Chinese Lexicon: Discovering wine descriptors for China

Chinese wine consumers most commonly describe red wines as tasting of yangmei and dried Chinese hawthorn, while whites remind them of kaffir lime or pomelo. To the Western palate that would be strawberry, blackberry preserve, lemon and grapefruit respectively.

But while the Chinese happily compare wines with fruit, they have not yet really embraced other Western descriptors such as vegetables, meats and spices. And they are still more likely to just use generic descriptors such as astringent, sour, mellow or lingering.

These are among the findings of a major research project carried out by Dr Armando Corsi, Dr Justin Cohen and Professor Larry Lockshin from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science at the University of South Australia, with funding from the GWRDC.

It is believed to be the first scientific approach anywhere in the world designed specifically to understand how regular drinkers of imported wine in China actually describe what they buy and taste.

Dr Corsi, the project leader, profiled the research in recent webinars run jointly by the GWRDC and Wine Communicators of Australia, and the final report is due to be released later this year.

‘The findings will allow us to help Australian wine businesses choose the most appropriate Chinese descriptors to match the sensory profile of their wines, and avoid those that possibly won’t resonate’, he said.

‘This means they can make the strategic decision to be more Chinese-centric and modify their back label information, tasting notes and collateral in various retail formats.

‘As an added bonus, we also now have a better understanding of the Australian wines styles the Chinese prefer and their how much they are willing to pay’.

The project was run in three cities – Shanghai, Guanghzhou and Chengdu – in three stages.

The final stage involved more than 260 Chinese consumers. Researchers from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science and the AWRI selected 14 wines representative of the main styles of wine Australia exports to China: five reds, four whites, three sparklings and two dessert wines.

Each participant evaluated all 14 wines over two consecutive days of blind tastings, but half of the participants were asked to describe the wines using a list of Chinese terms, while the other half were exposed to more traditional Western terms.

‘We had two aims: to see how Chinese consumers described each wine style and to test which hypothesised equivalences between Chinese and Western wine descriptors hold true’, Dr Cohen said.

‘Wine experts have put a lot of effort into developing these equivalents, but they have not previously been tested in a rigorous, academic manner’.

The results were mixed. Eight of the 14 proposed red wine equivalents were verified, while for whites it was only 11 out of 20. Chinese black tea leaves are a match for dark plums and ginko nut for toast, for example, but young Asian coconut is not really the same as vanilla.

Interestingly, there were two cases where there was no equivalence between the same terms. It seems Chinese consumers taste cloves and mangoes differently to Westerners.

‘This indicates that this is an important area but also a very complex one’, Dr Corsi said.

‘Just as we need to be careful not to use unfamiliar terms – you can’t relate to a wine with flavours of blackcurrant if you’ve never tasted a blackcurrant – we also have to make sure that we use familiar accurately’.

Wine drinker participating in lexicon research in Chengdu, China
Wine drinker participating in lexicon research in Chengdu, China