Hints of wolfberries or strawberry jam?
Understanding the Chinese wine palate

Woman tasting wine RESEARCH SPOTLIGHT

Wine culture is a term bandied about quite readily in western countries. It is that shared idea of people discussing, tasting, comparing and enjoying wine. And with the culture comes the full language of wine appreciation – commonly understood notions of fruit, flavour and the inevitable comparisons of different flavours and tastes.

But the question for wine producers wanting to sell their wines in countries with relatively ‘immature’ product knowledge has always been – beyond the obvious idea of encouraging people to try wines – how to effectively describe the flavours and styles of wine in a new cultural context.

Two years ago, our research team at UniSA Business School’s Ehrenberg-Bass Institute embarked on the Chinese Lexicon Project, an initiative funded by the Australian Grape and Wine Authority (AGWA) to find what flavours in the Chinese culture correspond to the more traditional Western descriptors for wine and, more in general, to learn more about the way Chinese consumers describe wines.

The project brought together responses from more than 250 Chinese wine consumers from three major Chinese cities – Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chengdu – who were invited to taste and describe a selection of Australian white, red, sparkling and dessert wines.

The Chinese tasters had the possibility to describe what they tasted using a series of generic terms – such as mellow, fruity, lingering – as well as specific wine descriptors. These descriptors included a variety of fruits, vegetables, spices, and food items that Chinese consumers might use when describing a wine. The novelty aspect of the research was that while half of the sample was presented with well-known (at least for us) Western descriptors, such as strawberry, lemon, pineapple, the other half of the sample could describe the wines via Chinese terms, such as yangmei, kaffir lime, jackfruit, which were suggested to be equivalent to the Western descriptors. This approach allowed the research team to learn more about the way Chinese consumers describe wines on three different levels. Firstly, by identifying what terms Chinese consumers use more often overall; secondly, revealing whether Chinese consumers prefer to use Western or Chinese terms to describe wines; and, finally, verifying the equivalences across countries that hold and those that did not.

The findings are interesting indeed.

Chinese wine consumers are actually three times more likely to use generic descriptors than specific descriptors. The most commonly selected generic descriptors are smooth, fruity, sweet, mellow, and lingering.

In terms of specific descriptors, the research found that the most commonly used terms are represented by a mixture of Chinese and Western flavours, with Chinese terms being more selected in relation to commonly eaten fruits in China, while vegetables, spices and food being mentioned more often in their Western context. In particular, the five most common terms to describe red wines and tawny dessert wines are yangmei, red plum, dark cherries, dried Chinese hawthorns and dried wolfberry, while the most common terms to describe white wines, sparkling wines and moscato are lemon, grapefruit, grass, citrus fruits and lychee.

Third, the research found that while the majority of the suggested equivalences – such as strawberry and yangmei, red plum and persimmon, guava and passionfruit – for specific Chinese and Western descriptors were confirmed across all wine styles, others weren’t, thus opening more opportunities for the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute research team.

The project also looked at the likeability, willingness to pay and perceived price points of different wine styles and interestingly here the findings showed that the wines that are perceived to be more expensive are not necessarily the ones consumers like the most. This is a very insightful finding for Australian producers, as it tells them that China is not only a market to target with ultra-expensive high-end wines, but it is a market where more accessible and preferred wine styles could enter the market and grow in demand.

This has been an important research project because it has the potential to transform the Australian wine export market to China as the Chinese rapidly develop a taste for wine. If producers understand more about the Chinese palate they can decide which styles of wine will be more successful, while distributors, wine educators and sales people can more effectively describe products to their Chinese consumers.

The research also underlines that we cannot take our own understanding of wine culture as a standard in the global marketplace. We need more sophisticated knowledge about the marketplace and about consumers. Whether that be in China or other potential new markets, such as India, there is scope to discover more knowledge and give the Australian wine industry a competitive advantage against other wine producing countries.

For more information about the research, please visit the website.

All the flavours tested in the research.

All the flavours tested in the research.