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China’s boom­ing econ­omy is fu­elling a grow­ing taste for wine – and SA wine­mak­ers want to en­sure it’s ours.



alen Ip is on a roll. A wine en­thu­si­ast with an un­nerv­ingly ac­cu­rate palate, he has cor­rectly guessed the type, va­ri­ety, vin­tage and price range of an Eden Val­ley Ries­ling, a Barossa shi­raz and a Barossa Grenache Shi­raz Mou­ve­dre. The 31-year-old has yet to visit Aus­tralia, let alone the Barossa, but he’s not about to con­fuse a shi­raz with a shi­raz blend. His fel­low en­thu­si­asts ap­plaud his per­for­mance at this blind-tast­ing. Ip looks a lit­tle shy, and tries to give his third prize of the day – a Barossa tea-towel – to a run­ner-up.

Ip is one of a score of Chi­nese wine stu­dents sit­ting be­hind ta­bles cov­ered with ser­ried ranks of wine glasses, plates of wa­ter crack­ers and dis­creet spit­toons. This is a day ded­i­cated to wine – specif­i­cally to vin­tages from the Barossa. Th­ese ad­vanced wine stu­dents have paid big bucks (about $370 each) to join this in­ten­sive ap­pre­ci­a­tion course.

Ip is sold on Aus­tralian wine. “Many of the Chi­nese have the wrong per­cep­tion, they think the best must come from France,” the Hong Kong bank worker says re­flec­tively. “Bordeaux, it can get a bit bor­ing, I think.”

With a pop­u­la­tion of 1.3 bil­lion, and an econ­omy which is pre­dicted to soon over­take Amer­ica’s, China is a na­tion worth cul­ti­vat­ing and Aus­tralian wine­mak­ers are giv­ing it their best shot with a range of dif­fer­ent charm of­fen­sives.

The grow­ing Chi­nese mar­ket is part of a wider Asian in­ter­est in Aus­tralian wine, re­flected in thou­sands of vis­i­tors to SA winer­ies each year. At Ja­cob’s Creek, a re­cent snap­shot found Asians (not in­clud­ing Chi­nese) were the largest group of over­seas vis­i­tors at 29 per cent. Malaysian cou­ple Elaine Wong and Jimmy Lee are among them. Wong says there are Aus­tralian wines for sale in Malaysia, but she doesn’t pre­tend to be an ex­pert. “They are quite good,” she says, adding that she likes white wine best – “the mild ones”.

The big­gest sin­gle group, though, were Chi­nese. They made up 17 per cent of the to­tal, or about 6000 Chi­nese tourists a year at Ja­cob’s Creek alone with tours in the Man­darin lan­guage. Shan Yao, who came from China

to study oenol­ogy in South Aus­tralia, works as a wine ed­u­ca­tor for th­ese vis­i­tors. She wants to teach Chi­nese to ap­pre­ci­ate wine, be­cause at present only a small per­cent­age of peo­ple drink it. Ex­pen­sive red wines are bought more as sta­tus sym­bols and rather than savour them, a lot of rich Chi­nese just have a “bot­toms up” at­ti­tude, she says.

Mostly, Chi­nese vis­i­tors know lit­tle, ex­cept that there are red and white wines. They tend to favour red, es­pe­cially caber­net sauvi­gnon. Yao tries to ed­u­cate them to ap­pre­ci­ate the dif­fer­ences be­tween va­ri­eties and to iden­tify the char­ac­ter­is­tic flavours in the wines.

As well, Chi­nese wine writ­ers and wine sell­ers have been brought to Aus­tralia to see the vine­yards and taste the wines. Both Wine Aus­tralia and the Barossa Grape and Wine As­so­ci­a­tion are run­ning or plan­ning wine cour­ses in Hong Kong and main­land China.

En­thu­si­asts like Ip need no such ed­u­cat­ing, but they are few. Now on a trial run in Hong Kong be­fore the big leap to the main­land, the Barossa school is the only re­gional Aus­tralian wine course of its type. The idea is to foster an un­der­stand­ing of the plea­sures of drink­ing not just any old plonk but su­pe­rior Barossa vin­tages.

In the aus­tere con­fer­ence room high up the Hong Kong sky­scraper, Ip lis­tens in­tently as the Barossa school wine ex­pert de­scribes each wine in glow­ing terms: sub­tle and el­e­gant; a nose with cit­rus, honey, rose petal, or mar­malade notes, or spice, or even peb­bles; a shi­raz that lingers, or a grenache with a round mid­dle palate. Acid­ity, tan­nin, aroma, clar­ity, in­ten­sity, sweet­ness: the ex­pert asks the au­di­ence to con­sider the whole gamut of wine char­ac­ter­is­tics.

This vin­tage, he says, hold­ing a glass to his nose, has flavours of “beau­ti­ful straw­berry fruit” with a hint of “French green bean”. Smil­ing and nod­ding, the nascent con­nois­seurs scrib­ble notes, and en­joy an­other sip. Kalleske Clarry’s GSM (Grenache Shi­raz Mataro) 2011 gets the tick of ap­proval.

