Terry Xu: Wines as a social ‘name card’

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Wine is a type of alcoholic drink; for most of us, it’s the perfect choice when we want some flavoured alcohol which is not too alcoholic.

Image: wine lovers at 2015 Decanter Shanghai Fine Wine Encounter
Image: wine lovers at 2015 Decanter Shanghai Fine Wine Encounter

In China, we link grape wines to a healthy lifestyle, and see it as an appropriate gift. Therefore, we tend to distinguish wines from other alcoholic drinks.

China as a country has a massive population and is rapidly building up its fortune. We have very little wine culture, and we tend to hang out with only those who share the same social status as ours. Under such circumstances, promoting wine is a complicated task.

Those who become rich (both spiritually and financially, I shall point out) earlier than others have been eager to brand their social status with various titles and labels.

Fortunately, the public attitude towards the rich is turning from ‘hatred’ to ‘admiration’ in China. A good ‘title’ for the high achievers is almost as good as being a fashion icon, which becomes popular instantly among us. The amount of attention attracted by the various ‘People of the Year’ awards is perhaps the best evidence to the ‘title fever’.

Now comes the age of the middle class, namely those born after the 1980s. The social ‘name cards’ in China are getting increasingly diverse and segmented, as the middle class seek their unique ‘label’, especially hobbies, to brand their social status and identity.

Among the latest popular hobbies are music, cars, travel and, funnily enough, jogging. Honestly, the Chinese have never loved running so much.

Wine has also caught the social identity fashion. To begin with, drinkers and non-drinkers almost belong to two different worlds. Those who do drink can be categorised into white spirit drinkers and red wine drinkers. (You wonder why there isn’t an honourable social title for beer drinkers? Because almost everyone in China drinks beer. There’s simply nothing special about it.)

Wine drinkers then separate themselves into two groups—those who drink domestic wines and those who drink imported wines. This is where things get really complicated and interesting.

The preferences of domestic wine drinkers can be easily split in two—Great Wall and Changyu, the two biggest domestic brands.

The diversity of imported wines, however, fractions the drinkers with their preferred wine countries and grape varieties. We had a heat wave of Bordeaux and Cabernet Sauvignon a couple of years ago, now Burgundy and Pinot Noir are the most popular; in-between there were some temporary fevers for Aussie Shiraz and Chilean wines. Anything can be the next.

What’s foreseeable, though, is that with more Chinese people starting to drink wine, those who joined the wine circle first need to work really hard to stay in the game. Meanwhile, wine lovers will continue to segment themselves in the ‘battlefield’ of wine social circle. Mark my words, one day there will be some serious drinkers in China who claim to only drink xx vintage of xxx before the famous winemaker had his/her first/second/third baby.

As a professional writer working in the wine business, I am half happy and half worried about the move. Certainly the booming wine market is good news for all of us; but as consumers start to become serious about wine, the fine line between amateurs and professionals is getting blurry. If I want to hold on to my job, the only way is to continue improving myself.

Maybe this year is the year to get my Master of Wine studies going.

Translated by Sylvia Wu / 吴嘉溦

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