The new toast of China
Wine is making its way into a country dominated by hard liquor and beer, becoming a choice beverage for more drinkers.
But even as more glasses of Merlot and Cabernet are poured and the nation's wine output rises, the lack of knowledge about wine and the quality of the domestic production indicate that the Chinese wine market still has a way to go.
Albert Wong, a wine expert from Hong Kong, says he is seeing more customers who know a thing or two about wine at the Gourmet Room, his courtyard restaurant in Houhai.
"Many of my customers know the five most famous wine brands, although most of them still don't understand the importance of the year of production," said Wong. "Ordering wine is considered fashionable, and is often used as a way to bring romance or show off wealth at the dinner table."
In the past several years, China's wine production has seen an annual increase of 15 per cent, said wine industry expert Wang Zuming, who adds the increasing rate is expected to continue for a "considerable long time in the future."
According to Wang, director of the Wine Branch Association of China Beverages Association, communication between the wine business in China and the world's wine industry has strengthened with China's opening up and fast economic growth in the 1990s. China's equipment level in the wine industry is also nearing the international level.
"But compared with major wine-producing countries, the building of wine brewing bases, product quality, quality control and criteria, as well as rules, are still substandard," Wang acknowledged.
A total of 26 Chinese cities, provinces and autonomous regions produce wine, but about 10 of them account for 90 per cent of all production. Those are Shandong, Hebei, Tianjin, Jilin, Xinjiang, Beijing, Henan, Gansu, Ningxia and Yunnan.
Last year, nine brand names received the title of Chinese famous wine brands from Wang's association. The top brands include Changyu, Changbaishan, Dynasty, Great Wall, Tonghua and Weilong. Dragon Seal is also a popular Chinese wine brands among foreign expats.
Lack of wine culture
Even though the price of wine is competitive, sometimes at 20 or 30 yuan (US$2.50-3.80) per bottle, wine is still not yet as popular as other beverages in China.
According to the State Statistics Bureau, China's wine production last year was 434,300 tons, which makes up only 1 per cent of all alcoholic beverage output. Meanwhile the production of liquor was 3,493,400 tons -- 10 times that of wine production.
Chinese people are more familiar with Moutai and Erguotou, two famous Chinese liquor brands, than French winery Chateau Lafite. Besides liquor, Chinese also consume a considerable amount of beer, and in South China it is customary to drink yellow rice wine and rice wine.
On the other hand, the average Chinese person's understanding of wine is sometimes less than basic.
Susan Morel of Morel's Beijing, a Belgian restaurant, recalled that once she had a Chinese businessman offer her a bottle of very expensive red wine. She was disappointed when she watched the man take the bottle of wine out of his car trunk, where he had stored it for several days. The wine had already gone bad, but the businessman didn't realize that the right conditions were crucial to preserve the quality wine.
"People do not have the basic concept of what is a good wine," said Sunny Li, general manager of Napa Wine Club in Beijing. "That is why they only look at big brands when they make their purchase. Therefore the brand that spends the most money on advertising sells best. It will take a long time to change."
Li, who worked as an IT company executive in the United States, has been wine drinker for 15 years. But when she came back to Beijing several years ago, she could not find any of her favourite wine brands. Therefore she set up her club, which introduces wines from Sonoma and Napa valleys, priced from 138 yuan (US$17) to 12,000 yuan (US$1,480) a bottle, or more.
Li's club operates on paid membership. Established in May 2004, the number of club members has grown from 30 to more than 300 since it started.
"My expectation of members are people who have real interest in wine," said Li. "They are those people who have reached a certain level of financial condition, so that wine has become a product of cultural need. In short, social elites."
Li thinks that the growth of wine culture and sales in China will be a slow process.
"Wine is not as easily accepted as golf. It has a profound cultural background and there is much knowledge to learn," she said. "I'm trying to tell people why wine is good, and that it changes the way one greets people and does things. It is not just drinking, but also a healthy lifestyle.
"Many Chinese people are still used to drinking liquor, getting very excited and very drunk. Instead, wine needs to be accompanied by beautiful music, and peaceful environment, under which you can not possibly do the finger-guessing game."
Wine for thought
Albert Wong says that Chinese cuisine itself may have been a reason why wine failed to take off in the past.
"Many Chinese dishes are quite spicy, that might be why the Chinese used to drink strong liquor to go with it," he said.
But nowadays the food is becoming lighter, and most Chinese dishes are made with vegetable oil, instead of butter, so wine is actually a good accompaniment.
There are plenty of imported wines in China, from Italy, France, the United States, Australia and Chile. But Chinese wines seldom get sent abroad.
However a few Chinese wines are doing quite well domestically. Grace from North China's Shanxi Province, for example, made its way into the Peninsula Hotel based in Hong Kong as a house wine. Wong personally recommends Xixia, a wine made in Ningxia.
Like Li, Wong thinks the Chinese wine market is chaotic, and has many poor quality wines.
"It may be difficult to cultivate a really top grade wine in China, because of questions like 'terrior' or 'micro-climate'," he said. "But given an attitude to excel, this is not impossible.
He points out that California, Spain, Australia and New Zealand have all produced top grade red wine sold at very high prices in the international market.
"To do so in China, I think producers need to be more concerned with quality rather than quantity, as they are now doing mainly to cater to the undiscerning mass public that is only learning to appreciate wine."