Grape Wall of China

A China Wine Blog: The Scene in the World's Largest Market

Posted on | January 31, 2014 | No Comments

Welcome to wine blog Grape Wall of China. This site covers winery visits, consumer events, trade personalities, industry trends and much more in the world’s largest consumer market. You can also keep up via Twitter, Weibo or the Grape Wall e-newsletter. This blog takes a good deal of time and money. Please consider supporting it by becoming a subscriber Click here for the details. To contact Grape Wall, email grapewallofchina (at) gmail.com.

Wine Word: Ian Ford of Summergate on the state of the China market

Posted on | April 3, 2014 | No Comments

ian ford summergate wine china

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By Jim Boyce

Summergate is marking its fifteenth year as a wine importer and distributor in China. I asked founding partner Ian Ford about changes during that time, the current state of the country’s wine scene and what bottles from the portfolio he’d recommend for an absolute beginner to wine.

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When I moved to Beijing in 2004, the market seemed to largely consist of Summergate, Montrose, ASC and a half-dozen to dozen smaller players. Since then, the floodgates have opened and there are importers / distributors everywhere. What happened and what has it meant for the market?

In 2004 at Summergate we were just celebrating our fifth anniversary and were just coming into our own as an established importer and distributor in China. At that time shipments of bottled wine to China totaled only 786,954 nine-liter cases, compared to roughly 31 million cases today.

In 2006 there were a total of 812 registered importers of bottled wine in China – in 2013 there were well above 4,000! While there have been a few serious new players, the large majority of these new entrants across the country are general trading companies seeking opportunistic profits from a new and emerging market. Wine is by nature very fragmented in terms of brands and labels, and difficult to navigate for new consumers and buyers. This has opened up many opportunities for unscrupulous traders to cheat the market and gouge on prices. Much of this trading is done with private labels and “look-a-like” copy brands.

As the China market grows, and the stakes along with it, it seems like the world’s biggest wine producers will want to handle their own distribution here in China. What’s you take on this?

The major wine producers in the world will want to optimize their route to market in China, and gain as much access to buyers and consumers in China as they can. The smart and patient ones are recognizing that you need a serious and capable partner to build a market across China. There are creative ways to innovate and structure the distribution model with a partner, but in my firm view having a partner is indispensable.

The industry has gone through a period where some sizable producers have opted to “handle” the market themselves, or to go with multiple local wholesalers. Kendall-Jackson, Georges Duboeuf, Antinori, and Catena have all gone down this path, and they are now a shadow of the their former selves in terms of awareness, visibility, and sales in China, and are far away from building a brand and a market.

Also, they face multiple risks to their brand, including price structure manipulation, trademark violations, poor storage and handling, inappropriate or non-compliant brand communications, regulatory violations, erroneous Chinese back labels, and even counterfeits. These and many other risks are difficult if not impossible to manage across the breadth of the Chinese continent without a competent and trustworthy partner.

I keep hearing about fast growth in second-tier and third-tier cities and that cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen are saturated. Fair assessment?

Read more

Hard evidence: The truth of why Chinese mix wine and soft drinks

Posted on | April 1, 2014 | No Comments

wine and coke sprite or soft drinks beijing china

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By Jim Boyce

Foreign wine writers, educators and other members of the vintelligentsia love to roll their eyes and tell tales of Chinese consumers mixing Sprite or Coke with wine — even better if the bottle in question is ’82 Lafite. But why consumers do this — or see ’82 Lafite as the be-all and end-all — has long been a source of debate. Perhaps they are mimicking some movie scene where a savvy character tops up his Cabernet with Coke. Or, in the case of some of the spottier local plonk, trying to mask the taste. Or, as in Spain, simply see it as a good mix for a particularly youthful bottle: see kalimotxo.

Turns out that none of these theories hold wine.

