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China’s quest for quality wine

www.nationmultimedia.com by Suwatchai Songwanich01/04/2019  

Chinese wine drinkers are becoming savvier and more knowledgeable about wine, and domestic demand for quality wine produced in China has increased.



Despite President Xi cracking down on “gift giving” in 2012 – which affected sales for wine, spirits and luxury goods – Chinese vintners have continued to quietly hone their craft, aware that winemaking is a very long game. 

Imported wine is still king – about 60 per cent of wine sold in China last year came from overseas – but this is more likely a result of production and distribution barriers in the Chinese wine industry, than any issue with quality. Common obstacles include low production runs, high unit prices and regulatory issues, all of which frustrate curious customers wanting to see what local wineries have to offer.

Ao Yun, a winery that produces its grapes in the foothills of the Himalayas, and whose name translates as “flying above the clouds”, has successfully overcome these challenges. Key to Ao Yun’s story is its ownership by Moet Hennessy, the wine and spirits arm of luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, and parent company of the centuries-old Dom Perignon and Veuve Clicquot houses.

Ao Yun ranks among the easier Chinese wines to find in Europe, the US and the Middle East. Perhaps a reflection of the immense effort that goes into developing a new terroir – the set of environmental factors that give wine a distinctive regional flavour – prices start at $238 (Bt7,550) per bottle.

This is a far cry from previous years when wine merchants claim to have sold cheap foreign wines to consumers who would mix them with Coca-Cola or soda water to mask the flavour as much as possible. Nowadays, those in the wine trade say local consumers are almost like professional tasters and can tell the subtle differences between wines from within China and around the world. 

Thai palates are changing too as a result of a new generation with access to overseas travel, higher disposable incomes and the internet. As Thai demand for quality wine has grown, so too has its expertise in the field. 

A decade ago, nearly all sommeliers in prestigious Thai restaurants were foreigners, but today at least two dozen Thai sommeliers have risen to top positions at leading establishments, including the Anantara hotel group and Bangkok Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

More than 100 people have applied to take part in Thailand’s Best Sommelier Competition to be held this June, compared with just 18 a decade ago. This is a positive development. However, Thailand’s steep tariff on imported wines – one of the highest in the world at up to 400 per cent – remains a significant barrier to the industry’s success. 

Sipping wine may have become a huge social signifier in modern China and Thailand, but the regulatory obstacles faced by the Thai wine industry and their Chinese counterparts serve as unnecessary barriers to a craft that could put both countries on the map. Hopefully, changing national palates will inspire officials to savour the potential economic benefits that could come from more liberal regulation.