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Chianti in China

Vintners around the world are excited about Asia because they see millions—even billions—of potential new customers. F&W’s Lettie Teague talks to Italy’s Alessia Antinori about Chinese collectors, Indian import taxes and Mongolian Hiltons.

What if everyone in China drank just one bottle of wine a year? With a population of well over 1 billion, China would move ahead of all of Europe combined. Of course, this is the sort of stuff winemakers dream about (along with producing 100-point wines), but the reality may not be so very far behind. In just the past decade, China, and indeed all of Asia, has seen a dramatic increase in the consumption of wine. According to the International Wine and Spirit Record, Chinese wine sales could grow by more than 80 percent between 2002 and 2011. China, currently the leading wine market in Asia and 10th in global consumption (soon to be ninth), is one of the fastest-growing markets on the planet.

Alessia Antinori has witnessed much of this growth firsthand. As the export manager and a winemaker for Marchesi Antinori, Alessia, 32, travels all over Australia and Asia for months at a time. In fact, she may be on the road even more than her father, Piero, a Florentine nobleman and world-renowned vintner, who introduced Americans to Italian wine back in the 1960s.

When Piero arrived in America some 40 years ago, there probably weren’t many more serious wine drinkers in the U.S. than there are in China today, and there wasn’t much of an audience for Italian wine. Of course, there also wasn’t much good Italian wine around, either; straw-covered Chianti bottles were sort of universal shorthand for the offerings of the entire country. But Piero, whose family once made quite a few of those straw-covered bottles, wanted to produce great wines, not just from his native Tuscany but from other parts of Italy, too. Piero believed that Italian wines could be among the best wines in the world. He made critical improvements to his Chiantis and created two sought-after Super-Tuscans (Tignanello and Solaia). In the process, he became a sort of de facto ambassador for all Italian wine.

Alessia’s mission in Asia may be even more challenging; certainly her constituency is much larger than her father’s, and less well-defined. And the collective wine-drinking culture of the countries she covers is even less sophisticated than that of America in the ’60s (though they didn’t have to suffer through a straw-covered-Chianti phase).

Alessia has multiple sales and marketing responsibilities for the company, including training and hiring managers in various countries and making sales calls; most of her accounts, for now at least, are Italian restaurants and large hotels. There has been an enormous increase in the number of Italian restaurants in Asia in general, she notes. Sometimes she holds dinners for members of wine clubs, as she did in India for a group of Tignanello collectors. (But Chinese collectors, she notes, prefer not to gather in groups: “They like to be approached individually, and this takes time.”)

Alessia gives wine lessons to restaurant staffs in China; she explains how she trains those unfamiliar with Italian wine, or for that matter, with Italy itself: “I start with Europe. Then I go to Italy and explain that it’s close to Africa. Then I explain that Italy is a country, like China, and that Tuscany is like Guangdong province, and that Florence is like Canton.” Sometimes, the lessons are even more basic. “Once, I was explaining the difference between red and white wine to one of our sales managers in China, and I was having difficulty, so I said, ‘Just remember, the white wine goes into the fridge.’ ”

Alessia seems determined to educate as many people as possible—and a recent itinerary suggests she intends to do so in a very short time. “I took 17 planes in 18 days,” she declares shortly after we sit down for lunch in New York. But since she makes her own travel arrangements, she admits that she herself was to blame. Indeed, her travel schedule sounds a lot like a cheap package tour: one day in Singapore, one day in Thailand, on to Cambodia, then three days in East Malaysia. “I took the weekend off and went to the beach,” she explains. This was followed by a day in Vietnam, one in Shanghai, then Hong Kong and Taiwan.

One of the most important considerations for importers like Alessia in a developing market like East Asia is taxes. Import taxes can be as high as 200 to 300 percent in India or as low as nothing in Hong Kong, which recently reduced its tax from 80 percent to 40 percent to zero in a bid to become the most important wine market in Asia, if not the world. (American auction house Acker Merrall & Condit held its first auction in Hong Kong in May and sold more than $8 million worth of wine in one day, setting a new record for Asia.)

But Hong Kong is already a well-developed wine market, with less to discover and fewer natives to educate than, say, India, which Alessia has visited eight times, staying a month at a time. “I love India,” she says. “I love the sounds, the aromas, and of course, the people. It’s the only place in the world, after Italy, that I know I’ll come back to the minute I leave.”

Alessia brought Antinori wines to the Indian market about six years ago; she first sold them only in hotels, and later mostly to Italian restaurants. Red wines are particularly popular: “Red wine is everything in India,” says Alessia, who credits the French with giving Indian wine drinkers their taste for red. “Santa Cristina is our most popular red wine in India,” she adds, naming one of their cheapest Chiantis, which cost as much as $58 a bottle there, compared with $16 in the U.S. or $8 to $10 for Indian wines. This is thanks to the high import taxes, which can fluctuate wildly from one state to another and even from one month to the next. In fact, it’s the taxes even more than it is the religion that make selling wine to India so hard. “China doesn’t have the tax problem,” Alessia notes.

Indeed, China is the great hope of wine producers around the world. There has been much talk about the Chinese market among winemakers, who cite its large population, or perhaps more relevantly, its wealthy collectors, like the billionaire who recently paid $500,000 for two cases of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. According to Alessia, Tignanello and Solaia are sought-after by Chinese collectors, who pay upward of $400 a bottle. (The price is about half that in a restaurant in the U.S.)

Although Asia is currently a very small part of Antinori’s worldwide sales (about five percent), Alessia maintains that there is still much room to expand and many more countries to explore. Like Indonesia. “I promised that I would go to Indonesia, and possibly central Vietnam. And Mongolia—I have to go to Mongolia.” A Hilton hotel is opening there soon, which Alessia believes will offer the perfect showcase for Antinori wines.

While Alessia is the only Antinori who travels so much (other than her father), her two sisters also work for the company. Albiera concentrates on the Prunotto estate in Piedmont and the packaging of the wines. According to Alessia, middle sister Allegra “focuses on her horses and the cantinettas,” the family’s casual restaurants that now number six, each in a different city in Europe, though that number is still growing and may include one in India, perhaps Mumbai, in a few years.

Alessia lives in Rome, although the family palazzo is in Florence, where the Antinori name is found on seemingly every strada in town. But she prefers the excitement of Rome, she says, with an enthusiastic wave of her hands. (Almost everything she says is punctuated with an enthusiastic gesture or two.) Alessia will return to Florence one day, though. “I’ll live there when I’m 60,” she declares, making Tuscany’s Renaissance capital sound like a Florida retirees’ town.

Piero Antinori still travels as well, though not as much as his youngest child. What does her father have to say about all her travels? Is he impressed? “My father doesn’t say too much,” Alessia replies carefully, “and he doesn’t exaggerate compliments.” Do the two of them compare notes? Swap stories? Not really, she says, although her father does reminisce occasionally about selling Tuscan wine in cities like Rome and Naples back in the day, “when it was like selling to foreign countries.” She laughs at the thought.

Perhaps one day, Alessia will tell her own children (and she would like to have children) about the time when she had to teach a wine sales manager in China that the difference between red and white is that “white wine goes into the refrigerator.” And they will find that equally impossible to believe.

Plus:

Published September 2008
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