The reason Chinese add soft drinks to still wine is simple: Local wine educators teach them to do so. That this is unknown to the outside world underscores the insularity of the foreign wine community. Truth is, many of these so-called experts have witnessed such blending of wine and soft drinks. Sadly, they have never asked why it is being but have instead filed the experience so they can later theorize about it in a closed circle with their fellow wine “gatekeepers”.

But now, in true Marco Polo-style, one man — from France, no less — has finally revealed the truth in a single photo that someone has claimed “is worth 1.3 billion words“. Here is is:

wine and sprite education trust in china

And if you haven’t guessed yet, this is an April Fool’s joke.

Previous April Fool’s posts:

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Head of the glass: Pinotage offers super South African wine happy hour in Beijing

Posted on | April 1, 2014 | No Comments

rmb15 south africa wine by the glass deal at pinotage restaurand and wine bar beijing china

By Jim Boyce

Those in central Beijing and in need of a glass or two of wine after work would do well to head to Pinotage in Sanlitun Soho, where eight South African options are available at rmb15 from 5 PM to 7 PM, Monday to Friday.

“Wine Time” is one of several specials at the downtown branch of this restaurant and wine bar, with lunch options of two courses at rmb88 or three courses at rmb108, including cappuccino, dark lager or juice. (I’m told the ostrich burger is popular.) Look for the current a la carte weekend brunch to soon turn into a buffet and for home-brew to join the menu.

As for that happy hour wine deal, there are four reds and four whites to enjoy while chilling at the bar or one of the tables:

  • Zidela Sauvignon Blanc
  • Simonsvlei Sauvignon Blanc
  • Simonsvlei Chardonnay
  • Boland Chenin-Sauvignon Blanc
  • Zidela Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Zidela Shiraz
  • Simonsvlei Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Simonsvlei Shiraz

Pinotage also has dozens of other options both from among the wines it imports or stocks from other distributors. And if you’re looking for a post-work snack, try the boerewors, a farmer’s sausage done in a roll “hot dog style”.

jacques bruere brut reserve 2008 south africa at pinotage restaurand and wine bar beijing china.jpg

glenelly shiraz 2009 stellenbosch south africa at pinotage restaurand and wine bar beijing china

Sour grapes? People are (anonymously) saying mean things about Jancis Robinson in China

Posted on | April 1, 2014 | No Comments

By Jim Boyce

Imagine that not one of Spain, Germany, Brazil, Italy, Argentina or Portugal goes on to the second round of the upcoming World Cup. That’s kind of how some trade people felt when bigwigs Helan Qing Xue, Silver HeightsGreat Wall and Changyu, among others, did not make the final cut at the recent Chinese Wine Summit contest judged by Jancis Robinson, Bertrand Boutschy and Ian D’Agata. (See the results here.)

The trio’s seven recommendations out of 53 wines ran afoul of some in the China wine industry. Robinson took the brunt of the criticism, which — according to anonymous sources cited in this Shanghai Daily story — amounted to her no longer having what it takes to be an elite taster:

In her latest tasting of Chinese wines, Robinson’s judgement was questioned by some Chinese wine experts and writers, since many acclaimed labels didn’t make it through to the finals.

“Her tasting judgment is contrary to our general expectation. Many wineries are unconvinced but dare not say so because she is Jancis Robinson,” says one wine insider, asking that his name not be published.

Her tasting, actually, has been questioned in the past.

According to another insider, Robinson and leading Chinese wine experts visited Ningxia not long ago and were served a bottle that everyone else thought was corked except for Robinson, who insisted that it was a very good wine.

“I believe she is a great taster, but she’s not that young. Her nose and palate may have begun to degenerate,” says the insider, asking not to be identified.

Wine tasting is a lifelong pursuit for critics, so doubts can be devastating.

Asked about skeptics, Robinson says with a laugh, “I definitely haven’t got older (as a taster).

“But I find that as I get older, my ability to concentrate becomes much better,” she adds.

To return to the World Cup example, it sounds like a case of blaming the referee.

