Hong Kong's wine scene
Year of the dragon
Immerse yourself in the flourishing Hong Kong wine scene, from the eclectic array of bustling hillside bars and restaurants that enliven Central to the neon-bright streets of Kowloon.
The 800-metre escalator set into the dizzying hillside of Hong Kong Island takes commuters down from the smart resid-ences of Mid-Levels into the offices of the Central commercial district every morning, then switches direction to take them back home again at the end of the day. And it might just be the most wine-friendly mode of transport in the world.
The longest outdoor escalator in operation, when it opened in 1993, it was intended to allow workers to navigate the steep terrain on foot, and so ease traffic congestion in the narrow surrounding streets. Regular gaps allowed users to jump off after a hard day’s work, at residential streets that got ever more rarefied as the escalator climbed up towards its final stop on Conduit Road.
Today, it is something of a destination in itself. And office workers are joined by gourmet-seeking tourists and late-for-work chefs and sommeliers hurrying to the rash of restaurants and wine bars that line either side. The famous bar district of Lan Kwai Fong, which lies along two neon-lit streets just a few metres away from the Wellington Street escalator exit, has been surpassed in recent years by the new wine-and-food thoroughfare of Hollywood Road. This being Hong Kong, the bars and restaurants of this road, which was formerly lined with antique shops and still boasts several fantastic art galleries, are now spilling out ever further, into the surrounding streets of Staunton, Aberdeen and beyond.
Not that you need to stop there. Everywhere you turn in Hong Kong, either Island or Kowloon side, there is another wine bar opening up. Since the deregulation of the wine market in 2008, and the cutting of taxes to zero, it has been hard to ignore the growth of Hong Kong as a serious wine city. The first free wine port among major economies, and an integral part of the booming China story, the city has seen over 1000 wine businesses open in the past three years, and countless wine bars, wine schools and tasting events.
Hong Kong’s financial secretary, John C Tsang, gave some idea of the effects of deregulation during a visit to South Africa last year. “The total value of our wine imports jumped 80 per cent in 2008, 41 per cent in 2009, and 73 per cent last year . In just the first eight months of this year , the value of our wine imports reached HK$6.6 billion [A$811M]. That is a 65 per cent increase year-on-year.”
And of course none of this has gone unnoticed by the locals.
“Sometimes, you just know you are in the right place at the right time,” smiles Christophe Orlarei. The French head sommelier at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong worked at the Waldorf Astoria in New York and with Marco-Pierre White in London before heading over to Asia in 2010. It would be fair to say that he’s not looking to move on again for a while.
“For any wine lover, this is the centre of the world right now. Increasingly, the wine culture is driven by people with strong spending power, sophisticated tastes, and who want to enjoy themselves and their wine. In one year here, I have tasted more exceptional bottles than I ever thought possible.”
His One Harbour Road restaurant (1 Harbour Road, Wan Chai, 852 2588 1234), which overlooks the world’s third-busiest harbour (beaten only by Shanghai and Singapore) specialises in matching Champagne to Chinese food – the first clue that a run-of-the-mill wine list no longer cuts it.
Culinary ambition now stalks Hong Kong and neighbouring Macau, where the latest Michelin guide announced five three-star venues, eleven two-star and 51 one-star across the two cities. Visiting winemakers are increasingly flown in to host wine dinners, and the city’s wine lists are growing by the day. But while the headlines often centre on prestigious bottles sold in restaurants and at auction, all of Hong Kong has benefited from access to increasingly interesting bottles, and the best are often sold in smaller wine bars, wine stores and neighbourhood cafes. Winemakers from around the world are competing to get a foothold in the market, and are helping to make this humid, sub-tropical island, which has no vineyards of its own (but boasts two urban wineries) a seriously exciting wine destination. But things move fast here, and a little insider knowledge goes a long way.
77 Wyndham St, Central, 852 2525 9808.
A huge success since opening in January 2011, this wine bar focuses on a range of 90 labels from 22 wineries, brought in from estates across California, including Alegria and Bonneau Wines. The winemakers themselves visit regularly, hosting tastings and showcasing new vintages and special bott-lings. The team that put the concept together has the right pedigree: one founding partner is Susan Darwin, who worked for accountancy firm Price Waterhouse in the US, heading up its Wine Industry Services Group, and providing financial due diligence to Robert Mondavi and Clos du Val, among others. She is joined by Ralph Roberts, the former chief operating officer of American Restaurant Group. Their corporate background is pleasingly absent here though, and the bar has a low-key feel, with high tables, plenty of natural oak, and wine bottles everywhere you look. The high-tech notes come with iPads on all tables, which are loaded with extensive information on the wineries and wine styles, and suggested food matches from the excellent menus, created by executive chef Kenji Yuen and sommelier Shin Chan, both Hong Kong natives who work alongside the Napa consulting chef, Richard Haake. Expect fresh West Coast favourites such as California tacos with baja fish and flatbread pizza with goat’s cheese. Prices are good too. “At first that was almost a drawback,” says Darwin. “We had to overcome the perception that the wines could not be as good as they are, because the prices were so reasonable. But we have a highly effective mechanism for getting these wines to our customers at fair prices, and there is no middle man.”
