How Chinese learn to drink wine
By Andrea Fenn
China uncorks more than 1.2 billion bottles of wine every year. A great deal of them are expensive imported grapes, like French Bordeaux or Italian Barolo. And most importantly, the majority of drinkers are local Chinese.
Yet wine still remains a conundrum to even the most educated Chinese: obscure words describing exotic vines, mysterious tasting notes referring to uncommon comestibles (wine drinkers are challenged when it comes to finding licorice or blackberries in a local shop).
All this, paired with the bleak unavailability of Chinese-language information about wine, makes the choice of a bottle at the bar, or from the supermarket shelves, a painful and often even embarrassing experience.
Chinese don’t understand when they read ‘hints of blackcurrant leaf’ in the tasting notes, because we don’t have blackcurrant here.
— Martin Hao, wine teacher at ASC Fine Wines
Learn it online, in Chinese
Now in its second season, the Internet-only Mandarin program is produced by ASC Fine Wines, China’s biggest wine importer and House Films, a Sino-U.S. film production company.
Each episode of Wine Connoisseur features a conversation between Zorro — representing the uneducated Chinese man at the bar who would like to know more about wine — and Martin Hao (郝利文) — the wine expert, ready to shed light on Zorro’s doubts.
Topics range from the basics, like recognizing the differences between the taste of white and red, dry and sweet wines, to the most daring matters, like pairing Chinese food with wine.
The more you drink, the less you understand
Hao, who works as a wine teacher for ASC, says despite drinking more and more and having wider choice, consumers in China understand less and less about wine.
“Chinese are eager to learn about wine, but because there is much chaotic information online, they are still in need of reliable resources,” says the 39-year-old Wine & Sprit Education Trust-certified educator.
At the same time, as wine entails words and concepts Chinese people often do not understand, teaching Chinese how to drink needs a lot of cultural mediation.
“Chinese don’t understand when they read ‘hints of blackcurrant leaf’ in the tasting notes, because we don’t have blackcurrant here,” he says. “To teach people about wine, you have to speak their language.”
Buy to show off
While there is a small yet growing group of wine connoisseurs, Hao notes the bulk of wine consumers in China are still in the “bling” phase, buying bottles to show off to their business partners or as an ostentatious present.
And among the different grapes, they tend to prefer Bordeaux to other wines because of its perceived value.
“Bordeaux was the first entering the market, and it has become a brand for Chinese people,” Hao points out. “When they are at the shop choosing wine, it is always the safest option.”
Yet just like many people round the world, Chinese wine consumers often judge a wine by the label.
Market research shows Chinese drinkers do not particularly like plain white labels, but tend to prefer red backgrounds and golden writing, as the two colors are regarded as lucky, and suitable for the gift season.
Buy to socialize
Although red is the most suitable choice for presents, consumers often prefer to drink white, sparkling or fruity wines. One wine fan, Cici Cao, is particularly fond of easy-to-drink Pinot Gris over more structured reds.
Cao, who works for a food import company, has gotten into wine through her job. She especially recognizes the networking value of wine.
“Through wine and wine-related events, you can know people with similar interests and similar income,” she notes.
To other consumers, though, wine comes as a totally new discovery.
Coco Wu, marketing manager at cosmetic company Shanghai Vive, says she loves wine because, just like cosmetics, it has several levels of aroma and complexity.
Wu, who like Cao is in her late 20s, finds wine a great topic for conversation among friends, although she admits not all her acquaintances are as knowledgeable about the matter.
“When I go out for dinner, I order several bottles to pair different foods,” she says. “But no matter how good and different the wines I order, my friends still think they all taste the same. [It’s] quite annoying.”
Nevertheless, the stereotype of foreigners knowing more about wine than Chinese is about to lose ground.
At one of Hao’s wine tasting classes, all 20 or so Chinese students were able to tell a Northern Rhône Syrah from a Southern Australian Shiraz quickly and confidently in a blind tasting.
This writer, a boozy Italian, was the only one who got them wrong.