The Taiwanese Wine Renaissance

Taiwan, an island in East Asia, lies on the 23rd parallel. With the impacts of climate change, and as more countries in tropical and subtropical climates produce stellar wines, it is not a surprise to see new wine regions emerging outside the 30th to 50th parallels, where most grapegrowing has historically taken place. But Taiwan’s story is unique and complex.

This small island is the same size as the Netherlands, with a rich yet mixed cultural background. Taiwan has been home to the indigenous Austronesians for over 6,500 years, and researchers believe Taiwan could be the birthplace of all Austronesian culture. It was unknown to the rest of the world until the 16th century, when European sailors called the island Formosa and marked it on a map. The island started to develop a closer link with China only from the 17th century, with immigrants from the mainland gradually arriving.

Early Winemaking Efforts

Taiwan lived under the Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese colonial influences between the 17th and 20th centuries. During this period, local winemaking was common. Chinese immigrants made spirits from grains, and indigenous Taiwanese families produced their own wines using local millet or glutinous rice.

Even though the earliest record of the cultivation of Vitis vinifera in Taiwan dates to 1673, it was not until the early 20th century, during Japanese colonization, that wine, sake, and various spirits were made in Taiwan on a larger scale. Ten Vitis vinifera varieties, including Muscat Hamburg, Muscat of Alexandria, and Gross Colman; five Vitis labrusca cultivars, including Catawba, Delaware, Campbell’s Early, and Niagara; and two Muscadine varieties, James and Thomas, were introduced to Taiwan at this time. Among them, Niagara had great success in northern Taiwan. But to have full control of the process of making and selling alcohol, the Japanese introduced an alcohol monopoly in 1922. When they left Taiwan in 1945, following World War II, the Republic of China government that took over maintained the system until 2002. During these 80 years, making any type of wine at home was illegal. As a result, local winemaking activity came to a halt, including indigenous millet winemaking.

During the 80-year monopoly, however, grapegrowing thrived through government subsidies that lasted until 1997. Beginning in 1945, more than 200 varieties, including grapes from all over the world, were trialed on the island. Yet only two hybrids withstood the heat, humidity, and typhoons: Golden Muscat, a white variety from New York, and Black Queen, a red variety from Japan. In 1974, the Taiwanese government started propagating its own hybrid grapevines, which are suited to the harsh growing environment. Between 1994 and 2005, six local hybrid grapes were bred successfully.

In its heyday, the area planted to wine grapes expanded to 3,128 hectares. But the challenging weather conditions, coupled with the threat of typhoons during harvest season, led growers to harvest their grapes early, at around 11 degrees Brix (6.05% potential alcohol)—very low for both dry and sparkling wine. This allowed them to maximize their harvest while still receiving the guaranteed contracted price from the government. Aware of this, the Taiwanese government incentivized those who were willing to harvest grapes at higher Brix levels, but very few growers did so. With such low-quality grapes, it is not surprising that the wine produced by the government was mediocre at best.

This also created a vicious circle. Because of the overstock, the government had to start reducing the contracted buying price or the quantity it procured, and this resulted in serious resistance from the growers. Eventually, the system collapsed, and government subsidies for contract growers ceased in 1997. On top of that, Taiwan was preparing to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). When Taiwan became a member on January 1, 2002, the alcohol monopoly ended, and with it the ban on winemaking.

Modern Successes

In the past two decades, many growers have uprooted their vineyards in favor of other, more profitable fruit trees. Currently, less than 100 hectares of wine grapes are planted in Taiwan. Yet some growers have continued working on their vineyards in pursuit of quality wines. In 2015, two wineries began to snap up international trophies.

Domaine Shu-Sheng is one of them. The Hung family has been growing grapes for four generations. The vineyard site and the domaine were established in 1957, and some of the oldest Golden Muscat and Black Queen are planted here. In 2004, Chen Chien-hao, a professor at the National Kaohsiung University of Hospitality and Tourism, was asked by the government to help Domaine Shu-Sheng improve production.

