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Published on May 23, 2013 in Asia, China, News

There’s no Chardonnay in China

The first time I sat down for a business dinner in China I was more concerned with what type of food I was going to be served rather than what I was being served to drink. As it turned out, that was a mistake. The food that was brought out was delicious. The drink, an education.

Business dinners in China can be lavish events usually combining a great deal of food with a great deal of drinking. I experienced this on my first visit to China when the CEO of the company I was visiting was anxious to introduce me to both Chinese culture and Chinese hospitality. Therefore, he told me he’d have a banquet in my honor that evening and invite some local government officials to also attend.

Soon after we all sat down at a circular table the CEO, through my interpreter, told me that we’d be having white wine with dinner so that we could all toast to our future business success. Although I didn’t know it at the time, in China the word baijiu, that the CEO used to describe the wine, is usually translated to foreigners as white wine. If you’re Chinese, you know what baijiu is. If you’re not, then you’re likely to believe as I thought that you’re having a Western-type white wine, such as a Chardonnay. After all, white wine is white wine. However, that assumption would be wrong.

White wine in China may carry an entirely different meaning than it carries in the U.S. The Chinese version of white wine is generally not going to be a Western-type white wine, which I’ve never seen in the average Chinese restaurant, but only in establishments catering to more affluent Chinese and foreigners. Instead, the white wine served in China is likely to be baijiu, which is often translated into English as white wine.

Baijiu is clear in color and closely resembles moonshine. It’s made from rice and other grains and ranges from 80 to 120 proof, although I’ve occasionally seen higher. It smells, not to offend the 1 or 2 baijiu aficionados who may reside on the planet, like turpentine. In addition, once consumed it has a taste and smell that stays with you into the next day. In addition, it’s usually served in small stemmed glasses and intended to be consumed in one throw. Sipping it is not recommended as you want to get it past your taste buds as quickly as possible.

The questions most foreigners ask is why don’t Chinese drink western-style white wines if they want something less alcoholic than baijiu. After all, red wine is popular in China but white wines, such as Chardonnay, are not. In fact 91% of all wine consumed in China is red. Why do 9 out of 10 Chinese choose red wine over white?

As it turns out, the primary reason for this is temperature. The Chinese consumer doesn’t like to drink something that’s cold. They believe that anything that’s consumed cold is unhealthy and may create health issues. Consequently white wine, which Westerners usually drink cold, is generally consumed warm in China. In point of fact, most white wines don’t taste great, or even good, warm. Therefore, when the Chinese consumer has a choice between a red wine, and a U.S. type white wine, they’ll usually go with the red as it normally tastes better warm. In addition, some Chinese just like the color red while some like the fuller-bodied taste of a red wine.

Therefore, when in China, it’s probably better to stay away from all white wine, the warm Western type white and the aviation fuel called baijiu. Just don’t try and ask for a Chardonnay at a local establishment, you’re not likely to find it.

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