CHINESE 'RICE WINES' ARE NOT wines in the generally accepted western sense of the term, and indeed are not necessarily made with rice. In China, the phrase is used for all fermented alcoholic drinks made with cereals or wheat. Shaoxing rice wine however is made from a variety of glutinous rice, and like Western wine has a long tradition behind it. High quality rice wines have been made in the Shaoxing region of Zhejiang province for at least 2,400 years, and perhaps for as long as 5,000. Furthermore terroir is a factor in their making - or would be if you could apply that term to a lake. Rice wines from Zhejiang have traditionally been regarded as China's best, largely because of the purity and mineral content of the water of Lake Jianhu, which is combined with wheat and rice to ferment before being aged in stoneware pots. The effects of ageing on Shaoxing wine may not be strictly analogous to the flowering over time of a great Bordeaux, but the best stuff is thought to improve with keeping. For generations, it was the custom in the region that when a baby girl was born, her parents would bury specially carved jars of Shaoxing wine in the backyard. These would be ceremonially unearthed on the day of the young lady's wedding, and the wines were known as Hua Diao or carved flowers. Generally, the wines finish maturing after 10 years, but can still be consumed after a century or more. Rice wines from the region were made for the emperor and sent to Beijing as a tribute, and in recent times not a great deal has changed. Rice wines made in Shaoxing county are still served in the Great Hall of the People at state banquets for visiting dignitaries and heads of state. The same stuff is popular across the Taiwan Strait. Zhejiang was something of a Kuomintang stronghold and leaders and foot soldiers took a liking for the liquor into exile with them. Rice wines are used in some Chinese cuisines and many recipes stipulate Shaoxing wine because of its superior quality, although the highest grades of this wine are not generally for this purpose. The drink, which is also called Huang Jiu or Yellow Wine, after the amber colour it takes on from the husks of wheat fermented with the rice, is supposedly good for your health. Just as western red wine is thought to be good for the heart, regular consumption of Shaoxing wine is believed to enhance the circulation of the blood and prolong life. Quality comes at a price however. As a rule of thumb the longer these wines have been left to mature and the fancier the packaging, the more expensive they are. Take those in a cup at room temperature and you can drink like an emperor - or at the very least a senior party member.