Who drinks more wine – the Chinese or the Japanese?

Australian brand Yellowtail is one of the strongest in Japan, with 29% awareness among the nation's regular wine drinkers (Xia Li/Flickr)

Isn’t the answer obvious? The Chinese, with their thirst for fine French wines, New World reds and keenness to plant vineyards over the past five years, easily outstrip the economically stressed, beer-loving Japanese.

Actually that’s completely wrong. According to Wine Intelligence – which questioned 1,193 regular wine and sparkling wine drinkers this April – the average Japanese adult consumed 3.02 liters of wine in 2013 (+11% versus 2012) and more than double what the Chinese drank per capita. In China the figure actually fell.

“Japan doesn’t attract the sort of media attention we see for the Chinese wine market, and clearly in terms of absolute scale it’s a much smaller concern,” writes Graham Holter, associate director, publishing for Wine Intelligence, of the world’s 16th largest wine market where 35m nine-liter cases were sold in 2012.

Almost half of Japanese adults enjoy wine regularly

“But already almost half the adult population of Japan is drinking wine on a regular basis…and our most recent tranche of consumer research gives us every reason to believe that this growth will be forthcoming,” Holter adds, introducing Wine Intelligence's extensive new paid for report on the nation's wine market - The Japan Wine Market Landscape.

The proportion of Japanese consumers drinking wine most days or daily has almost doubled since 2012 to 47.4m or 46% of the population, according to Wine Intelligence, while the proportion of regular wine drinkers (2-5 consumption occasions/week and once/month) is also up markedly.

Moreover, Holter says more Japanese consumers (21% in 2014 versus 15% in 2012) are seeking out unfamiliar wines (different varietals, sparkling products), and see wine as important to their lifestyle. More than a third of regular wine drinkers can now be described as ‘high involvement’ consumers.

Cash-strapped consumers see wine as a 'pricey purchase'

Despite supermarket dominance – Rakuten is the market leader, followed by Jusco and Ito Yokado – the number of consumers buying from specialist shops or online is growing, he adds, with increasing attention being paid to in-store recommendations or awards a wine has won.

What about the negatives? Well wages have not kept pace with inflation, and wine seems like a pricey purchase for a growing number of consumers, while a spring sales tax rise of 5-8% is expected to hit sales.

“Longer term there is the thorny issue of Japan’s aging population and low birth rate to contend with. In many growth markets the stimulus comes from younger consumers, which in Japan are in relatively short supply,” Holter writes.

“That means marketing efforts might need to be focused on existing consumers more than is the case in comparable markets,” he adds.

Another problem is relatively low consumer awareness for wine brands among regular wine drinkers compared with other nations: Topvalu has 37% recognition, followed by Sunrise (34%), and Yellow Tail (29%).

Japanese wine dominates, followed by French, Chilean, Spanish...

Drilling down into market specifics, Wine Intelligence says imports (24m cases) dominate Japan’s market – with French wines the most popular, followed by Chilean, Italian and Spanish wines.

That said, domestic wine has a strong market presence, with Japan the top country of origin drunk by Japanese wine consumers over the past six months (11m cases) followed by France and Chile.

And Japan’s consumers like bubbles, with sparkling wine sales up from 2.3m nine-liter cases in 3.5m in 2013; 98% of sparkling sold on the market is imported, and again France dominates with a 37% market share.

Red wine bosses the still scene with a 60% market share, followed by white wine (28%) and rose (12%).

Merlot has been the top growing red varietal between 2012-2014 (+8% to 32% market share), followed by Shiraz/Syrah, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Carmenere and Grenache – all up 3%.

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