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July 31, 2011

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Drops of wisdom

Though China has a long history of making rice wines and distilling spirit, its modern wine history is quite short, little more than a hundred years old, but wine making and wine appreciation have advanced considerably in a short time.

Chinese consumers increasingly are choosing wine and many people consider drinking wine a sign of sophistication and good living. In response to the interest, wine makers and distributors from around the world are seeking a share of the China market. In a couple of decades, China is expected to be the world's largest wine consumer.

According to a research this year by The International Wine And Spirits Exhibition (VINEXPO), China's wine consumption from 2010 to 2014 is expected to increase by almost 20 percent, making it the world's sixth-largest wine-consuming country.

On July 22 the second China Wine Challenge competition held in Hilton Shanghai concluded, with the selection of nine notable imported and one domestically produced wine. (See below)

Which wines do Chinese people prefer? What is the "Chinese palate?" How do Chinese view wine drinking? What are domestic wines like?

To answer these questions, Shanghai Daily spoke with five international judges of the China Wine Challenge: Lynne Sherriff MW, chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine; Steve Spurrier, consulting editor of Decanter magazine; Anthony Rose, the wine writer of The Independent; David Wrigley, international development director of Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET); and Ronald Brown, president of the China Wine Challenge.

Steve Spurrier, co-chairman of the China Wine Challenge and consulting editor of Decanger, an upmarket monthly published in more than 90 countries

Q: What's China's position in the global wine market?

A: It's the fastest growing market and will be the largest in 10 to 15 years. Let's make an assumption. If 10 percent of China's population drink wine, plus their ability to pay for it, plus their willingness to drink it, think how big the market will be. Many Westerners see the potential wine market here; that's why Decanter will be published in Chinese next year.

There's a big difference between China and Europe in terms of wine consumption. In huge wine producing countries like France, Italy and Spain, wine is an everyday drinking product with meals. But in China, it's still considered as a superior beverage not part of people's life. As for production, quantity is higher than quality, I think.

Q: What's China's wine drinking preference?

A: As far as I know, Chinese feel French wine is good because of its long history. However, what they mostly drink is in fruity New World style.

Ninety percent of the wine consumed here is red but I think white will be more popular in the future. When talking about palate, the Chinese are just like the English 30 years ago, thinking dry but drinking sweet. Concerning grape variety, they are more interested in classical varieties, for example, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in white; Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in red.

Q: What's your impression of Chinese wine?

A: Last night, I tried an attractive Muscat, very light, clean and aromatic.

Q: What's your first wine memory?

A: I clearly remember it was Christmas Day when I was 12. My grandfather poured me a glass of port, Cockburn's 1908. I was impressed by the taste and found that there's similarity between wine and my teenage hobby of collecting stamps - both have a date and a story behind them.

Q: Name a wine that impresses you.

A: Champagne, no matter whether a normal vintage or good vintage. It's a drink for a special moment. There's always a good memory behind a glass of Champagne.

Lynne Sherriff MW, chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine and the co-chairman of the China Wine Challenge

Q: Does China have the potential to become one of the largest wine-producing and consuming countries?

A: Absolutely. China is such a huge country with many different climatic conditions, and interesting soil types that probably haven't been discovered. But something urgent is that China lacks professional wine experts who are important in improving the popularity of wine. That is why the Institute of Masters of Wine and the Madame Bollinger Foundation cooperate this year in awarding a scholarship open only to Chinese wine judges.

Q: What's China's wine drinking preference?

A: Undoubtedly, at the moment red Bordeaux is very popular. In my view, how Chinese wine lovers see Bordeaux is quite similar to how Chinese consider the luxury brand LV. Besides, during the China Wine Challenge, I found that compared with Western judges, the palate of Chinese judges is more sensitive to the bitter flavor.

Personally, I think Chinese can change their drinking habit of only drinking red wine. I recommend they trying more white wine. Many places in the east, middle and south of China have long and hot summers that are suitable for drinking chilled white wine. The chilly mouth feel builds an obvious contrast to the hot dish, which can improve the whole dining experience.

Q: Is there a culture gap between China and mature wine countries?

A: I don't think the gap exists. Probably, China hasn't the tradition of growing wine. It seems to me that countries like China and the UK, which don't grow much of their own wine historically, see wine differently. They seem more open-minded in terms of new wine product. Further, China has its own tasting profile that may be not popular at the moment. That is why some people think the "gap" exists. However, who can make sure and predict that the China-style profile will not be popular in the next 10 years.

Q: What's your view of Chateau Lafite and Moet opening vineyards in China?

A: It's a positive thing. Thirty-five years ago in California, some famous Champagne brands opened joint ventures there. History proves that it has great effect on developing generality. Now, some European countries even import the French-style Champagne from the US. More importantly, it's a sign of confidence in the emerging market. Building a winery needs a large amount of money. Those brands investing in China clearly indicate that they see the market potential.

Q: Do you have a special wine?

A: I should share with you two wines, both from Bordeaux. One is the red, Cheval Blanc 1955, with lovely, long flavor of black fruit. The other is the white, Domaine de Chevalier, made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, pale and with a fresh vibrant taste.

Ronald Brown, the president and founder of China Wine Challenge

Q: Why did you establish the China Wine Challenge, one of a few wine challenges named "China?"

A: I have been involved in the Chinese wine market since 1979. I have witnessed the wine development, from the wine being only available in duty-free shops 20 years ago to today when China's consumption and production is listed in the world's top 10. Chinese consumers need more confidence when choosing their wine, not only imported but also domestic. Hence, we promote the role of education and communication.

Q: How would you describe China's wine market?

A: The consumption market is interesting. Some rich people are drinking the top wines and some wine beginners are drinking the inexpensive ones at the bottom. However, a few spaces are left for the middle, which in other countries occupies a large amount of market share. In terms of production market, domestic wine to some extent has changed itself from being large quantity, low quality to moderate quantity and high quality.

Q: What's China's drinking preference?

A: In China, the No. 1 imported wine is French wine driven by Bordeaux. In terms of grape variety, Syrah, a big spicy tannic wine, seems very popular. Another thing distinctive to China is consumers choosing wine according to price not to palate. Wealthy people equate expensive price with high quality while some others choose cheap wine because it's cheap.

Q: You have your own winery. What's the best thing about owning a winery?

A: The happiest thing is going to a restaurant by chance and seeing my wine holding first place on the wine list. When I looking around, I see other tables are drinking my wine.

Q: Name a wine that impresses you.

A: The first wine I made myself and sold, Chateau de Combebelle 1990. Each bottle is filled with my passion for creating high-quality wine.


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