Vinexpo in Hong Kong.

Kicking Goals

After an impressive Vinexpo and China Roadshow, the Australian wine industry’s prospects in China have never looked better, but it could all be very easily undone warns Jeremy Oliver.
jeremy oliver
Courtesy Wine Australia

Anyone in any doubt about the future of Australian wine in China just had to be at Hong Kong’s recent Vinexpo or at one of the four China Roadshows organised by Wine Australia. As a participant in these events and as a long-time promoter of Australian wine in the region, I am delighted to report that Australia has more than regained its mojo in its key export market.

Australians doing what they do best in export promotion: working together around a consistent message, supporting each other, and being well-staged and -managed by a fast-learning Wine Australia team that did the industry credit.

David Lucas, Wine Australia’s new regional general manager Greater China, was astonished by the energy and team spirit of the Australian contingent at each event. “I’ve honestly never experienced anything like this before,” he told me. “The Australian wine team felt like a community and everyone was able to feed off each other’s energy. While other parts of Vinexpo were very quiet and brand owners were packing up for an early night, I’d see Australians still doing deals and negotiating while people were turning out the lights. I’ve seen high-energy before, but not to this degree.”

As ‘Country of Honour’ for Vinexpo, Australia’s presence was unavoidable. With 150 wineries present in a stand that was right at the front door on the lower level, Australia occupied four aisles about 60 or so metres deep. I have never seen or participated in such a positive or impactful export marketing exercise.

De Bortoli’s general manager sales Greater China Matt Bahen noted a deepening of knowledge and sophistication in China that led to deeper trade opportunities. “There were a lot of Chinese mainlanders at Vinexpo and they showed a willingness to represent specialist channels in the market and work with other Chinese partners, rather than demanding exclusivity,” he noted. “There was also more interest and knowledge in different categories that in the past had been tough sells, such as pinot noir and fortified wines. This is a huge change.” Furthermore says Bahen, the feedback from Vinexpo was that the Australian category was more popular than that of Bordeaux – an enormous achievement.

While there were concerns that the China Roadshow might have been somewhat anticlimactical for the 75 brands that went to the mainland for this annual event, they were misplaced. With a schedule across Shenyang, Jinan, Wuhan and then Shanghai, it again delivered a message to the industry that Chinese buyers are still embracing Australian wine, more than ever before. Having participated in the final stage at Shanghai, I can again say without hesitation that Australia is front and centre of China’s ongoing love affair with wine.

Bahen compliments Wine Australia for having increased the scale of the Roadshow from around 20 participants six or so years ago to full halls with more than 70 brands and regions. “Including new cities is also healthy and progressive,” he says.

It was only five years ago that Australia’s wine sales to China were A$200 million per year. That was significant back then, because the average value of sales to China were already higher than those of other markets. That trend has continued, as China is still a market for the entire spectrum of what Australian wineries put into bottle.

Younger Chinese wine drinkers are moving with both confidence and curiosity towards a widening range of Australian wines. Yes, younger women are enjoying our sweeter sparkling wines and older guys are still opening bottles of Barossa shiraz. But there’s a huge space in the middle that is being filled by a wide spectrum – from more savoury and fragrant grenache to chardonnay and riesling. It’s happening so fast, at so many levels, and across so many cities that it’s now almost impossible to give a brief answer to the question of which Australian wines are most preferred by Chinese drinkers. That’s a very good thing because it shows we are understanding the market better and responding to its varied and complex needs.

Now that we have hit A$1 billon annually, which is more by value than the US and UK markets combined, Australia faces something of a fork in the road concerning its sales of wine into China. On one hand the industry can start planning on how it can increase China sales to $2 billion, a number never previously imagined, but now a genuine ambition. However, Australians can also choose to threaten the value of their exports to China by forgetting that trade can only exist around positive relationships and that our economy needs China more than China needs ours. Let’s hope that given our amazing recent success that we’re not watching our country kick its biggest own goal in history.