Swirls: Bordeaux-crazed China not ready for Burgundy – yet

Hardly a day goes by without a headline about the frenzied wine market in Asia, particularly China. This week, Wine Enthusiast Magazine announced that it will produce a Mandarin edition for circulation to 100,000 “Chinese VIP consumers.” France’s Federation of Wine and Spirits Exporters announced a 29 percent increase in shipments to Asia last year with a value of $3.3 billion. And in the city of Bordeaux, a négociant that specializes in Bordeaux sales to China and is staffed by seven Mandarin-speaking employees, opened a street-level shop to increase itsFaiveley Gevrey visibility to the growing number of Chinese buyers coming to town, according to Decanter.com.

Indeed, the red-hot Chinese market for all levels of Bordeaux shows no sign of cooling. But what you hear almost nothing about is the Chinese and Burgundy. I had the chance to discuss this last week with Vincent Avenel, export manger of Domaine Faiveley, one of Burgundy’s biggest and best-known producers, at a dinner featuring some top new releases from Frederick Wildman and Sons, the New York importer that has been bring wines from the region to the United States since the 1930s. When I asked him whether the Chinese were taking to Burgundy the way they had to Bordeaux, his answer was quick and emphatic: “Not at all.”

In fact, China accounts for just 1.5 percent of Faiveley’s exports, Avenel told me. This surprised me as we tasted some top Burgundies, among them Faiveley’s 2009 Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru “Les Cazetiers” and Alain Burguet’s 2009 Chambertin Grand Cru “Clos de Beze.” Don’t wines like this qualify as the kind of luxury items the Chinese are embracing? What followed was a fascinating and candid conversation about money, taste, and sophistication.

For the Chinese at the moment, Avenel said, the hot wines are from Bordeaux and Australia because they are “bombs in a glass” and more easily understood and embraced than Burgundy. “We all started with Bordeaux,” he said, “because it’s the entry-level thing. The U.S. started with Bordeaux. The Japanese started with Bordeaux.” He said that Burgundy, on the other hand, “is never love at first sight. You need to build some maturity in terms of taste.”

He continued: “Burgundy is not about power. It’s about charm and secret things. You need to improve your ability to taste subtle things.” How long does it take? “It’s not something you get in just a couple of years,” he said. “I think it takes 10 to 15 years.” His conclusion: for all its newly minted wealth, China is simply not yet ready for Burgundy. “What we notice,” he said, “is that very often Burgundy is about old money and that Bordeaux is about nouveaux riches.”

(For some of my latest wine suggestions, go to my new weekly column on the Bites on Today blog at MSNBC.com)

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