James Halliday - the state of play of Aussie wine in China

24 November, 2017

It’s very easy to be a little in awe of a man who has built himself from lawyer to winemaker to one of the most recognised and respected names in the Australian wine industry today. In China his reputation even outstrips that at home, such that the crowd vying for selfies and autographs at his exit from his sold-out masterclasses rival that of the backstage rockstar.

Talking to him though, you get a sense of an incredibly passionate, down-to-earth man whose dedication to the Australian wine market abroad is one of our biggest assets.

The 100-point wine score is a hotly debated topic amongst the domestic wine scene. Among claims of inflated scores and controversy surrounding inconsistencies are calls that they no longer mean anything to the consumer. I’ll sit firmly on the fence in regards to the domestic market, but in an emerging one such as China? I’m with Mr Halliday - they just make sense.

James Halliday makes no apologies for his retention - and promotion of - 100-point wine scores. To him it’s simple, while scores continue to sell wine, domestically and abroad, he will continue giving them. Promoting wine in China with a nuanced tasting note, where our references and terminology often get lost in translation, can be hit and miss. A wine score in comparison is the most easily interpreted indicator of quality possible. In this market it can be the make or break point for a distributor taking on a winery’s range or consumer purchasing the wine. If it’s working in a culture vastly different to ours at home, why change it in the name of domestic fashion?

In saying this though, Mr Halliday is by no means advocating a ‘give them points and leave it at that’ approach. He strongly believes that Australia is positioned to take over as the most important exporter to mainland China in the next 5 years, pointing to the 5% market share Australia took from France in the last 12 months alone as evidence. Mr Halliday credits this successful growth to a number of factors, increase in export funding being one, but mainly to our “boots on the ground, wine in the glass” approach to wine marketing. He adds “Australia is far more proactive than any of our natural competitors” with “education being the opportunity, or the task, we need to tackle to be the front runner in this emerging market.”

The enthusiasm for wine education in China was certainly apparent at the recent Wine Australia Australian Wine Fair in Shanghai. Masterclasses, held by Mr Halliday, the Barossa Grape and Wine Association, Fongyee Walker (Master of Wine), Yang Lu (Master Sommelier) were standing-room only, the tasting booths in the fair crowded with enthusiastic, engaged consumers. There is no assumed knowledge built into the culture here as we often see at home, especially in traditional wine regions. The consumer here actively seeks out knowledge with a thirst that is, to be honest, inspiring.

With the wine market in China currently shifting from a collection to consumption basis, focus is expanding from just the traditional very high-end Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. Capitalising on the reputation of these traditional favourites, the Australian educational tasting experiences on offer gives winemakers the opportunity to highlight the exceptional quality of our middle market. Mr Halliday pin-points this as the most exciting place for Australia’s wine future, calling it “the natural playground for the majority of high-quality Australian wine”. Along with the increasing quality of our entry level wines this is where our product holds the edge over our competitors. It’s also events like the Australian Wine Fair and our presence at multi-regional festivals such as the Hong Kong Wine & Dine Fair which are helping to bring our wines to the masses and emphasise taste as the deciding factor in wine purchasing.

The key to maintaining this upward momentum in the Chinese wine market is continuing to build our real connections with both the consumer “tomorrow’s wine professional”, and the trade. Putting in face-time and personally investing our time and expertise into Chinese wine education will soon make ‘Australia’ as synonymous with ‘wine’ as ‘France’.

…We just need to be there to make it happen.