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A wine-tasting event attracts aficionados at the Grand Hotel in Beijing.

SEAN GALLAGHER

Perhaps only in Beijing could Tian Chunna's job be so profitable: She teaches classrooms of Chinese business executives how to drink wine and look sophisticated while doing so.

Previously patrons of watery beers or throat-burning grain liquors, China's nouveau riche have taken to wine with gusto. They prefer it French, red and fruity; the more expensive, the better. Which means China is rapidly becoming one of the world's most important markets for winemakers, as sagging economic times drag down sales in Europe and dampen growth in North America.

"The people that contact me, they are often executives who do not know very much about wine," laughed Ms. Tian, a 32-year-old public relations specialist who charges up to $3,300 (beverages included) for a one-day session on how to look classy while you swirl, sniff and sip. (Free hint: Don't quaff the glass in one shot.)

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They tell me, "don't tell me so much about the bottle, I have no time to listen. Just give me something that costs 1,000 yuan, or 2,000 yuan [$160 or $320]" Ms. Tian said.

As China's economy roared through the past decade, it created a class of newly rich looking for ways to demonstrate their new social status. Ordering a bottle of expensive Bordeaux is one way of showing you've made it.

Retired Chinese basketball star Yao Ming is the latest to try to capitalize, this week launching a grown-in-California, sold-exclusively-in-China label called Yao Family Wines. The first offerings will be priced at near $300 a bottle.

"It depends on your living standards. At my level, the price of wine is fine," said Vivian Lee, a 28-year-old investment banker who attended a French wine fair held Sunday in Beijing's upscale Grand Hotel, on the edge of Tiananmen Square. The glass of white Bordeaux dangling from her hand completed her outfit of a low-necked leopard-print dress, diamond earrings and a fur-trimmed Versace coat, the latter thrown over her arm with the label facing out for easy reading.

Such Chinese consumers have become the hope of winemakers the world over. But some entrepreneurs aren't content just to sell and consume the wines that others produce; Chinese businessmen are snapping up vineyards in France and selling their entire output back home for prices – sometimes two or three times what they would sell for in Europe – that would raise disgusted eyebrows in Europe.

"Wine is seen as a status symbol in China," said Jerry Wang, the vice-president of SEEC Media Group, which this year began publishing a Chinese edition of La Revue de Vin du France, targeting a select mailing list of those with the ability to spend as much as $30,000 a year on wine.

As interaction with Western businesses deepens, wine is slowly replacing the pungent baijiu Chinese liquor on meeting tables, although the local culture of downing the entire glass in one swig has proven slower to change. "In China, people still drink wine very fast," Mr. Wang chuckled. "They gan bei it [a Chinese expression that means, dry your glass] Winemakers are very happy as a result."

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The label of choice for Beijing's bling set is Château Lafite Rothschild, a Bordeaux of which only 50,000 cases a year are produced. That popularity has caused supply shortages and eye-popping price rises: In one famous instance, a Chinese buyer paid $140,000 for two cases of the 2009 Lafite. The word "Lafite" ( la fei) has entered the Chinese street lexicon as an adjective to suggest anything of high quality.



Though wine still accounts for just 3 per cent of Chinese alcohol consumption, imports quadrupled from $250-million in 2004 to over $1-billion in 2009. The Middle Kingdom is now the world's seventh-biggest wine market, on the verge of surpassing the United Kingdom.

Some worry the subtleties of wine appreciation are being lost in the all the excited imbibing. "Wine is used differently in China than in France. For Chinese, to purchase a great wine is like buying jewellery, something you put on your table to be admired. That's their culture, but it's not how wine should be used, " said Olivier Poussier, a Frenchman and former world sommelier of the year.

But Mr. Poussier wasn't complaining too loudly about the market that may just help his country's wine industry survive the swirling economic troubles in Europe.

He was in Beijing this weekend lecturing a ballroom full of Chinese hotel managers and sommeliers on the art of selecting and pouring wines. When he finished speaking, Mr. Poussier was asked by attendees to pose for a string of photographs. One fan even asked the celebrity sommelier to sign a leather corkscrew case. "This only happens when I'm in Asia," he said with a bewildered smile.

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