Chateau Lafite and Sprite, please

Teresa Poole on the strange tastes of China's nouveau riches, going crazy for French wine
The occasion was one of those official Chinese banquets that foreigners approach with some trepidation. "We will drink wine," announced the host. As if by miracle, three bottles of fine French red wine were produced. "The St Emilion," the foreigner requested, not believing his good luck to have escaped the maotai rice spirit. Into very small glasses the highly prized liquid was poured. But, before the guest could take evasive action, the Chinese waitress had crept up and added that summer requisite - a large lump of ice. As the wine's rich red colour was diluted to pink, the guest could only weep silently into his shark's fin soup.

Patricia Duhua, project representative in Peking for Taillan, the French group which has started importing wine into China, runs courses for restaurant workers to help them understand wine. "The first question one time came from a waitress. Was it possible, she asked, to drink wine by itself, "or do we always have to put Sprite lemonade in it?"

The only "brand" that is widely recognised by status-conscious Chinese so far is Chateau Lafite Rothschild, and even this regularly suffers the Sprite treatment. "It is a sin," declared one French sinologist, who also happened to be a Jesuit priest.

Wine producers may despair at the drinking habits of the Chinese, but they dare not ignore the potential of China as a market. Most of the imported wine comes in through Hong Kong, and the customs figures for re-exports to China show astonishing growth. In 1995, Hong Kong re-exported to China just under 160,000 litres of wine; in 1996 this soared to 2.53 million litres; and in the first five months alone of this year it reached 6.15 million. Imported French wine has eclipsed XO cognac as the status symbol drink for the new rich.

Ms Duhua said the surge in imported wine sales started last year. "People preferred to buy expensive wine instead of spirits. Suddenly it grew and grew ... and we were out of stock." China has also confounded the normal pattern of a country learning to drink wine, whereby the market starts with sweet white wine, graduates to dry white then moves on to red. In China red wine accounts for 80 per cent of imports.

Image is key to French wine in China. Hong Fang, a real estate sales manager in his twenties, said: "I like Western wine. It is romantic and pure. When I look at the clear pure wine I feel I am in a European vineyard and the sun is shining upon me." Chang Sun, an art designer, agreed. "We like French wine, just like we love French paintings and perfumes. I prefer to enjoy French wine at dusk alone ... I think nowadays people are concerned about their lifestyle, and the Chinese middle-class is growing rapidly. They are the chief consumers, I think."

Taillan, the second biggest French wine group, has set up a joint venture with the Peking General Corporation of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce to import wine in bulk and bottle it at a plant just outside Peking. Some 500,000 bottles will roll off the line this year, rising to 2 million next year. This spring, Taillan finished planting 30 hectares of vineyard south-west of Peking with 12 French grape varieties for locally produced wine. Their first Chinese vintage is planned for 2000.

The price differential between locally produced wine and imports means that the products tend to serve different sectors of the market. Traditionally, Chinese-made grape wine is extremely sweet, more like sherry, so most drinkable domestically produced wine comes from eight foreign joint venture companies, which have established vineyards in China. The best-known brands are Great Wall, Dynasty and Dragon Seal. These retail for pounds 2.50 to pounds 4 a bottle, bringing them within the reach of young professional Chinese.

In contrast, Taillan wines and Australian Jacob's Creek, which is also bottled in China, are around pounds 7 a bottle - quite pricey for most local consumers. Import tax is raised at 90-100 per cent on unbottled wine, and 121 per cent on bottled wine. Imported bottles are even more expensive. That Mouton Cadet that you used guiltily to take to parties and leave in the kitchen would set you back pounds 13.50 in Peking, and a routine Chianti Classico around pounds 27.

But satisfying the Chinese taste for wine is only partly a matter of keen pricing, as can be seen by growth at the top end of the market both in restaurants and shops. When Chinese people buy imported wine, it is often primarily for its snob value, especially if it is a present. A high price - commonly up to pounds 38 - and a label with a French name in big letters is crucial for many purchasers.

"It's a fashion. I don't think they really like the wine on the whole," said Ms Duhua. Part of the problem is that it is difficult for Chinese people to understand what is a good wine because price and quality are not always linked.

Yi Liangzhi, a 42-year-old divisional manager in the Bank of China who learned to like wine when living in Switzerland, said: "Sometimes in restaurants here, I hear young people order 'the most expensive wine', and I really want to laugh. They don't know that the most expensive wine is not necessarily the most tasty wine. Of course wine can show one's status, but apart from the price, the taste is the most important when choosing wine."

For anyone truly concerned about status, a bottle of 1983 Chateau Lafite Rothschild was on sale yesterday in Peking's Friendship Store for a modest 4,500 yuan (pounds 346). Fortunately the Sprite to go with it was only 30p a can.