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Growing wine-grapes is not alien to the Chinese culture, but historically it has been of little importance. Vineyards were established early in the 20th century by European missionaries and merchants in the Shantung (Shandong) Peninsula of north-east China. Most of today's 30,000ha (74,000 acres) of wine grapes are still found here, and the area produces about a million cases of wine a year. However, exact production statistics for the country are elusive.

Most of China's vineyards are in cool-climate zones, with winter temperatures of 3 C (37 F) and summer ones of 26 C (79 F). Rainfall is however high, particularly during the growing season in July and August, and summer typhoons can do damage. The best vineyards tend to be those on south-facing slopes on alluvial, well-drained soil. The more southerly vineyards are humid and can have botrytis problems.

The missionaries' imports of white-wine varieties such as Rkatsiteli, WeIschriesling and Gewurztraminer, and the black grape Muscat de Hambourg remain important. Beichun, a versatile red hybrid relatively resistant to fungal diseases and cold, and the table-grape varieties Dragon's Eye, Cow's Nipple and Cock's Heart are all widely used to make traditional, semi-sweet, predominantly white Chinese wines: the most famous, Kui hua chen chiew, is exported throughout the Far East.

China has around 90 wineries, a third of which are serious about making wine of reasonable quality. In the 1980s a new mood of openness encouraged foreign investment, and five multinational companies now provide funding for equipment and expertise. Local grapes are bought from small family-owned vineyards on contract while new vineyards, planted with classic European varieties, mature.

The aim is for consumer-friendly, predominantly white, medium-dry blends that can be marketed at home and abroad - not least to Chinese restaurants worldwide. Besides Remy Martin, Hiram Walker and Pernod-Ricard, Impexital, the Italian international finance group, and Seagram are also involved with joint ventures in China.

Significantly, the more progressive state-run wineries are beginning to make Western-style wines, putting pressure on scarce grape resources such as Riesling and Chardonnay, which are consequently rising in cost. As are the wines, which command higher prices than traditional-style wines. With the benefit of the readymade Hong Kong market in 1997, China stands every chance of one day realizing its massive potential.

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