Chen took inspiration from Madeira, another island with a subtropical climate, though much drier in terms of annual rainfall, and made two fortified wines from Golden Muscat and Black Queen: Moscato Oro and Formosa Rosso Vino Fortificato NV. Both were awarded gold medals in the fortified wine categories in international wine competitions.

“In Taiwan, after 80 years of the monopoly, there are no longer any prior examples for wineries to follow, says Chen. Everything needs to start from scratch.” For him, making fortified wine is the best way to express the Taiwanese terroir. These wines undergo a four-year maturation in oak barrels, losing 10% of their volume through evaporation. The results of his experimentation with hybrid varieties are extremely encouraging, but for Chen the potential of Taiwanese wines doesn’t stop here—he believes the possibilities are endless.

In contrast to these efforts, Weightstone Vineyard Estate and Winery has taken a completely different approach. Vivian Yang is the director of Weightstone. The Yang family owns the biggest pesticide and fertilizer business in Taiwan, but Vivian’s father, Ben Yang, always had a vision that one day the company would present an agricultural product that wowed the world. In 2010, he came across a new white grape variety, Taichung No. 3, which was developed by the Taiwan Agricultural Research Station. Ben was completely blown away by its aromas of lychee, mango, and many other tropical fruits that are familiar to Taiwanese. Believing in its potential, despite having no experience in grapegrowing or winemaking, Ben bought a piece of land in Puli, Nantou, in central Taiwan, and Vivian was tasked with running the new business. Soon after, in 2016, Ben passed away suddenly.

Born in Taiwan but educated in Canada, Vivian neither drank wine nor knew anything about the wine business. She learned everything from scratch and hired international wine consultants, including Julianna and Chris Corley (Napa) and Andrew Teubes (South Africa), to support her in the project. In 2018, Weightstone won its first international wine trophy at the 2018 Decanter World Wine Awards for its sparkling wine, Gris de Noirs Rosé Extra Brut, made with 100% Black Queen in the traditional method. This has given a huge boost to the Taiwanese wine industry, proving that local hybrids can make elegant sparkling wines and yield diverse styles.

“We are lucky, in a way, that we don’t need to worry too much about the financial side of the business, Vivian says. Our job is to make Taiwanese wines that can make this island proud. Even so, working with top-quality fruit results in high production costs, and Vivian likewise wants to make wines that are affordable to a broad spectrum of consumers. Weightstone has continued to experiment, trialing a more affordable pét-nat and utilizing table grapes in its blends, and the results have so far been very positive.

Challenges in Viticulture

But Vivian is candid about the obstacles facing grapegrowers in Taiwan. Weightstone works with contract growers in the Changhua township, which is the driest region in Taiwan but still receives 1,200 to 1,500 millimeters of annual rainfall. In comparison, Médoc has an average annual rainfall of 950 millimeters. In Weightstone’s own vineyard in Puli, Nantou, which has an altitude of 500 meters, it is constantly wet, averaging 2,500 to 3,000 millimeters of annual rainfall. With morning dew followed by afternoon showers, Weightstone is in a continuous battle with fungal diseases such as anthracnose, which causes dark lesions on leaves. Ventilation and strict control of yields are key, but the high humidity remains the biggest problem.

The pergola system is the common training system in Taiwan, but at the Puli estate vertical shoot positioning (VSP) is used to increase ventilation. In general, VSP is not ideal in places with high rainfall, as there is not enough canopy to shade the bunches from rain, so Weightstone uses plastic sheets to provide some protection. Typhoons are also a persistent threat during harvesttime in the summer season, often damaging the vines right after harvest. Further, winter is not cold enough for the vines to go into dormancy, resulting in a short life span for Taiwanese vines.

