The curious case of India & China’s love for wine

Wine has largely been a Western indulgence until the turn of this century, when, the rise of China and India, in addition to other Eastern economies, signaled a new happy hunting ground for the beautiful beverage. What are the factors that dictate wine’s stellar rise in popularity in this part of the world? Most importantly, is this emergence of a new ‘New World’ and sign of things to come in the world wine scene?

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In its long recorded history, the wine world has witnessed many defining eras which shaped up its cultural contours and market dynamics. The last two centuries have been particularly important in wine’s overall evolution. While the 19th century was marked by the advent of a much imitated classification system, spread of Vinifera vines outside Europe and the Phylloxera epidemic, the 20th century was shaped up by the great depression, emergence of the New World, rise and influence of the wine critic/writer and globalization of the beverage.

In recent times, and majority of the 21st century, three significant factors have influenced the wine market – the rise of the East as a major wine destination, preponderance of technology and social media in wine promotion and the global financial meltdown of 2008/09. While the latter was thankfully short-lived, and social media’s influence today spreads across every sphere of human lives, wine’s popularity in non-traditional wine drinking countries, especially in Asia, is somewhat intriguing and arouses curiosity.

Unlike their counterparts in Europe where wine has been an intrinsic part of the culture since time immemorial, the East’s (and especially its two behemoths, China and India) affection for the beverage is rather new-found and recent. With a few exceptions, quality wine-drinking in Asia does not even go back a decade. But one look at the popularity and growth trends, in addition to immense stature wine now enjoys in this part of the world, suggest that the East has definitely arrived on the wine scene.

So what explains this rise in popularity in such a short period of time, in what was once considered an ignorant market for wine?

To begin with, it is well-established and well-documented that Economic growth is in the core of China and India’s thirst for wine. But are there other associated and independent factors which have contributed to this new-found admiration for the beverage? Let’s explore:

# Demography >>> Rapid economic advancement and wealth generation in China and India has created a demography with high disposable incomes, mostly spent on the pleasures of life. This mostly comprises of an aspirational middle class and an outward-looking young generation – well-informed, well-traveled and cosmopolitan, who are as comfortable being global citizens as Indians or Chinese. Wine drinking may not come naturally to them but this section of the society  certainly fosters the desire to learn and adapt to new ways of life, a reason more and more young people are changing their drinking habits and switching to wine from other beverages.

# New paradigms of wine and food pairingold clichés are dead >>> One of the most significant developments of this era has been the debunking of many stereotypical food & pairing specifications, which has helped in promoting wines in countries where the local cuisines were earlier thought unfit for marrying with wine. Whether it is the lighter style of Pan-Asian food and its more complex variants involving redolent herbs and condiments, or the exotic aromas of Indian spices, wine’s compatibility with Asian cuisines are being defined anew and with renewed gusto.

On one hand, the proponents of ‘aromatic wines only for Asian food’ theory are having a re-look at their food & wine pairing approach, on the other, the hospitality industry is acting as the catalyst for this reform. One has to flip through the wine lists of luxury hotels and engage with professional sommeliers to realize the revolutionary changes that have taken place in the overall mindset of drinking a vast array of wine styles with local food.

Decoding Indian cuisine by individual spices helps in food pairing decisions. GSM blends and Zinfandels are good matches with dishes rich in sweet Indian spices
Decoding Indian cuisine by individual spices helps in food pairing decisions. GSM blends and Zinfandels are good matches with dishes rich in sweet Indian spices

Nowadays, it is commonplace to find wine lists which embrace and promote Zinfandels and Tempranillos with equal ease and confidence as the much favored Rieslings and Gewürztraminers.

# Accessibility to information and knowledge >>> Gone are the days when wine literature was confined to paperbacks and high-end, glossy magazines. Today there is hardly any information about wine which cannot be accessed online. Although a global phenomenon, Asians, especially in countries like India and China, have made knowledge gathering through internet a way of their lives. And quite understandably, this has resulted in a new-age way of wine learning, which in turn is aiding the spread of a healthy wine culture.

The demand for wine knowledge has also resulted in the birth of a thriving wine media, both online and print, which are acting as information hubs for the knowledge seeking folks.

# Quality training and education >>> During the last decade, the level of formal wine education and training for trade and general wine appreciation programs for the consumer have improved considerably. Education providers like the WSET have proliferated throughout the two countries, uplifting the overall awareness of wine. Additionally, there are many private organizations which offer regular wine sampling and food pairing courses to the urban wannabe enthusiasts. All these have contributed in the learning and promotion of wine.

Training and wine appreciation workshops are playing a vital role in creating a healthy wine culture
Training and wine appreciation workshops are playing a vital role in creating a healthy wine culture

# Rapid urbanization >>> According to findings by McKinsey Global Institute in 2010, both China and India are experiencing unprecedented urbanization, resulting in noticeable churns in almost every sphere of life in these geographies. Wine, being a part of urban lifestyle, is probably one of the few highly desirable consumer products which has directly benefited from this social transformation.

# Rise of the Sommelier >>> The hospitality sector which propels the wine juggernaut in the two countries has taken a leaf out of their American and European counterparts in projecting the sommelier as a worthy wine ambassador. Today it is commonplace to find certified and professionally trained sommeliers in branded restaurants all over the region.

Armed with technical expertise and passion for the subject, these sommeliers (and other wine professionals) have become the de-facto wine evangelists capable of influencing wine drinking habits in their respective geographies. Many of them regularly appear in the media also to share the virtues of wine drinking and their overall enjoyment.

