June 2014 Issue of Wines & Vines

Tantalizing Opportunities

Success in the Asian market depends on knowing the local palate

by Peter Mitham
Hong King Wine and Spirits Fair
Women sample a sparkling rosé at the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair in 2013.

    The 2014 Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair will take place Nov. 6-8 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. For details about the event, visit hktdc.com/fair/hkwinefair-en.

One of the most enigmatic problems wineries face when trying to break into new markets is how to explain their wines to customers who might not know anything about wine—let alone where it was produced and the particular conditions under which the grapes were grown.

The problem is compounded when a different language and cultural framework are at play.

This is what makes efforts to sell wine into Asia—the region on which many wineries have pinned their export hopes—a fascinating study in translating wine not only into a new language but also a culture where grape wines are a relatively new product. While the markets are home to savvy, sophisticated consumers, introducing grape wines presents a unique set of challenges.

Presentations at and around the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Fair this past November told members of the trade that talking about wine in terms familiar to consumers in Europe and North America—where the cuisine and cultural associations of wine differ significantly from those in Asia—wouldn’t cut it. Yet at booths and tastings around the fair, it was common to hear the wines presented in the context of Western cuisine and dining practices, rather than the foods and flavors of Asia.

How then do Chinese consumers view wine?
Since a traditional Chinese meal brings together a range of flavors, wine doesn’t necessarily pair with individual courses. Often, it is effectively one of many courses brought to the table.


  • Many North American wineries want to sell wine in Asia, particularly China.
  • It is a mistake to assume that Asian consumers want to experience wine the same way you do.
  • Find the right terms to make your wine understood.

“The taste is not the top, key point,” explained Li Demei, vice-general secretary of the Chinese Wine Association and an associate professor of wine tasting and enology at the Beijing Agriculture College. Pairing “is not possible. You just leave them drinking; it doesn’t matter what they match with. If they are happy, they continue, and that’s enough.”

The result is that wines are frequently chosen on the basis of external factors: price, place of origin, packaging, style, brand, ranking. Indeed, research at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science at the University of South Australia indicates that the quintessential bottle of wine in China is a Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux at a price below RMB 250 (approximately $41.33).

The opportunity for wineries lies in deepening the understanding of wine among consumers who are curious. China’s emerging middle-class wine drinkers will often gather to taste wines, creating a communal setting and the chance for word-of-mouth recommendations among people with similar values, interests and understanding.

It also creates a non-confrontational environment in which no one has to disclose their ignorance and potentially lose “face,” or public standing, an important element in Chinese culture. Instead, everyone can contribute to the discussion.

“We always talk about the Chinese consumer liking sweeter wines. That’s not true,” Li explained. “The Chinese are too shy to talk about their feelings about wine. When you talk about the tannin, the structure, the body, the length, the mouth-feeling, the consumer can’t talk about that. But when they taste the wine (and) it’s sweet, immediately they can talk about that. Immediately they can think, ‘That’s sweet, I know that, I love it.’”

Of course, that doesn’t explain the fascination with red wine, highlighted in films such as “Red Obsession” (2013).

Because red is considered a lucky color in China, it typically commands a higher price. While wines from France typically command top dollar, even a Cabernet Sauvignon from California can list for more than RMB 6,000 (about $1,000) in Beijing restaurants. The combination equates to prestige, which also makes red wine a popular gift item; the wine both honors the recipient and highlights the generosity of the giver, boosting face for both sides.

But for everyday red wines, Jordan Choy, executive editor of the Hong Kong-based publication WINE.luxe, offers a more practical explanation.

Choy maintains that Hong Kong people like lower acid wines and can tolerate higher tannins because of the similarities these wines have with tea, a standard accompaniment to meals.

The cultural familiarity with tea is also why it’s a mistake for marketers to serve white wine chilled—an unknown practice with most other beverages in China, where even the water is cooked (to destroy bacteria) and served warm.

