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Wine Intelligence’s Chuan Zhou expert on Chinese tastes by ELI GREENBLAT10/07/2017  

Chuan Zhou vividly remembers the day the first Starbucks store opened in Guilin, his city in southern China, and how the everyday routine of buying a cup of western-style coffee on the way to work illustrated the upheaval in consumer tastes and aspirations sweeping his nation.

“It showed me that there was more disposable income in China. And Starbucks, when you think about it, the price of a coffee there actually compared to peoples’ wage is really very expensive. So that reflects a growing income.

“It also showed the western -attitude and lifestyle was becoming important because there is -demand for the Starbucks brand now in China — so people in China have the purchasing power and a need for those consumer products,’’ Mr Zhou told The Weekend Australian.

This was a particularly telling lesson for Mr Zhou, a research director at Wine Intelligence and head of its China research team.

Addressing a Wine Australia event this week about how to -better understand the needs, -tastes and aspirations of China’s growing wine-drinking population, he said Australia was finding a solid footing in the region with its promise of clean, green and contemporary wines.

But Australia, like other wine-making regions, would still find it can’t match the brand power with French wines, especially in the crucial cultural acts of entertaining and gift giving. But this could change as the Chinese becomes more educated and worldly in their wine choices.

“When Chinese drink wine themselves, they don’t mind choosing cheaper wines, like wines from Chile, or Australian. But when they entertain or host a dinner party they will often choose a French Bordeaux because that is what people know.”

This is obvious when viewed through the prism of wine exports to China.

China is Australia’s top export market by value. In the 12 months to March, Australian wine exports to China grew a stunning 43 per cent in value to $568 million. The top five varieties exported to China are shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and grenache.

But despite this success, France remains China’s biggest source of imported wine, with almost half the total market share and nearly double that of Australia.

Mr Zhou said: “I think it comes with peoples’ knowledge. People will start to learn and think that Australian wine can be very good as well, that it gets that image of a great winemaking country.’’

Wine Intelligence’s research director Chuan Zhou. Picture: David Geraghty

There are several hurdles to clear as Australian winemakers better understand cultural influences in China, which can affect the way wine is consumed, especially in pairing food with wine, which is commonplace in Australia but more problematic in China. “In Chinese culture we don’t like having hot food with cold drink, and that’s why it’s difficult to pair Chinese food with wine, Mr Zhou said. “We have so many dishes and courses for just one meal so it’s very different to just having one wine with food.’’

That’s why, Mr Zhou explains, many Chinese would enjoy a lighter wine with their food, and something Australian winemakers should note.

The Chinese also regard wine a more healthy option to beer or spirits.

Australian winemakers should also be aware the increase in personal wine consumption means price becomes more important.

Flavour is becoming a driving force behind the selection of wine with strong growth in fruit-driven, lower tannin styled reds, he said.

White wines are much less popular, dwarfed by sales of red wine, but this will change as -Chinese drinkers become more educated about the styles and -flavours of white wine, Mr Zhou said.