The BRICs: Two Faces of Chinese Wine

This is the fifth in a series of articles on wine in the BRICs Brazil, Russia, India and China. Today I discuss the cultural contradictions of wine in China. Coming soon: wine in the New BRICs.

Wine, Fake Wine and Chinese Wine

China’s rise in the the world of wine is having many surprising effects. One of the most unexpected is this: apparently the most valuable bottle is my tiny cellar is an empty one — this jeroboam (double magnum) of 1994 Chateau Pêtrus. It is a souvenir of a particularly decadent party thrown by friends to celebrate their son’s graduation from college. Somehow I ended up with custody of the empty bottle.

Bottles like this are in high demand in China, according to recent news reports. Chinese entrepreneurs will reportedly pay up to £300 for an empty trophy wine bottle (especially Lafite), to be refilled with a lesser vintage wine and sold to gullible consumers or collectors. Provenance is important and condition matters:

“The bottles need to be in the best condition possible,” said another dealer, called Mr Ye, at a Shanghai company. “It is very important. And I only want genuine bottles, no fakes,” he added.

No fakes! I love it.

This sort of wine fraud is noteworthy just now because of all the attention that is focused on wine in China, but it there’s really nothing exceptional about this kind of scam. The story of The Billionaire’s Vinegar and its after-shocks suggest that fake wines are as common as fake Dalí prints — more common, actually, if you take Gallo’s embarrassing accidental purchase of bogus Pinot Noir into consideration.


But the story gets worse. A few weeks ago Chinese authorities raided 30 wineries in the Hebei region near Beijing (sometimes called “China’s Bordeaux)) for making chemical-laced fake wines.

CCTV’s footage showed a local sales manager admitting that some wines made in the coastal city of Qinhuangdao contained only 20 percent of fermented grape juice, with the rest being composed of sugar water mixed with chemicals, including coloring agents and flavorings.

Huang Weidong, a leading expert on the wine industry from the China Alcoholic Drinks Industry Association, said that the additives could cause headaches and irregularities in the rhythm of the heart, as well as cancer.

Solving the Puzzle

I’ve written about wine in China more than any of the other BRIC nations (follow the links in the next few paragraphs to read the posts), but fraud has only come up once before, in my report on Canadian Ice Wine.  China is a major market for this glorious elixir and some reports suggest that as much as a third of the stuff sold in China is bogus.

My reports on wine in China have been quite varied, covering a number of different topics. For example, China is on the verge of becoming a dominant force in global auction market for wine. I noted the change when Hong Kong dropped their punitive tariffs in an attempt to attract the auction houses and again in my report on last year’s Bordeaux en primeur circus.

In terms of the domestic market, I examined the factors that seem to be holding Chinese wine back in terms of quality and found that the biggest problems are in the vineyards, where China’s fragmented agriculture presents a roadblock. The best wines, like Grace Vineyards, come from wineries that have found ways to solve this puzzle.

Everyone wants to break into the Chinese market, including the Australiansespecially given their current problems — the Portuguese and some of my American friends, but the French have a (perhaps unfair) advantage.  The image of the great first growths casts a long shadow at present, although I expect that Chinese wine consumers will get smart soon. They are so savvy in everything else that I think they will develop a more sophisticated idea of wine pretty fast.

I note, for what it is worth, that President Obama made a point to serve some really excellent American wines to Chinese President Hu at the recent White House state dinner in his honor.  The Quilceda Creek Cab can compete with fine French wines and I’ll bet the Poet’s Leap dessert wine was a hit, too.

The Two Faces of Chinese Wine

So what do I think about Chinese wine today? Well, I am still concerned about the quality of the grapes themselves and the  supply chain that delivers them to the wineries, which I believe are the biggest roadblocks to development, not the fraud that is the focus today. But, that aside, I find myself surprisingly optimistic.

China gets a whole chapter my forthcoming book on the Wine Wars (you can now pre-order it on Amazon.com!). It starts with my first rather revolting taste of Chinese wine and ends, many pages later, with another tasting, this time of one of China’s most notable wines.  Here’s an excerpt from the final draft:

Our Grace Vineyards Cabernet Franc was a solid effort, we thought, but nothing special– a bit light compared American wines of this type. Writing in The Wine Economist, I noted a distinctive “green” taste I associate with wine made from under-ripe Cab Franc grapes. A problem in the vineyard, I speculated. Maybe the climate’s just too contrary to fully ripen these grapes.

