Trade secret: Don’t blame consumers for low white wine sales in China

The next issue of Wine Business International will include an article I wrote about white wine in China. The main message: the ratio of red wine to white wine sold in this country — typically cited as four-to-one or higher — does not match consumer tastes.

The article looks at examples where consumers give higher scores to white wines than red wines, at how taste is increasingly influencing wine purchases, and at over-simplified market views, such as the idea red wine is more popular because red is associated with luck while white is associated with death, an odd stance when you consider the top alcohol in the country–baijiu–translates to “white spirit“.

Among the most intriguing interviewees is Helene Ponty, who moved to China in 2012 to import and sell wines made by her family in Bordeaux. Ponty discusses the stark contrast in responses to her white wines by consumers and distributors (highlights are mine):

If I do an event for consumers, they usually love the white wine, particularly women. I feel like many women are intimidated by red wine or afraid they will get drunk if they have red wine, but they feel better about white wine. They also appreciate the taste more. For our wine in particular, they like the freshness and the slight sweet note. They find the whites less overwhelming and less strong than the reds.

However, if we do an event for distributors, the attitude is very different. They will say they don’t need white wine, or that their customers don’t drink white wine.

So it led me to think that the problem lies with the distributors, who have an ingrained mindset that people do not want white wine. I think part of the problem is that distributors do not understand white wine as well as they do red wine, because they do not have experience with it. They do not feel comfortable recommending it, so they keep that attitude that consumers do not buy white wine, they keep the attitude that they do not want to supply white wine.

Distributors who don’t sell white wine because they don’t understand it: talk about a trade secret. After those general remarks, Ponty gives a specific example — from a wine dinner in Changsha — of peer pressure in the trade working against white wine:

…at the beginning of the dinner, when not everyone had arrived, I had one attendee, a man, come to me and ask me about our white wine. He wanted to know how white wine was made, how it was different from red wine, how to drink it. We tasted my white wine together and he enjoyed it very much.

Later on during the dinner, I started by serving the white wine. One man stood up and said he would not have white wine as it was a drink for women. And he would not drink a woman’s drink! Of course all of the men at the table had to show how manly they were and all refused to drink the white wine, even though they said nothing when we started pouring in the first place.

Ponty’s conclusion?

In general, I think there are a lot of misconceptions and lack of education about white wine. Most of the education you see in China is about red. So people do not know white wine and think of it as a girly drink, a light drink, not as legitimate as red wine.

This is significant given how well whites wines do in taste tests. That’s not to say that under perfect conditions white wine would be as popular or more popular than red wine, which still has far greater status and perceived health benefits.

But it is to say that the default focus on red wine — whether than mean distributors who refuse to stock white wine, vineyards that are are primarily planted with red grape varieties, or trade people who only understand and push red wine — does skew the numbers.

How much? Get the full story in the next issue of Wine Business International. You can get more details on the magazine here and subscribe here.

Note: I also publish a free China wine e-newsletter, usually every four to six weeks. To get it, sign up with your email address using this form:

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1 Comment

  1. Great perspective Jim and Helene! We’ve must work harder to nip “it’s a girlie drink” in the bud! We’re seeing a small increase in white wine consumption in Hong Kong. That’s in addition to the ordering of white wine to help alleviate corkages fees, haha. I even got asked recently — gasp — to present a “noble white wines” event for a financial association. Hoping to make white wine cool soon (no pun intended).

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