Attend a formal business banquet in China and chances are you'll end up consuming glass after glass of baijiu, a clear grain alcohol with a pungent scent reminiscent of industrial solvent, to cheers of ganbei! - drain the glass!
The bottles of "white liquor" haven't disappeared. But the nation's movers and shakers, eager to reflect the more international outlook that comes with being part of the world's second-largest economy, are turning to a more bourgeois drink.
China, including Hong Kong, became the world's largest consumer of Bordeaux wines in 2010, importing some 33.5 million bottles at a cost of $475-million (U.S.), according to data from the Bordeaux Wine Council. Overall, the country now imports more than $1-billion in wine each year, a number that has quadrupled from about $250-million in 2004.
Nations including Ukraine, Romania, Austria, Germany and New Zealand -- as well as Canada, whose ice wines are heavily marketed in China -- are marketing their wines in China in hope of cracking the world's last great untapped source of potential wine drinkers. Marketers say that as China's middle class expands, people are becoming more knowledgeable about wines, and more adventurous in their tastes.
But so far, the largest market share is still held by the French. In fact, wealthy Chinese are so enamoured with French reds that they are even buying up the vineyards themselves. At least six French wine estates in the Bordeaux region have been sold to Chinese investors in recent months, who have in some cases tailored the vineyards' production to Chinese tastes for marketing straight back to the Chinese market.
"People only understand Bordeaux. From the newspapers, from movies, people understand wine is from France, and the best wine area in France is Bordeaux," said Tony Lee, a sales representative for import company Zhuhai FrenChina Wine and Spirits Corp, one of dozens of exhibitors at Beijing's Wine China exhibition this week. Even government banquets are putting red wine front and centre, he said, making business leaders follow suit, and so on down the business chain.
"When the government drinks wine, the people will drink wine as well," Mr. Lee said.