Interview with JC Viens, certified WSET educator and spokesperson for the Made in Italy lifestyle in China.
Due to his significant patronage of the Italian wine sector in the Chinese market, he has been awarded
the honor of Knight of the Order of the Star of Italy.
Ok, JC. First of all, tell us more about yourself. When did your passion for wine begin, and how did your experience in this field develop?
Well, the story actually started in 2006. My wife gifted me a wine course for Christmas, and that’s when I first discovered the beauty of the world of wine. After completing the initial course, I was so intrigued that I decided to pursue further education by enrolling in second and third courses. However, when I reached the WCT level, I faced some difficulties with my studies.
It was at that moment when I came across a quote attributed to Confucius, “If you want to learn, read! If you want to master, teach.” Inspired by these words, I made a life-changing decision to start teaching wine courses. That’s when I truly fell in love, not only with wine and food, but with the act of teaching itself. Combining my passion for wine with my newfound passion for teaching, I embarked on a journey to pursue every single wine course available, including the master wine course, and I traveled wherever I could to expand my knowledge.
Since then, this journey has been both intense and beautiful, with endless opportunities for learning and growth.
As an educator, a teacher, what values do you consider most important to convey in your class?
Thanks for asking, as this is something very important to me and something I care deeply about. I believe that a good teacher is someone who helps students think critically about the subject matter. One major weakness in the wine industry today is that many courses are designed solely to transmit facts. As a result, people learn a lot of isolated facts and can play trivial games with that knowledge. They might be able to tell you everything about a specific grape variety or wine region, but they might not necessarily be able to connect these facts together to truly understand what wine is about, the cultural aspects, or why certain styles or winemaking techniques produce specific results. As teachers, our goal should be to empower our students with the ability to articulate their thoughts clearly, communicate with authority, and be convinced by the knowledge they possess. It’s not just about gathering information; it’s about understanding the bigger picture and the connections between various aspects of wine, culture, and winemaking techniques. This aspect is crucial for wine education.
And as a student, someone who never stops learning in the world of wine, what method do you use to navigate the vast world of global wines and grape varieties?
This is a real challenge, as you just mentioned. It’s impossible to ever truly finish studying wine. Once we start, it becomes an ongoing journey. The first step to answering your question is accepting that we are just a small part of the vast wine world, and each glass of wine teaches us something new. Every book we read or article we explore should provide us with new insights. Even if it doesn’t introduce new facts, it should make us think differently about wine and our approach to it.
From my perspective, the most crucial aspect is understanding wine styles. What brings us pleasure when we drink wine? Does it reflect our emotions or provide comfort? There are wines that refresh us and lift our spirits, and there are wines that comfort and bring peace to our minds. To comprehend styles, we must also understand how they are achieved. When studying, we should always ask why a particular piece of information is interesting, as it influences the wine’s style. Many people learn facts without making a direct connection to the wine itself, and this is what’s missing. It can make studying about wines difficult because we may feel overwhelmed by the quantity of information. Instead, we should focus on connecting each fact to the style of the wine – that’s the key point, absolutely essential.
I noticed that quality and style are often mixed up today. They are actually two completely different things. For instance, a wine can have a style that is meant to be young, fresh, and easygoing, with acceptable or good quality. We don’t need to overthink such wines. On the other hand, some wines are more serious and important, and they require more consideration. However, we shouldn’t label the refreshing, accessible, and versatile wines as low quality simply because they are easygoing, nor should we consider the more serious wines as high quality just because they are serious. Style and quality are separate concepts.
The magic and beauty of wine lie in finding connections between the vineyard, grape, producer, style, and quality. Understanding how all these elements come together to create the wine we enjoy is what makes studying wine truly fascinating.
Thank you, thank you, JC. Let’s talk about China. Do you think the wine culture is growing there? And if so, in which direction is it heading?
I left China three years ago, and now I can only share my experiences from when I lived there for 13 years. The big boom in the Chinese wine market began around 2006 to 2008 when Hong Kong lowered its import tax and positioned itself as a hub for wine importation into China. Many focused on Hong Kong as a platform for storing wine and gradually exporting it into China. However, after that period, many people seemed to forget an important aspect of China’s development.
Around 2008 to 2010, China was still a developing country, and its population was learning how to consume. Discretionary income, which refers to the money available for spending on non-essential items, was relatively low for most Chinese. Wine, being a luxury, was not a necessity but rather something people wanted to enjoy. As China rapidly changes, the discretionary income of its population is increasing, and consumers are now experimenting with different products, including wine. The wine market in China is evolving quickly, making it challenging to predict short-term outcomes. However, I firmly believe that the long-term potential of the Chinese wine market is enormous.
Comparing China with the United States, wine consumption in America was almost insignificant in the early 1990s, and now it is the largest consumer of wine worldwide. I predict that in 25 years, China will undeniably become the most important and biggest wine market globally. Nevertheless, for now, we should allow Chinese consumers to experiment freely and discover their preferences. To cater to them, we should simplify our communication and focus on explaining wine in terms of taste rather than technical details like soil composition. Chinese consumers need inspiration more than education at this moment because they are genuinely exploring and trying to figure out their preferences.
In summary, the Chinese wine market is still in its transformative stage, and consumers are exploring different options. It is crucial to provide inspiration and guide them in discovering their taste preferences. As China’s economy continues to grow, its wine market will inevitably become one of the most significant players in the global wine industry.
Specifically regarding markets, how are Italian and European wines positioned in this vast Chinese market? And what are the strategies, you mentioned some already, that wineries must employ not only to enter but also to establish themselves and remain in the Chinese market?
