French wine schools and vineyards welcome China's growing sophistication
ZHIZIE WU has come a long way since he first sipped – or rather chugged – a glass of wine. Back then it was mixed with soda. Now, after two years in the French city of Bordeaux, the 23-year-old Chinese student can distinguish different varieties of grapes just by swirling a glass under his nose.
Wu is part of a young crop of Chinese flocking to the southwestern region, France’s largest wine-growing area, to train for careers in the wine trade – a burgeoning industry in China.
“Ten years ago it was novel for a Chinese person to work in wine. Today it’s a sector like any other, ripe for business,” says Laurent Bergeruc, director of INSEEC, a business school known for its wine-and-spirits programme.
The number of Chinese students at INSEEC has grown so steadily in the last decade that Bergeruc now has to turn applicants away. In its wine marketing division alone, 13 per cent of the students are Chinese.
In some other schools, the percentage is vastly higher. At Wu’s school, Cafa, a private establishment that trains for the hospitality sector, Chinese students make up 48 per cent of the “sommelier” division that prepares students to become wine consultants.
The changing demographic reflects the evolving global wine market. In 2013 China surpassed France to become the world’s top consumer of red wine – a 136-per-cent increase in only five years, according to Vinexpo, the industry group that hosts the world’s largest wine and spirits fair.
China is now the world’s fifth-largest consumer of wines in general, after France, Italy, the United States and Germany.
“I’ve discovered it takes 500 years to produce a good wine,” says Wu, who juggles his studies with work at a well-known restaurant that offers Chinese cuisine with Bordeaux wines.
His classmate, 23-year-old Zhize Zhou, admits that he “had tasted wine from Argentina and Australia in China, but not French wine, which is too expensive”. Yet he dropped biology for wine studies, saying enrolment in a Bordeaux school is now a sign of prestige back home.
“There are always stories – that the Chinese add coke to their wine and drink it like that,” says INSEEC student Difan Guo, 25. “It’s true,” he laughs. “I even did that when I was young. But now we’re more serious. That’s to say that people want to really understand wine.”
Not all comes easy, like the notion of “terroir”, the term for the unique characteristics a certain region imparts to food or wine and is the basis of France’s strict Appellation d’Origine Controlee wine-classification system.
“It’s very surprising,” says Difan Guo, who also interns in a local wine shop. “Chateaux that are close to each other can produce wines that are very different.”
Initially the Chinese students were affluent, even super-rich, but like Difan Guo more and more hold down jobs to finance their stays, with costs running from 3,800 to 20,000 euros (Bt136,000 to Bt716,000) for tuition alone.
And with the Bordeaux vineyards among the first to target the Chinese market, students see a diploma here as an open door to jobs.
They are solicited by both sides – not only by Bordeaux exporters seeking to understand the Chinese market but also by Chinese firms that have increasingly invested in the area, where they now own about 100 vineyards, according to the Interprofessional Council of Bordeaux Wines.
The Chateau Valandraud, which produces a Premiere Grand Cru classe Saint-Emilion, has two full-time Chinese people on staff. “It allows us, without using English, to understand the intricacies of negotiations with these clients,” says owner Jean-Luc Thunevin, who’s seen his sales take off in China.
The Chateau des Tourtes in Bordeaux’s Blaye district hires two Chinese interns a year to “facilitate communication” and organise trips to China.
Even the wine schools are tapping the Chinese market. Yuchen Zhou, a 28-year-old from Beijing, first came to Bordeaux to obtain a master’s degree in finance, but was seduced by the wine industry, landing a job with Cafa to help it open a Beijing unit.
China’s consumer patterns are also changing. Whereas the early customers were well heeled and seeking prestigious “first-growth” vintages, the country’s emerging middle class has acquired a growing taste for the tipple and wants value for money.
“The last time I was back at my parents’, our neighbour asked me to give my opinion on the wines he had in his cellar,” says Zu, while Wu says these new wine drinkers want “accountability on prices”.
Wine sales were hurt by an anti-corruption drive over the last two years, in which Beijing has clamped down on lavish banquets and expensive bottles of wine as gifts, says Vinexpo chief Guillaume Deglise.
But he forecasts that China’s wine market will return to growth in 2015 and keep expanding rapidly. “We expect 37 million people to reach drinking age in China within the next five years. This is actually more than the entire population of Canada.”
France is currently the leading supplier of imported wines to China, with 14.5 million cases in 2013, followed by Australia with 4.1 million cases.