Italian wine makers eye Chinese market

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Italy's wine producers have got started to fill the gap with other export-driven countries in what they consider a "highly promising" Chinese market.

Wine exports are an important motor of the Italian economy, official figures have shown. In 2013, wine was the most exported agri-food product, with 5.1 billion euros (7 billion U.S. dollars) and a growth rate of 8 percent compared to 2012.

Italian still wine bottles, however, last year had a market share in China's wine imports of only 6.5 percent, less than half compared to some 10 years ago, marketing director of Casa Vinicola Zonin, a leading Italian wine producer, Stefano Silenzi, said speaking in a conference at the Milan Foreign Press Association.

France retained its spot as market leader, with more than 50 percent, he noted.

Italy's low performance in a fast-developing economy that has become the biggest market for red wine last year raised some questions, Silenzi said.

"Looking at global players that have already worked in China for some 20 years, we realized that we could not maintain a traditional approach to the Chinese market, but we needed to join forces and deepen our knowledge of that country," he said.

The new awareness resulted in a 2.7-million-euro (3.7-million U.S. dollar) joint project, which will be developed over the next three years, aimed at informing and educating Chinese consumers about Italian wine.

The project was launched by Italia del Vino, a private consortium of which Casa Vinicola Zonin was part, together with another influential wine consortium, Istituto Grandi Marchi.

"Recent studies have estimated that Italian wine exports could reach 7 billion euros (9.6 billion U.S. dollars) over the next four years," Ettore Nicoletto, President of Italia del Vino, that since 2009 has grouped together 11 of the most important Italian firms in the wine production sector, said.

Italy's main competitor on global markets, France, registered wine exports of 7 billion euros last year. "Therefore this threshold is psychologically important for us to be reached," Nicoletto noted.

The project, which will start to be implemented this year, included guided visits to Italy for Chinese consumers, students and wine professionals as well as information campaigns, cultural exchanges and also a Chinese dictionary of the Italian wine sector.

"Currently some 70 percent of Italian wine exports are directed to five markets, namely the United States, Germany, UK, Canada and Switzerland, but we think that our biggest potential destination is China," Nicoletto said.

The estimated target is around 19 million citizens belonging to China's upper middle class, who have developed a taste and a growing interest for wine.

Though joining forces in a country that counts some 500,000 wineries was already a very positive step, there was still much to do to overcome excessive fragmentation and heavy bureaucracy, Andrea Sartori, a vice president of Italia del Vino and past head of the Italian Association of Wine Producers, said.

Sartori also quoted "Italian sounding," or the use of names and images that evoke Italy to promote foreign brands, among the problems faced by the wine sector.

Awareness-building among Chinese consumers, who have shown increasing attention to the high quality of products, will be another task of the project, he said.

Sartori also told Xinhua that fortunately Italian wine exports were not negatively affected, as feared by many local producers, by China's antidumping and anti-subsidy probe into wine imported from the European Union. Earlier this month, the two sides reached an agreement to end the probe.

China had initiated the investigations last year into wine imports from the European Union, especially from main producers in France, Spain and Italy, in response to petitions from domestic associations.

"The diplomacies have worked well and the result was positive," he said.

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