Poised to get better with age

Updated: 2010-12-02 17:24

By Olivier Gilles (China Daily)

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EL DORADO! This is the word used in Europe to describe the Chinese wine market. Almost a billion potential wine drinkers! Even if we consider only 1 liter of wine per person per year (it is more than 60 liters per person in France), the Chinese wine market could be a huge step forward for the wine business.

But the main problem is that wine is not a major part of Chinese culture. How can we bring Chinese people to drink more wine? How many Chinese people will drink it? How long will it take to develop this "new" market?

Nowadays, there are mainly two different kinds of consumers in China. First, the "gold" kind. Along with the country's development in the last 20 years, Chinese people have become very rich. They want and have access to the best and finest products offered in the West, including wine.

Most of these people do not drink wine but seek only a brand name or a label. Chateau Lafite Rothschild in Pauillac (the chateau is based in this little town in the Bordeaux vineyard), understood this a long time ago and is today the best example on the Chinese market.

With this new demand for fine wines, prices, especially for Bordeaux Grands Crus, exploded, making China Bordeaux's No 1 market today.

Consumers of the second type, the "learning" kind, are those interested in wine culture. They want to understand and learn about wine, including grape varieties, appellations, soils and taste. They want to assimilate this culture and for this, they start from the beginning, with entry-level wines most of the time from the new world. Step by step, they are learning and understanding wine. Compared with most of the French people who think that wine knowledge runs through their veins, Chinese drinkers enlarge their wine culture every day by tasting new wines that vary in quality.

So we have two markets, one for the extra premium wines and a second one for entry-level wines. Between those two tendencies, the consumption of middle range wines, even if they are the most important part of wine production, is improving very slowly.

Still, most of the Chinese do not seem to like the bitterness and acidity that are the two primary flavors you can find in wine. Some producers and importers have noticed that and played with it. One of the characteristics of an oxidized or maderized wine is that the acidity and bitterness disappear, and some sweet aromas such as honey or dried nuts develop. Chinese love that and some people took advantage of this, exporting these wines in China. You can find less and less of these wines in Beijing or Shanghai, but just go to Dalian or Qingdao and you will find plenty of them.

Wine has been part of the culture in the Old World for millennia. It is normal to have a glass of wine for lunch or dinner in many European countries, but in China, tea or local spirits are more popular. Wine consumption really started 20 years ago and it will take time before every single Chinese person drinks a glass of wine every day. How long will it take to change the habits in France to bring the population to drink tea instead of wine? Ages! That will be exactly the same for the Chinese wine market.

China is a huge potential market and from a sommelier point of view, there are some concrete things to achieve here. In Europe, most of the population, especially French, are sure that they have the wine knowledge in their DNA while Chinese people do not. We have to be very careful of the way we introduce wine culture in China. Companies want to make a profit as quickly as they can. Playing this game with wine in China can be a double-edged sword.

Like fine wine, the Chinese market will take some time to develop and mature.

Frenchman Olivier Gilles is a sommelier with more than three years' experience in China.


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