Ip, for one, wants to know more, and he plans to join the Barossa school tour to South Aus­tralia in Septem­ber, adding pri­vate trips to the vine­yards of Tas­ma­nia and Mar­garet River in WA. A bank of­fi­cial, he finds the world of wine in­fin­itely more ap­peal­ing than fi­nance and as a side­line he now owns a small on­line re­tailer, Picco Wine Cel­lar.

Picco only has a sin­gle Aus­tralian wine on the web­site, but Ip says he has more he hasn’t yet listed. He buys wine at auc­tion and he sells wine to friends and to some restau­rants in Hong Kong. “Nowa­days I just love bid­ding for Aus­tralian wine at auc­tion,” he says. “I think it’s un­der­val­ued and I think it’s a good bar­gain.” Ip likes the va­ri­ety of Aus­tralian wine, the Barossa shi­razes, Tas­ma­nian and West Aus­tralian vin­tages and the Clare Val­ley ries­lings. Yet this en­thu­si­ast didn’t grow up with wine on the ta­ble. Wine was never drunk in the Ip home, and his par­ents didn’t or­der wine when they dined in restau­rants. Ip first be­came in­ter­ested in wine about seven years ago, and he soon be­gan tak­ing cour­ses and go­ing to wine tast­ings, and now he even teaches a lit­tle. “It all started and was driven by pas­sion,” he says with a smile.

Sit­ting in the back of the Barossa school course and keep­ing an eye on pro­ceed­ings is the wine ex­pert and con­nois­seur Lucy An­der­son, from the mar­ket­ing con­sul­tancy Wine­Hero, who put to­gether not only this course but the Wine Aus­tralia wine ap­pre­ci­a­tion course as well.

South Aus­tralian born and bred, and now a res­i­dent of Hong Kong, she is a whole-hearted ad­vo­cate of Aus­tralian wine and she has some con­cerns about the booby-traps in­her­ent in mar­ket­ing Aus­tralian wine in China. A great deal of all wine con­sumed in main­land China, both do­mes­tic and im­ported, is sold or dis­trib­uted through an opaque “closed mar­ket”, she says. In Aus­tralia, a wine con­sumer would prob­a­bly buy a bot­tle at a lo­cal bot­tle shop, take it home, open it and drink it. In China, group buy­ers and cor­po­rates dom­i­nate the mar­ket. Some­times wine is part of a pay packet, some­times it’s used for all-im­por­tant ban­quets. Some­times it’s used as com­pany gifts.

Chi­nese im­porters buy large quan­ti­ties of Aus­tralian bot­tled wine to label as their own; but th­ese “buyer’s own brand” prod­ucts are likely to still fea­ture the

Many of the Chi­nese have the wrong per­cep­tion,

they think the best must come from France

prove­nance of the wine, Aus­tralia, and some­times a re­gion. An­der­son be­lieves at least half of all Aus­tralian wine im­ported into China is used for th­ese buyer’s own brands. If the wine is stored in the wrong con­di­tions, or kept too long (sauvi­gnon blanc, for in­stance, should be usu­ally drunk within a year of bot­tling) and the wine is spoiled or “cooked”, it will even­tu­ally dam­age Aus­tralian’s rep­u­ta­tion as a pre­mier wine pro­ducer. “It’s just a lack of knowl­edge,” An­der­son says, with a shrug. “The com­mon per­cep­tion might be that all wines im­prove with age.”

Some wine trades in China are used as ve­hi­cles to help Chi­nese cit­i­zens to es­tab­lish a trad­ing his­tory and ac­quire res­i­dence visas in Aus­tralia; they might im­port $400,000 worth of Aus­tralian wine in one hit, and there are agents to help them do it, she adds. In Hong Kong, too, there can be a lack of real ex­pe­ri­ence among wine im­porters, where the num­bers bur­geoned from a few hun­dred to more than 3000 af­ter the wine tax was elim­i­nated in 2008.

Few Chi­nese peo­ple have grown up with wine. The few Chi­nese who do drink wine mostly drink red, per­haps be­cause Chi­nese gen­er­ally don’t like to drink any cold liq­uids, even wa­ter. Many Aus­tralians ab­sorb a great deal of wine knowl­edge ab­sent-mind­edly, al­most by os­mo­sis. In China, by way of con­trast, it’s still an un­usual habit and on a per capita ba­sis the Chi­nese still only drink tiny amounts of wine. As an in­di­ca­tion, the Bri­tish re­search com­pany IWSR has cal­cu­lated that Chi­nese con­sump­tion of still light wines per per­son more than dou­bled in four years, from .49 of a litre an­nu­ally in 2008 to 1.15 litres in 2012. Aus­tralian con­sump­tion of the same type of wine, by way of com­par­i­son, hit 21.31 litres in 2012.

