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Could Albariño Substitute Hot Tea during a Traditional Chinese Meal?

Our Chinese correspondent, Edward Ragg, recently sat down with Honorio Noya Dominguez, a native of Barrantes in the heart of the Salnes Valley, part of the Rias Baixas DO, to explore the future of Albarino wines in China. Honorio is the export manager for the producer Veiga Serantes, although, as part of a small family operation, is actually involved in every stage of the wine-making process. He has lived in the UK, Ireland and Germany and his passion for travel has undoubtedly helped in researching new markets, as he aims to bring great Albariño to the world. He began visiting China in 2007 and has remained a repeat visitor.

You work for Veiga Serantes, a top-quality Albariño producer in Rias Baixas. This is your second visit to China. What would you say is the current situation for Spanish wines in China?

Well, the wine-world in China is developing really quickly, like almost everything over here, mainly in certain urban centres: Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou etc.. The interest in wine is growing in both expatriate and, most importantly, local sectors. No one is selling a lot of wine yet, but the range of wines is changing quickly; and, although wine education is in its infancy, Chinese consumers seem to be learning equally fast. The image of Spain as a quality wine producing country is not very solid here, and a lot of work will have to be done to achieve the recognition and status Spain really deserves. Most Chinese consumers are not really aware of Spain as a major wine producer, although it is potentially a plus-point to have the traditional image of an Old World country with a number of prestige estates and notable wines (Riscal, Murrieta, Vega Sicilia, Mas La Plana etc.) already in the market. The fact that Torres China has been here for over ten years also obviously helps.

Do you think Albariño has a specific future in China or is it still too early to say?

It is too early to say really, as there is next to no Albariño in China yet. But I see a very good future ahead, as Rias Baixas wines are generally of very high quality already and are gaining recognition in lots of other markets (UK, USA, Puerto Rico, Germany etc.). Albariño’s aromatic profile, its citrus and peach aromas and its refreshing acidity also make it a great match with many different types of Asian and specifically Chinese cuisines. I’ve read a number of articles by different Asian wine connoisseurs who cite Albariño as one of the most interesting grape varieties from a food-and-wine matching point of view. And Rias Baixas has put Albariño on the map like no other region.

What would you say are the challenges Spanish wineries face in exporting to China?

Well first of all, I would cite the cultural differences. Clearly, China’s is a very different market from both major Western markets and other developed wine markets in Asia. China is not Hong Kong, although foreigners frequently confuse these two totally different markets, and it is nothing like Japan, Korea, Singapore or even Malaysia, both in terms of development and cultural expectations. Marketing strategies have to be attuned to each market. As there are no really big wine brands established in China, the door is open for innovative approaches, but it’s critical to get local advice. What looks like a good idea from your home region needs testing before entering China.

Then I would say that the fierce competition already existing in the Chinese market is not something to underestimate. Spain is not in a strong position in China as France, Australia and Chile tend to dominate. Other countries, particularly France and Australia, are generally much better at marketing their wines internationally than Spain is too; so that is a challenge. Also, the major importers for international wines here: ASC, Aussino, Torres China, Summergate etc. already have quite full lists and, whilst they are seeking new wines, it is much harder now to enlist the support of a major importer. Thankfully this has opened the door to smaller outfits as well.

One other challenge is the level of investment required to get into the market in the first place. It is almost impossible for small to medium-sized wineries to compete, unless they offer premium products and thereby have the funds to support their wines. The distribution companies that are well established here are either looking at cheap wines for big distribution or premium wines that can pay for themselves, so to speak. So you need a marketing budget before you start really or very good contacts on the ground.

Finally, the customs procedures can be hard to get your head around and can be very time-consuming generally. Getting all the right paperwork together can be a problem. Even if you get your wines here storage temperatures and general handling can be difficult too. Wineries need to ensure that they are dealing with a company that has the proper logistics to handle wines safely and at the right temperatures.

How would you describe the relationship between Spanish commercial and trade bodies and Spanish wineries when it comes to thinking about China as an emerging market?

Well, there are various bodies you can approach. The Spanish Chamber of Commerce has offices or representatives in various Chinese cities. Icex and Igape are also worth approaching. I think it’s really helpful, though, to try to visit the country for yourself or make contacts with importers or consultants on the ground. Everything is based on relationships in China. If this is true in most industries, it has added importance in China culture. So personal contacts are critical.

ER: Veiga Serantes wines are mainly consumed within Spain, but you now also export to the UK and are seeking markets in the US, Germany and China. Is this what drew you to China yourself?

Veiga Serantes is exported to the UK, Puerto Rico, and we have recently sent a small shipment to Japan. Our international target markets are the US and Germany at the moment. China is a different story, as it was initially just personal interest in Chinese culture that led me here. At the same time, I am obviously taking this opportunity to study the market and weigh possibilities. I’m pleased to see that there is already some potential market for Veiga Serantes wine here. There are already some consumers demanding white wines of high quality in a market in which red wines are usually all the rage. This is encouraging. Of course, I know selling more unusual aromatic whites is going to be a slow process that must take some time. But the important thing is to get positioned.

ER: What role can Spanish restaurants play in helping to promote Spanish wines in China? You’ve tried some Spanish restaurants in Beijing. What do you think of those?

Well, Spanish restaurants are a reference point here. Nowadays, as in other parts of the world, Spanish cuisine, especially tapas, is becoming increasingly well-known. Of course, in an undeveloped wine market it is not uncommon to see a range of international wines on restaurant lists. So you can visit Spanish restaurants here that don’t actually have much Spanish wine or only a small selection! But this will improve. Certainly, Spanish restaurants should play a major role in showing what Spain can achieve as a gastronomic force. Its wines and regional cuisines must be a part of that. Spanish restaurants should really be the window-display for Spanish wines.

Albarino can pair very well with different types of Chinese food. Would you say Spanish wines can match with many Chinese dishes? If so, do you have any suggestions?

I simply don’t know enough about China’s many cuisines. But I’ve found that Albariño’s strong aromatic profile is a good foil to many robust flavours. At the same time its delicacy means it will work with light Cantonese dishes. It’s very flexible.

What do you think of the current Spanish wines in the Chinese market? What would you like to see more of?

Well, there is a notable presence already in the market, with a wide range of wines, from entry-level wines to very high quality ones. What I would like to see more of is wines from small to medium size wineries like ours, where each wine has a more personal character and a kind of exclusivity that is both affordable and of high-quality. Obviously, with time, it would be nice to see more than just Rioja and Ribera wines, to have wines from all over Spain and also to have more Cava and more Sherry and sherry-style wines in the market. Ideally, Spain’s great diversity should shine through.

Edward Ragg is a wine consultant and educator based in Beijing, China. He is married to Fongyee Walker and together they run Beijing’s first fully independent wine consultancy company, Dragon Phoenix Fine Wine Consulting.

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