The crowd was enraptured by the tales of Stone Age booze. For three hours, several dozen people listened to a parade of scholars at UC Davis trace the traditions, technology, rituals, poetry and art of fermented beverages in China from the Neolithic period to the present.
When they broke for lunch, they were ready for a drink, and a drink was ready for them. As they grabbed box lunches, attendees were offered a small cup of Chateau Jiahu, a chilled beverage with a deep golden color, a thick foamy head, a floral aroma and a delicately sweet and refreshing flavor.
It looked like beer, smelled like beer, tasted like beer and was brewed by Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware. But Chateau Jiahu also could be seen as an echo of what may have been the world’s first wine.
While “Chateau Jiahu” is a fanciful name, Jiahu is a real place – a Neolithic settlement in the Yellow River Valley in the Henan province.
Dr. Patrick E. McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, traveled to the region about 15 years ago in search of ancient pottery jars with traces of organic residue he could analyze in hopes of further understanding the development of alcoholic beverages.
“Pottery lasts forever, and it absorbs liquid,” McGovern said as he opened the daylong seminar, “Understanding Jiu: The History and Culture of Alcoholic Beverages in China,” orchestrated in March by the Confucius Institute at UC Davis.
At Jiahu, he hit pay dirt in ancient cemeteries and houses. He collected pottery shards 9,000 years old and returned to Pennsylvania to analyze them with such modern tools as infrared spectrometry and gas chromatography.
His research found evidence of tartaric acid, beeswax and rice, which taken as a whole suggested that several of the jars had contained a fermented beverage based on rice, honey and some kind of fruit, likely wild grapes or the fruit of the hawthorn tree or both. Even today, Henan province is home to 17 varieties of wild grapes.
For the past decade, McGovern’s findings have stood as the earliest evidence of the use of grapes for wine, upsetting earlier conclusions that wine had its origins in the Middle East or Eastern Europe.
After McGovern published the results of his study in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he worked with Sam Calagione, the founder of Dogfish Head Brewery, to create a beverage that would mimic the drink that Jiahuans so highly regarded that they buried jars of it with their deceased.
Calagione and McGovern couldn’t import any wild grapes from China, so they used orange-blossom honey, muscat grape juice, hawthorne fruit, barley malt and sake yeast to brew Chateau Jiahu. At 10 percent alcohol, it is closer in strength to wine than your typical beer.
When Dogfish Head introduced Chateau Jiahu in 2006, Chinese authorities weren’t impressed, and complained that American entrepreneurs were capitalizing commercially on a national treasure, albeit one they weren’t aware of until the secrets of the ancient burial jars were unlocked.
If Chinese officials were irked by the inked-up vixen on Chateau Jiahu’s label – her tattoo is the Chinese character for “jiu,” which includes all the country’s alcoholic beverages – they held their tongue.
Today, though traditional grape wine is but a small segment of China’s wine market, Chinese interest in varietal and blended grape-based wines is growing at a clip of between 20 percent and 25 percent per year, said Jiang Lu, professor of viticulture and enology at China Agricultural University in Beijing. The modern wine era in China started in 1892 with the founding of Changyu Wine Co., which remains a formidable presence on the Chinese wine scene.
The Chinese prefer red wine. The consumption of alcoholic beverages in China long has been associated with well-being. As early as the late Shang period (1200 B.C.-1000 B.C.) medicines often were administered with alcoholic beverages, noted McGovern.
Only occasionally does a Chinese wine appear in an American restaurant or wine shop. Right now, the Chinese wine industry is scrambling to improve quality and to keep up with homeland demand.
In the meantime, Sacramentans can get a taste of what Chinese wine may have been like 9,000 years ago by picking up a bottle of Chateau Jiahu ($14 at Corti Brothers and Total Wine, $15/$16 at some BevMos). No Chateau Jiahu, incidentally, is yet exported to China.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne can be reached at email@example.com.
Confucius Institute at UC Davis
The Confucius Institute at UC Davis is one of six on university campuses in California, but the only one dedicated to promoting understanding of Chinese food and beverage. It sponsors a revolving series of workshops, lectures, tastings and field trips at various venues in Davis and Sacramento.
Upcoming activities include a one-hour lecture on jiu by institute instructor Meg Liu at International House Davis on June 4. (You must be 21 or over to attend.)
For more information, visit confucius.ucdavis.edu