Chinese Wine Cultures

So much for the domestic industry and the emerging preferences of some of China’s new wine consumers. What about imports?

Bottled importation of wine is barely fifteen years old as a market in China. Some wine importers have come or gone – or reinvented themselves – but it’s still a young market, obviously. Out at the front are Aussino and ASC battling for dominance in an environment unlikely to admit monopoly influence for any company in the long term. Other importers like Torres China – of the great eponymous Spanish wine family – Summergate, DT Asia, East Meets West, among many others, occupy a more middle ground. Then you have smaller specialist merchants and importers like Ruby Red Fine Wines, Globus Fine Wines and The Wine Republic who are serving to diversify the market. Companies traditionally stronger in Hong Kong and Macao, such as Watson’s Fine Wines and Links Concept, are now also active in the Chinese mainland.

This diversification is more than welcome and has yielded the odd surprise or two. Who would have thought, for example, that grower Champagne or domaine

Burgundy (outside of DRC) would find a market, albeit small, in China and so soon? Although the global economic situation has slowed the market for bottled imports in China – and has certainly affected the higher end of the F&B industry – perhaps international wineries will turn to China as a new destination for wines proving a tougher sell in other parts of the world. Well, we live in hope at least.

As in other immature markets, high-end Chinese consumers gravitate to France and to Bordeaux especially. There is nothing wrong with this, of course; and it’s gratifying to see some of France’s top wines hitting China’s import lists. But the bottom end of the quality pyramid also travels to China and at maddeningly daft prices once tax and retail are factored in (taxes amount to about 48%). The ‘French obsession’ is even a factor in the market for domestic wines where Chinese oenologists – some of whom have French connections – deliberately model their Chinese wineries on French tradition (or a comical version of it). It is for this reason that most Chinese reds are packaged in Bordeaux bottles.

But Australia and Chile are not far behind France in carving up significant chunks of the import scene, helped by beneficial trade agreements. What is more surprising is the possibility of turning novice Chinese palates on to wines that some industry insiders thought impossible to sell (like those grower Champagnes following on the heels of the Grande Marques). For example, Madeira, albeit in very small quantities, has a tiny but enthusiastic following in Beijing – at least we’re trying to spread the word! Moscato d’Asti does well too, although this makes sense given the Chinese tend to shun noticeably high acidity, react well to residual sugar and, in some cases, prefer not to stomach high alcohol. Not that the Chinese can’t drink: they can! It’s the northern Chinese who consume the most alcohol, whilst some southern Chinese struggle to produce alcohol dehydrogenase, or at least enough of this enzyme to process alcohol effectively (hence the ‘pink-face-after-a-glass’ routine).

So if Chinese wine drinkers are keen to try different international wines – sometimes irrespective of the ‘French is best’ mantra – we should also expect to see more diversified and more ‘regional’ preferences emerging, i.e. in terms of what wines sell well in different parts of the country.

Among the ‘first-tier’ cities (Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou etc.) a relatively full range of international wines is available and consumers here differ considerably in spending power and whether or not they drink Chinese wine. Among nominal ‘second-tier’ cities (Dalian, Qingdao, Chongqing etc.) the preference for, or at least tendency to drink, Chinese wine over international imports will be more marked; but this picture is changing, especially among the younger generation.

Beyond that – China’s ‘third-tier’ cities and places with a population of one million that hardly appear on the map – wine is rarely consumed at all (expect Chinese spirits and beer). But I’m hopeful that, one day, regional preferences for specific wines will emerge, no doubt along the lines of different Chinese provinces’ regional cuisines and what works from a food-and-wine matching point of view. This would be ideal, if some considerable way off, culturally speaking.

A final word by way of illustration: during the Olympics my wife, Fongyee, was invited to open a wine store in Hubei Province and was asked to give a talk on wine-tasting to some two hundred invited guests. After the talk – and shooting a slightly bizarre ad for local TV – she was invited to a banquet as the ‘Wine VIP’, fresh in from Beijing (or as fresh as you can be after a fifteen hour journey). But no sooner had the guests sat down, out came the bai jiu 白酒(a category of high alcohol spirit made from Chinese grains), complimentary packets of cigarettes and endless bottles of beer. No wine to be seen anywhere. No one could question the generosity of spirit (no pun intended); but, equally, no one should expect the remoter parts of China – even its remoter developing cities – to be fountains of wine appreciation any time soon.