To be fair, the writer does a good job of explaining Robinson’s background in wine, of citing her books and of presenting her views on China: there isn’t enough diversity (too much Cabernet and Chardonnay), some wines are good but far from great, guaranteeing authenticity is an issue. The article also gives Robinson the last word in terms of the anonymous accusations.

But it’s unfortunate none of the accusers went on the record. And it’s odd that Robinson is singled out despite being but one of three judges. Would not the result implicate all of them? And aren’t there alternative explanations for an outcome that, I admit, also surprised me? Such as the top picks showing well on that particular day. Or having a style that appealed to these particular judges whereas another trio might reach a different conclusion.

As for criticism Robinson missed a corked wine during her visit to Ningxia: I asked several people who spent quite a bit of time with her there, as did I, and none of us recall such an incident. That’s not to say it didn’t happen but only that I haven’t found anyone yet who can confirm such a thing.

Finally, I wonder if some of the reaction is due in part to the hefty entry fee of rmb15000 per wine (details here). That’s a lot of money. Enough, in fact, for a winery rep to fly to England, France and Spain and respectively serve his / her wine to Robinson, Boutschy or D’Agata or, if the person traveled wisely, perhaps visit all three.

Anyway, as the stakes get higher for the wine trade in China, things are getting more competitive and cutthroat — one anonymous source (I might as well play along) describes the wine writing scene as “a hornet’s nest” — and we are likely to see more stories like this.

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People are (anonymously) saying mean things about Jancis Robinson in China

China wine portfolios: East Meets West adds Ningxia’s Legacy Park

Posted on | March 31, 2014 | No Comments

legacy park winery ningxia distributed by east meets west chinaBy Jim Boyce

Distributor East Meets West has added a second Chinese brand to its portfolio. This past week, the company announced it will be exclusive distributor for Ningxia winery Legacy Park (留世酒庄). Last year, it added Shandong operation Chateau Nine Peaks to the lineup.

“Founded in 1997, Legacy Peak Estate is located at an altitude of 1246m,” states a press release from EMW. “In 2010, Liu Hai took over the estate from his father with the aim to produce the best wines from the area.”

“All its wines are from 100% estate grown grapes over 16 years old and will be allocated to 5-star hotels, top restaurants & premium wine shops. Legacy Peak Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot 2011 is produced in limited quantities with 2800 bottles,” it adds. “This wine offers elegance and complexity reflecting the best characters of this promising wine region.”

East Meets West says the wine will be priced at rmb480 per bottle.s

China Wine Press: ProWine Shanghai to expand, plus Constellation-VATS deal, tough cheese pairing

Posted on | March 27, 2014 | No Comments

china cheese

Which bottle to pull from the cellar?

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China Wine Press covers coverage of the local scene. For more on wine and China, get the Grape Wall newsletter — sign up here, sample here — or follow on Twitter here.

More Mondavi

Global heavyweight Constellation Brands and well-established local operation VATS Liquor are joining forces to sell Robert Mondavi wine in China. From a press release by Constellation, which counts Mondavi among its more than 100 brands:

The strategic agreement between VATS Liquor and Constellation is anticipated to last for a few decades. Both companies will work to grow the marketplace share of the Robert Mondavi brand through Constellation’s brand management expertise and VATS’ vast distribution network and knowledge of the Chinese consumer.

The press release positioned the agreement in the context of building exports and the image of California wine:

 “Most American wines have very little brand recognition in China, however the Robert Mondavi name is recognized as a synonym for quality, craftsmanship and taste,” said Jay Wright, president, Wine and Spirits Division, Constellation Brands. “Through VATS Liquor’s distribution network, Constellation will leverage that recognition and capitalize on this unique opportunity to increase exports of California wine and build brands through the Robert Mondavi name. With the deep roots we are cultivating, we intend to shape this important market and make these wines available to more Chinese consumers.”

