Top of the pops in China

The top ten Australian fine wines

China’s thirst for Australian wine has become insatiable in recent years. Wine Australia’s latest export report showed that total sales to China reached $520m in 2016 – a rise of 40%. This stunning rise was fuelled by strong growth in the premium wine sector, with exports of wines over $10 a bottle rising by 47%. 

The surge in demand for Australia’s premium and fine wines isn’t unique to China - exports of premium wines to other leading markets have also soared. In the U.S. they grew by 23%, by 25% in the UK and by 9% in Canada. However, as anyone who has traded wine in China will tell you, the Chinese market is different to all of these.

 To highlight this we looked at the top 10 Australian fine wine searches on Wine-Searcher in China. The results make for fascinating reading…

The Top 10 Australian fine wine searches In China

Chinese Number 10:  Irvine Grand Merlot

Something of a surprise, not least as Australia isn’t as renowned for its Merlots as it is for other varieties such as Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon or Grenache. That said Irvine’s flagship wine – the result of over 35 years of dedication to Merlot in the Eden Valley – is special. Not many other Australian Merlots can boast an International Wine Challenge Gold and scores of 94+ from critics including James Halliday. The Chinese, in common with other Asian markets, seem to have a soft spot for this soft grape.

Chinese Number 9:  Penfolds RWT

The first of many entries from Penfolds – a brand which has worked long and hard to build a reputation for excellence in China. The RWT (or ‘Red Winemaking Trial’ to give it its full, unromantic title) was launched in 1997 and has already made a huge impact. The idea of a single region wine made using French oak provides a fascinating juxtaposition to the multi-region, American oak stylings of Grange.  With its fleshy, opulent character it is a wine that is easy to love when young, something that can prove harder with its muscular, well-structured big brother.

Chinese Number 8:  Clarendon Hills Astralis

Clarendon Hills’ self-titled Premier Grand Cru has garnered consistently high scores – and consistently high prices – since its first vintage in 1994 when it became Australia’s first $100 wine.   Today, the estate that Roman Bratasuik founded in 1990 is regarded as not only one of Australia’s greatest wineries, but as one of the world’s greatest. Production is tiny and the wine has intense power and purity derived from the bush vines that reside on ancient ironstone soils in the McLaren Vale.

Chinese Number 7:  Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz

The Kalimna has more in common with Grange than the RWT, being a multi-region blend that was originally focused on fruit from one place – in this case the Kalimna Vineyard and in Grange’s the famed Magill Estate – and both were born in the 1950s. The Kalimna, however, shares more of the RWT’s generosity of character and the Shiraz fruit that goes into it displays a noticeable Barossa character.

Chinese Number 6:  Penfolds St. Henri

There’s an element of back to the future about the St. Henri, in that since its launch in 1957 it has never been made using new oak – something modern winemakers are seeing virtue in. The ethos of St. Henri has always been to allow the fruit to do the talking; fruit which combines Shiraz with a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon seasoning to give it lift, a touch more vibrancy and aids its longevity.

Chinese Number 5:  Glaetzer Amon-Ra Shiraz

Ben Glaetzer created Amon-Ra to be a wine that appealed to all six senses.  To do this he strives to create his wines in the vineyard rather than in the winery. A firm ‘terroiriste’, the brilliance of creations like the Amon-Ra Shiraz are centred on their taste of place. When you drink it, there is a distinct minerality and iron-rich tone that permeates the super-saturated blackberry, plum and oriental spice notes. The exotic, almost spiced nature of the wine makes it easy to see why it would go down well in China where full-flavoured drinks of all kinds are cherished.

Chinese Number 4: Penfolds Bin 707

Without question one of Australia’s greatest Cabernet Sauvignons, the Bin 707 was often spoken of as Grange’s second wine. This is slightly odd given its makeup, though there are similarities between them. Multi-regional and multi-vineyard in origin and made with plenty of new oak, Bin 707 has the distinction of not having been made in a number of years - 1981, 1995, 2000, 2003 or 2011 – owing to the fruit not being of sufficient quality. Such dedication to creating only the best wine has doubtless helped establish 707’s reputation for brilliance and has led to its high position on this list.

Chinese Number 3: Penfolds Bin 407

The 407 was launched in 1993 as a direct result of the increased availability of good quality Cabernet Sauvignon and an increased demand for Australian Cabernet. Seeing it and the 707 riding high in this list is a testament to the resurgence in interest in Australian Cabernet Sauvignon across the world as more wine lovers discover the brilliance it can offer.

Chinese Number 2: Penfolds Bin 95 Grange

Grange was widely expected to top this chart - as it does on the global Australian fine wine list.  Long-regarded as Australia’s finest wine, interest in recent vintages has been intense – especially since Robert Parker gave the 2008 vintage a perfect 100 score. Were he still with us, we’re sure Max Schubert would be delighted to see his dream wine take its rightful place amongst the world’s greats.

Chinese Number 1: Penfolds Bin 389

Officially known as the ‘baby Grange’ it’s easy to see why this wine is so popular – especially given the high prices that Grange fetches these days. Matured in barrels that have previously housed Grange, this is another product of Max Schubert’s genius; a Cabernet-Shiraz blend that delivers richness and depth with structure and elegance.

What Does This List Tell Us About Australian Fine Wine?

There are several conclusions that can be drawn from this list. Perhaps predictably, the wines are all red and are dominated by Australia’s signature grape, Shiraz. Seeing as this is the Chinese market, the former point was almost inevitable owing to the connotations of the colour red and the historically low levels of demand for white wine. That said, Wine Australia’s own figures show that year-on-year figures to September 2016 saw demand for whites grow by 33%. Given Australian white wine’s suitability to matching Asian cuisine - especially emerging varieties such as Fiano and Gruner Veltliner - and the heat of the Chinese summers, the trend towards whites could well grow even further, and maybe in a year’s time we’ll see the likes of Penfolds Yattarna make the list.

As to the choice of varieties, Shiraz rules the roost but Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet-Shiraz blends feature heavily too. With a little education and exposure, it is perfectly conceivable that Australia’s other great red varieties – Grenache and Pinot Noir for example – could soon make a showing.

The price range of these wines is interesting. In terms of Sterling prices, they range from around $50 to over $500 a bottle. That the number one wine on the list is the Penfolds Bin 389 whichis showsvalue for money is still important, even in this red-hot market.

The power of the brand is also evident. Australia has many producers that are fit to rank amongst the world’s finest – one thinks of Henschke, Leeuwin Estate, Ashton Hills, Bass Phillip and Torbreck – none of which feature. Compared to the Penfolds of this world these wineries are marketing minnows and even with such plaudits as Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson singing their praises, it will take time for them to make their mark on the top 10.

Ultimately, the global market for Australian fine wine is both young and, especially in the case of China, relatively immature. All markets, from the U.S. to China, have much to learn and experience when it comes to Australian fine wines, but what a journey of discovery they are set to go on. It will be fascinating to look at this in another 12 months or so and see what changes have taken place.  And given the fast-paced world of Australian wine, who’d bet against their being changes?

Wine Australia would like to thank Wine-Searcher for their help in creating this blog.


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12 Jan 2018 - 10:42 AM
Not at all surprise that Penfolds dominates the market in China. Penfolds name in Chinese means "Rushing Prosperity". Who else can beat them?

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