Taste and sensibility: the wine threshold in China

- By Huiqin Ma

For most foreigners, it is difficult to understand why the taste of chou doufu (fermented bean curd) and pi dan (“thousand-year-old egg“) are so attractive to many Chinese. It’s the flip side of Chinese finding it hard to understand why many foreigners enjoy blue cheese.

People need more experience with some foods and drinks than with others to understand them. There is a threshold for “getting it.” We could spend our entire lives exploring new tastes and improving our ability to overcome these thresholds.

For many Chinese, their first wine experience is with a dry red wine. And given the lack of choice in local restaurants and supermarkets, it is most likely a Cabernet from a Chinese company. While some are happy that dry reds dominate the scene and see it as proof Chinese tastes are “globalizing”, these wines are not best for beginners. The acidity and astringency leaves a deep impression and makes it hard to appreciate attributes such as aroma or body. Thus, this first wine experience is likely to be a passable, but not an entirely enjoyable, one for Chinese consumers.

At one time, white Zinfandel was the most popular wine among U.S. consumers. It tends to be sweeter, simpler and easier to grasp in contrast to something such as a dry red Cabernet, a wine to which many drinkers “graduate”. Chinese are in a rush to catch up with many trends in the Western world and they sometimes go too fast and miss some of the steps. If appreciating wine requires a higher tasting threshold than that for beer or cola, if appreciating a dry red wine requires a higher tasting threshold than that for many white or sweeter wines, perhaps we should provide less acidic and astringent products in order to encourage the many potential wine drinkers in the market.

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