Hong Kong: Red obsessionBy Lucy Shaw
While whites are starting to be taken seriously in Hong Kong restaurants, the city is still seeing red, with Bordeaux continuing to steal hearts.
“THE HONG wine scene is where London was 10-15 years ago,” declares Master Sommelier Yohann Jousselin over lunch at Petrus restaurant up in the clouds on the 56th floor of the Island Shangri-La hotel in HK’s business district, Pacific Place. Jousselin has been head sommelier at the hotel for the last year, having moved from gambling Mecca Macau where he was in charge of wine at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. He makes insightful comparisons between Hong Kong and Macau, describing the former as light-years ahead of the latter in terms of wine buying habits and education.
“Macau is still in a Bordeaux bubble. I was selling €10,000 bottles of wine every three weeks there. It’s a very different market to Hong Kong. People in Macau have crazy spending power. It’s still very French driven there and diners go for the big names,” he reveals, adding that mainland China is even more backwards than Macau, with drinkers favouring grain spirit Maotai to wine. Having worked for a decade in the UK, Jousselin found the Bordeaux obsession and unwillingness to experiment in Macau a source of frustration. “The market is very polarised; it’s all or nothing, there’s no middle ground,” he laments.
Back in Hong Kong, tastes are moving beyond Bordeaux. Having swotted up on wine, consumers are increasingly keen to explore lesser known French regions and varieties. “People are starting to discover the smaller wine regions. Consumers are on a learning curve and are seeking out better value, lesser known wineries and experimenting with grapes like Grüner Veltliner,” says Jousselin, who is keen to stamp his signature on the Shangri-La’s wine offering at the hotel’s eight restaurants in order to “make a name” for himself in the city.
Quick to make an impression, Jousselin helped Petrus scoop the Best Wine List prize at the Hong Kong Tatler Restaurant Awards earlier this year.
At 2,000 bins, Petrus boasts one of the largest wine lists in the city, which includes 30 different vintages of each of the five first growths. Jousselin has expanded its namesake Petrus offering to 50 vintages spanning from 1928 to 2007, with 15 available by-the-glass via Coravin. “We were the first restaurant in Hong Kong to use Coravin. I offer 30 wines by-the-glass on it, including Talbot 1989 and Cos d’Estournel 1986,” he enthuses. “It adds a lovely element of theatre. While we have a big list, the wines do move as we offer fair mark-ups – just last night I sold a bottle of Latour 1990 and Cheval Blanc 1955.”
Realising that wine critic Robert Parker still has a huge influence over buying decisions in Hong Kong, Jousselin created the “Parker” list at the hotel’s Cantonese restaurant Summer Palace featuring a selection of wines that scored 96-100 Parker points. “It works really well as a reference point, particularly with Chinese men,” says Jousselin, who admits that the role of the sommelier as wine advisor is less important and impactful in Hong Kong than other key international cities as the majority of diners, particularly male guests, have a fixed idea of what they want to order, largely fuelled by a desire to save face. Seeking a sommelier’s advice is akin to demonstrating a lack of knowledge in Hong Kong, so the practice is largely avoided, much to Jousselin’s frustration. Another challenge he has encountered is how to successfully pair wine with Cantonese food. “Traditionally with Cantonese cuisine, a load of different dishes arrive at the same time and there are so many aromas and flavours going on it’s incredibly hard to find a wine that suits them all,” he says.
Keen to use the “safety net” of Coravin to its full advantage, Jousselin offers a flight of 50ml measures of various vintages of the five first growths for HK$3,500 (£295) which is already proving popular. He has also launched a series of fine wine dinners at Petrus for the lucky few that can afford them. With places laid out for just ten guests, Jousselin’s “icon” wine nights cost HK$18,000 (£1,520) a pop and feature 10 wines from different châteaux and vintages from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“If you’re ambitious in Hong Kong and experiment with new ideas, then they tend to work. At one of the dinners we served La Tâche 1978, at another we poured Mouton ’82, Latour ’82 and ’94 Petrus. There’s nothing else like it in Hong Kong. The tickets sell out in hours. We limit it to 10 guests as we want to keep it exclusive,” he reveals.
Following London and New York’s lead rather than setting trends, Hong Kong remains a red-obsessed city, with Bordeaux and Burgundy continuing to steal headlines and win hearts. “There’s a big market for Burgundy and California Cabernet in Hong Kong. The city is still red-focused but things are changing. The Chinese drink more Champagne than white wine – the big names like Krug and Dom Pérignon are gaining recognition, but it’s only a matter of time before we get Chinese people drinking white wine,” believes Jousselin, who sources a lot of his wines, including Petrus, direct in order to save money and list them for less.
Handily, the owner of the Shangri-La, Robert Kuok, also owns Hong Kong- based importer Kerry Wines, which makes most wines relatively easy to source. “The exciting thing is that the Hong Kong market is evolving all the time, so you have the ability to influence it and change it quickly. The only problem is that the wines can take up to three months to arrive,” Jousselin admits.
