With Asia’s love of wine maturing, three wine connoisseurs discuss the future of the industry in Hong Kong.
Text by Mandy Li, photos by Samantha Sin
Special thanks to wine etc for the location
Within moments of pouring wine into the glasses of three connoisseurs we’d arranged to meet in a comfortable local wine cellar, they’re busily swirling the stemware. Which begs our first question: does swirling the wine really make it taste better? The three – Royal Oak marketing director Kenneth Lee, wine etc director Alan Wong, and Grand Hyatt Hong Kong sommelier Yves Nizan – smile and admit that, no, it doesn’t. Still twirling frantically, they confess this wine-lovers’ twitch is just a habit.
A few more sips and they spill more beans. “You know, it’s very difficult for Asians to identify the myriad flavours in a wine like those who write the tasting note. It’s not impossible, but we are just not exposed to those flavours regularly and are simply unable to link the flavour to European fruits, herbs or flowers. You can only associate things when you are familiar with them,” Lee and Wong reveal.
Which is not to say that Hongkongers cannot appreciate the subtlety of good wine, Lee says. “I think Hongkongers should have more confidence in their palates,” he says. “Ratings, tasting notes, and production information are useful as a reference, but in the end, it’s you who are enjoying the bottle of wine. The label and price tag shouldn’t be the indicator of your personal taste. We should encourage people to say they enjoy a bottle of wine with a low rating or even no ratings [as well as] Robert Parker’s 100 point wines.”
Wong takes up the point. “The market is more mature now with more varieties available and more young drinkers. Hong Kong wine lovers have become more adventurous and curious about new estates, and are focusing less on labels.”
Nizan agrees. “People seek new products and want to explore more. The positive thing about the Hong Kong palate is people are very open-minded and you can bring them any bottles as long as you introduce it the right way,” he says.
Lee and Wong point out that Hong Kong’s wine industry enjoys the advantage of being near China and having zero wine tax. But there are some downsides.
“It’s so easy to import wines now,” Wong says. “The industry has become very competitive. It creates jobs and opportunities, but the market is reaching a saturated level – this is an unforeseen consequence.”
Lee also has concerns about the changing China market. “The consumption of wine in China has changed drastically over the past few years. The demand for traditional Bordeaux Grand Crus has dropped significantly since the launch of the anti-corruption campaign by President Xi in 2013. It affected many wine companies at the time,” Lee says. “But fortunately, the growth in the middle class in China has created demand for affordable wine. It gives Hong Kong’s wine companies business opportunities.”
Speaking of business, many people treat wine as an investment now. Are they part of the trend?
“Investment in wine is a good thing for the industry and it’s natural. I am part of the group and even though I drink most of my bottles, I want to buy at the best price. For investment, I choose limited and acclaimed bottles – they are hard to find, hence the safest investment to make,” Wong explains.
Nizan, however, says he refuses to resell his wine collection. “We are in one of the major trading cities so it’s not surprising to see people investing in wine. But for me, wine is about pleasure and enjoyment. I have been collecting wine for years, but I never think of reselling it. I am always happy to have it in my cellar and to enjoy it when it is ready to drink years later,” he says.
Lee is not a wine investor, but has some tips to share. “Bordeaux En Primeur is an annual event for Bordeaux wine investors to purchase wine futures. Japanese whiskies have become one of the most sought-after items in the auction market. They are the things wine investors should look into.”
While they are all optimistic about the future of Hong Kong’s wine industry, can they predict any future trends?
“In terms of spirits, rum and gin have a lot of potential. Biodynamic and natural wine will become more trendy too,” Wong says.
Lee believes food and wine pairing will continue to prevail. “There are so many undiscovered wine selections from minor wine-producing regions, it’s a never-ending adventure. Made in Japan will be key words too – Japanese whisky is big now, but I believe craft beers, wines, sakes and shochus from Japan will also gain more presence in the coming few years, especially as the 2020 Summer Olympics is happening in Tokyo. I am planning a very interesting project aiming to introduce wines from Japan. It will roll out later this year, so stay tuned.”
The Nitty Gritty
- Your favourite vineyard?
Kenneth Lee: The wineries of South Africa, in particular, Boschendal. It’s a 330-year-old winery and they produce wine with real passion. I really like its sauvignon blanc and pinot noir.
Yves Nizan: Côte-Rôtie – it’s one of the first vineyards I visited and the steepness of it stunned me. I understood the effort Vigneron made to create great wines, you can only respect it and stay humble in your profession.
Alan Wong: It’s hard to choose. Generally speaking I like Burgundy wine, Champagne and Scottish whisky.
- If you could create your own flight of wines, what would you choose?
KL: It’s going to be a long flight. I would start with South Africa and then go back to France to taste a few classic regions (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne), and move on to taste two bottles of the same grape varietal from different regions to find out the impact of terroir on wine.
YN: A combination of pinot noir and nebbiolo – some of the finest single grape varieties in my opinion.
AW: Classic – Champagne, white, red and whisky.
- Your favourite stemware?
KL: Gabriel-Glas – a universal wine glass in a bouquet shape that has a very pleasant weight.
AW: I am not partial to any brands, but the key is to use a new glass for a new wine.
- Your favourite bar?
KL: La Cabane Wine Bistro on Hollywood Road is an amazing place to enjoy French food and wine culture.
YN: Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris.
AW: The bar at The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo.
- If you could set a legal drinking age for alcohol, what would it be?
KL: An inconvenient truth is no one actually plays by the book – many people drink before the age of 18. So I’d say it’s more meaningful to have a “suggested drinking age”, so people take it as a reference and make their own decisions.
YN: I probably started too early and I’m so addicted now. I’d say start at 18.
AW: I think the government does a great job.