A day later one of my readers lobbed in a counterargument.[i] Maybe, he said, that green flavor is intentional. He had heard that this particular flavor is familiar to Chinese consumers and that some Chinese wineries harvest grapes a bit earlier in order to achieve it. It wasn’t a flaw in the wine, he suggested, but a feature. Something that makes it Chinese wine, not a Chinese imitation of someone else’s wine. It’s the Chinese market terroir, if you will. Maybe the thinness that the critics note is another reflection of local taste?

That got me to thinking. Maybe we were judging Chinese wines by the wrong standards. What matters most? How I feel about the wines (and how they compare to international standards) or how the Chinese consumers look at them? Interesting question.  So I hit the books.

A little research turned up more evidence that the judgments of Western critics might be unfair to Chinese wines. Jeannie Cho Lee, Korea’s first Master of Wine, argues that Asian food and wine traditions prime consumers to think about wine differently and to appreciate different qualities in it.[ii] Why don’t Chinese wine drinkers appreciate that a crisp Pinot Gris pairs nicely with their cuisine? Well, Ms. Lee explains, many Asian cultures do not consume beverages (apart from savory soups) with their meals – they drink them before and after. White wines are generally chilled, of course, and most Asia drinks are warm or room temperature. And the sweetness of a Pinot Gris can seem unrefined to palates that are used to more complex sweet-sour flavor profiles.

Why such a fascination with Bordeaux? It could be the tannins, Ms. Lee argues, which are appealing to wine drinkers from cultures with a tradition of consuming very tannic teas. Even the basic flavor reference points are different, she explains. Westerners think of Pinot Noir in terms of raspberries and strawberries, for example, but the Asian descriptors would be yangmei (bayberries), dried wolfberries and dried bonito flakes! An Asian description of Sauvignon Blanc would start with pandan leaves and longan and move on to mangosteen – not a familiar flavor or aroma vocabulary for me. But I can relate a bit better to her description of Riesling: Thai white blossoms, lemongrass and green mangoes.

Hmmm. So maybe it’s time to rethink Chinese wine.

Wouldn’t it be great if the most important qualities of Chinese wines – the ones that Westerners reject — turn out to have been lost in translation and that a true indigenous Chinese wine culture evolved, one that reflects China’s history, cuisine and palate. I hope so because it would support my theory of the future of wine. Suffering just now from the excesses of globalization and Two Buck Chuck, China needs to unlock its inner terroirist soul!


[i] Thanks to Bob Calvert for this insight.

[ii] Jeannie Cho Lee, “Language of Taste,” Decanter (July 2009), pp. 78-79.

The BRICs: The New New World of Wine?

This is the first of a series of articles on wine markets in the BRICs. BRICs? Is that a wine term? No, although it sounds just like brix, a measure of a grape’s sugar level. Jim O’Neil of Goldman Sachs coined the term BRIC in 2001 to refer to  Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Initially many people suspected that BRIC was just a gimmick — a way to package four very dissimilar countries into an appealing acronym that would draw investor interest. If it was a strategic maneuver it was a brilliant one because of the way it captured the world’s imagination.

More than a Gimmick

“BRICs” is an attractive name for many reasons, perhaps especially because it looks and sounds like NICs — the Newly Industrialized Countries of Hong Kong, Singapore,  Taiwan and South Korea that have been so successful in the global economy.  There was some question initially about why these four particular countries were chosen (why Brazil and not Mexico, for example, and what about Turkey?) and what if anything they had in common, but the idea quickly caught on.

Today the BRICs are firmly established, as the Economist noted earlier this year in an article titled, “The BRICs: The trillion dollar club.”  The BRICs have turned into something real.  Why? According to the Economist

The BRICs matter because of their economic weight. They are the four largest economies outside the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the rich man’s club). They are the only developing economies with annual GDPs of over $1 trillion (Indonesia’s is only half that). With the exception of Russia, they sustained better growth than most during the great recession and, but for them, world output would have fallen by even more than it did. China also became, by a fraction, the world’s largest exporter.

In a recent Economist article (that included this provocative graph), Goldman’s O’Neil was asked to look ahead 25 years, from 2011 to 2036, and to speculate about the future.

