Poetic guide to Chinese wine

A fine new book about China’s wine rebirth notes the many links between Chinese culture and the Western wine world. For publication in the week of 1 April 2019.

At dinner at one of the best restaurants in Foshan, China, in early 2008 my host insisted I choose the wine. The list was extensive and daunting. I sought advice from my translator, a Chinese woman doing post-graduate study in the United States.

She suggested I pick the second most expensive wine. I would not be seen as greedy because I had not chosen the most expensive, and I would not be seen as a cheapskate because I had aimed high. I accepted her reasoning.

The sommelier produced a magnificent decanter, polished the Riedel glasses and gave a theatrical performance as his team worked at a table nearby. They filled the glasses of everyone except me. By the time the sommelier poured me a glass, most of the nine guests had drunk theirs. They congratulated me on my choice.

The wine was corked, though thankfully the second and third bottles they ordered were not. I never got a chance to taste any bottle before it was served.

Things have changed a lot since then. The Chinese wine industry has boomed. The grape wine market is worth more than USD 18 billion a year. China produces more than 1,000 million litres a year of grape wine and has emerged as one of the world’s largest wine producers and importers.

Because the Chinese mostly drink red wine (nine in 10 bottles, on average) China became the world’s largest market for red wine half a decade ago. The world’s largest plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon are in China.

This is understandable when we appreciate how auspicious red is in China. It is the colour of joy, happiness and prosperity. White is the colour associated with death. Chinese people wear white to funerals, not black.

unnamedThe world needs to understand the Chinese market and Janet Wang has helped considerably with the publication of The Chinese Wine Renaissance, timed for release with this year’s Chinese New Year. The book’s title is appropriate. The Chinese have always drunk wine, though initially from fermented rice or other grains. The word “bai jui” translates as “white wine” and refers to highly alcoholic distilled liquor.

When I last lived in mainland China in 2011, at my local supermarket I could buy a litre of “bai jui” for under one dollar US. In the specialist wine shops nearby I could spend several hundred dollars for a small bottle of the finest “bai jui”. But Wang’s book is about grape wine. She writes that by 2020 China was expected to become the world’s second-largest wine market by value, after the United States. “Per capita wine consumption in China … is barely two bottles per annum (compared with around 14 bottles in the USA, 28 in the UK and 58 in France).” When I first wrote about the Chinese market for China Daily average consumption was about half a glass per year.

This suggests considerable room for expansion, especially because the middle class – about 400 million last year – will probably number more than 700 million within a decade. They have money and are not afraid to spend it.

This explains why Professor Li Demei, probably China’s best-known wine writer, judge and consultant, speaks of “China’s high-potential consumer market”. In 2014 he wrote that domestic production was still “at an early stage” compared with Europe or the New World and China “does not have the ability to compete internationally”. That situation might be changing.

When I lived in China, four in five bottles of grape wine consumed locally were made in the country. Wine Intelligence reported last July that the amount of imported still wine continued to grow at a double-digit rate and accounted for two in five bottles sold.

Janet Wang explains the wide range of wine regions in China. This is important because Professor Li Demei notes that these regions are difficult to understand because they are not defined the way they are in France or Italy.

Wang’s writing style is crisp, befitting a Cambridge University graduate who worked as a commodities trader in London. At times her prose is poetic, such as when she writes that wine represents “the concentrated wisdom of a culture, and the liquid mirror to the heart and soul of a people”. At other times the temptation to use wine puns is a bit much. Her feelings about wine at university are “uncorked and poured”.

Western wine culture resonates with the Chinese mind, Wang believes. A key factor is the value of time in “the diminishing and rarefying nature of wine”. One has only to attend an auction of desirable wine in China to appreciate this.

The concept of terroir finds parallels in the Chinese notion of “feng shui” and “feng tu” (the latter relates to the regional characteristics of a place). The Chinese love the search for balance in food and wine pairing, and the links between wine and health.

Chinese culture is deeply interested in meaning, symbolism and gesture, Wang notes. Her classical education in China — she moved to the UK as a teenager — shows in references to poetry and history. Fine wine and Chinese culture, she writes, are “heavenly born a double, earthly bound a couple”.

Because of the Cold War during the 1950s most Vitis vinifera cuttings came to China from Eastern European. Varieties like Rkatsiteli and Saperavi from Georgia are still being planted. The introduction of “international” varieties from the USA, Italy and France only started in the 1970s, with the “opening” of China after President Nixon visited in 1972. Until then the two countries had not had diplomatic ties for a quarter century.

China also leads the world in online sales of wine, something the West could learn from. In 2011 my Hong Kong colleague David Pedrol helped establish YesMyWine, one of the first online wine portals. He told me that on special occasions such as Tomb Sweeping Day or Chinese New Year the site sold half a million bottles a day. Average daily sales were about 125,000, though prices were low compared with European costs.

Janet Wang points out that mobile phone-led commerce in China is sophisticated, via sites like Alibaba, Tencent and JD.com. These sites make it easy for consumers to order via their smartphone.

Last year Wine Intelligence conducted research in 32 markets. Of these China was the only country that saw improved online purchases of wine. JD.com and Alibaba’s TMall were in the top three online retailers globally. I’ve written about these here.

The West could learn a lot from China, and Janet Wang should be congratulated for producing a helpful and eye-opening book. Here is a link to her web site for more information.

Words: 1,097

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