At first, I didn't panic. Last year, I began getting the occasional press release about another successful Hong Kong wine auction, but brisk sales there made perfect sense: In 2008, the city abolished import duties that once stood at 80 percent. Wine there was essentially half price, so of course it was a good time to buy. But then, last December, I heard this: The city's 10-plus wine auctions in 2009 had grossed an estimated $64 million. After New York City, Hong Kong was suddenly the second-largest wine-auction market in the world.
Auctions might seem like an obscure part of the wine world, where only people with very deep pockets hang out. But these auctions are an important bellwether: In Asia, and particularly in China, the market for wine is clearly growing. If only one percent of China's citizens decided to give wine a try, that would make 13 million new customers. I like to think I'm good at sharing, but can there be enough wine to go around? I'd just started reading James Kynge's book China Shakes the World, which describes how, when China needed steel in 2004, iron manhole covers started disappearing from places like Scotland. I suddenly pictured my local Brooklyn wine store stripped bare of bottles. What would happen to wine prices in America if China's demand suddenly grew so much? On a more indulgent note, it was still a life goal of mine to someday try Domaine de la Romanée-Conti; would China's interest drive the price too high for me to ever afford it?
To get a closer look at China's growing wine market, I traveled to Hong Kong and met up with Tim Kopec, wine director and partner at New York's Veritas restaurant. Kopec also moonlights as a consultant in Hong Kong, largely working with clients of the brokerage firm CLSA. Together we would check out not only the city's wine auctions but also its wine stores and wine bars to see what people were drinking. Along the way, I'd figure out how to pair dry red wines with Cantonese food.
We met at Kopec's favorite hotel, the Mandarin Oriental in the city's Central District. I found him on one of the black leather couches in the vast lobby, checking his voice mail. An unhurried man with a mane of red hair, Kopec has the perfect sort of laid-back persona to make sharing his intimidating wine knowledge a lot of fun. One of the many reasons he loves Hong Kong, he said, is that collectors here are as unpretentious as they are smart.
On the way to lunch, we traversed the covered overpasses that connect the city's many malls. Kopec explained that they are partly to help protect shoppers from typhoons. "The joke is that Chinese collectors drink their Pétrus with Coke, but that's not true," he said. "As you're about to see, Hong Kong's collectors are some of the greatest connoisseurs in the world, because they're not afraid to pull the corks. I drink more good wine in three days in Hong Kong than I do in six months in New York."
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We crossed a plaza to enter the glass-lined Domani, a sleek Italian restaurant with the sort of view of Hong Kong's skyscrapered skyline that tourists pay money to look at through binoculars. We were greeted by Andrew Liu, the CEO of the Asian private equity firm Unitas Capitaland one of Hong Kong's savviest collectors. For a modest midweek lunch, Liu had brought two Burgundy grands crus and a prized Bordeaux to share with us, as well as his friend Geoffrey King, whose own collecting picked up after the duty elimination.
Courtesy of Crown Wine Cellars
I feigned cool as Kopec examined the 1985 Échezeaux by the late Henri Jayer, perhaps one of the best winemakers Burgundy has ever seen. Kopec opened the other grand cru first, a 1997 Claude Dugat Griotte-Chambertin from a tiny parcel on the Côte d'Or. I had trouble following the conversation, distracted as I was by the intense scents of cherry, cedar and earth wafting from my glass. Kopec explained that many collectors overlooked the '97 vintage due to its low acidity. This wine's fruit was so concentrated, he continued, "It tastes like a black-cherry candy melted inside of it."
The waiters brought out our first course, a potent mix of fresh tomatoes and basil served over translucent slivers of amberjack that reminded me just how close we were to the sea. As we ate, Liu explained the trajectory of his own wine habit. He began nearly 40 years ago with French white wines, then Bordeaux Left Bank reds, then Right Bank Pomerols. He occasionally drinks Italian and Spanish wines, but within the past few years, he has shifted almost exclusively to Burgundy reds.
"I see that progression in my American clients," Kopec said. "They start with Cabernets but ultimately go for the finesse of Pinots over power."
The Griotte was the collective favorite; its brightness and complexity overshadowed the surprisingly subdued Échezeaux and the Bordeaux, the elegant, smoky 1985 Château La Conseillante Pomerol. Liu so enjoyed the Griotte that he emptied the dregs, sediment and all, into his glass to take in the bouquet.
As tempting as it was to keep drinking grands crus, our lunch made me more curious to know what the rest of the city was drinkingpeople like me, for whom most Griotte-Chambertins are out of reach. That afternoon, we boarded a taxi for Causeway Bay, a shopping neighborhood more popular with families on a budget. On the 11th floor of the cavernous Times Square mall, we stopped by SML, one of the city's newest wine bars, to meet with one of its young founders, Paulo Pong. Soft-spoken, with a slight frame and glasses, he had the bookish, focused air of an MIT engineer (which he is).
