Which Wines Will China Be Drinking in 10 Years?

July 2015
by Dong Li

There is a saying that suggests, “You can’t sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo.” Unfortunately, many wine importers find themselves in similar situations in China’s wine market, where there is no historical culture of wine consumption over thousands of years, and 70% of the Chinese population has minimal or no wine knowledge.

Most attempts to decode China’s wine market focus on socioeconomic factors such as GDP and disposable income, given that “price and label” are still the most predominant purchasing triggers. Yet the evolution from “price and label” to “quality and taste” is happening, accelerated by many factors including thriving wine education institutes and the Chinese government’s anti-corruption movement.

A crystal ball that can forecast which California wine is going to win over the Chinese wine market during the next 10 years does exist: It is Chinese wine lover’s palate. One of the best ways to understand the Chinese consumer’s palate is through the country’s varied cuisines. Eight regional cuisines have been recognized: Lu (Shandong), Chuan (Sichuan), Hui (Anhui), Yue (Guangdong), Min (Fujian), Xiang (Hunan), Su (Jiangsu) and Zhe (Zhejiang). These styles differ from one another due to factors such as available resources, climate, geography, history, cooking techniques and lifestyles.

With billions of people from the countryside of China moving to the cities, and western cuisines gaining popularity, the fate of California wines in the Chinese market will largely depend on understanding the Chinese wine lover’s palate and its evolution over time.


Chinese Cuisine by Region

  Lu (Shandong) cuisine  
    Shandong cuisine is characterized by its emphasis on aroma, freshness, crispness and tenderness. This is the top region for alcohol consumption in China, so a rich-flavored, full-bodied, tannic Napa Valley Cabernet should be able to gain some traction in this area.  
  Chuan (Sichuan) cuisine  
    Arguably the most well-known Chinese cuisine in the world, Sichuan (Szechuan) cuisine is in fact a product of globalization. Peppercorns that were brought to China from the Americas in the 18th century, largely determined Sichuan cuisine’s distinctively spicy taste. Both off-dry white wines (Chenin Blancs and Rieslings) or peppery reds such as Zinfandel could find a market here, depending on whether people like to offset or intensify the heat on the palate.  
  Yue (Guangdong) cuisine  
    The Cantonese are well known for consuming almost anything that moves. This versatile attitude toward food makes Guangdong cuisine one of the easiest Chinese cuisines to pair with wine. Riesling, with its broad spectrum of styles from bone dry to super sweet, could be a good match for many Guangdong dishes.
  Min (Fujian) cuisine  
    This cuisine is known to be light but flavorful, soft and tender, with particular emphasis on umami taste. Rhône varietals would pair well with this cuisine since their tannins are moderate enough that they don’t taste bitter with flavors that are sweet, sour or salty, yet they retain enough tannins to stand up to meat.  
  Su (Jiangsu) and Zhe (Zhejiang) cuisine  
    Referred to as the “land of fish and rice” (synonymous with the western “milk and honey”), these two cuisines have many similarities: Both are almost never spicy in contrast to Sichuan or Hunan cuisine, and they’re usually more meticulous and light compared to the hearty cuisine of north China. This is the land of delicacy for both cuisine and palate, which calls for delicate wines such as Pinot Noir.  
  Xiang (Hunan) cuisine  
    Similar to Sichuan cuisine, the Hunan style of cooking is also well known for its hot, spicy flavor, fresh aroma and deep color. Sweet, fragrant white wines such as Viognier from California’s Central Coast would match well with the spicy and sour flavor of this cuisine.  
  Anhui (Hui) cuisine  
    Anhui cuisine can be quite salty and hearty due to its heavy use of soy sauce. A full-bodied, mature, fruity red wine such as a Napa Valley Merlot would do well in this region.  


Dong Li is a senior editor and columnist for Taste Spirit in America. He holds an MBA from INSEAD and has completed advanced training from the International Sommelier Guild.


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