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A guide to hobnobbing with the wine snobs

With wine of grapes, the cups of jade would glow at night,

Drinking to pipa songs, we are summoned to fight,

Don’t laugh if we lay drunken on the battleground,

How many warriors ever came back safe and sound?

Whether this thirsty soldier ever made it back from battle, the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) poet Wang Han didn’t say. But even if his life was cut short, his reverie about drinking wine in jade cups has lasted hundreds of years.

Though traditionally less popular than baijiu, the ubiquitous sorghum “white spirit,” grape wine or 葡萄酒 (pútaojiǔ) still has a long history in China. The earliest mention of it can be traced back to the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Historian Sima Qian wrote in the Records of the Grand Historian that when the envoy Zhang Qian went to the Western Regions (now Xinjiang and parts of Central Asia), he witnessed local wine-making methods and brought these techniques home.

Nowadays, wine has become associated with high-end banquets and connoisseurs more concerned with taste and quality than intoxication. Whereas “how much can you drink?” is the principal—if not only—concern when it comes to baijiu, wine gives much larger scope for discussion: famous brands, producing regions, grape varieties, relevant etiquette, and even its value in the market. As a result, it’s often difficult to join a conversation about wine if one doesn’t have the expertise.

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Vine Vocabulary (Paywalled) is a story from our issue, “Grape Expectations.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.

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Sun Jiahui is a freelance writer and former editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about Chinese language, society and culture, and is especially passionate about sharing stories of China's ancient past with a wider audience. She has been writing for TWOC for over six years, and pens the Choice Chengyu column.

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