Asia hits a purple patch

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 April, 2010, 12:00am

Follow a case of Chateau Mouton Rothschild once it is bottled and shipped, and chances are you are going to end up several thousand kilometres away from the riverside town of Pauillac, just north of Bordeaux, where its cellars are located. Sales of this blue-chip first growth to the Asian market have gone from 30 per cent of total production just three years ago to 45 per cent today.

And it is not alone. Over the past year, the China market - comprising the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan - has doubled its imports of Bordeaux wine, overtaking the Americans in terms of numbers of bottles imported, and becoming the largest importer outside Europe. And as the 2009 vintage readies itself for the annual 'wine futures' sale, the eyes of chateaux owners in Bordeaux are increasingly turning away from traditional markets.

But are these markets ready - or willing - to step into the notoriously complicated system of buying the wines en primeur, two years before they are delivered in bottle?

'Today, Asia has an appetite for the best wines once in bottle. But it is still a small en primeur market,' Herve Berland of Mouton says. Sales to China of Mouton at the en primeur stage are just 5 per cent - still an improvement on none three years ago.

'The question for the 2009 Bordeaux is, how far are investors in Asia willing to go?' he says.

To date, the big investment wines have been the first growths of the 1855 Classification - Chateaux Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Mouton-Rothschild, Margaux and Haut Brion. 'The Chinese are appreciative of big brands that are tried and tested,' Chateau Margaux's director Paul Pontallier says. 'The first growths are the epitome of this.'

Justin Gibbs of wine trading firm Liv-ex (15 per cent of whose trades are with Asia, with many more being sold onwards to the region from British merchants) is cautiously optimistic about the 2009 campaign.

'The fine wine market has regained its lost ground from the past two years, and there is plenty of movement potential for this vintage. But the best quality vintages can become the most challenging in terms of return on investment. If the prices start too high, profits can take longer to realise.'