Wine in China: A First-Person Report
My friend, Matt Miller, lives in China and we were “conversing” a while back via email and text.
There is a great deal of discussion about the impact of China on every industry they touch, including wines and spirits. I asked Matt if he would be so kind to give us a first-person report on what is going on over there and to separate fact from fiction about some of the stories and viewpoints we are getting in the American press.
He was kind enough to offer this overview. -Tim
As I See It
By Matt Miller
When I first visited China in 1995, on a two-week trip with my father, Western-style grape wine was almost unknown. Only the wealthiest, most elite Chinese people had access to it. And to be honest, even they were not too fond of it. It was more of a status symbol than a drink to truly be enjoyed. When I returned to China in 2012, one of my first experiences was going to a karaoke bar with a wealthy Chinese host, who ordered a very expensive bottle of Bordeaux. To my horror, he insisted that we shoot it – ganbei style – for the purpose of getting drunk.
My father in fact was part of a group that made the first attempt to import prestigious Western wine into China, in a joint venture with a leading London-based wine distributor. They held several wine tastings where, despite the prestige of their Chinese partner, few people showed up. After spending some time working and spending considerable sums of money to make the venture successful, my father and his Chinese partner threw in the towel and, from what I understand, drank the wine themselves.
While China has not completely taken to wine, I can say that much has changed between 1995 and 2012. In the present, both Western and Chinese wine have become much more popular as a drink to enjoy with food. Chinese wine drinkers, in many cases, have learned more and more how to select, purchase, order and drink wine. Even in mid-range Chinese restaurants where few Westerners go, you will sometimes see wine on the menu. But the most important indicator of change in Chinese wine, in my opinion, is that red wines have become much drier. Chinese tend to prefer very sweet wines (this applies to all wine, not just dessert wine), but the trend has been a shift from cloying to dry. This means that Chinese wine drinkers are beginning to appreciate the more traditional styles of wine.
One Chinese wine producer that is trying to court Chinese tastes by offering European-style wines is Great Wall. China Great Wall Wine Co., Ltd. was founded in 1983 as a subsidiary of China Foods Limited. The company’s base of operation is literally at the foot of the Great Wall in Hebei Province in the northeast. Great Wall wine is marketed and sold throughout China and now in some other countries. I can also confirm that any store in China that sells red wine in general, will have some Great Wall on hand. While there are other brands of Chinese wine, Great Wall is unquestionably the largest.
Great Wall Wine
Great Wall uses equipment from France, Germany, and Italy. The company also hosted European winemakers to train Chinese winemakers in traditional European techniques. This points to the wisdom of the Chinese, who are always open to learn about other ways, and to try something if it succeeds elsewhere. Great Wall makes red and white wines, fortified wines, distilled wines and sparkling wines. Traditionally, Chinese people prefer sweet, strong wine, so it has not been an easy sell for the company to try to convince people of the pleasures of dry red wine.
But Chinese wine is not the only game in town. Small importers of European wines have been popping up all over China. Beijing has always had them, but in a second-tier city like Kunming, where I live, most European wine is mediocre, overpriced, and has only limited availability and selection.
However, two world-class wine importers have recently opened shop here in Kunming. The first is Jacob Wang of Vinclub China. Mr. Wang, a native of Kunming, lived in New Zealand for several years, there obtaining a UK wine certification from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Mr. Wang wants to introduce high-quality wine and wine education to Kunming, and his business is both an elegant wine store and a wine school. He sells mostly French and Italian wines, with some California offerings as well.
According to Mr. Wang, the Vinclub concept has been wildly successful both in Beijing and Shanghai, and he believes that Kunming has enough of a rising middle class to justify such a business here. I attended his first English and Wine salon. Although the crowd was not large, the Chinese people who were there mostly spoke decent English, and were very interested in wine. One local attendee even discussed his wine preferences with me in a very knowledgeable manner. Mr. Wang's wine school should begin holding classes in full force in the next month or two.
The second international wine importer and seller in Kunming is Kunming Cornucopia International Trading Company, run by partners Silvio Schelling and Wan Rui. Mr. Schelling was raised in the Netherlands and educated in the US and the UK, and Mr. Wan is a native of Kunming. Both are experienced in the wine and hospitality industry. The company imports mostly California wines from Napa Valley, Central Coast and Lodi.
Speaking with Mr. Schelling and Mr. Wan was enlightening. Mr. Wan's thoughts on the wine scene in China seem to mimic my own: “The wine scene in China overall is good. China has the world's largest market, but it just needs time to cultivate. There is a definite need for standardization as there is a lot of market chaos due to the speed with which things develop. Among young Chinese people there recently has been a growth in accepting higher quality wines, meaning there is a true future for wine culture in China. In regard to wine knowledge and understanding, Kunming lags behind. Yet we see through strong-fast efforts of education and distribution by vintners and importers that the market environment is improving and the wine consumption scene is getting better.”
Mr. Schelling adds, “The market is largely dominated by Bordeaux wines (the name stands here as a synonym for quality) and the Chinese wine giants. Unfortunately most imported Bordeaux wine is made specifically for the Chinese market, imported in bulk or shiners (placed into bottles without labels), and finished locally. As with many products considered “western,” there is a unique growing curiosity among young people who are always ready to try something new. As noted before, many import wines are made specifically for the Chinese market and on a specific budget. Because the purchasing of wines is directly from the wineries, the wines are made to the style of the wine makers. People are surprised to taste such strong diversity and individualism among the wines. I noticed that this sparks curiosity to try more and different wines. Chinese people like tasty, easily drinkable wines. Unfortunately most domestic produced and imported wines don’t fall into this category nor are they within the average Chinese household income.” In addition, Mr. Schelling said, “Kunming has a growing amount of foreigners who are either involved in the wine industry and/or who have bars and restaurants.”
When asked his opinion of Chinese wines, such as those produced by Great Wall, Mr. Schelling noted that they are very sour, and lack tannins. He added that many Chinese people who know wine do not like their domestic wine. I can personally attest to this. I have conducted some tastings of Great Wall wines, including the cheapest ones, some mid-range ones and a very expensive one. All are indeed quite thin and sour, but the more expensive ones are noticeably better.
When it comes to the future of wine in China, two things need to be done in order to bring real quality wines to consumers. First, Chinese winemakers must improve domestic wine by continuing to take cues from successful Western winemakers. Second, until that happens, Chinese people must have access to good, affordable Western wine. Mr. Wang, Mr. Wan and Mr. Schelling all agree on this.
Mr. Schelling puts it this way: “There is only one way to go: let domestic consumers experience the wine. Many people are unaware of what good wine is like and for many it is an unobtainable luxury item. Some see only the cheap wines and drink them as ordinary alcoholic beverages. We aim to provide quality wine to everyone for an affordable price so that more consumers try it, accept it, learn it and love it.”
The future of wine in China looks bright. After all, in just a couple of decades, wine has become widely available in China, and people are learning to appreciate good wine. I predict that, with the efforts of both Chinese and foreign players in the wine industry, this trend will continue. I envision a day – perhaps not too far in the distant future – when Chinese wine and wine appreciation will be on par with that of Europe. But it will take education, enthusiasm and hard work.
Matt Miller is a native of Lafayette and New Orleans, La. He graduated from the Peter Kump Culinary School in New York City in 1995, and has worked in a variety of restaurants around the country. An academic and a food writer, he currently lives in Kunming, China, where he is exploring Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisine, and pursuing his PhD at Yunnan University. His food blog, Food Ergo Love, can be found at foodergolove.com.