President Obama wants to double U.S. exports within five years. With this in mind he recently sent Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to Hong Kong to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Cooperation in Wine-Related Businesses. The press release says that
The United States is one of the leading wine-producing countries in the world, and American wines have been growing in stature internationally for decades as people around the world have learned what American wine producers and consumers have known for years: American wines are outstanding,” Locke said. “Working with the Hong Kong government, we want to create opportunities to heighten exposure to American wines in Hong Kong and the region. This MOU will help do just that.
“Hong Kong and the region” … I think that would be code for China. Everyone wants to crack the Chinese market, something that is easier said than done. I’ve written about this problem before (see “Wine and the China Syndrome”). Sean, one of our recent graduates, wrote his senior thesis on the challenges and opportunities of exporting Washington wine to China. Sean identified a number of significant political, economic and cultural barriers that American wine exporters must overcome. He was optimistic regarding the long term, but very cautious about short term success. (Secretary Locke, you might want to give Sean a call.)
Cracking the Chinese Market
Everyone looks hungrily at China with its growing economy and expanding consumer base. But it is hard to break in. Bulk wine imports are substantial (imported wines get blended with local products and labeled “Chinese wine”), but at unsustainably low prices. No future there.
France and Spain have had better luck. The French have been able to leverage their reputation and the prestige of their finest producers to carve out a attractive niche markets for Bordeaux and Champagne as luxury products.
The Spanish achieved success through old fashioned hard work. They have partnered with Chinese wine producers in both production and distribution. If Chinese wines are improving in quality (and I understand they are) then this is at least in part due to technical improvements facilitated by joint ventures.
Miguel Torres has been particularly active in partnerships and ventures of all sorts. You might be interested in their everwines project, which was recently launched in an attempt to develop a western style Chinese wine culture. If you check out the site be sure to click on the Online Shopping link to purchase a variety of international wines in the $20 range and also Opus One for about $550 and a first growth Bordeaux for more than $1200.
Any Port in a Storm
The U.S. is obviously not the only wine producing country with China on its mind and I was pleased to receive an invitation from ViniPortugal to participate in their recent China seminar program and tasting of Portuguese wines. Sixteen winemakers flew from Lisbon to Beijing to present and promote their wines. A good chance to observe this Old World wine country’s China strategy in action.
Beijing is a long way to go for an afternoon tasting, so I was represented by my crack China wine research team, Matt Ferchen (Assistant Professor of International Relations at Tsinghua University) and Steve Burckhalter (who works as a translator for the Chinese public relations firm BlueFocus). Matt and Steve are former students of mine at the University of Puget Sound and keen observers of rapidly changing Chinese markets.
Matt said that he was impressed with the wines he tasted.
The first wines I tasted, and the ones I ended up liking the best, were from a cooperative called Adega Coop. De Borba. A couple of the wineries were family owned and there was a kind of earthiness to the wines that I really enjoyed. I was especially impressed with the Portuguese whites, which were all very crisp and I think would go very well with spicy Chinese food.
I find that most of the wines available in Beijing, both foreign and Chinese, are expensive and mediocre or cheap and bad. Across the board the price to quality ratio was just excellent and I really hope that some of these wineries can find distributors here … [but] …there was only one of the wineries that had any presence in Beijing.
So the product is good and a good value. But that doesn’t necessarily solve the Chinese market puzzle.
Most of the representatives seemed rather disappointed that the turnout at the tasting was quite small and that many of those who were in attendance weren’t in the wine business (i.e. they didn’t see many prospects for finding distributors even if they found possible retail customers). I was asking some of the representatives why Portugal seemed so far behind Spain in terms of entering the Chinese market, especially given what seemed to me the outstanding quality of their product. The answer mostly just seemed to me a question of focus, that somehow the Spanish wine organization was just more aggressive about getting Spanish wines to China and advertising.
Steve also commented on quality and value — and the problem of focus and establishing reputation.
The[seminar] speaker, who I believe was a Chinese man from Macau, noted the long history of wine making in Portugal, the long time presence and popularity in Macau (“We drink this all the time in Macau”), the diversity of wines they are able to grow thanks to the wide range of different climates in Portugal, wines unique to Portugal – such as a “green wine” they grow in the North, which he reasoned would do well in China, being ‘fruity and sweet’ – and finally he also stressed that “Nearly all Portuguese wines are reasonably priced. It’s hard to find any in excess of 2000 RMB.”
He also expounded on why Chinese outside of the Southeast regions don’t care for white wines, which I found interesting. As for the growers and the distributors, there was some diversity to be found in “Brand Portugal”. Interestingly, some were insistent on showing tasters how they straddled both New and Old World wine making (actually, the speaker also touched on this, going on about a vineyard that had invited Australian winemakers to teach them in the ways of new world wine). Others, however, were insistent that they were exclusively Old World – “Portugal is Old World. How can it be New World – that’s not us.”
In response to how they were looking to position their wines, one of the winery reps said that they were looking to focus on promoting, above all, their grapes: the varieties, why they grow so well in Portugal, etc. And their other edge (which I heard from several people) is in pricing, “what you get for X RMB in a Portuguese wine is better than what you get for X RMB in a French wine.” That tended to be the dual answer whenever someone brought up how Chinese people generally went straight for French or Italian wines.
A Wineglass Half Full. Red or White?
Based on Matt and Steve’s reports you can be either an optimist or a pessimist regarding Portuguese wines in China. The upside is that there are many potential advantages, cost being one of them. It is obvious that Portuguese winemakers would like to be seen as a “value” fine wine and avoid the cheap and anonymous bulk wine trap. Good thinking.
But then there is a bit of an identity crisis. Old World or New? Well, both – a harder sell. Focus on regions or grapes (or both)? That requires a substantial sustained education program.
Even the most basic question is problematic: red or white? Westerners know that crisp whites like Vinho Verde taste great with Asian foods – great to westerners, anyway. But, as has often been said, the first duty of wine in Asia is to be red.
I’m cautiously optimistic about Portuguese wines in China, especially if they can settle on the right focus and sustain the education/marketing efforts. But they have a long way to go. Steve reports that “I noticed at a store (targeting Western tastes) last night the only Portuguese wines (out of hundreds and hundreds) were four Ports. Haven’t been to Carrefour in a while, but I bet it’s the same deal.”
Good luck to Portugal – and to American winemakers, too, of course. China is a key market for the future. But scaling the Great Wall is a real challenge and many will fail in the attempt.