Jonathan Dahan is export director for Asia for Domaines François Lurton, which is headquartered in France but also produces wine in Argentina, Chile and Spain. Dahan has worked in China’s wine trade since 2006 and I asked him about consumer trends, why imports are struggling, having fun on WeChat, French comfort foods and more. (Check out more Q&8s here. And Dahan’s guide on fighting fake wines here.)
1 You’ve been in China over a dozen years, starting in Beijing and now in Shanghai. What are the biggest differences between Chinese wine consumers in 2012 and 2022?
In 2012, wine was still considered as an exotic novelty by many. It was hard to convince baijiu drinker to change their habits. However, the rise of the middle class and the arrival of younger generations of drinkers changed the game in the past decade.
These people started to drink for different reasons, such as fashion but also health. They now have a taste for it and are indirectly affecting the older generations’ behavior.
2 Wine imports have really struggled in recent years—trending down even before COVID hit. What is needed to reverse this trend and what do you see over the next three to five years?
For us, we had exponential growth from the start in 2010 until 2017. When I say exponential, I mean an average of 170 percent increase in sales over seven years, until we reached our apex of 300 containers imported in 2017 alone—that’s about 5 million bottles.
Things started to get complicated in 2018 when economic issues arose with the U.S. and affected the whole import and export market. And we all know what happened in late 2019.
I don’t believe the market will get much better in the coming three years. And as far as I know, a return to normal for international travel is not expected until 2023 to 2025.
As for after COVID, my guess is some consumers will have switched to local production but that imports will see growth again, though unlikely a very sharp increase. A return to pre-2018 import volume will take years of slow increases.
3 Let’s talk about a special wine in the L’Abreuvoir portfolio. Special because it’s the only option from Spain, has zero sulfites and is vegan: Hermanos Lurton ‘Toro.’ How have customers here reacted to this wine?
Ha ha, you have good eyes. Indeed, we have only one Spanish wine in the portfolio and there are several reasons for that.
I am also export director for Asia for Francois Lurton. We really love this wine—by “we” I mean the team. And while we are French wine professionals and don’t plan to import a full container of Spanish wine any time soon, this wine is available for pick-up from France so we consolidated it with other wines
This wine is organic, no SO2 added, unfiltered and vegan. We plan to be fully organic in the future but it will take time to get there.
As for customer reactions, as you said, this one is very special so it is a love it or hate it wine. So far, I have found more lovers of this wine.
And it can appeal to a wide range of consumers, from a Beijing wine blogger to a French diplomat to a younger generation of Chinese who care for their health.
[This wine and four others were donated by Lurton for the 2021 Maovember Mystery Wine fundraiser.]
4 You guys put a lot of effort into sharing info on your WeChat wine customer groups—about wine history, regions, styles, quizzes and more. What have been some of your favorite posts?
I really love best to share very specific knowledge rather than general knowledge.
I had much fun writing about Lledoner Pelut, Pacherenc-du-Vic-Bihl and traditional ancestral methods of making sparkling wine, for example.
I also like to share interesting anecdotes and historical wine facts because this is what people remember ultimately.
5 China is always positioned as a red wine market. Is this remaining steady or do you see interest in white, rose and other wines?
It is coming… slowly. Even for us we are still importing far more reds since 90 percent of our sales are done through wholesale channels.
However, in our B2C [business-to-consumer] activity, we do sell a higher percentage of white and rose wines, especially during summer. The proof is that we now have around 30 different white and 6 rose wines.
Also surprisingly, our sales of Champagne have increased a lot in the last two years, almost double in volume, and the wines are unfortunately sold out half of the time.
6 There is lots of talk about home consumption of wine rising over the past few years. Do you see this reflected in sales or does on-site consumption still rule?
I think home drinking for locals is still not a general habit. That is simply cultural. Asians found out that boiling water made it clean thousands years ago while the Europeans instead discovered fermented fruits were not only drinkable but also delicious and made you happy at the same time.
The consequence: this is what we respectively drink at home. The import figures speak for themselves, with more than a 30% decrease since the beginning of COVID.
7 What foods do you miss the most from back home? And what are some favorite places in China for finding French comfort food?
I don’t really miss anything these days. There are plenty of suppliers for cheese, cold cuts and good meat now in China, either imported or local, which are the three pillars of my daily diet. Many years ago, when these were not so easy to find, I just ate local products—and went to restaurants a lot.
As for French comfort food, if you mean French restaurants, I must admit that in any city I visit I will check out if there are any places. We are also shareholders in two French restaurants in Guangzhou, FUEL and Le Hachoir, with possibly more to come in the future, and I eat there quite often.
8 What are three wines from the L’Abreuvoir portfolio you look forward to enjoying over Chinese New Year?
That’s a tough one. I chose them all personally so I pretty much like them all.
I normally drink entry medium-priced wines for daily use, such as the Poney range—especially the Syrah—or the Domaine de Nizas series. I am a big fan of rose and dry white wines as well.
Finally, for the higher levels, I am very much looking forward our new Burgundy SKUs expected this month, such as Gevrey-Chambertin.
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