One of the questions he raised was whether the BRICs would have greater total (but obviously not per capita)  income than the G-7 countries and what that might mean if they did. A good question to discuss … over a glass of BRIC wine.

The Future of BRIC Wine?

BRIC wine? Well, yes. All the BRIC countries produce wine and all are important wine markets for the future. As these economies grow, their expanding middle classes will be increasingly attractive target markets for the world’s wine makers and their wines will begin to appear on you local shop’s shelf.

China was the 6th largest wine producer in the world in 2007 according to International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV) statistics, with an estimated 12 million hectoliters of wine produced (for readers who still think in “English” units, a hectoliter equals 100 liters or a little more than 11 standard nine-liter cases of wine).

By comparison, #1 Italy and #2 France produced nearly 46 million hl each in 2007 followed by Spain (34 million hl), the U.S. (20 million hl) and Argentina (15 million hl). BRIC Russia was 11th in the global wine league table, with 7.3 million hl of output followed by Brazil in 15th place with 3.5 million hl.

India does not appear in the OIV wine statistics, indicating that its wine industry is quite small at present. But India definitely is on the wine map — the omnipresent Michel Rolland even has a client there (Grover Vineyards). India is already a major producer of table grapes, with 2007 production only a little less than Chile and the U.S. combined (that’s a lot of grapes), so it is not unreasonable to suppose that higher levels of wine grape production may follow. India would be on the wine BRIC list for its potential as wine import market, of course, even if it didn’t make any wine at all.

Solving the BRIC Puzzle

Some people in the wine industry dream that the BRICs will be the solution to the problem of global over-supply. OIV estimates that 266 million hl of wine was produced in 2007 but only 249 million hl consumed,  a gap of 17 million hl or about 200 million cases. Yikes! Do the BRICs have the potential to soak up all that extra wine and bail out the global industry?

Dream on, say the experts consulted for a 2009 article in Meininger’s Wine Business International. “Are the BRIC countries going to solve the problems of oversupply in the world today? I don’t think so,” said Arend Heikbroek, associate director for beverages at Rabobank (and one of the sharpest wine analysts I know). “It’s a long-term shot,” he continued, ” it’s complicated, each market is completely different. You need to understand the risk, the dynamics, the traders, the distribution system and the legal system in each of these markets.”

Fair enough. Each BRIC is its own particular puzzle, I guess, and it is too soon to know how they will fit into the bigger puzzle of global wine.

The BRICs will be important to the future of global wine even if they aren’t a silver bullet solution to current problems. They are the new new world of wine and we need to figure out what we know about them– and we don’t know.

In this series I’ll examine each BRIC wine market in turn starting with Brazil by bringing  together and synthesizing various published reports and then try to pull things together into a summary. I hope readers with particular expertise will leave comments to help broaden and deepen the analysis. So away we go!

The Wine Economist 200

This is The Wine Economist’s 200th post since it began a little more than three years ago under the name “Grape Expectations” —  a good opportunity to reflect briefly on readership trends, just as I did when we passed milepost 100.

Not that kind of list!

Milepost 200

The Wine Economist has an unusually broad readership given its focus (wine economics), content (no wine reviews, no ratings) and style (most posts are way longer than is typical for weblogs).

I never expected to get millions of visitors like Dr. Vino or Gary V. and other popular wine critic sites, so I’m surprised by how many people have found this page and come back to read and re-read.

About 200,000 visitors have clicked on these links, sometimes with surprising intensity. The Wine Economist has been ranked as high as #6 in the big “Food”  category where wine blogs are filed in Technorati‘s daily ratings and as high as the top 30 in the even broader “Living” group.

Reader Favorites

The most-read articles of the last few days are always listed in the right-hand column on this page, so it is easy to see track reader behavior. I thought you might be interested in readership trends since the blog began. Here are the top ten Wine Economist articles of all time.