Vivian also explains, “We know none of the hybrid grape varieties are ideal. Each has its own flaws. So in the beginning, I insisted on importing international varieties.” But navigating the vine nursery, customs, and quarantine posed new challenges. Eventually, in 2015, Weightstone bought Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The vines were stopped at the border for the country’s strict quarantine process and planted in a greenhouse. Soon after, they showed signs of leaf roll disease, which doesn’t exist in Taiwan.

“As a result,” says Vivian, “we have no choice but to work with what we have. In another word, our job is to tackle their weaknesses and try to bring out the best from the hybrids.”

In 2018, Weightstone finally planted Golden Muscat, Black Queen, and the newly created local hybrid varieties Taichung No. 3 (also called Musann Blanc) and Taichung No. 4 (a red grape)—both developed by Taiwanese officials over a span of nearly 20 years.

A Future with Hybrid Grapes

For Weightstone, Musann Blanc is the star—this is the variety that Vivian’s father fell in love with. It is a hybrid of H0545 and Cardinal (a distant relative of Muscat Hamburg) that can reach full phenolic ripeness and achieve higher Brix than Golden Muscat and Black Queen in Taiwan. It’s aromatic and charming. Though it can lack acidity, it makes still and sparkling wines that, in a blind tasting, might be mistaken for Gewürztraminer, Muscat, or Torrontés from a cool climate because of its aromatic profile.

As for the other local hybrid varieties? “With care, they can all do wonders,” says Vivian. A Golden Muscat still wine might be one-dimensional, but through a second fermentation in the bottle it offers fine bubbles and stunning tropical fruit notes. Black Queen can present intense color and plummy and umami flavors, but it requires extensive sorting because of its compact bunches. As for Taichung No. 4, the full potential is still yet to be seen.

“Andrew Teubes, our South African viticultural consultant, who has worked with various tropical and subtropical wineries, couldn’t believe we are able to grow grapes and make decent wines from [these grapes],” says Vivian. “It is a learning curve. We are being nurtured by this land. For us, it’s not just for the sake of making wine. It’s about showing another side of this terroir and connecting with nature a little bit more.”

Reviving the Art of Indigenous Winemaking

While larger-scale winemaking continued under the alcohol monopoly, most indigenous winemaking efforts did not, and the loss of that heritage is a significant hurdle to the revival of indigenous practices. Though individuals can legally make wine again today, anyone who wants to sell those wines must have a government winemaking license—which requires that wineries be located on industrial sites. This makes it almost impossible for most indigenous Taiwanese, who historically made wine at home in residential areas. As a result, the number of wineries run by indigenous people remains in the single digits.

Against all odds, Liliw of Truly Wine obtained such a license in 2019 in Taitung, the east part of Taiwan. Liliw belongs to the Kavalan tribe, and his wife is from the Amis tribe. Liliw’s wife’s grandmother was a well-known winemaker in the traditionally matriarchal Amis tribe. She passed her expertise to Liliw’s father-in-law, but when winemaking became illegal he stopped making wine. Five years ago, like many indigenous Taiwanese, Liliw and his wife decided to return to the Amis tribe from the city. Their goal was to revive lost traditional winemaking skills.

Millet winemaking is an ancient practice, and each tribe has its own secret recipes that are passed down verbally from generation to generation. Like most alcoholic beverages in history, millet wines were used primarily for ancestral worship. But even in the 21st century, most tribal winemakers will still worship their ancestors before making wine. In the Amis tribe, for example, families present their wines to the tribal elder during the harvest festival each July. The tribal elder selects the best one, which will be offered to the ancestral spirits.

The key ingredient in these wines is traditionally millet. In the 19th century, however, glutinous rice was introduced to Taiwan, and many tribes began making their wines with it instead of millet, or by blending the two together. Millet is more expensive than glutinous rice, and less of it is produced. In addition, millet, a small grain with less starch, needs more time to go through the starch conversion process.

