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Chinese Wines

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Winter Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(4) page(s): 9 and 10

To the Chinese, all alcoholic beverages are called jiu. Usually referred to as wines or rice wines no matter their ingredient(s) or their alcoholic content, this has caused considerable confusion, and will continue to do so. This article continues this nomenclature, as does the literature, and wine in Chinese will continue to mean any alcoholic beverage. However, clarifications will be given when possible. Clearly one can not do that when referring to historical material.

Many scholars wrote about wine. It is the most mentioned food item in short stories, novels, poems, and records kept by many an emperor's staff. They wrote about drinking it, cooking with it, and more. Wines are, therefore, not new to the Chinese, nor are wines made from grapes. Both have a long history. Wines made with grapes, however, do show gaps in usage. In Han Dynasty times (206 BCE - 220 CE), if not before, grape wine was popular. Poets wrote about being drunk after consuming it. Whether that meant tipsy or really drunk is questionable, and their inebriated state was not reserved just for wines made from grapes. Mongol emperors did have heavy drinking parties and they did get what we might call: dead drunk.

Wines and alcoholic beverages were made from a plethora of things. The most common was glutinous rice. Other things fermented and/or distilled were various other grains, roots, tubers, fruits, vegetables, flowers, and from an assortment of herbs. To make them, first they made a mash and malted it. Next, they fermented the mash. After fermentation, the liquid could be distilled to increase the alcoholic content. There are records of freezing the liquid and removing the ice to increase alcoholic content and heating them in what became a distillation process.

Historic records tell us that fermentation was done for the same liquid up to eight times and distillation often done as many as seven times. Some alcoholic beverages were distilled as many as twelve times to raise their alcoholic content higher than one hundred proof which is fifty percent alcohol.

The records also say that wines made from grains included those using many varieties of rice, sorghum, millet, and wheat. Roots and tubers were used; these included items such as sweet potatoes, burdock, ginseng, ginger, and licorice. The most well-known vegetable for making wine was the bean, particularly the soy bean. Greens included tea, bamboo, and other leaves, and fruit wines were made from plum, pear, litchee, longan, citrus fruits, even citrus items such as Buddha's hand. That item is discussed in Flavor and Fortune's, Volume 5(4) on pages 5 and 6.

A plethora of berries and seeds, including mulberry and hawthorn, and many seeds like those from the wisteria were also used to make wines. Flower wines included those made from osmanthus, chrysanthemum, peony, pomegranate flower, flowers of the coconut palm, and the rose. Herbal wines were made from or incorporated fennel, dandelion, saffron, and cinnamon and more unusual items. Minerals were also used for making wine; limestone water comes to mind.

In early times, medicinal wines could be any of these or those made from additional items added to the mash or incorporated or steeped in some other alcoholic beverage such as fermented mare's milk. Common ingredients were rare or unusual plants, animals, and minerals, snake, gekko, black chicken, scorpion, and silkworm pupa (Cordyceps sinensis). Many of these items have been written about, consult index listings for them at Flavor and Fortune's web-site www.flavorandfortune.com or elsewhere. Most of these wines were intended to enhance a person's qi. Wines, touted and memorialized in poetry, show that, and other health beliefs. Po Chu I, in the early 800's CE said that: "Man's hearts have gold and jade, their mouths covet wine and flesh...and (when he) drinks from his gourd (he) asks nothing more.

One of the best places to learn about China's wines is at Zunyi's Liquor Museum. They have a fascinating collection of unique artifacts including a Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) pottery wine or liquor tureen and some Ming Dynasty liquor cups. You can find this museum south-east of the town called Maotai in the Guizhou Province. This appropriate location was home to the kingdom of Yelang, where China's first alcoholic beverage, ju, was produced and used; though not just for drinking. It was a preservative pickled with meat, moldy millet, and salt. About a thousand years later, it was added to soybeans, salt, and fagara to keep pickled vegetables for years. Wine was used in rituals including weddings, birthdays, funerals and other feasts, in religious rites offered to gods and spirits, and at the table; it still is!

