Asia's biggest wine and spirits fair opened in Hong Kong on Tuesday, giving the world's top producers from France to Argentina a chance to tap the booming but still relatively new Chinese market.
Organisers of the three-day Vinexpo Asia-Pacific trade fair expect demand for imported wine to weather the slowdown in Chinese economic growth, forecast to fall to 7.5 percent this year from 9.2 percent in 2011.
A deep dip in prices of Bordeaux's most prestigious, investment-grade wines last year suggests the Chinese-driven speculative bubble may have burst, but the market for more modest mid-range wines will open up, they said.
"If the economy reduces speed they will not drink less. They might drink a little cheaper, but they won't stop now that they have discovered wine," Vinexpo chief executive Robert Beynat told AFP last week.
China is the world's biggest drinker of spirits, with 995 million cases guzzled in 2010 -- almost double the volume consumed in 2006, according to Vinexpo.
The average mainland Chinese drinker still only consumes 1.3 litres (0.34 US gallons) of wine a year, compared with 2.4 litres in Japan and 50 litres in France.
"In terms of consumption volume in Asia, it's grown 100 percent in the past five years. When you look at the per-capita consumption, there's a bright future," Beynat said.Around 1,000 exhibitors are expected to attend Vinexpo at Hong Kong's harbourside convention centre, the organisers said.
China leapt to fifth place of top wine consuming nations last year, overtaking Britain, and Asia is expected to account for more than half of worldwide growth in consumption over the next three years.
French wines account for around 45 percent of Chinese imports in terms of value, but other producers from Italy and the new world, particularly Australia and New Zealand, are staking claims to market share.
Thomas Jullien, the Bordeaux Wine Council's Asia representative, who is based in the city, said producers from his region in France will be strongly represented.
"After six years of steep growth, the China wine market has firmly positioned itself as the main export market for Bordeaux wines," he said.
Mainland Chinese customers bought 58 million bottles of Bordeaux wines worth 334 million euros ($420 million) last year, a 91 percent increase over the year before, he added.
Australian and New Zealand producers are also coming to Vinexpo in force, with an Australian pavilion expected to be one of the highlights.
"Asia continues to be an outstanding region for Australian winemakers, now representing approximately 20 percent of total value of exports globally," Wine Australia's Asia director Lucy Anderson said.
China and Hong Kong represent the third-largest export market for Australian wine by value, at more than Aus$268 million (US$262 million), according to official figures.
Exports of Australian wine valued at more than Aus$10 per bottle to mainland China leapt 62 percent over the past 12 months to 3.65 million litres.