The natural wine craze hits China

Young and cosmopolitan Chinese consumers are exploring natural wines. Jim Boyce finds out what's happening.

Ian Dai's My Girl was one of the wines on offer
Ian Dai's My Girl was one of the wines on offer

It rained as they poured during the recent Crush Natural Wine Fest in Shanghai. But wet weather didn’t dampen the spirits of the dozen-plus vendors showcasing 100-plus wines at this inaugural three-day event.

“Everyone who was there was very happy,” says Alberto Pascual of Spanish wine importer Pasion, which handles brands such as Raul Perez, Envirnate and Venus la Universal.

Natural wine is having a moment in China, with Crush, held in late September, the biggest in a growing stream of tastings, dinners and pop-ups, especially during the past year. While the scene is still small, it is tapping a younger consumer niche focused on exploring wine rather than just buying the default status-oriented brands. Natural wine also appeals to concerns about food safety and desires to experience new wine styles.

“[Natural wine] is getting more and more popular, especially with members of the younger generation, who travel abroad and care about their health,” says Maxime Gilbrat of Bund: Bank of Fine Wines.

Natural wine meets the big city

Shanghai, the country’s wine trend-setting capital, is leading the charge. Fans there have lots to choose from given wine bars like Vinism, RAC, No Name Wine and Wine Universe as well as listing in major restaurants. There are also events by the likes of Wine Lips and Crush organizer Social Supply Shanghai.

Natural wine is also popping up elsewhere, notably in large markets such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

Isabella Ko of wine bar The Merchants in Beijing holds monthly natural wine events. Her clients, who usually attend multiple tastings, tend to be aged 25 to 45, split between foreigners and Chinese citizens, and cosmopolitan.

“Maybe they have lived in Europe or New York before and they already know about natural trend when they come back to China.”

Ko also stocks local wines from Ian Dai's Petite Garden project in Ningxia, including the half-bottle My Girl, a tribute to his girlfriend. (Scanning the bottle’s QR code plays the song My Girl by The Temptations.) Dai shies from calling his wine "natural" but says "there is nothing added, no fining, no filtration, no heavy manipulation." 

“My Girl is one of the customers’ favourite wines” says Ko. “I think we have sold about 150 bottles in a month. People really like the story.”
Natural wines have also been spotted in the capital at coffee shop/bar 17 Cafe, a recent Bettane + Dessauve tasting focused on white wine, and the week-long Design China Beijing fair, where Veronafiere featured a tasting of Italian and Chinese labels.

“As an importer, I see artisanal wines from smaller wineries flourishing in Beijing,” says Jinglin Zhang of Grape Paradise, who led the Veronafiere event and has brands like Alessandro Viola, La Stoppa and Stella di Campalto. “Maybe natural wine, a more radical concept, will come next.”

No doubt it is creating buzz, not least in the food and beverage trade, with the enthusiasm trickling to consumers. Zhang, who attended Crush, estimated half of those at her booth were people such as wine educators and restaurants owners.

Alongside them were wine aficionados seeking something new, says Pascual.

Sophisticated palates

“China is a new market,” he explains. “At the beginning everybody is look for sweetness, for fruit, for oak. When you drink more, and become more of a wine lover, you are looking for more refreshment, more flowers, more minerality.”

Armed with his Coravin, he was able to share wines from more than a dozen labels. And while he doesn’t predict the end for fruitier oak-driven wines, he does see in Crush a desire by a young inquisitive minority to go beyond tradition.

“What I find is people are very curious to try many different wines, different styles, orange wines, natural wines, more radical wines. I think Crush is really good for educating people.”

Jim Boyce

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