The Spain drain: Is China at threat from cheap European wine imports?

Too much two-euro chuck?

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A few weeks ago, China and Europe went from sipping to spitting as an alcohol industry group in the former claimed that imported wines from the latter are unfairly subsidized. From Reuters:

The China Alcoholic Drinks Industry Association this week formally requested the government to investigate whether wine from the European Union was damaging the domestic market.

China’s commerce ministry is now considering whether to take action following the request, which made claims of unfair European subsidies to its industry, state media reported.
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The EU Chamber of Commerce in China called the developments a “worrisome trend of trade protectionism”.

… Experts said the request followed a flood of cheap imports of bulk and bottled European wine, including from Spain, last year.

The full story is here.

Several reporters called me about this spat, including Reuters. I am not an expert on international trade law nor do I have a position on whether or not the European wines in question are unfairly subsidized. But here is what I can say.

1. When you look at the China Customs statistics for the top ten sources of imported wine, you find quite a range of behavior. Take the numbers for the first quarter of 2012: wines from New Zealand represent the lowest volume but the highest value per bottle. On the other hand, wine from France represents the highest volume but also higher-than-average value.

And Spain, the country named in the Reuters report? Its numbers show relatively high volume and quite low value. A few points:

  • In that first quarter, Spain accounted for 9.3 percent of imports by volume -– only France and Australia had higher shares -– but a mere 5.2 percent by value. Of the top ten sources of wine, no one came close to this gap between volume and value. I don’t have the second quarter statistics available, but I understand Spain has increased its market share by volume even more.
  • The average value per case of Spanish wine during that time was just over 22 euro or per case or less than 2 euro per bottle. That’s the average: some incoming Spanish wines are much pricier and thus some are claimed at an even lower rate.
  • To the best of my knowledge, Spain has seen the highest growth among the top ten wine sources over the past few years and the majority of it has been inexpensive stuff.
  • When it comes to imported bulk wine –- wine typically transported by tanker and either bottled here as Spanish wine or blended with local wines and bottled under Chinese labels –- Spain went from also-ran to champion in ten year. In 2009, it accounted for ~5 percent of the market with 3.7 million liters, less than a tenth of leader Chile. In 2011, it was number one and accounted for nearly half the market with 54.6 million liters, more than double Chile.

I am not saying any of this is proof that Spanish wines are unfairly subsidized. But I am saying that anyone who looks at the import statistics is likely to notice that a huge amount of very cheap wine from Spain in particular, and Europe in general, entered China over the past few years.

2. Good-quality low-priced wine from Spain, Chile, South Africa and other countries puts pressure on Chinese producers, especially the biggest ones, because they cannot compete on value. I have witnessed this happening for years, with a steady growth of easy-drinking imported wines. In Beijing, you can get such wine for under rmb100 / 10 Euro from corner stores such as 7-ELEVEN to imported goods chains like Jenny Lou’s to a range of hypermarkets. These also tend to be the types of wines served by the glass at “Western” bars and restaurants and tasted by growing numbers of Chinese patrons.

Here is the thing: Chinese consumers have generally bought wine not because of its taste but because of brand names, of an association with status, as a gift, as a beverage to share at business or social events, for perceived health benefits, and so on. Taste tends to come second or third — or to even be irrelevant — as a factor for buying wine for many consumers. Not surprisingly, wine producers have tended to get results by spending more on marketing rather than on improving quality.

But as more consumers get exposure to a wider range of wines and start to buy for the sake of enjoyment, imported wines — including those as the cheaper end of the scale –are increasingly attractive versus their local counterparts. That’s a problem if you are a local counterpart.

3. China has shown it can make good wine at relatively low prices, from wineries such as Shanxi’s Grace Vineyard and Ningxia’s Helan Mountain, the latter with involvement from Pernod Ricard. These wines retail for less than rmb70. Meanwhile, a Cabernet Gernischt made by big-three producer Changyu recently went on sale at Waitrose in the UK for 10 pounds / ~rmb100. Here is how one reader described it:

I’ve just tried the Waitrose Cabernet Gernischt. It is, in truth, perfectly drinkable although I was glad it was on special offer at £7.99 rather than £9.99. It reminded me firstly of a lot of the German reds from modest grape varieties (yes, they’re not common but I go to Germany and search them out) and then of South African reds, though less dense and pinotage-like. I’m not a pinotage fan.

At the least, it should be of interest to the curious wine drinker. The main problem, however, is volume: there is not a whole lot of such stuff in China at the moment.

So, that’s what I can say. A lot of very cheap wine is coming into China, particularly from Spain. Cheap reasonably good imported wines put pressure of local producers, particularly as more consumers buy based on taste. And Chinese producers have the potential to meet this challenge. In fact, this challenge might end up being the best thing to ever happen to the local wine scene if it encourages these Chinese producers to improve quality at a faster pace.

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