A trip to Shaoxing: The home of China’s ‘yellow’ wine

If it is not easy to describe what a Master of Wine ‘does’ (winemaker, viticulturist, marketer, wine buyer, consultant, journalist, writer, business owner, educator, event organiser, wine-judge, retailer, wholesaler etc. being just some of the areas in which MW’s work) then defining what a Master of Wine ‘is’, presents even more of a challenge. For me working in wine was really a choice based on my love of taste. That fundamental appreciation of flavour and aroma stems from having grown up with a grandmother, a professional cook, whose preparation of plentiful, varied and deeply satisfying food made her house my favourite place in which to spend holidays or weekends. I was also fortunate to have a London based aunt and uncle who both shared and fostered my fascination with flavour. They would take me to restaurants throughout the capital that exposed me at a tender age to the deliciousness and diversity of global gastronomy including my first Peking Duck, in all its burnished succulence, some 35 years ago.

Wine is neither inferior or superior to the stuff that we eat, it is simply an extension of food in liquid form. What makes wine remarkable is that the wide range of varieties cultivated, the differences in the climatic conditions in which those varieties are grown and the scope of methods employed by winemakers in its production, ensures that wine has a breadth of aroma, flavour and texture that is intellectual in scale. Being a Master of Wine indicates that those who hold this title have a certain understanding of exactly this, i.e. that wine is complicated. Having earned this particular status does not mean however that I have the language or experience necessary to comfortably describe or assess the wines made from something other than grapes. This was why I received an invitation asking me to visit and then review the rice wines of Shaoxing with excitement but also a little trepidation; after all, none of us wants to look like a fool.

In the West (and in some parts of western China), the rice wines of Shaoxing are used more for cooking than for drinking. Even in Hong Kong, Taipei or Shanghai, friends when questioned stated that they usually consumed the wines from this area with the older generations of their respective families or at particular times of year such as in late autumn served warm with hairy crab. What I was interested to find out was with the rice wine of Japan (Sake) enjoying an increasingly appreciative audience beyond its homeland, whether the wines of Shaoxing were also capable of international appeal. Luckily for me my journey to Shaoxing saw me accompanied by Shanghai native and expert, Jennifer Chen, who over the three days we were together helped me build a picture of what the ‘good’, ‘better’ and the ‘best’ wines looked like.

We visited three famous winemaking institutions (Kuai Ji Shan, the family owned Chen Yuangxing otherwise known as the Shaoxing Wine Company and Pagoda) and having witnessed the winemaking process I began asking questions about how the flavour and aroma present in any given rice wine is controlled by the producer. What I was trying to understand was whether the criteria for successful and controlled fermentations in grape wine were the same for wine made from rice. A winemaker (grape) can most easily influence the style of any given wine they are producing through the yeast that they use to ferment the juice and by the temperature at which they allow that fermentation to take place. Most of the producers visited had no access to facilities that allowed them to effectively control the temperature (no refrigeration equipment was installed) and no one was either prepared or wished to reveal the strains of any particular yeasts that were being used other than to say that it was ‘local’ yeast.

My next set of questions centred on the provenance of the raw ingredient, the rice. Anyone with more than a passing interest in wine produced from grapes knows that the influence of a particular place with its associated soil, climate etc has a marked effect on the style, quality and price of the wines produced. What became obvious was that the determining factor in the selection of rice was about the proximity of the time of harvest of the rice to the fermentation and subsequent beginnings of the maturation period of the wine itself. The commonly held belief is that the fermentation and early part of the maturation needs to be controlled/slowed by the effects of the cool weather (especially as there is no temperature control present in the majority of the wineries), hence the best time to make wine being late Autumn and winter. This does mean that the rice used has to come from those areas that harvest their rice at this time, irrespective of whether this is the ‘best’ rice. Zhejiang and Anhui are the regions from which most rice is currently sourced.