First of all, we need to approach the Chinese market with the understanding that China is not a homogenous country. It is a collection of many different regions, each with varying levels of consumer maturity. For instance, in the southern part of China, we have the Greater Bay Area, including Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Macao, with a population of around 70 to 80 million people. Consumption in this region is more mature compared to other areas like Beijing or Nanjing. Therefore, our approach to these markets needs to be tailored accordingly.
Secondly, we must acknowledge that many Chinese consumers currently have limited discretionary income to spend on wine, making every purchase a special occasion. Due to this, Chinese consumers are very discerning when it comes to choosing products. To succeed in the Chinese wine market, Italian wines need to be perceived as something special and prestigious. Emphasizing the long history of a producer or a family producing wine for many generations can be one way to appeal to Chinese consumers and consolidate our position in the market.
In summary, to be successful in China, we should recognize the regional differences and tailor our approach accordingly. Additionally, we need to position Italian wines as prestigious and special products, highlighting their historical significance and the unique stories behind their production.
For example, wines from a special region of Italy that is historically significant, noble, or famous can enhance the prestige of our wines in China. Additionally, a producer’s reputation among international wine critics, not just in Italy, can also boost the wine’s appeal. Emphasizing any aspect related to the prestige of our wines will undoubtedly help in the Chinese market, where wine is considered a luxury product and associated with special occasions.
Another question. Regarding the great diversity we have in Italy, the diversity of wines we have, it’s a huge strength. But how can we promote this diversity in China, also focusing on lesser-known Italian regions, instead of just Tuscany, Veneto, and Piedmont, and convince our Chinese friends to explore these lesser-known Italian regions?
This is undoubtedly a significant challenge, but I believe it will eventually happen with time. At this moment, it may be easier for Chinese consumers to discover and become comfortable with the better-known and famous wine regions in Italy. As they gain familiarity with Italy as a wine-producing country, some more adventurous wine drinkers may start exploring less-known areas. In the near future, we may see more young Chinese travelers venturing to Italy in smaller groups or alone, seeking to experience the countryside rather than just shopping. This presents an excellent opportunity for us to emotionally connect with them by showcasing our countryside and introducing them to the wines from these lesser-known regions. As they have this unique experience, they will bring back these wines to share with others at home. I firmly believe that this is the way forward to encourage them to try and appreciate different wines. However, unless we have prestigious awards or a long history to talk about, convincing Chinese consumers to choose our wines over others may indeed remain a significant challenge in China.
Let’s debunk some common misconceptions about China, things we often hear, like for example, that Chinese people only drink red wine…
Yes, this is true, but the situation is changing. If we look at Guangdong province, which is closer to the south of China and near Hong Kong, the weather is very hot and humid. People there are more inclined to drink something refreshing. Consequently, the sales of sparkling wine in that area are growing rapidly. As a result, the notion of only drinking red wine is becoming more flexible. Red wine will always be important in China due to its association with health benefits and prestige. However, as consumers gain more experience with wine, they become more adventurous and start exploring other options. White wine and sparkling wine, especially in the southern region of China, are likely to show significant growth in the near future. Some Italian sparkling wines, like Moscato and Prosecco, are already doing exceptionally well in China. I am confident that more prestigious traditional method sparkling wines will also become increasingly popular.
On the other hand, the situation is not entirely straightforward. In a market where discretionary income is relatively low, selling wines for everyday consumption must be competitively priced, often in supermarkets. However, when we visit supermarkets and wine shops in China, we find that wine is not as cheap as one might expect. The market’s opacity and difficulty to penetrate may lead Chinese buyers to negotiate very low prices when purchasing wine, only to sell it at a much higher price once back in the market.
So, actually, they are the ones making the margin when producers give in too quickly. I believe many producers accept low prices too easily. Some producers would do well to do their homework, be a bit more cautious, less impatient, and hold firm on their prices. They should say, “My price is not so low, and I will sell my wine only at this price,” and then wait. Eventually, wine consumers in China will become more demanding, and what is now sold for 25 or 30 euros may actually be sold for four, five, or six euros in a market like Italy. Chinese consumers are not naive; they know quality and understand when something is not worth the price. They will start looking for value, and they will find it, especially if there are importers who are honest and offer a fair margin. As wine producers, we need to be patient and sell at the right price, allowing the market to mature and become more balanced.
…or that Chinese importers only want low-cost wine.
It depends on which consortium you work for.
Alright, to wrap up, can you suggest your perfect pairing with your favorite Chinese dish?
No, I think that in China, most of the food has a lot of umami taste. They use certain cooking techniques that emphasize umami in food, and dishes are often served with various sauces rich in umami. In my opinion, traditional method sparkling wines, especially those from Italy, pair very well with the umami-rich context of Chinese cuisine. While many textbooks and articles suggest Riesling as the best wine for Chinese food, I completely disagree. I believe traditional method sparkling wines from Italy are a better match because they are closest to the umami flavors found in Chinese dishes.
Furthermore, the Charmat method sparkling wines, like Prosecco, are also refreshing and vibrant with a slightly aromatic character, making them a great pairing with Asian food, particularly Chinese cuisine. It just requires patience for Chinese drinkers to discover and appreciate these wine pairings.
Another aspect I want to mention is that while Chinese drinkers may enjoy wines like Brunello, Barolo, and Amarone due to their fame, they are particularly sensitive to texture, meaning how the wine feels on the palate. Wines that are smoother and more delicate will be highly appreciated. For example, a beautiful Barbera from the Piedmont region, with its low tannins and refreshing qualities, will be well-liked by many Chinese drinkers, as it complements the textures of Chinese food. Italy offers many other wines with less tannins and more refreshing qualities that, as Chinese drinkers get to know them, they will surely appreciate more and more.
Thank you, thank you very much, JC, for your time.