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?
What wines typically pair best with spicy Cantonese dishes?
- A. Australian Shirazes
- B. Off-dry German Rieslings
- C. Provençal Rosés
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.