Marius Berlemann, the youthful global head of the ProWein wine and spirit fairs run by Messe Düsseldorf, freely admits that the company’s first ProWine exhibitions in Shanghai were not instant successes. “We were early in the market,” he says, and it was not easy to attract the number and calibre of Chinese buyers he was looking for. But 2018, he says, “was the year”.
Teaming up with the organisers of the 22-year-old Food & Hotel China fair helped to build momentum, especially in a region where the term F&B often involves the same people being responsible for buying food and beverage. But it was not until the fifth edition of the event in November 2018 that ProWine finally seemed to hit its stride. The area taken up by exhibitors was a fifth larger than in previous years, with some 750 companies represented, from 39 countries. Visitor numbers were also up by a third, to almost 19,000. For Berlemann, it wasn’t just the numbers, but also the nature of the visitors. “We are getting people from cities like Xinjiang, Guangdong and Liaoning that we never saw before, and more from Beijing,” he says, also pointing out the new presence of Chinese companies such as importer Easy Cellar, and Great Wall, the giant state-owned producer. The senior team from Changyu, another of the big domestic producers, were also spotted.
While long-term exhibitors including Frederich Helfrich of Grands Chais de France were even busier than in previous years, and pouring wines ranged from Vins de France to Grands Crus Classés, the undeniable star of the show was the large Australian pavilion which occupied an entire end of one of the halls. Under the heading of ‘Australian Wine Made Our Way’, almost four dozen producers were squeezed into tiny booths that would have been a challenge to an overweight exhibitor.
The combination of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement and Australia’s new AU$50m ($35.8m) Export and Regional Wine Support Package had already helped lift exports to China by almost 25% over the previous year to more than A$1bn. The buzz surrounding tastings at ProWine of ‘next wave’ Shiraz from Victoria, Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon, and McLaren Vale alternative varieties, offered little sign of that growth slowing, especially given the total removal of import duty this year.
Ross Sheppard of Capel Vale Winery in Western Australia said that after several years of exporting substantial quantities of wine to China, he was struck by the speed at which wine knowledge is growing. “When I first came here, people were basically interested in Bordeaux or wine that looked and tasted like Bordeaux,” he said. “Now, they are asking detailed questions about where wines come from and how they are made.”
A different critical path
ProWein itself hosted a conference for the international press at its Shanghai event, at which Professor Simone Loose of Geisenheim University presented the results of an international industry survey that places China, Brazil and Russia at the head of the list of countries to which producers expect to be increasing their exports. The UK, unhappily came last. Other speakers included one of China’s top online influencers, Terry Xu, who shocked journalists by admitting that he and others like him are essentially guns for hire, ready to promote wines they might not always particularly like. Those same members of the wine media were interested to see Mr Xu again, a few hours later, when he joined another leading influencer, Lady Penguin, and a number of top importers, educators and sommeliers to pick up their awards at the 6th annual Wine Australia China Awards.
For all the atmosphere of confidence and optimism at this event and at the exhibition itself, there was one cloud on the ProWine horizon. During the fair, Vinexpo announced that it would be entering the Shanghai market with a 2019 event just three weeks before the German-owned fair. Whether this was a response to ProWein having strayed onto Vinexpo’s Hong Kong turf with its own event in the former British colony, or simply a reaction to the vibrant Chinese market, remains to be seen.