Indigenous Grape Varieties in China

With my trip to Vinexpo Asia Pacific in Hong Kong not far away I have been curious as to whether the burgeoning and potential giant domestic wine industry in China would ever use indigenous grape varieties to make wine. I have seen that the Chinese are discovering terroirs that are suitable for Western grapes – but that is another story.

Making wine from grapes in China has been eclipsed historically in preference to rice wine. The fact that rice wine was more common than grape wine was noted even by the Venetian traveller Marco Polo when he ventured to China in the 1280s.

However wine making in China can be dated back to more than 4,600 years ago. In 1995 archaeologists discovered the remnants of a variety of alcoholic drinks in Rizhao which lies in the south eastern Shandong province that is situated on the coastline along the Yellow Sea.

The beverages included grape wine, rice wine, mead, and several mixed beverages of these wines. Out of more than two hundred ceramic pots discovered at the sites, seven were specifically used for grape wine. Remnants of grape seeds were also discovered. Legend has it that Confucius (551 – 479 BC) once drank the wines of Shandong Province.

Our European grape vine Vitis Vinifera was introduced to China sometime in the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) and the modern domestic wine industry still uses Western grapes to make wines nowadays.

The use of grapes for making wine was first recorded by the Chinese emissary Zhang Qian in 138 BC. He explored the countries beyond the newly colonized western regions (from what is now Xinjiang province in China to the Fergana valley in today’s Uzbekistan).

He reported seeing grapes that were used to make wine and that the wealthy had roughly over 200,000 litres of wine in store – the oldest being kept for several decades without getting spoilt.

Zhang Qian took with him both vines and oenological expertise to the Han court and soon Chinese vineyards were growing Eurasian grapes that were turned into wine for the Emperor. By the Yuan dynasty wine production based in Xinjiang was a notable industry and spread to other parts of China.

By the Ming dynasty period, varieties such as the Crystal, purple and seedless Rabbit-Eye grape were grown.

Before the travels of Zhang Qian in the 2nd century BC, it’s argued by some that wild mountain grapes were used to make wine, notably Vitis amurensis, Vitis thunbergii, Vitis Flexuosa and Vitis ficifolia.

As far as I can see there is a good case for this given the discovery of grape wine at the archaeological site in Rizhao 4,600 years ago! Just because there are no written sources does not mean that this did not occur – long before the Zhou dynasty (ca 1100-256 BC) indigenous vines are mentioned as being cultivated in royal gardens.

I have read differing reports that there are somewhere between 26 and 100 indigenous grape varieties in China but it is really hard to tell for sure how many there are as the topic is poorly documented.

Apparently wines made from these grapes can produce musty aromas but I have found a wine made from Vitis Amurensis (this grape vine takes its name from the Amur Valley in Russia and China by the way).

Cuvee d’Amour is made by Dr. Frank’s Wine Cellars in New York who helped pioneer the Vinifera Revolution by crossing vitis rootstocks to enable vines to conquer extremes of cold.

The wine is described as bold, dark coloured, fragrant, firm and flavourful on the palate yet displays a pleasant piquant, crisp finish, reminiscent of a fine Bordeaux or Barolo.

As far as other indigenous – or semi indigenous – grape varieties are concerned I have found Ju Feng Noir, Long Yan (Dragon’s Eye) – Great Wall makes an off dry white with this grape, Baiyu (White Feather), Beichun, Gongliang, Shuangyou, Shelongzhu (Chinese Cabernet), Zuoshan and Koshu (Koshu was introduced to Japan from China 800 years ago and wine from Koshu is made in Yamanashi).

The Government of China has set up two national grape germplasm repositories at Zhengzhou Fruit Research Institute of the China Academy of Agricultural Sciences (located at Zhengzhou, Henan province) and the Institute of Fruit Research of Shanxi Academy of Agricultural Sciences (located at Taigu, Shanxi province).

More than 1,300 grape varieties were collected in these two national grape germplasm repositories. Hopefully as the domestic wine industry develops China will rediscover it’s grape heritage!

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