Sparkling wine has not made the same impact on China’s drinking habits, but that may be about to change
The consumption of still wine in China has been the story of the first two decades of this century. According to the IWSR, in 2016 China consumed 163.5 million 9-litre cases of still light wine, about 4.5 times the volume drunk in 2000 (36.2 million 9-litre cases). China is now the fifth largest consumer of still wine globally and is producing so much wine that it ranks only behind Spain in the vineyard acreage (source: OIV). Most of what’s grown, and consumed, in China is red wine, though white wines are now starting to see impressive sales growth.
In contrast to red wine, sparkling wine has struggled to win in China. In 2016, China consumed just over 1.5 million 9-litre cases of sparkling wine, less than 1% of the volume of its still light wine consumption in the same year. Meanwhile, other developing countries, such as Russia and Brazil, have been consuming far greater volumes of sparkling wine than China. While the demand for sparkling wine is surging worldwide, whether China catches the sparkling wine wave remains a question for many wine exporters to the market.
In early November, a wine industry conference, titled Trends to Watch in 2018: The Business of Bubbles and Beyond, was held at the 10th edition of Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair. Wine Intelligence Research Director Chuan Zhou, joined Debra Meiburg MW and other panellists for an interactive discussion about the latest trends and growth opportunities in the sparkling wine category, with a focus on the Chinese market.
In October, Wine Intelligence launched the first Vinitrac survey to understand the sparkling wine consumption in China. While full details of the survey findings will be found in the upcoming Sparking Wine in the Chinese Market report (available in Q1 2018), we outline just a few of the findings from the first-cut analysis, as presented by Chuan at the Hong Kong conference:
Consumer knowledge surrounding sparkling wine is driven by country of origin and brand
When most Chinese consumers think of sparkling wine, the first names that come to mind are those of countries and brands, rather than styles or types of sparkling wine. The top 3 countries Chinese consumers associate with sparkling wine are France, Italy and Spain. When it comes to styles of sparkling wine, Champagne dominates the consumer recognition at present. Although Italy and Spain have strong associations with sparkling wine production, the major sparkling wines from these two countries, Prosecco and Cava, have very little awareness among consumers in China. However, Asti has the second highest unprompted recall among all sparkling wine styles, and the Martini brand has the highest unprompted brand awareness.
Sparkling wine is a “sweet”, “healthy” drink in China
With lower alcohol than domestic liquors, sparkling wine is perceived as a healthy beverage, just as red wine. In recent interviews with Chinese consumers and trade members, we find that drinking lower-alcohol sparkling wine (6-7% ABV) for “afternoon tea” occasion has emerged as a trend among the urban young women. Those lower-alcohol sparkling wines, which usually have sweeter, fruit-driven and aromatic characteristics, are often seen as a refreshing alternative to soft drinks. Meanwhile, sparkling wine also creates a “celebrating because we are together” feeling and atmosphere, which are increasingly valued by the younger generation.
Sparkling wine with pronounced fruity and floral notes can have a wider appeal in China
While Chinese consumers have little knowledge about sparkling wine, taste descriptors are of paramount importance for them to identify and differentiate between styles. In the Vinitrac® sparkling survey, we have identified the most appealing (as well as the least appealing) flavour descriptors for sparkling wine. Sparkling wine described as “smooth”, “fruity”, “elegant” with “fine bubbles” and a “long finish” are the most appealing to the consumers surveyed. A “dry”, “complex” sparkling wine with “high acidity” doesn’t seem to be as appealing to them. In terms of flavour references, fruity and floral notes such as “grape fruit”, “rose petal”, “lemon”, “vanilla” (Chinese translation meaning “aromatic herbs”) and “lime” are the most popular descriptors chosen by Chinese consumers. By contrast, flavours usually found in good-quality Champagne – “biscuit”, “butter”, “brioche”, “toasty” – are the least popular (or the least familiar).
A lack of information and education is preventing many sparkling wines from entering a ‘prime market’ and succeeding like clarets in China. Perhaps sparkling wine producers can learn from successful red wine producers, who have understood very closely the Chinese market, with status-focused branding and research-based blends to satisfy the tastes and ideals of Chinese consumers. Perhaps with time and the Chinese market orientation, sparkling wines will be increasingly appreciated by the Chinese market.