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What is Chinese Rice Wine (And Why is Italian Wine Better)?

We love wine.

We love rice.

But wine made from rice? 

To many, it may come as a surprise that grapes aren’t the only foodstuffs that can be used to make wine. That’s likely because rice wine isn’t a cultural phenomenon in the west, where using grapes to create wine has always been the standard way to do things. But in China, where grapes are not cultivated to the same level as they are in Italy and other European countries, rice wine has been the standard for centuries.

So, what is it? How is it made? And most importantly, is rice wine as good as Italian wine?

In this article, we aim to answer all of those questions so that you get a better feel for this interesting Chinese take on winemaking.

What is Rice Wine?

As the name flatly states, rice wine is a type of wine that’s made using rice. It usually has a high alcohol content, with most versions of the wine having an alcohol volume of between 18% and 25%. At the very least, this makes it more potent than most of the Italian wines that we offer on this site.

Rice wine also often serves a ceremonial purpose in many of the Asian countries where it is popular. For example, it is often used when toasting at banquets and formal dinners, meaning it’s not always consumed in the same way as Italian wine. 

Furthermore, rice wine can also be used when cooking. However, unlike Italian wine, you will often find that rice wine manufacturers make special types of wine specifically for cooking, rather than simply providing their drinking wines for the purpose. And much like Italian wines, rice wines can be aged to the point where they turn into a vinegar, which again has plenty of cooking applications.

While we’re focusing on Chinese rice wine in this article, the fact is that rice wine is made in about a dozen Asian countries. Much like we see with regular wine, each country has its own traditions and specific twists on the production process. In many cases, different countries have their own names for their rice wines too.

Perhaps the main difference between Italian wine and rice wine, beyond the ingredient used to create them, is that rice wine is not as popular outside of Asia as it is in the continent. Though you can buy rice wine at stores and enjoy it in restaurants, it is not anywhere close to being as widespread outside of Asia as Italian wine is in countries on other continents.

How is Rice Wine Made?

When making Italian wine, producers pick their grapes and ferment the juices to create the drinks we know and love.

Rice wine involves a similar fermentation process. The producers harvest their rice, which has a naturally occurring starch. The starch is then converted to sugars using special enzymes, which leads to the creation of an alcoholic drink.

Typically, producers use what’s known as a wine yeast ball to encourage this process. They cook the rice before leaving it to soak for about an hour. The water is then removed using a strainer, though some is used to help steam the rice after the initial cooking process.

Once the cooking is completed, the rice ball is crushed and combined with the rice to create a mixture of yeast ball powder and rice. After mixing is completed, the combination is placed in an airtight container and stored in a warm place. 

It’s during this time that the fermentation period begins. As the crushed yeast ball begins reacting with the starch created by the rice, it creates a liquid. Producers will leave this process to occur over the space of a month or more before removing the rice from its container and straining the juices into separate containers.

The result is rice wine.

Much like with grapes, the type of rice used has an impact on the texture and flavour of the wine. Sticky wine is often believed to make the most authentic version of rice wine. However, there are numerous things that producers can do to make their wines sweeter or imbue them with a more savoury taste.

Comparing Italian Wine and Rice Wine

It’s interesting to see both the parallels and differences between the production of rice wine and Italian wine.

Both use the natural properties of their ingredients, combined with yeast and enzymes, to create alcoholic liquids that contain sugar. In both cases, we also see that several factors can affect the final product, including the types of ingredients used and the producer’s methods. 

However, rice wine simply isn’t as varied as Italian wine can be.

There are literally hundreds of grape varieties grown in Italy, all of which have their own properties. Italian wines vary massively from region to region, with much of the joy of drinking them coming from spotting these differences and figuring out which notes and flavours are most enjoyable for you.

Rice wine doesn’t offer that level of variety. While the type of rice used can vary the sweetness or dryness of the taste of the wine, you will typically find that rice wines are not anywhere near as complex as Italian wines.

Does that mean that rice wines are not worth trying?

Of course not!

A good rice wine still has plenty of unique flavours to offer. They’re also ideal for complementing many Chinese and Japanese dishes, with their strength being a great way to cut through spices while their more muted flavours make them great accompaniments to fish.

We definitely recommend trying rice wine if you have the opportunity.

But for our money, the sheer variety in flavours offered by Italian wine means that it will always be the first choice for us. With Italian wine, you will always find something that can combine with your food. There are also more ways to make Italian wine, as well as different types of Italian wine that you can enjoy. And you can find plenty of Italian wines in the Xtrawine store.

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