EXPORTING wine to China is not about just dipping in and out when occasional opportunities arise.

In order for South African wine producers to reap the benefits of the promising export market to China, they must establish a Chinese-focused producers' association, backed by the South African government, tasked with cracking this huge emerging market and making our commitment to the Chinese market crystal clear.

I have seen the South African wine industry evolve from an unknown entity internationally, to one that still captures far too little attention outside of our borders, given its quality.

The government needs to play an active role in helping to open doors for our producers in order to level the playing field with other competing countries.

Why is South Africa not taking advantage of its Brics status, for example? China is one of South Africa's biggest trading partners yet we are paying steep taxes on our wine exports to China, whereas countries like New Zealand and Chile are not.

South Africa should stop bashing its head against the overtraded and oversaturated UK and US markets, and rather tap into other emerging markets, and in particular China.

If South Africa does not soon get its ducks in a row and lay the proper groundwork with China, we will miss the opportunity altogether to trade and thereby forgo a sustainable and profitable market in the future.

China gets things done in three years that the rest of the world accomplishes in a decade, and the fact that the Chinese have undertaken an aggressive vineyard planting programme, which looks to convert its rice wine drinkers to grape wine drinkers, freeing up much of its rice crops to feed more citizens, means that China will make very fast work of growing its own wine industry.

According to figures from Wines of South Africa (Wosa), this country exported just over 382million litres of wine worldwide from October 2011 to September 2012, of which China received only just over 5.8million litres, which means that only 1.52% of South African wine is headed to China.

Furthermore, in 2008 the South African wine industry's annual contribution to the economy grew to R26.2-billion, but this is still only 2.2% of gross domestic product (GDP), according to Sawis, leaving much room for growth. In layman's terms, SA is capturing a tiny fraction of the mega Chinese market. At a Shanghai wine shop, only five of 1600 wines on the shelf were from SA.

To be successful, South African wine producers must pitch at the premium level, instead of making the same mistakes made when entering the UK and European markets with "cheap and cheerful" wines. It is now difficult to break this perception of South African wines.

Unless we are more confident about our own abilities and back ourselves, we cannot expect international wine buyers and commentators to give our best wines the credit they deserve.

The South African fine wine market is highly underrated at home and abroad. On the international competition front, our wines cannot be disputed and continue to outshine and perform exceedingly well at the majority of accredited wine competitions.

However, we continue to pit ourselves on the lower end of the scale when it comes to pricing and the purchasing of our premium estate wines. Ultimately, premium wines will work to establish better margins for the industry and can only do us good.

While a few estates such as Warwick are getting it right, in the long term these individual efforts will not drive the growth of the South African wine industry, particularly when we are competing with the well-supported industries of France, New Zealand and Chile.

 We need a co-ordinated approach with the likes of Wosa, the Department of Trade and Industry and tourism bodies to really make inroads.

About 30% of wine in China is bought by the Chinese government as gifts or to entertain. These are key aspects of Chinese culture and provide yet another opportunity for our government to get involved and help South Africa come to the party.

An effective strategy would be to work through South African businesses that are already established in the Chinese market, such as those of the Ruperts, and build on their relationships and their success.

South Africa needs to give China a good reason to drink its wines and this can only be done through hard work.

Bales is owner of the Wade Bales Wine Society. He was the only South African delegate to attend the recent International Wine Clubs Association Conference in China

* This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times