“You constantly hear people say, ‘Oh, here’s this great Riesling that goes well with Szechuan food,’” said Justin Cohen, a research fellow at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science. “The reality is, in my experience traveling around China, people really have a problem with white wine. One of the big things is the temperature: It’s cold.”

This results in white wines that might otherwise be described as having crisp acidity or flavors of lemongrass or bell pepper being pegged as sour and astringent.

“People say they don’t like it,” Cohen said.

The result is a barrier to making wine available to consumers in a way that they can understand and appreciate—and, in turn, become regular consumers. While the wine may be physically available, it has to be presented in a way consumers can understand, from the appearance of the packaging to the experience on the palate.

To resolve the problem, Cohen said wineries should work to establish “memory structures” among consumers that reinforce associations and understanding, and help develop a genuine culture of wine.

“How do they perceive your particular wine region, brand or grape variety that you’re trying to sell into the market?” he challenged the trade. “We need to care less about the brand and more about the consumer.”

To tackle the problem, Cohen is in the midst of a two-year project to develop a lexicon to help Chinese consumers understand and discuss the wines they’re drinking in a language, and with concepts, they can relate to using Chinese taste descriptors rather than Western ones.

“We also have to understand that the typical wine drinker doesn’t know much, so we have to cut through the confusion. We have to make things simple and approachable for them,” he said. “How do you taste blueberry if you’ve never seen a blueberry before, or tasted a blueberry before?”

Working with consumer tasting panels, Cohen and his colleagues found that the butteriness that’s characteristic of some styles of white wine is recognized by Asian consumers as rambutan—although the flavors typically identified in white wines included kaffir lime, pomelo and lemongrass.

Red wines were most often identified as having flavors beyond most Western palates: yangmei, dried Chinese hawthorne, dried Chinese red date, fresh wolf berry and dried wolf berry.

“We can come up with a terminology that we can use in a Chinese market to describe wine,” Cohen said.

But if those terms were seldom heard in the exhibition halls of the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Fair, the practice of referencing Asian fruit flavors isn’t unusual in British Columbia, where the mother tongue of more than a tenth of the population is Asian—more than in any other part of Canada. Many aromatic white wines are described as having notes of starfruit or lychee; ice wine, an item long exported to Asia, is sometimes tipped as having notes of mandarin orange.

Bearing in mind the balancing act wines need to do on the Chinese banquet table, however, British Columbia wine advisor David Scholefield believes a similar approach can be taken to red wines.

“What’s happening now in China mirrors what happened in Japan a generation ago, when the first interest in wine was as a luxury gift and a prestige item,” he said. “The wine phenomenon in China is about prestige and status and all that.”

He sees an opportunity to deepen consumers’ connection—and knowledge—by suggesting pairings with traditional Chinese dishes rather than western pairings. He recently worked with Haywire Winery in Summerland, B.C., which produced a special bottling of its 2012 Pinot Noir for the 2014 lunar new year—the year of the horse, according to the Chinese calendar.

The wine focuses on domestic Chinese consumers, with a label in red and gold and text noting the purity of the wine’s production, the use of French oak and confining tasting notes to suggestions for pairing it with seared sablefish and soy sauce—or perhaps pork ribs and pepper sauce—descriptions aimed at resonating with the Asian palate.

Time will tell if other wineries follow suit, but the move parallels a growing number of initiatives designed to broaden how consumers in Asia approach and engage with wine.

With a new climate of restraint in China that frowns on conspicuous consumption, and fear of counterfeits undermining confidence in external indicators of quality, Stephen Williams, managing director of the Antique Wine Co., believes an opportunity exists for educators to help consumers identify what wins wines marks of quality in the first place.

Deeper engagement will not only help the upper end of the market, which continues to view wine as a long-term investment, but also the lower end of the market that’s just whetting its palate.

“We have a market that is now open to explore and discover quality, not blinded by brand,” he said.

The hope is that engagement will lead to broader horizons for China’s emerging wine consumers, new discoveries and memories of favorite wines that will lead to repeat sales, both for immediate consumption and long-term cellaring.

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