108 Hollywood Rd, Sheung Wan, 852 2525 3445.
There is a laid-back, open feel at this lovely neighbourhood cafe-bar, which offers menus on chalkboards, large wooden tables and a constant supply of fresh reading material to encourage lazy lunches. It also has a walk-in cheese room and Enomatic tasting machines. This was among the first of the new-breed of European-style bars along Hollywood Road, and its success is clear – besides its many imitators, the same owners now have seven branches of Classified across the city, from Stanley to Wan Chai. But the original, tucked away at the far end of the road in the Sheung Wan district, is still the best. Artisanal breads are baked on-site, complementing the artisanal cheeses, the gourmet coffees and teas, and the 1000-plus bottles of boutique wines. The wines are around one-third French, one-third Italian, and one-third Aust-ralian and New Zealand, with other regions showcased regularly. Not content with that, the group also owns The Press Room restaurant next door, which has more of a bistro feel, and still offers one of the best wine lists in the city (it has 24 different Champagnes, just for starters).
Ming Court, Langham Place
Level 6, 555 Shanghai St, Mong Kok, 852 3552 3300.
Increasingly causing a stir for his innovative approach to food and wine matching, somm-elier Zachary Yu works alongside chef Tsang Chiu King, and has shaken things up a little since his arrival in 2011. Over on Kowloon side, in the busy area of Mong Kok, the wine list at this two-star Michelin restaurant has over 400 references from 16 countries and 90 regions, with everything detailed on iPad wine lists. “In a typical Chinese meal, you use your chopsticks to reach food from the centre of the table, sharing it with friends,” says Yu. “So the idea of reaching through the usual sea of wine glasses was crazy. Instead, I chose to switch things round. The clients decide on the wine first, and we then match the food to the styles they have selected.” The wines change regularly, and each one, in every vintage, is tasted to ensure that the seasonal flavours of the food are balanced and complemented. “For me, the most flexible wines with Cantonese food are Loire whites, or perhaps viognier and syrah from the Rhône. But we are always discovering new combinations that work.” To give customers ideas, every evening Yu opens three or four bottles of wine for sampling, keeping the bottles in the impressive glass-fronted Ming Cellar and encouraging people to walk in and try them. And he will of course suggest pairings if anyone gets stuck – or they can consult the iPad, where each dish has a recommended glass. Coupled with the delicate, beautifully pres-ented food, this is a truly fantastic experience, but it does come with Michelin-starred prices, so be prepared.
18 Shelly St, Soho, Central, 852 2525 1660.
Another stop off the Mid-Levels escalator, this recently opened (December 2010) saké bar and robatayaki restaurant specialises in food cooked over an open fire known as a robata grill. Chef Andre L’Herminier deftly arranges Japanese favourites including gyoza, tempura and yakitori with wider Asian touches, such as Korean spices on braised spare ribs, or Thai lemon-grass paste on tiger prawns. Alongside the menu is a range of saké, shochu, wines and beers from Japan and elsewhere. One of the best tasting options is a pairing of four different sakés that are matched to various sweet and savoury dishes to reveal just how varied and subtle this rice wine can be. The extensive menu grades the 30 types on offer according to flavour, from light and fruity to complex and fragrant. Most can be served either hot or cold, and almost all are made by boutique family-run producers. Among the best on offer are the fragrant Taiko Kurokabe Daiginjo-shu and the crisp Fukumitsuya Momotose Junmai-shu. Or try a sparkling version with the Rihaku Caro Rosé Saké. The menu also offers other Japanese spirits, including Shochu (distilled from barley or sweet potato) and Awamori (distilled from Thai rice), and a range of premium Japanese whiskys. There are tables for sitting down, and some private booths, but the long, sleek bar is definitely the best spot, because you want to be within easy talking distance of the excellent, knowledgeable bar staff and sommeliers. There are even cocktail classes on offer each third Saturday of the month.
The 8th Estate
Room 306, 3/F Harbour Industrial Centre, 10 Lee Hing St, Ap Lei Chau, Hong Kong, 852 2518 0922.
Showing the breadth of the wine offering in Hong Kong, this urban winery was created by Canadian Lysanne Tusar in late 2008. Named after the Chinese lucky number eight, the company imports frozen grapes immediately upon harvest and turns them into wine in the unlikely setting of a former industrial estate in Aberdeen, on the South Side of Hong Kong Island. Two winemakers, French Remy Sibony and Australian-Chinese Eddie MacDougall, source the majority of their grapes from Australia, New Zealand and the US, visiting the producers in person. The frozen grapes are then brought in, thawed, and the winemaking process takes place exactly as it would anywhere else, being finished off by ageing in French and American barrels. It might have been a leap of faith starting this in a city that is more usually about high-end French wines, but The 8th Estate has struck a chord. “We sold over 25,000 bottles from our first two vintages,” says Tusar. “And we keep the quality high by not committing to grapes until harvest, when we are certain how they have worked out.” Their most asked-for styles, so far, have been a Bordeaux blend from Washington State, and a shiraz-viognier from McLaren Vale and Clare Valley. “But I fully expect to see white varieties becoming more popular, particularly sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.” For visitors, there is the option of a cust-om barrel, where clients can select the style of wine, and attend blending sessions, or there are simpler public tastings of wines held every Saturday.
