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Flourishing Asia Wine Market Driving Global Growth

Leading wine industry veterans and expert analysts shared their insights on Asia's meteoric rise to prominence in driving global growth at the Wine Industry Conference, last Thursday, 8 Nov, held as part of the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (HKCEC). Organised by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC), the conference examined key trends from e-commerce and "premiumisation", to the persisting threat of counterfeiting, on the theme: "Driving Growth: The Flourishing Asia Wine Market".

Moderated by Hong Kong-based Master of Wine Debra Meiburg, Founding Director of MWM Wine School, the event featured presentations by Hianyang Chan, a Consultant with Euromonitor International; Master of Wine Sarah Heller; Cynthia Yang, Senior Manager of the Chinese mainland's biggest B2C wine retailer, JD.COM; Marcus Ford, a 20-year veteran of the Chinese mainland's wine industry, now Asia Market Manager for Wines of South Africa; internationally renowned counterfeit expert David Wainwright; and David Gaudinat, CEO of Champagne Gaudinat Bolvin.

Millennials Coming of Age

Opening the conference, Euromonitor's Mr Chan presented an overview of key trends and consumer preferences, noting that while soaring demand for wine in the Asia Pacific region had been led by the Chinese mainland, along with Japan, Korea and Australia, emerging new markets such as India, Thailand, Indonesia are also powering growth. "A rising middle and affluent class is driving trends and demand," Mr Chan said. In particular, in the era of the smartphone and social media, "millennials are coming of age, overtaking baby boomers and Generation X in purchasing power".

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Now in their 30s, this generation is keen to discover new wines and varieties beyond traditional demand dominated by red wine - with cans, wine on tap, blends and digital marketing all key to reaching the "craft generation". Affordability is also important in targeting this group: "This new age of consumers is interested in fine wine but not high prices," he said.

Entertainment Wins over New Generation

Asia's youngest Master of Wine, Ms Heller, well-known for her educational wine videos and as a wine judge, writer and content creator, opened a review of e-commerce trends, recounting her in-depth study of how e-tailing and millennials are powering the Chinese mainland's phenomenal growth. Online sales are "immense" and growing fast, she said.

While precise figures are impossible to establish, she estimates they already account for around 10-15% of the market. But China is somewhat unique in the online market, given that e-retailing of alcohol is banned in markets including Taiwan, South Korea and India, and is not nearly so prominent in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia.

However, as a millennial herself at just 30 years old, Ms Heller said social media is playing a major role in influencing the emerging generation of wine enthusiasts. In response, leading brands are producing their own online platforms, and "great storytelling is the next stage" in reaching this younger audience - "bringing the tasting room onto the Internet". Key influencers such as the mainland's "Lady Penguin" are driving the trend, making wine more entertaining than academic. "Young consumers don't want to need a Master's degree to enjoy a product," added Ms Heller.

At the Forefront of E-tailing

Continuing the e-commerce theme, Ms Yang outlined JD.COM's ambition to the "biggest global wine retailer". The leading online marketplace in the Chinese mainland for higher-end goods has built its reputation on "quality, reputation and elegance" - including delivery by smart white-gloved "butlers".

This same quality-conscious concept is now being applied to its wine business, representing around 8,000 brands and 2,000 suppliers and merchants, and directly importing from 18 countries worldwide. Helped by its "zero counterfeit" guarantee, the formula has proved a roaring success. JD has soared to prominence as the mainland's biggest alcohol products retailer - and third-biggest globally - with sales of 50 million bottles.

JD is also at the forefront of social media "storytelling"; on some brands, customers can simply scan an app on a wine label and view a video explaining the wine. JD's "smart market place" extends to intelligent shopping carts and payment - with its peerless logistics network even extending to drone delivery in permitted areas.

Trending up: More Sophisticated Consumers on Chinese Mainland

Hong Kong-born Mr Ford, who has been involved in the mainland's wine industry for 20 years - from working for leading Shanghai restaurant M on the Bund to establishing one of the first premium wine retailers, Pudao Wines - introduced his presentation on the premiumisation of the market, reflecting on the evolution of wine's popularity, which started by the drink being promoted as good for health and heart. This was "critical" to China's entry to the world wine stage and the "first spike", he said.

The mainland has since embraced wine in more ways than one, he noted. Viticulture has simultaneously exploded, and the country has become the world's second-largest wine producer. Not widely appreciated is that 80% of wines consumed in the country are in fact produced domestically. "The vast majority of wine in China is red and produced in China," he said.

At the same time, growth in imports has also been "astonishing" - from 200,000 cases in 2002 to 60,000 million cases this year. As the market comes of age, Mr Ford also noted a trend towards premiumisation, especially in the last 12 months, with "steep growth in the average price per bottle" - as high as 45% in some cases. China simply doesn't produce wine of sufficient quality to meet demand from "more aspirational consumers", he said.

"The market historically started buying for health, now we are seeing growth in demand for quality. The market is becoming more sophisticated." He believes the industry needs to get the message across that wine is not just healthy, but a special source of enjoyment from a special place. "All these stories can be told better," said Mr Ford.

Too Good to Be True

Mr Wainwright, a counterfeit expert and Director of Wainwright Advisors, cautioned that fake wine remains a threat to the Asian market - but primarily to high-end collectors and consumers with big budgets. While the great magnums and iconic wines of the last century "don't exist today", he advised buyers to beware of apparently great deals on younger classics, in particular rare Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne headliners.

"If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is," he said. Quality of counterfeiting is "so extremely high you need 50-times magnification to tell the difference". Expert counterfeiting rings are operating especially in northern Europe, Russia and Italy, and among the prized Grand Crux targeted are Romanee-Conti, Jayer and Petrus.

"And it's not just old and rare wines any more, but current releases of high value," he warned. "A lot of people simply don't ask questions." He added that online purchasing is "asking for trouble" and anything of high value "needs to go under the radar". Websites with no names, addresses, phone numbers or business registration should be red flags to consumers.

Great single malt whiskies are another "massive growth" target for fakery, especially given the recent soaring value - and most notably old Macallan, Bowmore, Laphroaig and Japanese classics such as the Hanyu Card Series and Karuizawa. "Anything of high value needs extremely careful scrutiny, verification of provenance and preferably professional advice," Mr Wainwright said.

The "Greening" of Champagne

Mr Gaudinat, CEO of Champagne Gaudinat Bolvin, closed the presentations with an update on the flourishing trend for "green wine" production, specifically in his native Champagne. Anyone who wondered if Champagne bottles feel a little lighter is correct, he said. Amid the bubbly region's push for sustainable viticulture, the weight of bottles has been reduced by 7% from 900g to 835g. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are being drastically reduced on packaging and delivery vehicles, and Champagne is the largest region in France pioneering insect mating disruption, making traditional insecticide treatment redundant. Champagne has led the trend for organic wine for more than 35 years and is currently aiming to be "100% environmentally friendly".

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