Is the Chinese wine market an illusion?

Purple grapes

When I woke up this morning, I was intent on writing about Georgian wines. Instead, I saw a tweet by Jancis Robinson and started thinking about the Chinese wine market.

The tweet was a link to a commentary by Wojciech Bońkowski on racism against Chinese wines. This was in relation to the uproar about the Chinese Cabernet, Jiabeilan 2009 from He Lan Qing Xue Winery, which recently won against some 500 other Bordeauxs in its category in the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Having read various articles on Chinese wine, I get the feeling that the buoyancy of the Chinese wine market is taken as an indicator of growing interest in wines from within China but I am dubious about the existence of this market. Without knowing much, or in fact anything aside from the trickles that comes through the broadsheets, about the current Chinese wine market it’s hard not to be sceptical.

The first Chinese wine I ever had, Great Wall, was drinkable but overtly sweet. Like all table wines, it’s intended more for lubrication of meal times than appreciation of its complex characteristics. But sweeter wines were always preferred when we gifted wine to Chinese friends and family. In fact, it was often easier to give sherry or port because it would be drunk and actually appreciated.

A few years later, the trend was to dilute wine with coke or orange juice to make it more palatable, especially when drinking in bars. But that could be as much a lack of appreciation for European style wines as the wine being bad to begin with. As Jancis Robinson pointed out in the FT, it’s something that still happens though, granted, less often. So there could be an increasing appreciation of wines on their own merits too. But I would like to know how much of that is from foreign nationals living in China, from Chinese nationals who had picked up the wine habit while living abroad and from Chinese nationals who have grown to love wine organically.

On the buying side of things, it’s my understanding that majority of international wines sold to China are through the Hong Kong markets. I am curious to know how much of that actually goes into mainland China to be consumed and how much of it is actually purchased by international buyers and then exported again at a mark-up. It also seems to be the case that the majority of wines sold are from Bordeaux. In a country where labels matter more than value, has it been a case of bidding for prestige rather than quality?

If this latest research by Wine Intelligence is to be believed though, there must exist in China some market and real appreciation for European style wines.

The question is, just how big is this market really?

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2 comments on “Is the Chinese wine market an illusion?

  1. [...] For work, I get invited to a lot of wine tastings. Most of them are not particularly useful because I have no business interest in wine - I don’t, at present, make wine recommendations or retail wines. So, much of the time spent at tastings are on finding out about stories behind the wine producers and sometimes about the state of the wine market both domestically and internationally. But that’s really for personal interest. [...]

  2. [...] expense of Bordeaux wines? About how it’s auctioned at record prices in Hong Kong? And how the buoyant Chinese wine market is what’s driving it up? Well this supper club dispels that myth [...]