Wine in China: Making a Mark

With every wine-producing country looking towards China as its preferred export destination of the future, you have to do something different to make your mark, writes Jeremy Oliver.

In partnership with a number of regional wine associations and state governments, Wine Australia has just undertaken a significant engagement with China that saw 100 participants in the Chinese wine trade and media spend a week visiting Australia’s wine regions.

It’s the hope of Lucy Anderson, Wine Australia’s Director for Asia, that once they’re back in China, this group will form the vanguard of a new appreciation and understanding of Australian wine, food and tourism.

“It’s our aim to build ongoing relationships with key people, creating a network of Australian specialists across China and into the rest of Asia. We will continue to bring people out to Australia, and want to position Australian wine as trusted, excellent quality and aspirational – characteristics that are highly regarded in China,” Ms Anderson explains.

Although the damp and broadly disappointing 2011 vintage was not typical of Australia’s recent harvests, it did provide the Chinese visitors with what was for many a first-up chance to experience at close quarters how wine is grown, made and matured, and to witness the tightness of the link that exists between vineyard site and finished product.

Lucy Anderson oversaw a detailed process that began with the selection of the 100 Chinesejeremy_oliver_perparing_meal_webvisitors through a process of application and review, culminating in a group drawn from 25 mainland cities representing importers and wholesalers, specialist retailers, restaurateurs, sommeliers, educators and media. Around half of the group had a working command of English, including all the media and educators.

In Australia, the Chinese visitors were split into small groups, each group then traveling to one of the 16 participating wine regions. The regions selected by Wine Australia were those whose wineries currently operate export sales to China, and comprised high-profile destinations such as the Hunter Valley and Orange (NSW), the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Rutherlgen and Heathcote (Victoria), the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley, Langhorne Creek and Coonawarra (South Australia), the Great Southern and Margaret River (WA) and Tasmania. In all, over 200 wineries were involved in the project.

Encouraged by Wine Australia to involve their visitors in tourism and lifestyle experiences as well as a solid wine schedule, the regions developed their own programmes to best communicate their own objectives. After an initial welcome and overview, some groups had hands-on exposure to harvesting grapes, while all were engaged in tasting juice and wine through all stages of the process – from the fruit on the vine to the juice emerging from the wine press, the different stages of fermentation and after some time inside an oak cask.

The object was to reinforce the reality that small changes in fruit sourcing and treatment in the cellar can result in significantly different tastes and textures, and to help overcome a view prevalent in China today that Australian wine is a mass-processed phenomenon. For this reason too, the Chinese visitors were given the opportunity to taste older vintage wines – to demonstrate that not only does Australia produce wine that cellars gracefully, but that it does so in a way that can rival those from France.

While it was important for the Chinese to learn about Australian wine and cuisine, several of the regions gave their guests the opportunity to cook a Chinese banquet for their hosts, resulting in some unique experiences in regions like McLaren Vale and Orange.

jeremy_happy_media_with_scott_mcwilliams_webLucy Anderson is delighted with the feedback she has already received.

“Frankly, they were blown away,” she says.

“We have certainly changed peoples’ perceptions about Australia. We addressed the issue that while France is expected to make complex wine, Australia is wrongly perceived by many just to make simple wine.”

*Pictured: The Chinese entourage with Mount Pleasant winemaker, Scott McWilliam.

One of the participants on the trip was Yin Lixue, a well-known wine consultant and educator based in Shanghai, who also works with me in China, says the project ticked a number of important boxes. Many on the trip, she said, whose wine knowledge was dominated by French and had not much prior experience of Australian wine, really got into it. Another highlight was the opportunity to taste blind (or masked) different varieties like Shiraz and Riesling across a number of regions, and to learn more about the regional classification in Australia, from its wine zones to its regions and sub-regions. Importantly too, which of these regions are warm and which are cool.

None of the Chinese visitors to Langhorne Creek had much knowledge of the region, but came away with a great appreciation of its quality and value for money, something Yin expects to convert to orders in the future. Similarly, the visitors to areas like the Mornington Peninsula and the Grampians, which do not have a high profile in China, came back with very positive views on quality. A number of the Chinese were particularly surprised by the Peninsula’s pinot, which they considered superior to that from New Zealand.

Another opportunity for Yin, who traveled with a group of educators, was the chance to taste wines of more than a decade of age sealed under both cork and screwcap, and to see clearly the differences that emerged as a result.

So, would Lucy Anderson do it all again? Possibly, she says, but with a few less people next time!

*Jeremy Oliver has been a professional wine critic for 25 years and is one of Australia’s foremost wine writers and presenters. He is the author of best selling guidebook, the Australian Wine Annual and most recently published Wine with Jeremy in Mandarin – the first western wine critic to create and publish a book in China especially for the Chinese audience.

Visit Jeremy’s website at: www.jeremyoliver.com

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