  1. Costco and Global Wine — about America’s #1 wine retailer, Costco.
  2. Wine’s Future: It’s in the Bag (in the Bag in the Box) — why “box wine” should be taken seriously.
  3. The World’s Best Wine Magazine? Is it Decanter?
  4. [Yellow Tail] Tales or how business professors explain Yellow Tail’s success.
  5. Olive Garden and the Future of American Wine or how Olive Garden came to be #1 in American restaurant wine sales.
  6. Australia at the Tipping Point — one of many posts about the continuing crisis in Oz.
  7. No Wine Before Its Time explains the difference between fine wine and a flat-pack  antique finish Ikea Aspelund bedside table.
  8. How will the Economic Crisis affect Wine — one of many posts on wine and the recession. Can you believe that some people said that wine sales would rise?
  9. Wine Distribution Bottleneck — damned three tier system!
  10. Curse of the Blue Nun or the rise and fall and rise again of German wine.

As you can see, it is a pretty eclectic mix of topics reflecting, I think, both the quite diverse interests of wine enthusiasts and wine’s inherently complex nature.

My Back Pages

What are my favorite posts? Unsurprisingly, they are columns that connected most directly to people. Wine is a relationship business; building and honoring relationships is what it is all about.

KW’s report on the wine scene in Kabul, Afghanistan has to be near the top of my personal list, for example. I am looking forward to following this friend’s exploits in and out of wine for many years to come. (Afghan authorities found KW’s report so threatening that they blocked access to The Wine Economist in that country!)

Matt Ferchen and Steve Burkhalter (both former students of mine now based in China) reported on Portugal’s efforts to break into the wine market there. The commentaries by Matt, Steve and KW received a lot of attention inside the wine trade, but their thoughtful, fresh approaches also drew links, re-posts and readers from the far corners of the web world.

Looking back, I think my favorite post was probably the very first one, a report on my experiences working with the all-volunteer  bottling crew at Fielding Hills winery. I learned a lot that day about the real world of wine and I continue to benefit from my association with Mike and Karen Wade (and their daughter, Robin, another former student) who have taught me a lot about wine, wine making and wine markets.

Look for another report like this when The Wine Economist turns 300. Cheers!

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Thanks to everyone who’s helped me in various ways with these first 200 posts. I couldn’t have done it without you! (Special thanks to Sue, my #1 research assistant!)

Good News & Bad News from Oz

Sometimes the good news is that the bad news could be much worse. At least that’s how it seemed to me when the wine economists met at UC Davis last week to discuss the continuing Australian wine crisis.

Kym Anderson, a leading expert, spoke about the problems in Oz at the symposium on “Outlook and Issues for the World Wine Market” and I thought his assessment of the “challenges” Australia faces was pretty grim.  Big oversupply. Falling grape prices. More and more quality grapes sold off at fire-sale prices in the bulk market (40% this year compared to 15% in the past).

The best selling white wine type in Australia isn’t from Australia any more — it’s Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Even the Australians are tired of “Brand Australia” Chardonnay!

Maybe, Baby

Professor Anderson looked for a light at the end of the tunnel and was able to point to some potential sources of relief. Maybe water reforms could be implemented. Maybe R&D to help the industry deal with climate change would produce results. Maybe the new export strategy to promote Australia’s regional diversity and wine families would catch on. Maybe the China market will open wider and drink up the surplus.

Since the bad news was so compellingly concrete and the hopeful notes so speculative, I took the overall forecast to be very dark indeed. Imagine my surprise, then, when I attended a talk by another Australian expert the next day who described  Anderson’s presentation as optimistic! When the good news is this bad, the bad news must be really bad.

Bad News, Bad News

Sure enough more bad news arrived shortly thereafter in the form of a Wine Spectator article, “Aussie Wine Company Faces Angry Creditor,” concerning the financial problems of The Grateful Palate group, which exports many hot brands to the U.S. market including the unlikely-named Luchador Shiraz shown here.

Trouble is brewing in Australia. The Grateful Palate’s Australian affiliates, which produce wine under labels such as Bitch Grenache, Evil Cabernet Sauvignon and Marquis Philips for American importer Dan Philips, are in receivership and face the danger of possible bankruptcy. Growers and other creditors for the South Australia-based affiliates of the company received notice on June 18. Many growers, already facing tough times, worry that they’ll never get paid for fruit they sold Philips.

Philips, the company’s founder and owner, confirmed that he is in negotiations with his top creditor, Dutch lender Rabobank, but declined further comment. The bank initiated the action to put Grateful Palate International Pty Ltd and several related Australian companies into receivership. The most prominent is R Wines, a partnership with winemaker Chris Ringland, but 3 Rings, a joint venture involving Philips, Ringland and grower David Hickinbotham, is also part of it.

