The Chinese wine industry and market is notoriously opaque. It is almost impossible to say precisely what is being produced, imported or consumed, where, and by whom. Even so, every year the wonderfully titled China Chamber of Commerce Foodstuffs, Native Products and Animal By-products used customs data to produce what is generally accepted as a fairly accurate snapshot of the most recent year’s activity.
The latest one makes for grim reading by anyone who believed or hoped that consumption by new wine drinkers in China would make up for the decline in the traditional wine-drinking nations of Europe. For a while – between 2012 and 2017, to be precise, it looked as though this was, indeed going to happen. Over this period, imports grew from just under 4m hl to 7.5m, though Chinese domestic production fell slightly.
Since then, however, the decline has been steady and catastrophic. Last year, imports were just 2.5m hl, a fall of over 25% compared to 2022. This was especially concerning, given the expectation that shipments would improve following the recovery from China’s particularly stringent pandemic lockdown regime.
This reduction was particularly strong in bottled wine which fell to 1.6m hl – 29.5% less than the previous year. Its value is now $1bn. To put this last figure into context, it was also the value of a single year’s exports from Australia before punitive tariffs closed that door.
Today, as CCFNA / Grape Wall of China statistics reveal, Australia no longer appears on the list of top ten import nations. Indeed, its place has been taken by France which now has roughly half the import market. Chile, Italy, Spain and the US made up the rest of the top five.
Bulk imports – always of interest in a country where Chilean, Spanish or Australian wine can miraculously become ‘Chinese’ with the stroke of a pen, also dropped by 17.7% - to 0.88m hl. The value of these shipments were just $7m.
Consumption dips to a third of what it was 5 years ago
As long-time China Watcher and publisher of Grape Wall of China, Jim Boyce notes, China is now only consuming around a third in volume and value of the figures for 2018, just five years earlier.
China’s economy grew by 5.2% in 2023 – far better than in most other countries, but far less than its citizens are used to. Prospects for 2024 look less rosy, especially given the crisis facing the housebuilding sector. Australia’s wine exporters are set to put a lot of effort into rebuilding their lost market when, as is expected, the tariffs are lifted, and this may create some uplift, but few observers expect this to achieve miracles. Boyce notes that New Zealand – which saw a 20% rise in volume coupled with a fall in value – may be building a small market for premium white – possibly a good sign for producers elsewhere, while Canadian ice wine continues to find Chinese fans with a sweet tooth. Perhaps Sauternes could follow in its wake.