The following article written by me first appeared on the Sommelier India Wine Magazine website here.
Hong Kong is many things: a modern city steeped in history, a gateway to greater China, a free port, a trading hub, and a culinary destination. Its aspiration though is to be the ‘wine hub’ of Asia. Is it already there? That depends on how a wine hub is defined. For many, Japan remains Asia’s most sophisticated wine market. But Hong Kong is becoming famous for setting wine records – usually related to high-prices fetched for wine at auctions.
Another record was set in Hong Kong last week – the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair became the largest international wine event in Asia. The numbers are impressive – 930 exhibitors, nearly 40,000 visitors (of whom 19,000 were trade buyers and the remainder were mostly members of the public). More impressive though is the pace at which the fair has achieved this scale – the inaugural edition was held just 4 years back in 2008. That’s also the year in which Hong Kong abolished import duties on wine.
Almost every major and emerging wine-making country was represented among the exhibitors – including India. In a sign of the times, these mostly Western exhibitors were all aggressively courting Asian buyers. Most were in Hong Kong as a part of a larger swing through mainland China and other Asian countries. As the partner country for the show, Italy had the dominant presence – both in the number of exhibitors and in terms of the overall program. Michelin-starred Italian chefs cooked up the meal for the 450-people pre-plated gala dinner. They also added flavour to the Italian pavilion in the main exhibition by showing-off Italian ingredients and running live cooking demos as part of a cooking theater.
If the flavour of the show was Italian, the colour was definitely red. Though numbers are hard to come by, I would guess that at least 80-85% of the wines at the exhibition were red. Most producers, even those who make stellar whites, put the focus on showcasing their red wines. Some of these exhibitors were surprised when I asked to start with tasting their whites. This, of course, is a bow to the Hong Kong market – which is obsessed with Grand Cru red Bordeaux. Wine shops in Hong Kong (including the airport duty free) were overflowing with Grand Cru Bordeaux wines. Wines from other regions were no more than an afterthought. Can a city be so fixated on one region (and colour) and still be a wine hub?
The Indian grape Processing Board sponsored the India pavilion once again – affording Indian wineries the subsidized opportunity to participate in the exhibition. Only three wineries (Chateau Indage, Reveilo and Luca Wines) took advantage of the offer. Each of them reported some success, proving that Indian wine can be sold even in China and other Asian countries. Dr. JP Gupta of Luca wines gushed about an order from a Japanese buyer for a container of Lychee wine. Yatin Patil of Reveilo was more restrained – reporting small orders from individual wine shops and restaurants, and interest from buyers from Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Australia.
Hong Kong is a great city to visit – it’s close to India, compact, easy enough to navigate and the cabs are fairly inexpensive. The Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre (HKCEC) is spectacularly located right on the water – and not far from Central Hong Kong. Commuting to the fair was relatively quick and easy – an absolute contrast to the nightmare of battling crawling traffic to get from distant suburban hotels to trade fair venues at Vinitaly or Prowein. For Indian importers (who were largely absent) this fair is a great alternative to the European fairs. The biggest attraction though is not in the fairgrounds – it is the streets of Hong Kong which are host to an incomparable wine and food scene. Even if an even bigger fair does not draw me back in the future, the Cantonese cuisine surely will.