China's Wine Market Is Overflowing

Simon Tam recalls the time he was invited by the government to host his first wine-tasting in Beijing.

He remembers standing in a room of influential Chinese VIPs and comparing the taste of a wine to "toast and butter, just as you would have for breakfast." The analogy drew blank stares so he moved on quickly, he remembers with a laugh.

When invited back to Beijing a few years later, Tam compared the smell of a wine to "burnt rice."

Bingo. Rather than giving blank stares, this time the tasters related to the comparison.

Tam, born in Hong Kong and raised in Australia, has since started his own tasting business as director of the International Wine Center in Hong Kong, Macau and Shanghai -- dedicated to bridging the East and West through cultural awareness.

As sales and consumption continue to rise, he has tapped into the growth of wine appreciation in China.

Wine sales (grape and nongrape) in China jumped 42 percent between 2001 and 2006, from 1.5 billion liters in '01 to 2.18 billion liters last year. And per capita consumption of wine in China is up 55 percent from 2000 to 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Trade Office, Shanghai, making China one of the six biggest wine consuming countries in the world.

The other leading consumers by volume are France, Italy, the United States, Germany and Spain, according to Trade Data and Analysis (TDA).

"Wine consumption is growing globally," said Eric Pope, manager of International Winery Programs at the Wine Institute in San Francisco.

"China is very attractive as the largest single wine market in the world based on its population. Yet, it is not without its significant challenges, as the channels of distribution are not fully developed and imported wine commands only a very small percentage of the total market," Pope said.

China's wine imports have tripled from $25 million in 2004 to $77 million in 2006.

With growing numbers like these, Tam is busy -- and he's not the only one.

Hong Kong Hosts Vintage Event

The 17th Wines of the Pacific Rim Festival (WINPAC) was hosted by the International Food and Wine Society earlier this month in Hong Kong.

Local oenophiles sampled wines from nine new world countries, pit their palates against the professionals and clinked their Riedel glasses (a sponsor at WINPAC) with some of the best in the business.

"WINPAC is about the growth of wine knowledge and understanding of the industry for both consumers and producers," said Wayne Donaldson, a judge at the event and director of North Coast Winemaking at Gallo Family Vineyards.

E.& J.Gallo Winery is the second-largest winery in the world by volume, selling more than 12 million cases a year outside the United States.

"It's a small, family business," Donaldson joked.

Over the years, the Pacific Rim festival has expanded to include nearly 1,000 wines from new world countries including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, Canada, Chile, Cuba and China.

Acclaimed international and local judges were there to rate the wines.

Judges included professionals John Avery (England), Peter Lehmann (Australia), Wayne Donaldson (Australia/U.S.), Sam Neill (New Zealand), Greg Melick (Australia) and leading local Hong Kong experts Simon Tam, Debra Meiberg, Barry Burton, Jeannie Cho Lee and Chris Robinson.

Festival events had guests testing their tasting skills against the judges to determine the grape, country, district and vintage of wines stripped of their labels and reputations.

Being able to blind taste and understand the tasting process is an important skill for true wine connoisseurs.

"Going for a label and paying $600 doesn't necessarily mean you get that much more. You can get a tremendous amount of pleasure from a $30 bottle of wine," said Sam Neill, proprietor of Two Paddocks vineyard in Central Otago, New Zealand -- the same Sam Neill who has graced the big screen in movies such as "The Piano," "Dead Calm," "The Horse Whisperer" and "Jurassic Park."

"A bottle of Chateau Lafite is undoubtedly a sublime experience, but you don't want to do that every day," Neill added.

Methodical Memory for Wine Judging

"Judging is a methodical process. The clarity, aroma and flavor of a wine culminates into a score," said Donaldson, who has been judging wine for 15 years. "Memory, as a judge, is very important to be able to file away associations," he said.

Putting aside colorful bottom-of-the-barrel terminology for some of the flavor-challenged wines, Donaldson artfully breezed through descriptions of the ideal appearance of wine -- "beautiful, bright, rich, dense in color" -- and ideal smells -- "fresh, fruity, savory, oakey." He also listed the tastes you definitely don't want -- "acidic, hot, alcoholic, bitter" -- and tastes you do want -- "soft, supple, full, rich."

"Harmony is the key -- when everything is together in perfect form," he said.

Top awards are given to wines considered "the best of their time," as John Avery, a senior Masters of Wine and judge at WINPAC, summed it up.

Explaining Wine to the Chinese

In a constant two-way flow of cultural understanding, Tam continues to try to bridge the gap by busting myths and stereotypes about taste buds in the East and West.

He uses Chinese soups to describe wine textures. He offers suggestions about wine pairings with Chinese foods and hosts olive oil tastings in China and dry plum tastings in Paris.