31 Staunton St, Central, 852 2526 8858.
The latest urban winery comes from Steve Jaray, another Canadian who has relocated to Hong Kong from Oregon, and is located in Tsuen Wan, Kowloon. This 40,000 square foot winery differs from The 8th Estate in that it distils spirits, brandy and fruit liqueurs as well as making wine. The traditional copper stills and large stainless-steel vats work fruit and grapes that arrive from various destinations, including Australia, Italy, the US, and China. The master winemaker here is Andrew Powley, a New Zealander who has spent much of his professional life working in vineyards both at home and in Europe. Their stated aim is to sell much of the annual production to China, but they have been smart enough to also open an easily accessible wine bar on Staunton Street, a short walk from the Mid-Levels escalator. This cosy space, with barrels lined along one side, offers tastings of their products, and also the raw materials – in October last year, you could taste the Oregon Bartlett pears as they had just been pressed. “We’re right in the middle of the biggest wine market in the world, so it’s to our advantage that we’re here,” Jaray told a local TV station at the opening. “And there is plenty of premium fruit on our doorstep. Raspberries from Yantai in Shandong province are some of the finest I’ve seen.”
Tastings Wine Bar
Basement, Yuen Yick Building, 27-29 Wellington St, Central, 852 2523 6282.
This popular bar has been open since 2008, but remains one of the best places to just hang out and explore a wide range of labels, 200 at last count, many kept fresh in the Enomatic machines that are becoming a staple around here. “Providing small tasting sizes encourages customers to sample more wines than they normally would, and means we can stock some unusual grapes that might be a hard sell by the bottle,” says manager Charlene Dawes. “And it allows them to get away from the well-known big names that have dominated the wine scene for a while.” Customers can expect to pay anything from HK$15 (A$1.85) up to HK$1000 (A$123) for glasses that range from 25ml tasting samples to 150ml pours. You’ll find Château Margaux or Château Haut-Brion next to smaller up-and-coming estates from the Rhône, Margaret River and Oregon. Besides the wine, there is a good selection of tasting platters of hams, cheeses and other tapas-style grazers. “We have 40 wines on rotation in the machines at any one time,” says Dawes, “and we are cont-inually changing what is on offer.” Two staples, however, will always be found, because their customers demand them: Penfolds Grange, in a variety of vintages, and a gewürztraminer from Alsace. “People love the aroma of lychee on the nose, and the fact that it’s approachable while still having complexity. That’s what we try to do – make wine approachable; not intimidating.”
Crown Wine Cellars
18 Deep Water Bay Dr, Shouson Hill, Hong Kong Island, 852 2580 6287.
This impressive wine-storage facility is technically for member’s only, however, every third Saturday of the month it opens its doors for public visits, which are well worth taking up (during November’s Wine and Dine Month, it is open more frequently, so call ahead to check). The cellars opened in 2003, and are today used by all the major collectors and auction houses in the region. A tour will take you through the tunnels of this former British military bunker, built in 1937. Although you won’t get to see them all, there are six tunnels in total, 18 metres underground, accessed by 12-metre-long passages closed off by air-locked doors, one-metre thick concrete walls and 3.5 metres of concrete on the roof. They now house one of Asia’s most high-tech facilities, holding many millions of dollars worth of wine. Be nice to the guide on the tour, and you might just be able to coax out an invite to the Tuesday Night Wine Club, where members meet up to swap bottles and talk with visiting winemakers. But even if that’s not possible, a one-day membership will give you access to the clubhouse restaurant and bar, which is located a little further up the hill from the cellars, and has both an attractive glass conservatory dining room, and a British-style bar tucked out the back.
Lok Man Rare Books
6 Chancery Ln, Central, 852 2868 1056.
A slightly more unusual stop for wine lovers, this antique book store has an extensive collection of rare food and wine publications, many dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Almost all are first edition, and many are signed. This is an interesting side to the upswing in wine culture in Hong Kong – as more and more wine cellars get filled with the biggest châteaux names, the truly disc-erning collectors want to showcase their knowledge in different ways. A first edition of Andre Simon’s The Wine Connoisseur’s Catechism, or a signed copy of Ralph Steadman’s The Grapes of Ralph just might do the trick. Owner Lorence Johnston opened the book store around five years ago, and while finding it is a serious trick in itself (look out for a tiny, vertiginous back street near Hollywood Road), it is well worth the trek. And if your timing is really lucky, Johnston hosts intimate wine evenings several times a year, where one or two choice bottles will be opened, often in the presence of visiting authors or winemakers.
WORDS JANE ANSON PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY HONG KONG TOURISM BOARD
This article is from the April/May 2012 issue of Gourmet Traveller WINE.