When Vinexpo Asia Pacific opened its doors in 1998 at the newly built Hong Kong Convention Centre, it was a low key affair. The former British colony had been returned to China the previous year, Asia was going through a major economic crisis. and there was inevitably a general feeling of uncertainly about the future. The local wine trade still consisted of a relatively small group of mostly Western-owned businesses, and Watsons, the now highly-successful retail chain with branches across Hong Kong, only saw its launch during the fair. At that event, and at Vinexpo itself, Chinese faces were the exception.
For the following decade the organisers struggled to attract exhibitors and it was widely said that, in order to secure space at the Bordeaux event, companies had to take part in Hong Kong, whether they liked it or not.
The tide turned in 2008. In February of that year, the Hong Kong government sent an international shock wave by cutting excise duties on wine from 40% to zero, timing the move to coincide with Vinexpo. Attendance at the fair shot up by 24% and wine imports rose in value by 200%. The Bordelais who attended Vinexpo considered it a huge success but, as French winemaker, Jacques Lurton, was quoted in the Wine Spectator as asking "Where are the Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans?" The New World wineries and the generic organisations had all pulled out of the Bordeaux event after a breakdown of the air conditioning during the unusually hot summer of 2003.
This year, all of that was consigned to the wastebasket of history, as Australia took on the role of ‘Country of Honour’ at Vinexpo 2018, with 151 exhibiting wine producers, in a packed exhibition hall, close to large Californian, New Zealand and South African stands. The change in mood is explained by several factors. First, in the case of Australia, there is the impact of the Free Trade Agreement with China that has helped the latter country become its largest overseas market, taking 23% of its export sales. Second, there is the continuing boom in Chinese wine sales, with imports growing by just under a third during the period of January-March 2018, compared to the previous year, according to the China Association for Import and Export of Wine and Spirits (CAWS). Third, there was the increasing sophistication of the local market, including both China and other parts of Asia. Australian-based Phil Reedman MW that he was struck by the level of interest in the young and mature examples of Semillon and Marsanne he was pouring. “A few years ago, everyone wanted Bordeaux-style reds. Now they are open to trying all sorts of new styles.”
Michaela Stander of Wines of South Africa was delighted by the enthusiasm of visitors to her part of the show. Based in Hong Kong, and with extensive experience of the region, she said this was by far the best event she had experienced.
Among the Old World exhibitors, the Languedoc producer Gerard Bertrand, was similarly happy with the response he had got for his innovative zero SO2 and biodynamic wines, as well as his Vinolok-sealed rosé – a definite novelty in a region where red wine and corks have traditionally monopolized attention. “It’s early” he said, “but I have no doubt about the potential for these kinds of wines here”.
Illustrating the changing nature of the global wine business, among the stands at the show was one for Chinese online distributor Tmall, in which visitors could learn about how that company can link producers directly to consumers through its online ‘shops’. During Vinexpo, Australia’s Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Senator Anne Ruston signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Alibaba Tmall’s parent company, “to better showcase Australian wine” on its platform. As Ruston said: “With the changing face of online retail in China, it’s critical for our wineries to significantly improve their online presence, and to do so in the right way.”
The unsung hero of Vinexpo 2018, however, was Guillaume Deglise, the Vinexpo CEO who joined the organization in 2013 after working for Bollinger and Laurent-Perrier. Deglise is credited with modernising the Vinexpo image and spearheading moves into the US, Japan and Paris, as well as launching roadshow events. He also did much to remove the arrogant image that had become attached to the Vinexpo brand. The Hong Kong fair was Deglise’s last event at Vinexpo.
It is also rumoured that there are concerns about the way Vinexpo Hong Kong and ProWein have eclipsed the Bordeaux event, which was once the world’s biggest trade wine fair. There were certainly some rumblings of discontent following the decision to cut the number of days at that event from five to four.
Several big French exhibitors have reportedly pulled out of Vinexpo Bordeaux. A lot can change in 20 years.