Prof. Lefa Teng
Prof. Lefa Teng

Marketing and consumer studies professor Lefa Teng was in China in 2008 to give a seminar. After his presentation, he was invited to visit a very successful Chinese company that was selling cigarettes and wine on the Internet. Teng says the company emphasized the high quality of their products. When he mentioned that he was from Canada, they took him to another room and showed him a box of Canadian icewine.

Teng opened the box, looked at the bottle – which sold for the equivalent of $25 Cdn – and asked, “How much would it cost to buy all the icewine you have?” Surprised, they asked him why. He told them that it was counterfeit – all of it. How did he know, without even tasting it? The labels had icewine written as two words, not one, he says, and didn’t include the VQA symbol.

When he returned to Canada with that experience in his thoughts, Teng decided he wanted to “educate the Chinese consumer and promote real Canadian icewine.” Sweet and refreshing, icewine is very much a Canadian product – Ontario icewine accounts for about two-thirds of the world’s entire production. Smaller amounts are produced in Germany and some parts of the U.S. The climate in Ontario’s Niagara region is ideal: warm enough to fully ripen the grapes, usually followed by a hard frost to concentrate the sweetness.

Making icewine is a tricky business, though. The frost has to be at least eight degrees below zero, and with climate change, the date of that frost is increasingly hard to predict. If it happens too late, the grapes may rot on the vine before they can be harvested. Icewine producers also have to ensure the availability of workers in anticipation of colder weather: once the grapes freeze, they have to be harvested immediately. For these reasons, the amount of icewine that can be produced each year is limited.

Ontarians love icewine, but it’s even more popular in China, says Teng. “In China it is considered a lucky product, and a good choice to buy as a gift for friends and business contacts. It is rare and expensive, making it more desirable.” Young people in China tend to be interested in all things North American, Teng adds, and that has increased the popularity of wines.

Counterfeiting is a problem across China, and has affected the icewine industry as well – as Teng discovered firsthand. “Most icewines sold in China for under $50 a bottle are counterfeit.” Part of his work involves helping Chinese consumers learn how to identify the real from the fake.

Ontario icewines are widely recognized for their high quality, and Teng feels that this could help boost the Chinese market for other Ontario wines. Since icewine has such a good reputation, other wines from the province should also be desirable among consumers.

His research and promotion efforts are funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food. Canbest, a company that imports Canadian products into China, and Pillitteri Estates Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake are sponsors of the research project. Pillitteri has provided icewine for Teng to use in blind taste tests; it is now the number one brand of icewine in China.

Teng says that many Chinese tourists visit the Niagara region and are interested in buying icewine after touring the wineries. Carrying the wine with them isn’t convenient, so some wineries have developed a system where these tourists can order the wine at the winery, and have it shipped directly to their home through an importer in China. The winery, the tour company and the Chinese importer all work together to make this an easy process for the customer.

These tours are part of the education process for Chinese consumers, Teng adds. “Canada has a culture that emphasizes good quality, especially in food products. We follow the rules and we don’t produce counterfeits. By teaching Chinese consumers about the production process and the philosophy behind it – producing something that is high quality, not just something that will make a profit – I hope that they will be influenced by that philosophy.” In promoting quality Canadian wines and foods, Teng feels he is also promoting Canadian culture in China.

He acknowledges that his goals of increasing the market in China for Ontario icewines, other wines and other Canadian products are ambitious, but points out that the Chinese market is very large. “There are great opportunities here,” he says.