A Look At The Wines Of China

  • By Reeze Choi
  • 19 Feb 2021
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 101
Made possible by
snowy vineyards in Yunnan - Credit : Ao Yun

When archaeologists discovered that pottery pieces at the Jiahu archaeological site in Henan had residues of the same tannins from modern grapes, it was proved that China was perhaps the oldest wine producing country in the world, dating back to some 9,000 years ago. By 2020, China was the largest wine producing country in Asia, and the 10th in the world by volume.  

Modern wine history of China started when Zhang Bishi established the first winery of China, Changyu winery in Yantai, Shandong, in 1892 (Qing dynasty).  

Along with Chinese economic reform, the wine industry in China has seen notable growth since 1980. The first foreign wine company, Rémy Martin, established Dynasty in Tianjin in the same year. Wineries with quality wine production were set up one after another around the turn of the century: Grace Vineyard in Shanxi in 1997, Helan Qingxue Vineyard in Ningxia in 2005, and Tiansai Vineyards in Xinjiang in 2010.  

The first vintage of Silver Heights was released in 2007 and also came from Ningxia. Ao Yun, owned by LVMH, launched their first vintage from Yunnan in 2013. Long Dai, owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild, released their first in 2017. 

In 2008, the Chinese government implemented the very first National Standard for wine. The National Standard classified wine according to colour, sweetness, and whether it is still or sparkling, giving a certain standard to both winemaking and labelling. 

Chinese Wine On The World Stage 

Chinese wine, especially those from Ningxia and Shanxi, impressed the world in 2011 when Helan Qingxue Vineyard won the International Trophy of Decanter World Award with their Jia Bei Lan 2009. In the same year, Beijing hosted a “China vs Bordeaux” blind tasting competition. Chinese wine took four places in the top five. And the 2009 Grace Vineyard “Chairman’s Reserve” achieved the best of the competition. Although this competition only showcased and compared wine ranging from $30 US to $55 US per bottle, Chinese wines exhibit huge potential to be classified as fine wine.   

Where Are These Chinese Vineyards? 

Chinese wine regions are mainly located in the northern part of China and mostly at high altitude. In 2018, The Guinness World Records confirmed that Pure Land & Super-High Altitude Vineyard was the highest vineyard in the world. It is located in Tibet at 3,563.31m above sea level, some 450m higher than the former record holder, Altura Maxima vineyards (3,111m) in Salta, Argentina. 

As of 2019, China had around 855,000 ha of land under vines. The important wine producing provinces are Shandong, Shanxi, Ningxia, Xinjiang, Tibet, Gansu, Hebei, and Yunnan. While grape varieties in China include local and international grapes, quality wines are produced mainly from varieties such as Cabernet Gernischt (Carménère), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Marselan, and Chardonnay.  

The Northern Wine Regions From East To West 

Shandong 

This is the largest wine producing province in China. Almost 40% of Chinese wine production is from here. Shandong is the home of over 140 wineries, including the oldest Chinese winery, Changyu. Grape vines here enjoy a more moderate climate compared to the inland area of China. The East Asian Monsoon brings cool and humid winds from the ocean to the region. However, the region suffers from humid weather and a high rainfall during the summer and autumn. This climatic factor can lead to fungal disease in the vineyards. The vineyards are concentrated in the Peninsula area, especially in Yantai and Qingdao (home of the famed Qingdao beer). 

Shanxi  

Not to be confused with Shaanxi, which is another Chinese wine producing province. Shanxi is sandwiched by the Hebei province and Yellow River. Shanxi is affected by the East Asian Monsoon, and has humid summers just like Shandong. But different from Shandong, Shanxi has a continental climate with less rainfall and a higher diurnal temperature range. Vineyards are mainly in Taiyuan.The region’s winter is snowy and dry, therefore the grape growers have to bury the vines under earth to have them survive the extreme winters. 

Ningxia 

Ningxia is located in the central northern part of China, with the Helan mountains to the west and the Yellow River to the east. In 2003, the eastern foothills of Helan mountain in Ningxia became the first government recognized wine appellation of China. It is considered by many as the most important Chinese wine region. There are five subregions, from North to South: Shizuishan, Yinchuan, Yongning, Qingtongxia, and Hongsipu.  

Ningxia has a continental and semi-arid climate, and so irrigation is sometimes necessary. Its winters are very long and cold, and yet the region’s significant sunlight,  huge diurnal range, and the protection of the Helan mountains from Siberian wind, as well as sand from the Tengger Desert, allow the vines to thrive. 

Xinjiang 

Xinjiang is the biggest province in terms of the size of the vineyards and land massAlthough historically known for its bulk wine production, producers in Xinjiang have transitioned into producing quality wines. Some of the most well known wineries are Tiansai winery, ZhongFei, and Puchang. Xinjiang has an even more extreme continental, semi-arid desert climate than that of Ningxia. Besides international grape varieties, one will also find Marselan, Saperavi, Rkatsiteli, and Vidal. 

snowy vineyards in Yunnan - Credit : Ao Yun