Hong Kong, Dalian, Shenyang, Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing in 13 days, I can assure you it was a real tour de force. I absorbed tons of information, observed, tasted and tried to immerse myself as much as possible in Chinese culture. I have tried to reflect on it, but must admit that the tardiness of this post is due to how difficult it is to interpret what will happen in the future in China. This post will be a bit disconnected and the topics and feelings expressed might not seem rationally connected; more than a post I would say these are notes.
One thing is certain, the consumption of wine in China will increase, because it is a status symbol. What might give Italy an edge over the rest is tourism: we bring well-off Chinese to Italy, and our wine makes a bang.
Just as we need to absorb their nobile, thousands-of-years-old culture mixed with unscrupulous capitalism, the Chinese appreciate Italian wines when they understand the inseparable link between our wines and their territory of origin.
When I talk about China, I always exclude Hong Kong, an extremely sophisticated metropolis with a market differentiation very similar to that of the west. Giant China looks to Hong Kong and sees it as a reference point; for this reason the former British colony plays a strategic role throughout the Far East.
Every day, I tried to explain Piedmont wine, through workshops organised by my representatives, to their vendors or directly to customers. I was dealing with a wine culture operating at the most very basic levels and a knowledge of Italy reduced to the most minimal terms.
This intense trip taught me to not take anything for granted; in my explanations I tried to use clear, simple ideas. My thanks go to Fabio Grasselli who translated all of my words into perfect Chinese and who was fundamental for communicating the quality of our wines.
Me and my travelling companion, my old school chum Alessio Povero, now owner of Cantine Povero in Cisterna d’Asti, experienced truly intense days, trying Chinese cuisine of the north and south, and even that of Uighur, an ethnic Muslim community of the west, discriminated against by Beijing and where alas wine cannot be served, for religious reasons.
The five-year Chinese plan puts a spoke in the wheel of agricultural food imports, a protectionism detected in the new law requiring a further chemical analysis, this time on phthalates, a chemical component in found in rubber tubes. In fact just recently tons of chocolate cakes coming from Europe were blocked, for the presence of a bacteria considered dangerous by the Chinese authorities.
Many times during the trip I asked myself where the devil this wine is being consumed and who is buying it. In China, wine is mostly sold to individuals (above all to be given as gifts); in restaurants wine consumption is almost inexistent. We need to be patient, it will be necessary to earn Chinese trust and not assume that rip-offs are only sent one-way from China to Italy. I have realised that Asians’ occasional suspicion of Italians is truly well-founded. Many of them have money to invest, but they want to test their prospective partners before launching a business venture.
All in all, I think that seriousness, transparency and the ability to find the right partner, independent of the volumes that sooner or later will arrive for everyone, is fundamental for entering a market as chaotic, unsystematic and difficult to understand as that of China.
It is not easy to understand whether a Chinese man or woman is pleased after tasting a wine or after participation in an event, their way of being is difficult to interpret, even among the Chinese themselves. The only way is a pragmatic look at purchases: the more they buy, the happier they must be … an unerring, mathematical system.
The positive side of the Chinese wine market is that during tastings, even if there were lots of communication problems, I noted a very strong desire to learn about wine. The road ahead will be very long, but I am comforted by the fact that during our presentations I saw many people taking notes and asking lots of questions, demonstrating a very strong basic interest. As compared to France or Australia (the latter just sealed an agreement with China that zeroed out duties on wine imports), the Italian government and the various organisations in charge absolutely do not help the promotion or circulation of our wine culture, and so as ever we have to count on ourselves.
I would like to conclude this post with a phrase often repeated by my friend Alessio, who knows China better than I do, which perhaps not all of you will understand: “In China, if you don’t have we chat you’re a dead man” :):)