China Goes Sideways

Is the land of 120-proof rice wine and fruity swill really ready for fine foreign vino?

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Qingdao is best known as the birthplace of Tsingtao Beer, a relic of the German concession here and China’s most famous brew. But recently the town fathers decided to diversify their tourist offerings, building the fancifully titled Qingdao International Wine Street. The boulevard, completed last year, boasts 19 stores selling imported vino, three hotels, and an 8,800-square-meter subterranean wine museum. What it doesn’t have are tourists. A year after opening, the wine shops make a feeble profit selling discounted bottles for local Communist Party banquets. When I visited recently, a security guard at the museum whispered to me conspiratorially that he sees fewer than 20 guests a day.

The empty storefront in Qingdao doesn’t seem to reconcile with China’s booming thirst for putaojiu ("grape alcohol"). As the country’s prosperous class grows — Euromonitor International predicts the middle class will expand to 700 million people by 2020 — Chinese consumption of wine is mushrooming. The country is already the seventh-largest wine market in the world and will pass number six, Argentina, by the end of 2010. Vintners worldwide have gloated over the Middle Kingdom’s newfound taste during some of the worst years on record for the industry (worldwide wine sales dropped 3.6 percent by volume in 2009).

But a nation of uneducated drinkers who show little interest in learning about wine’s subtler notes (exhibit A: the empty halls of the Qingdao museum) and rampant counterfeiting mean that China’s nascent wine explosion may end up corked.

Wine has a long history in China, dating back the 2nd century B.C., when the imperial envoy Zhang Qian returned from Europe with China’s first grape seedlings and wine-brewing know-how. But for two millennia, wine remained on the fringes of Chinese alcohol, giving wide berth to beer and baijiu, the ubiquitous (and rather foul) rice wine that can reach up to 120 proof.

Chinese consumers have given wine a second look over the last 15 years, as the middle class embraces status symbols and health-conscious drinkers look for alternatives to the traditional firewater. Chinese wine consumption increased by 29 percent in 2009, according to International Wine and Spirit Record. (Brazil, the next fastest-growing market, rose by only 10 percent.) And that growing interest has been a shot in the arm for foreign wineries from Bordeaux to South Africa’s Breede River Valley to California’s Bay Area. Chinese wine imports were $477 million over the first eight months of 2010, an 85 percent jump over the same period last year, according to Global Trade Information Services.

But many wineries are having a hard time getting a line on Chinese oenophiles. Wine drinkers can be broken down into those drinking imported and domestic wines. The import-drinkers are wealthy, label-conscious consumers, concentrated in the economic powerhouses of Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou (and increasingly some second-tier cities as well), where wine from far-flung vineyards has "an aspirational place among middle-class consumers, the affluent, and super-affluent," said Edward Ragg, a Beijing-based wine consultant.

Chateau Lafite is the wine of choice for those with serious RMB to drop. Just as the American hip-hop community rescued French cognac from the brink in the last decade, the Chinese obsession with this French Bordeaux is sending prices through the roof: Last year, Chateau Lafite sold its 2008 Lafite Rothschild for €185 a bottle, but that price hit more than €1,000 on the resale market last month, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The reasons for Lafite’s success are something of a mystery, but Jean Marc Porrot, a wine importer in Shanghai, argued that it is a combination of the label’s early entry into China, French origin and its Chinese translation of "lafei," which is easy to pronounce.

"Eighty or 90 percent of the people who buy Lafite know nothing about wine," said Porrot, who himself thinks the label is overrated and has only tasted it twice in his life.

Unlike Sideways-inspired yuppies in America who have moved beyond merlot and white zinfandel, Chinese oenophiles aren’t exactly invested in distinguishing varietals. Chinese drinkers rank actual quality as the fourth-most important factor when buying imported wine, after provenance, word of mouth, and information on the back label, according to a December 2009 poll conducted by Wine Intelligence, a London-based market research firm. "[Taste] will not be a factor as such, but the label and prestige of the bottle in question is key," Ragg said.

Chinese drinkers who stick with domestic labels are also upwardly mobile, either drinking wine to further middle-class aspirations or for health reasons, but few Westerners would even recognize the cheap, domestic vino they swill. Even the pretense of sophistication that imported drinkers may boast is gone. Much of this domestic wine ends up pounded at banquets amid shrieks of gan bei! (literally, "dry glass") alongside beer and rice wine, or else — horror of horrors — mixed with Sprite. With 86 percent of bottles in China selling for under $6, this end of the spectrum still makes up the majority of wine drinkers.

