Grape expectations

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 April, 2006, 12:00am


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Beijing has been witnessing huge growth in the wine industry in recent years, with rising numbers of expatriate palates yearning to be satisfied. Bulk e-mails from all sorts of wine companies and ads in expat magazines tantalise potential customers with wine-related events, the free delivery of cases of fine wines and special buffet lunches with wine as the main lure.

There are all kinds of wine-tasting events to choose from, almost weekly. Prices range from 200 yuan for an afternoon sipping Italian bouquets to 700 yuan for an evening quaffing Taittinger champagne - in the presence of Mr Taittinger and his wife, no less, I'm told. Foreign wines are appearing on drinks menus in bars and pubs along with their Great Wall counterparts.

Supermarkets such as Carrefour, which just five years ago offered a couple of racks of Great Wall labels, now stock entire aisles of wine and even employ professional advisers to tell people what to ply their palates with. But they spend most of their days dusting the displays, for the art of wine has yet to catch the fancy of many locals.

As Beijing's nouveau riche grow richer, they are plumping for more expensive brands of baijiu (Chinese rice wine) or home brands, rather than the Chiantis and Muscadets now waiting to be uncorked. At the tasting events, there are rarely many local noses joining those of the foreigners sniffing bouquets.

What's going on? Why are a people usually so keen to get a whiff of all things foreign seemingly shunning the finer tastes of life? Vintners say they are sure the change will happen - but it certainly hasn't yet.

'Beijing is streets behind Shanghai, the main reason being that the people in Shanghai tend to travel to other countries. So they're used to having a glass of wine with dinner,' says Annie Lundin, director of sales with ASC Fine Wines. 'We are trying to change it with improving wine knowledge, educating them - and it's definitely already working among the younger generations. When it does change, it'll be huge.' So while the companies await the Chinese interest they are sure is slowly awakening, foreigners are keeping the industry alive here.

In the homes of ordinary people, it's still the norm to wait to sip your meal-accompanying beverage, usually beer, until being personally toasted. Often this means you will have to down the entire glass before waiting 20 minutes to be invited again.

Wang Jixiong and his family consider themselves more 'with it', always offering wine to any foreign guests coming round for dinner. 'We don't really drink it much ourselves,' said Mr Wang, an administrator at a paper-making factory. 'But we know how much you like it with dinner. Glass of Dragon Seal?'