Asian Wine | Wines To The East

Harry Lambourne
14th March 2024

Asian Wine is cropping up across the globe with increasing regularity. We will focus on a few of the major players. Namely, China, Japan and India. However, other examples include Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, Cambodia and Korea. The list goes on.

This is not simply an uptick in the production of Asian wine. Quality examples of Asian wine are becoming more and more common. Not only this, but they’re becoming more readily available in the UK. People would not have even considered trying wine from many of these countries, but in time they will likely begin to increase their presence on wine lists across the globe.

So, let’s take a tour of three of the major players in the world of Asian wine. If you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll be able to pick some up for yourself in the UK. It’s time to learn about the wines of China, Japan and India. They may be lesser known wine-making nations, but they are certainly ones of which you should be aware.

Asian Wine – Chinese Wine

Chinese wine is not something many people will be familiar with, but China has a real taste for this beverage and they’re a powerhouse in the world of Asian wine. As of 2012, they were the fifth highest wine consuming nation by volume in the world. Although, considering China makes up around one fifth of the global population this isn’t a surprise. Perhaps more telling is that wine consumption in China doubled between 2008 and 2013, (MacNeil 908).

The History of Chinese Wine

They’ve also sprang up to become the fifth largest producer of wine by volume in the world. Though, this is not a new event.

Numerous archaeological studies into the nation of China have discovered evidence of Asian wine production in the Shandong Province all the way back in 2500 BC, (MacNeil 908). Then, in sites near the city of Rizhao they have uncovered clay vessels with residue of wine made from grapes, honey and rice. Asian wine is not a new thing.

Chinese Wine in Clay
Chinese Wine in Clay

Grape based wine gradually lost its appeal as booze made from grain and more exotic fruits became the focus. Beer and spirits remained cultural mainstays right up until modern times, with the WHO claiming they represented 99% of the booze consumed in China in 1970, (MacNeil 909).

So, why the shift to wine? China has been on a whirlwind of political history. From empires, to dynasties, world wars and the rule of the communist party. Yet, from the late 1970s to the modern day, China went into a rapid economic growth and an unstoppable move towards modernisation, general improvement in living standards and increased disposable income. This was accompanied by a move towards globalisation and with that an increased interest in Western culture. This is where fine Asian wine entered the conversation.

An interesting notion for China, (and Asian wine more generally), comes from the fact that they aren’t actually limited to wines grown from grapes in the same region, or even the same country. China also buys large amounts of bulk wine and grape concentrate from its neighbours in the Pacific Rim, Australia, South and North America. So, the production of wine is large, but the production of grapes is smaller. This is common practice in the world of Asian wine.

Generally, Chinese wineries can fit into two broad camps. First are those who produce basic, inexpensive wines. Second, are the newer estates who look at producing more acclaimed wines that often look to emulate the fine wines of Europe.

China has a particular affiliation for both Bordeaux and Burgundy, with many of the finest wines being regularly purchased at auction by Chinese businessmen. The affiliation goes further and many of the best Chinese wineries seek to emulate the Chateau’s of these areas.

Château Lafite-Rothschild actually partnered with Citic Group, (China’s largest state-owned investment company), to make wine in Shandong Province, (MacNeil 911).

The Land and Grapes Of Chinese Wine

China is a mammoth area and the fourth largest country on earth. There are twenty-two provinces, five autonomous regions and two self-governing administrative regions. Across these areas you can find all types of climates and natural landscapes. Deeply varied terroir is common in Asian wine.

Tropical forest to sub-arctic wastelands. Flat desserts to tall mountains. Although, much of it is too hot and humid, or cold to sustain viticulture. Even in some vine-growing areas, the vines are often buried into the soil over winter to protect them. These harsh conditions are typical in the world of Asian wine.

In spite of numerous challenging conditions, China has planted 1.41 million acres as of 2012. This is compared to just 1 million acres in the USA. However, this acreage includes grapes for eating, not just grapes for viticulture, (MacNeil 911).

Common grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Cabernet Gernischt, (which is identical to Carmenère). The influence from Bordeaux is clear. They also use Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for sparkling wines, as they do in Champagne. Then, the white grapes planted often include Chenin Blanc and Sémillon.

The Chinese Wine ‘Regions’

There are no formal rules to wine regions within China. However, there are five clusters of areas to this Asian wine nation which encapsulate most of the notable wine ‘regions’. They are: the North East, East Central, North Central, Far West and Far South.

The North East

First up is the Shandong Province. This area has a maritime climate and has begun to thrive in spite of consistent summer storms. It is China’s premier wine region in both volume and quality of wines. Château Lafite Rothschild also established its joint venture with Citic group here. It also hosts China’s largest wine producer – the ‘Great Wall Wine Company’, (MacNeil 912).

