Sales of Chianti, Pinot Grigio and other samples from Italy's 300-plus wine denominations accounted for barely five percent of the $2.4 billion dollars worth of wine that the world's most populous nation imported in 2016.
Of that total, 44 percent by value was sourced from France. Australia, Chile and Spain are also ahead of Italy in seducing the palates of China's burgeoning middle class.
"It's a pity. Italian producers have been slow to get into the market," says Andrew Tan, a Brunello di Montalcino enthusiast in charge of procurement for 1919, one of China's biggest liquor retailers.
With a network of more than 1,000 stores and an online platform, 1919 sent Tan to last week's Vinitaly trade fair in Verona.
Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP
His mission: to find Italian wines capable of matching the success of popular Australian brands like 'Jacob's Creek' and 'yellow tail' in the entry-to-middle sections of the Chinese market.
"We are coming in to cooperate with big wineries on branding," Tan told AFP. "We want to co-own the brands and we promote them - that is what we are talking to several big producers about."
Tan also sees potential for smaller Italian wineries at higher price points, and for Italy's top-end Barolos, Brunellos and Amarones as fine-wine investors expand their horizons beyond Bordeaux and Burgundy.
But first Italy has to find a way into homes where glasses are currently filled by beer or spirits.
"We have to cut short the distribution channel and get a good price for the consumer," Tan says.
The simple brands message is not easy to get across in a country of more than 300,000 wineries with an unrivalled diversity of grape varieties and styles of winemaking.
"Everyone has to understand that nobody in China knows what Italian wines are," says Stevie Kim, the managing director of Vinitaly International.
Kim has made cracking the Chinese market a joint priority alongside retaining Italy's market-leading role in the United States, whose import market is currently twice the size of China's.
She says Italian producers have a USP of being able to offer better value than rivals at every price point, but accepts it will take time to make gains in China.
"I am not worried about China producing more wine itself," she says. "Look at what happened in the United States after California took off. It is very important that the Chinese start drinking lots and lots of wine. Only then will they go into other wines and that is when we have to be ready."
Suzanne Mustacich, the author of "Thirsty Dragon", an award-winning account of Bordeaux's phenomenal success in China, says it will be an uphill struggle.
"Italy lacks the brand recognition and association with luxury, history and quality enjoyed by Bordeaux in China," she says. "And Bordeaux's success did not happen overnight, China was on their radar for a very long time."
Italy's gains in the US have been helped by success in restaurants, aided by the large Italian diaspora.
Strength in diversity
That's not an option in China but food can still be Italy's way-in, says Marco Pizzoli, a Shanghai-based executive for Italian wine group GIV.
"The potential is clearly there because wine is a trendy product, especially with millennials," Pizzoli said.
"Compared to countries like Italy and France where we have consumption of more than 30 litres per head (per year), in China we are still around 1.2-1.5 litres."
Educating potential consumers is key, he argues. "Italian restaurants are important but we should try to work more with local restaurants, which is where there is really the big potential."
Matching the aromas and flavours of Chinese food to wine is notoriously difficult. In the West, experts frequently recommend aromatic, off-dry wines, such as Gewurztraminer.
Yet in China, it is structured, dry and often tannic reds based on Cabernet Sauvignon that have captured the market - contributing to Australia, Bordeaux and Chile's success.
While the Bordeaux boom was often associated with conspicuous consumption of a kind now frowned upon by the authorities, Tan sees the next stage of China's wine development being about evolving consumer tastes.
Like Pizzoli, he sees the Chinese joining the Prosecco party going on in many mature wine markets.
"Bubbles are getting more popular and it is still on the low end. Prosecco it is not too expensive to drink and I think just given a little bit of hard work it can give a very good volume."
And in the longer run, Italy's complex wine landscape could be an asset, says Pizzoli. "It is difficult in the beginning but later on, when people are looking for something different and special, then we could have an advantage."
By Angus MacKinnon