by Fred McMillin
for February 16, 1999
It's the Chinese New Year!
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.
A two thousand year old Chinese wine vessel.
...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."
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
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."
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.
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.
More articles by
Welcome to WineDay, the electronic
Gourmet Guide's daily update. Monday through Thursday,
WineDay presents a wine profile. Then on Fridays we present
the Winery of the Week to take you through the weekend.
Happy Birthday, Galileo!
Winery of the Week
Saint James Never Fails
Atlas Peak Ain't Meek
Contra Costa Hoopla
A Grander Alexander
Winery of the Week
Ficklin Plays to Win
Meet Monsieur Omo
Always a Winner
A Central Coast Toast
Feb. 1st—Happy New Year?