Nine o’clock on a stormy Monday evening is not exactly peak hour for Hong Kong nightlife, but at indie wine bar Shady Acres, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was 11pm on a Friday. The place is packed with drinkers of all ages, flicking through smartly illustrated and unintimidating lists of wines, all at refreshingly fair price points. More than 200 different labels, bottles to take home and not one but two happy hours have made it the hottest spot to get your grape on.
But it wasn’t always so. Hong Kong’s wine lovers have historically faced a whopping 80 per cent duty on wine, making a bottle a considerably pricey treat. Happily, however, in 2008 the tax was abolished, heralding the start of a rapid trajectory that has turned the city into Asia’s undisputed wine hub. Acting largely as an export gateway to Mainland China, total wine imports last year reached almost HK$11.95 billion, up from HK$2.86 billion 10 years prior.
The positive impact of the tax abolition wasn’t so immediate for amateur wine fans. If, like me, you’d expected to walk into your local in 2008 and notice an instant drop in the price of your favourite Pinot Noir or Riesling, you’d generally have been disappointed. What the tax break did do, however, was increase both the demand for and the variety of wines available in the city. It also brought about a huge surge in wine business and culture, from sommeliers to marketers, merchants to festivals.
Companies like Certa Wines, founded by Keti Mazzi along with her two business partners, the renowned winemakers Federico Ceretto and Alberto Tasca, have also flourished in the new environment. As Mazzi explains, Certa has successfully uncorked Asia Pacific markets for a number of Italian wineries including Sicily’s Regaleali Estate, Argiolas from Sardinia and Abruzzo’s Valle Reale.
‘Hong Kong is Asia’s wine hub and we saw a great opportunity to introduce new varieties of Italian grapes as people were starting to look for new things,’ says Mazzi. ‘At the time, it was an immature market but I really saw the future for special Italian wines, as Italy is a very complex wine country with a lot of diversity. Today you can’t just talk about a bottle of Italian wine; you need to tell the story behind the label, the experience.’
Few people can tell the story of a bottle like a Master of Wine, one of the ultimate industry accolades, currently held by only 382 people around the world. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Sarah Heller is one of four Masters of Wine in the city, all of whom, incidentally, are women. For her, the benefits that the city’s drinkers have seen since the abolition of taxes include greater diversity and access.
‘The market used to be almost exclusively high-end – mainly Bordeaux – or low-end, but the tax-free status brought in a huge number of passionate suppliers with much more diversity, including new world and natural wines,’ she says. ‘Another change is that consumers can easily order wine from overseas, so they can access globally competitive pricing if they’re willing to do a bit of research.’
She adds that online sales have also developed comparatively new wine demographics. Young female consumers in Mainland China, for example, have driven niche trends towards sweet and lower-alcohol wine. As to options for cracking open a bottle – or two – restaurants have also had to up their game.
‘They’ve had to become much more creative to get people to order wine because otherwise collectors will simply BYO, so we’ve seen much more dynamic wine programmes develop,’ says Heller.
Those at the frontline of a restaurant’s wine programme are of course the sommeliers, and Hong Kong is fortunate to boast some of the world’s best.
Derek Li is group sommelier of JIA Group of restaurants and has about 1,000 wines at his disposal, approximately 150 of which can be ordered by the glass. Li agrees that wine drinkers in Hong Kong are increasingly adventurous, reflected by the growth in boutique wines from lesser-known wine countries. ‘People are very open-minded and a lot of them are happy to explore wines outside their comfort zone,’ he says.
Li is also responsible for some creative and unusual pairings, including one at Duddell’s Cantonese restaurant in Central. ‘Braised South African abalone pairs with Radikon Jakot, an orange wine from Friuli in Italy,’ he says. ‘Orange wine is still quite rare in Hong Kong, especially in a Chinese restaurant. It’s a white wine that undergoes skin contact to extract a deeper colour, full of umami with a hint of tannic structure and lively acidity, which helps enhance the freshness of abalone.’
Arnaud Bardary hails from France’s Jura region and heads up the wine programme for Hong Kong’s Black Sheep Restaurants group, which includes Belon, Ho Lee Fook and New Punjab Club – the first Pakistani restaurant ever to win a Michelin star. Punjabi flavours in particular pose a challenge when it comes to matching wines.
‘Lamb biryani goes with Capellania white Rioja, where the wine’s intensity makes a perfect balance. Likewise Pillitteri Riesling ice wine from Canada with mango, where both enhance each other’s flavours in an outstanding pairing,’ says Bardary.
The beauty is that, since the abolition of tax in 2008, Hong Kong’s wine market has diversified and grown so that all the wines recommended have never been easier to source or taste. To which there’s really only one thing to do – raise a glass.
Top 5 Hong Kong Wine Bars
Le Bistro WineBeast
Great value vintages are on the menu at this Wan Chai wine bar popular with French expats and other wine fans, with takeaway bottles available, too.
The Landmark Mandarin Oriental is home to this beautifully designed spot where 1,600 labels are matched to stellar plates.
Proudly French, this tiny Soho space gets filled with passionate wine fans enjoying the range of organic and natural wines.
James Suckling Wine Central
Only wines rated 90 or above by the famed wine critic make the cut at this spot, with 450 wines available by the glass and 500 by the bottle .
Steak House Winebar, Intercontinental
Choose from 480 wines accompanied by stunning harbour views and serious cuts of meat that pair well with big, bold reds at the Steak House.