China Sips and Savors Chilean Wine
MARIANO Larraín, from Chile, began sizing up China’s potential market for Chilean wine upon his arrival in Beijing in 2011. Three years ago he opened his business, La Cava de Laoma, where he teaches the art of wine making.
Mariano compares the process of capturing Chinese wine consumers to wine tasting. The oenologist discerns the quality of a wine in three stages – visual, olfactory, and gustatory. For Larraín, 32 years old and from Santiago de Chile, curiosity about this giant Asian country that everyone was talking about, but few really knew, enacted the first of these phases. The second came with his arrival in China, learning the language, immersing himself in the culture, and taking backpacking trips, all in efforts to “sniff” out what kind of entrepreneurial scheme would work here and how to go about it. Today, at the third stage, this young man, whose maternal grandfather started a vineyard in the Colchagua Valley (Chile) 100 years ago, is savoring the nuances of China’s wine market.
Sniffing the cork is the first step to tasting a wine. Then, after pouring a small amount into a glass, the vessel should be held by the stem or base to avoid heating the wine. It must then be tilted to a 45 degree angle against a white background, for example, a sheet of typewritten paper. The color of the wine is an important indicator of its age. Young red wines generally have a cherry or bright ruby shade, while a mature wine is a deeper garnet red.
A high density wine has a higher concentration of alcohol, which means it has been through a relatively long fermentation process. A wine’s density is determined by revolving the glass and observing the rate at which it trickles down the sides. The slower it descends, the higher the density and, consequently, the alcohol content.
Larraín’s observation of the Chinese wine market was similarly carried out. It was in 2008, the year of economic crisis in the U. S. and some European countries. “I am a historian, and before coming to China I was working in a foreign investment fund in Santiago de Chile. Everybody was talking about China as the lifebuoy that the rest of the world clung to. Having heard so much about China, I decided to come and see for myself. At first I had no long term plan, but I knew I wanted to stay for at least two years,” Larraín said.
He began carrying out more detailed research on the peculiarities of the Chinese economic model and its rapid economic development in one of the remoter parts of China. In the same way as a wine is closely scrutinized in a glass, Larraín analyzed what the country could offer. China’s burgeoning wine sector at that time, due to massive public sector purchases for banquets and big events, convinced him to go ahead with his project.
The second stage began in February 2011. At this stage of the tasting, the oenologist sniffs the wine in the glass to assess its properties and identify the primary aromas of a particular grape. He then spins the glass to mix oxygen with the wine and so expel more aromas. Likewise, Larraín “sniffed” Beijing. At first, he studied Chinese language for one semester at the prestigious Tsinghua University, but after five months had made little progress. His spoken Mandarin was still halting because as the people he was associating with were also foreigners he was not putting it into practice. So he decided to stop classes at the university and enroll in an academy and at the same have classes with a private tutor. He thus studied for eight hours a day.
When he first arrived in Beijing Larraín did not like the city. “Cultural differences and language difficulties can drive you crazy, so you need to stop for a while, take a break, and then continue,” Larraín said, “So I began to travel to different parts of the country every weekend and my misgivings gradually faded. It was when I went to Shanghai that I realized how interesting Beijing is.
“Beijing has a distinct character. However, from the business point of view, I didn’t know if staying in Beijing was a good idea, because the economy is less progressive here. Beijing is a city more attached to Chinese traditions, and as the product I sell does not relate to them, it’s more difficult to promote. Shanghai is different. There, young professionals enjoy life differently; in Beijing, people are more careful about spending.”
Despite all the advantages he identified in Shanghai, Larraín succumbed to the charm of Beijing, and in 2013 opened his “La Cava de Laoma” wine shop in Sanlitun, the thriving embassy district of abundant bars and restaurants in the eastern part of the Chinese capital.
There began the third, gustatory phase. During a tasting, the first sensation after the wine hits the palate is called the “assault.” There are areas on the tongue that specifically assess the four fundamental salty, sweet, sour, and bitter tastes. What is known as a round wine is one that achieves a perfect balance between the four.
The tongue then determines the wine’s texture – silk, velvet or satin – the softer the better.
Then comes the analysis of the aftertaste. After swallowing the wine, air is expelled through the nose. If the sensation lingers, this wine can be said to have a long aftertaste.
The latter is in contrast to the different sensations Larraín has experienced during the three years he has been running his business. He describes it as a roller coaster of feelings and experiences.
The first jolt came when the Chi-
In the same way as a wine is closely scrutinized in a glass, Larraín analyzed what the country could offer.
nese government launched the anticorruption campaign, and wine sales in the public sector fell dramatically. However, this coincided with the growing trend of young professionals who enjoy drinking wine at home or with friends at restaurants. But the volume of business nevertheless plummeted. Despite this disconcerting scenario, Larraín is optimistic about the future in China. “The long-term prospect of the Chinese economy is positive because of the growth of the middle class, who will consume more and more. Many entrepreneurs have focused on the Chinese super- rich segment, but I think conquering that target is more difficult because they are almost inaccessible. For me, young professionals willing to improve their living standards are the key target,” Larraín said.
As for Chinese consumer preferences, “Among red wines, Pinot Noir is a great success because of its fruitiness. However, Cabernet Sauvignon is still king because of its prestige. On the other hand, semi-sweet dry white wines are also popular because they combine well with Chinese food in general, especially spicy dishes.”
The aftertaste of a wine is very important, and the same applies to business. When the tasting has taken place, we must identify exactly what flavor the wine has left us. It might smack of tannic acid, be indefinite, or even downright unpleasant, or dirty. If an aftertaste lingers less than two seconds we can define it as a short finish wine. That of a moderate- length wine is around nine seconds, whereas a 12 second aftertaste defines a long, or very long finish.
Larraín has yet to experience this phase in his business. He has no idea about its aftertaste. But as he said, “China is huge and heterogeneous market, so it’s hard to go wrong. What might not work in Qingdao perhaps will in Jinan, even though both cities are in the same province. In what other country in the world could you find so many consumers who speak the same language and think alike, and where there is an efficient, reasonably priced logistics system?”
Mariano Larraín comes from a Chilean family that entered the wine business 100 years ago.
Larraín’s shop attracts a good number of Chinese customers.