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New Zealand winemakers talking tactics for China push

By RJ Whitehead , 28-Jan-2013

Recognising the newfound importance of the Chinese wine market, New Zealand’s vintners are pulling out the stops to make sure their exports have a place in Far East cellars.

The country’s wine exports to China sat at a modest NZ$2.44m in 2008, before embarking on exponential growth that saw the figure reach 17m in 2011 and $25m over the first six months of last year alone.

But although there is much cause for optimism, the Chinese market is certainly not without its challenges.

China’s relationship with wine can be traced back 2,000 years, but today it represents only 2% of alcohol consumed in volume in China, and 5% in value. Global exporters might be seeing the country as a new Klondike for wine, but getting their message across to consumers—especially in this relatively new industry space—is taking some effort.

Understanding the market

In November last year New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) and New Zealand Winegrowers (NZW) hosted leading Chinese wine influencers and journalists on a tour of the main Kiwi wineries, followed by a series of seminars where in-market experts shared insights into the opportunities and challenges of the China wine market, with more than 75 wineries from across New Zealand in attendance.

Furthermore, over the last six months, Karyn Murray, NZTE’s wine envoy to China, has been seeking to learn how best to communicate New Zealand wine’s attributes in a way that resonates with Chinese trade and consumers.

We’ve been busy loading the sling and identifying targets, and now it’s time to start firing the shots. This is all about creating sustainable, profitable growth for New Zealand wineries, and we’re excited about the partnership between NZTE, NZW and wineries looking to exploit the huge opportunity that exists in China.”

The New Zealand government's trade agency and the country's wine industry body have also begun a joint wine certification program for Chinese experts as part of a bid to boost sales in China over the next three to five years.

The first group of eight Chinese experts has just completed the course with a 90-minute exam after a three-day intensive course in New Zealand's Hawke's Bay region.

Monty James, NZW’s marketing manager for Asia, told China’s Xinhua new agency that the New Zealand Wine Education programme would provide wine influencers, media and educators with in-depth information about New Zealand wine.

"The course is ultimately designed to provide information that builds confidence to tell and sell the New Zealand wine story, which will supplement the promotion from the individual wine companies and their Chinese importers," he said.

"What we are piloting, through education and tasting, is a base of clear, concise Chinese-language materials, presentations that position New Zealand as a unique, premium and diverse wine producing country with a world-class sustainability programme."

Show you care

John Isacs, a well-respected China-based wine writer, businessman and wine consultant who presented at the first course, said China doesn’t reward casual relationships. “The more you show you care and visit, the greater the results will be,” he warned.

The biggest barrier to entry, according to Isacs, is finding the right partner. When it comes to identifying qualified importers in China, it’s slim pickings and of the qualified bunch, most already have too many brands in their portfolio. Undertaking due diligence to ensure potential partners have the ability to sell your wine, and that they’re a good fit with your brand, is of critical importance, he advised.

Other barriers include low market share, unknown New Zealand wine producing regions, the newness of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir to the Chinese consumer, and a general lack of awareness around brands–particularly a lack of presence of famous brands.

To build a successful New Zealand wine brand in China, said Isacs, it is imperative that NZTE, NZW and producers work together because each has an important role to play. “Importers will not, and cannot, do the branding by themselves. However, because the China wine market is still in its relative infancy, there is time to gradually and cost-effectively build a New Zealand wine brand and doing so requires a well-balanced blend of traditional and new approaches,” he said.

In May last year, NZW completed its biggest-ever road show, in Beijing and Shanghai, which saw a huge growth in attendance from the previous year's events.

The Beijing event saw a 91% increase in trade attendance numbers, with 465 attendees, while Shanghai saw a 25% rise to 402 attendees, according to the winegrowners association.

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