Chinese wines account for something like 90% of the total wine market in China. The big companies – Great Wall, Changyu, Dynasty etc. – are essentially state-run enterprises or joint ventures harnessing considerable clout when it comes to grape purchasing. These ‘wineries’ – let’s say ‘wine producing companies’ – also distribute nationally and hit on-trade and off-trade locations simultaneously: so you can find their wines in hotels, restaurants and supermarkets (other wine retail is pretty limited in China, especially in the north). It’s rumoured that state-owned agricultural giant Cofco derives around 20% of its profits from Great Wall alone: so someone’s got to be buying the stuff – a lot of it.
What Chinese consumers are not told is that these ‘Chinese wines’ are often blended with bulk imports, whenever another country yields a sizeable surplus. But this can actually be beneficial given the state of the Chinese wines with which imports of usually already finished wine – most recently from Chile and Spain – are mixed. In assembling the wines for a blind-tasting of China’s best for Jancis Robinson MW on her last visit to Shanghai, there were some examples with suspiciously fruity ‘New World’ noses. At least these were drinkable, however. Other Chinese wines either suffer from poor wine-making or the impossible hurdle of trying to make quality wine from inferior grapes. Faced with the fear of rot and crop-loss many farmers understandably pick early; so unripe odours, harsh acidity and green tannins are all common problems.
Which raises a question: once the novelty of wine wears off for middle class Chinese consumers, how many will tolerate faulty or insipid Chinese wines, especially when those same consumers are experiencing increasingly affordable, faultless wines from Australia and Chile? The Chinese are already developing more experienced palates, particularly those who travel; and they are cultivating their budding appreciation for wine, from a more ‘taste sensitive’ cultural background in the first place.
For instance, in my experience, novice Chinese tasters are a lot easier to coach in learning to perceive acidity, residual sugar and the textures of different tannins, for example, compared with, dare I say it, ‘Anglo-Saxons’ or at least those who have grown up in cultures affected by the Protestant and Puritan legacies: food as ‘fuel’ rather than as an inherent and cultivatable, aesthetic pleasure. This is not surprising given that ‘mouth-feel’ is a word commonly used in Mandarin for describing the textures of Chinese foods: characters that existed long before the English term found its way into the vocabulary of international wine tasting.
Admittedly, some Chinese wines are bought simply for patriotic reasons or as gifts – especially during Autumn Festival and Chinese New Year. But super-rich middle-aged Chinese consumers now look down on Chinese wine and either gravitate to Bordeaux or, in some cases, even own their own private wine clubs that import directly from France. Younger consumers also want to try something new and, therefore, usually ‘non-Chinese’. In the long term, then, Chinese wines may eventually struggle to compete with imports, unless some miraculous improvements in quality can be made. That Cofco itself has now begun importing wine does not suggest as much, perhaps; but it does indicate that the powers that be are anticipating the taste for imported wines will grow.
Although loyalty to China is still a factor, Prof. Ma Huiqin of China Agricultural University (left) has conducted some revealing consumer surveys, including blind-tasting tests, comparing Chinese wines with some of those international wines now available in China. Generally speaking, these experiments reveal that Chinese tasters tend to reject Chinese wines when tasted blind, very often the same wines whose packaging they have previously found attractive. True enough, such wines probably will continue to sell by packaging and the allure of the ‘patriotic buy’ alone; but more discerning palates will look elsewhere for vinous satisfaction and the chance to try ‘new’, exotic wines from international countries. That said, it is likely to be a long time before the import market carves a significant chunk out of the domestic market overall; and in some ways these two sectors might exist weirdly in tandem, even at a remove: with Chinese wine becoming one kind of ‘grape beverage’ and international wines commanding different attention and, of course, different drinkers. But it’s still too early, especially in the current global economic situation, to say.
Next time: imported wines in the Chinese market…