This is bad news, of course, but bad news is no longer a surprise to those of us who are following the Australian wine scene. Perhaps it is really good news of a sort — an indication that the necessary industry shake out is gaining speed. Hard to tell good news from bad.

Darker or Brighter?

The same situation applies to the Foster’s de-merger situation. Foster’s, the Australian beer giant, bought into the wine business at the top of the market, paying an estimated $7 billion for an international portfolio of about 50 top brands including Penfolds, Wolf Blass and  Beringer. The investment may be worth as little as $1.5 billion in today’s market.

Foster’s beer business is an attractive target for global giants like SABMiller, but not with the wine portfolio attached. So Foster’s announced a de-merger to allow the beer group to move ahead independently of the wine group. What will happen to the wine business?  Who will buy these assets in today’s depressed environment?

When I posed this question to an Australian winemaker several weeks ago the answer came back quickly: China! Everyone in Australia is paranoid about the Chinese buying up our natural resources, and so we are convinced that they will buy up Foster’s wine business, too.

Interesting idea, I thought at the time. No multinational wine firm (Constellation Brands? Gallo?) would want to go bigger right now. But maybe a Chinese firm that wants to break into the global markets would take the bait. Might make sense. Maybe.

Bright Idea

Sure enough, the Bright Food Group. (Mission: “To build the company into a leading enterprises group in the national food industry, with famous brands, advanced technology, strong competitive power and deep influence in the world by the end of 2015.”)  recently signed a three-way memorandum of understanding with the New South Wales government and the China Development Bank to explore opportunities for the Bright Group to invest in the sugar, dairy and wine industries.

A Financial Times article reports that  the company is interested in “global top ten players in wine, sugar, food packaging, commodities and healthcare sectors.” Bright Food is currently studying both wine and beer assets in Australia, but has not decided to buy either yet according to the FT.

Many Australians no doubt consider the potential sale of yet another natural resource business to Chinese buyers bad news in terms of their economic sovereignty, but that bad news might actually be the best news they can expect given the sorry condition of the global wine market today.

Cracking the Chinese Wine Market

Portuguese Wines in Beijing

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.

Chinese Wine: Challenges & Opportunities

Harvest time at Grace Vineyards.

Wine in China is getting a lot of attention just now. Jancis Robinson is back from Beijing and Shanghai, where she celebrated the release of a Chinese edition of her indispensable Oxford Companion to Wine with wine dinners and tastings. Recent issues of Decanter (April 2010) and the Wall Street Journal (March 20, 2010) feature big stories about Chinese wine. One of my senior thesis students is even doing research on the potential market for Washington State wine in China.

Coffee Grounds and Ashtray

I’ve written about China’s wine market on several occasions. I discussed the challenges facing their industry in “The China Syndrome” in January 2008 and the difficulties of penetrating the Chinese market in October 2009. I even reported a London wine merchant’s forecast that China would eventually overtake France as the world’s greatest wine nation.

Challenges and opportunities: those seem to be the recurring themes.

The challenge is easy to appreciate if you taste Chinese wine. At present this is difficult (unless you travel to China) because import supplies are very limited. The Morrisons supermarket chain apparently carries some Chinese wine in Great Britain. So far I haven’t seen Chinese wine for sale in the U.S., but I think it’s here somewhere so I’ll keep looking. There is obviously a large potential ethnic market (at Asian food stores like Uwajimaya and at the tens of thousands of Chinese restaurants that dot the country) in addition to curious wine enthusiasts like me.

I have tasted two Chinese wines, thanks to a former student who schlepped them back from Beijing for me. The first, tasted with a group of students a year ago, showed the murky past of Chinese wine. It was a 1999 Changyu Cabernet Sauvignon — a recent release mass market product by China’s oldest winemaker. Tasting notes I found on the internet warned about coffee grounds and ashtray with a hint of urinal cake. Right on the money, unfortunately. Drinkable (hard to believe, I know), and weirdly fascinating, but really only interesting as a novelty.

The Grape Vine Supply Chain

The basic problems, as I have pointed out in the past, are the undemanding domestic consumer base and the badly broken supply chain.

