Chinese cuisine - Back labels in China II: the taste of Wolfberry

Delving into the Chinese flavour palate

No, it’s not the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Instead it is something more mysterious and fascinating: the Chinese flavour palate. Which is proving to be important, and frustrating, in the context of wine.

The western vinous lexicon is well established in flavours and textures that – in theory at least – mean something to us drinkers. “Berry fruit”, “peaches”, “citrus”, and “vanilla” are all familiar scents, though the connection becomes weaker when critics talk about “barnyard”, “leathery” or “flinty” flavours. And yet, while the higher echelons of tasting note language on a back label may elude us, most wine drinkers can fasten on to something that’s familiar and use that as a proxy to determine whether or not they like the idea of the bottle sufficiently to buy it.

This lexicon has worked reasonably well in countries where wine is sold in significant quantities – except one. For most Chinese wine drinkers, wine is expected to taste like “wine” and nothing else. The idea of wine tasting like something else is truly baffling, and frankly a bit off-putting. It’s yet another barrier for Chinese consumers to overcome, along with language and the overwhelming variety of wine available. Imagine a wine description talking of “yangmei, hawthorn and wolfberry”. Would you know what to expect when you pop the cork?

Some of the common flavour descriptors used in the West to describe wine flavours are similarly puzzling for Chinese consumers, who rarely come across flavours such as elderflower or blackcurrant in their daily lives. That doesn’t mean that no “international” flavours can be used – lemon and strawberry, for example, are familiar flavours for most Chinese consumers. It does mean that an accessible flavour description needs to use only the international flavours that are familiar locally, and complement these with local flavours where appropriate.

What flavour descriptors work locally? The top 20 list includes both some local flavours, such as “lychee” and “jasmine tea leaves”, as well as many (but not all) of the usual suspects familiar in other markets. Women see “rose” as the most appealing flavour, while men prefer “raisin”. Older consumers are more likely to look for “oak”, and Adventurous Connoisseurs, the most involved consumers, like to see terms such as “vanilla”, “raisin” and “red apple”.