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Growing appeal raises bar for wine buffs in China by Lesley Cosme15/08/2019  

Guests taste Changyu wine during a recent international wine expo in Yantai, Shandong province. The coastal city is home to the country's leading wine producer

Pouring a glass of wine to have with dinner was once a rare sight in Chinese households, yet within the space of just 10 years, wine is now a popular evening tipple around the country.

During a recent livestream event organized by China Daily, four wine experts discussed China's rapidly changing attitudes toward alcohol and the domestic wine industry.

According to Claudia Masueger, CEO of China-based wine retailer Cheers, domestic consumers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and knowledgeable as the industry develops.

"Wine is now a huge subject in China," Masueger says. "It's a lifestyle. It's a fashion statement. And what the Chinese really love is that they can combine it with their local food."

China is the sixth-largest wine producer in the world, and currently makes more wine than Chile, Portugal and South Africa.

Yet until recently, most wine made in China was consumed domestically. Rarely exported, its appeal was limited to local drinkers who had already developed a taste for homegrown wine.

"Chinese wine used to be undrinkable. It has only improved in the last couple of years," says Masueger. "China now produces some very expensive, yet very nice wines. But the bad reputation remains. The Chinese should be able to enjoy good quality, affordable wine."

When Masueger first arrived in Beijing in 2008, she embarked on a mission to change the wine scene. Back then, the only good wine were the expensive imports served in five-star hotels.

In recent years, Chinese of all classes have started to drink alcohol more regularly, according to global consulting firm INS. No longer considered a niche product, wine enjoys widespread demand among Chinese consumers.

And with this more mainstream appeal, consumers are now more willing to try new wines-both local and imported-and incorporate them into their daily diets, says Masueger.

Wine is becoming a healthier alternative to baijiu, a liquor that used to be served with dinner. Now both drinks can be served with evening meals when paired with different types of foods.

"People now try to mix local dishes together with wine," says Masueger. "Riesling goes well with hotpot, as does moscato."

Masueger believes that once consumers are introduced to new types of wines-whether red, rose or white-they will start to incorporate them into their daily lives.

Cluadia Masueger

"When you look at the statistics for China, 8 percent of people (wine drinkers) drink white wine, and the rest drink red," says Masueger. "At Cheers, we have 25 percent white wine. We want to make people try new things and discover how good they can be."

Wine consumption in China is changing largely due to the buying patterns of the younger generations. Aged between 18 to 54, most younger domestic buyers purchase wine from online platforms such as Taobao and Tmall.

The number of middle-class wine consumers rose from 38 million in 2014 to 48 million in 2016, an 11 percent increase, according to a recent report from China Wine Market. This number is expected to grow to between 70 and 80 million by 2020.

While wine may still have some way to go before it will enjoy mass acceptance, experts at the event agree that its growing popularity has a lot to do with its perceived health benefits.

According to industry research group Wine Intelligence, only 32 percent of Chinese consumers actually drink wine for the taste-most imbibe it for health or beauty reasons.

For many Chinese, wine helps with sleep, aids digestion and benefits the skin.

Fani Bar from importer All in Wine thinks that Chinese wine needs to develop its own identity.

"China needs to rediscover its original grapes rather than rely on varieties imported from Europe," she says. "When China starts using its original grapes, it will make great wine."

Bar also has some advice for novices making their first foray into wine.

"For me, wine is not just a drink. You have to learn about it. If you read about the producer and the wine making method you will know the story behind the wine and find it fascinating."

As one of the panel members says, since every glass of wine can contain as much as 200 different aromas, each sip is a journey that everyone in the world should be able to take.