Category: Chinese

#HOTGV: On Bordeaux and the Chinese wine market with Suzanne Mustacich

For the ninth episode of Heard on the Grape Vine, I met with journalist and author Suzanne Mustacich at The Goring Hotel in London.Andre Simon 2015 drink book winner Suzanne Mustacich with Acting Chairman Nicholas Lander

Thirsty Dragon by Suzanne MustacichMustacich, who’s based in Bordeaux, writes regularly for Wine Spectator magazine on the region.

She had just won the prestigious Andre Simon Award in the drink category for her first book, Thirsty Dragon, which was presented at the hotel.

The book, published in November 2015 by Henry Holt, traces the ups and downs of China’s love for Bordeaux wines.

It covers Bordeaux’s increasing exports to China, particularly in the fine wine section, up to 2014, when the relationship between the buyers and sellers started changing. The stories of a few key characters are followed through the storyline to reveal the realities of the wine business in China.

During this epside of the podcast, we explore some of the themes covered in it, including Bordeaux export market, China’s ‘left-over women’ and the book’s heroes and villains.

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The Chinese Wine Market: an update from Château d’Anglés

 

Map of the South of France, Languedoc wines at Apero, Ampersand Hotel

Not long ago, I attended a tasting and dinner at Ampersand Hotel focusing on Languedoc AOC in the South of France. Specifically, we tasted a selection of wines from Corbières Boutenac AOC, La Clape AOC and Minervois La Livinière AOC.

I had the great fortune of sitting next to Vianney Fabre from Château d’Anglés, who was happy to discuss the Chinese wine market at great length.

Château d’Anglés has the pedigree

Château d’Anglés is a family owned vineyard in La Clape AOC. The owner and winemaker, Eric Fabre, was once winemaker at Château Lafite Rothschild. The pedigree, as you can imagine, is impeccable.

Vianney is the youngest of four siblings and worked for a while as the export manager at Bollinger. After joining the family business, he started looking after the sales side of things for Château d’Anglés, for which he spends much of his year travelling.

Menu, Languedoc wines at Apero, Ampersand Hotel

Château d’Anglés in China

China was a region that Château d’Anglés had always planned on entering. Part of the Château d’Anglés strategy was globalisation, spreading risk across multiple markets. Their foresight and knowledge about the local market is really quite impressive.

For China, the planning started some ten years ago with actualisation around six. They’re currently working with Jebsen Fine Wines on long term strategies, with a focus on the “second cities”. That is, outside the obvious targets of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong; though obviously those are still important.

I was excited to learn that the city I was born in, Chengdu, was definitely on their agenda; their wines will have to fight hard against the heavily Sichuan-peppered cuisine though.

The scene in China

Having just returned from an extensive sales trip to China, Vianney had some great insights into the Chinese wine market.

The biggest contrast between the UK and China is arguably culture, and this translates across to the wine market too.

Rather than purchasing wines from the supermarket or wine merchant as we might do here, the majority of the consumption comes from gifting. Gifting, corporate or otherwise, is indeed big business in China, especially around major festivals or holidays.

The other key market has been the army, which actually surprised me.

Wine doesn’t immediately strike me as the ideal choice for Chinese food when traditional Chinese offerings such as baijiu are an option but apparently it’s all down to ABV. Wine’s ABV peaks at around 15% while baijiu is more like 52%; less alcohol, less people getting drunk.

So what’s next?

Languedoc wines at Apero, Ampersand Hotel

As previously mentioned, Château d’Anglés is really focusing on the secondary cities and part of that is educating consumers.

Vianney suggested that the market was initially all about brands but it adapted very quickly to one which was equally interested in quality. More to the point, it was one which was particularly interested in value for money. And that’s perhaps why Château d’Anglés and other premium Languedoc wines have done particularly well in China.

In some respects, there’s also been changes in lifestyles to suit the wine. While white and sparkling wines have traditionally been rejected in favour of more palatable reds, tastes are changing. Sparkling, in particular, is seeing an increase in popularity owing to its enviable position in the luxury lifestyle market.

More than anything, it seems, China is a market that’s hungry for more. More wines, more knowledge and more diversity.

Is the Chinese wine market an illusion?

Purple grapes

When I woke up this morning, I was intent on writing about Georgian wines. Instead, I saw a tweet by Jancis Robinson and started thinking about the Chinese wine market.

The tweet was a link to a commentary by Wojciech Bońkowski on racism against Chinese wines. This was in relation to the uproar about the Chinese Cabernet, Jiabeilan 2009 from He Lan Qing Xue Winery, which recently won against some 500 other Bordeauxs in its category in the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Having read various articles on Chinese wine, I get the feeling that the buoyancy of the Chinese wine market is taken as an indicator of growing interest in wines from within China but I am dubious about the existence of this market. Without knowing much, or in fact anything aside from the trickles that comes through the broadsheets, about the current Chinese wine market it’s hard not to be sceptical.

The first Chinese wine I ever had, Great Wall, was drinkable but overtly sweet. Like all table wines, it’s intended more for lubrication of meal times than appreciation of its complex characteristics. But sweeter wines were always preferred when we gifted wine to Chinese friends and family. In fact, it was often easier to give sherry or port because it would be drunk and actually appreciated.

A few years later, the trend was to dilute wine with coke or orange juice to make it more palatable, especially when drinking in bars. But that could be as much a lack of appreciation for European style wines as the wine being bad to begin with. As Jancis Robinson pointed out in the FT, it’s something that still happens though, granted, less often. So there could be an increasing appreciation of wines on their own merits too. But I would like to know how much of that is from foreign nationals living in China, from Chinese nationals who had picked up the wine habit while living abroad and from Chinese nationals who have grown to love wine organically.

On the buying side of things, it’s my understanding that majority of international wines sold to China are through the Hong Kong markets. I am curious to know how much of that actually goes into mainland China to be consumed and how much of it is actually purchased by international buyers and then exported again at a mark-up. It also seems to be the case that the majority of wines sold are from Bordeaux. In a country where labels matter more than value, has it been a case of bidding for prestige rather than quality?

If this latest research by Wine Intelligence is to be believed though, there must exist in China some market and real appreciation for European style wines.

The question is, just how big is this market really?

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