As one of the most ancient civilizations of the world, China has enjoyed a long and prosperous love affair with booze.
The first evidence of cultivated rice along the banks of the Yangtze River dates back nearly 8000 years, followed shortly by and the first evidence of booze being produced from fermented rice.
While grapes were used for wine production in China as far back as the Bronze Age of 5000 years ago, wine grape production pretty much died out in China more than two millennia ago, largely replaced with booze made from easier sources such as rice, sorghum, millet, and plums.
Today, the most popular booze in China is a crystal-clear spirit called Báijiǔ from rice or corn, with a very fragrant and a tasty finish almost reminiscent of soy sauce. It is normally stored for around 5 years to fully mature and presented to honored guests at social gatherings.
The popularity of distilled spirits in China led to a near total absence of wine for thousands of years. However, with increasing globalization, the rapid growth of the Chinese economy has seen those ancient traditions have been upended recently, and the re-entry of China into the world of wine.
China has recently rocketed into place as the sixth-largest wine producing country in the world, just barely edged out of the top five by Australia, but slightly ahead of Chile.
The resurgence of the modern Chinese wine industry began in that decade of decadence known as the 1980s, when shoulder pads ruled the earth, and also saw French wines being imported to China for the first time.
The rising Chinese economy quickly turned into a gold rush, with the wine producing countries of the world seeing a billion new people as potential customers.
French wines were the first to make significant inroads into the burgeoning Chinese market in the 1980s, followed quickly by the wines of California. Even our relatively small Canadian wine industry does significant business with China, with several BC wineries snapped up by Chinese investors over the past decade or so.
Those Canadian wineries producing ice wines find China to be a particularly lucrative market, with the vast majority of Canadian ice wine production exported directly to China.
Although China is still a huge importer of wine thanks to their growing population, domestic production has increased in leaps and bounds, growing from nearly zero to over a billion litres in less than 40 years.
Much of the expertise from China’s blossoming wine industry has been imported from established wine producing countries, with Bordeaux winemakers particularly sought after as consultants or joint operating partners.
Per capita wine consumption is still quite low, less than one bottle per person per year, or only 1% of the local booze market, which is still dominated by the Báijiǔ spirit at around 80% of the market, local beer making up the bulk of the rest, and wine consumption little more than a rounding error.
Despite France having a per capita consumption 50 times greater, China’s population of nearly 1.5 billion people has propelled even their meager per capita wine consumption into the largest market in the world for red wine.
While the Chinese domestic wine industry struggles to increase its production capacity, foreign imports still make up a third of the Chinese wine market, making for nearly half a billion litres of imports per year. To put that in perspective, the entire Canadian wine industry only produces around 60 million litres each year, which certainly illustrates just how small a player Canada is in the world of wine.
Unsurprisingly, the traditional red grape varietals of Bordeaux are the most commonly planted in China, not only because red is considered a lucky color in Chinese culture, but because much of the expertise in the creation of China’s nascent wine industry was imported from France.
While you may not be seeing Chinese wines on the shelf of your local booze merchant anytime soon, many wineries in British Columbia are exporting increasing quantities to China, so it may be that the Chinese consider Canadian wines to be the same type of fancy import that Canadians use when thinking of French wines.
Keep your eyes open, for the next libation you see offered at the local Chinese buffet may not be the ever-popular Tsingtao beer, but an up-and-coming Chinese wine!