I recently attended a mixology class hosted by cognac-maker Hennessy, where I learned the amber-coloured spirit wasn’t solely the preserve of parvenu 1980s Asian businessmen, whose expensive bottles of VSOPs or XOs took pride of place in their homes and offices. Such cognacs – distilled spirits made from grapes – have refined and complex flavours, and make great cocktails.
Grapes weren’t the ingredient of choice for most makers of alcoholic beverages in pre-modern China; spirits made from grains such as sorghum, wheat and rice were much more common. References to grape wines found in Chinese historical records and literary works usually mention the “western regions” (present-day Xinjiang and Central Asia) as their source.
When Chinese envoy Zhang Qian visited the state of Dayuan (located in presentday Uzbekistan) in 138BC, he observed the people of the region used grapes to make wine. The fact that Dayuan’s inhabitants were descendants of Greek colonists who had arrived several centuries before may explain their knowledge of viticulture and their partiality to wine.
Winemaking techniques were brought to China but something must have been lost in translation because Chinese winemakers in subsequent centuries added yeast starters (jiuqu) to the grapes, an essential step in making Chinese grain-based spirits, which probably rendered the resulting product rather unpalatable. It wasn’t until 1892 that Zhang Bishi founded Changyu, the first modern Chinese winery, in the city of Yantai, Shandong province.