by Tim Atkin

Time to learn Mandarin?

David Cameron’s visit to Beijing this week at the head of the biggest-ever British trade delegation acknowledged a simple, if slightly uncomfortable fact. For the foreseeable future, the world’s economy will be driven and dominated by China.

Accompanying the prime minister on the trip were the chancellor, George Osborne, the education secretary, Michael Gove, the business secretary, Vince Cable, and the energy secretary, Chris Huhne. No other country, not even the United States or India, would get such five star treatment .

For all the lip service paid to the discussion of human rights, this visit was mostly about business. You can understand why from a politician’s point of view. Since the western financial system imploded in 2008, China has become an even more important global player. Twenty years ago, Deng Xiaoping advised China to “hide your brightness; bide your time.” Economically at least, that time has come.

I’m not a Chinese expert by any means, but the figures supplied by the state-owned National Bureau of Statistics speak for themselves. Even if you factor in a bit of exaggeration, China’s GDP is growing at an annual rate of more than 10%. More new cars are now purchased in China than in any other country.

As Richard McGregor writes in his excellent new book, “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers”: “The economic transformation of China, a country with one fifth of the world’s population, is a global event without parallel. The rise of China is a genuine mega-trend, a phenomenon with the ability to remake the world economy, sector by sector.”

It goes without saying that those sectors include wine, although the UK delegation was more focused on Scotch whisky than English fizz. But what sort of wine are we talking about here? The recent ex-château sale of Lafite by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, which included the highest price ever paid for wine at auction (£437,900 for three bottles of 1869 Lafite) and a mind-scrambling £43,000 for the 2009 en primeur, suggests that it’s high end Bordeaux.

The top châteaux certainly think so. Many of them are committing considerable time and resources (including, in at least two cases, sending their own children to live in Hong Kong) to the market. In a country where conspicuous consumption is king, people want the “best wines available to humanity” as Withnail put it in the cult 1980s film.

Money, as those Lafite prices demonstrate, is almost irrelevant. An article in The New Yorker last year contained a telling quote from a China-based wine importer. “In our shops, if we have slow-moving items, we raise the price.” The fact that this is happening in a country that is still, nominally at least, Communist may be hard to understand, but it is true.

How will the market develop as it matures? The answer is that nobody really knows, such is the pace of change in China. The likes of Lafite are only available to, and purchased by, an elite. If they were mass-market brands they would lose their appeal. But what about the emerging professional class of men and women in their late 20s and 30s? What will they drink in ten years’ time?

More Chinese wine is a fair guess. To date, the only local red I’ve tasted of international quality is from Grace Vineyard in Shanxi province, south of Beijing. But others will surely emerge. Château Lafite (who else?) announced last year that it was developing 25 hectares on the Penglai peninsula in Shandong province. Just as significantly, it is doing so in partnership with CITIC, China’s largest state-owned investment company. Smart move, Lafite.

It’s even more certain that the Chinese will continue to drink plenty of imported wine, partly because of its prestige (particularly in the case of Bordeaux) but also because of its general quality. I say general because there are some truly awful wines being exported to China at the moment, especially from France: past their sell by date bottles that should have been poured down the drain.

The Lafite obsession apart — one cynic suggested that part of the reason for its success in China is the fact that it is the only First Growth without a difficult to pronounce “r” in its name — everything is to play for in China.

It’s certainly a tricky market to service, partly because of the bureaucracy involved. Judy Leissner, CEO of Grace Vineyard, talked about this from a producer’s point of view at the Masters of Wine seminar in Bordeaux earlier this year. “We deal with 35 government departments. You have to multiply that by five times to include people at village, county, city, provincial and national level.” Importing and exporting wine to China isn’t necessarily any easier.

And yet China is potentially the biggest wine market on earth. Unlike many other markets, most notably the UK, it is growing, and growing exponentially, showing decent returns on investment. Not everyone who tries to sell wine there will succeed, but some will. If I were a wine producer, I’d be learning Mandarin.

Originally published in Off Licence News

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