People in the China wine trade are surprised to find that Le Ponty wines, one of the Bordeaux region's most esteemed wineries, has a personal presence in the country, in the shape of the owner's daughter, Helene Ponty.
Most winemakers trying to push their products in China content themselves with promotional visits, but Ponty lives and works in Beijing and travels throughout the country to promote Le Ponty wines.
The mission has proved to be an unqualified success: the winery now ships more than 20,000 bottles a year to China, a quarter of its annual production. People in the wine trade are fascinated to discover that Helene Ponty is based in the country, is formidably knowledgeable about Bordeaux wines in particular and French wines in general, and has taken the trouble to learn to speak Chinese.
"I usually describe our vineyard as a boutique traditional family vineyard located on the right bank of Bordeaux, aiming to produce elegant wines with a perfect balance between freshness and intensity," she says "We have three estates and each is between 3 and 5 hectares, so our production is very limited, but it allows us to be very picky about the quality. We pick by hand and prune carefully.
"In China what I am trying to do is to find good distributors in different provinces. I am working with them and building the story of the wine, which is very important, showing them that if they work with me then they really have a direct relationship with the winery. I go to events and give them the story of the wine."
Initially, Ponty came to China with Hong Kong-born boyfriend Erik Chan, with no immediate plan to enter the wine trade. But the opportunities quickly became apparent. Also Chan's family was able to help with contacts and connections.
Her business brain was already sharply honed from studying for an MBA in the United States,where she met Chan, and later by working for a management consultancy in New York.
"When you are in China it takes a lot of time to set up a company and convince people about what you are doing," she says. "The feedback has been amazing." People love that I am here and can talk to them about the wine and winery and my family history. They love the wine. A lot of people say it is the best they have tried."
Ponty Vineyards was founded more than a century ago by the 26-year-old's great-grandfather in Canon Fronsac, one of the smaller regions of Bordeaux, which has fewer than 50 producers. The current patriarch, Michel Ponty, is president of the local association of winegrowers.
The five wines exported to China, most of them merlot, are sold to wholesalers for RMB100($16; 12 euros) to RMB300, ultimately finding their way into private clubs and as corporate gifts. To date Ponty has imported 24,000 bottles, with another 12,000-bottle shipment scheduled this summer.
The 26-year-old is an avid traveler, venturing regularly to cities throughout China in search of potential distributors. Le Ponty now has representation in Wuhan, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xiamen, with its head office in Beijing.
Says Ponty: "When you are in Europe you hear people talking about the China market. But when you are in China, there is no such thing as the Chinese market, or the Chinese consumer, because the second- and third-tier cities are so different. We are trying to get more into those cities and help them to understand wine. It is a diverse market.
"But I feel more and more people the middle classes are starting to drink wine, appreciate wine and be curious about wine. If you could reach only 10 percent of the population that is a huge market."
Oenophiles in the major cities are already appreciative of Le Ponty's wine quality and the rich history of the chateau, which was founded in 1905. The flagship wine is Chateau Grand Renouil, a regular award winner, which is made from 60-year-old vines; another vintage, Chateau du Pavillon, is made from vines that surround the family home.
The rich and storied history of Le Ponty fascinates Chinese audiences, all the more so when the facts are relayed by an individual who can trace her family wine connections back four generations.
In fact Ponty is finding her diary full of speaking engagements, giving talks on how to appreciate wine to various companies and groups. The etiquette of wine drinking, how to hold the glass, the proper way to store and pour wines, the way different products pair with different foods - are among the topics in her lecture repertoire.
"People really like these little tips and to hear the stories behind the wines," she says. "I talk about wine and focus on the basics, so when people go to a dinner they do not look clueless. I explain about different regions and the difference between Old-World and New-World wines. I also explain the Appellation d'Origine Controlee, the AOC system in France, which is a guarantee of quality. A lot of people do not realize that. All our wines are AOC."
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