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French Wine Fights Back in China by Jim Boyce05/11/2019  

Beijing consumers get to grips with Bordeaux's wines at the Fete le Vin in Gubei Water Town last month.

Who imagined 10 years ago that France, with a grip on half of China's imported bottled wine market, would one day play catch up?

But Australia has topped France for value this year and, along with Chile, is in hot pursuit for the volume title.

Fingers point to many reasons for the fall – from the China free trade deals of rivals Australia and Chile to the growing niche of curious consumers pursuing other options, thanks to social media, online retail and global retail, beyond what was once the default French purchase. The country's leading region, Bordeaux, isn't immune, either. Everyone from Chinese investors there to medium-sized producers who have spent up to a decade building a China presence are concerned about declining share.

So what is France doing about it?

Actually, at least during the past few months, quite a bit. We've seen a series of new launches and initiatives that might well help the country shore up its position in China.

Lafite grabbed headlines this summer by announcing the name of its 10-year-old Shandong winery project, Long Dai, then maintained trade interest by hosting high-profile KOLs at its facilities. Two weeks ago, in Shanghai, it held a master class, led by CEO Jean-Guillaume Prats, that placed its Chinese wine beside its labels from Argentina, Chile and France. It was a bold move that drew a great deal of attention, with far more reservation requests than seats.

Lafite is a darling of status wine fans in China, and Long Dai has been generally well received by the trade as a first vintage. Some consumers and critics balk at its $330 price tag and some local producers will be no doubt pony up the money for a bottle in the hopes of successfully blind tasting their own wines against it. But Lafite's insistence on carrying on with the Shandong project when its local partner pulled out nearly two years ago earned it much respect. And each successive vintage will give the brand, and Bordeaux, the spotlight as a rare top-flight producer that put down roots and committed itself on the ground in China.

A more recent project is the first Bordeaux Fete Le Vin in continental China, held in Beijing's Miyun County last month. The organizers, headed by Zhang Dongli, hope it will became part of a circuit of annual Bordeaux festivals that include Brussels, Liverpool, Quebec City and Hong Kong, although the latter was canceled this year due to the ongoing protests.

The festival was held in impressive Gubei Water Town, a sprawling recreation of a historical city, nestled under the Great Wall on the edge of Beijing. Some 70 brands participated, arranged in white tents around a Bordeaux Wine School that featured classes such as "how to taste". Each also featured brilliant drone performances that eventually dimmed to make the illuminated Great Wall stand out high above. A glass of wine seemed like the most natural thing while gazing at that.

What's most intriguing about Fete Le Vin is its potential to reach middle- to middle-upper class consumers who might not otherwise buy Bordeaux. The region already has keystone events like Simply Bordeaux and Grand Crus Des Classes, not to mention a steady flow of five-star hotel dinners, that appeal to the trade or those who are already fans of the wines.

Fete Le Vin can attract the eyeballs of non-committed consumers: some 40,000 people sauntered through Gubei on the weekend I visited. These are people with disposable income; Gubei entry is $20 per person and there are also the costs of transportation, food and accommodation. These are also people for whom the wine festival was an added attraction. That spells opportunity if the festival organizers can get them to pay a small fee, try a few wines and leave with a souvenir Bordeaux glass that will hopefully trigger them to buy more wine back home. Even better, this event can be scaled; if it works in Beijing, this could be the start of a national circuit that includes some of the 100-plus Chinese cities with populations of more than a million people, many of whom have not even started their wine journey.

Even more recent was the inaugural Vinexpo Shanghai, held October 25-27. There has been chatter for years of Vinexpo launching in Beijing, and some feel the decision for a Shanghai fair was too little, too late, given how saturated the market has become. (Prowine is next week in Shanghai.) While Vinexpo's crowds were modest, the attendees I talked to tended to cite "quality over quantity" and I heard few negative comments. That was also the theme of Vinexpo CEO Rodolphe Lameyse, who said: "Here we talk about products first, then we talk about prices."

More than anything Vinexpo plants yet another French flag on the ground in China and we can expect repeat events.

Thus, from an individual winery like Long Dai to a region like Bordeaux to a national brand like Vinexpo, France is getting new exposure at all levels.

And that's just three initiatives. There are plenty more, from high-profile Champagne events to the growth of interest in French natural wine. One particularly intriguing project is a monthly wine program backed by French wine writers Michel Bettane and Thierry Dessauve that launched in Beijing this year.

One oft-noted characteristic of the wine trade is that so much of the juice comes from the French, Italians and Spanish but so few of the leading writers and key opinion leaders do; Bettane and Dessauve are helping to change that.

I joined a B+D event, with a white-wine theme, in September. I paid my $15, received two tickets for oysters, and soon found myself facing an art gallery and 80 wines, most from quality boutique producers and presented by enthusiastic importers. A young and energetic crowd was there, sipping wine and trying a range of cheeses by the French-trained team of Beijing's Fromager de Peking. Even better, B+D events do not limit themselves to French brands – I tried some terrific Slovenian wines, among others.

It was invigorating, as were my experiences with Bordeaux Fete Le Vin, Vinexpo Shanghai and Long Dai, and suggests that while France has found itself facing some strong competition in China, it still has plenty of fight left.