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Simon Zhou: ‘Chinese don’t care about food and wine pairing’

Despite conventional opinions of matching food with wine based on body, acidity and texture, when it comes to Chinese food, the concept, according to the owner of Shanghai’s foremost fine wine retailer, Ruby Red, is, “non-existent”.

Simon Zhou, founder and owner of Ruby Red, a fine wine retailer headquartered in Shanghai, at his showroom in Shanghai

Even more disconcerting to pedantic food and wine pairing fanatics, Simon Zhou, owner of Ruby Red, is convinced that most Chinese wine drinkers “really don’t care” about pairing, while speaking to a group of wine journalists at his showroom in Shanghai ahead of this week’s ProWine China.

Further expanding on the subject, he surmised: “If food and wine matching matters, China would be drinking 80% white wine. People don’t do that, maybe less than 5% of wine consumed is white.”

On the overriding preference for red wine over white, he stated that this originated from the perception that all wine is red, as in Chinese the translation for wine when it was introduced to the market – 红酒 – denoted the colour of a wine should be red.

“So if you drink a white wine, people don’t understand it,” he commented.

Additionally, he said that with many of the most high profile wines in the world being red further reinforced the idea for Chinese drinkers that red wines consequently suggest higher quality and value.

generally speaking, wine drinking in China is an experience, he believes, which means people drink wine for status rather than enjoyment itself, stressing that people don’t purchase wine for the purpose of getting drunk or the alcohol as he says. “If you are looking to get drunk, you would not choose wine…It’s for status, and sharing stories of visiting the winery or human stories of the winemakers,” he commented, arguing that a bottle of higher strength of Baijiu would be cheaper and more efficient if one drinks purely for the sake of alcohol.

Though he’s quick to explain that in different cities, consumer bases differ drastically. In primary cities like Beijing and Shanghai, for instance, private consumers would constitute roughly 50% of its overall sales, while in secondary cities government purchases is still counted as the key driver for wine consumption, followed by corporate and private clients.

The retailer operates in four different cities in China, namely Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Shenzhen. While the average per bottle price is RMB 380 in Shanghai, Beijing ranks higher at RMB 450, Zhou revealed.

Since Ruby Red’s inception in 2005, he admitted the company’s portfolio has gone through major overhauls and reshuffles. A New Zealand-born Chinese, Zhou first started out selling only New Zealand wines, but it didn’t take him long to figure out that in China French wines dominate, prompting him to drastically increase his French wine portfolio, which today accounts for 60% of his range. “Otherwise, I would be bankrupt by now,” he joked wryly.

The success of Burgundy wines, which have seen the biggest growth at the company, also prompted Ruby Red’s consumers to look out for Pinot Noir in cooler-climate regions in New World, he added.

Considered a medium-scale importer in China out of roughly 70 wine importers with annual wine sales over US$5 million, Zhou’s range extends from Biondi-Santi to Bass Philip, much of which he imports directly.

Online retail has been much discussed within China, but it only contributes to roughly 1% of Ruby Red’s overall sales, he added.

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