Bordeaux takes a hit as Chinese drinkers look to Burgundy and the New World

France bears the brunt of the crackdown on conspicuous consumption

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 February, 2015, 6:25am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 February, 2015, 6:25am

Last week Guillaume Deglise, CEO of wine trade show organiser Vinexpo, was in Hong Kong to announce plans for this year's event in Bordeaux, and also to share some facts and figures from a new report on the global wine and spirits business.

The report shows mainlanders drinking more China-made wine and less French wine and more bottles from other producing nations. Despite some record-breaking headline numbers at auction, the tendency in Hong Kong is to spend a little less per bottle while Burgundy and Bordeaux vie for investor attention.

Deglise was previously the Asia-Pacific director for Champagne Laurent-Perrier, and understands the wine trade in Asia well.

He stresses that this year's Bordeaux show, which will incorporate some ideas introduced at Vinexpo Asia-Pacific in Hong Kong in 2014, is intended to reaffirm the organiser's market leadership.

Of greater interest to wine drinkers were the details of the report. Every year Vinexpo commissions a study from London-based market intelligence provider International Wine and Spirits Research, which presents the most recent information on what has happened in markets around the world, and makes educated guesses about what seems likely to happen next. And China looms large in this picture.

"Global consumption of still wine fell by almost 20 million cases in 2013 to 2.44 billion cases, so that's a market contraction of minus 0.8 per cent," says Deglise.

"China's volume dropped off in 2013 and that's the main explanation for the decline in the global consumption figure.

"The single biggest factor in that decline was the Chinese government's anti-extravagance policies. This led to a sharp contraction of local banqueting in China, a key source for sales volume. This policy, according to the IWSR, is unlikely to go away and the China market will see a lot less explosive growth in the years ahead."

That crackdown on conspicuous consumption, and a trend away from Bordeaux and towards Burgundy in the record-breaking lots of fine wine moved in Hong Kong by auction houses, both augur ill for the region around Vinexpo's hometown.

According to Bloomberg, Zachys Wine Auctions and Acker Merrall & Condit, which both conduct regular fine wine auctions in Hong Kong, report waning interest in Bordeaux, with Burgundy having a 41 per cent share of fine wine sales to Bordeaux's 32 per cent.

This month Sotheby's announced that arguably Burgundy's brightest star, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti had topped the second annual Sotheby's wine ranking - a top 10 detailing the bestselling fine-wine producers over 2014 at both auction and retail.

Sotheby's top lot of the year was the HK$12.5 million achieved for a 114-bottle Romanée-Conti "superlot", setting a new record for the most valuable wine lot ever sold.

Earlier this month in Hong Kong Acker Merrall & Condit sold a "superlot of assortments" of DRC for HK$1,086,800 in an auction which also saw a 12-bottle case of 1999 Henri Jayer Vosne Romanee Cros Parantoux go for HK$938,600, and six magnums of 1996 Henri Jayer Cros Parantoux for HK$889,200.

Of the sale's top 25 lots, 23 came from Henri Jayer. According to Acker Merrall & Condit, in 2014, 164 of 194 world auction records set for wine went to Burgundy.

Both here and in North America the top Burgundies seem to have replaced Bordeaux in the affections of wealthy wine lovers.

"The Americans were very upset, I think, when the crus classés started to raise their prices because of China," says Deglise.

"They had the feeling that they were being left out by the producers in many ways, and it will take some time to recover. I don't see the US market absorbing quantities and very high prices as the Chinese market did within the past two or three years."

Burgundy remains popular despite price increases after short vintages
Guillaume Deglise, Vinexpo CEO

Although there would appear to be room for little but gloom about the Chinese wine market, which in 2013 declined by 7.4 per cent after several years of strong growth, Deglise says he is optimistic about the longer-term prospects.

"The loss of the banquet business and less gifting among military and party officials did affect the wine category and probably more than initially thought," he says, adding "the underlying factors remain very healthy. We expect 37 million adults to reach drinking age in China within the next five years. That's more than the entire population of Canada.

"The middle class and those who can afford imported wines and spirits is also growing rapidly. So we are still optimistic."

Deglise and the IWSR are similarly sanguine about the Hong Kong wine market's prospects over the long term - although in 2014 local sales dipped for the first time since the 2008 lifting of import duty and, according to the report, "market leading French wine" took the hardest hit, falling by 8.1 per cent.

That has occurred against a background of steadily falling French market share here.

In 1997 French wines had 62 per cent of the Hong Kong market and Australia, the US and Chile had just 15.5 per cent. In 2013 those countries accounted for 46.2 per cent of the market and France was down to 28 per cent.

Despite the trumpeting by auction houses of record-breaking prices paid for Burgundy, however, it seems we are spending less money on wine than we were.

"Wine collecting and auctions remain notable facets of the local wine market and the expensive French grand cru and auction activity declined severely in 2013," says Deglise.

"The value of the market was affected as a result, and the average price in Hong Kong fell to less than HK$130 per bottle from its HK$154 peak in 2011."

The report notes that "Chinese investors are looking at other investment alternatives and have begun to shun Bordeaux's sky-high prices".

However, it also noted, "China and Hong Kong combined still represent the largest market for Bordeaux wines in volume and value terms" and that "Burgundy remains popular despite price increases after recent short vintages".

Flying somewhat in the face of its own figures, the report asserts that a survey concluded that "Chinese consumers still view French wine as the best. However expats [a much smaller proportion of the population] are more likely to consume New World wines."

It would be surprising if expats alone accounted for the 4.8 per cent rise in imports from Hong Kong's "second-favourite wine producer", Australia, and of 7.2 per cent for the US, which finishes third in that race.

The IWSR is inclined to blame the market contraction on excess stocks, and believes that local sales will begin to grow again once they are cleared but "at a more moderate rate than in the past".

Globally the picture is gloomier. Only one of the world's top 10 wine-drinking countries, the US - admittedly the biggest - shows any signs of growth, and the IWSR predicts that global wine consumption growth will slow to just 1 per cent from 2014 to 2018.

Notwithstanding the falling average sale price of a bottle of wine in Hong Kong, one global trend, he says, is consistent.

"It's a shift in consumption habits. People are drinking less, but they are drinking better," he says.