Jinghong Zhang is a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World. She completed her PhD in anthropology at the ANU in 2011. Her doctoral research explored how Puer tea, originating in Yunnan in southwest China, was manipulated into becoming a popular beverage in twenty-first century China. This work was published as Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic (University of Washington Press, 2013). Jinghong has expanded her previous research to look at tea culture interactions between China, Taiwan and the East Asia region. She is also working on a comparative project that explores social and cultural factors behind the rise of wine drinking in China. – The Editors
In early October 2014 I joined a group of twelve Chinese tourists on a one-day wine tour in Newcastle, New South Wales. Wherever you go these days, Chinese tourists tend to outnumber tourists from other countries but on that day in Newcastle, we seemed to be the only Chinese tourists around. We were certainly noticed. A group of young local men whistled as we walked past. Some members of our group carried parasols to shade themselves from the sun, to the bemusement of the sun-loving Novocastrians.
Unlike the majority of Chinese tourists who travel overseas on organised tours, this was an independent group led by a woman whose surname is Su. They planned the trip together and meticulously, relying mainly on information they had found online. This was a group of mostly seasoned travelers. Some had already been to Europe, North America and Southeast Asia. The group wanted to visit places that had not yet been written about in travel guides and handbooks and they were open to the idea of changing their itinerary so as to experience new things. The most exciting event for most members of this group turned out to be the tasting and buying of Australian wine at a winery in Newcastle. There were both tea drinkers and wine drinkers in this group. According to the wine drinkers, tasting Australian wine in Australia taught them what an authentic wine-tasting event should be. For the tea drinkers, the wine tour was something out of the ordinary yet they could relate to it because it felt similar to tea-tasting events.
I have always been a tea drinker and Su was one of my three tea friends in the group. Before I came to Australia, we would often meet with other tea enthusiasts in Kunming to taste various types of tea. This time they brought me some Puer tea from Yunnan. As Zhao, another of my tea friends and an antique enthusiast told me, they were worried that I might be homesick and felt the tea would cheer me up. Given the very limited range of Chinese teas in Australia, the Puer tea was a welcome gift. At Zhao’s family home there is a room specifically used for storing Puer tea. Chinese tea enthusiasts who have helped to promote tea culture in China in recent years often say of Puer, ‘the longer the storage, the higher the value’越陈越香. This approach to buying Puer is comparable to that taken with red wine.
Zhao and Su recently made friends with two wine drinkers in Kunming, Chen and Hui, who also joined this tour. As an anthropologist of food and consumption culture, I had previously researched Puer tea in China. My current research concerns the consumption of wine there. This tour was an opportunity for me to see how Chinese tea drinkers familiar with tea-tasting took to wine-tasting. I was also interested to find out why so many Chinese are turning to drinking wine.
In 2013, China became the world’s largest consumer of red wine in absolute terms, with almost 1.9 billion bottles of red wine consumed, overtaking the French who drank 1.8 billion bottles in the same year. The rise of wine consumption in China is directly related to the growing middle class who, as beneficiaries of the country’s decades-long economic boom, have sought to become more cosmopolitan. For mainland Chinese today, to be able to buy and drink foreign beverages is a mark of success. Wine, moreover, is loosely equated with Western civilisation, just as tea represents Chinese civilisation. Therefore, many middle class Chinese see wine drinking as a means of understanding the Western way of life. The term ‘aristocrats’贵族 is frequently used in wine advertisements in China to represent how wine has long been associated with high social status in the European tradition. One slogan presents wine drinking as ‘the choice of aristocrats’ 贵族之选.
Wine has also come to be regarded as good for one’s health. Because traditional Chinese medicine views different foods as having different intrinsic properties capable of ‘nourishing life’ 养生, wine has come to be seen as having its own set of healing properties. Hence, sales promotions for red wine in China tend to highlight its positive effects on a person’s health, with the prevention of cardiovascular disease, anti-fatigue and anti-aging properties frequently listed. Another opinion relates the increasing drinking of wine in China to the trend of official banquets and gift-giving with the aim of establishing guanxi 关系. ‘Banquet culture’ became so widespread in the 2000s that it became a source of growing public anger. In the national anti-corruption campaign launched by Party General Secretary Xi Jinping since 2013, banquets have greatly reduced in number leading to a sharp drop in wine sales. Now winemakers are placing their hopes on the growing number of Chinese middle-class wine consumers who buy wine for recreational drinking with family and friends.
In terms of production, what is not widely known is that China is now the fifth largest winemaker in the world, and the majority of wines consumed in China are domestically produced. Most wine production regions are located in North China, such as Shandong and Hebei province, and the wine companies are mainly owned by state firms like Changyu, Dynasty and Great Wall. But speaking from my previous experiences in China, when they are offered the choice between a domestically produced wine and an imported wine at a similar price, Chinese consumers will almost always choose the foreign wine. French wines—especially those produced in Bordeaux and Burgundy—are most desired by Chinese consumers, as shown in the recent documentary Red Obsession. This is because France conjures up images of grape cultivation and wine drinking, and the Chinese see French culture as something grand. But my wine friends Hui and Chen told me that Chinese wine drinkers are also developing a keen interest in Australian wines. Australia is known as part of the ‘New World’ and Chinese consumers see Australian wines as offering an alternative taste to French or ‘Old World’ wines. Currently, Australia is the second largest bottled wine exporter to China behind France. In 2013, more than 930 Australian wineries exported to China.
The owner of the Newcastle winery we visited was delighted. It was the first time he had received such a large Chinese group, and it so happened that there were no other customers in the winery. He brought out thirteen glasses. However, only eight people in our group had asked to taste the wine and only four of us spoke English.
