China, Hong Kong lap up Bordeaux wine

China and Hong Kong's unquenchable thirst for Bordeaux wine has made their combined market, worth 333 million euros (430 million dollars), the number-one export client for Bordeaux in value terms, the Bordeaux Wine Council (CIVB) says.

"This is very encouraging," said Georges Haushalter, president of the council that represents growers and merchants in France's most lucrative wine-growing region.

"This shows Bordeaux is well implanted in these new markets and maintaining its leader position. Bordeaux represents what the Chinese think of in terms of fine wine."

Haushalter, also managing director of wine merchant La Compagnie Medocaine des Grands Crus, said his firm tripled its sales to China and Hong Kong in 2010, not including profits earned by the 2009 Bordeaux futures campaign.

"Those sales figures are based only on wine we shipped," said Haushalter.

And the Chinese market shows no signs of cooling.

"The end of 2010 has been extremely busy in China and it remains the same in early 2011," said Jean-Pierre Rousseau, managing director of Bordeaux wine merchant Diva, which saw a 790 percent increase in sales in China in 2010.

"We are expecting a little slowdown for Chinese (Lunar) New Year (in early February) but it should not last long."

China's second-tier cities account for substantial growth as the wine culture spreads beyond Shanghai, its commercial hub, and Beijing, the capital.

"We are now serving second-ranked cities, mostly in the southeast, but hopefully we should reach the other areas this year," Rousseau told AFP in an email.

Hong Kong, which has actively courted economic cooperation with wine regions such as Bordeaux since eliminating import duties on wine in 2008, has played a pivotal role in expanding the market.

While there are no reliable statistics, some traders estimate that as much as 80 percent of wine purchased by Hong Kong is uncorked in mainland China.

Taken separately, and in value terms, wine sales to China increased 98 percent and those to Hong Kong rose 126 percent.

In terms of volume, Germany, a traditional market for inexpensive wine, remains Bordeaux's number one customer with 255,000 hectolitres, or 34 million bottles.

But it could soon be bypassed by China and Hong Kong, which currently together absorb 251,000 hectolitres a year, or 33.5 million bottles.

Overall Bordeaux exports have rebounded slightly since the economic crisis hit with a 10-percent year-on-year increase to 224 million bottles and seven percent increase in value to 1.39 billion euros.

The wine council's statistics cover sales from November 2009 to October 2010, with numbers for full-year 2010 expected in March.

But even before the final tally comes in, Bordeaux is confronting more sobering numbers closer to home.

Supermarket sales in France saw zero growth in volume, holding at 200 million bottles, and a tepid three percent growth in value to 895 million euros. Belgium, Britain and Germany all saw value drops of 10, eight and seven percent respectively.

Elsewhere, Japan, another mature market, gained 14 percent in volume but dipped two percent in value. In the United States, volume stabilised at 117,000 hectolitres but fell 37 percent in value terms to 96 million euros.

"We've hit the bottom in these markets," said Allan Sichel, president of Bordeaux's wine merchant union and managing director of Maison Sichel.

Sichel insists that the numbers fail to show a gradual, positive turn.

"Since September, things are picking up in both the United Kingdom and America but this upturn isn't enough to make up for the early part of the year."

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