The “for a few decades” part sounds optimistic given that’s about how long the modern China wine market has been around. See the press release here.

ProWine-Plus

Australian trade site The Shout reports “[ProWein organizer] Messe Düsseldorf… confirmed that the ProWine China exhibition [in Shanghai] will expand its area by 30 per cent when the show opens for its second year in November 2014.

“The visitor breakdown was the biggest surprise for us at the first ProWine in Shanghai in 2013,“ said [Michael] Degen, director of ProWein.

“We had 60 per cent of the attendees from Shanghai, 30 per cent from other areas in Mainland China and 10 per cent from outside of China,” he said.

“The number of foreign participants was something we intended to grow once we established ProWine China, but for this to happen immediately was very pleasing. ProWine China is benefiting from the truly international reputation of ProWein Düsseldorf.”

The Shout notes the just-finished ProWein fair in Germany saw a 17-percent increase in visitors, with those from Hong Kong and Mainland China doubling. See the full story here.

Perfect Pairing?

Finally, the world’s oldest cheese has been found in northwest China:

Vintage Gouda may be aged for five years, some cheddar for a decade. They’re both under-ripe youngsters compared with yellowish clumps – found on the necks and chests of Chinese mummies – now revealed to be the world’s oldest cheese.

The Chinese cheese dates back as early as 1615 BC, making it by far the most ancient ever discovered. Thanks to the quick decay of most dairy products, there isn’t even a runner-up. The world’s best-aged cheese seems to be a lactose-free variety that was quick and convenient to make and may have played a role in the spread of herding and dairying across Asia.

That is one cheese and wine pairing yet to be covered. Story here.

Double bubble: Grace Vineyard plans to release two sparkling wines at VinExpo

Posted on | March 26, 2014 | No Comments

grace vineyard chardonnay sparkling wine 2009 shanxi china

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By Jim Boyce

While there is no shortage of chatter about how red dominates white when it comes to still wine in China, we rarely hear a mention of bubbly. But if all goes to plan, we are set for the fizziest year yet in terms of quality local sparkling wines.

The big story for many observers: the high-profile Chandon project in the Ningxia region that is slated to release its first wines in 2014. But also of much interest should be a pair of bubblies that Grace Vineyard in Shanxi province plans to launch at VinExpo in Hong Kong.

This project has been years in the making, says Grace CEO Judy Leissner.

“I started to really like Champagne and sparkling wine in 2006,” she says. ” Ever since then, I kept thinking maybe we could make a bit at the winery.”

There were also family considerations.

“My little one kept asking me when she would have her own label, like the one I made for [her sister] Anastasya,” she says, referring to the Tasya series of wine.

Leisnner expects production to reach a maximum of 20,000 bottles per year. The initial vintage, a 2009 Chardonnay, is a modest 3000 bottles.

“It almost feels like we can consume all of it at the winery or at Grace Vineyard’s events,” she says.

Leisnner says she plans to launch at VinExpo in order to get feedback, “to know how people respond to a made-in-China sparkling wine.”

“You know we are rather conservative when it comes to pricing,” she explains. “I want to get a feel for what people think of the two wines — one is slightly sweeter — and then decide what to do. I also want my team to taste ours together with sparkling wines from other producers.”

Grace winemaker Lee Yean Yean has said one of the key challenges is equipment when working with such small amounts of sparkling wine.

Also of note, here is the vintage report from 2009 by chief winemaker and viticulturalist Ken Murchison:

“We always expect some summer rain, but it did not arrive until mid September. Prior to this, we were able to pick Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc in ideal conditions – both made excellent wines. Of special interest from 2009 (and a lot of excitement in the winery), will be our first sparkling wine, a Blanc de Blanc in the Methode Champenois. This is a traditionally made “Champagne” style wine – fermented and aged in the bottle.”

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grace vineyard shanxi province sparkling wine china

Grace bubbly last year in unfinished form.

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