China has introduced a homegrown wine rating system that has now being adopted by the country’s leading e-commerce giant JD.com for its more than 300 million online consumers, posing as an alternative to rival established international wine rating systems used by wine critics such as Jancis Robinson or James Suckling.
The new wine rating system, which was first proposed by China Alcoholic Drinks Association (CADA) – the country’s official regulatory drinks organization for wine, spirits and beer – two years ago is now officially put into use and the first batch of wines rated using the system are sold on the country’s second biggest e-commerce platform JD.com to its 362 million monthly active users.
“More suitable for Chinese taste”
The rating system, according to its advocate CADA, would be “more suitable” for Chinese wine drinkers “based on Chinese tastes,” laying the ground work for the country to assert more authority on how a wine is judged for the lucrative Chinese market, essentially shunning international standards.
In announcing the news, CADA wrote, “The current international standards we used have been around for many years. As time and society develops, it can no longer satisfy our current needs. In order to solve the difficult problem of buying wine and to help consumers make easier decision on wine quality, we have therefore launched Chinese wine rating system.”
The move is in line with what is perceived to be China’s more assertive tone on the global stage, as it wields tremendous clout as a powerful wine consumer and producer. It’s projected to become the world’s second biggest wine market by value behind the US by the end of this year according to a IWSR-Vinexpo report, and currently ranks as the world’s 7th biggest wine producer.
Despite China’s expansive wine market, the country has yet to find its powerful homegrown advocates that can offer independent guide to consumers, drawing a sharp contrast from the US, where the rise of American wine industry in 1980s is largely propelled by powerful wine critics and wine magazines such as Robert Parker and Wine Spectator.
How it’s judged
It’s not clear how the rating is tailor-made for Chinese taste as more clarity is needed, but CADA insisted “it won’t dwell on distinguishing notes of blueberry or strawberry” and that it’s more suited for “Chinese consumers whose diet is mainly grain-based”.
The new rating system shares some features with established international wine evaluating methods such as judging a wine’s colour, taste, structure and finish.
However, based on samples obtained by Vino Joy News and published by CADA, the wine rating system uses 10 different criteria to judge a wine’s quality (see below), namely clarity and colour; intensity; elegance and delicacy; complexity and development; balance of structure; body; texture of tannins (red); complexity; finish; quality and typicity.
Each category carries a maximum of 10 points, and a wine will have aggregated points of up to 100. The rating comes out as a radar chart with a final point without a tasting note. In some published samples, there are also 20 different judging criteria with each carrying up to 5 points.
The question for many wineries and importers following the news is whether all wines sold in China will have to be rated using the system. When reached by Vino Joy News, Huo Xingsan, secretary of wine under CADA, said the Chinese wine rating system is not yet compulsory for imported and domestically produced wines. However, it’s expected to be adopted as a national and industry standard for wine quality evaluation in the future, he added without providing specific timeline.
When pressed on the impacts of becoming an industry standard, Huo replied, “If it becomes an industry standard, it means it will be used [by relevant authorities] in China for product quality check,” hinting at the possibility that eventually it might become a reequipment for imported and domestic wines sold in China.
It’s not immediately clear if wines rated below certain points will be allowed to be exported to China or who sit on the judging panel but the first batch of wines were judged by CADA and JD.com’s wine purchasing department in three different locations, Penglai in Shandong province, Chang Li in Hebei and Fangshan in Beijing, according to CADA.
The challenge for all wine critics and rating system is to make wine less arcane and more approachable for everyday drinkers. However, for critics closely watching the news, the new rating system that dissects wine based on 10 different criteria in a form of a spider web does not seem to be the most communicable way.
Despite the country’s grand ambitions tinged with a dash of nationalist sentiment to make the wine rating system the gold standard for wine reviews, the news is met with ambiguity and caution, as much of how it’s going to rated and by whom remain unclear at this stage.
“I am in favor of anything that promotes quality wine in China and the new rating system, if used properly, could be another of option,” says American wine critic James Suckling when reached by Vino Joy News. “I am obviously happy it’s a 100-point rating system because this is still the most accepted in the world of wine and it’s already widely accepted in China and the rest of Asia. I have been using it since the mid-1980s as a wine critic.”
Having reviewed the samples of the wines rated, he cautions about its application. “Actually, using the system looks complicated and very time consuming and its accuracy and usefulness is going to depend on who uses it and if they use it properly. This will be the challenge.”
Similarly, Edward Ragg MW, co-founder of Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting and the Chinese wine reviewer for The Wine Advocate, remains cautious as well.
“It would be interesting to know how such a system might work in practice. Most wine judging scoring systems do not give marks to ‘Body’ which is part of wine style and has no relationship with quality. The other categories in this system might also need clarifying,” says the Master of Wine.
The most controversial part of the new wine rating system is what people fear that by stating a wine reviewing system is designed for “Chinese taste” it might risk making generalization and undercutting the diversity of tastes and preferences in different regions and cities.
“In our teaching experience across China we see different regional and of course individual palates. So it would be interesting to know how this new system reflects a ‘Chinese palate’ as such. However, any system that can serve to improve wine quality is encouraging,” Ragg added.
Rob Geddes MW, who has over 30 years of experiences working in both Australia and China, adds, “The underlying point that Chinese wine consumers are different to wine consumers anywhere else in the world has not been supported by research that I am aware of. After all we all have one mouth and one tongue.”
However, he applauded the move, saying “it reflects the transition of the Chinese wine industry towards global maturity.”
It’s unclear if wine merchants or Chinese wineries in China will embrace the rating system to sell wines when international standards used by critics and wine publications are already widely used. Ian Dai, wine educator and winemaker of Ningxia-based natural wine Xiao Pu Wine, remained hesitant.
Asked if he’s going to use the rating system to promote his wines, he replied,”probably not. My style is a lit bit unconventional.”