Wine is only as good as the grapes that go into it, or so growers tell me, and the grape supply situation in China is difficult. Most of the wine grapes are grown by families that lease about an acre of land from their local agricultural commune. That acre is typically divided into four or five small plots that are planted with different crops so as to minimize risk. One or perhaps two of the plots may be wine grapes in the vineyard regions. So vineyard scale is impossibly small — smaller even than in the south of France.

These small growers insist on calling the shots, which is natural since they are so dependent upon the success of their tiny farms. The wine producers have no control over what these hundreds of thousands of micro-vineyards produce, how they are cropped, and when the grapes are picked. Researchers suggest that the grapes are chosen and grown to maximize quantity not quality and that the grapes are picked as soon as possible to minimize risk of poor weather than could destroy the crop. So small crops of flavorful fully ripe grapes — the winemaker’s dream — that’s not going to happen in a typical Chinese vineyard. One study I found suggested that the grapes sell for as little as $80 a ton.

There is not much incentive for individual growers to sacrifice quantity for quality because their grapes are sold by weight to agents who lump together fruit from dozens or hundreds of individual growers. Good fruit would quickly get mixed with inferior fruit, so why pay more? The local agents often then resell the fruit to regional agents who sell again to the large winemakers. You can just imagine the condition of the fruit by the time it finally gets to the winemaking facility having passed through so many hands. This system is worse than the European cooperatives I have read about (and I didn’t think anything could be worse than that).

China’s Hopeful Future

Recently a group of us tasted the hopeful future of Chinese fine wine, a bottle of 2003 Grace Vineyards Tasya’s Reserve Cabernet Franc.  Grace Vineyards is often cited as the most promising winemaker in China and the contrast between this bottle and the Changyu was night and day. The attention to detail in the winemaking was evident and the use of estate grapes (rather than the unreliable supply chain cited above) was apparent, too.

The contrast between the two wines was stunning, mainly because the Changyu was so very bad, of course. The Grace Vineyards Cab Franc was a solid effort but nothing special– a bit light compared to our Washington State Cab Franc wines, for example, with the distinctive  “green”  taste I associate with wine made from under-ripe Cab Franc grapes.

[Update 3/24/10: A reader suggests that the “green” flavor may be intentional — he has heard that this flavor is familiar to Chinese consumers and that some Chinese wineries may harvest grapes in a less than fully ripe state in order to achieve it. Interesting and understandable if true. Thanks to Bob Calvert for this insight.]

This points to another challenge and one that will be hard to overcome.  China is a pretty difficult place to grow and properly ripen  vinifera grapes. The combination of  very cold winters and hot and humid summers in the principal grape growing regions makes winegrowing particularly tricky. (The Decanter article does a good job explaining this.) Some reports indicate that white varietals like Riesling can be grown with success, but wine’s first duty in China is to be red and ripening the preferred Bordeaux varietals is a significant long term problem.

Seventy-Two Buck Chuck

The Wall Street Journal article by Stan Sesser included tasting notes by a panel of local experts.  The nonvintage Changyu Cabernet Sauvignon they sampled sold for the equivalent of $5.40 and reminded them of dirty sweat socks and cleaning fluid — possibly a step up from the one I tasted.

At the other extreme, a 1998 Cab from Great Wall was apparently really quite good — “deep colored, full bodied, tannic, but with a lot of fruit.” Price? The equivalent of $72. Yikes!

I have to think that Chinese wine will benefit in the long run from all the attention it is receiving at home and abroad. It will be interesting to see how the challenges and opportunities develop over the next few years.

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Note: Anyone interested in the Chinese wine market should read Grape Wall of China, a terrific blog.

Wine and the China Syndrome

A few years ago I edited a book on globalization for a New York Times series. I was given everything that was published in the NYT in the 20th century and asked to tell the story of globalization’s rise and fall and rise again. One of the things I uncovered as I studied the history of world trade over those 100 years was what I call the China Syndrome.

Nightmares and Dreams

The China Syndrome is both the dream that China will buy all the goods we try to sell her and the fear that she will return the favor and take over our markets. The Times was full of China Syndrome a hundred years ago. History buffs might want to look up an article called “The Future of our Trade with China” that promoted the dream on April 13, 1900 and an early suggestion of the nightmare in “Japan and China find a Ready Market Here” published on September 3, 1905. Both are reprinted in my NYT volume.

