Considering the enormous development that the Chinese wine industry has experienced over the past 20 years, a period when both production and consumption have skyrocketed, it is now more important than ever to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese wines. Today, we’ll take a look into the most common wine grape varieties grown in China.
A Data-Driven Overview
In its 2018 Global Grapevine Variety Distribution Report, the International Organization of Vine and Wine found that during the period from 2000 to 2015, China’s 830,000 hectares of dedicated grape-growing land was second only to Spain (974,000 hectares). This land area also represented a 177% increase for China since 2000.
The largest land area for grape cultivation in China belongs to the table grape variety Kyoto, with 365,000 hectares. In fact, this area accounts for 44% of the total land area used to cultivate this variety globally. Shifting the focus to wine grapes, however, the variety that comprises the largest land area in China is Cabernet Sauvignon, with 60,000 hectares accounting for 7.2% of this variety’s total cultivation land area, globally.
In China, 79% of cultivated wine grapes are red grape varieties, and the most common include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Gernischt, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Vitis Amurensis Rupr; white grape varieties, such as Chardonnay, Italian Riesling, Longyan, and Ugni Blanc account for 20%, while a small quantity of teinturier grape varieties, including Alicante Bouschet and Yan 73, make up the remainder.
Discovering China’s Major Red Grape Varieties
1. Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon is the most extensively grown wine grape in the world, and it also takes the top spot in China, accounting for over 75% of the country’s total wine grape cultivation land area. In 1892, the Cabernet Sauvignon grape was first introduced to the city of Yantai, in China’s Shandong province, and continued to be imported in large quantities for decades.
Today, this variety has spread through the provinces of Hebei, Ningxia, Shanxi, Shandong, and Yunnan. Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are relatively small with a thick layer of skin, and they produce wines with a deep red coloring that are often accompanied by a fragrance typical of black fruits. These wines have a vegetal flavor, along with relatively high levels of tannins and acidity.
Merlot is the second most widely cultivated wine grape variety in China, and can be found in the provinces of Shandong, Hebei, Shanxi, Ningxia, and Yunnan. Merlot grapes produce wines that are relatively low in tannins and acidity, but tend to have a fuller body and higher alcohol content. Their taste is similar to that of red and black fruits, and they will emit alluring fragrances during the aging process.
Merlot grapes are often mixed with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes. In contrast with the “heavy flavoring” of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot is the best choice for a novice red wine drinker.
3. Cabernet Franc
Today, Cabernet Franc grapes are primarily grown in northern and western China. When compared with the Cabernet Sauvignon variety, Cabernet Franc grapes are smaller and have a thinner skin, and their wines are lighter and lower in tannins and acidity. These wines also tend to have a gentler texture and a stronger aroma.
Cabernet Franc grapes are also mixed with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes to give a wine additional vegetal flavoring. Although commonly used in Bordeaux-style wines, this variety also makes outstanding ice wine.
4. Cabernet Gernischt
The Cabernet Gernischt variety is a characteristic Chinese wine grape, and is significant within Chinese wine culture as the only China-originating grape variety to have gained international recognition. In 1892, when the Changyu Winery began importing large quantities of different grape varieties into China, it also successfully cultivated many new grape varieties, including Cabernet Gernischt.
In China, Cabernet Gernischt grapes are grown throughout northern China, most prominently in Yantai and Ningxia. These grapes are of medium size with a relatively thick skin, and are juicy and sweet. Wines produced from Cabernet Gernischt grapes share some similarities with Cabernet Sauvignon, and will often have a mushroom or perfume fragrance.
Cabernet Gernischt grapes can be used in combination with other grape varieties, but can also be used to make varietal wines. These wines typically have the flavor of blackcurrant, raspberry, pepper, or mushroom, and are often aged in oak barrels. Cabernet Gernischt has become so popular in China that Hong Kong celebrated “Cabernet Gernischt Day” on May 25, 2016 – this was the first time that China created a holiday for one of its wine grape varieties.
5. Vitis Amurensis Rupr
The Vitis Amurensis Rupr variety is unique to China, and is primarily grown in the Changbai Mountain region within the Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang provinces. This variety typically produces wines that are low in acidity, low in alcohol content, and light and refreshing in taste. Their acidity, sweetness, and tannin levels are well-balanced, and they have a fruity aroma.
6. Rose Honey
The rose honey grape is a Western hybrid variety, first brought to Yunnan in the 18th century by French missionaries. Today, rose honey grapes are one of the primary varieties grown in Yunnan’s Gaoyuan production region, used both for making wine and for eating fresh. They are an early-ripening variety; those grown in the Mile region of Yunnan will begin to ripen in early July. Wines made from these grapes are ruby red in color, and have a distinct rose and honey aroma that many wine lovers find enticing and refreshing.
Discovering China’s Major White Grape Varieties
Although the Chardonnay variety originated in France’s Burgundy region, it is now grown in nearly every major wine producing region in the world. In China, the majority of dry, white wines are made from Chardonnay grapes, and the excellent wines produced from Chardonnay grapes grown in China’s Jiaodong and Ningxia regions rival the quality of many international Chardonnays.
Chardonnay is an early ripening grape variety with a thin skin, and it gives off an enticing fruity and flowery aroma similar to that of citrus fruits, pears, or peaches. The textures of its wines are usually light but lively, and when aged in oak barrels they produce aromas similar to cream or honey.
2. Italian Riesling
Although given the name “Italian Riesling” in China, this variety is actually unrelated to the other Riesling grape varieties. Produced in China for the first time in 1982, Italian Riesling white wines are usually dry or semi-dry with a light-yellow coloring, crystal-clear transparency, rich and full fruity aroma, gentle texture, and moderate acidity. This variety can also be used to make a refreshing sparkling wine.
3. Longyan (Dragon Eye)
Longyan grapes have a long history of cultivation in China, dating back to the Guangxu period during the Qing Dynasty when this large, sweet, and juicy fruit was used as an item of tribute in the imperial palace. The origin of the Longyan variety is unclear, however, and there are many different stories regarding its naming. One theory is that it was named for its resemblance to a dragon’s eye, which is the literal meaning of “Longyan” in Chinese.
The Huaizhuo Basin wine region in Hebei province is very well-known for its cultivation of Longyan grapes. The grapes grown in this region are a purple-red or deep rose color with a thin and transparent skin, and they are extraordinarily sweet in flavor. The dry white wines produced from Longyan grapes are similar in style to Gewurztraminer, and they emit an enticing fruity aroma and feature a smooth texture that is loved by many.
4. Vidal Blanc
Northeastern China is one of the world’s largest icewine producing regions by land area, and the Vidal Blanc grapes used to make these wines are largely cultivated in the Huanlong region and in Huanren Manchu autonomous county, a region which has come to be known as the “Golden Ice Valley.” Wines of this variety give off aromas of tropical fruits and honey, and have a refreshing and balanced taste that makes them suitable for everyday pairing with nearly any meal.