– By Jim Boyce
I met writer and educator Jeremy Oliver during a seminar at the Hilton Wine & Food Experience in Beijing in November. I plied him with questions about Chinese wine consumers and wines, and then later emailed him to request an interview on these topics. He agreed, and the results are below.
You’ve been to China several times. What distinguishes consumers here from the other countries you’ve visited?
Chinese consumers are typically – but not entirely – discovering quality wine for the first time. As such, they are not hostage to the prejudices that characterise many consumers in other Asian markets that have been strongly influenced by European wine producers, especially the French. So, in effect, I find the Chinese consumer to be an open-minded one who is happy and willing to try new wines without preconceived ideas or expectations.
This means that wines that might be frowned upon elsewhere for their sugar content or colour – such as Brown Brothers Cienna – are tasted and enjoyed for what they are. That’s a healthy thing and is likely to encourage more people to drink wine. And once they do, their palates can lead them anywhere…
What do Australian producers need to do to get a slice of the China market?
Australians need to do the basics well. They need to create a regular presence in China, to interact with Chinese wine drinkers and to educate them. Education is really the key, and Australians are good at teaching people the basics.
Because Australian wines are varietally labeled, with regional identification as is appropriate, they are likely to be more easily understood than many European wines. Importantly, though, Australians do not need to be complacent. They need to educate their distributors, their outlets and the public. The country that really teaches the Chinese market how best to understand and enjoy wine will end up winning it.
You’ve tried some Grace Vineyard wines. What is your opinion of these and other made-in-China wines?
About two years ago, I tasted some Grace Vineyard red wines. One was of reserve level, and it was very impressive as a convincing right bank Bordeaux-inspired claret. Quite reductive, but opening slowly to reveal deeply a layered presence of fruit and structure, with remarkable balance and potential for longevity. By itself, it changed my view on Chinese wine and its ultimate potential. I sincerely hope that Grace Vineyard is able to maintain such a strong and desperately needed leadership position in Chinese wine.
I have tasted quite a few other Chinese wines, mainly red, that have lacked conviction. Although I would be delighted to be convinced otherwise, it is my view that the Chinese wine industry would benefit greatly by acquiring more a sense of what makes wine precious, other than the presence of particular digits in declared vintage years. Once more Chinese wine consumers and producers begin to get interested in the differences between vintages, regions and vineyard sites – and their own wines are faithfully made to reflect these differences – I think that the wine thing in China could explode, in a very positive way.
It’s perhaps going to have to come from the consumers, but when there is a higher standard of average Chinese wine there will be no local stigma about drinking it. Once that happens, wine will take off in China, and there quite possibly isn’t enough wine in Australia and other countries to meet the potential demand.
That’s what I’ll be working towards!