Presentation adds to prestige
Wine lovers can usually tell from one glance at a label whether the contents are likely to be worth savouring. But on the mainland, where drinking wine is still something of a novelty, it is necessary to spell out that a wine is special, particularly if presenting it as a gift, through elaborate packaging and ornate lettering.
Demand for fancy wine presentation is on the rise, particularly in secondary cities where the recipients are less likely to know from examining a bottle that they are receiving something that is expensive, hard to find or both. The extreme end of the scale is to put wine bottles in polished, dark-wood cases that are lined with red velvet, a non-too-subtle statement that this is a gift worth having.
In the past, cognac was always the gift of choice among people who wanted to show their credentials as sophisticates - and often the foreign tipple favoured at upmarket banquets - but wine has made major inroads in recent years. A study by the Bordeaux producers' organisation, VINEXPO, in conjunction with International Wine and Spirit Research, forecasts growth of 54 per cent in wine consumption on the mainland and Hong Kong over the next four years - the equivalent of 1 billion more bottles.
The mainland's younger, generation is particularly enthusiastic, preferring wine to cognac and whisky, which they view as rather old hat. Many wine bars have sprung up in the bigger cities, particularly Beijing and Shanghai, and are generally frequented by executives who have travelled overseas and observed the wine culture in countries such as France and Australia.
They are more likely to choose wine as a gift, perhaps only a single bottle for a friend or business contact, but always presented in a special wooden package. Wine is also becoming more commonplace as a corporate gift. Depending on the recipient's level of importance in that all-important guanxi (contacts) pecking order, it might be a single bottle of medium-priced wine or an entire case of rare Bordeaux.
Distribution company EMW Wines offers a wide variety of wine cases, ranging from about HK$25 for a single-bottle box to HK$900 for an elm box that can hold six bottles.
The company does not mark up the boxes, preferring to toss them in as additional extras for customers who spend certain quantities. 'We offer 10 different kinds,' says Oliver Six, Beijing manager for EMW Wines. 'It has become very important during the main gift-giving seasons of Lunar New Year and mooncake time [Mid-Autumn Festival]. We are ready with special packages two months before those festivals.
'The buyers are companies looking for gifts for their clients, private customers or hotels. Most of the time it is for businesses. I have been in China for six years and in the past it was always cognac as a gift, but wine is getting more and more popular.
'In the secondary cities, packaging is more important, while in the bigger cities it tends to be just during the greeting seasons that clients ask for it.'
One of Six's clients requested bottles from the prestigious Bordeaux ch?teau of Carvades de Lafite from specific years, which cost him about HK$90,000. Naturally, the wines were presented in special custom-made boxes. Most orders, though, are for between HK$1,200 and HK$2,400 and always for red wine, not white.
Presenting wine in the original packing crates from the winery is another option. At the Wine Republic, run by Australian Campbell Thompson, a popular choice is Parker Coonawarra Estate's top wine, a first-growth cabernet-merlot that comes in a wooden case of six bottles.
The company also imports Yarrabank sparkling wines, which are presented in decorative aluminium tins.
Wine Republic marketing manager Danielle Liu says simple wrapping for a wine bottle can cost as little as HK$8. The company offers a range of different-priced packaging options for customers.
'Good packages show the product's value and quality and give face,' she says. 'We usually charge the cost price or include it for free. We do package wines for sale because it gets the buyers' attention, particularly at festival time when people need lots of gifts for friends, relatives, customers or staff.'
The practice of packaging for retail display is more prevalent with locally owned wine companies: even mediocre offerings are sometimes dressed up in ritzy packages in the hope that looks will help sell. Browse the wine section of any supermarket and there will be bottles from obscure wineries displayed in dark wooden boxes.
But not all well-displayed local wine is plonk. Grace Vineyard and Silver Heights, the two local producers that consistently earn high praise from people in the know, ensure their flagship wines are presented in suitably slick packaging.
Dynasty has taken that approach to the extreme with its latest Jue collection, mega-casks of some of the company's finest wines, offered at eye-wateringly high prices and aimed squarely at the mainland market, particularly banquet hosts.
The 225-litre barrels, that are equivalent to 300 standard bottles of wine, are being pushed as prestigious gifts or as a novelty for banquets and are offered in three categories, Imperial, Elegance and Wisdom.
The priciest of all, Imperial, is made from merlot and cabernet sauvignon grapes harvested from the slopes of Mount Helan in Ningxia province, an increasingly popular spot for wine production. The 2003 vintage, aged in new oak barrels for three years, is described by Dynasty as having delicate tannins and aromas of cinnamon, cloves, cocoa and coffee beans.
Somewhat fancifully, the company describes the wine as being as sought after as the ultra-prestigious Ch?teau Lafite from the famous Bordeaux vineyard. It is certainly up there in the high-end price range: a barrel of Imperial is priced at HK$740,000, with an Elegance barrel selling for HK$345,000 and a Wisdom barrel offered for HK$225,000.
Clearly, the barrels are only within the price budget of corporate or nouveau riche customers, particularly those who want to gain huge amounts of face by hosting an event where guests tackle a mega-cask of wine that is touted as some of China's finest. As wine packaging goes, it does not get much bigger or brasher than that.