The cork might have to make a comeback if New Zealand is to take full advantage of the booming Chinese wine market.

Some Hawke’s Bay wineries are already enjoying success with exports to China, where the focus is very much on red wine.

“China is our biggest export market now,” Matariki winery owner John O’Connor said yesterday.

His priority at this stage is selling his top-level reds, partly because that is the market to be in at the moment and partly to establish an image of quality for Matariki.

Unlike the vast majority of New Zealand wines, Matariki’s top reds have their bottles stopped with corks rather than screw caps.

The Chinese were not keen on screw tops because they associated corks with the tradition and prestige of top French wines, especially those from Bordeaux, Mr O’Connor said.

He has now decided to go back to corks for some of his other wines, although he believes screw tops make a more reliable seal.

For Matariki, breaking into the Chinese market was eased by tastings at various places where experts found that wines from the Gimblett Gravels sub-region of Hawke’s Bay compared very favourably with top Bordeaux reds that were several times more expensive.

Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers vice-president Xan Harding, who used to work in China as a banker, backed up Mr O’Connor’s comments.

“Reds are about 95 per cent of the market there,” he said. “It’s all about mystique and image.

“A lot of this wine is bought for gifts, so presentation is very important, and the cork is part of that.”

While this is good news for Hawke’s Bay, which has a focus on red wine, it is not so great for New Zealand in general as sauvignon blanc continues to be by far the dominant variety.

A Rabobank report says Hong Kong and mainland China together are now New Zealand’s fifth-biggest export market for wine – and by far the most lucrative.

To increase its share, New Zealand needed to invest in educating Chinese consumers and wine trade people, said the report, by senior analyst Marc Soccio.

“With wine consumption still predominantly based around customary entertaining and gift- giving occasions, Chinese consumers are primarily interested in making a ‘safe’ purchase that can confidently convey a suitable level of prestige, status and respect,” Mr Soccio said. “More often than not, this means French.”

~BusinessDay

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