Over the Easter weekend I flew up to Hangzhou, a city around 200km south of Shanghai to visit a friend of mine. We spent a few days, eating and drinking way too much.
He also took me to Shaoxing – China’s wine city. Before we set of, I though that I heard the name Shaoxing before but I wasn’t able to connect the dots. Finally I did. Around five years ago, while working for a sourcing company, I visited the city, although only the factory belt. I skipped the downtown area completely which is a shame….
Shaoxing features two attractions: A traditional historic downtown area and the famous Shaoxing wine.
Let’s start with Shaoxing wine.
“Wine” might not be the correct expression though. For Europeans like me, wine is always an alcoholic beverage made out of grapes. The Chinese, on the other hand, loosely translate the word “jiu” (酒) as “wine” whereas it actually means “alcohol”. That’s why beer is called “pijiu” (啤酒), red wine (the European kind) is called “hongjiu” (红酒) which literally means red wine.
White wine – “bai jiu” (白酒)- is generally the Chinese kind of rice “wine”. It doesn’t share any similarities with Western white wine at all. In fact, at alcohol content of above 40% it falls into the liquor category. If you’ve ever done business in China, chances are high that you came in touch with bai jiu.
Drinking bai jiu (白酒) is an acquired taste. A mixture between turpentine, rocket fuel and nail paint remover might best describe its taste. And when you wake up the next day (after an intense amount of drinking) you smell like an oil rag that just cleaned a diesel engine.
Shaoxing’s wine is called “huang jiu” (黄酒), i.e. yellow wine. Like bai jiu, it’s made out of rice but it’s not distilled, leaving the alcohol at a more manageable level of below 20%. I won’t go into the details of huang jiu as Wikipedia has an excellent article here.
What you need to keep in mind is that if you visit Shaoxing, you HAVE to stop at one of the Shaoxing wine restaurants and drink some local wine. If you don’t, well that’s like going to Munich and skipping the Munich Brew House. Impossible! And the wine is actually quite good/
But Shaoxing has more to offer than just wine.
When entering Shaoxing by car you might be forgiven to think it’s just like any new Chinese city, that means hundreds of construction sites, metro system in the works, gridlocked traffic and a new business district with glass skyscrapers.
But leave all that behind and go to downtown Shaoxing and you enter a completely different world. The old China.
It looks similar, albeit not as good in shape, as the famous water village cities of Suzhou, Zhouzhuang 周庄), or Zhujiazhou (朱家角). The lack of fame also translates into a lack of visitors, which is great! Apart from our small group there weren’t many other tourists around.
So if you’re in Hangzhou, make sure to hop over to Shaoxing. It’s just one hour by car or 15 minutes by high-speed rail.