China's protection of Bordeaux's wines to benefit Hong Kong traders

Recognition of Geographic Indication for Bordeaux wines will help with marketing and increase Chinese consumers' awareness of chateau names, say Hong Kong-based wine traders

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 July, 2015, 12:16am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 July, 2015, 1:37pm

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Quite a few corks were doubtless pulled in celebration of the announcement, earlier this month, that after protracted lobbying China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine had finally granted Bordeaux wines Geographical Indication protection.

The announcement was strategically timed to coincide with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's state visit to France, and for both China and Bordeaux it clearly has symbolic significance.

For Bordeaux it signifies that the trademarks of the region are intellectual property, off-limits to the dodgy end of the Chinese wine trade.

For China, which recognises Geographical Indications on a quid pro quo basis, it is another important step to having more of its own Geographical Indications recognised internationally.

Grana Padano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma and Stilton cheese are all protected GIs in China, and the European Union reciprocally recognises Pinggu da Tao (peaches) and Dongshan Bai Lu Sun (asparagus) among others. Many more GIs are currently the subject of negotiations.

Despite having lobbied for its new status as an urgent priority since 2011, Bordeaux was not the first wine region to achieve it. That was California's Napa Valley, which gained the endorsement in 2012. Champagne also beat Bordeaux to the punch in 2013.

It is Bordeaux, however, with the special cachet in China of its top-end wines and the substantial exports also of its less expensive reds, that probably needs protection most.

Bordeaux wines at all levels have suffered from misleading - even if often laughably inept - labelling of wines by Chinese bottlers, and outright wine fraud, exploiting the reputations of the region's iconic labels, particularly Chateau Lafite. Last year Li Xinshi, president of the Chinese Academy of Inspection and Quarantine, speaking at a conference in Bordeaux, acknowledged that at least half the Chateau Lafite available in China is probably fake.

There is now a legal basis to prosecute for the abuse of Bordeaux trademarks. But while the wine trade has generally welcomed the region's new protected status, there is some scepticism about the existence of a will to police it.

Despite having lobbied for its new status as an urgent priority since 2011, Bordeaux was not the first wine region to achieve it. That was California's Napa Valley, which gained the endorsement in 2012. Champagne also beat Bordeaux to the punch in 2013

"At this stage we are yet to see what difference it will make. However, it is great to see official recognition of something that so many of us already know," says Jeremy Stockman, general manager of Watson's Wine.

Paulo Pong, proprietor of Altaya Wines, which supplies fine wines to China as well as in Hong Kong, agrees that it is "anybody's guess" how effectively the Chinese authorities will now clamp down on wine fraud, but sees Bordeaux's recognition as a significant step in the right direction.

"If you look at the long term, this is more than just a symbolic gesture. Bordeaux has seen a lot of its names and brands being used in China in all sorts of forms, and I think they were very worried about where it might head. It applies to both high end and low end. We have seen all sorts of mislabeling in the last few years. There were lookalike or soundalike 'Lafites' coming from everywhere. You see them in supermarkets and shops in many cities. There's a lot at stake at the fine wine level, but equally they [the Bordelais] don't want the Chinese market to mismanage the brand as a whole," he says.

Pong and Stockman both regard protected GI status in China as a potentially useful marketing tool. "Before 2008, I'm sure there weren't many people who were familiar with Bordeaux or the chateau names. It's very new to them, and it's very easy for them to be confused or deceived. They will now pay much more attention to these things. I think it's very important for the development of wine, and the development of Bordeaux in China," says Pong.

"GI recognition is great news as it allows consumers to recognise more easily where a product is from and have trust in it," adds Stockman. "Further, it helps to explain to a consumer why, for example, you might pay a premium for a wine [from one region over another]."