And the local vintage still has a ways to go. I purchased a bottle of local red for 12 RMB (about $1.80) whose label promised, "It is clarity and has full-bodied ruit-smell [sic], vinosity [sic] and long after taste." What I got was a bottle of strawberry juice that happened to be alcoholic — perhaps not surprising, given Chinese drinkers’ preference for fruity, sweet wines.

"For the uneducated drinker … wine is fairly intimidating, and there is a tendency not to want to lose face where wine is concerned," Ragg said. "These first-time or novice consumers will opt for cheap Chinese wine … taking solace in a Chinese product," if they’re even willing to pay what’s still an exorbitant price, in China, for booze.

Vintners in Italy, Spain — and especially the United States — end up caught in between the two groups of drinkers. They don’t have the same luxury cachet as French labels, and they can’t or won’t compete for the $6-and-under market. While Italian, Spanish, and American producers have still enjoyed double-digit growth in their exports to China, they have struggled to maintain market share against French wines.

American wineries, in particular, have had a hard time convincing Chinese consumers that the land of maidanglao (McDonald’s) and kendiji (Kentucky Fried Chicken) can crank out high-quality (and prestigious) bottles. In 2009, U.S. wine accounted for just 5 percent of the Chinese import market, according to Global Trade Information Services.

Of course, foreign vintners probably rushed into things a bit precipitously. Despite the massive rise in numbers, China’s per capita consumption is still negligible. In 2008, according to figures from the Wine Institute, Chinese drinkers swilled 1.08 liters, trailing most of the developed world and plenty of developing countries too. The market is growing because the number of Chinese consumers dabbling in wine is growing, but the market won’t become the monster foreign labels were hoping for until wine starts being paired with food, drunk on a regular basis and viewed as more than a novelty.

"The best analogy I can think of is the gold rush," said Richard Halstead, Wine Intelligence’s managing director. "The forty-niners … many of them ended up broken and bankrupt and a few of them ended up with fortunes."

To make matters worse, even for those speculators who are striking it rich, counterfeiters have begun doing a brisk business slapping foreign labels on domestic, mouthwash-quality wine. Some analysts estimate that as much as 70 percent of the Chateau Lafite floating around Chinese wine cellars is fake. Those forgeries extend all the way down the food chain. An American winemaker touring China last year found a bottle of Charles Shaw, or "two-buck Chuck," which is sold exclusively in the U.S. supermarket Trader Joe’s, said Linsey Gallagher of the Wine Institute, an advocacy group for California vineyards.

Not that many Chinese wine drinkers would be able to spot the difference. Leave Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou and the knowledge of and interest in wine drops off precipitously, even in a prosperous port city like Qingdao. Wang Miao, a clerk at Qingdao Foreign Wine Trade Center, laments, "Chinese people drink wine like they drink beer. Except for tannins, they know nothing about wine."

It’s a warm Wednesday afternoon in Qingdao, and the Tsingtao Beer factory tour has already punched 2,000 visitors by lunchtime. But that crowd hasn’t found its way up the block to the wine museum, a converted bomb shelter where the corridor leading down to an underground tasting room is deserted, save for some bored-looking janitors.

"You should have been here yesterday," Xia Lijuan, a bartender tells me when I ask where all the visitors are. I raise an eyebrow. "There were hundreds of people."

Eventually a middle-aged man and his teenage son sidle up to the bar to drink the complimentary wine included with admission. Luan Zhong, a 42-year-old policeman, says he began drinking cheap Chinese wines as a teenager. But watching Western movies and TV shows got him to trade in his tumbler for a proper wine glass and start drinking slower. He savors the last of his free glass of Chilean cabernet sauvignon as his son looks on with pride. Luan Zhong asks for my number, and then stands to leave.

"I’ll give you a call next week," he says. "You can come to my house for dinner. Do you like to drink beer?"

David Gauvey Herbert is a writer based in Brooklyn. He covers national security and true crime, most recently for Businessweek, The Atavist Magazine, and Quartz. Twitter: @gauveyherbert

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