Chi­nese in­ter­est in wine is grow­ing as the pro­fes­sional classes ex­pand in the ma­jor cities. Wine is sold in large supermarke­ts, in spe­cial­ist wine shops and by on­line retailers. There are Chi­nese wine blogs, wine apps, wine tele­vi­sion pro­grams and even a tele­vi­sion drama se­ries, ti­tled Scent of Beauty, ap­par­ently about young peo­ple and the wine in­dus­try. It’s thought that be­tween 2012 and 2016, Chi­nese wine con­sump­tion will in­crease by 40 per cent. Joy­ous news for Aus­tralian vintners.

But there’s a sober­ing re­al­ity be­hind the fizz of ex­pec­ta­tion. China it­self is pro­duc­ing more and more wine, and its wine pro­duc­tion is likely to over­take Aus­tralia’s next year. Heavy in­vest­ment in in­ter­na­tional viti­cul­ture and vini­cul­ture ex­per­tise is ex­pected to pay div­i­dends, say ex­perts like An­der­son, but there are some huge ob­sta­cles for Chi­nese vine­yards to over­come. Vine­yards in Ningxia, in the na­tion’s north­west, are cov­ered by snow in the win­ter, and the vines have to be buried to keep them alive. Only young vines can bend suf­fi­ciently for bury­ing, mean­ing that Ningxia has none of the older, gnarly vines that pro­duce rich vin­tages. Fur­ther east, in the vine­yards of Shan­dong prov­ince on the coast, air-borne pol­lu­tion has been a con­cern.

Some Aus­tralian wine­mak­ers fear China’s mas­sive out­put could put a dent in the im­port num­bers, which Wine Aus­tralia re­ports as a sub­stan­tial 41 mil­lion litres in the year to March.

Wine im­porter and dis­trib­u­tor Camp­bell Thomp­son, for one, be­lieves Aus­tralia has to con­cen­trate on push­ing the pre­mium vin­tages be­cause the “cheap and cheer­ful” field is get­ting very crowded. The South Aus­tralian has been work­ing with wine in China for a decade or so, and he has his fin­ger on the pulse as the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor and co-founder of the Aus­tralian-owned Wine Repub­lic, which has branches in Bei­jing, Shang­hai and Shen­zhen. Speak­ing com­pe­tent Man­darin, he knows the mar­ket.

“Ob­vi­ously there’s a far greater num­ber of peo­ple now con­sum­ing im­ported wine than there were 10 years ago,” he says. “It’s def­i­nitely of tremen­dous in­ter­est to young, ur­ban, white-col­lar, mid­dle and up­per mid­dle class peo­ple to learn about wine be­cause it’s fun, be­cause it’s so­cial and be­cause it’s some­thing that gives them con­fi­dence when they’re deal­ing with peo­ple of dif­fer­ent back­grounds.”

The Wine Repub­lic is con­cen­trat­ing on the mi­nor­ity of Chi­nese wine-drinkers who ac­tu­ally buy their own wine to drink, and Thomp­son says it is a rapidly grow­ing mi­nor­ity who ap­pre­ci­ate fine wines. “Over the last three, six, nine months, there has been a

sig­nif­i­cant change in the mar­ket, and it of­fers some real op­por­tu­ni­ties for Aus­tralian wine­mak­ers,” he says, adding that his ex­pe­ri­ence sug­gests the “flavour pro­file” of Aus­tralian wines is gen­er­ally one that’s en­joyed by Chi­nese wine-drinkers. “We want the con­sumers to know what it is they’re buy­ing, and to like it, and seek­ing it out in the fu­ture be­cause they like it, be­cause it tastes good.”

The com­pany’s bilin­gual web­site, which fea­tures wine from eight coun­tries, makes it clear that the trans­port and stor­age of wine in China is of­ten less than ideal. The com­pany, the web­site says, cares deeply about the qual­ity of wine it mar­kets: “This is why ev­ery bot­tle we sell trav­els to China in­side a re­frig­er­ated con­tainer, is stored in ware­houses with full tem­per­a­ture and hu­mid­ity con­trol once it’s here, reach­ing you in the best pos­si­ble con­di­tion.”

Thomp­son says Chi­nese drinkers of­ten start with Bordeaux be­fore grad­u­at­ing to caber­nets from the Coon­awarra. “We have cus­tomers who buy large quan­ti­ties of them, like Parker Es­tate. Th­ese cus­tomers find the Coon­awarra wines still have the body and the style that they find in Bordeaux, and they’re just as se­ri­ous, but they’re much more ap­proach­able. The irony is that some peo­ple per­ceive the wines as be­ing not ex­pen­sive enough.”

McLaren Vale wines, too, are en­joyed by Chi­nese drinkers. Some im­por­tant Chi­nese vis­i­tors re­cently vis­ited Chapel Hill, Thomp­son says, and they were as­ton­ished at the qual­ity of the wines. Chi­nese tead­rinkers nearly al­ways ap­pre­ci­ate the tan­nin and struc­ture of good Aus­tralian wines, he adds. “They get it right away.

“A lot of peo­ple here are look­ing be­yond Bordeaux. They’re real­is­ing that there are some great wines made in other parts of the world.”

Jimmy Lee & Elaine Wong, left, Kalen Ip, above, and Shan Yao, be­low

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