Wine brand ambassador has his eye on the future

For Bordeaux estate's man in Asia, the glass is half full when it comes to the Chinese wine market - even if it's not what it was a few years ago

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 4:04am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 8:48am

China's enthusiasm for wine may have faded over the past two years, but that doesn't bother the Asian brand ambassador for one of Bordeaux's "big five" wine chateaux - he's more interested in the long term.

"The problem in China is that people are short-sighted," said Thibault Pontallier, 28, who has been based in Hong Kong since 2010. "Our business is a long-term one. We want to find people to do business with for the next 100 years."

Pontallier's Chateau Margaux in western France was the first to send a representative to the city, which had a 40 per cent wine tax until it was scrapped in 2008.

In keeping with the family business model, the task of venturing out of their home country went to the son of the chateau's general manager, Paul Pontallier, who first tasted wine at the age of three when he dipped his finger in a glass. Having learned some Putonghua, the young Pontallier started out in Hong Kong, but he took an unconventional approach to marketing.

He made friends with his clients, and industry veterans, and explained face-to-face how the wine should be appreciated for its qualities - much like an artwork, he says, rather than a luxury handbag.

At the time, China's appetite for top French wines was huge.

"In 2010 to 2011, 30 per cent of our wines went to the mainland and Hong Kong. Now, it's 15 per cent," Pontallier said.

In 2011, the 2000 vintage was auctioned off by Zachys Wine Auctions for US$2,353 a bottle. The price went down to US$1,165 a bottle at Christie's this month.

But three years ago, the speculators were overstocked, which coincided with President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive in 2012. It was a tough year for wine sales in China, Pontallier says, but things are moving in the right direction now, with higher demand from the private sector and increased sales last year.

China's total import of all wines - bulk and bottled - was almost 377 million litres last year, down 4.5 per cent from 2012. But for bottled wines, the volume increased 5.5 per cent to 287 million litres, with a total value of US$1.4 billion. "What happened in China is normalisation … We lost the clients linked to the officials, but the other half is growing," Pontallier said.

The lower prices also mean other countries - like France, the United States and Japan - can afford them again, and now the chateau aims to maintain a balanced mix of clients.

In the long run, the China market remains appealing because there is a keen interest in learning about wine.

Chinese are now the second largest nationality behind the French for visiting the chateau, which will open a new building designed by British architect Norman Foster next year.

In Hong Kong, wine imports fell 17.7 per cent to HK$8 billion in 2012, according to Trade Development Council figures. That narrowed to 3.2 per cent in the first quarter of this year, from the same period of 2013.

"Hong Kong is good at selling [wine]. Hong Kong needs people who know what they are talking about," Pontallier said.