Mainland wine importers optimistic despite clampdown on gift giving

The government clampdown on gift-giving on the mainland has caused wine importers some problems, but most are optimistic, writesMark Graham

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 February, 2014, 9:37am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 February, 2014, 9:37am

In years gone by, the giant wine company Torres made special decorative gift boxes for Lunar New Year, confident there would be plenty of corporate buyers in China seeking expensive, elaborately packaged wine to give to contacts.

But not for the Year of the Horse. The demand for such special gift packaging has fallen so dramatically that it is no longer worth making special editions for significant festivals, such as the New Year or Mid-Autumn.

The government clampdown on gift giving has also affected another handsome, year-round revenue earner for the wine industry. Lavish banquets where red wine flowed and toasts were endless, have been pared back, particularly in Beijing. In the capital, people have to be seen to be implementing the government's decree to stop splashing the cash on wining and dining; events featuring high-end Bordeaux and top-drawer bai jiu (rice liquor) are thin on the ground.

Customs figures show the volume of wine imports rose by 5 per cent last year. But they increased just 0.5 per cent by value and imports from France rose only 1 per cent by volume, and fell 10 per cent by value. But this doesn't mean it is total gloom and doom for the Chinese wine trade. China's wine-lovers enthusiastically took to grapes from Spain, Chile and Portugal, and continued to enjoy wines from Australia, Italy, the US, South Africa, Argentina and Germany.

The revenue gap has been, at least partially, filled by demand from young urban professionals who have developed a genuine love and appreciation of wine, rather than a desire to guzzle down exorbitantly priced Lafite Rothschild or Pétrus.

"These are younger people in their 20s and 30s, urban professionals who see wine as a hobby and a way of socialising. They drink to enjoy wine not to fall down," says Campbell Thompson, who runs The Wine Republic, a company little affected by the gift-giving clampdown. It notched up an increase in sales last year to 20 million yuan (HK$25.5 million).

"When I first got involved in the wine industry 12 years ago there were fewer than 20 companies importing wine into China. Now we are told by China customs there are more than 4,000 individual companies importing wine," he says.

Thompson says that, with such vast competition, it is hardly surprising that some firms have chosen to exit the market. "A lot of it was opportunistic trading; it's good that people give it a go, but there have been huge surges of new people and probably a bit of an oversupply. It got out of kilter with what is being consumed.

"Throw the austerity measure on top of that then there is a huge amount of wine coming in from Bordeaux without a home. People bring it in hoping to sell it and then find that prices have collapsed."

One importer from Bordeaux has bucked the trend by using an unusual business model. Helene Ponty, whose great-grandfather founded Le Ponty Wines, came to China with her Hong Kong-born boyfriend to explore the possibility of selling the chateau's wines directly to mainland customers.

It has worked well. Her clients are pleasantly surprised to receive personal visits from a Frenchwoman with a working knowledge of Putonghua who can explain the wine's characteristics and give a first-hand account of how it is made - by her father, Michel Ponty.

Since starting the business less than two years ago, the entrepreneur has sold 50,000 bottles, with China demand now accounting for around a third of the Bordeaux vineyard's production. Sales are consistent, despite the austerity drive.

"When I moved to China everyone was telling me you have to be very cheap, or very expensive, that there was no market for wines at around 300 yuan to 600 yuan," says Ponty.

"Now there is no more market for the expensive wines - the government doesn't buy it any more and the big companies have cut back, so there is now a market for those mid-range wines like ours."

Ponty says some importers played on the lack of knowledge by Chinese consumers, selling lesser-known Bordeaux wines, confident that no information about the wine's provenance, or usual retail price, could be found on Chinese-language websites. This allowed distributors to heavily mark-up the price.

The sellers were also capitalising on the inclination among less wine-savvy Chinese buyers to focus on the picture on the label and the price, rather than worry about the contents of the bottle. Ponty has also benefited from the attitude where would-be buyers have only shown interest in the packaging, not the product.

"Everyone says they want something that looks French. They think a leather box looks French but it does not," she says. "In France, you would give wine very simply in a cardboard box or wooden box.

"My understanding of what is French is different from theirs. My new six-bottle box is like a little suitcase in leather, but in France you would not do that.

"You have to adapt if you want to do business here. I think a lot of people come from France and criticise the culture when they see people saying gan-bei! with wine.

"I have to explain that is the way you show respect, so if you refuse to drink wine like that, you are not being respectful."

One senior executive who has done his share of gan-bei-ing over the years is Damien Shee, north China general manager for the Spanish giant Torres, where annual revenues now stand at 250 million yuan. But last year saw a slowdown in gift-box sales, so the company decided to drop special packaging editions for Lunar New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival.

But the gap has been filled to some extent by middle-class professionals who have developed a wine-drinking habit. Sales have also held steady at the very top end of the Torres catalogue: its prime wine is Chateau Mouton Rothschild, which sells for 21,786 yuan.

"We have Chateau Mouton but we do not focus on these high-end wines, our business model is based on wines for every day," says Shee. "It is like a car dealer who has the licence to retail Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Toyota; you would be selling a lot more Toyotas.

"The high-end brands are the ones that give you the prestige, but the ones that help you put your kids through school are the things that you sell every day."

Shee predicts that more and more oenophiles will be placing their orders online, meaning China will effectively have bypassed the traditional wine-store method of sales. There is a smattering of retail wine outlets in the major cities, but nothing on the scale of, say, Watson's Wine outlets in Hong Kong.

Torres already has its Ever Wines online outlet, which is doing brisk business. Wine lovers in the second, third and even fourth-tier cities, where wine stores are scarce, can browse a world-class selection.

They can decide whether to go down the French route - wine from that country still accounts for more than 40 per cent of imports - or opt for offerings from Spain, Italy, Chile or Australia.

Overall, despite the luxury squeeze, Thompson of The Wine Republic is bullish on the future of the business for importers.

The respected trade body Vinexpo is also confident that China is destined to become a wine-drinking nation; as of now, it is ranked fifth in the world consumption table, with sales predicted to reach more than two billion bottles annually within three years.

"I think that in the long term, there will be strong growth," says Thompson. "We are fairly positive, but it will be different from two, three or five years ago when there was that exuberance in the market.

"With Bordeaux there was a boom, and then a bit of a bust. Bordeaux is always going to be important in the China market, it won't disappear. There was just too much of it.

"We are seeing a lot of interest in the 100 yuan to 200 yuan range - affordable but not the really cheap and cheerful stuff," adds Thompson.