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Spanish winemakers eye China’s wine frontier

Wines from Spain and the New World are gaining ground in China at the expense of their French counterparts, as increasingly adventurous Chinese wine enthusiasts push back the frontiers of a surging market, say experts.

Spanish winemakers eye China's wine frontier
Photo: Philippe Lopez/AFP

Exports of Spanish wines surged 40 percent year-on-year in China in the first half of the year, according to Chinese customs reports, and it is now the third-biggest exporter of bottled wine to the lucrative wine market behind France and Australia.

"The Chinese are now searching for wines other than from France because they are more educated about wines from other countries," Hong Kong wine expert Mabel Lai told AFP.

But price is also a reason. Wines from Spain and other countries such as Italy, Portugal and Australia sell for less compared with French wines said Lai, who is a lecturer at the Hong Kong Wine Academy.

A top bottle of Spanish wine may range from US$260 to $390, but a bottle of a highly rated French vintage could be double that amount, she said.

French winemakers at the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Fair say increasing competition in the Chinese market is a good thing for the industry. France holds a roughly 50 percent share of the Chinese market.

"A little bit of competition will force us to improve our production and our winemaking," Jean-Laurent Soule, a sales manager for French winemaker Ravoire et Famille, told AFP, welcoming competition from other countries.

"We are still confident about the quality of our products," Soule said.

November's International Wine and Spirits Fair, one of Asia's largest, is partnered with Spain this year and has attracted more than 1,000 producers from around the world, as the southern Chinese city cements its position as an international wine hub.

Hong Kong, which abolished duties on wine imports in 2008, has become a gateway to the booming wine market in mainland China. In recent years, the city overtook New York to become the world's biggest wine auction hub.

Spain is seizing the opportunity to introduce its products to one of the world's fastest growing wine markets.

"Now wines from Spain (and other countries) are getting bigger and we are travelling around the world, and letting people know about their wines," Carlos Moreno, export manager for Spanish winemaker Bodegas d. Mateos, told AFP.

"The potential of this market is huge," Moreno said of China, adding that European and Western markets are "quite crowded".

Jack Chen, a 35-year-old wine shop owner in Shenzhen and a buyer at the Hong Kong fair, told AFP that good wines would always be accepted in the Chinese market.

"The Chinese consumers will have an open attitude towards the wine no matter if it comes from France, Spain or from other countries. As long as it is good stuff, the Chinese will accept it," Chen said.

October figures from the Bordeaux wine producers' body, Le Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB), showed that the value for the Chinese market recorded a fall of almost 10 percent in terms of value for the year ending July.

"We no longer have the exponential increases in volume and value that we had a few years ago," CIVB deputy president, Allan Sichel said then.

Chinese wine consumption soared 142.1 percent from 2007 to 2011, reaching a total of 159.25 million cases or 1.91 billion bottles, the leading wine and spirits trade fair organiser Vinexpo said in March.

Although the growth rate — the world's fastest in wine consumption, — is tipped to slow to 39.6 percent between 2012 and 2016, a total of 252 million cases of wine are expected to be drunk annually in the Chinese market, including Hong Kong, in 2016.

The 2012-2016 expansion rate stays ahead of the world's biggest wine consumption market, the United States (12.2 percent) and France, which is predicted to see a three-percent contraction in 2016, according to Vinexpo.

Demand has surged in the world's second largest economy in recent years, driven by a rapid expansion in personal wealth as well as growing demand for foreign products.

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FOOTBALL

Wu Lei’s move to Spain’s ‘Liga’ is ‘massive’, says ‘China’s Beckham’

Wu Lei's transfer to La Liga is "massive" for Chinese football, says a former international who made a similar journey 19 years ago and helped convince the forward to take the plunge in Europe.

Wu Lei's move to Spain's 'Liga' is 'massive', says 'China's Beckham'
Espanyol's unveiled its new Chinese forward Wu Lei on January 29, 2019. Photo: AFP

Xie Hui knows what it is like to venture out of the relative obscurity of Chinese football and make a success of it, having scored goals in Germany's second division.

Now 44 and retired from playing, Xie also knows Wu better than most after working with him for the last few years at Chinese Super League champions Shanghai SIPG.


Xie Hui looking on during an AFC Champions League group stage football match last week. 

Wu left SIPG, where Xie is an assistant coach, for Espanyol in January for a reported €2 million ($2.25 million) and made history this month when he became the first Chinese to score in Spain's top league.

Few Chinese have played among Europe's elite, but Xie told AFP that 27-year-old Wu can make as much of an impact — if not more — as Sun Jihai, who was at Premier League Manchester City from 2002-2008.

“I have no doubt that he has the capability to play in a top league, in a decent team,” Xie said of last season's CSL top-scorer.   

“He always had this dream so he would talk to me and say, 'Oh, but what about the language?' But football is a common language.   

“I told him not to worry, the most important is on the pitch and the training ground. They will respect you if you show it on the pitch, it's as simple as that.”

Xie, who once earned comparisons to David Beckham, because he was married to an actress/model, sent Wu a message of congratulations after his landmark goal in Chinese-owned Espanyol's 3-1 win over Real Valladolid.   

Wu's progress is being closely monitored in China and millions back home will watch the broadcast of Espanyol's city derby with Lionel Messi's Barcelona on March 30.

“It's massive, massive, and something we missed for almost the last 15 years,” Xie said of what Wu's move meant for the development of Chinese football.

Need for speed

Like Wu, Xie was a forward, and after starting his career at Shanghai Shenhua, he moved to Alemannia Aachen in Germany's second tier in 2000.   

Xie hit 20 goals in 52 games and attracted the attention of teams in Germany's top flight, before returning to Shenhua in 2002.   

He had two further stints in Germany, before retiring in 2008.   

Xie, who scored nine goals in 22 appearances for China, warned that Wu will need to be patient and “speed up his mindset” in Spain.   

“Pace and physically, he has no problem,” Xie said.   

“But the CSL is much slower, he had much more time, two seconds in front of the goal. But maybe in Spain, you have just one second.”   

Xie, who has worked under the “unique personalities” of Sven-Goran Eriksson, Andre Villas-Boas and now Vitor Pereira at SIPG, is confident Wu will succeed in La Liga.

But he is less optimistic about the immediate future of Chinese football.   

“I do not see that many (like Wu Lei), I would say another one or two, and that's it of that generation,” he warned.   

That dearth of quality hurts the national side, who have qualified for the World Cup only once, in 2002.

So what hopes of reaching Qatar 2022?   

“That will be a miracle, I would not bet over 50 percent,” said Xie.

“From my understanding it will come, but later, at least 10 years from now.

By AFP's Peter Stebbings 

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