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What You Need To Know About Chinese Grape Varieties and Wines


Due to the size of China and its climate, it is no surprise that wine regions here can vary greatly in terms of which grape varieties they specialize in growing.

China is not only one of the world’s most important markets in terms of wine consumption – it is also one of the world’s largest markets in terms of wine production. China currently ranks No. 8 in the world, with 1.2 billion litres of wine produced each year. In comparison, France produces 4.2 billion litres of wine each year. According to the latest figures from the wine trade exchange VINEX, China could become the No. 1 wine producer in the world by 2021.

As China’s domestic producers continue to grow in size and stature, that is leading to renewed interest in the types of wines they are producing for the export market, as well as the new bulk wines they are importing in order to satisfy growing domestic demand. Currently, a handful of large producers such as Changyu Pioneer Wine Company, Great Wall, Changli and Dynasty Wine Company dominate the domestic market. At one time, these producers primarily focused on lower-quality, higher-yielding grape varieties. But in the past decade, boutique producers in regions like Ningxia are now producing world-class Bordeaux blends.

While China is very much a New World wine destination, the nation’s domestic wine industry is very much focused on French grape varietals, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Due to the clear Chinese preference for red wines, the most popular red grape varieties grown across the nation also include Pinot Noir, Carignan, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Gernischt. The most popular white grape varieties in China include Chardonnay, Italian Riesling and Muscat.

Regional grape diversity

Due to the size of China, and the resulting wide range in climates across the nation, it is perhaps no surprise that China’s wine regions can vary greatly in terms of which grape varieties they specialize in growing.

For example, China’s top wine region in terms of annual production is Yantai (in Shandong Province), which has been characterized as “China’s Napa Valley” for its relatively warm, temperate climate, close proximity to the water (the Bohai Sea), and vibrant agricultural diversity that includes plantings of apples, peaches, pears and cherries. Due to its scenic location and relatively mild continental climate, Yantai is also one of the first Chinese wine regions that have seriously explored the idea of wine tourism.

In stark contrast, Ningxia in north central China is located along the Loess Plateau, and is primarily arid desert, except for land along the Yellow River, which provides a source of irrigation. The lack of moisture and the much colder winter weather creates starkly different growing conditions in Ningxia. If Yantai can be compared to Napa Valley in California, then Ningxia might be more accurately described as China’s equivalent of the Mendoza wine region in Argentina.

Below is a quick summary of which wines are most commonly produced in some of China’s most important wine regions:

  • Ningxia - Bordeaux blends featuring Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Cabernet Gernischt
  • Hebei (Beijing) - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay
  • Shanxi - Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc
  • Tianjin – Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Italian Riesling, Muscat
  • Yunnan - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay
  • Yantai - This region, as the home of 140+ wineries, accounts for nearly 40% of annual wine production in China. It is the most diverse of all the wine regions and is capable of supporting a much wider range of grape varieties.

The rise of China’s “signature grape”

One interesting development in the growth of China’s domestic wine industry has been the search for a “signature grape” that will define China, much as Argentina has Malbec, or South Africa has Chenin Blanc. One potential prospect is Marselan, which was created by French viticultural researchers in 1961 as a hybrid cross of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon. At the time, the goal was to create a red grape variety for France’s southernmost wine regions that were disease-resistant, and that could be used to produce medium-bodied wines with good colour, fine tannins, and flavours of cherry and cassis.

However, due to strict guidelines on what grapes could be grown in France, Marselan never took off as planned. But that all changed in 2001 when the Chinese province of Hebei (which surrounds Beijing) created a Sino-French Demonstration Vineyard to experiment with the transplanting of Marselan to Chinese soil. The first vintage of Chinese Marselan was 2003, and by the following year, Marselan was being grown in Yantai-Penglai (Shandong).

By 2005, the Marselan grape had been transplanted to other Chinese wine regions: Gansu, Shanxi, Ningxia, and Xinjiang. The big moment for Marselan came in 2017 when the international ProWein trade fair featured 6 different Marselan wines from 6 Chinese boutique producers. Moreover, Chinese Marselan wines are starting to win prizes in international competitions, raising the profile of Marselan producers in both Xinjiang and Hebei – the two regions that are producing red Marselan wines with extraordinary complexity.

Other Chinese wines

One peculiarity of the Chinese winemaking industry is the continued existence of wines that are made from fermented rice and sweet fruits such as plums. Thus, just because a bottle says “Chinese wine” on it, it does not imply that the wine is made from grapes. Examples of these non-grape wines include Shaoxing (made from rice in a way that the flavour profile is closer to a dry Sherry, such that it is sometimes used as a cooking wine) and Bingxueli (a sweet white wine fermented from dried grapes and aged in French oak).

The mix of Old World and New World in China

Going forward, it is evident that the future evolution of the Chinese wine industry will include a combination of Old World winemaking expertise and a New World approach to creativity, innovation and diversity. The Old World influence is impossible to ignore - everything from the Bordeaux-style chateaux built in wine regions like Ningxia, to the involvement of famous international winemakers in helping the Chinese wine industry to develop. Some Chinese chateaux, in fact, now are named for foreign winemakers.

Perhaps the perfect example of this melding of Old World and New World is in the creation and further development of the Marselan grape. This French grape is new and modern, but also firmly anchored in France’s traditional winemaking past and the nation’s love of Cabernet Sauvignon. That same love and appreciation for Cabernet Sauvignon have now been transplanted to China, where the next generation of wine drinkers are showing their clear preference for this international grape variety.