Grape Wall of China

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Miguel Torres: Selling wine in China, the new Torres-Grace wine, and more

Posted on | June 15, 2009 | No Comments

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By Jim Boyce

I recently tagged along to Chengdu with a group of writers as Torres president Miguel A Torres donated RMB500,000 to build a school to replace one severely damaged during last year’s earthquake in Sichuan. We also tried a new Muscat wine called Symphony made via cooperation between Torres and Shanxi-based winery Grace as well as two wines from Ningxia-based winery Silver Heights that are distributed by Torres China (tasting notes to come). Before the event, I sat down with Miguel Torres to ask a few question about wine and China.

How did the wine project between Torres and Grace happen and why make a white wine in a country where red wine dominates the market?

Grace was interested in doing something and I said it was up to my daughter, Mireia, the technical director for Torres. She went to Shanxi, explored the vineyard for a few days, and fell in love with the Muscat. This first batch is very small, just over 10,000 bottles.

Are there plans for more cooperation?

Yes, we had good teamwork with Grace. We will probably follow up with a red wine. We haven’t picked the grape yet.

What differences did you find when making wine in China as opposed to other places where you have operations?

A very important difference is that the soil, the land, from which the grapes come do not belong to the winery.  It is usually leased by the state to the farmers, and that can make things difficult. We had to make a very precise selection of grapes, and even used hand selection, to ensure quality.

Another issue is communication. There are people in the winery who speak English and we employ 150 Chinese at Torres, so we are able to translate in Mandarin. But I tell my foreign staff members that they need to know some Mandarin. I have been studying it for two years. I have had few results so far, but I keep trying!

One reader from Twitter, SbonnerABV, asks whether Torres’ focus is on entry-level or premium wines in China?

We are seeing good sales of the better wines, both the Spanish and the Chilean. The trend seems to be toward better wines.

How does China fit into Torres’ global business?

China is still a small market compared to the U.S. and other countries, but we consider that it will be a great market in the future. What is the future? Maybe in ten years. In any case, China has been growing steadily as a wine market over the past decade.

What has been the biggest challenge for Torres since setting up in China in the 1990s?

The biggest challenge was in the late 1990s, a few years after we set up, when the company was losing a lot of money. Some board members said that maybe we should withdraw from China, but we ultimately decided to continue. Today we have made that money back and been profitable over the past few years.

And the biggest success?

It was nice that our wine Mas La Plana picked up the best wine award from the Chinese edition of Food and Wine magazine. Tonight is also a big moment, because we will be able to present this new wine, Symphony, from Shanxi.

In its early days in China, Torres experimented with making wine. What prevented it from continuing the project?

In the mid-1990s, we had a small bottling plant west of Beijing. Bottling here in China helped avoid part of the wine duty. We also gained some viticulture experience. We had about one hectare with 10 grape varieties. The problem was that the bees and the people working at the vineyard consumed a lot of the grapes, so we didn’t have much left! But we did some experiments and found the results OK. Not terrific, but OK. Now, with Grace, we have gained more experience and have this new wine.

You have been coming to China for more than a decade. How has it changed?

I have been coming to China every year since 1994, so that is about 15 times. I also came to Chengdu about ten years ago, after visiting Shanghai and Beijing, and found it a classic city with electric buses, narrow streets, and local character. Now, a decade later, there seems to be nothing but construction and I wonder, Where is the old city!?

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