A customer checks bottles of imported wine at a supermarket in Beijing, China. Pic: AP.

By Josh Bateman

New research shows that China will drive global wine consumption in the coming years as it becomes the fastest-growing market in the world. This thirst for wine is matched – and driven – by an increasing thirst for wine knowledge, with a mix of programs offered by wineries, distributors, consultants and universities educating potential consumers about the wines of the world.

Vinexpo, a market research firm, lists China as the fifth largest wine-consuming nation in the world. And according to the Vinexpo – IWSR forecast, between 2012 and 2016 Chinese wine consumption will increase by 40% (or 858 million bottles).  This will be the fastest growing wine consumption market in the world – ahead of the U.S. and Russia.

Wine distributors in China are investing heavily in marketing and education.  According to Angela Howland Blackwell, a Constellation Brands representative: “The China market, along with the broader Asia region, is very important to Constellation Brands and we are in the process of developing a business strategy to accelerate our investment in the region. Currently, we are involved in the market at a grass roots level… the Chinese wine market is extremely dynamic, and changing rapidly. The great news for wine is the consumer hungers for knowledge.”

Many companies such as ASC Fine Wines now offer educational courses in person and online. In Beijing, Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting, which was founded in 2007, is also introducing new consumers to wine.  Dragon Phoenix does not produce or sell wine, but offers wine education and training. Co-founder Fongyee Walker said: “We’re seeing a really interesting growth in amateurs taking the class, people not involved in the industry who want to learn and experience wine.  We are also seeing exponential growth in the numbers [of people] wanting to take it.”

She discussed frequent misconceptions her students have regarding the history of wine and where it is produced as well as the need to inform students about different types of wine.  “My whole class is trying to get people to learn about wine in a different way,” she said.

Another way China is introducing consumers to the market is through the increase in formal education opportunities.  Many universities in China now offer oenology programs.

Fiona Li, an employee at the TianTian Youth Hostel in Dalian, recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Grape and Wine Engineering from China Agriculture University in Beijing.  The major was first offered in 2005 and Li’s graduating class had 30 students.  Li said she chose that track “because it is interesting and different from other programs. I didn’t know enough about wine and wanted to learn about it. I think it’s romantic and interesting.”  The program included courses in agriculture, engineering, production, microeconomics, math and wine tasting.  Li said many of her classmates are furthering their wine education by studying abroad.

Walker also said a number of her students were first exposed to wine when traveling or studying overseas.  She talked about a recent student from Shanghai who was first introduced to wine while studying in Waco, Texas and now aspires to start a wine company in China.

In an email, Peter Lunzer, CEO and CIO at Lunzer Wine Investments, stated: “Globalization sums up the fact that as greater numbers travel they bring back home with them cultural influences from other countries. Wine is one of these symbols of sophistication which is only beginning to be accepted by society in China… it is not different from other commodities and consumables in that the wealthy imitate luxuries accepted in other societies, and the less wealthy try to emulate what their peers are doing.”

Walker talked about the importance of changing how the mass market views wine.  She said: “We have to persuade people that wine is not a luxury market so much.  It is a treat, but we should not put it on a pedestal and can drink it every day and enjoy it. Make it a lot more casual.”

In China, wine is not usually consumed with food. Baijiu, a white liquor with approximately 50 per cent alcohol by volume, is a staple at most dinners, social gatherings, and business functions. To take market share from baijiu and other alcoholic options, the wine industry must have a long-term view to develop the market.  Lunzer stated: “At some point, I believe that growth will appear to be exponential – we have not gotten there yet.”

According to Vinexpo, “China has been one of the drivers for increasing global wine consumption in the last decade.  Chinese consumers are changing their mind about wine. As the Chinese market is becoming more and more mature, the consumers have improved their knowledge in wine and they still are curious.”

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Josh Bateman is a freelance journalist based in Asia.