Yvonne Cheung, director of wine for the Swire Hotels group, which includes The Upper House and East in Hong Kong, believes the breadth of the wine offering in the city has improved immeasurably since the removal of wine duty in 2008.
“There’s so much more variety to the Hong Kong wine scene now. A lot of restaurants have upped their game and are offering labels from Greece, New York and Slovenia. People are thinking through their lists more and offerings have become much more focused,” she says, adding, “Restaurant-goers are a lot savvier here than they used to be – you’ll often find people Googling wines on a list to see if they are fairly priced or not.”
Cheung is sorry to report that an interest in her beloved Rhône has yet to take off in the city despite the quality of the wines on offer. Like Jousselin, she has yet to witness drinkers embracing white wines in the same way as reds. “The Hong Kong on-trade remains incredibly red driven, reflected in the fact that there is still no word for “white wine” in Chinese. People do drink white but they don’t really take it seriously – even white Burgundy – it’s viewed more as an apéritif than something to drink during a meal,” she says. On the red front, Cheung finds Burgundy “prohibitively expensive” in HK restaurants, with village wines now costing upwards of HK$1,000 (£85) a bottle on a list.
“Bordeaux at least has the volume for us to be able to offer good vintages of lesser châteaux, which can be a great deal for diners. The price of Burgundy is forcing consumers to be more adventurous in their wine choices, which is a good thing,” she says. But while diners may be venturing outside of Bordeaux and Burgundy to Italy and Spain, the majority have yet to explore New World countries like New Zealand, Chile and Argentina, preferring instead to put their trust in traditional Old World wine regions. In a bid to lure them out of their comfort zone, Cheung has started offering a selection of wines by the glass from all over the world, allowing for experimentation without the commitment of a full bottle purchase. “I don’t mark them up too much as the whole point is to encourage consumers to try things they wouldn’t usually go for and open their eyes to different regions,” she insists.
Spanish wines are finding their place in the Hong Kong on-trade, fuelled by the Spanish restaurant boom that swept through the city a few years ago, bringing fountains of Iberian wine with it. Led by the likes of Jason Atherton’s Ham & Sherry and 22 Ships, Iberico, Catalyuna and new fine dining venue Vasco, this trendy troop are helping to flag up Spain’s velvety reds and zippy whites to clued up, curious Hong Kong diners keen to free themselves from the Bordeaux bubble. “The on-trade push has raised opportunities for Spanish brands and importers,” believes James Rowell, corporate & VIP sales director at Altaya Wines. “You can’t move for people selling ham sliced off the leg; it’s become very popular in Hong Kong. There’s a lot of mileage to be gained in promoting Spanish wine with Spanish cuisine.”
Another niche area attracting attention is grower Champagne in a battle being fought almost single handedly by passionate French sommelier Nicolas Deneux of ON Dining Kitchen & Lounge in Hong Kong’s Central district. In addition to pairing wines to head chef Philippe Orrico’s Mediterranean cuisine, Deneux works closely with general manager Jeremy Evrard on grower Champagne and cheese pairings, which sounds perfectly pedestrian to a London audience but is nothing short of radical in Hong Kong, as the concept of a cheese board is alien to many Chinese diners.
“We’ve managed to change people’s perceptions about cheese. Our Chinese diners used to hate it so much it gave them goose bumps as it’s not in their culture to eat it and they don’t like the strong smell. Now we have people coming in for cheese and Champagne at 1am and they love it,” Deneux reveals.
Keen to champion the small players, 65% of Deneux’s 400-bin list is French, with regions like the Loire, Alsace, Jura, the Rhône and Provence given equal airtime as Bordeaux and Burgundy. The restaurant also boasts the most comprehensive selection of grower Champagnes in Hong Kong. “We’ve carved a niche for our more unusual wines – it’s the same with our cheeses. Hong Kong needed somewhere like this. I like drinking a place not a cellar,” says Deneux. Like Jousselin, he sources a large number of his wines direct from the châteaux in order to cut out the middle man and lists the wines at a fair mark-up, which is often less than double the retail price for the top wines – a bottle of 1984 La Tâche recently sold at the restaurant for HK$24,000 (£2,025); cheaper than you’ll find it at a lot of retailers.
Deneux also goes direct when he can in order to guarantee both provenance and mint condition. “Buying well in Hong Kong isn’t easy. There’s a temptation to buy everything that’s put in front of you but many of the wines that end up in the city have been around the world five times. It’s a circus here – you have to pick the right people to work with as the grey market is very powerful,” he warns.
He is however, hugely optimistic about the future of the Hong Kong wine market, predicting that it will mature at a rapid rate. “The market is as exciting as San Francisco and Melbourne now. The interest in grower Champagne is just starting, but will need another five years to really take off,” he admits, adding, “It’s a duty of restaurants to create their own niches – we need to be setting the trends, not following them.”