Range of courses available for beginners as demand for education increases
Many wine drinkers might struggle when asked to provide an adequate description of the contents of their glass, with typical comments ranging from "delicious" to "not very good".
But Fongyee Walker, one of fewer than 400 people worldwide recognized by the Institute of Masters of Wine, has no such problem.
At her Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting School in Beijing, which she founded in 2007, and where 3,000 wine traders and enthusiasts are trained each year, she pronounced judgment on a wine.
Holding up her glass, she said: "This wine is ruby in color and has a subtle aroma. It contains hints of strawberry and mulberry. It balances natural acidity and sweetness with smooth tannins. It could be a good match for many meals, because its delicate bouquet does not mask the flavor of the food."
Such professionalism fits well with the desire in China to learn more about wine.
Zhu Yong, a principal at consultancy Roland Berger China, said there is an increasing demand for wine education in the trade and among consumers due to China's economic development and consumption upgrading.
According to the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, the largest global provider of wine, spirits and sake qualifications, 108,557 candidates tested for a WSET certificate in the 2018-19 academic year, a year-on-year increase of 15 percent.
The Chinese mainland market, which has grown for 11 consecutive years, is the second-largest for the WSET, after the United Kingdom. In the 2018-19 academic year, 18,206 Chinese candidates sat for a WSET certificate, a rise of 20 percent on the previous year.
Zhu said Chinese, especially those born in the 1980s and '90s, are seeking quality lifestyles.
China's economic development and consumption upgrading means that wine is increasingly being served to accompany meals. Among the younger generation in particular, drinking wine is viewed as being elegant and fashionable.
"Continuous growth in wine consumption has triggered a demand for knowledge, and 'wine culture' has also become a topic discussed on social occasions," Zhu said.
Learning about the origins, varieties and vintages of wine, how to properly decant it and the right variety to accompany dishes help broaden the consumer experience, he added.
"For industry insiders, basic know-how will help them better run their business, while for consumers, it will help them better choose and appreciate different kinds of wine."
Walker said that just a decade ago, wine education was rare in China. "But since around 2012, the number of people learning about wine and the number of training schools have both seen explosive growth."
She started Dragon Phoenix with her husband, who is also a Master of Wine, and it took them eight weeks to recruit the first batch of four students.
Wine courses at the school are offered under a number of categories, including "foundation" for beginners, "intermediate" and "advanced". It also offers the WSET level 4 diploma in wines. The duration of the courses ranges from just a few hours to several years.
Once, only those working in the wine industry took part in the courses, but now, more than 75 percent of Walker's students are consumers.
"The progress has been huge," she said. "In 2007, few Chinese had heard about WSET wine courses. Now, almost every industry insider knows about them, and many of them have achieved WSET certification and various other global certificates."
Rebecca Li, a Beijing etiquette expert, was awarded a WSET certificate in 2013, enabling her to hold a wine course for her clients.
"Wine does not traditionally feature in Chinese dining culture," she said. "Many people still have a very limited knowledge of it. I'm glad that my courses introduce customers to a new world, letting them in on some of the mysteries of wine."
In the seven years since she opened her etiquette school, she has noticed a rapid increase in people's passion for wine and to learn more about it.
"Wine is now served at most formal banquets in China," she said. "Also, more ordinary consumers want to know how to taste a particular type of wine properly, how to drink it at the table politely, and where to find quality wine," she said.
'Fun and helpful' course
Beijing resident Tian Tian took part in a course last winter. She sampled more than 10 wines, learned about their origins, along with the basic rules for evaluating them.
Tian, who works for the New Oriental Education and Technology Group in Beijing, said the course was "fun and helpful". In May, she even acted as a "wine reporter" on a company tour to the Two Hands Wines vineyard in the Barossa Valley, South Australia.
Xu Wei, a former wine trader, started offering training on fine wine in 2009, as there were few such services in China at the time.
"When I was a trader, I found that wine could only be well appreciated and promoted when consumers understood it," he said. "So I started offering free training to retailers, but it was frequently declined as they thought this was unnecessary. However, they soon realized that a deep understanding of wine helps with their business."
Xu's company, Xiaopi Wine School, which is based in Shanghai, trains 4,000 to 5,000 people a year, and the number has grown by 30 to 40 percent per year. It has adopted most of the major global certificated courses such as the WSET and the Bordeaux Wine Certificate.
While the courses initially targeted industry insiders, half of his students are now ordinary consumers, he said.
"China is increasingly open to the world, and Chinese consumers have more access to rich global cultures," he said. "Wine is a product that has its unique cultural connotations and stories behind it, including its origins and unique local customs and practices, which serves to satisfy consumers' curiosity."
Xu said Chinese consumers are now more curious to learn about wine from a specific country, particularly France, Australia and Hungary.
This year, the school worked with Domaine Baron de Rothschild de Lafite in France to design a course introducing wine from the producer's eight vineyards to Chinese audiences. The course has been highly popular, he said.
"Many consumers are also curious about domestically produced wine, which they didn't understand before, so we are developing more courses about Chinese wine-producing areas," he added.
Xu said the wine-education market reached about 100 million yuan ($14.2 million) last year. As the industry is still in the early stages of development, its potential could be huge.
Liu Sen, senior general manager at major e-commerce platform JD, who is in charge of wine education at the company, said it launched a course intending to help staff members working in the sector better purchase wine and distinguish different varieties. Initially, about 90 percent of his students were involved in the wine business, but now they only account for 30 to 40 percent of the total, with many consumers now attending his classes.
"There are still only a few Chinese people who truly understand wine, even though many of them have drunk it a lot," he said. "Education could help staff members and consumers to purchase smarter and to taste wine better."
He said many global wine-producing regions are entering the Chinese market, as they attach great importance to it. International wine exhibitions are also being staged in the country.
"Many global wine associations want to influence the Chinese market and develop their networks in the country's second-tier cities, such as Wuhan (capital of Hubei province)," he said. "They are aiming for the future, as they see Chinese people's consumption power."
Zhu, from Roland Berger, said Chinese consumers' enthusiasm for wine education will endure, and more people will join the industry. Some wine schools offering a professional approach to their training systems are closely connected with wine-producing areas around the world, he added.
"The problem is, wine training in China focuses too much on getting certificates, but development of the wine community and research about the industry are still weak," he said. "Moreover, as the market booms, the industry will need more regulation."
Walker, from the Dragon Phoenix School, encourages her students to be more critical when tasting wine and to understand how all the elements involved in making it, including climate, soil and production techniques, can affect the flavor.
"The scope for wine knowledge is broad and very diverse. In addition to what is written in the textbooks, there is a lot of other knowledge to seek and digest," she said, adding that a lack of qualified teachers could restrict development of the country's wine-education sector.