The wine bar was packed. The industrial space was bright with track lighting and blond-wood walls; at the broad, wooden communal tables, twenty- and thirtysomething shoppers had stashed their bags for an afternoon break. SML stands for Small, Medium, Large: The menu was filled with a global mix of affordable dishes in all three sizes, like a crisped sliver of pork belly served with crunchy red cabbage slaw, and plump tail-on shrimp sautéed with chiles, garlic and basil. We saw more fruit juices and sodas on the tables than wines, but Pong, who owns the importing company Altaya Wines and co-owns four other area restaurants (the Press Room, the Pawn, Classified Mozzarella Bar and Classified The Cheese Room), reassured us that Hong Kong's wine market is booming.
Courtesy of SML
SML also offers a democratic range of pours, including Cooralook Shiraz from Australia and Walter Hansel Chardonnay from California's Russian River Valley. "It's a diverse and interesting list," Kopec said. "Keeping it under 40 bottles is smart, too. It allows for plenty of turnover." Sixteen of SML's wines are stored in self-service Enomatic dispensing machines (they're a Hong Kong trendlet: the Sky Lounge at the Sheraton hotel and the wine bar Tastings both have them, too). Given the hot weather, Kopec tried a Medium glass of the crisp, berry-inflected 2007 Verget du Sud Rosé de Syrah from Provence for around $4 U.S., while I tried the same-size pour of the minerally 2008 Wairau River Pinot Gris from New Zealand for about $7 U.S.
Pong said New Zealand wines were quickly becoming his biggest sellers. We would hear this from wine retailers, too; Pong speculated that they're so popular because they're both affordable and approachable, offering a lot of flavor for a moderate price. South American wines, by comparison, weren't doing as well at SML, or anywhere in Hong Kong, because they were simply perceived as cheap. But all his customers seemed open to a wide variety.
"I'm still surprised at the range of wines people are drinking," Pong said. "It used to be only Bordeaux négociants and big-brand Burgundies. You couldn't find anything interesting below $300 Hong Kong [about $40 U.S.]. But wine shops are opening all over the city, even in the remoter New Territories. They may not be selling Lafite or Latour, but they have their fair share of New World wines. Even the teahouses are carrying stemware now. At Luk Yu, the service is appalling, but they'll bring you nice glasses if you bring in a bottle. And they won't charge corkage."
The next day, Kopec and I went to Luk Yu for dim sum. On the way, we swung by the wine shop Rare & Fine Wines to grab a bottle. Though Kopec was tempted by the tiny selection of German Rieslings ("They're the best thing for Cantonese food," he pointed out), he agreed to try the 2004 Grace Vineyard Tasya's Reserve Merlot from China's Shanxi province. I'd heard that China was home to some ambitious winerieslast year, Château Lafite Rothschild announced a partnership with CITIC, China's largest state-owned investment company, to make wine in China's Shandong Peninsulabut I hadn't yet had the chance to try one.
Typical of the fast, flexible way Hong Kong does business, as we left the store, Kopec texted Eric Desgouttes, a senior manager of Hong Kong's biggest wine retailer, Watson's Wine Cellar, to invite him to share his perspective over dim sum. By the time we arrived at Stanley Street, the Frenchman was already at the entrance.
The creaky, wood-lined teahouse was bustling with suit-clad businessmen (and, it is said, also gangsters). The place opened in 1933 and apparently hasn't changed much since, right down to the brass spittoons. The white-clothed tables were set with teacups, but when we brought out our bottle, two of the dozens of white-jacketed waiters came over with elegant, slender stemware and a corkscrew. When one of them saw the wine had been made in China, he burst out laughing. But he filled our glasses all the same. We were pleasantly surprised.
"I was expecting a fruit bomb with lots of new oak," Kopec said. "But this has a nice earthiness to it. A 2004 Merlot will naturally be long in the tooth, but this is not bad."
"I think there's some French oak there, too," Desgouttes added, also impressed.
Desgouttes pointed out that there isn't much financial incentive yet to buy local, given that Watson's sells Bordeaux second-growths for the same cost as the Grace Vineyard Merlot (about $225 Hong Kong, roughly $28 U.S.). "But good winemaking in China has only just started," he said. "Long-term, there's no reason China can't make some excellent wines."
