Wanted: experienced Bordeaux winemaker to make Chinese wine more palatable.
China, the world's sixth-biggest winemaker, is hiring foreign managers, investing in Italian presses and sending its staff to winemaking schools to raise the quality of its vintages and compete for sales at home and abroad.
Suntime International Wine Co., owner of China's biggest vineyard, has hired managers, while Yantai Changyu Pioneer Wine Co., the nation's biggest producer, is offering about $124,000 a year for a winemaker with at least 15 years of experience, "preferably from Bordeaux."
China's $2.2 billion market for grape-based wine is dominated by low-quality varieties that sell for as little as $1.65 a bottle in supermarkets. As wages rise in cities such as Shanghai, customers are spending more and seeking better quality.
"The question is to be able to adapt to international standards in terms of packaging, in terms of quality assurance," said Fred Nauleau, a winemaker from France's Loire Valley, who oversees Suntime's Manas winery in Xinjiang province. "It's a rich possibility within five years."
Efforts to improve quality may be starting to pay off for Suntime, a unit of Suntime International Economic-Trading Co., which began planting grapes in 1998 on 10,000 hectares in China's westernmost province.
Sapporo Holdings Ltd., Japan's third-largest brewer, is in talks to buy 6,000 tons of wine from Suntime for its bottling plants in Japan, with plans to sell it under its own label, Suntime's Su Bin said last month.
Orders such as Sapporo's and the maturing of the company's vineyards may help Suntime end seven years of losses. The company has already invested nearly $250 million and bought equipment from France and Italy to help improve quality since starting production in 2000.
"One has to wait eight years to start harvesting good grapes," Su said.
China accounts for about 4.3 percent of world wine output, according to an August report by the Dutch bank Rabobank Groep. Local producers also include Cofco International Ltd., Remy Cointreau SA's Dynasty Fine Wines Group Ltd. unit, and Yantai Changyu.
Wine output in China is likely to increase because of investment, a suitable climate and low production costs, Rabobank said. More investment may be needed to improve the flavor. Chinese wines are generally "rough and low in quality," said Wang Aochao, an analyst at UOB Kay Hian Investment Consulting Co. in Shanghai. Companies such as Cofco have been increasing spending on marketing, though their quality "hasn't necessarily improved," he said.
The advertisement for a Bordeaux winemaker by Yantai Changyu, China's biggest wine producer, is part of its plan "to become a globally renowned wine-maker," according to the company's Web site. Officials from Yantai Changyu, based in Shandong province, did not respond to phone calls.
Suntime is not the only Chinese wine producer drawing interest from overseas. Bodega Langes, a Hebei-based winemaker launched in 1999, expects to start exporting in about two years, Managing Director Ren Jing said in a telephone interview.
The winery, which produces 300 tons a year, sells to only wine-club members and via direct orders. The company turned down an order from a German trader because it wants more time for its six-year-old vineyard to mature, Ren said.
"In future, we definitely will export," he said. "China's current wine production is mainly targeted at the mass market. If you are big, then quality will become an issue."
China's economy expanded at an annual rate exceeding 9 percent for the past nine consecutive quarters, helping fuel demand for consumer goods. Wine consumption increased by 79 percent between 1999 and 2004 as personal incomes rose, according to Euromonitor PLC figures.
Still, the nation's alcohol consumption remains dominated by beers such as Tsingtao Brewery Co.'s namesake brand and local grain-based drinks called baijiu. Beer accounted for 84 percent of China's alcoholic drinks market by volume, Euromonitor said in June.
"Wine demand in China is forecast to rise more than 15 percent a year from now through 2008, so this market potential is very huge," Suntime's Su said.
For now, Suntime and Yantai Changyu are hoping overseas workers and machinery will help win some of that market from the brewers and generate orders from overseas.
Suntime sold less than 1,000 tons internationally last year, 2.5 percent of this year's expected production, said Robert Wu, vice general manager of production and technology, who learned winemaking in Australia.
The company's efforts may be starting to bear fruit. At Suntime's Manas winery, Eric Meyer, a visiting Frenchman, was "surprised" at the quality of Suntime's West Region Cabernet Sauvignon 2002.
"It's one of the best wines in China I've tasted," Meyer said, comparing it to wines sold at about $12 per bottle in France.