It’s all in the name: wine labelling in China


Don’t underestimate the importance of a label, writes Jeremy Oliver of Australian wines heading to China.

A recent lunch in Chengdu got me rather worried. With me was a group of Chinese importers of Australian wines, who were proud to show off some of the wines they were introducing to the Chinese market. All were red and all were customised by Australian wine producers for China, so I didn’t recognise any of them. Their labels were mainly black, but managed to show some real style and elegance.
Other than a fruity un-oaked grenache whose label suggested it came from the Barossa, they were rather a joyless lot. The others were obviously sourced from the river areas of South Australia, Victoria and NSW. None of them had much that was genuinely wrong or bad about them; but there wasn’t much right about them either. If only their makers had taken as much trouble with the growing of the grapes and the making of the wines as they did with the designing and printing of their labels.
The other day I spoke with a member of a recent Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation (AWBC) export quality control tasting in Adelaide, who was talking about the 60-plus wines he had tasted. While a few submissions for export did actually reveal significant winemaking faults, the overwhelming majority were ‘clean enough, but had absolutely nothing going for them’.
So off to China they will go, endorsed with the tag ‘Wine of Australia’. Many such wines are actually damaging Australia’s ability to establish a reputation for quality wine in China.

Furthermore, I am hearing how wines that fail to pass this test are being exported to China
regardless. They’re not supposed to say ‘Wine of Australia’ on their labels, but I am told that these words can somehow appear once the wine is in the possession of the company that imported it. Again, this is damaging, and if Australian producers are selling wine to China with knowledge that this will happen, they should be taken to task.

Scores are no less important in China than elsewhere, and the importers in Chengdu wondered how I would rate their wines. There is nowhere to hide when you’re asked that question – it demands 100 percent honesty. So it is fair to say that as a group, the importers were rather surprised and not particularly enthused by my answers. More importantly, I wonder how happy their client base will be once they taste the wines, and how many will actually replace repeat orders, for Australia.
This discussion also begs the issue of what Australian wineries should do to adapt their branding and labeling for China. Korean-born Jeannie Cho Lee, the first Asian Master of Wine and Decanter’s Asia contributing editor recently acknowledged that labels were indeed of key importance in Asia. Certain Bordeaux chateaux whose labels strike chords with the Chinese market are profiting from that advantage. Beychevelle’s label features a boat that bears strong similarity to the traditional Chinese dragon boat, while Leoville Poyferre has a dragon symbol on its label.
Cho Lee also draws a correlation between the commissioning by Mouton Rothschild of Chinese artist Xu Lei to design the label for its 2008 vintage and the addition of the Chinese symbol of the number ‘8’ to its bottle by Lafite Rothschild with the increased prices for these prestigious labels. A connection with China on a wine’s label is proving to be a valuable thing. It is also worth adding that virtually any wine brand, Chinese or French, with the word ‘Lafite’ in it, has a kick-start of incredible value in China. It is a club that is still growing.
The genuine status of the Penfolds brand in China suggests it is indeed possible to establish an Australian brand there on the basis of quality and reputation. Cho Lee also makes a point of value: that the successful French chateaux in China are constantly active in the market, and have developed string relationships with their customers. Penfolds Chief Winemaker, Peter Gago, is a regular visitor to Chinese shores.
So what are Australian wineries to make of this?
Several Australian brands exist in China as a caricature of everything Chinese that their label designers could dream of, while other Australian brands are doing everything to look as French as possible.
From my perspective, I would encourage Australian producers to explore smart visual links between their wines and the Chinese market. This should not mean a redesign, or the oft-observed try-hard black, red and gold label choked with dragons and number ‘8’. This could be done intelligently ¬– even with possible historic or pending validity – without altering the values and presentation of the brand and its label.
More importantly, let’s send the Chinese more really good wine!
I think that more Chinese are indeed becoming aware of Australia’s ability to make high-end wine. Australia’s problem is that for every new and dedicated customer, it is more than likely that another one has been seriously let down by a wine failing to meet the quality expectations engendered by its branding and package. And that is hurting this country, badly. 
*Jeremy Oliver is the author of The Australian Wine Annual and Wine with Jeremy in Mandarin. Visit Jeremy’s website at:


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