BEIJING (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Mr Lu Jiang, 45, has noticed that friends who are long accustomed to drinking wine at business dinners have developed a new habit: sampling it at home.
The wine specialist, based in Beijing, said: "One friend drinks a bottle of wine with his wife at home every couple of days. Another told me that he now has a closer relationship with his father because they have a chat over a glass of wine each night."
The coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed many aspects of liquor consumption in China, having created a new environment for drinking and shifted sales from offline to online.
In the year's first half, China imported and produced less liquor than during the same period last year, but the country's producers and distributors expect sales to rebound in the second six months.
Mr Lu said there have been many changes because alcohol, which used to be drunk mainly at restaurants, has been consumed more often at home in the past six months.
"At business dinners, big brands are preferred, but when drinking at home, people opt for wine that is a good value," he said.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the red wine Caperucita Tinta has been one of the most popular in China, selling for 88 yuan (S$17) a bottle in many places. Produced in the Spanish city of Valencia, it is known in Chinese as Xiao Hong Mao - a reference to the red hoodie on the label.
Mr Luan Dawei, 47, general manager of wine sales company Jiashijiu, which has been importing Caperucita Tinta for five years, said three million bottles have been sold in China so far this year.
He believes a key reason for the wine's popularity is that it is "light-bodied and juicy", making it easy to drink. The distinctive label is also a standout feature.
Mr Luan's team has placed the wine in more than 100,000 stores across China, and it has also appeared in films. He expects 10 million bottles of Caperucita Tinta be sold in the country this year.
He said: "This wine sells well on the Internet, because the pandemic has stopped face-to-face recommendation in restaurants and stores."
According to the China Chamber of Commerce of Import and Export of Foodstuffs, Native Produce and Animal By-products, in the first five months of this year, the country imported 478 billion litres of liquor, a year-on-year fall of about 30 per cent.
Beverage purchasing specialist Han Liwen from Freshippo, Alibaba's online-to-offline grocery chain, said sales of liquor priced at 200 yuan to 400 yuan a bottle have risen significantly since the outbreak started, in contrast to an overall market decline.
Mr Jiao Guoqiang, general manager of COFCO W&W International, said: "We have broadened our online platforms to sell more wines and are using additional personnel.
"Before the pandemic, we only focused on JD and Tmall. Now, we are opening stores on Suning, Pinduoduo and NetEase."
Mr Jiao said that since May, the company has hosted a series of livestreaming shows on the JD and Douyin platforms in conjunction with tastings at its 50-plus stores nationwide. By last month, the shows had been watched more than 1.7 million times.
"We have introduced wine courses to the livestreaming shows, and customers have welcomed them," he said. "Before the pandemic, clients may have objected to tasting classes being held with a wine master talking on screen, but now they readily accept this."
Mr Jiao said the market started to recover in May, with the company's sales rising by 100 per cent from the previous month. He is confident about the second half of this year, as he feels that linked online and offline marketing will attract more customers.
"We are planning to organise 100 livestreaming shows this year," he said.
Mr Lu, the wine specialist, said: "Liquor purchasing is mostly based on trust. Once customers trust online platforms, they will get used to this form of buying."
But he still prefers to drink with friends while dining at restaurants, as he believes that wine is "all about the experience".