When punitive tariffs (of up to 218%) imposed on Australian wine back in 2021 were lifted by Beijing just a few weeks ago (28 March 2024), importers (and producers) sighed a collective sigh of relief, prices for ever-popular Penfolds were hiked, and the Government of South Australia announced a programme to help the regional wine industry re-enter the China market.

The introduction of tariffs was a particularly strange time for the sommelier community in China, recalls Olivier Six, CEO of EMW Fine Wine, a highly regarded niche importer. Reactions to the tariff were black and white. Some sommeliers wanted to stock up on Australian wine before existing warehouse stocks ‘ran out’, while others immediately delisted it! But Australia re-enters a very different looking landscape, in which the overall market for wine has significantly contracted, and in which the domestic wine production industry is receiving significant government support in regions such as Ningxia, and overall producing far more consistent wine from one vintage to the next.

Olivier Six believes that wine consumers in China will welcome the news of the return of Australian wine, and that the market will slowly come back. New deals with new wineries or collectives were being signed just days after the announcement says Joline Li, China sales & marketing director of B2B agency Your Wine Rep, which connects producers with importers. She says that Australian wine fits the preferred wine “taste” of Chinese consumers: “deeply coloured, bold, fruity, with a touch of sweetness”.

Beijing-based Campbell Thompson, CEO of The Wine Republic, who currently distributes The Flying Winemaker New Zealand labels, adds that Australian wine is viewed favourably among consumers if only because they have visited Australia, or know someone who has, for example, been a student there. He believes in the potential of The Flying Winemaker Australia wines in the market, critically because they are not “factory’ wines. “They are about real people and specific vineyards,” he says. “There’s a good, authentic story and a sense of place”. Eddie McDougall’s personal backstory, including fronting a TV series which presented wine in the context of pairing it with local cuisines, is also strong.

Meanwhile, tariffs on Australian beef and lobster apparently remain in place, and in August 2023 bilateral relations between China and Japan deteriorated with China’s ban on imports of fish and seafood after the wastewater release from Fukushima. Concerns over Japanese foods in general, including rice, are still widespread in China, which Olivier Six says has been a bit problematic for EMW’s endeavours to build the Sake market. It seems that the recognised “soft power” of national cuisines, regional gastronomy and traditional dishes, has now been joined by a much harsher reality for the food and drinks industries.


April 22, 2024 — Kyle Oosterberg