South African wines were sixth in order of popularity in the small but growing Chinese market, winemaker and consultant John Weekes, who has been working in the country, said at a seminar in Stellenbosch on Thursday.

He said wine drinking was relatively new in China, with beer and baiju (a spirit made from rice) dominating the market for alcoholic drinks.

But the Chinese government was encouraging the growth of wine imports on the grounds of health because wine has less alcohol than spirits, and to discourage the use of rice for making baiju because it threatened food supplies. The market for imported wine grew tenfold in the last five years to 156 million cases last year.

However, China’s market for imported wine is dominated at present by France and Australia with Italy, the US, Chile and Spain competing strongly. Last year imports from France grew by 92 percent by quantity and 91 percent by value, and those from South Africa grew 73 percent by quantity and 33 percent by value.

Most of the wine is sold in heavy bottles, with corks preferred to screw top. It was not usual to buy it by the case and most sales to individual customers were in gift boxes of one or two bottles. Packaging was very important. The bulk of individual sales – about 60 percent – took place in time for family visits over the Chinese New Year in February or the autumn festival in September.

Apart from Beijing, which accounted for 16 percent of sales, the wine market in China was mostly in the coastal cities, particularly Shanghai, which accounted for 18 percent of sales. But Western Cape exporters have an advantage in Huangzhou, which is twinned with Cape Town and in the centre of China’s wine production.

It had an international airport and a fast rail link with Shanghai that would get travellers there in less than an hour . “This is a city that you (the Cape wine industry) can call your own,” Weekes said, adding that there was a growing consumer base of about 250 million city dwellers in China with new disposable income, who were influenced by the upper class, considered as opinion leaders.

Most of them had very limited knowledge of wine, but “there are wine schools popping up all over the place”.

The French wine styles were the most popular but there was a growing market for New World wines, with consumers liking their traces of fruit. He thought it a major positive that SAA flew directly to China from Joburg, saying that would be a big help to the SA wine industry in growing its share of the Chinese market.