Hong Kong wine


A taste of Hong Kong’s booming wine industry David Whitley finds that quirky new wine sampling bars are changing Hong Kong’s bar scene 


The gimmicky blue table has brought out the inner child. It’s like being in a science museum all over again, tongue lolling in concentration as buttons are pressed and switches are fiddled with.


This particular piece of touch-screen whizzbangery, however, is for educating adults, not children.   The sliders control factors such as acidity and fruitiness; the ultimate aim being to find a wine you love. Identify a contender, and another finger-jab conjures detailed tasting notes. It’s a very Hong Kong take on wine tasting. 


Amo Eno was a serendipitous find. As any forlorn pedestrian in Hong Kong will know, there’s a huge difference between working out where A and B are on a map and getting to either. Finding the right exit to a sprawling shopping centre is an art form. But take a wrong turn on the third floor of the giant IFC Mall and this little shop of sparkling glasses and decanters is easily missed. 


Opened in December, Amo Eno is among a new crop of innovative wine bar-shop hybrids popping up on Hong Kong Island. The marriage of wine and technology is its obvious distinction, but there’s a strong emphasis on education, too. The Enomatic dispensing machines along the walls pour wines sourced from around the world, including Morocco, Slovenia and Uruguay, in precise volumes between 25ml and 150ml. The drops range from bargain finds to premium vintages and the cost of each sample is deducted from a pre-paid card. 


The clever bit is that card is linked to the hypergadgety tasting tables. If you’re taken with a particular wine, you can use them in tandem to research the source and vinting history in more detail, save the research for future reference, and share on Facebook or Twitter. 


A similar disregard for the fusty old way of tasting wine is applied at the Flying Winemaker in Lan Kwai Fong. It has a darkened, secret-session-in-the-back-room-among-friends vibe, and an enthusiastic mateyness that seems to flow freely between staff and clients. It’s the new flagship store of Eddie McDougall, the man who through canny self-publicity and an upcoming TV series is positioning himself as Hong Kong’s go-to celebrity winemaker. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Australia, McDougall worked with many of Victoria’s top wine makers before setting up his own label, UMAMI, in the King Valley.  He returned to Hong Kong in 2009 as chief winemaker for what was then Hong Kong’s only winery, the 8th Estate. 


This timing neatly coincided with Hong Kong’s overnight emergence as Asia’s major wine trading centre.  Wine imported to Hong Kong was subject to a whopping 80 per cent duty before February 2008, when all tax on wine imports was abolished, making Hong Kong the only ‘‘free’’ wine port among the world’s major economies. Within four years Hong Kong has surpassed the US, Britain, France and Japan to become the world’s wine auction capital. McDougall spotted the opportunity.  “The future of the wine industry exists in Asian consumers,” he says. “So it’s important to establish myself at a young age to be a leader in the industry.” 


While many of the wine bars established after the 2008 changes were high on price, pretence and prestige imports from old-world vineyards, the Flying Winemaker is trying to do something different. “People [here] are too focused on French, French, French ... There are so many great regions that are unexplored and people are not educated enough yet,’’ McDougall says. “I’m sick of high-end, first-growth Bordeaux and the likes ... I’m looking for the modern art equivalents from Australian, South Africa and Portugal.” 


This crusading spirit infuses regular WineSkool classes held at the Flying Winemaker. The textbooks are thrown out; the emphasis is on interaction and the idea is drilled in that it’s perfectly acceptable to drink wine out of a plastic cup. The final stop on our amble around Hong Kong’s new wine innovators is Portrait, in the Soho district of Hong Kong Island. “It’s not a bar or a shop,” insists Steven de Jaray, the Canadian entrepreneur behind the venture. “It’s a tasting room.” All the wines served there are made by Portrait out at Tsuen Wan in the New Territories. It’s Hong Kong’s second winery, and it’s already winning awards. 


Hong Kong is roughly as suited to viticulture as Alaska is to growing bananas, so Portrait imports grapes from selected growers around the world and produces wine in Hong Kong. Another major legislative change has made this operation blindingly logical. The Closer Economic Partnership Agreement means that products substantially made in Hong Kong can be imported into mainland China without duty. Thus, wine made in Hong Kong has a massive advantage in the ballooning Chinese market. It doesn’t take long after sauntering into Portrait’s tasting room for glasses to appear and be filled.  


Their award-winning Farmgirl Syrah rosé is the highlight of seven-wine range currently served. The experimental attitude extends to the rather attention-grabbing copper still in the corner. On weekend evening, it is used for distilling demonstrations – Portrait also makes raspberry and lychee brandies. The barman pulls out an unlabelled glass bottle. “Would you like to try the pear brandy?” he asks. “I made this on Thursday. The formula’s not done yet, but it’s worth a try.” 


He’s right, it is. In Hong Kong’s new raft of experimental wine bars, preening is out. Playing is in.


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