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Part 3: Confessions of a Chinese Wine Consultant

Studying Wine in ChinaFirst, a quick word of apology. Back in December I really thought I would be able to continue this series promptly and present some juicy stories on the fate of Iberian wines in China only a few weeks after my second post: what turned out to be a lengthy out-pouring of vinous adventure in two extended pieces (Confessions of a Chinese Wine Consultant Part 2 and Part 2 Continued).

But reality caught up in preparing to leave the PRC for a whole’s month hectic travel. By mid-January Fongyee and I were on our way to the UK which, although downbeat in the face of the economic situation, at least offered some lovely bottles at the Richards Walford trade tasting (Richards Walford is the wholesale fine wine importer from whom everyone else in the UK seems to buy…). Before we knew it, we were then off to Napa Valley where Fongyee began the Master of Wine programme at Yountville and I sampled a new wine education organization (‘new’ to me), the Society of Wine Educators, sitting the Certified Specialist in Wine exam in February.

Now back home – and with a mountain of Californian notes to load onto Adegga, new writing for The World of Fine Wine and our own languishing blog to update – strange though it sounds, writing for Catavino is a pleasant way of evading other responsibilities! But with Portuguese cork giant Amorim visiting Beijing only last week to present a detailed seminar on the latest research concerning wine closures, now’s also an appropriate time to get back to things Iberian in what is still, mercifully, a developing wine scene.

Before looking at the current situation, I thought I’d delve into the Catavino archives to find out what I’d written about Iberian wines in mainland China before. The first post had looked at what was available at Vinexpo Asia, Hong Kong, back in May 2008. Spain and Portugal had put on quite a show there, but it has to be reaffirmed that Hong Kong is not China, at least with respect to markets for wine; and even before the removal of duty, Hong Kong obviously had a more developed wine market than anything in mainland China anyway (being essentially international in nature like Hong Kong itself).

The second post tried to fill in that gap with thoughts and advice on what Iberian producers might do to further the message about their wines in the PRC. Some of the essential points remain. Chinese consumers have not been exposed to wide enough a range of Iberian wines. If they think about international wines, they are far more likely to talk about France, Australia and Chile (usually in that order) – although I once went into a Beijing supermarket to find Chilean wines in the France section (no doubt because of the Bordeaux packaging of the likes of Los Vascos).

Studying Wine in ChinaBut before saying a few words about what Spain and Portugal might do in competing with international wines here – be they Old World or New World – what about the threat from Chinese production? Certainly, the majority of the wine market here is Chinese: some 90% of the wines purchased are either Chinese or bottled in China (and still labelled as ‘Chinese’ if blended with local must/grapes). Although the import sector is growing, therefore, no one expects international wines to rival the Chinese wine market by volume.

Chinese wines also stack up favourably for consumers here because of the ‘patriotic buy’ and because, most of the time, they’re cheap (from 30RMB and up); although, this is relatively expensive compared with 500 ml bottles of beer on offer at 5RMB (I prefer the beer, personally). Television ads and other forms of barely developed but somehow effective marketing for Chinese wines also get the message across, of course. Great Wall was a sponsor of the Olympics and I usually find myself in elevators looking at TV ads unveiling dusty cellars for the likes of Dynasty or Changyu. You can’t beat them on the ‘mythology’-building side of promoting wine culture.

The major weakness for Chinese wines, though, is quality. This is where Spain and Portugal have nothing to fear, at least in terms of the wines these countries export in bottle as finished products (I’m not referring to bulk Spanish wine, but this is also actually better than most Chinese wines). I have reviewed some of the best and worst Chinese wines I’ve tasted on Adegga. Only Grace Vineyard of Shanxi province continues to show reliable quality; and Grace is handled by Torres China anyway (Torres being unlikely to let the image of Spanish wine be sidelined by the wines of Grace, a small producer in any case).

Of course, Chinese wineries producing in bulk are probably not worried or even aware about the low quality of the wines they are selling. But they probably should be worried for the future because any serious Chinese wine lover I’ve spoken to does not drink Chinese wine; and the younger generation of drinkers who can afford wine also tend not to ‘go Chinese’. After all, it’s much more interesting for new consumers to try something ‘foreign’; and given some food-and-beverage safety issues in China, young people here tend to trust foreign-produced products more anyway.

Quality can and in some cases will be improved. Agricultural giant Cofco – which owns Great Wall – has now begun importing wines and perhaps the competition will challenge the palates of Chinese winemakers to do something different (just as the Portuguese cork industry only really addressed TCA taint and other problems with cork when alternative closures appeared). Those who care about Chinese wine live in hope.

But what can Spain and Portugal do better alongside the likes of France, Italy and, say, Australia? I mention these countries because all three have made efforts to put on a collective face in China. For most Chinese consumers France essentially means Bordeaux and the buzz at the Beijing Union des Grand Crus tasting was palpable. The French are also supported by Sopexa in China, the organization which assists all French agricultural products. Italy too, despite labouring under possibly the most complex viticultural system in the world, tried its hand in the shape of VinItaly with tastings last year in Beijing and Shanghai. They were nothing like the Verona event, but were a definite start. VinItaly also seems to have attracted a bevy of Chinese wine journalists to this year’s Verona gathering. I can’t imagine these journalists will come away empty-handed or without some sense of what Italy can offer.

As for Australia, Wine Australia is a well-heeled and slick organization that keeps a close eye on developing markets in Asia and around the world. The relative simplicity of Australia’s labels is also obviously a bonus. Most Chinese who drink international wines will have heard of Australian Shiraz at the very least.

Spain and Portugal lack, therefore, a concerted, collective presence in China. The existence of Torres China (since 1998) does a lot to redress the balance, but even the Torres family cannot do everything required to help the wines reach a discerning audience or audiences.

Yes, there is an improving range of both Spanish and Portuguese wines here. But there is so much to do and education is clearly critical. But wineries shouldn’t doubt the level of enthusiasm and tasting capabilities of people here.

For example, last Sunday I led a group of all Chinese WSET students through a blind-tasting of Spanish and Portuguese wines. Their task was to detect:

a) which of the wines was a red Rioja Reserva (we had just learnt about oak ageing and Rioja’s production and labelling requirements)
b) which were made from Tempranillo and
c) which came from indigenous Portuguese varieties.

After the blind-tasting, I asked the group which wine was most oaked. All five students confidently picked the 2004 Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva we had thrown in the mix. Further discussion and they picked out the generic Tempranillo blend from Navarra as against the remaining Trás-os-Montes blend from northern Portugal.

Not only could they confidently spot what was distinctive about the Rioja, they liked it a lot too!

Cheers,

Edward Ragg

Edward Ragg & Fongyee Walker write for us from Beijing, and you can get more information on their website, Dragon Phoenix Fine Wine Consulting

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    I don't mean to be rude but it is just too funny to hear that the young Chinese themselves prefer foreign wine due to safety concerns.