China offers exciting openings for New Zealand to export wine, undertake collaborative research and provide study opportunities, says EIT Hawke’s Bay senior lecturer in wine science Malcolm Reeves.
Recently returned from an intensive three weeks as visiting professor in oenology at China Agricultural University in Beijing, Reeves says China’s wine industry is expanding rapidly but isn’t keeping pace with growing domestic demand for wine.
Vineyard area and tonnages outstrip New Zealand’s, and while production includes the low-priced and mundane, top-end barrel-aged varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are “really very well done”.
China’s wine output is increasing by about 20 percent a year while the domestic market is expanding by 20-25 percent annually.
“So there is scope for imports,” says Reeves, “and with a population of 1.3 billion, it will be a little while yet before China poses any kind of a threat to our export markets.”
The Eastern Institute of Technology forged a link with CAU two years ago, sending a delegation to investigate opportunities for collaborating on teaching and research. It was during a reciprocal visit to EIT in March last year that the university proposed the “visiting professor” trip.
The arrangement was for Reeves to deliver a series of presentations to staff, graduates and undergraduate students involved in wine science.
With 20,000 students, CAU is the third ranked university in Beijing. Among China’s “upper echelon” universities, its study programmes include undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in wine science.
Unprepared for two-hour presentations, Reeves had to burn the midnight oil to develop his presentations for longer-than-expected time slots. But, he says, his audiences were very friendly and quite interactive.
“My hosts were extremely hospitable. The sessions were very demanding but also satisfying. I’ve had emails since from research students saying how much they enjoyed them, seeking advice on research and asking where they can get more information.
“It’s been quite warming. I’ve formed quite a bond with them.”
As part of his visit, the university arranged a trip for Reeves and students to the wine region of Changli, 300 kilometres east of Beijing. There they visited two “extremely impressive” wineries – Bodega Langes, owned by the Austrian crystal magnate Gernot Langes-Swarovski, and the Government-owned Great Wall Winery.
Reeves found the facilities and equipment at both wineries “unreal”. The Great Wall Winery boasted a massive underground barrel hall with many thousands of barrels.
“It was most impressive. I’ve not seen anything like it in the world in terms of size.”
Changli vineyards grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, and the wineries also source fruit from an area 3000 kilometres to the west. While many small holdings are in the hands of traditional land owners, companies are moving to amalgamate these properties into larger, better managed units with improved viticulture.
During his time at CAU, Reeves met a Chinese-born New Zealand resident who owns a vineyard in Marlborough and a chain of wine stores in China. A number of these specialise in New Zealand wines, and the businessman, bullish about expanding, is planning to open more retail outlets.
Again as part of his stint at CAU, Reeves and a university group visited one of a number of these stores in Beijing. Screened-off areas and private rooms provided privacy and discreet service for important buyers and their guests to sample wine with snack food.
“About 500 years old, the building had wooden columns encased with thick glass. It was one in a handful in the area protected by a preservation order.”
Reeves’ presentations included an address on New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc research, which included a tasting of some half dozen wines.
“The reception given by the group of staff and research students was most enthusiastic. I thought they might find the wines too acidic, but they were very taken by them. I was encouraged by their response.”
Presentations on Hawke’s Bay Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay were also illustrated with examples of the regions’ wines. Another session covered screwcaps and corks, and compared the technical performance of the closures.
Screwcaps are unknown in China, and while the Chinese wine industry is very European in its outlook, Reeves sees that as changing as the country continues to embrace English as a second language.
With English classes compulsory for school children, Chinese nationals are now the world’s biggest English-speaking population.
“They are open to reading research literature, particularly in science. And as the scientific community becomes more aware of winemaking technologies in New Zealand, Australia, the USA and South Africa, it will lead those working in the wine industry towards adopting new world methods.”
Reeves says CAU is keen to have English speakers address its wine science staff and students and it helps them with industry terminology.
“Masters graduates look to do their PhDs at universities in the USA because they offer English language qualifications. The Chinese speak an acceptable level of English- they don’t have the same knowledge of French.
“Therein lies the opportunity for the English language education system, and this includes New Zealand. My trip has helped strengthen the link between EIT and CAU.
“The university is keen to undertake collaborative research and will be visiting Hawke’s Bay again next year. There are also opportunities for cooperating in degree teaching, for example, with students studying for two years at CAU and completing their degrees with two years of study here.”
So, Reeves concludes, opportunities abound – in wine education and for exporting more New Zealand wine to meet growing consumer demand in China.