China: a wine taster’s paradise?

By Campbell Thompson

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China’s major cities are a burgeoning wine lover’s paradise that offer budding oeneophiles the chance to sample many of the world’s great wines.

“A wine lover’s paradise?” you ask. “Surely that’s just a bit of New Year’s celebratory hyperbole?

Well, perhaps “paradise” is going too far, but Beijing and Shanghai are great places to be if you speak English and have a moderate amount of money, by Western standards, in your pocket to invest in your budding wine habit. Consider:

  • Unlike in most other major wine-producing countries – and China is a major wine producer, at least in volume terms – wine lists in Shanghai and Beijing tend to have a wide range of countries and wine styles represented. It is rare to see any North American or South American wines on lists in Australia. It is rare to see any imported wines at all in France, Italy and Spain. The best wine bars, restaurants and quality retailers here have wide selections of wines from around the world. If wine variety is the spice of life, Beijing and Shanghai measure up well.
  • Almost all of the world’s most famous wine-makers and winery owners visit China, many of them annually. Beijing and Shanghai have a large number of outstanding wine dinners, tastings and events that provide the opportunity to learn about these wines firsthand from the people who made them. The last twelve months has seen some of the biggest names in wine grace our shores, from Penfolds’ Chief Winemaker Peter Gago to respected Napa Valley producer Doug Shafer to Decanter “men of the year” Miguel Torres and Ernst Loosen to more than 60 owners of Bordeaux’s finest producers. Well-known wine writers such as Jancis Robinson, Robert Joseph (both from the UK) and Jeremy Oliver (Australia) visit regularly and host wine events.
  • Many events here are cheaper than they would be in, say, London or New York. These events are usually subsidized by the producer – and maybe the importer, too – to promote the wines in China. In many cases, the supply of events outweighs current demand.
  • Attending most events does not require any special connections or membership. Simply get yourself on the mailing list of the major wine importers and you will receive event information by email.
  • There are also a good number of events which cost 100 RMB or less to attend and – once you know how to find them – some good free events.

The downside?

  • Some events are still quite expensive in absolute terms, so unless you are positively rolling in it, there’s probably a limit to how many elite events you can attend. Plus, a good portion of the fee is usually for the multi-course dinner paired with the wines.
  • There are still relatively few events pairing international wines with high quality local cuisine.
  • Most events are in English only and cater largely to the expatriate community. While wine importers talk about serving the local market, their actions imply a far greater interest in the English-speaking market.
  • Many wines available in retail are more expensive in China. For example, Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz is RMB 60-65 in the US (USD8-9) and RMB 95-100 in the UK. In China, the same wine often costs RMB 200-250. Making things worse is that there is a lot of slightly damaged wine sold in retail, due to most wine importers not using adequate temperature-controlled shipping and/or storage.

So while China isn’t the best place to buy wine in retail, since it often costs more and there are shipment and storage issues, Beijing and Shanghai are good cities in which to attend high-quality wine events and tastings.

5 Comments

  1. Thanks all for the comments and feedback.

    CHINESE LANGUAGE WINE EVENTS
    I’m in the process of digging around to try to find out exactly how many companies are holding wine events (tastings, dinners and wine education sessions rather than just “wine parties”) in Chinese.

    There is a common perceptions amongst wine importers that there is currently not much demand for publically available Chinese language wine events (as oposed to private or tailored events). Added to this is the fact that many events feature a visiting winemaker or winery representative – and very few of these people speak Chinese. Whilst a wine dinner or tasting can be interpreted, in many cases this isn’t done because a) most of the guests speak English, and/or b) the wine company feels that having everything interpreted slows down the event too much.

    That said, there are some good publically available wine events in Chinese.
    Fongyee and Edward Walker offer a range of wine tastings and events in Beijing in Chinese and/or English (www.longfengwines.com). These are usually great value for money and very well organised.

    Ease Scent (www.easescent.com) are a locally owned wine education company that have offices in 5 cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Suzhou and Changsha), and offer various wine tasting and education events, including the Wines & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) certificate programmes – however the WSET exams are in English.

    WINE PRICING IN CHINA
    M Elliott raises a good question regarding wine pricing in China. I’ll post something on this topic very soon – and hopefully get some responses and input from others who have a perspective on this.

  2. Great post. I’m glad I found this blog, should make for interesting reading. I’m wondering as to why imported wine is as expensive as it is in China. Is it a question of taxation, retail markup, volume….? When I can buy a standard bottle of say imported vodka for 100rmb give or take, why can I only get something passable in the wine department for the same price?

  3. HI there, we are extremely spoilt for the quality of wine tastings and dinners given in Beijing and Shanghai, they are exceptional value too. I can’t help thinking that the focus is starting to shift away from ex-pat dinner gatherings towards more educational tastings and seminars- this has to be a good thing both for industry professional and new consumers alike. Its great to see more wine education in Chinese out there too, there is a genuine curiosity amongst consumers that has been largely ignored until now. Good luck to those pioneers in the education game!!

  4. Big cities always have more resources. Just wait; wine passion may well diffuse through the country, given its own pace and agenda. This is nothing that hasn’t already happened in the US.

  5. This is surprising news. Thanks for posting it. Few wine-tasting for the Chinese wine drinker means that wine importers are not doing their job. After all that’s where the market is supposed to be.

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