We started with a white wine, Sauvignon Blanc 长相思. My tea friends and I all took a sip, but we had no idea whether it tasted good. We looked at Hui and Chen, the two wine experts, for guidance. They were fairly new at it too, having started to learn how to appreciate wine about a year ago when they joined an informal wine tasting group in Kunming. They said nothing about the Sauvignon Blanc. Upon tasting a Chardonnay 霞多丽, Hui and Chen noted that it was ‘dry’ and chatted with one another using a vocabulary the rest of us couldn’t understand. Su joked, ‘Please speak likes humans!’
This was a comment often directed at tea drinkers by non-tea drinkers whenever we used the esoteric vocabulary of tea connoisseurs. I noticed some similarities and some differences too between the languages of wine and tea. Chen and Hui explained that tannin was the source of bitterness, astringency and complexity in wine. Tea drinkers know that tea contains tannin but they seldom relate it to taste. Instead they describe bitterness or astringency more empirically. Tea drinkers would also discuss whether the bitterness and astringency of a given tea might transform into a sweet taste. They call this quality gan 甘. There is no equivalent term in English: it means ‘sweetness after bitterness’.
The next wine we tasted was a Rosé 桃红酒. It was light and sweet and we all liked it straight away. After that we tasted a 2011 Pinot Noir 黑皮诺. My tea friend Zhao and I noted that it had a subtle fragrance, reminding us of the scent of sandalwood furniture. Zhao said she felt ‘the running of a spring’ in her mouth, a term tea drinkers often use for good raw Puer tea or Oolong tea that is ‘full of vitality’. Our wine friend, Hui, however, said it had the smell of black pepper, closer to a type of Shiraz she once drank. Zhao at once decided she would buy this wine and take it back to Kunming to share with her husband who could not join her in Australia.
Wine drinkers and tea drinkers in our group liked the same reds. We all agreed that the Cabernet Merlot 卡本内－梅洛 was ‘smooth’ and the Shiraz 西拉 was ‘mellow’. Chen liked the Shiraz very much. She had been endeavoring to speak English since stepping into this winery, as a polite way of communicating with the owner. But when tasting the Shiraz she gave up speaking English, because only Chinese, especially the Kunming dialect, could let her fully express her ideas. The owner kept quiet and smiled, being pleased at our enthusiastic discussions. He seemed to know what was going on.
Chen’s eleven-year-old daughter Xiao Jie had accompanied us to Newcastle. She wandered around the winery, stopping to touch the big wine barrels and to look at a large tank filled with crushed grapes. She had also accompanied her mother to the meetings of the informal wine group in Kunming. The Kunming group was mostly made up of Chen’s high school classmates. Wine-drinking gave them an opportunity to get together. Xiao Jie said that what she liked at these gatherings was the food, because the group often met at restaurants in Kunming. She said that there was always an interesting combination of Western and Chinese dishes. ‘What’s their favorite food to accompany wine drinking?’ I asked the little girl. ‘Roasted duck throat’, she answered immediately. Her mother explained that roasted duck throat doesn’t contain much meat and is not greasy and that its flavour suits red wines very well. It was a cheap and tasty Kunming specialty and a good alternative to imported cheese and Western steak to accompany red wine.
Chen told me that wine-drinking had become a favourite hobby among Chinese with ‘surplus cash’. She said that wine had made her life full of fun and she had become passionate about it. She loved discussing wine with other wine lovers and she had become inspired to prepare nice dinners so as to enjoy the wines she bought with family and friends. I asked her how much wine she had collected. She said she was a beginner with around twenty bottles. However, she had now grown accustomed to enjoying a glass of wine with dinner almost every day. Chen believed that her nightly glass of red was doing great things for her complexion.
Chen’s story reflects the Chinese interest in the health-giving properties of wine. In this, China’s growing numbers of middle-class wine drinkers are similar to serious tea drinkers. Chen said that she also drank tea but wine was now her true passion. She wondered if it was the novelty of wine that excited her.
In Newcastle that day, every member of our group bought wine. Reds were more popular than whites. Chen and Hui were the only two who had previous experience of tasting various Australian wines in Kunming. They both said that tasting the wine at a local Australian winery was a very different experience and that they liked most of the wines they tasted.
Zhao reported our group’s tasting adventures at the Newcastle winery ‘live’ on WeChat and received many comments. A month after the trip, I asked Zhao on WeChat whether she and her husband had tasted the Newcastle Pinot Noir and what they thought of it. ‘We haven’t opened it,’ she replied, ‘it’s too good to open so soon. We’d rather keep it for a while, like how we store our Puer tea. We must drink wine like the way we drink tea!’
 China Real Time, ‘China is now world’s biggest consumer of red wine’, The Wall Street Journal, 30 January 2014, online at: http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2014/01/30/china-is-now-worlds-biggest-consumer-of-red-wine/
 Xiaoshu笑书, ‘Advertisement for red wine’红酒广告语宣传语, Classical Quotations经典用语, online at: http://www.jintang114.org/html/guanggaoyu/2013/0516/7732.html
 Week in China, ‘A matter of taste’, The Little Red Book: A Guide to How China is Reshaping the Global Wine Industry, Winter issue, 2014, online at: www.weekinchina.com
 Week in China, ‘Growth story’, The Little Red Book: A Guide to How China is Reshaping the Global Wine Industry, Winter issue, 2014, online at: www.weekinchina.com
 Warwick Ross and David Roach, Red Obsession, 2013, A Lion Rock Films Production.
 Wine Australia, ‘China’s Thirst for Knowledge Delivers New Wine Education Program’, Media release of Wine Australia, 17 December 2013, Australian Government.