Organisers said 15,785 wine professionals attended Vinexpo, shattering the previous record of 12,617 visitors in 2010.
Vinexpo alternates each year between Hong Kong and Bordeaux, and is restricted to people in the trade.
A total of 1,050 exhibitors from 28 countries occupied the huge Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre from May 29-31.
Vinexpo chief executive Robert Beynat said he sensed the sophistication of Asian markets had grown tremendously from two years earlier, and this was reflected in “the atmosphere of this year’s show”.
Master of Wine Debra Meiburg, who hosted a series of education seminars, noted a marked increase in the knowledge of the audience since the previous Vinexpo. “Asia’s progress in this regard has been remarkable,” she said.
Meiburg is a noted wine journalist who has been based in the region for a quarter century. She detected a shift in what people were drinking.
Consumption habits changing
After years of red wine being the preferred tipple, wine drinking habits are changing in Hong Kong and China. Until fairly recently, almost nine in 10 bottles consumed were red wine.
White wine imports to Hong Kong soared 39 per cent in the first quarter of this year, and now account for 14 per cent of total imports. Data from International Wine and Spirit Research showed white wine sales in China would grow 69 per cent between 2011 and 2015, against 53 per cent for red.
Analysts Wine Intelligence came to the same conclusion, highlighting changes in Chinese consumer tastes in their report Emerging Opportunities in the Chinese Wine Market. The company’s research was based on interviews with 40 wine consumers in Beijing and Shanghai.
Research manager Jenny Li said white wine was growing in popularity, especially in southern regions where people disliked tannic styles. Lighter southern cuisine was more appropriate for white wine, she said.
New Zealand sauvignon blanc is the most popular white grape, which explains that country’s rising wine exports to China.
Fear of buying fake red wine was another factor. Chinese people buy expensive bottles as gifts, and risk losing face if the wine is not genuine. “White wines are perceived to be ‘fake-free’ due to the relative lack of counterfeit white wine products in the market,” Li said.
Debra Meiburg MW confirmed that Cantonese food paired better with white wine. Meiburg ran four seminars on pairing wines with Chinese flavours and all classes were oversubscribed. Participants voted for riesling as their top pairing choice at every session. Interestingly, red wine classes were seldom full.
Wine journalist Poh Tiong Ch’ng detected a trend towards white wine and champagne in China’s coastal cities. “Even in the smallest villages, people do not add sprite or coke to wine. That story is a myth. Yet I note that Europeans still add sugar and milk to their tea,” he said with a smile.
Alberto Fernandez, managing partner for Torres China, noted that German rieslings were “finding favour with educated Chinese consumers”.
The German Fine Wine Company has recently opened offices in Shanghai and Beijing, and has focused on educating consumers about riesling. Carsten Klante, managing director, said riesling was the perfect match with much Chinese food.
Wine education in China
Vinexpo saw the official launch of an international sommelier certificate created by the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI). Shinya Tasaki, ASI president and the person named best sommelier of the world in 1995, said the aim was to standardise the level of sommeliers across the world.
Yang Lu, a sommelier in Shanghai, said Chinese sommeliers still had limited knowledge. “Lots of wine lists look identical because they rely on major suppliers and do not know enough about alternatives. It will take a long time before China has a sophisticated wine and food pairing market.
“Wine education is needed,” Yang Lu said.
Fongyee Walker, a Beijing-based wine educator, agreed. “Without education wine will remain a luxury good in China.” The country also needed an agreed vocabulary of wine terms. “We currently have three different ways to write [the character for] chablis and seven for cabernet sauvignon.”
Decanter magazine hosted a panel of four experts aiming to profile the Chinese wine consumer. The panel consisted of a sommelier, a wine educator, a wine journalist, and the manager of a wine distribution company.
Cognac has always the preferred gift among Chinese people who wanted to show they were sophisticated. But in recent years wine has made major inroads.
The mainland’s younger generation were particularly enthusiastic about wine, preferring it to cognac or whisky, which they viewed as old fashioned, the panel heard.
A Vinexpo study in conjunction with International Wine and Spirit Research forecast growth of 54 per cent in wine consumption on the mainland and Hong Kong over the next four years – the equivalent of 1,000 million more bottles.
Alberto Fernandez, managing partner for Torres China, said: “Many wine bars have sprung up in the bigger cities, particularly Beijing and Shanghai, and are generally frequented by executives who have travelled overseas and observed the wine culture in countries such as France and Australia.”
John Abbott, editor of Decanter.com, released details of a survey of 70,000 Chinese consumers in 30 cities. “People are actively looking for information about wine daily, which explained the massive growth of social networks, with 300 million active Sina Weibo users.” Sina Weibo is China’s version of Twitter, because the latter is banned in China.
In May the number of Chinese visitors to Decanter.com surged past the total for both the UK and US for the first time. In January 2012 the proportion of audience who accessed Decanter.com from China was 1.3 per cent. By May it had leapt to 34 per cent.
“Chinese consumers have many sources of information but little clarity,” Abbott said. “People go online for information. They know brands, but they want more information [about wine].” Abbott announced that the Chinese-English version of DecanterChina.com would launch in autumn 2012.
Winemakers embrace digital marketing
Social networking played an increased role at Vinexpo. Pierre Perrin, winemaker for the family–owned Beaucastel estate in the Rhone, said he had become very active on social networks to sell wine online. “It is vital for our family to continue our traditions in terms of winemaking, but also to use technologies to create markets. That’s quite a challenge for wine people.”
Alberto Fernandez, managing partner for Torres China, said social media was important for marketing wine on the mainland “because of the importance of word of mouth and trust in that culture”.
Wines of Brazil were active on Facebook during Vinexpo, posting regular updates on their site (http://www.facebook.com/brazilianwines). Barbara Ruppel, promotions assistant, said her organisation kept its Facebook page updated during Vinexpo with “interesting information about Brazilian wines, along with pictures of events and relevant facts”.
Mauricio Roloff is responsible for the organisation’s social media / networking policies. “Social media is strategic in our communication plan. Our products have enough quality to compete with wines from anywhere in the world. But people know little so far [about the wine]. Brazil’s wine industry is basically made of small properties, with a small budget for international publicity. The Internet is a free and honest way to get in touch with consumers.
“Critics such as Gary Vaynerchuk (Wine Library), Gregory Dal Piaz (Snooth), Tim Atkin, Oz Clarke and many others are in touch with us through Facebook and Twitter. We know that traditional media play a very important role. Since we’re not its main focus yet, social media can help us to build this bridge.”
During the closing press conference, Madam Dominique Hériard Dubreuil, chairman of Vinexpo Asia-Pacific, said the Asian market, while maturing, still had great potential for growth. “Vinexpo Asia-Pacific remains firmly the premium choice for professionals in the wine and spirits industry.”
Hong Kong would continue, she concluded, to be “one of the most attractive places on the planet to do business”.
Published in the August edition of Epicure magazine, pages 62-64, under the headline “A grape success”.