Champagne has been the drink of parties and celebration since the 18th century and a lot of it was consummed in Old Shanghai. In 1934, about 42.000 bottles of French Champagne where imported in China, mostly through Shanghai port.
Champagne was served in the many private parties organised then. It is public knowledge that Champagne was flowing freely at Victor Sassoon’s party. Drinking Champagne at a wealthy Chinese mansion in Shanghai is mentionned in “Shanghai secrets” by Jean Fontenoy, the editor in chief of French newspaper “Le journal de Shanghai”. Champagne was also available in the numerous restaurants, bars, clubs and dancings in the city.
Above picture is the first page of the Sun Sun sky terrace wine list displayed in previous post (See post “French wines in Old Shanghai“). Lines 1 to 4 are famous Champagne brands that are again available in Shanghai today : 1 Pommery, 2 Veuve Cliquot, 3 Mumm Cordon Rouge, 4 Piper Heidsieck. Champagne was already very expensive then, as a bottle of the best Champagne was 30$, 3 times more than Chateau Lafite from Bordeaux or Corton from Burgundy. There was a real premium for sparkling wines as the cheapest on the list was more expensive than the best red wines.
Importing Champagne was a big business for a number of French companies that were the Champagne houses agents in Shanghai. French company Racine & Cie was the agent of Champagne Heidsieck mentionned above. Racine & Cie was one of the major agents for French companies in Shanghai, with its GM Jean Donné being a member of the board of the French Chamber of Commerce in 1930. Racine & Cie also imported French tinned food (See post “Vegs in a can” for more details).
Mumm Cordon Rouge Champagne was imported by smaller French import company Optorg, with advertising in “Le Journal de Shanghai”. The above ad is about 14th July 1931, with the following caption : “To upstand your reputation and match the taste of yours guests, serve them Mumm”. In Shanghai as well, serving French Champagne was seen as a matter of high taste.
Although not in the Sun Sun restaurant drink list, Lanson Champagne was imported in Shanghai by British trading firme Calbeck MacGregor. Above ad is from Le Journal de Shanghai 1st January 1932.
Other sparkling wines from France were also available in China, including Loire Valley Veuve Amiot, imported by leading French trading company Olivier Chine. Above picture shows 2931 bottles to Tientsin (today Tianjin) and 3642 to Shanghai.
The previous post was about wine import in 1920-1930s Shanghai (see post French wines in Old Shanghai for details). France was the largest provider for imported wine. Being orginally from Burgundy, I did some research into this specific region that was then famous for its wines and is even more famous today.
Burgundy wines where famous among the elite in 1920s and 1930s Shanghai. The most famous person drinking Burgundy wine was surely Sir Victor Sassoon, owner of the Sassoon house hosting the World famous Cathay hotel and many other buildings in Shanghai. Sir Victor Sassoon wrote a journal and during a trip to France on 2nd August 1934, he had diner as leading Paris restaurant La Tour d’Argent where he was served Clos Vougeot 1925. He must have really liked it as it ordered 24 bottles of it and probably took them to Shanghai.
As shown in previous post, 1939 wine list of famous Sun sun department store Sky Terrace included Burgundy whites such as Chablis 1929, Meursault 1923 (with a spelling mistake) and Pouilly-Fuissé. Burgundy red were Pommard 1929, Corton 1929 and Macon 1929. It has to be noticed that 10 years old wines were sold and served in restaurants. Even the Burgundy white table wine was from 1933, i.e. 6 years old. Burgundy wines at that time were kept for years before being drunk. Although they still can be kept for decades is properly stored, they are often drunk much younger now. It is noticeable that Burgundy wines were more expensive than Bordeaux at that time in Shanghai.
Some Burgundy houses tried to get into the Asian market using the French colonies as a springboard in the early 1920s until the mid 1930s. While Indochina (today Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) was the largest area controlled by French in Asia, China with its large population was the main target. In a way similar to today, wine houses had agents in Shanghai that would purchase the wines and resell it being both importers and distributors.
French wine in bottles was mostly handled by French people. Just like today, major trading companies imported wines in their portfolio. Above picture shows an add for wine from Dufouleur, a wine house in Nuits-Saint-Georges that is still making wines today. Their wines were imported and distributed by Racine & Cie, one of the major French trading company in Shanghai that also advertised for imported canned vegetables (see post Vegs in a can for further details).
