It might be but a short distance to mainland China – the market that is turning the game for Australian wine – but Taiwan is actually an Asian destination in which Australia is steadily losing share. Wine imports from Australia declined by 3% last financial year to around $15 million AUD – which makes Taiwan roughly of equal importance right now to Belgium and Korea. Australia’s spot in the Taiwanese pecking order has slipped from 3rd to 6th. It’s been a constant, gradual decline – which seems to be the result of a loss of interest from Australia, rather than from the Taiwanese. And it could easily dip further, if it’s allowed to.

Taiwan is a very different marketplace for wine. For a start, it’s dominated by a BYO culture. According to locals, around 95% of the wine bought off-premise eventually gets consumed on-premise. It’s not a culture that gets off on wine knowledge to the extent that happens in Hong Kong, Japan, or to a lesser extend in Korea or Shanghai. The country’s sommelier association has about 120 members, but only about 50 actually work professionally in this capacity. Little wonder really – they hardly get paid any more than other bar staff. Yet despite this, and in the face of a strong emphasis on Australian entry-level on-premise brands, it remains our tenth most valuable market for wine with an FOB priced above $50 per litre.

That said, Taiwan remains an influential, affluent and significant market that Australian wine needs to look at more carefully if it is not to become excessively dependent on the giant that China has become. While Australia’s success in China should be celebrated, it’s always potentially vulnerable to be excessively dependent on a single market, especially one with which our politicians are making a sport of being ever more critical, and very publicly so. You don’t need to be that experienced with China to understand if you want to get things changed, you do it behind closed doors – not through a megaphone.

Although they’re finding its current conditions something of a challenge, the two largest Australian brand presences in Taiwan are TWE (around 40% of Australian wine sales there) and Casella (with about 30%). In short, that’s largely made up of Penfolds and YellowTail, and sales of the upper end Penfolds wines probably account for the bulk of Australia’s surprisingly strong top end sales. Oddly, perhaps, but given its cultural affiliations with the US, American wine has punched above its weight in Taiwan, relative to other Asian markets. Back in 2016 the US had nearly 11% of the market. In this geopolitical climate I won’t even begin to start guessing in which direction that number is going…

Aping Wang, who manages wine sales for Pernod Ricard in China, says that Taiwanese wine consumers are today becoming more interested in the variety or the blend of a wine than just where it might come from. They’re keen to discover what is unique about a wine’s taste.

Driven largely by an enthusiastic young female market, wine consumption in Taiwan has steadily risen by around 8.5% over the last 6-7 years and there is now a steadily increasing number, from a relatively small base, of serious wine aficionados. Taiwanese wine drinkers are also fully accustomed to drinking wine around a meal, rather than substituting it for another kind of beverage in a drinking ritual. That’s another very positive sign.

It’s a market that is just starting to become energised. While major chains like Costco, which have traditionally dominated the retail market, they are ceding some ground to small, high-end merchants who are becoming more important as local imports of Grand Cru Classé wines from Bordeaux are picking up. Again, more evidence that Taiwanese will spend high on wine if given the incentive.

There’s not a lot of wine coverage in the Taiwan media, so in the absence of a strong sommelier and on-trade culture, the most important market influencers remain the leading wine store owners and the smaller importers that have sold the majority of the GCC wines. Australia doesn’t have much of a voice there.

David Lucas, Wine Australia’s Regional General Manager for Greater China, says that unless Australia does something to reverse the slide in Taiwan, we will shortly become irrelevant in this market. It would seem that there’s every justification for Australian wine brand owners to engage further – to increase the breadth of the offering above entry level, and to support the narrative behind higher value wines.

For a range of reasons, Taiwan has been in the global focus of late. Regardless of the pace of political change within and without, it remains a wine market in which Australia could perhaps have done better, to its own advantage.