# Wine Events >>> China, led by Hong Kong and Shanghai, has undoubtedly become an important wine events destination of the world. Whether it is Vinexpo, numerous trade events, high profile fine-wine dinners hosted by who’s who of the wine industry or events organized by various wine-producing countries’ trade bodies, each has contributed to the wine buzz in the country.

Wine events like the annual Vinexpo have significantly contributed to wine’s popularity in China
Wine events like the annual Vinexpo have significantly contributed to wine’s popularity in China

India, in comparison, is yet to become a hot international events destination, although in the last couple of years the country has witnessed many high profile wine dinners, niche consumer events and wine festivals. Reputed names like the Hospices de Beaune, top Bordeaux chateaux and many acclaimed producers from across the world have included India as part of their annual Asian itinerary.  These have prepared the groundwork for many such future events, in addition to generating heightened interest among the wine loving community in the country.

# Wine as a health drink >>> Health benefits of wine is an in-vogue topic in the mainstream as well as wine media in the two countries. With cardiac diseases on the rise in this part of the world and severe medical stigma attached to spirit consumption, wine, with its heart-friendly qualities has found a large dedicated fan following.

Wine’s soaring popularity in India and China and its impact on their drinking culture and trade has firmly placed the two countries on the world wine map. Experts believe, and rightly so, that in spite of many ‘teething problems’ like fraudulent practices and fakery in China and highly discriminatory and restrictive taxation regime on imported wines in India, the two countries have demonstrated all the potential to become worthy torch bearers of the East’s wine renaissance. There is every indication that this new-found affection will culminate in a life-long relationship.

Cheers,

Niladri

WikiLeaks busts major fake wine racket in Asia

Okay you guessed it right, nothing as dramatic has happened (as yet)…the headline is just a figment of my imagination, in fact a blatant attention-grabbing stunt! But just imagine waking up one fine morning to a similar breaking news :-). Would you be surprised? Read on…

Although this is an apolitical blog dedicated to wine (and only wine), I could not think of any other appropriate title to discuss the growing menace of fakery in the wine world. This, admittedly tongue-in-cheek approach with an intended pun, is also keeping in line with the latest buzz surrounding WikiLeaks, the online whistle-blower and the current undisputed star in investigative journalism.

Fraudulent practices in the wine industry is not a new phenomenon. In fact they are going on for centuries in some form or the other but thanks to the ever-vigilant media (aided by a collection of hyper-viral social media), these incidents have become increasingly overt in present times.There have been numerous revelations in the recent past including the infamous Red Bycyclette incident, the unearthing of a major Italian fake wine syndicate and the high-profile case involving the American billionaire William Koch and the auction house Christie’s, to name a few.

With the rapid globalization of wine and the corresponding popularity of the beverage in new and emerging markets, the risks involving possible malpractices have also increased significantly. The interesting point to consider is that fakery in the industry is not only limited to fine wines anymore and that is what makes this issue more complex and widespread. But nowhere the menace of new-age counterfeit wines is more striking than in China. According to one report quoting a Chinese government agency survey a few years back, more than 70% of imported wine sold in restaurants and hotels in the country’s major cities is fake. It also claims that the process may simply involve filling up bottles with cheap local wines and labeling them as though they are imported! More recently, this trend has also been substantiated by a slew of exposés across the world wine media. There are too many to list in this post – here is one, for example.

Now this brings us to the crux of the matter; what if this burgeoning wine market becomes a real victim of the multi-billion dollar organized Chinese fake goods industry? One does not need a great deal of imagination to understand the possible repercussions. According to Vinexpo, the country will become the seventh largest wine consumer by 2013, a staggering  32% increase compared to 2009. This equates to roughly 1.25 billion bottles. As the demand for imported wines keep on growing, a large chunk of this number will undoubtedly be the well-known names from conventional markets as well as the New World countries. If the present scale of counterfeiting goes unchecked it will surely prove to be a huge setback for the industry as it looks east in its quest to explore alternatives to the more or less stagnant western markets. Instead of being the driving force, as it has come to be known as, the Chinese may end up setting a bad precedent for other emerging wine economies too in addition to causing a big dent in the overall market sentiments.

Here’s a quick snapshot of everything discussed above (see the image on the left). Mind you there is nothing clandestine about this example which raises the question that if such (funny?) counterfeiting is taking place in the open, what might be transpiring ‘behind the scenes’?

Note the brand name: ‘Bordux Carstel‘ which sounds like a corruption of ‘Bordeaux Castle’ (Castle happens to be the english translation of Chateau!). A quick search of this name on Google only brings up Chinese results…..surprised?

The image of the Chateau itself resembles one of the Classed Growths.

Note the grape variety: ‘Syrah’. In Bordeaux? Unless the AOC rules have made special provision keeping in mind the Chinese market!

Note the appellation: ‘Grand Vin de Bordeaux’. Very prominent.

Note the real appellation at the bottom: A VDP from Southern France. In small fonts.

Apart from such apparent labeling manipulations, a recent trend of using translated names of well-known brands has also come in light. The phonetic translation for Lafite becomes ‘Luxurious’, for example! An ingenious approach indeed, to add extra value to an already iconic name.

China, with Hong Kong as its flag-bearer, provides an enormous opportunity to the world wine business and will continue to be a lucrative destination in the future, although the country’s notoriety in faking everything commercially popular may prove to be its biggest stumbling block in the long run. A collective effort involving consumer awareness and education may ultimately prove to be the most potent weapon to fight this menace. Needless to say, there are also lessons to be learnt for other up-and-coming markets like India.

Cheers

Niladri