The Grace Merlot was particularly delicious with the sweet, pillowy barbecued pork buns that came first, but it paired less well with the light, chive-flecked shrimp dumplings that followed. In fact, it made them taste like cardboard. I was learning that dry red wines are sometimes tricky in Cantonese restaurants: Meals can come in as many as 12 or 15 small courses, so it's inevitable that some dishes pair better with the wines than others.
For example, that night, we met up with some wine collectors for dinner at Lei Yue Mun Seafood Restaurant in Kowloon (where we also handpicked our dinnerstill swimmingfrom the fish markets cramming the surrounding streets). Just as at Luk Yu, the waiters gamely handled the wines we brought, but they inadvertently poured a magnificent magnum of 1982 Cheval Blanc just as we were served a fiery crab coated in chiles. By then, though, I was a Hong Kong pro: I simply paused and enjoyed the wine first, the crab second. Kopec poured a Riesling.
Watson's acts as an importer as well as a retailer. This year, they plan to open a shop in Shanghai and are considering a store in Beijing. The mainland China market is difficult to crack. "The amount of paperwork is huge," Desgouttes says. "They can take up to three bottles per case for inspections. Can you imagine trying to bring in a case of DRC?"
Desgouttes said he was sorry to have to miss the next day's wine auction. Kopec and I met back at the Mandarin the next morning to take in Zachys' weekend sale. Much like a wine auction in New York, the auction was a relaxed affair, with bidders casually throwing thousands of dollars at jeroboams and cases of top vintages. No records were set, but there was still some buzz, as Kopec spotted one Hong Kong tycoon's personal sommelier bidding on some Haut-Brions and carefully noted the choices of a few rival consultants. Jeff Zacharia, Zachys' president, took several turns as auctioneer; during one of his breaks, I asked him if there was any danger that China's collectors might buy up all the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
Zacharia tried not to laugh. "Come on," he said. "It's like the late 1980s, when the U.S. overtook London as the biggest auction market. There was still plenty of wine being sold in London."
Dinner on the night of the auction took place at the official residence of politician Henry Tang. With the convoluted title of Chief Secretary for Administration of Hong Kong, Tang is basically the city's deputy mayor. There is growing speculation that he may run for chief executive in 2012. He is also one of the world's greatest wine collectors; much of the credit for the duty elimination can go to him.
Tang had also invited Zacharia, Liu and Peter Lam, a wine collector and movie producer. Only the Westerners wore suits; the tall, gentle-mannered Tang suggested Kopec and Zacharia dispense with their ties before dinner. "Wine tastes better when you're comfortable," he said, as he took us out onto his terrace overlooking Hong Kong harbor. As harbors go, Hong Kong's has the openness of San Francisco's with the skyscrapers of New York's, but it may top them both. I.M. Pei's Bank of China building blinked in the night, its white, diamond-shaped top reaching into the sky like the outstretched arms of a praying mantis. Cargo ships and ferryboats coasted past as Tang handed us flutes of the deliciously yeasty 1996 vintage Billecart-Salmon Le Clos Saint-Hilaire.
This was the only wine Tang named as he served it to us. He prefers to present his bottlings blind to keep prejudices out of the conversation, and to give his guests a chance to guess. His cellar conditions are so pristine, Kopec said, that his wines show younger than usual, and guests often guess wrong. But Kopec nailed the wine of the night, our ninth of a dozen bottles, served with a chicken broth seasoned with exotic, earthy Tibetan root vegetables I had never seen before. I knew the wine was a Burgundy, and from its complexity and endurance, the best wine I'd ever tasted. Beyond that I was stumpedbut I had a hope.
"Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, 1971," Kopec said.
This was Christmas. The flavors kept shifting around like some magical light show, from red currants to leather to dust to spice. But Tang soon began the story of how the duties were lifted, so I had to take notes.
He spoke modestly, but I came away thinking that he'd decided to grow Hong Kong's economy partly in order to lift the wine duty. While the elimination may have helped his own collection, he's most proud of the wine market he has helped to expand, particularly its new jobs.
When I asked what might happen if all of China were to open itself up to wine, Tang smiled patiently. "Repealing taxes and cleaning up their processes are not going to happen overnight," he said.
In the taxi back to my hotel in Hong Kong's Sheung Wan neighborhood, as we passed the area's dozens of tiny shops devoted to bird's nests (a medicinal ingredient popular in soup), I realized I still had no idea how China might change the wine world. But I'd made a much more important discovery. Hong Kong has opened up to wine, andnot even counting Tang's collectionit has some of the most exciting wine experiences in the world right now. It doesn't require a DRC budget to bring a bottle of something delicious to Kowloon to pair (or not) with spicy crab, or try an herbal New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with genuine Cantonese dim sum. Even if Brooklyn never runs out of wine, I can't wait to come back.