Chinese wine is also called rice wine. The main ingredient is rice or another grain. It is made by steaming the grain, then leaving it to make sugars and ferment, before finally filtering it under pressure.
The wine is mostly yellow in colour, and is clear and transparent, with no sediment. The alcohol content is fairly low, usually between 12-17%, and the acidity is between 0.3% and 0.5%. The wine has nutritional and medical value as well as being good for use in cooking and it continues to be very popular in China.
There are numerous types of Chinese wine on sale today. They can be grouped, according to the ingredients and methods used, into three main categories: Shaoxing wine, millet wine (such as Jimo Old Wine from Shandong Province) and red ferment wine (represented by wines from the south of Zhejiang, from Fujian or from Taiwan).
Although there is a profusion of wines of this type, all with their distinct production methods and local flavours, the production area is mainly centred on the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, and the wine produced in Shaoxing in Zhejiang is the most famous.
Shaoxing Yellow Wine
The producers of Shaoxing Yellow Wine use only the best glutinous wine from the year’s harvest and water from the Mirror Lake of Shaoxing, and production is limited to the winter months.
Into the yeast required for fermentation they mix a kind of pungent knotgrass (polygonum flaccidum) and other rare herbs, and the method includes both drenching the grain and spreading it out on a drying floor.
It is a semi-sec wine, orange in colour and clear, and on the palate it is smooth, mellow and sweet. It is stored in earthenware jars, which are mud-sealed and cellared, where the wine continues to mature. It can be kept for a very long time indeed, and the longer the better.
This product is not only excellent for drinking, but is also a wonderful cooking ingredient, and it is often used in Chinese medicinal recipes.
There are many kinds of Shaoxing Yellow Wine, the most familiar being jiafan or ‘added rice” wine. Currently, Shaoxing Yellow Wine is sold in over twenty different countries and regions, and a greater volume of it is exported than of any other kind of Chinese wine.
The origin of jiafan wine is given in a popular story. A kind-hearted master vintner often saw the children of poor families sneaking into the workshop and eating stolen glutinous rice from the grains which has been spread out to dry.
So at the” grain steeping” stage of production he quietly added several extra measures of sticky rice, and after a time the “added rice” custom became established, the wine produced by this method being a cut above previous wine.
Later this master vintner simply revealed the “added rice” method to everybody, bringing an improvement in production. According to how much extra rice is added, this type of wine is divided into “normal added rice”, “double added rice” and “special added rice”.
Because of the extra ingredients the wine is stronger, with a mellow and slightly sweet flavour, and its alcoholic content is 16%-17%. It is the most prized of the Shaoxing wines and is best served slightly warm.
Nv’er hong or “daughter red” derives from jiafan wine, and because it is stored in wine jars engraved with flowers it is also called huadiano or “flower engraved” wine. The tradition goes that long ago in Shaoxing there was a tailor whose family name was Zhang whose wife was expecting a baby.
The tailor, who longed to have a son, buried a jar of huadiano wine in his courtyard, planning to have a celebration party with his relatives and friends when his son was born. But, as luck would have it, his wife gave birth to a baby girl, and the tailor was so disappointed that he forgot all about the buried wine.
In due course his daughter grew up to be beautiful young lady, and became engaged in Zhang’s favourite apprentice. On the wedding day the tailor suddenly remembered the old wine that he had buried in his courtyard eighteen years before, and retrieved it quickly.
When the huadiano wine was opened its bouquet was overwhelming and its alcoholic effect was sensational. That is how Nv’er hong got its name.
Jimo Old Wine
Jimo is a very ancient county on the peninsula which has Qingdao at its tip. Jimo Old Wine was once called laojiu, meaning “rich and mellow wine”. The sources tell us that in the Warring States Period (403-221 BC) Jimo was a land of plenty, both populous and prosperous. Their mellow wine, being a drink for sacrificial rites as well as for socializing, was produced in large quantities.
Jimo Old Wine was praised by many rulers and emperors, and in the Spring and Autumn Period (770-481 BC) Duke Jing of Qi, when in residence at Laoshan, used it as a sacred material in his worship of the world of the immortals. The First Emperor of Qin, Emperor Wu of the Han and Xuanzong of the Tang all drank it in abundance, and so it is known as the jewel of Chinese wines.
By the time of the Daoguang reign period of the Qing Dynasty (1821-50), it was readily available in all the commercial harbours of the empire and was sold in Japan and the countries of Southeast Asia.
Jimo Old Wine is a semi-sweet wine. It is made from millet from the banks of the Moshui River, wheat based ferment and mineral water from Laoshan, using ancient methods which involve breaking down the millet into a paste by stirring it with a scoop over a moderate heat, then, after saccharinification and fermentation, straining it under pressure.
The colour of the wine is dark brown with tints of reddish purple. It is crystal clear and transparent, and viscous so that it clings to the side of the cup and does not easily spill. There is a distinctive hint of scorched grain in its bouquet.
The alcoholic content is 11.5% and the acidity is less than 5%. It is considered to be nutritious and beneficial for health. The finest type is known as Lao Gan Zha.
Red Ferment Wine
Red ferment involves red mould growing on polished round rice, and is a speciality of the area around Gutian and Pingnan in Fujian province. The wine is made with high quality white glutinous rice, and the red ferment promotes saccharinification and fermentation.
The winter solstice is the best time to start making this wine, and after it has fermented for 120 days at a low temperature and then pressed and filtered, blended and pasteurized, it is drawn off into jars where it is matured for one to three years. It is a sweet wine with an alcoholic content of 14.5%-17%.
Longyang Chen’gang wine from Fujian province has a long history and is the oldest wine of this type. Its production combines all the most highly skilled techniques of Chinese wine making. It is made with high quality glutinous rice, and uses as many as four different ferments.
The process involves first mixing herbal ferment, a granular ferment and a white ferment to make a sweet mash, then adding Gutian red ferment, and the technique includes adding rice liquor in two phases.
This produces a sweet wine with an alcohol content of 14%-16% and a sugar content of 22.5%-25%. Normally it should mature for three years before drinking. The wine is clear and translucent and a reddish brown with the lustre of amber. It has a fragrant nose and is sweet and mellow in the mouth.