HIT HARD by a grape glut and higher dollar, Australia's wine industry is looking to a new saviour - stylish young professionals in China with a taste for our finest shiraz.
Australian wine exports to China grew by 36 per cent last year, overtaking the growth of the British, US and Canadian wine markets, new figures show.
Shiraz was by far the most popular drop for the Chinese, comprising almost half of the sales, followed by cabernet sauvignon and merlot, according to a December report by Wine Australia.
The scale of the opportunity in China is unlike any other market encountered before, Wine Australia's Asian director Lucy Anderson said.
''If Australia's [wine] share continues to grow at this rate we can expect a growth opportunity in China of around half a million cases during 2011,'' she said.
Ms Anderson puts the popularity down to better access to wine in urban China, a trend towards drinking wine over local spirits and a population that has higher disposable incomes. Wine bars have cropped up in Beijing, as well as restaurants with expansive wine lists.
Nancy Wang, manager at Australian-owned Capital M restaurant in Beijing, said the new generation in China was getting a rudimentary wine knowledge, and favoured Australian wines as they were easier to quaff.
''They know old-world wine is harder to drink; new-world wine like Australian wine is fruitier, drinkable wine and that's what they like,'' Ms Wang said. ''They don't really know the brands, they only know the grape and maybe the vintage. They tend to like something full-bodied like cabernet sauvignon.''
Wine drinking is a mark of status for young urban Chinese, like driving a new sports car, said Dr Jenny Chio from the Centre for Social and Cultural Change in China Investment at the University of Technology Sydney. ''Drinking red wine is considered cosmopolitian in urban China,'' Dr Chio said. ''This is part and parcel of the rapid increase of personal spending.''
One of the most visible Australian brands in China is Penfolds. A spokesman said their red label premium wine was doing particularly well. ''There is a huge push for the finer things in life in China at the moment, and strong premium red wines fits into this luxury goods market,'' the spokesman said. ''Of the 35 million cases Penfolds export a year, 1 million of those are to China.''
Two smaller South Australian wine makers, Bird in Hand and Shingleback, said China had huge potential in the premium wine market.
''We are expecting major growth in that market, more than double in sales a year,'' Bird in Hand global sales director Justin Nugent said.
Younger Chinese professionals concerned with their image and future direction were embracing premium wine, ranging from $30-$70, with enthusiasm, Mr Nugent said. ''There is a change in cultural preferences with the interest in wine and good food.''
Shingleback general manager Carey Weston said there was strong demand for red wine ranging from $25-$35 a bottle. ''Our exports have grown in China by 50 per cent in the last four years,'' Mr Weston said.
Wine Australia says China wine sales in 2010 were about 2.7 million cases in a total market of 160 million cases. China is the fourth-largest market, but still only a third of the value of exports to Britain. The country of the fastest-growing economy in the world is expected to increase its annual consumption by 20 per cent to 126.4 million cases by 2014.