China-Australia relations: Penfolds wine weathered counterfeits and trademark disputes since 1995, but now faces toughest test yet in Chinese market

Amanda Lee
·6-min read

Chen Yafei, a manager of a specialty cheese retail store in Shanghai, has for years been drinking the popular Australian wine, Penfolds, and buying it as gifts for family and customers to pair with his dairy products, mainly because of its auspicious name.

In Chinese, Penfolds is called “Ben Fu”, which means “chasing prosperity”.

But with prices of Penfolds set to soar following China’s imposition of anti-dumping duties on Australian wine in November, Chen fears he will have to find other wines to pair his cheese with, especially for the upcoming Lunar New Year celebrations.

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Unlike other high-end liquor such as Mao-tai – the local Chinese distilled grain liquor known as baijiu, which has an “elusive exclusivity” among connoisseurs – Penfolds, while a premium brand, has a host of replacements thanks to the influx of imported wines into China, he said.

“The rapid increase in the price of Penfolds will definitely result in some loss of market share,” he said. “It is a real pity for a brand that has done so well to be affected by political issues.”

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On chat forums on social media platform WeChat, some Chinese buyers share Chen’s views, saying the overpriced wine will be replaced, while others say Chinese buyers are cashed-up, and so higher prices will not change the sentiments of drinkers.

The new anti-dumping duties implemented in late November may effectively double or triple the price of a bottle of Australian wine in China, making the market unviable for Australian winemakers.

China’s Ministry of Commerce announced provisional duties of between 107.1 to 212.1 per cent, with Penfolds owner Treasury Wine Estates due to face a 169.3 per cent tax. Treasury must also pay a temporary anti-subsidy duty of 6.3 per cent, for a total tax of 175.6 per cent.

Treasury Wines has since made plans to redirect its Penfolds sales away from China, saying that as long as the new duties are imposed, demand for its products in China “will be extremely limited”.

The Penfolds brand has come a long way. Making its debut in China in 1995, it has weathered counterfeits and trademark disputes.

After 10 years of lawsuits, Treasury Wine registered Ben Fu as its trademark in China last year.

Su Liyuan, a Beijing-based investor in wine estates in the Australian island state of Tasmania, says the Ben Fu name is a drawcard for consumers.

“[The translation] is a compliment in Chinese,” Su said. “It does have some influence [on the brand’s recognition].

“Most people think of Penfolds when it comes to Australian red wine.”

Su said its extensive distribution in China has made it impossible to miss, particularly in high-end hotels and restaurants.

“It has a good sales network [in China],” Su said. “This is very important to the brand. Their production scale is also huge, meaning they have set a good foundation to cover its [sales] network.”

One e-commerce seller says the brand resonates with the older crowd and in business circles, and even though it is not as “exclusive” as French champagne or Mao-tai, Penfolds’ value – in its name – goes beyond the wine itself.

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“Its value had been enhanced by the Chinese culture and habit of ‘giving face’,” he said.

A veteran Chinese wine-industry expert, Beijing-based Jim Boyce, says that because of its high value per bottle, Penfolds has been a staple in the banquet scene, and had replaced French wines as the leading gift to buy.

“[In China], you want to give something whose value people know,” he said. “The person giving them is spending money, and the person receiving it knows it is something of value.”

The other reason for the popularity of Penfolds and most Australian wine in China is its taste, and that it is easy to understand compared with niche regional wines from Italy or France that consumers are unfamiliar with.

“Australian wines taste good for newcomers,” he said. “They are fruity, fresh – they are bottled sunshine.”

For Boyce, the impact of the new anti-dumping measures on Penfolds is the one to watch.

“This situation with Australian wine is particularly about Penfolds, because Penfolds is the symbol of Australian wine and it represents the most value,” Boyce said. “Penfolds makes up a huge part of the Australian wine market here. It’s really Penfolds and then everybody else. Their share is the size of a country in terms of value.”

The test of Penfolds’ resilience amid the anti-dumping headwinds will come when current stock levels at pre-duty prices in China deplete. Boyce says it appears unlikely Chinese consumers will be willing to pay up to three times more for the label although it will also be very difficult to replace the much-loved product with another one from another country.

“There is also another issue of whether consumers are willing to drink Penfolds or Australian wine publicly, especially if the relationship gets worse,” he said.

With the Lunar New Year coming next month, the gifting season is now in full swing in China, but new tariffs and restrictions placed on Australian wine have slowly started to affect inventory levels. Aside from anti-dumping duties, importers have been unofficially discouraged from importing more Australian wine, as there may be delays for the product at ports.

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In an exclusive Penfolds store in Beijing’s Dongcheng district, retail staff said that many customers have come in wanting to buy more than 10 boxes of wine or spirits ahead of Lunar New Year celebrations, to be given as gifts.

“We have advised people to order as early as possible,” a staff member said. “For now, one or two boxes are fine, but if you are ordering a lot, and if we don’t have sufficient stock, we’d like to let our customers know in advance as well, so they can make other arrangements.”

There appear to be no signs yet of price-gouging of Australian wine in China. According to consulting and research firm Daxue Consulting spokesman Mike Vinkenborg, early signs indicated there were about six months of pre-duty Australian wine in China.

So, for the next six months, prices will not be a concern for buyers, but there are signs of buyer elasticity, with many not heavily “attached” to Australian wines, Vinkenborg said.

“The high tariff is not appealing … although consumers tend to be more price-sensitive to entry-level wines, generally,” he said.

Consumer sentiment indicates that a price rise of 10 to 20 per cent usually has no impact, but a doubling or tripling of prices is a deterrent, Vinkenborg says.

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