First, let's get the nomenclature clear. Wine as we know it is defined as putao jiu in Chinese, or "liquor distilled from grapes". The single character "jiu" covers not just wine but a host of spirits produced from fruit, grain, tuber or root.
There are two broad categories of liquor most often drunk in China. Again, like the foods and the people, they are marked by geographical boundaries.
South of the Yangtze River, yellow liquor or huangjiu is more common. A softer, sweeter fermented wine that is often drunk warm, it is this golden liquor that comes closest to the Western definition of "wine".
Northerners, true to their nature and climatic conditions, prefer a searing distilled spirit called baijiu, white firewater that can go as high as 70 percent proof. The descriptive "white" is actually redundant since baijiu is colorless, much like vodka or rum.
Yellow or white, Chinese spirits have been drunk for thousands of years. Legend says Lady Yidi, the consort of King Yu, made the first fermented brew more than 4,000 years ago. We do know that by the time the Han Dynasty came around 2,000 years ago, poets were already waxing lyrical under the influence.
The fermented golden liquors more popular in the south are brewed from grains such as wheat, rice or occasionally millet. They are less potent, with alcohol content hovering around 20 percent, and are normally pasteurized, aged and filtered before being bottled for sale.
In some villages, especially around the Zhejiang Shaoxing area, an earthen urn of huangjiu is stored with the birth of a new baby. If it's an infant girl, the liquor becomes known as nu'er hong or virgin red and if it's a boy, they call it zhuangyuan hong or scholar red. The urn is broken out at the daughter's marriage or the son's graduation, thus fulfilling the parental aspirations.
Yellow liquor is also sub-divided into mijiu or rice wine, nuomijiu or glutinous rice wine and huadiao, the fermented beverage made from glutinous rice and wheat. Huadiao refers to the carved floral motifs on the bottles traditional used to carry the wine.
Baijiu, the distilled liquor, is also known as shaojiu, from which the Japanese coined their word shoju.
It means "hot" or "seared" - which probably refers to the burning sensation as it powers down the gullet. Because they have gone through the distillation process, the alcohol content is much higher and can range from a low 40 percent to the high 70s.
White liquor is made mainly from sorghum with some made from rice, and grouped primarily according to fragrance.
One of the most common is erguo tou, the twice-distilled baijiu often associated with Beijing. It is very potent, and can fell the unsuspecting in just a few cups. There are many varieties, some of which are flavored with walnuts, jujubes or ginseng.
One characteristic of baijiu is its intense fragrance, which hits the nose ahead of the liquor. On a recent visit to Chongqing, I discovered a baijiu from Diaoyu Cheng which proved that firewater need not be searingly hot all the time. Aged 15 years, the Diaoyu Cheng baijiu was a smooth mellow liquor that went along like a dream with the spicy fish dishes that appeared in an endless procession on our table.
There are many like this, and all you have to know is to learn how to read the labels, which we will explore in the next weeks.