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China's Changing Taste in Wine by Jim Boyce06/12/2018  

Chinese taste is changing and matching wine with food is no longer restricted to the classic pairings.

In China, producers plant Cabernet relentlessly, consumers buy Bordeaux religiously and red wine dominates store shelves, best seller lists on sites like, and events hosted by importers and distributors. All told, red wine has over 80 percent of the market. Add that red is a lucky color and it essentially means all other wines are afterthoughts, right? Not necessarily.

CHEERS has 60 wine shops in 12 cities and attracts middle-class consumers who buy more for personal taste than typical status-based reasons like entertaining and gift-giving. Eight of CHEERS top 15 sellers are still white or sparkling.

"We sell so much white wine because we give free tastings, people can try it first. We also give advice, like how to chill it," says founder Claudia Masueger. "New drinkers try Moscato for the first time and look at me like they are in love."

Masueger says that seven years of observing customers shows they slowly move to more complex whites, including Chardonnays and Rieslings.

This pairs with findings by professor Ma Huiqin, who started a wine appreciation course at China Agricultural University in Beijing in 1998. Two-thirds of her 8000-plus students have picked white over red, including in the most recent semester.

"They like sweet wines most," she says. "For dry wines, they like whites, especially aromatic ones like Sauvignon Blanc. But most preferred is Moscato, because it is sweet, aromatic and inexpensive."

Alberto Pascual, whose company Pasion imports premium Spanish wine, says "more and more people are curious about whites". As with Ma's students and Masueger's customers, access is crucial.

"I always have to open so many bottles," he says. "Otherwise people don't believe in the potential of Spanish wines. And nowadays, the white wines are better and better."

And Gabriel Jelea of Advertigo, who imports Moldovan and Romanian wine, takes it a step further. He started TRWR – Try Rose & White Wines – and sends free bottles to volunteers to try with Chinese food.

Jelea looks at it from the perspective of Romania, where non-red wines are the majority, and thinks China has the potential to swing as the market matures. His volunteers are certainly enthusiastic.

"The wine is fully fruity and matched the fresh fish with soy sauce and fish sauce very well," wrote one beside a photo of a steamed fish and a dry white wine from Domnita Ilinca.

Even studies that show red wines dominate hold promise. One year ago, the Hong Kong Trade Development Council did a 10-city survey of 2400 Chinese wine buyers, aged 20-60, with an average household income of RMB 22,000 ($3160). Red wine ranked first for purchases (85 percent) over the previous six months, but large numbers also reported buying white (40 percent of the remainder), sparking (37 percent) and rosé (23 percent). The top reason cited for buying wine was health, a factor usually associated with reds, thus suggesting non-red wines fit into that promising segment of taste-based buying.

Skeptics might ask why, given this evidence, red wines dominate so much. Both producers and importers play key roles.

One irony in China is that just as local wines are winning kudos and medals, they are losing share to imports, down from 80 percent to, by some estimates, less than 50 percent over the past five years. Chinese wines face trust and price issues but a lack of diversity also hurts. Too much red, especially Cabernet, at a time buyers no longer rely on local retailers and their staff but instead can jump on-line to explore a world of wine and get advice from experts and fellow consumers.

Ningxia, the country's most promising region even began to offer cash rewards for producers who could create a marketable wine not made with grapes such as Cabernet and Merlot.

The focus on red extends to importers and distributors. Beyond well-known companies like ASC, East Meets West and Torres are thousands of small players who focus primarily on red wine.

 There is now a healthy interest in home-grown whites.

Helene Ponty moved to China in 2012 to sell her family's Bordeaux label Le Ponty and has distributors in 50-plus cities.

"When we do events, our white wine is the one we sell the most, the one we get the best feedback on," says Ponty. The problem is distributors rarely know how white wine is made let alone how to serve or deliver it.

"An hour before their events, I have to check that they either have ice or that the white wine is in the fridge," she says. "99 percent of the time they haven't planned for this."

Ponty finds many importers are wary of a troublesome product they don't understand and assume consumers don't want.

Jelea agrees: "They don't import white wines because they don't want the bother."

Given all this, it is no surprise Masueger cites training CHEERS staff as a key to non-red wine sales in the chain's stores.

"It's a long process for even store managers to get it," she says. "We even did tastings of chilled and non-chilled white wines so they can understand."

"I think it's all related," adds Ponty. "If distributors don't know much about white wine, or don't push it, consumers will know less about it and end up buying less of it."

There is a lesson here not just for white wine but anything non-red and non-French, including good Chinese wines: the old "try before you buy" formula is crucial.

"Wine talks by itself," as Pascual says. "Just open the bottles and people judge for themselves."

Does this mean red wine might soon be surpassed? That is unlikely given how many people will still buy for reasons of status, health (the "French Paradox"), gender (white is seen by some as "unmanly"), temperature (older consumers especially avoid chilled drinks) and momentum (the aforementioned conservative producers and sellers). Some will also cite the lucky color factor, although that seems a fragile argument given red wine has only been popular a few decades and the country's national spirit, baijiu, translates as "white wine".

In any case, despite all of the advantages of red wine, the experience of people like Ma, Ponty and Jelea, and a growing taste-based segment driven by younger generations, means great potential for non-reds. Leveraging it will mean recognizing the diversity of the Chinese market, in terms of cuisines, climates, income levels and cultural habits.

Galia Stern says Chinese customers at her shop De Vino in Nanjing do drink white wine but almost solely in the summer. Charles Carrard of importer Paradox says people buying white wine tend to be from first-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou – and wine educated. And Jelea notes the flexibility of white wine for those consumers interested in pairing with Chinese food. As anyone who has witnessed Chinese consumers defy the skeptics and embrace coffee, ice cream and cheese, especially as a pizza topping, success means getting to the right taste buds. And in a nation of one billion consumers, there are plenty to tempt.