Why China Surpassed France As World’s Biggest Red Wine Consumer

on January 31 2014 6:21 AM
China Wine
A man introduces his products inside a wine store at the business area of Ruzhou county, China's central Henan province. Reuters

If wine only came in shades of white and pink, perhaps it never would’ve taken off quite like it has in China. But red isn't only the national color; it’s a hue that’s considered extremely lucky -- and luck is something an increasing number of Chinese want to drink to.

“Apart from its virtues with regard to health, which have been widely lauded as an alternative to the impact of excessive consumption of rice-based spirits, the popularity of red wine is largely due to the symbolic importance of its color,” Bordeaux-based exhibition company Vinexpo explained in a new study.

“Red is a very positive hue in Chinese culture, associated with wealth, power and good luck. In business circles, these three values are fundamental. Red wine is therefore an obvious choice for business hospitality, where partners can drink to each others’ health.”

The London-based firm International Wine and Spirit Research, which conducted the study for Vinexpo, found that Chinese are so fixated with red wine, that they now consume more of it than any country on earth, eclipsing traditional wine-drinking nations like Italy and France.

While the United States still holds the mantle as the world’s top drinker of whites, roses and sparkling, Chinese consumers drank their way to a record 155 million 9-litre cases (1.865 billion bottles) of red wine last year following a staggering growth of 136 percent between 2007 and 2013. During that same time, consumption in France decreased by 18 percent to 150 million cases, and Italy fell 5.8 percent to 141 million cases -- though both countries still drink more red wine on a per capita bases.

The decrease in European consumption doesn’t reflect quite as dramatic an increase in exportation to China as one might expect, though imports have multiplied by seven and account for nearly one-fifth of all products in stores. The rest of the red wine consumed in China, more than 80 percent, bears a made in China label. In fact, China has mushroomed almost overnight into the world’s fifth-largest producer with wines from Ningxia and Shandong provinces now popping up on shelves in the West.

Hong Kong is the undisputed hub of the region’s rapidly expanding wine industry and home to high stakes auctions attended by a growing number of Chinese with an insatiable appetite for Western luxuries. Sotheby’s wine sales in the city last year, for example, totaled $25.5 million, compared to $20 million in London and just $12.5 million in New York.

Chinese aren't only driving new sales, they’re actually redefining the types of grape varietals planted the world over. "In 2000, white wine grapes were more widely grown; however, in the decade to 2010 red wine grapes increased their share of the global vine-bearing area from 49 percent to 55 percent,” Kym Anderson, of the University Of Adelaide School of Economics, noted earlier this month upon the release of the world’s first database of wine grape regions and varietals.

"This shift is consistent with what we know about changes in wine consumption, with numerous countries moving away from white, and consumption rising in recent years in China where red wine is preferred," Anderson said.

Twenty years ago, the most widely grown grape in the world was a white wine variety from Spain called Airen. Now it’s Cabernet Sauvignon, while the fastest-expanding wine grape varietals are Tempranillo and Syrah. All three of those grapes have one thing in common: The wines they produce are a lucky shade of red.

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