Selling wine to China

The meteoric growth of the Chinese wine market brings complex translation needs, finds Jessica Moore

Selling wine to China
Lining the far aisle of your local supermarket is an increasingly international selection of wine. From Austrian Rieslings and South African Chardonnays to Italian Chiantis and French Merlots, today’s consumers are spoilt for choice. Yet some options may surprise even the most dedicated connoisseurs. Nestling among more familiar bottles at Tesco and Sainsbury’s, wine-lovers can now pick up a Chinese vintage or two.

China may not be known for its appreciation of the grape, but its wine market is growing fast. Domestic production is on the up in terms of both quality and volume; only Spain dedicates more land to vines worldwide, while increasingly well-reputed Chinese wine companies, including Changyu, Great Wall Wine and Grace Vineyard, are building audiences both nationally and internationally. Yet more wine still flows into China than out of it. According to, 2016 saw 482 million litres of bottled wine imported with a value of US$2 billion – a 22% increase compared to 2015. Overall, the Chinese are now quaffing more vin rouge than the French and the Italians.

This brings a need for translation. For imports, key information – including winery name, region of origin, alcohol content and more – is required, by law, to be included in Chinese on the back label of each bottle. Domestically-produced wines, meanwhile, are commonly given English-language names from the outset, bringing fewer translation needs out of Mandarin for export. Among Grace Vineyard’s bottles, for example, are Deep Blue, Chairman’s Reserve and Angelina Sparkling.

“Imported wine has been around in China for more than a decade now,” explains Chuan Zhou, Research Director at the marketing, strategy and research company Wine Intelligence. “Over that time, wine producers and brand owners developed vocabulary to communicate with the Chinese consumers.” The problem was, this happened organically, bringing various alternative translations for common terms. “There are still four ways of translating ‘Merlot’,” Zhou notes, “and they all look and sound similar, which can be quite confusing”. Attempting to bring some consensus, the Norm of Terminology Translation of Imported Wines, a standardised list of words and phrases, was published by the Chinese authority in 2015.

However, translators still have to work creatively. “A lot of the fruits used to describe wines in Europe are not familiar to Chinese people – such as blackcurrant or elderflower,” Zhou says. “I’ve never had gooseberry in China.” In 2016, Wine Intelligence conducted research into which words Chinese consumers found appealing on a wine label. The top 20 included local flavours, such as lychee and jasmine tea leaves. Women saw rose as the most appealing flavour, while men preferred raisin. Older consumers looked for oak, and dedicated Chinese wine buffs sought out vanilla and red apple.

“Sometimes we have to find a new way to describe the flavour notes,” confirms Danielle Liu, a freelance translator who works for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET). “I often use roast sweet potato to describe the caramel aromas in aged wines, and sweetcorn ice-cream to describe oaked Chardonnay. These flavours are easier to understand for Chinese people.” ‘Spicy’ is troublesome. “That translates as ‘hot’ – like chilli pepper – so we now say ‘flavours of cinnamon’.”

These more familiar choices aren’t always the most marketable though. “Before I saw the Wine Intelligence research results I thought Chinese people would prefer ingredients they know well, such as the wolfberry or the waxberry,” Zhou explains. “Actually, those fruits were only as popular as cherries, which are not a typical Chinese fruit.” This could be because wine is seen as an international product. “It’s about perception. Consumers don’t necessarily have to know what a cherry tastes like to find the description appealing. Wine is quite expensive in China,” Zhou expands, “and it is associated with a sophisticated lifestyle. Chinese consumers want the description to feel as exclusive as the wine”. More generic words, such as ‘smooth’, ‘refined’ and ‘full-bodied’, which are familiar to international wine consumers, can help here. The most common style description used by translators for red wine is 醇厚 (‘chun hou’), a Mandarin word meaning ‘mellow and rich’.


A vine by any other name

Translating the name of the winery brings different challenges. “You need to find words with a similar pronunciation or meaning to the original,” says Liu. Direct translation can work; for example, for the New Zealand winery Bilancia, which means ‘balance’ or ‘weighing scales’ in Italian, there is a Mandarin equivalent, 天秤, pronounced ‘tian cheng’.

Yet sometimes translating directly results in a very long name that is neither eye-catching as a brand nor easy for consumers to remember. Consequently, Liu and her contemporaries tend to opt for looser translations based on meaning, sound and ‘feel’. Her translation of the Italian vineyard Isole e Olena is 奥莱娜小岛, pronounced ‘ao lai na xiao dao’, meaning ‘Olena Island’. But translating the New Zealand winery Greywacke required some research. “It’s a kind of soil found in the vineyard,” Liu explains. “I literally translated the first part, the colour grey, to 灰, pronounced ‘hui’. Then I used phonetic translation for the second part to 瓦, pronounced ‘wa’, which refers to earthen house tiles that are usually a grey colour. It is common in Chinese to use two words with the same meaning together, so this is not strange. I then added another Chinese character 岩, pronounced ‘yan’, meaning soil, making the translation relate to a vineyard. And these three sounds together – ‘hui wa yan’ – also reflect the original language pronunciation.”


Cultural nuance

Tone is important, too. “We try to use Chinese characters with positive meanings,” Liu explains. The translation of the Australian brand Penfolds is a good example. In Mandarin, it is 奔富 (‘ben fu’), which means ‘to run towards good fortune’. Zhou cites Sauvignon Blanc as another impressive translation: 长相思, pronounced ‘chang xiang si’, means ‘prolonged lovesickness’, and is also the name of a melody to which traditional Chinese poems are composed. “That’s romantic and poetic,” he says. Such cultural and historical nuances are crucial, and could be the downfall of a novice wine translator.

Numbers are notoriously important in Chinese culture, eight being very lucky, for instance, and four being particularly unlucky. “People want lots of eights in their mobile phone number. Also the numbers six and the number nine are lucky, so we might use those in wine packaging around gifting. For Chinese New Year, Penfolds launched a limited edition with lucky numbers – and Penfolds Bin 389 is thought of as the most auspicious wines in the Penfolds range. That plays very well in China.”

As for colours, red wine has been more popular as red is traditionally used for celebrations including weddings, housewarmings, New Year and the mid-autumn festival. But, Zhou notes, “as red is also the colour of blood, we would avoid writing a person’s name using a red pen or on red paper. You need to have some sensitivity to these things if you’re translating into Chinese and working on branding.” That said, both Zhou and Liu say such traditions and superstitions are less influential than they were in the past. “We used to avoid anything described as ‘white’ because that colour is associated with death,” says Liu. “But these days, Chinese people are very relaxed about drinking white wine, as well as red and rose; it doesn’t matter.”

Fully embracing wine culture, Zhou explains, there is now a thirst in China that doesn’t stop when the bottle runs dry. “Wine education is growing, with more and more Chinese people going to courses and classes to learn about drinking wine and the Western lifestyle.” Indeed, China is the second-biggest market for the UK-based wine education body WSET in terms of number of students. It’s a lifestyle choice, says Zhou. “Wine is seen as having health benefits, because it has much lower alcohol content than local spirits, and there’s a belief that wine – especially red wine – is good for your heart and can lower your blood pressure. But mostly, drinking wine is seen as a glamorous thing to do. It’s about the glasses and the bottles and how to use a corkscrew – all those rituals.”

With the Chinese appetite for wine still steadily increasing, this looks like a market that will continue to thrive for consumers and translators alike.