Wine opinion: are the Chinese really the world's biggest drinkers?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 January, 2014, 9:09pm
UPDATED : Friday, 10 January, 2014, 9:08am

A recent report by Morgan Stanley, predicting a shortfall in global wine production, says that the US and China are "the main drivers of consumption globally".

We've heard that often, but is it true? In fact, China is only the world's fifth-largest wine market.

Mainlanders are also often said to be driving the world market in spirits as well, propelled by the popular image of businessmen downing brandy at convivial banquets. The British government and delegations from the Scottish parliament have successfully lobbied the Chinese government into giving Scotch legal protection - if it says Scotch on the bottle, the contents must be made in Scotland.

Clearly, British politicians thought that looking after their constituents was a high priority, but are the Chinese really driving growth in the world's drinks industries? The latest figures seem to suggest not.

Whisky exports are certainly important to Scotland, making up £4.27 billion (HK$54.31 billion) of the £5.31 billion in food and drinks exported in 2012, according to official figures. But China accounts for only £71.5 million of those sales, despite an increase in sales of 70 per cent over the 10 years from 2002. It may surprise you to learn who is drinking all that Scotch, across the several hundred brands produced by just 100 distilleries.

The same 10 year period saw exports to the United States rise to £758 million, an increase of 150 per cent, but it is the French who have the real thirst for Scotch. The Americans drink the expensive stuff but the French are the largest export market by volume, growing to around 55 per cent to £434m in the decade to 2012. Clearly, they have more economic woes to drown, something that may also account for the category's good showing in Spain.

In fact, China is not even the largest market in Asia. Singapore takes that honour, although much of what they import is re-exported to China, Taiwan and South Korea.

Cognac distillers also have their eye on the China market, which is not surprising given the market grew by 55 per cent from 2007-2011 and is expected to grow even more in the next five years. The leading importer of cognac in the world is, again, the United States, which imports more than double the volume imported by China.

The figures, however, don't take into account the impact of the mainland government's restrictions on extravagant consumption at state events, which could put a significant dent in imports.

Even though wine drinking is declining in Europe, the continent still accounts for the vast bulk of world consumption at just over 63 per cent. US consumption has increased to just under 22 per cent.

For all the buzz about wine hubs and the rise of the middle classes, consumption across the whole of Asia accounts for just 9.2 per cent of the world total.

It is, however, undeniable that many well-heeled mainland and Hong Kong wine lovers have been buying up large amounts of Bordeaux and Burgundy, and even the vineyards themselves. And Hong Kong is the largest auction market for these wines and regularly hosts record-breaking sales.

And it's also worth remembering that these wines were expensive well before anyone in this part of the world had any interest in them.