Vineyard owners head east to tap huge market
Wine dinners hosted by visiting vineyard owners, once almost exclusively the preserve of expatriates, are attracting more knowledgeable locals.
Savvy producers realise that the gatherings offer a great opportunity to promote their wares to discerning wine lovers and influential wine writers. Australian Dean Hewitson, who runs Hewitson Wines in the Barossa Valley, makes regular trips to the mainland.
'What is most remarkable is the enthusiasm and energy of the young people, who really want to be part of the wine culture and soak up knowledge. Seven years ago, that was not the case - they had no idea,' he says.
'China is potentially a massive market, but you have to be patient. You have to think about 10, 20 or even 100 years' time. It is not just the wine industry, but the whole world that is looking to China as their glimmer of hope in a despairing world.'
Senior executives from Joseph Drouhin, a family-owned business that produces Burgundy wines, have been making annual pilgrimages to China for more than a decade. That commitment to personal service - meeting customers and hosting wine dinners - has paid off with explosive recent growth.
'Chinese cuisine is delicate and, if you want to pair your food with wine, Burgundy is best,' says Christophe Thomas, export director for Joseph Drouhin.
'Wine is not especially made to enjoy as a cocktail, but to complement the food you are enjoying. Chinese people are refined and are getting very interested in the French art of life. In terms of wine tasting, we are helping people to discover the hierarchy of wines.'
Drouhin began to export to China in 1995 when the only decent wine was sold in five-star hotels or to private clients. Distribution was also tricky, but Drouhin persevered, seeing long-term potential. It was a prescient call: the wines, now distributed by Torres China, are proving to be best-sellers. Among the most popular are Beaune Premier Cru Clos des Mouches, Chablis, Bourgogne Rouge, Macon Villages, Gevrey Chambertin, Pouilly Fuisse and Vosne Romanee.
'The market in China is the most dynamic of our export markets,' Thomas says. 'The Chinese economy is growing very fast and so is wine education. The modernity is also fascinating. China has a concentration of some of the best-designed bars and restaurants.'