Contrary to what is commonly believed, the Chinese culture of drinking is omnipresent in everyday life: whether we are talking about a dinner out or at home, with friends or family, celebrations or holidays, evenings of pure fun or business meetings.
So far we could say that, all things considered, the Chinese scenario does not differ much from the Western one. But if the opportunities for drinking are roughly the same, the choice of how to drink and what to drink could be dictated by different criteria.
The traditional Chinese etiquette requires alcohol to be consumed during meals on special occasions, swallowing it in a single sip, to the sound of “GanBei!”
(干杯), literally “dried glass”, or “Bottom it up”, which serves the same function as our “Cheers”.
Refusing an invitation to drink, or drinking without observing the custom of finishing everything in one sip, is nowadays considered extremely rude and making up excuses for not doing so, does not usually have any kind of positive effect.
Being invited to drink during a meal is a way to seal relationships, be it work or friendship, not observing this custom would mean not really being interested in doing business in China or forging lasting relationships.
Do you find it a bit difficult to follow the practice of Chinese toast?
We have good news for you! If in the last years the most commonly used alcohol to toast was Baijiu (白酒), literally “white alcohol”, a drink similar to Italian grappa with an alcohol content of about 40% abv, nowadays, fortunately, it is more and more frequent to replace it with lighter drinks such as beer and wine.
We can therefore breathe a sigh of relief, both because it is becoming less difficult to approach the Chinese way of drinking and because the way is opening up for the consumption of the much-loved wine.
But what wine specifically are we talking about?
What Chinese people traditionally prefer.
The answer is rather direct: red wine.
You can notice the growing interest in red wine (红酒) by simply taking a look at the search trends on Baidu (the Chinese Google) in recent years.
Why red wine?
The symbolism of colours
Red is a very positive colour in Chinese culture. It is synonymous of health, happiness, luck, power, passion.
The influence of television
Red wine is increasingly seen on television, often associated with the image of the perfect lifestyle of wealthy families, or to that of contemporary heroes or honest businessmen too.
We increasingly find the figure of a charming, classy man trying to seduce women with a glass of red wine. and this makes people to associate red wine to passion and wellness.
Most of the wine consumed in China is still domestically produced and the major Chinese wineries have traditionally produced red wine. In consumers’ minds, therefore, lives the habit of thinking of wine mainly as red.
But to simply say Chinese people only drink red wine, however, is probably reductive. The Chinese have a strong preference for sweetness in wine, while they tend not to particularly appreciate bitterness and marked acidity.
They tend to opt for rounder and softer, more easily appreciable wines.
It is not only the wine itself that makes the difference.
Although wine consumption at home is also increasing at, wine is traditionally considered a luxury good to be given as a gift or to be shared on important occasions. For this reason, the eye also wants its share.
It becomes so fundamental that even the packaging reflects the canons of typically Chinese aesthetics:
- It is better to use a Bordeaux-style bottles with a high shoulder, this is associated with quality wines;
- Thick and heavy glass bottles are preferable, these characteristics will certainly make an excellent impression on those who receive them, as the substance of the bottle will be linked to the value of the wine contained;
- Wooden packaging is appreciated. An important wine wants a bottle of equal value and the same is expected from the wrapping that covers it;
- Label. Do not forget the business card of the bottle. Labels are more appreciated if they are simple, rather traditional, and clearly contain information about the origin of the wine, the denomination to which it belongs and whether they have won any awards.
How taste and trends are changing.
What we have mentioned to this point is certainly what we have observed so far and which is still predominant in most Chinese consumers.
What is certain is that, as we all know, the Chinese market is moving very fast and so are its trends. It is sufficient to think that 30% of the Chinese population is made of millennials, those who are born after the 80s, and it is precisely the millennials that have become the most important consumer group for the global economy.
It is the millennials who are shaking up the Chinese drinking culture, as they are interested in trying new things and changing traditional habits.
A study carried out by Daxue consulting showed that 86% of Chinese millennials would change their drinking habits and are ready to buy a bottle of wine they have never tasted before.
Millennials tend to choose alcoholic beverages that express their identity and personality and are therefore ready to spend more than baby boomers (previous generation) on wines with a more exotic and sophisticated profile.
An example of changing trends? The increasing love for and consumpation of bubbles and in particular Italian prosecco.
Certainly millennials have greatly contributed to bubbles’ fame, as they consume large quantities especially in bars and clubs.
But a special note is deserved by female consumers, who have expressed a particular propensity for sparkling wine, and 43% of Chinese women who consume wine would prefer it.
Is there more room for those wines that better suit Chinese cuisine?
While in the West, wine lovers are very much in love with the perfect wine to accompany the dish served, in Chinese culture it does not work in the same way.
First and foremost, what we call the perfect sensory experience is not always seen in the same way by Chinese consumers.
One example above all? In the West we would tend to combine a spicy, fatty dish with a wine containing low alcohol, a slight residual sugar and a good softness and acidity, to reduce the spiciness in the mouth and leave a feeling of freshness and cleanliness.
The Chinese palate, on the other hand, loves to exalt these characteristics, and will often prefer exactly the opposite of what we have just mentioned, choosing a full-bodied and alcoholic wine that will give even more emphasis to the spicy sensation of the dish.
Let’s also remember that the typical Chinese dinner foresees that several different dishes are served at the same time (generally 8 hot dishes and several appetizers and snacks), finding a wine that can be matched with all of them would be practically impossible and having an infinite number of bottles on the table, logistically not doaeble .
We could bring many examples of what Italians would traditionally prefer and what the Chinese consumer prefers.
One thing is certain: there is no right and wrong combination or taste!
When we think that the Chinese consumer is doing something wrong in appreciating wine differently than we would, we keep in mind the words of the wine writer Ningbo Mei: “Westerners have committed horrible crimes against Chinese taste, like adding milk or sugar to fine tea…let’s abandon the idea of combining a wine with every dish…The only reasonable way to drink wine with Chinese food is to treat the wine as one of the dishes on the table, to be tasted at the most opportune moment for us, alternating it with the remaining courses in a subjective sequence of taste and consistency”.
In an scenario of continuous development of taste and habits, we can only observe, understand and accept, trying to react to the market requests.