Shandong Province | Asian Wine | Chinese Wine
Shandong Province

Now, we move onto Hebei which is home to the up and coming ‘Canaan Winery‘. Hebei is relatively close to Shandong and benefits from the same maritime climate. This was one of the first places to produce dry white and red wines in the modern Chinese wine era.

Next up, China’s capital. Beijing is also a source Asian wine. This area actually fits within the Hebei Province, but is its own direct controlled municipality. Thanks to the political and cultural hegemony which Beijing holds in China, it has attracted a number of smaller boutique wineries that look to supply services to tourists. It is dry and sunny, but the availability of land is scarce and expensive so production is fairly limited.

Following up in the North-East is Tianjin. Tianjin sits to the south of Beijing and is another region which has partnered with a premium French winery. Sino-French Joint-Venture Dynasty Winery, (who partnered with Rémy Martin the esteemed Cognac producer), opened in 1980, (MacNeil 913). They are known for producing wine and brandy which are a mainstay at countless State Banquets. Some important Asian wines without a doubt.

Liaoning Province is also key in the North East. Liaoning can be found to the north of Beijing on the border with North Korea. This is primarily an industrial area which is known for iron, steel, coal, petrol and natural gas. Yet, some wine has thrived. Interestingly enough, this area is known for Ice Wine from the Vidal grape variety.

Then, Jilin Province. This is an area where a native grape species Vitis Amurenis holds focus. They’re amazingly cold-tolerant and many Chinese scientists are attempting to cross them with classic Vitis Vinifera varieties. The goal is to make classic wines which can thrive in the harsh climate.

Last in the North East – Shanxi Province. The Taiyuan Basin is home to the bulk of the wineries in this area. The wineries are generally smaller operations. The fame of this region came on the back of the Grace Vineyard. Since its inception in 1997, it has been known for a number of fantastic wines – primarily based on Bordeaux varieties.

The East Central

Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region is the key area in the East Central portion of China and is responsible for some really exciting Asian wine. This is sometimes known locally as the ‘Napa’ of China. Large water sources from the Yellow River, altitude from the Helan Mountain foothills and significant investment have all seen this become one of China’s top wine regions. This is the location of Moët & Hennessy’s Chandon China.

The North Central

In the North Central, Inner Mongolia is the key region of which you should be aware.

Inner Mongolia
Inner Mongolia

The Inner Mongolia area actually is known for its association with raisins. Yet, this Asian wine region has shown promise in other areas. There is a short, hot growing season. It is known for intense sunlight with low temperatures at night. Yet, the snowy and ice cold winters are when the viticulture suffers. The ground is rock solid and freezes well under the topsoil.

So, winemakers dig deep ditches. The vines are planted in trenches up to 5 feet deep. Annually, soil is padded to the trench to more deeply bury the newest roots which are closest to the surface, while the main roots are buried deeper and deeper allowing them to resist the sub-zero soil temperatures.

Inner Mongolia is also a place where they’ve begun to experiment with cold resistant grape varieties. One such example is Tuo Xian. It is one of the hardiest grape varieties and produces huge pink berries in foot-long clusters. Although, the simple wines from this aren’t amazing. Instead, a speciality is a drink of white wine from Tuo Xian infused with fresh flowers. It is a sweet and highly aromatic dessert wine, (MacNeil 915).

The Far West

The key Far West region is known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Another reason which is known for raisins. Now, Xinjiang has the largest wine grape production in China. It is in the far west and very remote. Despite the successes, viticulture here is not without problems. Chiefly, transportation. Access to this region is difficult and expensive.

The Far South

Finally, the Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces are key in the Far South. These two provinces are often grouped together due to their proximity along the border with Tibet. Vineyards on the Diqing Plateau can be found at 10000 feet. This altitude leads to cool temperatures and while rain can be an issue, the vineyards are spread out to avoid a water-logged vineyard site, (MacNeil 916).

Asian Wine – Japanese Wine

The next Asian wine nation which we will focus on is Japan. Japan was one of the first Asian nations to fully embrace a more European grape wine culture. The interest continues to grow. Between 2000 and 2013, Japan’s wine consumption increased by 28%, (MacNeil 917). Although, it pales in comparison to many European nations’ consumption. Wine experts and wine schools can be found throughout this nation, along with a national sommelier association.

Exposure to wine has also increased. Today, you can find wine of all qualities at supermarkets, grocery stores and restaurants. This is not just Asian wine, but wine in general.

