I meant to write a Chinese food-and-wine pairing post, to celebrate Chinese New Year, until I remembered that most Chinese people don’t drink wine. Or any alcohol. They can’t drink because of a defective gene, ALDH2, that prevents them from processing alcohol.
The reaction is termed Oriental Flushing Syndrome and is most common in southeastern China. My Chinese co-worker at my fun job says she gets rashes all over her body and the smallest glass makes her dizzy and knocks her out. I asked about a half dozen Chinese folks what wine they had with dinner on Chinese New Year’s eve. Only one woman admitted to drinking alcohol.
This Flushing Syndrome is really a shame since the Chinese are such famous foodies. When you see what they eat on Chinese New Year Eve and for fifteen days after, it’s like a wine-pairing challenge supreme. If it were me sitting at that table I would have a glass of white wine, a glass of red wine, and a flute of bubbly.
Instead, Chinese more often drink tea with dinner. Or if they do drink alcohol, they also consume, as Benjamin Tseng writes in How You Might Cure Asian Glow, a “comically large amount of water.”
So, if the Chinese are genetically predisposed to this type of alcohol poisoning, why is the wine industry touting China as the next big thing in wine markets?
Sure, there are 1.3 billion people in China, but how many hundreds of millions of them are unable to stomach wine? And, why don’t the Chinese wine market cheerleaders mention this flushing conundrum in their propaganda?
In The Wine Market in China: Opportunities for Canadian Wine Exporters, Agriculture Canada blithely states that “Alcoholic beverages accompany meals and are frequently served during business functions.”
Really? How many showoffy businessmen are there to buy all the wines Canada wants to export to China? And if my Chinese-Canadians friends don’t even drink wine on New Year’s – the most auspicious day in the Chinese calendar – how can they expect Mainland Chinese to pour wine with everyday meals?
Pathetically little has been written about the issue of marketing wine to a country where up to half the population is made sick by wine.
One article, Chinese Are New Wine Market…Except, by William “Rusty” Gaffney, M.D. of the Pinot File, posits, “although the potential market for wine sales among China’s newly affluent consumers is large, up to half the population who suffer from the Oriental Flushing Syndrome will be unable or unwilling to drink wine.” So, where’s the wine market?
I’ve raised a lot of questions I can’t answer. If you have an insight to this Chinese wine market paradox, please explain it to me here.
Meanwhile, in this Year of the Dragon, I’d like to wish a hearty Gung Hay Fat Choy to all my Chinese friends.
And to my friends who like to drink wine with Chinese food, let me offer these suggestions:
- Seafood and lightly flavored dishes – sparkling, sauvingon blanc, dry reisling, gruner veltliner, pinot gris, pinot grigio or vinho verde
- Sweet and sour – unoaked chardonnay, fruit-forward rosé
- Spicy Szechuan – off-dry reisling, gewürtztraminer, icewine
- Rich, meaty hotpots – medium to full-bodied, fruity reds like zinfandel, syrah, grenache, mourvedre or pinot noir.
Happy Chinese New Year!
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