Thirsting for original taste of French wines

Updated: 2012-07-21 09:04

By Li Xiang in Bordeaux, France (China Daily)

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A grape-picking trip to a vineyard in Champagne, France, two years ago sparked Wang Qiuyun's interest in French wines but she never thought she would pursue a career in the subject.

The 29-year-old student from Henan province gave up an offer of a master's degree program at an American university and decided to study wine in Bordeaux - France's world-famous wine region - where she trained as a sommelier, the French word for a professional who specializes in all aspects of wine selection and service, usually in fine restaurants.

"Initially, I struggled with the language and did not have much fun studying wine. But as I gradually honed my skills and started to be able to taste and tell the differences between the wines, I became fascinated by the richness and diversity of a good wine," Wang said.

"It felt as though I had discovered a new world," she said.

Oenology, a word that was almost unheard of a decade ago to most Chinese, has become an increasingly popular major among many students, thanks to the explosive growth of wine consumption driven by an expanding middle class and growing interest in Western lifestyles and tastes.

Like Wang, many young Chinese students are coming to France with a passion for wine and a strong business sense of the booming wine market in China.

Industry experts have predicted that China is very likely to out-drink the United States to become the world's thirstiest nation for wine within two decades. It already overtook the United Kingdom and Germany in 2010 to become Bordeaux's largest export client.

Wang now works as an intern at Chateau Leoville Poyferre in the Medoc area, where she helps maintain the chateau's official weibo, or Chinese micro blog, and translates the chateau's media kit into Chinese.

She also helps with the reception of many tourists and business owners from China, who have become regular visitors to Bordeaux's vineyards.

"The number of Chinese students going to France to study wine has grown at a rapid rate of 30 percent annually over the past few years," said Ren Lianfang, a manager at Chinese education agency Strong Study in Zhejiang province.

The interest in wine education on the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong has grown substantially with enrollment soaring nearly 200 percent year-on-year, according to the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, a UK-based wine education organization.

The thriving wine market in China has not just wooed Chinese students to France, it has also helped boost the wine education market. Top French universities and private wine schools are looking to the East amid a decline in domestic enrollment.

"In France, the situation is not so good, in reality. We don't have too many French students coming to learn about wine. But in foreign countries, the situation is exactly the opposite," said Franck Chausse, director of Cafa Formation, a private wine school in Bordeaux.

"You have a lot of countries interested in wine education because the wine business is going up, and people want to know more and learn more about wines," he said.

More than half of Cafa Formation's students are Chinese, Chausse said. Five years ago, Chinese students accounted for only 2 percent of the total.

"Most Chinese students want to work in the wine trading business, and fewer than 10 percent would choose the sommelier career in restaurants or hotels," he said.

Cafa Formation offers a two-year course for a diploma in wine. The course costs about 9,500 euros ($11,600). Students can also select a third-year program that prepares them to teach oenology at wine schools, according to Chausse.

French oenology schools are also seeking partnerships with Chinese organizations to attract Chinese students.

Cafa Formation has developed a partnership with the College of Oenology, Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University, in Shaanxi province. In 2008, Cafa Formation opened its own school in Beijing and plans to open another in Shanghai, said Chausse.

Wine distributors in France are also paying attention to wine education in China. Diva Bordeaux, a wine trading company in Bordeaux, is planning to create a wine school with Cafa Formation in China to train local sales staff.

"Most of the time people are very shy about wines. They don't even dare to push open the door of the shop because they don't know much about wines," said Jean-Pierre Rousseau, managing director of Diva Bordeaux.

"The purpose of wine education is to let them define their own taste and eventually know that wine is not something very complicated," he said.

Although China has not had its own wine expert such as Robert Parker, often referred to as the pope of vineyards in the Western world, Chausse said he was optimistic about the younger generation in China.

"They have the potential to reach the very top class of wine advice. They could learn very fast, and what matters after that is experience," he said.

This summer Wang is graduating from the University of Wine in Bordeaux with a bachelor's degree in wine commerce and marketing. She applied to the master's program in wine at the University of Montesquieu-Bordeaux IV, one of the leading universities in France on oenology, but she was turned down.

She said intense competition may be part of the reason for her rejection. Eight of the 20 interviewees for the program were from China.

But that did not prevent her from pursuing a profession in wine. She is looking for jobs in wine trading companies that have business in China. "I could picture myself traveling to different vineyards and chateaux and getting to taste different wines for my customers," she said.

"What's most rewarding is that I've found something that I want to do for the rest of my life."