Chinese drinkers consume an average of 300 million bottles of wine a year, with a heavy preference for red, according to wine industry insiders gathered at Hong Kong’s Vinexpo Asia-Pacific, the region’s biggest wine trade fair.
Seen as emblematic of the wine experience and valued for its medicinal qualities, red wine accounts for 90 percent of the booming but relatively young Chinese market, compared to 65 percent globally, according to Vinexpo.
“At the beginning the trade thought they would drink more white wines because they thought they went better with Asian food. At the end, red has won,” Vinexpo chief executive Robert Beynat told AFP.
He added that there were now signs that women were turning to white wines. The dominance of grapes like cabernet, shiraz and merlot is apparent in any supermarket in Hong Kong, the southern Chinese territory which is Asia’s biggest single wine market based on per capita consumption.
But Donny Ho, general manager of major distributor Jebsen Fine Wines, said the market was changing. Volumes of white wine imported into Hong Kong grew 39 percent in the first quarter of 2012, to 14 percent of total wine imports.
“The shift of the pendulum towards white wine reflects increased local consumption of white wine and the gradual sophistication of our wine market,” he said.
“Local consumers are seeing white wine as a more refreshing option, and as wine drinkers gain deeper knowledge of wine, they are more willing to move beyond red wine.”
According to International Wine and Spirit Research, the white wine market in China is expected to grow 69 percent between 2011 and 2015, compared to 53 percent for reds.
Bordeaux Wine Council president Georges Haushalter said research showed that Chinese drinkers, especially women and younger people, liked the taste of white wine but still bought reds.
“When we do tastings … we notice that, especially new consumers and women, they appreciate the sweet white wines of Bordeaux,” he said.
“But when it comes to purchasing habits, their attitude is to say wine has to be red. It’s all about educating people, making them understand that they can trust their own taste, and that takes a bit of time.”
Fang Chen, a Chinese director of Vins-Vignerons which represents the major chateaux of Burgundy, a French region famed for its chardonnay, said the Chinese were impressed by the supposed health benefits of red wine.
“People like medicinal food,” she said, adding that there was even a women’s beauty product on the market known as “red wine cream” due to it supposedly giving a rosy, healthy glow.
Her French colleague, Philippe Garnier, said white’s big advantage over red was its suitability as a pairing with Chinese seafood and spicy dishes.
“It doesn’t have the tannin, which gives the spicy character to the red wines,” he said.
It is no coincidence whites have greater market penetration in southern China where drinkers are more sophisticated and the food is lighter, said Nikki Palun, the Mandarin-speaking export manager for De Bortoli Wines of Australia.
She added that the Chinese were “really embracing” white wine as never before.
“We’ve just sold 50 cases of our super premium chardonnay. There’s huge demand for it now.”