Go to virtually any major city in the world and there will be a thriving, if small, natural wine scene going on. But what about China? Has natural wine been able to make its mark in such a vast, fragmented country where it’s hard for even multinational wine brands to make their mark? Nichole Mao, partner at Nimbility, the Asian-based drinks brand development agency, investigates the natural wine scene in China to see what sort of grip, if any, it has taken on the still growing overall wine market.
What sort of future is there for natural wine in China? Nimbility’s Nichole Mao talks to importers, sommeliers and influencers about how far they think natural wines can find their way in China.
China has been one of the fastest growing markets in the world for imported wines in the past 30 years and is considered one of the highest potential and important markets by many wine producers, particularly those from France and Chile who currently top the imported wine tables. Though overall wine imports to China have been experiencing a steady decline over the past three years due to Covid-19 disruption and the exit of Australia from the market, in terms of market development, Nimbility is seeing the growth of wine drinking culture steadily building across this vast and highly complex market.
Unlike the older generations, where wine is considered mostly for gifting, banqueting for business or family gatherings, educated, urban consumers in China are increasingly drinking wine as part of their beverage mix for everyday life. When speaking about natural wine, we are seeing a clear consumer focus on the young, urban consumers, who are enjoying a lifestyle completely different from their parents. They are well traveled, spend the majority of their income on improving their quality of life, from buying luxury products, to becoming owners of expensive breeds of pets, and going to fancy restaurants.
The title of “natural wine” speaks generally to young wine consumers in China, some of whom may have gained some experience in wine drinking, for example through WSET study (China is WSET’s fastest growing market and was ranked No. 2 in terms of new registration before they were called to pause all operations in China early 2021). While others will have no previous experience of wine drinking at all. The common ground is that they are all born post 90s. They are often attracted more by the label design and the story behind a wine (if there is a sommelier who makes the introduction) than knowing what to expect from opening the bottle.
Tier 1 success
Hanbin Li, head of sales at All In Wine’s Shanghai office, a premium, boutique wine importer, observes how the trend of natural wine started in Shanghai and Beijing five or six years ago, when conversations were mostly around organic or biodynamic wines and “natural wines” occasionally came into the mix. “A few years down the road and the concept has expanded to most Tier 1 cities, such as Shenzhen and Guangzhou,” says Hanbin, “and with a strong influence from Shanghai, we are now seeing wine bars and bistros opening in Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Chengdu, many of which are serving natural wines.”
Cassie Hu, sommelier from Wine Universe in Chengdu, has witnessed how end consumers react to natural wine. “It is mostly ordered by consumers who are in their 20s or 30s,” she says, “generally consumers who don’t have much knowledge about wine but are attracted by the label.” She believes it is a category like all others, enjoyed by its group of followers, but it cannot yet be described as “trendy”. Her biggest concern for natural wine is ensuring the consistency of quality of what’s in the bottle.
Donnie Xue, a KOC (Key Opinion Consumer) living in Shanghai, who has influence over her friendship circle and her social media followers, explains that most of her wine drinking friends consider natural wine is made more “naturally” than conventional wines. The perception being they might be healthier for your body and more environmentally friendly. The wine is also seen as being closer to how originally the grape, or wine, should taste. Some would accept a natural wine having some “stinky, hard to describe, even not so pleasant” aromas because it is made naturally. Many also find natural wines are easier to drink, as they are lighter in body, usually very young and fruity.
Xue also stresses there are concerns from other consumers about how reliable natural wine are and a fear they can go bad and become oxidised and unknown factors. “They understand quality of natural wine can be very inconsistent,” she states, “and good, reliable natural wines often come with a high price tag.”
Non-conventional, or stylish labels have become a signature for natural wine and have successfully lowered the entry point for consumers to try. Xiao Pi, a trade KOL, believes the labels have broken the traditional barriers for new consumers, a barrier either from language or knowledge. “The need to understand what’s written on the label gets diminished when the label doesn’t say anything other than a pretty or funny painting,” he states. “There are more sales opportunities than difficulties, however, challenges remain, in particular, a stable supply, consistent wine quality, logistics and storage conditions. The wines must be consumed before they go wild!”
Bill Li, purchasing manager from Vinehoo, one of the most well-established e-commerce wine platforms in China, says the popularity of natural wine in China is still extremely niche. “With some wine experience, consumers tend to walk away from natural wine as there is uncertainty surrounding what is in the bottle, and sometimes a very high price tag that doesn’t appear to match up.”
He believes, however, there are many opportunities to promote natural wine to younger consumers, although many difficulties exist such as a low price/quality value ratio, often small production and unstable quality. Limited budget for marketing adds another obstacle for brand recognition.
In terms of consumption occasions, natural wines are currently largely limited to specialist bars and restaurants and casual drinking between friends, which makes this a rather volatile category, and one that has been heavily disrupted by the pandemic over the past few years due to closures and lockdowns having a particularly hard impact on these smaller, niche types of businesses. This limited consumption opportunity adds one more layer of complexity for importers who have opted to be “natural wine heavy”.
There remains a lot of hard work for producers and their importers on educating the gatekeepers and their clients what a good natural wine is, and that many top natural wines of the world don’t use “natural wine” as their tagline. In addition, that delicate bottles with low intervention also mean higher shipping and storage costs which impact on the final price of the wine.
In conclusion, natural wine in China at this point is still very much a niche category, influencing mainly younger, urban professionals in Tier 1 cities where wine drinking culture as part of everyday life is most established. With the right messaging, education and quality control there are certainly opportunities for natural wines to grow, however, producers and importers must remain mindful of the groundwork, and investment, that will be required to ‘build’ the market and expand it beyond where it stands today.
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