[dropcap size=small]T[/dropcap]he world’s most populous nation has for years been seen as an El Dorado for foreign wine-makers – but those hoping to cash in need to keep up with continuing rapid transformations in the market, including the rise of online sales, say analysts at the four-day global wine gathering in Bordeaux.

“Just forget everything you knew about this market,” influential Chinese wine blogger Terry Xu told an event at Vinexpo in the southwestern city that is the capital of France’s wine industry.

Chinese buyers previously saw wine primarily as a prestigious gift to give to others, experts say – but that’s changing, with personal consumption growing at break-neck speed.

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“Today we’re dealing with the final consumer. People are buying wine to drink themselves,” said Gregory Perret, marketing director of importer French Wine Paradox, which specialises in mass distribution in China.

The number of Chinese drinkers consuming imported wine more than doubled from 19 million to 48 million people between 2011 and 2017 alone, according to a study by consultants Wine Intelligence.

And by 2020, China – already the world’s fifth largest consumer of wine and fourth largest importer – is set to represent 70 percent of growth in the market by volume, according to another study by Vinexpo and industry analysts International Wine and Spirit Research.

Chinese wine professionals make up the biggest foreign contingent at this year’s Vinexpo, which alternates every year between Bordeaux and Hong Kong.

And wheeling and dealing at the fair, which generates some 50 million euros ($56 million) in direct business and twice that in knock-on benefits, got off to a high-profile start Sunday with the signature of a partnership between Vinexpo and Tmall, the online sales platform run by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.

White wines catch on

Youngsters in the upper middle-class are among those driving changes in Chinese attitudes.

“Younger consumers are really changing, and they change the behaviour of the market,” said Chuan Zhou, a researcher at Wine Intelligence.

Among the cultural factors boosting consumption, he pointed to Chinese millennials’ growing travels abroad to wine-producing regions – in France and Italy, for example – as well as their insatiable need “to put the most amazing photos on the social networks”.

The market is not only growing quickly, but diversifying, with Chinese drinkers increasingly keen to sample new varieties from different countries.

“Georgia, which arrived on the market four years ago, now ranks tenth,” notes the American wine journalist and consultant Debra Meiburg, who has been based in Hong Kong for decades.

Aline Bao, director of fine wine purchasing and e-commerce at Chinese state-owned food giant COFCO, said there was “more and more demand for white wines, especially top wines”.

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“Two or three years ago, people bought cheap wines or bigger brands,” she said, adding that over the past two years Chinese drinkers had flocked instead to mid-range labels.

Terry Xu, for his part, noted that sparkling Italian muscat has been a big hit in the Middle Kingdom lately.

In parallel to a flourishing of brick-and-mortar wine shops even beyond China’s mega-cities, the country of 1.4 billion has seen an explosion in wine sales on websites such as TMall, Amazon and Wine.com.

According to Wine Intelligence, 48 percent of Chinese consumers who have drunk foreign wine in the last six months stocked up on the internet — tracking wider shopping patterns in a country where e-commerce is booming.

“You have no choice, you have to be online. China is an online country,” Xu told producers at Vinexpo.


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