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Guaranteed Authenticity Boosts Hong Kong Role as Mainland Wine Cellar

With faux vintages of Sauvignot Blanc and Shampagne bedevilling the mainland wine trade, Hong Kong's role in assuring the provenance of its re-exports to China is a massive endorsement of the city's status as Asia's premier wine hub.

Photo: Toasting success: Hong Kong re-exports of wine to the mainland soared by 172% in 2015.
Toasting success: Hong Kong re-exports of wine to the mainland soared by 172% in 2015.
Photo: Toasting success: Hong Kong re-exports of wine to the mainland soared by 172% in 2015.
Toasting success: Hong Kong re-exports of wine to the mainland soared by 172% in 2015.

Another memorable edition of the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair saw the host city further enhance its reputation as the first port of call for buyers, producers and drinkers across the Asia-Pacific region. This year, spirits were very much in the spotlight, with mixology and cocktails both continuing to gain in popularity, while several newly introduced wines from the more "boutique" countries also proved a hit.

As part of his opening address, Philip Yung, Hong Kong's Permanent Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development (Commerce, Industry and Tourism), outlined the growing importance of the wine trade to the region, an area that now accounts for 10% of the world's wine consumption. Taking advantage of this, Hong Kong has leveraged its zero wine duty status and positioned itself as "Asia's premier wine hub", as well as being the principal wine re-exporter to mainland China.

In 2015, the city's re-exports to the mainland were a record HK$4 billion, a rise of 172% year-on-year. According to Yung, this stellar growth has been at least partly driven by Hong Kong's registration scheme, an initiative designed to ensure the authenticity of its wine re-exports.

Indeed, the sale of counterfeit wine is now a growing problem in China, according to Debra Meiburg, Master of Wine and organiser of the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit Competition. One of the most in-demand speakers at the event, she still found time to host a master class on sampling Austrian wines in a vertical taste test (same wine type, different vintages), while also fronting one of the fair's key seminars – Navigating Asia's Wine Trade: Latest Trends from China and Beyond.

Assessing the current state of the market, she said: "Across China, official austerity measures have taken hold and the bubble has burst. The party had to stop some time and, when it did, a number of high-quality importers – especially those who were highly leveraged and who had maintained large inventories – got hit hard. It is only of late that imports have started to improve, while gifting has become less ostentatious, with 'mastige' – mass-market wines with less prestige – becoming the norm."

She sees the problem of counterfeit wines as a particularly unfortunate aspect of the mainland market, given it is now the highest-consuming country in the Asia-Pacific region. Overall, mainlanders collectively knock back three times more than the second-placed Australians and almost four time more than the third-placed Japanese. The market, however, in now seen as having stalled. Following its 10 % growth between 2009 and 2014, the mainland is not expected to expand further for at least the next three years.

This doesn't mean, of course, that aren't emerging opportunities elsewhere in the region. In particular, Marburg cites Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore as meriting close attention.

Onto the showfloor proper and, while group pavilions from producers in the Old and New Worlds took the lion's share of attention of both buyers and the public, the boutique countries were also making something of a splash.  Most notably, Hungary attracted considerable interest with a range of sweet wines from the Tokaj region, a World Heritage Site, while Slovenia – a country best known for the quality of its white wines – was keen to highlight its reds. Another eastern European country keen to make an impact was Bulgaria, although emphasising its history of winemaking through a seminar entitled New Wines of Ancient Thrace might not have been the wisest option.

Hovering around the Spanish pavilion and eager to greet potential buyers was Gareth York, Export Director for Cava, Mont Marçal Vinícola's sparkling-wine brand. A frequent visitor to the Wine & Spirits Fair, as well as to similar events across China, his own analysis of the mainland market was largely in line with Meiburg's.

