A Cultural Exploration of Wine in China

Our new MW Perspectives essay is by . In it, he explores the key factors that have influenced mainland China's current wine landscape. Find an excerpt below, or read the whole thing in our MW Perspectives section.

What are the key factors that shaped the current landscape of the production and sale of wine in mainland China?

An exploration of local culture can illuminate how a country’s wine industry took shape and inform an understanding of its current efforts and concerns. In China, the attraction and challenges of Vitis vinifera, the unique perspectives on traditional Chinese medicine and biodynamic practices, and wine’s less-prominent role in drinking culture are key factors that help demystify the country’s distinct wine landscape.

History: The Role of Vinifera and Government Support

Most wines around the world are made from the grape species called Vitis vinifera. Although China has a wide range of local grape species (such as Vitis amurensis), Vitis vinifera grapes did not originate in China, and there is no evidence of their commercial cultivation until Zhang Bishi introduced 124 vinifera varieties from Europe in the 1890s. Therefore, even though China has a long history of grapegrowing, it should be regarded as a New World country of winemaking when considering Vitis vinifera varieties.

Like grapegrowers and winemakers in any other New World wine-producing country, those in China sought role models of established wine regions. Not surprisingly, they were attracted to the famous region of Bordeaux, and the Bordelais philosophy began to infiltrate Chinese wine production early on. Leading Chinese wine producers, such as Changyu Pioneer Wine Company and China Great Wall Wine, embraced the Bordeaux mindset, and the entire Chinese wine industry emphasized Bordeaux varieties. Today, Cabernet Sauvignon is still considered the most important vinifera grape variety in China.

Yet in China, it is challenging to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and many other Vitis vinifera varieties at a large scale. The climate is either too continental or distinctly semitropical, lacking the ideal Mediterranean climatic pattern. . . .