Wines from all regions were important at feasts. The word yen is defined as feast and as entertaining a guest with wine and food. Some regional examples of wines used at feasts and in homes that are from different regions are: Mao tai from the Guizhou province, fen jui from Shanxi, and shao xing (most often written as Shaoxing)from Zhejiang. Of these, shao xing has the lowest alcohol content, by far. There is also in the Zunyi suburbs, a brewery with a history of production of a beverage related to an ale that they have made for about two thousand years.

People wonder why many Chinese do not get drunk on these festival occasions. They could, due to the inability to rapidly process alcohol. They learned and took to heart the words of an emperor more than three thousand years ago who said after tasting some and feeling its effects: Wine should be prohibited from use, and it was. Confucius modified that thinking many years later, he said: There is no limit in wine, but one must not get drunk. Chinese also do not want to lose face by their probable behavior when drunk, so they keep overindulgence to a minimum.

For these reasons, other prohibitions, and health dicta, not drinking has a long history in China. During the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE), Li Shen-chen wrote that Wines are hot, poisonous, cause excess damage to the stomach, and they injure the spleen. Yuan Mei said Wine in excess ruins the taste for appreciation of food. Perhaps comments such as this have made indulgence at feasts follow a particular protocol of one dish served and one round of drinking, another served another round, and so on.

Chinese wines are of many kinds and many colors. Most are yellow, huang jiu, and made of rice and millet. White wines, bai jiu, are made from distilled grains. Tsou Yang, a writer of the second century BCE, said There were two different alcoholic beverages. He refers to them as li and jiu. For him, the former were white and sweet, and made with less starter and more rice. They could be made quickly, even overnight. Wines called jiu were darker or clear and stronger than li wines. Tang poetry speaks of pale green and yellow wines, also reds, whites, and blue-greens; the latter called pi.

Wine jars found in ancient tombs were labeled shu, lao, and upper grade shu. These were probably served after feasts when the meal had been completed. The dried meat was seasoned with fagara, ginger, and salted beans. Later, during the Tang Dynasty, after meals, wines were served with raw clams.

There are elaborate bronze wine vessels, some with origins in the Shou Dynasty (1766 - 1122 BCE) and the Zhou Dynasty (1122 - 256 BCE). These items of various sizes, from quite small to cauldron-size, show the importance wine had in early Chinese societies. Another item of importance was that in those early times, there was a government agency in charge of wine. Not all beverages were paid that much attention; wine was one of six beverages and they were tended solely by dietary doctors. There are early written records about these issues from the time of the Warring States (476 - 221 BCE).

Grapes for wine, Vitus vinifera, were introduced to China by an envoy of Wu Ti, a Han Emperor, however, they lost popularity. Later, grape wines made their way back to China via Turkic people prior to the Tang Dynasty. They became popular and remained so through that dynasty (618 - 907 CE). They went out of favor again, time not clear. Marco Polo (circa 1254 - 1324 CE) speaks frequently of grapes and grape wines, when dictating to Rustichello, details of his twenty-five years of traveling about in China. This was when both of them were in prison, but he does not address the popularity of grape wines. We do know that when grape wines were not popular, grain-based wines once again were; and we know that grape wines were reintroduced to China in the middle of the twentieth century.

Most wines in China are consumed when young; but there are exceptions. In early times and still done today it is customary to set aside wine for a girl child’s wedding. At birth, earthenware jars, called hua daio is a rice wine stored–usually buried--until that child gets married. Some twenty-odd years ago, we were the recipients of a Chinese restauranteur friend’s largess of one such jug. My daughter was getting married and he hosted a pre-wedding reception for the soon-to-be married couple. He opened one of those earthenware jars in storage for his daughter when she would get married. That jug held about two gallons, small compared to the usual ten gallons jug set aside for such an affair.