The same dreams and nightmares are commonplace today. I was reminded of this recently while reading the Grape Wall of China blog, a reliable source for China wine news and views.  An article by Jim Boyce (aka Beijing Boyce) caught my eye: “No Worries: Australian targeting China wine market at every level.” The article tells of Australia’s dreams for Chinese wine sales.

The Blunder Down Under

The Australian wine industry is dreaming about a Chinese future because their present reality is an emerging nightmare. Australian wine is being battered by a number of factors, both natural and market driven. Australian wine sales are falling here in the United States and in Britain, too, I understand. Although there are many distinctive and delicious Australian wines, “Brand Australia” is pretty much defined by one-dimensional Shiraz and over-oaked Chardonnay, both of which have fallen from consumer favor. The “brand” was easy to understand and promote, but it didn’t have legs. Many consumers seem to have moved on and there are plenty of options for them to choose from. The recession only makes things worse.

The situation in some parts of Australia is really dire. Constellation Brands, for example, is closing its second Australian winery for lack of either a market for its output or a buyer for its assets. The global recession puts the big multinationals like Constellation under more pressure than in the past. They are less able to afford to nurse along failing brands. That’s bad news for the particular part of Australian wine that seems to define the brand. It’s time to dream up a better plan.

Australia has adopted a new marketing plan called Landmark Australia that is meant to highlight the quality and diversity of its fine wine industry. It’s a good idea but a difficult one to put into practice — hard to un-ring the Yellow Tail bell, if you know what I mean. And I am generally suspicious of regional or national marketing plans because I think collective brands (especially quite diverse and ill-defined ones) are always harder to sell than private brands.

Working in China … or Not

The Landmark Australia plan may be working in China. Or maybe not.

Beijing Boyce reports that Australia is promoting its new image pretty vigorously and has risen to #2 in bottled wine imports after France. The French have 40% of the fine wine market to Australia’s 20-22%. The U.S., Italy and Chile trail far behind. So perhaps Australia will be successful in redefining itself in a new market and maybe, ultimately but with more difficulty, in markets like America and Britain where it is already established. The geographical proximity to China is certainly an advantage.

There’s evidence of the China Syndrome dream in the data, but also hints of a possible nightmare. It seems that Australia is doing even better (in terms of rising market share) in the bulk wine market than in sales of bottled wine. Grape Wall reports that

… in the first half of 2009, Australia ranked second as a source of imported bulk wine. While Chile (~15 million liters) represented half of the ~31.5 million liters entering China, Australia came second with a quarter. Argentina (last year’s number two, with a quarter share) and the United States (~6.5 percent each), Spain (~5 percent), and South Africa and France (just over 1 percent each). This is quite a leap from the past four years, when Australia represented from 2 percent (2005) to 10.5 percent (2007).

One reason for higher sales at the low end of the market is that surplus bulk wine is being dumped (sold below cost). Hard to compete with that, of course. I know it is better to get something than nothing for all that surplus wine, but it is hard to be optimistic when this market segment is Australia’s greatest Chinese success. Australia wants to get out of the bulk market, in terms of its brand, not deeper into it.

China versus Colorado

How real is the dream part of the China Syndrome for wine? I asked Tom Hedges of Hedges Family Estate (an important independent producer here in Washington State and a pioneer in the Red Mountain AVA) because he is particularly knowledgeable about export markets in Asia. Tom put the dream into perspective. Here is his take:

As an American producer, we have the U.S. market, which today is number one or number two in the world for total consumption.  An example is flying to Denver costs $300 round trip, and takes no time.  Our potential to sell in Colorado alone is equal to or better than that in all of China;  the Chinese consume very little wine, in total, of which 85% is Chinese production.  And, being [an emerging] consuming market, they want only two kinds of wine:  Famous and cheap.  About 99% of the world’s wineries are neither, which means you have to develop a market for your brand.  Costly!

Tom’s clear conclusion was that he could achieve more and do it more economically by focusing on Denver and Boulder instead of Shanghai and Beijing.The allure of China is great,” he says, “the economic reality not so great.  American producers still have lots of Colorados to conquer here in the U.S.

This view aligns perfectly with my own, for now at least. Not many of those folks who dreamed the China Syndrome dream a hundred years ago woke up to great wealth, although a few probably did. I guess that’s why the call them dreams.