by Fred McMillin
for February 16, 1999

 

It's the Chinese New Year!


Prologue

Chinese Art
A two thousand year old Chinese wine vessel.
128 B.C.—The Emperor Wu sent an envoy to Iran to make a military alliance with them against the troublesome Turks. His general, Chan K'ien, spent two years there where wine had been a staple for centuries. In one case, "rich wine was stored in quantities up to [ten thousand gallons], and kept it for several decades without risk of deterioration." Seeds from that district were sent to Emperor Wu, where they were planted near the Imperial Palace. This then was the first introduction of the vine of history--and of religion and poetry--from the West to China.

...Edward Hyams, Dionysus, A Social History of the Wine Vine


The Rest of the Story

The growth of grape wine production generally was slow. However, by the 13th century Marco Polo wrote of the capital of Shan-si province that "Vineyards are numerous, supplying a great abundance of wine."

The Setback
Then in 1322 A.D. there was a major setback. Vines were uprooted at the order of the emperor so cereals and grains could be planted in their place. Later, some vines were replanted, but to this day cereal beverages (beer, rice "wine") have remained much more popular than grape wine. (Grossman and Lembeck)

Dionysus Rejected
Why has grape wine remained in the shadows? Here's critic Hugh Johnson's explanation. "The Chinese eat strongly seasoned food hurriedly. They need something simply liquid to wash it down, plus a strong drink, a rice spirit, to toast each course with. To the Chinese, any alcohol should have fire in it, not just subtle, complex flavors."

The Future
Some day China will make fine wine. It has the necessary soils and microclimates. Although there may be political difficulties at this time, the French, the Aussies and we Yankees are among those forming joint efforts with the Chinese. Classic European varietals are being used, along with such exotic local varities as the Dragon Eye. The wines, "Great Wall," "Dynasty," etc. have not yet reached my panel's RECOMMENDED level, but it won't be long. So, tonight we'll have a sparkler. Here's one that DID get my panel's approval. Fleur De Champagne, Brut, Perrier-Joulet Champagne Imported from France by Seagram. Contact Judy Rowcliffe, (707) 255-7667. Ethereal...zero flaws! $85.

Postscript

Not all agree that China's first wine was made from Iranian vines. My 1860 36th U.S. House of Rep. report quotes one Abbe Grosier: "Those who believe the vine was brought hither from the West, labor under a great mistake. The vine was cultivated in the emperor's garden in the year 1112 before Christ. [Also,] there were vines in Chan-si several centuries before the Christian era, and one private individual made ten thousand measures of wine from some of them."

 
About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.

 
 

WineDay Annex

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