Misconceptions Of Sweet Wines In China

Misconceptions Of Sweet Wines In China

Appreciation starts in your homeland.
— Sandor Hunyadi, Brand Manager

Sandor Hunyadi, former sommelier at some of Shanghai's top restaurants, is a Hungarian resident that has lived in China for six years.  He has experience in many facets of wine’s existence, including marketing, retail, and purchasing wines for various restaurants.  Sandor has an incredibly diverse portfolio that he maintains, with over 44 brands that he manages.  These brands span different regions, types, and flavors, and is the go-to man for Hungarian wines on the Chinese market.  He believes that there is a massive movement in the Chinese marketplace for red wines and dry tokaj wines, which are both popular wine exports out of Hungary.

There is a growing myth within the wine world looking into Chinese culture that states that their palate is more suited for sweeter wines.  However, the data shows that this myth is not the case.  Sweet wines do not dominate their mainstream stores nor is it readily accessible to the average consumer of wine in China.  Sweet wines are higher in price and harder to find because they are imported in much smaller amounts compared to their highest import, which is red wine.  China is the number one importer of red wines on the market, and only a small percentage of that yearly import is made of sweet red wines.  Contrary to popular belief, sweet wines are still a specialty on the Chinese market, and, in some areas, are even considered “boutique-y.”  Nowadays, it is possible to find some sweet wines with prices that aren’t so extravagant in China’s main stores if you search hard enough, and Sandor attributes that to China’s growing knowledge base on wines.  While it has not hit mainstream value, or pricing, the mere fact that it is now popping up in retail stores every once in awhile means that it is slowly progressing in prominence within the Chinese culture.

The truth of the matter is that it is a cyclical issue.  Sandor points out that if there was a flag-holder to push sweet wines and educate the population about them, then the growing strength behind sweet wines would begin to rise.  However, because it makes up such a small and fragile part of China’s wine consumption market, it is hard for anyone to make a living off of merely educating and pushing sweet wines.  After all, the hunger for knowledge in the wine field is rapidly growing, and it’s not merely for status purposes.  There is a hunger for knowledge in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th tier cities merely because they wish to educate themselves on their own tastes and palettes, and that is where Sandor enjoys developing his connections and growing his market.

In his home country of Hungary, tokaj wine is the most well known wine.  However, it is not the daily consumed wine for the Hungarian people, which makes it a minor production wine considering the more popular ones that they drink domestically.  Hungary started producing this wine in the 16th century, and in 1767 tokaj wine was certified by the A.O.C.  The microclimate and location of specific regions of Hungary makes this country best suited for producing tokaj wine.  Tokaj wine, while not popular domestically, is still consumed during the holidays and special celebrations, and it comes in two very different forms: sweet and dry.

The differences between sweet and dry tokaj wines spans from the types of grapes that are utilized, what times they are harvested, and even the bottles that they are eventually bottled in.  Dry tokaj wines have many barreling agents and usually come from the Northeastern part of Hungary.  They are more fuller-bodied, despite what you might think about the region, because of the furmint grape.  This grape has a thick skin that makes it more prone to botrytis, but it is the main grape utilized to create the dry tokaj.  While the sweet tokaj wine has a special bottling in half liter containers, the dry tokaj comes in a totally different bottle, which is fluted with steep shoulders.

Sandor’s recommendations for food pairings are interesting.  In the world of Chinese food, he feels that the sweet wines pair better with spicy foods and salty fish dishes.  But, the pairings get even more exotic with the dry wines.  Pickled jellyfish and Cantonese dim sum are just a few of the suggestions where the high acidity of the sweet wine isn’t necessary to expose the beautiful notes between the mixing of the wine and food.  But, no matter how you wish to spin Hungary’s wine influence on the Chinese market, the one thing that stands as a rock-solid foundation is the growing appreciation for their wines in China.

In terms of Hungary’s wine export, the number one country is Germany.  After that it’s the Czech Republic, then Slovakia and the UK, and then it is the U.S., Canada, and Russia.  Or, at least it used to be.  Over the years, China has now earned its place in the top 4 receiving exports of Hungarian wine, and Sandor attributes that to the growing knowledge base on wine within the Chinese culture.  He is excited about the prospect of China slowly climbing to the top of Hungary’s wine export, which would take Hungarian wine from its “boutique-y” status all the way to normalization within China’s wine culture.  But, there’s a new trend rising in the younger generation wine creators in Hungary, and it is simply entitled “orange wine.”  Simply put, orange wine is a white wine that is harvested and produced like a red wine, and it has much more exposure to the skins of the grapes used to create the wine, thus giving it its trademark orange tint.  Will it ever gain ground in the marketplace?  Sandor states that 90% of wines consumed in Hungary are domestic, so his advice for these flourishing young wine makers is to make the step into the domestic market so that they can establish a reputation and gain marketing experience.

In fact, that is Sandor’s advice for everyone wanting to hit the Chinese market with their wines: long-term strategy and commitment is necessary, along with a growing base of interested drinkers that establish a returning market force.  Having a clear vision of who your target audience is will help you narrow down the steps that you need to take, but the main piece of advice is to grow your market domestically before bringing it over into China’s marketplace.

    While China might not have the rumored palette for sweet wines that is whispered throughout the wine industry, its growing knowledge base and personal desire to seek out for themselves that which they wish to obtain is giving Hungary a massive market to work with in terms of their dry tokaj wines and their red wines.  As China’s hungering need for wine knowledge grows, so will their consumption, and that only means one thing: a greater need for different wines.  Who knows?  Maybe the sweet wines can eventually find its place within the Chinese market.  But, until then?  Don’t allow yourself to be fooled by simple rumors: the movement for red wines and dry tokaj wines is growing in China, and it shows no signs of stopping.

Rebecca Travis

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