Essentially, he saw the moratorium on government gift-giving as having substantially slowed sales of the French grands crus, while opening up opportunities for boutique wines, whites and sparkling wines, particularly Italy's cheaper Moscato variety. He said: "People usually start with sweet wines and develop from there and that is what is now happening in China."

Photo: Meiburg: ‘Mastige’ is now the norm.
Meiburg: 'Mastige' is now the norm.
Photo: Meiburg: ‘Mastige’ is now the norm.
Meiburg: 'Mastige' is now the norm.
Photo: Wine Tally pioneer Ho (right) and Rose Infinie’s Mei.
Wine Tally pioneer Ho (right) and Rose Infinie's Mei.
Photo: Wine Tally pioneer Ho (right) and Rose Infinie’s Mei.
Wine Tally pioneer Ho (right) and Rose Infinie's Mei.

While the majority of deals were concluded on the Saturday, when only the trade was admitted, there was still plenty to see and do when the fair opened to the public the following day. One of the more notable visitors was James Ho, a former Professor of Information and Decision Sciences at the University of Illinois.

Modestly describing himself as "an amateur intent on spreading wine culture", the one-time academic had formulated a novel, consumer-centric wine-scoring system, which ranked accuracy, balance, complexity and depth on a scale from one to four. As a testament to the efficacy of his system, he came second in France's 1979-80 wine tasting Olympics, missing out on first place by just half a point. Had he won, he says, he would have probably pursued an entirely different career path.

Ho is now committed to boosting the appreciation of wine across Asia. Last year, he published a Chinese-language book on the subject – Sense & Sensibility in Wine (品酒意趣) – and now has taken to social media to promote his Wine Tally system. Explaining his evangelical zeal, he said: "When you write about wine, it's boring if you just say it's good. At the other end of the scale, it's easy for experts to intimidate members of the public when they wax lyrical as to how earthy or floral a bouquet is.

"People don't choose a wine because it is earthy or floral. In fact, if it's solely distinguishable in such as a way, then it may actually be spoilt. We shouldn't, then, select a wine based on such descriptions. For the mass market, A, B, C and 1, 2, 3 is a better guide." Or in Ho's case, 1, 2, 3, 4.

One of the wines Ho has rated most highly of late is Rose Infinie, a new offering from Benjamin Mei, a relatively recent arrival on the French winemaking scene. Mei, himself, was present at this year's event, evidently keen to secure distributors for his latest vintage.

A keen believer in producing wine without resorting to excessive chemical intervention, Mei recently returned to France after 12 years in Chile as the chief winemaker for Viña Apaltagua, one of the South American country's leading vineyards. Now, in association with his cousin, he has established his own operation in Provence.

Clearly a man on a mission, he said: "Owning my own vineyard has long been my dream, so I have created my own label, done my own marketing and now here I am in Hong Kong. Making wine is not just about business, it is about love. If you make wine out of love, then it will always be good."

Perhaps reflecting this, the Rose Infinie bottle is a mini work of art. It comes with a tastefully designed, embossed rose label and a stippled representation of the Sainte-Victoire mountain, as well as a crystal motif at the bottom of the bottle.

From its first vintage, 2015, the company has produced three wines – a white (light and mineral in taste with a wonderfully fresh feel and little acidity), a red (heartier in tone with a distinctly refreshing palate) and an award-winning rose. Not a bad beginning and, for some, proof that France, the undisputed king of wine production, still has the capacity to surprise.

Photo: Rose Infinie: A French organic wine looking to take on the big boys in the quality stakes.
Rose Infinie: A French organic wine looking to take on the big boys in the quality stakes.
Photo: Rose Infinie: A French organic wine looking to take on the big boys in the quality stakes.
Rose Infinie: A French organic wine looking to take on the big boys in the quality stakes.

The 9th Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair was organised by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) and took place at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre from 10-12 November 2016. The event attracted 1,067 exhibitors from 37 countries and regions and 19,418 trade buyers.

Jules Quartly, Special Correspondent, Hong Kong

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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