Snapshot: Australian Wine in Greater China

Hong Kong has established itself as a key global wine hub, and Australian wines are not lacking in representation, although Asian perceptions of Australian wine still have some way to go, writes Jeremy Oliver following a recent trip to the Island.

Jeremy Stockman has just turned over a year working in Hong Kong as Manager, Senior Fine Wine and Wholesale for Watsons Wine, the wine retailing and distribution subsidiary of AS Watson that owns and operates 25 retail stores in what is fast becoming the world centre of wine. Prior to this role, Stockman was a senior buyer for Coles Liquor and a respected judge around the Australian wine show circuit. While in Hong Kong recently, he shared his views with me on where Australian wine sits within the Hong Kong and southern China wine markets.

When he first arrived in Hong Kong, he expected to find a wine scene almost exclusively French and dominated by Bordeaux and Robert Parker. “It wasn’t that long ago over here that fine wine was defined as French,” he says.

Within the first two weeks, Stockman had already attended two major local wine fairs, one for the industry, the other for the trade, and his perception had altered entirely.

“I saw how diverse the representation was in Hong Kong, and how sophisticated and mature the environment is – that Asia appreciates the great wines of the world in much the same way you see in Europe. The stands were excellent, the representation from France and Italy were huge. The right guys were here, like Andrew Hardy from Petaluma, and I’d walk up to stands to see wines from people like Rockford and Giaconda up in lights – not just the big brands.”

Stockman was quick to learn that as in most international markets, there was a healthy recognition of the larger Australian wine brands led by Penfolds and a strong presence of the more price-competitive labels like Jacob’s Creek, Lindemans and YellowTail.

“Between these extremes it was very shady, except if the wine had good Parker scores,” he says.

“There were many wines from the finer small makers, but on the whole, they were not strongly promoted and did not sell well.”

So what’s happened in the year since? Not much has changed, Stockman observes. There’s perhaps a greater understanding of Australian wine regions and the great boutique producers, and Parker’s relevance towards Australian wine has begun to wane.

Australian wine looks expensive next to brands people are more familiar with from places such as France and if people compare Australian wines on taste and style they hold up very well, but in Hong Kong, he says, they stick to Bordeaux if Australian wines are not significantly better than wines of the same price they are already buying.

While Australians have been working hard to promote chardonnay and other white varieties in Hong Kong, 80 percent of the market is for red wine. Stockman suggests whites haven’t had much impact outside the expat market and that the Hong Kong Chinese and PRC visitors are still reluctant to buy lighter reds like pinot noir.

“These folk have grown up on Chinese tea and enjoy robust, full flavoured and tannic wines like the more powerful Shiraz and cabernet.”

The influence of Mainland Chinese in Hong Kong is becoming more profound. Many keep weekender apartments in Hong Kong, which they see as their shopping centre and Macao as their casino. Currently they are the greatest consumers of the very top-priced wines.

“They’re far less interested in Australian wine than the famous French brands,” says Stockman. “Here it’s very much and issue of face, and whether they’re buying the wines to share or to give as a gift, they have to give what they perceive as the very best.”

Stockman shares my view that apart from some specific exceptions, Penfolds Grange is the only Australian label that has really cracked into this market tier.

Stockman also notes that as Mainland Chinese customers are driving up the prices of the elite tiers of Bordeaux reds, Hong Kong residents are seeking more value in the lower growths. He has seen the effect of the ‘party set’ of younger Chinese entrepreneurs who have learned how to make a lot of money quickly.

“These are the new high-end wine customers, and in a population of 1.5 billion, you don’t need a large percentage of them to make quite an impact,” he says.

Stockman contrasts the approaches taken in recent years by the French and Australian governments to promote their wares to the Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese markets. Organisations like Sopexa (the promotional arm of the French Government) bringing a region together in Hong Kong and extolling the virtue of that region. Wine Australia has devoted most of its effort to bringing sommeliers and others in the trade to Australia, ahead of creating events here that educate average people about wine.

Hong Kong was recently hosted around 40 Burgundian domains, who staged several days of tasting events. The Bordeaux producers do likewise three times each year.

“Other parts of the world get together, come here and tell their story,” says Stockman. “Australia on the other hand, tends to downplay itself. It’s time for a London-styled Australia Day tasting in this market.”

While acknowledging that Wine Australia’s strategy is intended to create informed, long-term relationships with key opinion leaders, Stockman questions whether some of this budget might be better deployed showcasing wines directly to customers in the region.

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