If Chinese Can’t Drink Wine, Where’s The Market?

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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Mari Kane

Mari is a writer, blogger and WordPress consultant, living in Vancouver, BC, the most wine-soaked town north of the 49th Parallel. She also blogs about WordPress web design at Blogsite Studio.com. Follow her on Twitter or Google Plus.

5 thoughts on “If Chinese Can’t Drink Wine, Where’s The Market?

  • January 26, 2012 at 1:22 pm
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    My answer is that they are not purchasing the wine to drink.

    They are purchasing the wine, preferably in silk-wrapped beribboned presentation boxes, as corporate gifts on a corporate credit card to give to corporate clients, government officials, and other people to whom their “face” (and in some cases, bribery) is important. Some US-based branches of Chinese companies annually order dozens of crates of wine to gift to clients and officials in China, and to visitors of the US branches.

    When I gift officials in China, they don’t care about the alcohol and in fact it probably just gets brought out at parties as a pregame for the maotai baijiu or ergutou. They care whether it’s in a nice box and whether they recognize the label. I’ve seen people try to explain the differences between the brands and the flavors–they get blank looks and then they are asked which one is more popular and expensive.

    Wine isn’t drunk in China–it’s replaced by the more popular baijiu that accompanies every corporate dinner, business meeting/dinner, etc. China (and other corporate/bureaucracy-centric Asian countries like Japan and Korea) has a binge-drinking culture, so it’s certainly not the case that there’s no alcohol market in China. They might just have to accept that the wine might not necessarily be drunk.

  • January 26, 2012 at 1:36 pm
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    Wow, thanks Jen. So if the wine is bought to be gifted but not drunk, how much wine can actually be sold in China?

  • January 26, 2012 at 6:22 pm
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    That’s an interesting question! It’s hard to say. Ben and I were discussing this and we think there has to be a market cap at some point. I’ve definitely visited homes where there are bottles of Chivas Regal, Johnnie Walker, and random Australian wines sitting in a dusty glass cabinet, so if we can think about more than one bottle a person, with a rising preference for wine versus hard liquor…don’t really know the answer to this one. At least a billion? As many businessmen there are in China?

    I’d like to think of a Chinese drinking culture that one day privileges taste over alcohol content. You’re right; in a country where the manifold regional tastes and differences are savored, wine is sadly neglected. One day, maybe? Japan has that phenomenon where whenever this one popular wine manga mentions a vintage from Napa Valley, it gets sold out because all the Japanese fans order it so they can try it while they’re reading the manga. I wonder if we need to do something similar with Chinese comics!

  • January 27, 2012 at 1:39 am
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    I don’t think that is entirely true that they don’t drink, as I know Chinese people who drink wine. And in fact, once I was invited with my husband toa Chinese New Years party here and the tables were graced with expensive bottles of whiskey that were were being consumed freely. And what about the saki that Japanese drink? It’s wine distilled from rice.

  • January 27, 2012 at 11:49 am
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    I got some input last night from a Chinese woman who was drinking red wine and admitted to feeling flushed. She said wine is not part of Chinese dinner culture. At a big meal everyone focuses on the food and chowing down, during which time there is not much table conversation going on. She theorizes that if they were drinking wine, they might sit back and talk more, but no. She said this is why Chinese restaurants have such pathetic wine lists – hardly anyone orders.

    As for the whiskies and cognac, she said those are knocked back purely for the buzz by people who can presumably handle it. I wonder if there is a different reaction for grape-based wine and cognac as opposed to grain-based liquor and beer.

    The other thing I wonder is, if those with mixed descent are able to handle wine/liquor better, especially if they have some Irish drinking genes.

    Thanks for your comments!

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