In the same way, smaller import company Rondon was the sole agent for large wine maker and trader, or “négociant” in French, Bouchard Ainé. They already had large range of Burgundy wines imported in Shanghai by agents L. Rondon & Co. Now property of Burgundy wine power house Jean-Claude Boisset, Bouchard Ainé has been back in today’s China since the early 2000.
Trading company Hirsbrunner was the importer of négociant Jules Regnier. Their ads in the press were more interesting than an simple list of wines as they also tried to link their wines with history. The bottled displayed were Grand Chambertin and sparking Burgundy. Jules Régnier & Co does not exist anymore, but I found a picture of their cellar and heaquarters in Dijon.
Burgundy wine history was studied in depth by French scholar Christophe Lucand, who is also the Mayor of Gevrey-Chambertin, one the famous Burgundy village and my home town. While Indochina (today Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) was the largest area controlled by French in Asia, China with its large number of people was the main target. Just like many other manufacturers in Europe and the US, Burgundy winemakers dreamed of having millions of Chinese drinking their wines sending back huge profit. Burgundy wine makers where by far not the only ones having this dream and similar stories are told in fantastic Carl Crow’s book “400 customers”.
Converting large number of Chinese to drink wine was a complete failure and the effort to bring Burgundy wine to China ended in the mid 1930s. Still, foreigners in China’s concession as well as elite Chinese seemed to have enjoyed those wines a lot. It took another 90 years for Burgundy wines to become famous in China, where they now are the darling of wine lovers imported by numerous trading companies.
Foreigners who built Shanghai brought their drinking habits with them. Chinese people had been drinking various kind of rice alcohol for centuries, but foreigners brought new kinds of alcoholic drinks. Beer, Gin, Whisky came in as well as wine. Pictures of the Ruan Lingyu “love & Duty” showed wine and Brandy being served and drunk in 1930s Shanghai (see post “Love and Duty” for more details). This is also visible on below wine list of the Sun Sun department store sky terrace, one of the fashionnable restaurant in the 1930s.
Wine import in China in the 1930s was quite a big business, as shown in yearly customs report “The Trade of China”. This gives significant statistics and data about import in China. Details are provided on alcoholic drinks in various categories. I looked at the 1933 and 1934 statistics.
Champagne is the first wine listed in the statistics. 33 986 liters of Champagne were imported in 1933, and 36 551 liters in 1934. Of this, 77% was from France in 1933 and 86% in 1934. At that time, the name of Champagne was not yet protected so Champagne could be made out of the French Champagne region. Other countries included Italy and Great Britain (probably re-exporting). Unsprisingly, about 2/3 of the import went through Shanghai Port, 1/3 through Tianjin Port.
The next category is “Still Wines, in bottles”. Red or whites were unfortunately not separated. Just like today, this was surely the most expensives wines that were transported bottled. 46 085 litters were imported in 1933 and 38 323 in 1934. Out of this, France had 54% in 1933 and 41% in 1934. Second place was Germany with 20% in 1933 and 25% in 1934, that was probably all white wine. Italy came third with 10% in 1933 and 19% in 1934. Main port of entries were Shanghai with 62% and Tianjin 17%. Mengtsz came in with 12%. Since the city was the main place for France in South Yunnan, it was surely import from French Indochina transported on the famous French Yunnan railways.
The last category is “Still Wines, in bulk”. Lower quality wines were transported bulk to be bottled locally. In 1933, 677 289 liters of wine were imported in bulk, in `1934 896 739. This is 14.75 times more than import of bottles in 1933 and 23.44 more times in 1934. France was the leader in the market with 46% market share in 1933, and a stagering 85% in 1934. The country faced massive overproduction of wine in those years and took action to massively export its surplus. Spain was second with 43% in 1933, and a market sharply reducing to 7% in 1934. Italy was third with 13% in 1933 and 4.8% in 1934. Other countries Chile, Egypt, Germany, UK, Greece, Japan, Palestine and Portugal.
Just like today, wine was a major export for France. When wine consumption was mostly in Shanghai in the 1930s, it has now grown all over China and import volumes are counted in hundreds of million of litters. Still the first country of origin for wine import in 2019 was France with 30%. Followed Australia, where winemaking was still in its beginning in the 1930s, with 26%. Third came Chile with 16%, then Spain with 11% and Italy with 6%. Just like in the 1930s, imported wine in Shanghai today is mostly from France.