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World's Wineries Courting Asia

Hundreds of producers attend this year's Vinexpo in Hong Kong in hopes of winning new customers in a growing market

Jeannie Cho Lee
Posted: June 9, 2006

More than 6,500 visitors filled Hong Kong's Convention and Exhibition Centre May 23 to 25 for Vinexpo Asia-Pacific 2006, hoping to taste wine and talk business with 568 exhibitors. Everyone at the trade show, which was sponsored by the Bordeaux chamber of commerce, was salivating over the prospect of grabbing a share of the growing Asian market for wine and spirits.

This year's excitement was in stark contrast to the somber mood the last time Vinexpo came to Hong Kong, in 1998. What was the key difference this year? Thanks to a growing wine boom, organizers managed to attract wine and spirits professionals from nearly every major country in Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Vinexpo's exhibitors were clearly lured by Asia's astounding potential, since wine consumption is expected to grow at twice the world average over the next two years, with sales reaching $5 billion by 2008, according to Vinexpo's latest study. China alone is projected to account for $1.76 billion of that, and the People's Republic is already the largest Asian consumer of wine and spirits by volume, ahead of Japan. Doors are slowly opening for imported wines as the Chinese government lowers duties and nontariff barriers.

"Our main purpose was to send a clear message to Asia that we view this market as extremely important," said Pierre-Henri Gagey, president of Maison Louis Jadot. "We also wanted to meet our Asian customers."

France is the leader in wine exports to Asia, with more than 40 percent of market share, and nearly half of the Vinexpo exhibitors were French. They were supported by the attendance of French politicians such as the mayor of Bordeaux, the French foreign trade minister and the minister of agriculture. French wine has been the import of choice for China because of its prestige, but wineries in Australia and Chile are making inroads as well.

Events included a Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting of the highly regarded 2003 vintage, where 66 top Bordeaux producers such as Gildas d'Ollone from Pichon-Longueville-Lalande and Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier frantically tried to pour for a densely packed audience. Not to be outdone, several St.-Emilion Grand Cru producers staged a smaller, but equally popular, tasting of the 2000 and 2005 vintages.

In conjunction with Vinexpo, every major five-star hotel, private club and top restaurant in Hong Kong boasted a winemaker's dinner, which were held simultaneously and were hosted by top producers such as Christian Seely of Pichon-Longueville-Baron and Jean-Michel Cazes of Lynch-Bages. Some producers skipped the exhibition--Michel Chapoutier held court at the Grand Hyatt instead, inviting visitors and journalists to taste in the privacy of his suite. The Gallic pageantry culminated with the Vinexpo gala dinner organized by the Commanderie du Bontemps, an association of estates from the Médoc, Graves, Sauternes and Barsac, where more than 500 guests enjoyed generous pourings of Lafite Rothschild 1988, Gruaud-Larose 1995 and Climens 1996, among other exceptional wines.

Globetrotting consulting enologist Michel Rolland took the opportunity to market his portfolio of wines from France, Argentina, Spain and South Africa directly to distributors in the Asian market. Rolland, who led a vertical tasting of Casa Lapostolle from Chile, said, "I have decided this year to go direct to the trade without going through the negociants. With the quality of the 2005 vintage, this is the right year to do it."

While France was well-represented, other European and New World countries had more spotty attendance. Traveling to Asia with the Napa Valley Vintners association just a month before Vinexpo, Delia Viader of Napa's Viader Vineyards said, "We don't want to be part of Vinexpo and we intentionally timed our visit to be separate from such a big wine show. We find smaller, intimate events much more effective for showcasing our wines."

Except for Cloudy Bay, high-profile producers from Australia and New Zealand were conspicuously absent. Very few Asian wine producers were present because demand for local wines is currently outpacing supply. Notable Asian wineries included Japan's Mercian, India's Chateau Indage and China's Dynasty, Dragon Seal and Grace Vineyard.

But for many of the exhibitors who did attend, Vinexpo was a success. Piedmont producer Angelo Gaja, who came to Hong Kong for 1998's Vinexpo, said, "There is much improvement since 1998. It is much more international." Gaja foresees that about a quarter of his exports will soon head to Asia, up from the current 16 percent. Alun Griffiths, wine director of British merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd, said, "Our 2005 en primeur allocation for Asia is bigger than ever before, and we see this as an ongoing trend."

But some exhibitors looking for distribution left disappointed. Volkmar Stoeckmann, Asian sales director for Reh Kendermann in Germany, said, "I contacted many Asian importers prior to my visit but only one returned my e-mail. This is a very tough market." The reality for producers seeking to break into the Chinese market is harsh: China may be the biggest consumer of wine in Asia, but less than 5 percent is imported. China is also the leading spirits-drinking nation in Asia, but imported spirits account for less than 1 percent of the market. China is well-guarded by a handful of local importers and distributors.

But with such long-term potential, Asia is hard for the wine industry to ignore. "Hong Kong was a great success because it is the gateway and center of Asia," said Robert Beynat, CEO of Vinexpo. "Vinexpo will most likely return to Asia in 2008."

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