To produce these wines, the grains are steamed, and then enzymes convert the starch to sugar in the fermentation process. The enzymes come from jiu chu, which plays a role similar to that of koji in sake. Each tribe uses different local herbs to make jiu chu, typically employing between 3 and 13 different herbs, such as mint, mugwort, and Limnophila rugosa, which looks like large-leafed basil. These herbs impact the flavors of the resulting wines—some are spicy and aromatic, and others have a sweet aftertaste.

The herbs are stewed in boiled water and reduced to about two-thirds. They are then mixed with ground millet or glutinous rice to make jiu chu, which is shaped into a flat round disc or ball and left to dry for 8 to 12 days under the sun. Then, the jiu chu is ready to use for winemaking. Adding jiu chu and yeasts to cooled steamed rice starts fermentation. The fermentation process takes about two to three weeks, and then the wines are bottled.

“Our long-term vision is to preserve the winemaking know-how from different tribes,” Liliw explains. “We would like to invite tribal winemakers to come to our winery and make wine so we can establish a system for these ancient and artisanal skills to be passed on to generations to come.

A Unique Project

Yusen Lin is the most eminent wine expert in Taiwan. He is behind Taiwan’s first annual natural wine fair, Buvons Nature, which began in 2016. Yusen has a strong interest in the Taiwanese indigenous culture and started to attend the biggest indigenous music festival, Amis Music Festival, a few years ago. Amis Music Festival centers on the Dulan tribe, but the participants are not only indigenous people from Taiwan but also people from Austronesian tribes from other parts of the world, including the Philippines, New Caledonia, Tahiti, and Indonesia. After attending the festival and trying the glutinous rice wine made by Truly Wine, Yusen had an idea.

“It is very powerful to see how one music festival in Taiwan can connect the Austronesian cultures around the world, as far south [as] New Zealand and Easter Island,” Yusen explains. “I thought, why don’t we make a cross-culture wine?”

In 2020, with the help of New Lifestyle Wine, a wine importer in Taiwan, Yusen connected with the Kindeli winery in Nelson, New Zealand, which agreed to send a blend of Riesling and Merlot, made with indigenous yeasts and without added sulfur, to Taiwan. The grape must was delivered to Weightstone’s winery to co-ferment with Taiwanese local grapes and the glutinous rice made by Truly Wine. The wine is called Malikuda, which means “hand-holding” in the indigenous language. It was not only a meaningful project but a delicious wine. In 2021, the group went a step forward and used all the pomace and glutinous rice to make a piquette. This year, the plan is to co-ferment everything in qvevri from Georgia.

“A lot of this is about experimenting and finding a way to show the real Taiwanese terroir, but at the same time highlighting the rich indigenous Taiwanese culture, which has been misunderstood or ignored in Taiwan for far too long,” Yusen says. “Despite all the exciting projects, I still think it is far too difficult to grow wine grapes in Taiwan. It’s definitely not for the fainthearted.”

The New Chapter

Liliw from Truly Wine notes, “Many consumers start to be curious about indigenous millet wines after tasting the Malikuda wine. It has certainly raised the profile of our traditional winemaking culture in an unimaginable way. It also gives me a lot of inspiration and encouragement to continue doing what I am doing, despite the many obstacles that still exist.”

Chen Chien-hao is currently waiting for a winemaking license for his new and first gravity-flow winery, which has received funding and full support from the government. “There are a lot of new and exciting projects coming up, backed by the Taiwanese government,” he says. “The plan is to systematically revive all the traditions in winemaking. There are many new grape varieties that have been developed [that] are suitable for making quality still wines. I am very positive about the future of the Taiwanese wine industry, and we are here to stay!”

“We still have a long way to go,” says Vivian, “but I really hope that in five years’ time, we can see our wines sold in different parts of the world.” With this determination, an inexhaustible energy in reviving the lost wine culture, and courage to embrace the latest winemaking techniques, Taiwan’s wine renaissance is not only unique and diverse but surely one to watch.