Wine has only recently begun gaining popularity in China – unless you count the ever popular baijiu as “wine” which, for the sake of good taste and all that is decent in this world, I don’t. For centuries, wine was still considered as something reserved for ceremonies or special occasions. I was witness to this the other night when I saw a table of work associates, all in their mid- to late forties, chugging wine by the glassful in one swallow after toasting each other. Granted, I’m certainly no wine connoisseur, but there’s just something inherently wrong with slamming back a glass of Chardonnay.
So why hasn’t wine been as popular in China as in, say, Europe or the United States? It’s much more expensive compared to beer and liquor, which made it strictly a drink for the upper classes – until now. It also doesn’t help that compared to places such as Spain and New Zealand, China has a huge lack of grape varieties. Marketing Chinese wine can also be difficult, considering that the wineries popping up right now aren’t producing wine according to Western standards. There have been reports of wine critics being politically pressured to give Chinese wines a better, less embarrassing critique – all in the attempt to “save face.”
But wine consumption and culture is definitely on the upswing now. A lot of that has to do with the increase of Chilean and Australian wine being shipped to China in bulk. This wine is then combined with local grapes and sold as those brands we all know and love, such as Great Wall and Dynasty.
So why is wine culture catching on now? With the rapid expansion of the middle class, wine is becoming more of an option for the “common folk.” More Chinese people are traveling abroad, which means they are becoming exposed to wine cultures in other countries. They understand how important wine is to Western culture and bring that knowledge back here. As a result, more restaurants and wine bars are catering to those who want to project a certain image of knowledge and refinement.
Yes, that’s right - those same people who are rolling around town in Lamborghinis and dripping in gold are the same people who are (perhaps unwittingly) helping to bring the wine culture to China. While many Chinese citizens only know some of the top brands, wine-centered establishments are trying to introduce alternatives in the more mid-ranged prices for the vast majority of Chinese who cannot afford to be quite as extravagant.
You may have heard that one of the most world renowned wine critics, Jancis Robinson, recently came to China as part of the Shanghai International Literary Festival. She was here to discuss her famous book, The World Atlas of Wine which has finally been translated into Chinese. This means that someone has realized Chinese citizens are becoming more interested in wine culture, to the point that they could benefit from such a practical guide to this often misunderstood drink.
Now Chinese wine is made throughout the country, especially in Xinjiang, Sichuan, Shandong, Jilin, Chang'an, Liaoning, and Hebei. Yantai-Penglai, however, remains the largest wine-producing region, with its 140 wineries supplying a whopping 40% of China's total wine production. While China is currently the sixth largest producer of wine in the world, their ranking is expected to increase in the coming decades. Why? Because in 2004, the total wine produced in China was 370,000 tons, with a 68% increase between 2001 and 2006.
So with all this wine producing going on, which do you think is more popular in China, white or red wine? According to the 2005 stats, red wine is much more popular, with 80% of vineyards producing red and 20% producing white. The numbers become even more lopsided when you consider that 90% of all wine consumed in China is red. Whichever you prefer, you can be sure that China is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the wine world.
Of course, the people who stand to gain the most if China becomes a heavy wine-drinking country (besides the citizens who are actually drinking the wine, of course) would be the wine producers. Imagine if even a third – even a quarter – of Chinese citizens became regular wine drinkers. How many billions of glasses would be drunk? And, more importantly, how many billions of dollars would that translate into? So as long as there is a (large) profit to be made, you can be sure that wine makers will do all they can to encourage wine consumption in China.
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