China's love affair with Bordeaux

HONG KONG -- The wine business is booming in China. But the country's fixation on one region is frustrating the rest of the industry.

A talk at VinExpo. Education is a major factor in getting Chinese drinkers to diversify their interests in wine.

HONG KONG — Last week, thousands of sellers and buyers met at Asia's largest wine fair, VinExpo, in Hong Kong. The city serves as an important hub for those wanting a piece of the pie in China's booming wine trade.

But those in the industry have been struggling for years to persuade the Chinese to change their drinking habits. It is not an issue of etiquette — although there is no shortage of shocking anecdotes in that department. The problem is the country's wine drinkers are slow to diversify their preferences in wines, staunchly sticking by their beloved Bordeaux.

Forty-five percent of the wine imported to China last year were from France, followed by Italy in second place. It is debatable what types of wines taste best with Chinese food, but that doesn't matter much. Chinese prefer Bordeaux for the same reason they love Louis Vuitton: it is the name they've heard of as the best and most expensive.

But as the Chinese are slowly growing in sophistication in all things fine, winemakers all over the world hope that they will start to actually choose wines based on how they taste.

Debra Meiburg, one of only four Masters of Wine living in Asia, told me last year that she hoped China would broaden its palate. "It's frustrating for me that the market is so obsessed with Bordeaux," she said.

Meiburg, like many others in the business, said it is a matter of education, which will take time, since China is still in a nascent stage of wine consumption.

"When we do actual taste tests, the preference is more toward fruity, bold wines. New world wines like those from the United States provide more of that than Bordeaux," John Doxon, a sales manager for the California-based Crimson Wine Group, said while manning a booth at VinExpo.

Doxon, who he comes to Hong Kong four times a year, said he sees Chinese drinkers raising their level of sophisticated faster than anywhere in the world that he's ever seen, with a growing interest in pairing wine with food and in ratings. The next step would be to trust their own taste buds.

Indeed, wine from places like the U.S., Spain, Australia and South Africa are encroaching on that market share, each reporting a double-digit percentage increase in volume of wine exported to China last year. But while wineries around the world still see big growth potential in China, the dominance of French wine is expected to linger.

Photo: Vanessa Ko

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