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World Wine

#Wine culture starting to take hold in China

Antony Dickson / AFP/Getty Images

Auctions in Hong Kong demonstrate the growth of the wine business in Asia.

(05-08) 04:00 PDT HONG KONG — – The scene stopped me in my tracks. There, on the street in the middle of the bustling market, stalls filled with fake Longchamp bags and knockoff Ralph Lauren, was a young Chinese man standing behind a table wearing a portable microphone and hawking vacuum-powered wine-pump openers.

Is this the sign that wine culture has really arrived in China?

The enthusiasm of the Chinese for top Bordeaux has already pushed up prices for the 2008s and 2009s. Just imagine what will happen to wine prices overall if even only 10 percent of the Chinese population – the equivalent proportion of Americans who regularly drink wine – is bitten by the wine bug.

China clearly is on the way. Look at the results from any recent auction in Hong Kong. Paul Pontallier, technical director of Chateau Margaux, told Bloomberg News that one-third of Margaux’s sales were in China, Hong Kong and Macao.

“The Chinese are drinking wine,” insists Simon Tam, head of wine for Christie’s China. While Tam can’t gauge how much wine bought by the Chinese at auction is for drinking as opposed to investment, he noted, “You can’t drink 24 magnums of Chateau Ausone immediately.”

Then, he added, “The Chinese love to entertain and honor their guests with famous wines.”

Mark Conklin, general manager of Hong Kong’s JW Marriott hotel, known for its wine program, recalled a recent group of eight Chinese wine lovers who consumed more than R190,000 of high-end French wine at lunch at the hotel’s well-regarded Man Ho restaurant – “and they weren’t mixing it with Coca-Cola the way they might have 10 years ago.”

Preference for luxury

Chinese consumers have a reputation for being label-conscious and seeking prestigious products to impress friends and colleagues. So it’s not surprising they should reach for Bordeaux’s luxury labels such as Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and Chateau Pétrus.

“If you have a bottle of Lafite on your table while you are eating stir-fried noodles, no one can tell you that you are ignorant or wrong,” explained Andrew Manktelow, sales director of ASC Fine Wines, a major wine importer and distributor in China.

Wine culture

But the market is evolving beyond status. There are signs a more mature wine culture is taking hold.

Ross Meder, managing director of Margaret River Wines, a small shop in Hong Kong’s Wanchai neighborhood that specializes in wines from Australia and New Zealand, had few Chinese customers when he opened about four years ago. Now he estimates 20 to 30 percent of his customers are Chinese. And he notes that one key barometer – the drinks offered at weddings – has shifted from beer or Cognac 20 years ago to wine today.

“The wine culture is here to stay,” he said. “Now it’s mainly the young, westernized Chinese (who drink wine). The label is still important, but more and more are experimenting with less well-known wines.”

In part, that’s because they’re more willing to learn about them. At a recent tasting, Derek Ho of ASC Fine Wines explained the labeling of Maison Louis Jadot’s Burgundies. A lineup of famous Bordeaux was designed to draw guests – 95 percent of them Chinese – but Ho relished an opportunity to teach his guests about Burgundies and Spanish wines.

Drinking patterns in restaurants are changing. Five years ago, a mixed group of Chinese and Western business types might drink wine in fine restaurants. But now at Lin Heung, a boisterous Cantonese restaurant in Central Hong Kong filled with Formica-topped tables, a group of young Chinese pours upscale wines into the Riedel glasses they toted along.

And along nearby Hollywood Road, wine bars filled with Asian customers – where a glass of what might be called “supermarket wine” sells for R70 – are displacing the antique dealers who have been there for decades.

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