On my return to Shanghai I blind-tasted my way through sixty examples of yellow wine from Shaoxing and what was slowly revealed to me was that as with grape wine, the rice wines of Shaoxing can be just as layered. Many of the better wines have a complex oxidative character that is dominated by the strong umami characters of mushroom soy (or dried Porcini) and an earthy meatiness. The best had these savoury elements but were also perfumed. This perfume often centred on a sweet citrus peel (dried or burnt orange) and a roasted hazelnut character that channelled an aromatic profile that fell somewhere between an aged Oloroso sherry and a good Negroni.

What was evident was that although there are already many great wines being produced, there exists the opportunity to modernise the style without losing the fundamental characteristics that make the best of these wines so appealing. With some investment, wineries could create a situation that would allow greater flexibility and stylistic choice. With temperature control and some research and development into producing wines with rice from alternative sources, studies into yeast strain application and maturation that varied in length (and temperature) that thus exposed the wines to a greater or lesser extent of oxidative ageing, these wines could see a slow but real growth in sales that extend beyond the older generations of eastern China and Japan. Packaging is also an area that I believe could be improved to attract and appeal to a younger consumer.

Perhaps most importantly, China places much importance on authenticity and cultural heritage. Yellow wine is rich in both of these attributes and if this waiguo ren can learn to appreciate the distinctive, savoury and complex nature of China’s original wines, then the future is bright, in fact the future could well be yellow.

Some of my favourites from the tasting are listed below:

Pagoda Year 2011塔牌 2011 懒画眉
Earthy, slightly vegetal but with a little accompanying peachiness. Bright palate with acidity that refreshes. High levels of savoury complexity and citrus peel and medicinal characters that make this a rewarding glass of wine. 17

Pagoda Year 2011 Winter Craft 塔牌2011冬酿
A little muted on the nose but with a subtle nuttiness and fruitiness that makes this instantly appealing. Viscous palate supported by sufficient acidity with the orange peel fruit and nuttiness the main characteristics experienced in the mouth. Concentrated and long. Impressive. 17

Pagoda Year 2005 塔牌2005 五般宜
Very powerful nose that is rich in umami with a soy and marmite/twiglet character (for those of you familiar with these products from the West). This power continues onto the palate where we have a concentrated core and long finish. 17

Bai Ta Aged 5 Years白塔 五年陈酿
Mushroom soy and a roasted hazelnut aroma make this a very appealing wine. Bright acidity, supple texture and an appealingly long finish. Very good. 17

Bai Ta NV 白塔原绍
Cooked brown rice, toasted hazelnut and orange peel aromatics. Very fruity and nutty with a lovely palate enveloping viscosity that is balanced by ample acidity. Long finish. A yellow wine for those of you that love Putao Jiu. 16.5 

Gu Yue Long Shan Golden 5 Years 古越龙山金五年
Almost floral with its orange peel/blossom and toasted hazelnut aromatics. Viscous but not heavy, it exhibits both a sweetness and savouriness that balance each other perfectly. This is a wine for lovers of Oloroso. 16.5 

Shao Yuan Chun Reserva NV 绍源春珍藏级
Very sweet smelling and aromatic with a floral perfume accompanied by toasted hazelnut and coconut. Soft and elegant on the palate the finish is almost negroni like with its bitter orange peel character. Impressive. 17



釀酒人、酒農、葡萄酒行銷、葡萄酒採購、顧問、記者、作家、自營業者、教育家、活動策劃人、葡萄酒評審、經銷商、大盤商等等,這些都是葡萄酒大師(Master of Wine)工作範圍內的一部分。但如果要解釋葡萄酒大師在做什麼,已經不是一件易事,那麼試圖定義這頭銜到底為何,可能還更加困難。對我而言,從事葡萄酒相關工作是出自於個人喜好。我對於風味和香氣的熱中和欣賞,源自於從小受到外婆影響。身為專業廚師的她,總是會準備豐盛、多樣化,且令人心滿意足的各色佳餚,這也讓她家成了孩提時代的我最愛在週末假日造訪的地方,至於倫敦的阿姨與姨丈家,則成了另一個可以我能夠繼續鑑賞各種風味的落腳之處。他們帶我造訪城裡各家餐廳,讓我在年紀輕輕之時,就得以體驗世界各地多元的美食。早在約末三十五年前,我就已經品嚐到了人生第一隻光亮可口的北京烤鴨。


