Red versus white: The grape grapple in China

By Huiqin Ma

huiqin_ma.jpg

Chinese consumers buy nearly nine times more red wine than white wine. One common explanation is that the color red denotes good fortune in Chinese culture, thus making wine of that color more popular. I doubt this.

After all, Chinese rice wine, Chinese liquor and most Chinese beer are clear or light-colored, and each of these alcohols represent from several to fifty times more market share than grape wine.

Instead, I suggest other reasons why white wine lags red in popularity as well as several reasons why this situation should change.

Bordeaux: The magical word

Entry level-Bordeaux” is the general judgment of foreign experts when they try Chinese red wine. This is not surprising given that “Bordeaux” is a magical word among Chinese wine professionals and consumers, a situation largely due to the association of wine with France, of France with Bordeaux, and of Bordeaux with dry red wine, associations that are positively reinforced in China by fashion leaders, journalists, advertisements and movies, among others.

This image of dry red wine, and especially of Bordeaux, has long been the ideal of the Chinese wine industry, with the result that red wine represents 85 percent or more of production and market share. One might say that Chinese red wine is less “Chinese” than it is a poorer cousin of Bordeaux.

If the lack of color is not enough of a problem, a colleague suspects another factor that might trouble white wine – serving temperature. Chinese have not traditionally appreciated cold drinks. In fact, many Westerners are surprised to see Chinese drink warm milk or water as well as room-temperature beer and even cola.

When it comes to wine, whites tend to fare best under cooler conditions than reds, which means they are disadvantaged when it comes to the traditional Chinese palate. Many people serve wine at room temperature, which can mean temperatures anywhere from 18 to 30 degrees, depending on the season. Thus, a mature and complex white that tastes excellent chilled will fare far worse if served at a temperature better suited for red wines.

White wine, bright future

Despite this, and the marketing focus on dry red wine, there are several reasons why white wine may well face a bright future.

First, many Chinese, and especially those new to wine, do not like dry reds. I have taught a wine culture and appreciation course at my university for ten years. Many students anticipate a “sweet-sour” taste from the alcohol sampled in the class. They are shocked by their first exposure of dry red wine and describe it, often with an expression of suffering on their faces, as “terribly sour“, “unbearably astringent” and “overly alcoholic.”

“Why do people like dry red wine?” they ask. “If I don’t like it, is my taste inferior?”

This is not an isolated case. Most professionals find that new consumers appreciate white wines more than red wines, even if they tend to buy the latter.

Second, white wine is a better match for Chinese food. Almost all cooking oil used in China is plant-based and thus not as rich as butter. The main wine consumption regions in China are along the East coast, where seafood – a good match for white wine – is traditional. Pork and chicken are key meats in China, and a heavier white works with them pretty well. And when it comes to spicy dishes, among the hardest to pair with wines, the best chance is a semi-dry aromatic white.

Third, white wines hold great potential for China’s wineries. In terms of viticulture, white grapes mature earlier than red grapes. They have a better chance to fully ripen, in terms not only of sugar accumulation but also aroma and expression of varietal character. For example, red grapes, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, sometimes do not fully ripen in north and northwest China given that the first frost normally comes in early October.

Too many people in China think yield control is the way to produce great grape quality, but it isn’t enough to adequately increase grape maturity. Given this, people need to look at the varieties planted and other factors. As they say, there is more than one route to Rome, and white wine is one of these.

My observations as an educator show that tastes are changing. Younger people are willing to discard traditions surrounding food and wine, to experiment. They are happy to drink cold beer where their elders drink warm, and to also imbibe chilled cola and coffee. Given this, given China’s grape-growing conditions, and given the findings that many Chinese at least initially dislike red wine, it seems white wine has a bright future here.

Good content takes resources. If you find Grape Wall useful, help cover its costs via PayPal, WeChat or credit / debit card. Also check out Grape Wall on Facebook. Twitter and Instagram. And sibling sites World Marselan DayWorld Baijiu Day and Beijing Boyce.

1 Comment

  1. This is interesting. not because I know anything about wine, but because the generalisations about the Chinese drinking beverages at room temperature is so true. I was surprised on my recent, first trip to China to find that they drink warm milk! Warm everything =o

    So I can see why chilled white wine is not as popular. The only people I saw drinking chilled drinks are university students and even then, only very few did – and some had no choice, as the room temperature ones were sold out.

Leave a Reply