Though we didn’t play them on that occasion, at Chinese feasts, drinking games are played. Most are betting games that use only the fingers on one or both hands. One such game is somewhat similar to the American game, rock, scissor, paper. One player says: "One, two, three, go" and calls out a number. Any number of participants put out any number of fingers. Called hua chuan, another person calls a number from one to ten and the players put out any number of fingers at the same time. The loser(s) whose fingers do not match the called number must take a swig or gam bei; that means bottoms up. There are many other finger games, too. Though Chinese usually do not get drunk, there are feasts where players have passed out. One ancient story tells of a groom who never made it to his wedding chamber on the night he took a bride, wine the reason.

Some Chinese wines you might want to try are Miu Kua Lu with the essence of roses; it is rather expensive. Fa Due is a wine sought out for chicken and shrimp dishes. Bai Kan Jiu is a strong alcoholic beverage made of kaoliang, a grain known as sorghum. Wu Jiu Pi is flavored with medicinal herbs, and Fu Shou Jiu flavored with pomegranate.

Should you read some literature about wine, it is important to know that shao jiu and huo jiu are terms found frequently. The first means burned wine, the second fire wine. Both are strong distillations, not wine at all. The Chinese may have been the first to distill wines; there are records of this in the 6th and 7th centuries.

These and other wines were traditionally served warm and in tiny cups at all feasts. After all, a proverb tells us that without wine there is no feast. You see these in use at rituals and for sacrifices. For these, they rarely heat the wine, but for medicinal purposes one always should.

To the Chinese, jiu is acrid, bitter-sweet in flavor, warm in nature. It enters the heart, liver, lungs, and stomach, opens blood vessels, wards off colds, and energizes the spleen. As such, it makes other medicinals do their jobs even better. One herbal writer disagrees and says: Alcoholic beverages have a volatile nature that damage the spirit and injure the blood; they lead to waste and decline." Thus, some doctors and herbalists do prescribed it freely, others do not. For more about prescription aspects of Chinese wines (and liquors), consult Bob Flaws book, Chinese Medicinal Wines and Elixirs (1994), and other sources such as The Yellow Emperor’s Classic written during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), and Preparations and Uses of Chinese Medicated Spirits and Wine by Lu Lei, Yu Yangbo, Lu Shuyun, and Liu Hongjun (date unknown).

To make Chinese rice wines, first the grain needs polishing. Then the rice is soaked to soften it, steamed, cooled, mixed with a yeast mash, and fermented for about two weeks. It is then pressed and decanted, stored or consumed. If making something such as fu jiu, young chickens are immersed in the wine after fermentation. Because chickens are thought to be sexually active with a strong life force, this wine is said to confer longevity. There are many reasons for many wine choices, some known, others less well known, but which wine for a particular ailment is almost always well known. For example, there is no question that for those with rheumatism, a Chinese doctor would suggest that men drink hu ku jiu made with tiger bones soaked in sorghum liquor. For women and their ailments, they would tout consuming both the black chicken that was soaked in wine, and the wine itself.

For those who wish to use Chinese wines in cookery, one of the most famous dishes below is for your pleasure. It is popular as written and also well known in a version called Drunken Chicken and another called Drunken Shrimp. There are other recipes, in this issue and in previous ones, that use Chinese wines. Enjoy them all.
Drunken Fish
1 Tablespoon chicken fat
2 Tablespoons cloud ear fungus, soaked and cut into one-inch pieces, if large dash salt
1 teaspoon sugar
4 Tablespoons shao xing wine
4 Tablespoons chicken broth
1 pound boneless sea bass, cut into two inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg white
2 Tablespoons water chestnut flour
2 cups corn oil
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons of cold water
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1. In a small fry pan, heat chicken fat and stir-fry fungus for one minute, then add salt, sugar. wine and stock and cook for one minute, then turn off heat.
2. Mix sea bass with egg white and water chestnut flour until well coated. Let rest ten minutes.
3. Heat corn oil and fry the fish pieces in two batches, about one minute each, drain them and put them into a serving bowl. When both are done, leave one tablespoon of oil in the wok and set the rest of the oil aside for another use.
4. Be sure oil left in wok is hot, if it is not, reheat it. Transfer wine mixture to the wok and heat for half a minute. Add cornstarch and water and heat until sauce thickens and clears. Pour over the fish. Sprinkle with sesame oil and serve.

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