與其用作飲用酒,西方國家與中國西部的一些省分更常將來自紹興的米酒用作料理酒。即便是在香港、台北或上海的朋友們,也總是說他們最常與家中長輩一同品飲紹興,更常於秋末時分,搭配毛蟹料理一同享用。而我想知道的則是,隨著同樣以米釀成的日本清酒逐漸受到國際矚目,並開始在家鄉以外累積粉絲群,來自紹興的米酒,能否也展現出同樣風靡國際的魅力。這次為期三天的參訪,我很幸運地能與專家Jennifer Chen同行,她幫助我辨認紹興酒由質佳到優良、甚至傑出的風味樣貌分別為何。






Pagoda Year 2011塔牌 2011 懒画眉
帶有土壤調性與些許植蔬味,另摻有一些水蜜桃果香。口感明亮,酸度爽口。這款酒展現了極大量的鹹鮮風味與複雜度,另有橙皮與藥草調性,使得酒款嘗來令人滿足。(17 / 20分)

Pagoda Year 2011 Winter Craft 塔牌2011冬酿

Pagoda Year 2005 塔牌2005 五般宜

Bai Ta Aged 5 Years白塔 五年陈酿

Bai Ta NV 白塔原绍

Gu Yue Long Shan Golden 5 Years 古越龙山金五年

Shao Yuan Chun Reserva NV 绍源春珍藏级



酿酒人、酒农、葡萄酒营销、葡萄酒采购、顾问、记者、作家、自营业者、教育家、活动策划人、葡萄酒评审、经销商、大盘商等等,这些都是葡萄酒大师(Master of Wine)工作范围内的一部分。但如果要解释葡萄酒大师在做什么,已经不是一件易事,那么试图定义这头衔到底为何,可能还更加困难。对我而言,从事葡萄酒相关工作是出自于个人喜好。我对于风味和香气的热中和欣赏,源自于从小受到外婆影响。做为专业厨师,她总是会准备丰盛、多样化,且令人心满意足的各色佳肴,这也让她家成了孩提时代的我,最爱在周末假日造访的地方,至于伦敦的阿姨与姨丈家,则成了另一个可以我能够继续鉴赏各种风味的落脚之处。他们带我造访城里各家餐厅,让我在年纪轻轻之时,就得以体验世界各地多元的美食。早在约末三十五年前,我就已经品尝到了人生第一只光亮可口的北京烤鸭。


与其用作饮用酒,西方国家与中国西部的一些省分更常将来自绍兴的米酒用作料理酒。即便是在香港、台北或上海的朋友们,也总是说他们最常与家中长辈一同品饮绍兴,更常于秋末时分,搭配毛蟹料理一同享用。而我想知道的则是,随着同样以米酿成的日本清酒逐渐受到国际瞩目,并开始在家乡以外累积粉丝群,来自绍兴的米酒,能否也展现出同样风靡国际的魅力。这次为期三天的参访,我很幸运地能与专家Jennifer Chen同行,她帮助我辨认绍兴酒由质佳到优良、甚至杰出的风味样貌分别为何。







Pagoda Year 2011塔牌 2011 懒画眉
带有土壤调性与些许植蔬味,另掺有一些水蜜桃果香。口感明亮,酸度爽口。这款酒展现了极大量的咸鲜风味与复杂度,另有橙皮与药草调性,使得酒款尝来令人满足。(17 / 20分)

Pagoda Year 2011 Winter Craft 塔牌2011冬酿

Pagoda Year 2005 塔牌2005 五般宜

Bai Ta Aged 5 Years白塔 五年陈酿

Bai Ta NV 白塔原绍

Gu Yue Long Shan Golden 5 Years 古越龙山金五年

Shao Yuan Chun Reserva NV 绍源春珍藏级