Strictly speaking, China is not part of the “New World.” Indeed, it is one of the oldest wine-producing countries on the planet. However, wine has not been an important aspect of Chinese culture until very recently. Already within the first two decades of the new century, China has become not only a major producer but also a major consumer of wine. Within the next decade, China could prove itself one of the leading players in the world of wine.
Although grape wine has been consumed in China for at least 4,600 years, a stronger version containing up to 20 percent alcohol, called Huangjiu, or “yellow-wine,” made from fermented rice and cereals, has always been more popular. Additionally, the Chinese have always consumed a distilled version called Baijiu, which has a 40-60 percent alcohol content. Alcohol in China is typically consumed in the form of toasts, drunk in small shot glasses and tossed to the back of the throat—the complete opposite of everything described in Chapter One of mybook.
Modern Vitis vinifera grapes were probably first introduced by the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great in the third century BC, and planted in the extreme west of China in what is today’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Marco Polo referred to the local wines when he passed through this area in the thirteenth century. This Uighur populated province (ironically the most Islamic part of China) is still the major wine-producing region in the nation, even though it clings to the edge of the Gobi Desert. One of the vineyards covers twenty-five thousand acres at 262 feet below sea level!
Following Deng Xiaoping’s Economic Reforms in the early 1980s, agricultural land was de-collectivized, private entrepreneurs were permitted to develop vineyards, and foreign investment was encouraged. At the same time, a growing middle class was becoming exposed to the outside world, traveling to Europe and bringing back knowledge about foreign cultures—including wine.
The French brandy house, Remy Martin/Cointreau, established a joint venture in 1980 which eventually became Dynasty Wines, producing over one hundred types of wine products in China. Initially, Chinese wines were limited to the export market, but with the growing wealth of the domestic market in the twenty-first century and a fast evolving appreciation for wine, 90 percent of Chinese wine is now consumed domestically. While the disposable income of the growing middle class accounts for the consumption of home-grown Chinese wine, it is only the extreme wealth of the Chinese billionaire class that can account for an obsessive consumption of French, especially Bordeaux, wines. The Chinese love of Bordeaux wine is delightfully explored in the 2013 movie Red Obsession.