The Ancient Winery of WuZhen – Rice wine in Chinese Culture
Chinese alcoholic beverages seem to precede the earliest stages of Chinese civilization
Rice wine is an alcoholic beverage made from rice. Unlike European wine, which is made by fermentation of naturally occurring sugars in sweet grapes and other fruit, rice wine is made from the fermentation of rice starch that has been converted to sugars. The process is somewhat similar to the mashing process used in beer and whiskey production but differs in the source of the enzymes that convert starch to sugars. In rice and other cereal wines, microbes are the source of the enzymes whereas beer, ale and whiskey production utilizes the enzymes naturally occurring in sprouted cereal grains.
Strictly speaking wine is the product of fermenting grape juice. Alcoholic beverages produced by fermenting the starch found in cereal grains like rice, are thus not technically wine as such. As they utilize grains, so-called starch or cereal wines such as Japanese Sake or Chinese Huangjiu could be considered more akin to beer than wine, yet the finished alcoholic beverage is so disparate from beer that this description is very misleading. The organoleptic qualities of a fermented cereal beverage such as rice wine are much more like grape wine and this is often the context used for its description. Rice wine typically has a higher alcohol content, 18%–25% ABV, than grape wine (9%–16%), which in turn has a higher alcohol content than beer (usually 4%–6%).
Rice wines are used in Asian gastronomy much the same way as grape wines are used in European cuisine, e.g. at formal dinners and banquets and in cooking. Secondly, rice wines are used in a religious and ceremonial context in a manner that grape wine was used in ancient Greek and Roman civilisations and is still used in the modern Christian eucharist ceremony. Rice wines are also revered in the arts and literature of Asian cultures much the same way grape wine is in European culture. Beer is rarely used in any of the former contexts, so in the eyes of many rice wine is the correct cultural translation for the fermented cereal beverages of Asia.
Rice wine is much used in Chinese cuisine and in other Asian cuisines. A common substitute for it is pale dry sherry. Alcoholic beverages distilled from rice were formerly exclusive to East Asian and Southeast Asian countries. Later, knowledge of the distillation process reached India and parts of South Asia through trade.
“酒“, pinyin: Jiǔ, is the Chinese character referring to any beverage containing appreciable quantities of ethanol. Its Old Chinese pronunciation has been reconstructed as *tsuʔ, at which point it was generally applied to drinks made from fermented millet. By the time of the first certain use of distillation during the Jin and Southern Song dynasties, the Middle Chinese pronunciation was tsjuw. It is often translated into English as “wine”, which misstates its current usage.
Chinese alcohol predates recorded history. Dried residue extracted from 9,000-year-old pottery found implies that early beers were already being consumed by the neolithic peoples in the area of modern China.