Students learning to taste wine at WSET in London. [Photo provided to China Daily]
The United Kingdom's largest institution for teaching skills in the wine and spirits field has announced it is setting up its first ever international branch in Hong Kong to support China's surging demand for wine knowledge.
Industry analysts said the move comes as China's interest in wine and spirits is moving from social drinking toward connoisseurship.
The London-based Wine and Spirit Education Trust said on Tuesday its Hong Kong office, which opens in November, would allow Chinese students to have their exams marked locally. WSET currently offers classes to Chinese students through accredited schools in China.
In the 2015/16 academic year, a total of 13,141 candidates took its exams in China, a 38 percent year-on-year growth.
WSET already has 135 accredited course providers in China, including the China subsidiary of Berry Bros & Rudd, a high-end London wine merchant.
China's total bottled wine imports value in 2015 grew by 37 percent year-on-year to reach $1.9 billion, according to customs data.
Meanwhile, wine merchants say Chinese buyers are increasingly educated and sophisticated in their tastes.
"Wine drinking in China is no longer about Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chinese consumers are now more knowledgeable about exciting niche market wines," said Tobias Gorn, managing director of the London-based wine and whiskey agency Campbell and Gorn.
Gorn, who has sold wines and whiskeys to Chinese customers for 10 years, said Chinese buyers "have a thirst for knowledge", adding the WSET qualification's British brand appeal boosts its popularity in China.
Gorn's views are echoed by Charles MacLean, a consultant for several whiskey brands in China.
"Chinese consumers now understand wine and whiskey is not about ganbei (toasting). They now take time to smell and taste the drink, to appreciate it."
Ganbei is the Chinese for "cheers", translated literally as "empty the glass".
MacLean said China's fast wine market growth is creating a huge number of jobs for wine merchants and sommeliers, of whom many look to WSET for qualifications.
WSET had 72,171 students in the 2015/16 academic year, with China overtaking the United States to become the second-largest group, just behind the UK. WSET's courses first became available to Chinese students in 2006.