China loves red wine, but white may become more popular

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 November, 2014, 4:49pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 November, 2014, 4:49pm

China adores red wine. If I was asked to pick one annoying mantra of a great many writers, consultants and educators (the "vintelligentsia"), it would be that. It's not surprising, since anywhere from 80 to 90 per cent of what is in the market is red.

But what is surprising - and possibly depressing - is the widespread belief that this is set in stone. Nothing underscores this attitude more than claims that Chinese favour red wine because the colour is lucky.

But if red wine is so lucky, why has it only been popular for a few decades of China's 5,000-year history? Moreover, what about the fact that the nation's leading alcohol, baijiu, translates to "white wine"? I am still waiting for answers.

No doubt, red wine is dominant at the moment. It is seen as a status symbol, which is crucial in a culture where gifts and entertainment have such importance. It is also perceived as having health benefits, the idea of the French wine paradox has a good foothold.

But we are also witnessing a watershed in the wine market. The government austerity programme initiated by President Xi Jinping 18 months ago severely curtailed spending by officials and shifted the market towards consumers.

What do they like? There is a good deal of evidence they enjoy white wine. Professor Ma Huiqin of China Agricultural University has taught wine appreciation for 12 years, to thousands of students, and her annual poll finds they prefer white wine at a ratio of two to one.

My own blind tastings with consumers over the past five years have found inexpensive whites receive equal, if not higher, scores than their red counterparts.

There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence. For instance, Beijing-based Helene Ponty of Bordeaux winery Le Ponty tells me her white wine samples typically run out first at tastings, even if people tend to buy reds.

Claudia Masueger, of the wine shop chain Cheers, says that red wine outsells white wine - still and sparkling - two to one. That is far below the normal ratio of four to one or higher. It would be intriguing to see what the numbers would be if we discounted all the red wines purchased as gifts.

Also intriguing are some of the white wine projects being undertaken by local producers. Consider Ningxia: a recent three-day winery tour of this promising region revealed exciting prospects for white wine. Emma Gao of Silver Heights, widely seen as the country's first boutique winery, is experimenting this year with her first chardonnay.

Does this mean white will outsell red? Not likely. This is still a market where price, status and perceived health benefits will continue to play major roles.

Those who plant vines in China tend to be risk-averse and use what sells now - so expect even more cabernet sauvignon. Similarly, a good slice of the vintelligentsia project a China wine future based more on current import and production statistics, rather than conversations with consumers.

But don't underestimate the speed of change. Two years ago, few predicted that the austerity programme would last this long, and undermine high-end wine sales to such a degree.

That redirected the market towards mainland consumers, and as they increasingly buy based on taste, it bodes well for white. The gains might initially be modest, but that could still add up to hundreds of millions of bottles.

Jim Boyce is a wine consultant and founder of the wine blog Grape Wall of China