Wine woos China's chic

China is mad for wine. At the Haagen Dazs cafe in the trendy Xintiandi district, well-heeled Shanghai urbanites decide between Rum Raisin and Cookies 'n Cream to go with their Chilean Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc.

While a wine glass might not grace every dining table in China, wine has become a symbol of a desirable urban lifestyle, equal parts sophistication and quirky enthusiasm.

Most wine drinkers live in major cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou, but its popularity is spreading to other second-tier and even third-tier cities, and has entwined itself in popular culture.

"Just switch on the TV. Wine is everywhere," said Thomas Julien, a Hong Kong-based wine trade consultant.

Imported wines, with hefty import duties, are out of the reach of the average consumer, so more than 90 percent of the 1.2 billion bottles of wine consumed last year was domestic, according to distributor Torres China.

"Domestic" is best defined as having been bottled in China, but containing a creative blend of wine from various Chinese regions, foreign countries, as well as grape varieties and vintages not expressly listed on the label.

Newly affluent Chinese consumers, brand-conscious and eager to learn about wine, flock to tastings and classes held at wine bars and shops, which are typically owned by wine producers or distributors.

While Western winemakers fret over marrying their wine with the Asian palate, Chinese consumers may be heading in their own direction.

"There is no concrete definition for the Asian Palate. It's a dialogue, a journey, it is a term that is not yet defined," said Jeannie Cho Lee, a Hong Kong based wine critic and author

"Popular wines are light, not too alcoholic, not acidic, without heavy tannins," said Chinese winemaker Emma Gao Yuan, who studied at Bordeaux University's prestigious oenology department.

"But more educated Chinese people appreciate good wine and even have the same palate as the French or Americans. It's a question of education. It's like my husband (who is French) - if I gave him a really top quality tea to drink, he wouldn't appreciate it."

"What is the definition of a grand vin?" asked Michel Rolland, an international wine consultant. "It's our own definition - we (in the West) created it.

"What does a grand vin mean for the Chinese? There will perhaps be a fine Chinese wine in 20 years, 30 years. Why should our taste be the universal taste? That's a little arrogant."

Gao said the main image of wine comes from the cinema.

"A bottle of wine with a beautiful girl, romance, comedy, love story, luxury. Wine is really a good way to start an evening."

In addition to style and romance, red wine is associated with good health, a view bolstered by a government campaign to replace China's long-standing attachment to rice-based alcohol with wine.

"The government has announced a policy of reducing the production of rice-based alcohol," Gao told AFP.

"Four kilos of rice is needed to produce one kilo of rice alcohol, and we have a lot of people who don't have enough to eat. The government has even banned rice alcohol from official dinners. Wine is served instead."

At the same time, the growing Chinese middle class is not only drinking wine but they are travelling. Savvy entrepreneurs, including the government, are cashing in on wine tourism.

Not far from the Terracotta Warrior museum in Xian, which draws millions every year, renowned architect and dean of the University of California's School of Architecture, Ma Qingyun, built a modernist spa and winery in Jade Valley.

His wines are getting rave reviews. As a sign of things to come, Grace Vineyards is also building a winery in the area.

In eastern China's Shandong province, there is Penglai, which draws three million Chinese tourists to its stunning 1,000-year-old royal pavillion. The local government has launched a full-blown wine tourism industry.

The Penglai Association of Vine and Wine proudly promotes its region as one of the Seven Grape Coasts in the World, in good company with the Medoc, Tuscany, Cape Town, Barossa Valley, Napa and Chile's Casablanca.

Sixty mega-wineries dot the landscape, with 10 more to open in the next year, all with hotel rooms.

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