While consumption is increasing, the establishment of a Japanese wine industry has stalled. Japan is a collection of islands, with freezing colds, snow, high winds, mountains, valleys, baking heat and powerful rainfall. Again, this climate is common in the world of Asian wine. Amongst this deeply varied combination of weather and topography, you also have densely populated urban areas. This all leads to a small amount of area left that is suitable for vineyards and what is left, is also expensive.

Grape wines being introduced in the 16th century by Portuguese missionaries. Yet, the modern wine industry would not begin until the 1860s. Over time, agriculture relating to grapes and mulberries grew and grew, then technicians were sent to Europe to collect hundreds of grape varieties and study winemaking practices. This was known as the Meiji Restoration when a centralised state under the rule of an emperor looked to introduce western culture in the 19th century. At this point, the amount of land dedicated to grapes grew rapidly, (MacNeil 918).

Key Grapes and Wine Regions From Japan
Grapes In The Yamanashi Prefecture
Grapes In The Yamanashi Prefecture

In the Kofu Basin of the Yamanashi Prefecture, to the North of Mount Fuji was one of the first true wine-making areas. Grapes were aged in second-hand sake tanks. This prefecture boasts two producers of wine which have become known internationally – Château Mercian and Suntory. Suntory is also known for a variety of other alcohol drinks, perhaps chiefly whiskey

The first grape varieties that took hold in the late nineteenth century were made to be hardy and excel in the cold. One particular variety, (‘Koshu’), was very successful. Other crossings from Niagara in America were also popular at this time.

Indeed, Koshu is readily available even today and serves as a point of difference in Japanese wine. These pinkish white grapes possess a real zip of acidity and wonderfully fragrant citrus notes.

It was during the 1970s that success and sophistication also increased in the Asian wines of Japan, with this did the number of grape varieties that could be grown successfully. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and a wealth of other international varieties began to pop up. Vines were planted on to steep mountain terraces for maximum sunlight exposure, air ventilation and the cooler effects of altitude. These were more geared towards quantity, but fine wine was not far behind. Cooler, drier areas were found.

These were centred around the areas such as Nagano Prefecture, Yamagata Prefecture and the Hokkaido island in the far north.

Nagano vineyards are found in the mountain foothills in a collection of islands to the north-west. Yamagata sits in the mountains facing the Sea of Japan. Both are known for good quality Merlot and Chardonnay. Asian wine from international varieties are here to stay. Hokkaido also boasts some excellent expressions of Germanic and Austrian varieties which include Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, Riesling and Zweigelt.

Asian Wine – Indian Wine

Our last stop on our tour of Asian wine is India. India actually has a long history of viticulture which dates back to 4000 BC, when traders from Persia introduced grapevines to the sub-continent. Yet, while grapevines were being grown there, the semblance of what you could call wine-making was a long way off. We reach the 4th century before ‘Indian Wine’ finds its first documented accounts, (MacNeil 921).

Grape based wines known as ‘madhu’ appeared at this time and were popular with Emperors. It was not a drink in which the poorer classes would’ve indulged

Later on India entered an era which was vehemently anti-alcohol under the Muslim Mughal Empire, (MacNeil 922). It was introduced again under British rule and vineyards began to crop up across the country to ensure that there was wine being produced in India, to go along with the high levels of imported Madeira and Port.

However, India was also not safe from phylloxera which devastated the wine industry just as it truly began to pick up steam. Then, more anti-alcohol movements began to ban alcohol in some states across India.

Again though, the 1970s saw a cultural shift where many more people had disposable income and associated some elements of western culture with sophistication. Wine was at the forefront of this idea.

Goa Landscape
Goa Landscape – Not Where You’d Usually Associate With Wine

It was in Goa that the modern Indian wine industry kicked off. With examples of wine from international varieties becoming increasingly frequent. These include Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir. Although, challenges continue to rear their head. Asian wine is a tough game.

One major one is climate, as it is across the world of Asian wine. The tropical areas of India are scorchingly hot and viticulture can falter due to both heat and humidity. Only the coolest sites, with mitigating modern controls can sustain viticulture in these areas.

Wine production is more concentrated in the cooler, mountainous areas around Kashmir and Punjab, Goa and Tamil Nadu. Pergola training methods are employed here to protect from sunburn and promote air circulation. With a Pergola, the vines are pulled over the top of the grapes to provide shade and allow a clean flow of air. This has been employed in Asian wine, but is also common in Argentina.

That’s been our look into three of the most prominent nations when it comes to Asian wine. However, this is an ever-changing marketplace and many more are also producing wine. It is an exciting time, with more and more wonderful wines to try. What more could you want?

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Work Cited

MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. 2nd ed., Workman Publishing, 2015.

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