.

From pre-historic partiers to Tang Dynasty poets to 1990s vineyards key to Ningxia's rise, here is a quick trip through nine millennia of vintages.

In the beginning

China has a claim to the first alcoholic drinks, with evidence stretching as far back to 7000 BCE. Analysis of pottery in a settlement called Jiahu in Hunan province reveals a blend of rice, honey and fruit, with traces of tartaric acid suggesting grapes.

That grog wasn't bad, either, at least based on a reverse-engineered version by Dogfish Head Brewery in the United States that includes Muscat juice and sells as Chateau Jiahu.

Given the ancient musical instruments also unearthed, Jiahu was a prehistoric party zone. And this was just start for grapes and booze in China.

Early vintages

Wine made more than 2500 years ago would have used one of China's many native grape species, with Eurasian varieties – Vitis vinifera – appearing later.

Ancient history book Shiji points to Han Dynasty envoy Zhang Qian's travels to central Asia in the second century BCE. Zhang was enamored with the wines and their aging ability, notably in what is now Uzbekistan, and brought back grape seeds and vinous know-how.

This is likely just one of numerous entry points for Vitis vinifera. For example, radiocarbon dating measured a grape stem found in a tomb in what is now Turpan in Xinjiang at 2300 years old.

Wine would gain popularity over the centuries, especially as a drink enjoyed by officials and praised by poets. Such appreciation grew quickly during the Tang Dynasty, from 618 to 907, as westward expansion absorbed Turpan and its vinous riches.

Li Bai, a Tang poet with a thirst for alcohol, dreamed of rivers flowing with wine instead of water and wrote that the Han River's green reflection reminded him of fermenting grapes.

More sobering, poet Wang Han in what is now Gansu – on the Silk Road and known for grapes – wrote about wine gleaming in his cup as the pipa (a stringed instrument) summoned soldiers to battle.

"Do not blame us if we lie drunk on the battlefield," he penned. "For how many ever return from the fight?"

Modern times

Many date China’s modern wine era to the founding of Changyu, now the biggest producer, by businessman Zhang Bishi in 1892, with 124 grape varieties imported from Europe.

A point of Changyu pride is a medal from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, with replicas featured in the museums of the company's wineries across China. But China also had an interesting growing mishmash of producers beyond Changyu.

Missionaries were active far beyond Shangri-la, with a Catholic clergyman establishing a Beijing winery in 1910 near the Summer Palace.

In 1911, the US government report "Explorations in the Fruit and Nut Orchards of China" noted that wild grapes were used in coastal Shandong to "make a fairly good wine, which is remarkably strong".

And Yi Hwa Winery in Shanxi province in north-central China was "employing the latest machinery" for its reds and whites, with the former said to be better, per the Chinese Economic Bulletin in 1925.

It's interesting how often white wines are cited – Changyu's museums feature many Riesling labels – given modern claims that China is red wine country.

And frustrating that producers today in north China face the same annual task of burying vines as protection against winter weather.

"In visiting a vineyard in China in the winter... few people would suppose that the apparently barren spot they were walking upon was covered in summer with a luxuriant growth of choice grapes," states that 1911 Bulletin.

The people's wine

The first decades after the People's Republic of China’s founding in 1949 saw everything from new hybrid grapes like Beichun and Beihong, which leveraged the character of Vitis vinifera and cold resistance of local species, to the arrival of varieties from Soviet spheres of influence, such as Rkatsiteli and Saperavi from Georgia. But it was economic reform in the 1980s and 1990s that pushed the industry to new heights.

The 1980s saw Remy Martin in a joint venture that created Dynasty Wines, while other global powers jumped in, including Sella & Mosca, Torres and Pernod Ricard. Domestic brands like Great Wall were growing, while local wine projects arose nationwide. Xi Xia Wang, the first significant winery in Ningxia, dates to the mid-1980s.

And a project in Shandong hinted at the potential for boutique wineries. Alcohol importer Michael Parry spearheaded Huadong Winery in 1985, with its Riesling and Chardonnay winning prizes in Europe, although financial struggles saw the winery sold in 1990. (James Suckling recalled arriving there in 1987 after a 15-hour  trip: "There was a tall Englishman named Michael Parry holding two chilled bottles of Bollinger amidst a sea of people.")

That 1990s show

The late 1990s was a crucial time as key producers were getting off the ground.

Take 1997. Grace Vineyard was founded in Shanxi and would soon lead the charge for Chinese fine wine in restaurants, hotels and even airlines.

The same year, China and France agreed to cooperate on wine and started a joint vineyard and winery outside Beijing with over a dozen varieties, including Marselan, which is now a signature grape in China. That project became the privately owned Domaine Franco-Chinois in 2010.

And new vineyards in Ningxia ultimately put the region on the world wine map. One, which now makes wine as Legacy Peak, supplied fruit at one time or another to top operations like Helan Qing Xue, Silver Heights and Canaan. Another, once used by Pernod Ricard and now by Xige Estate, was planted close to where a Fujian official named Xi Jinping visited that same year, 1997, on an anti-poverty mission, decades before rising to become China's leader.

What's old is new

Today, some winemakers are looking to the past, especially as pride grows in local products, from consumer electronics and high-speed trains to food and drink brands.

Winemaker Luo Yuchen of FARMentation ranks among them. In 2023, he started a "renaissance" wine series focused on grapes and brands with a long history in China.

His first project: a Black Muscat rose in cooperation with Danfeng Winery, founded in 1911 in Shaanxi province with help from an Italian missionary.

"I went to Danfeng and saw the old barrels and the old labels," says Luo, who is planning more throwback wines. "I couldn't believe the previous generations of winemakers were so cool."