Hong Kong has a very dynamic wine event scene throughout the year. In addition to the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair and Hong Kong Wine & Dine Festival organized by the government annually, many local wine merchants host various wine events to cater for the thirst of their consumers. Numerous foreign wine regions are also jumping on the trend and organizing more on- and off-trade events to introduce their wines to Hong Kong consumers. Spoiled by the variety of choices, how are the palates of Hong Kong people shaped by all these wine tastings?
Bordeaux was one of the first wine regions to enter the Hong Kong market. The historical background of being a British colony, and coupled with the ubiquitous Robert Parker points, it is not difficult to imagine that Hong Kong wine culture still largely revolves around Bordeaux. According to the report of Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) in 2016, France took up over 60% of the city’s wine imports. Usually marketed as a high-end and sophisticated lifestyle product, French wines– particularly Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne– enjoy long-term recognition and respect in the territory. This strong French preference along with wider misconceptions toward wines from other countries further hinders consumers from exploring new wine regions. For instance, it is not uncommon to hear that wines with screw-cap closure are considered inferior, and new world wine producers “use more sulfur” leading to headaches the next morning. Stephen Mack, a veteran wine educator from Asia Wine Service & Education Centre (AWSEC), observed that daily drinking is rare in Hong Kong culture. Deep Chinese traditional thinking advises against regular alcohol consumption, which contrasts aspects of western culture that treats wine as a social lubricant and a complimentary beverage to pair with meals. As a result, people generally focus on festive and occasional consumption and usually opt for a bottle of Bordeaux, which is well recognized by everyone and considered superior.
Other wine regions, nevertheless, have ambitions to expand their business in this Asian wine hub, especially after the removal of wine tax in 2008. Non-French wine producers started to carry out revitalisation projects to improve the image of their wines. For example, Jeannie Cho Lee MW, a Hong Kong-based Master of Wine, and Eduardo Chadwick of Viña Errazuriz hosted The Berlin Tasting in Hong Kong, showing the high quality of Chilean wines by presenting it alongside top Bordeaux in the 2010 blind tasting. Consulates and generic bodies are joining the trend to introduce wines from their countries through creative wine events. Following a 37% increase in German wine imports from 2010 to 2014, Riesling Weeks was launched in 2013 to showcase the taste and versatility of German Riesling to the local market. Tersina Shieh, the organiser behind the month-long campaign, set out to promote the wines to a more general public. “People are afraid of talking about wines due to the lack of knowledge.” With her very down to earth philosophy, she hosted the series of German tasting events, with a ticket price equivalent to a couple of beers. Famous German producers including: Dr. Loosen, Max Richter, Gunderloch among others gathered to present their Rieslings to local consumers. “If people have fun and enjoy the wines, they will spread the words and come back next year.” Ultimately, she wants to develop a diversified palate among Hong Kong consumers with a open-minded approach to drive the market away from Bordeaux domination. “Wines should be for everyone.” She concluded.
The French, however, are not giving up their stronghold on the market. Consulate General of France organizes month long events: Le French May and Le French GourMay to promote French culture, together with wines and culinary arts of the country, aiming to expand the wine appreciation to art enthusiasts and thus converting more French-wine lovers.
Domestic wine distributors are also busy with events throughout the year, but they are taking a different approach to broaden their clients’ wine tastes. Watson’s Wine is a leading wine specialist in Hong Kong with multiple on and off trade businesses. Jeremy Stockman, the General Manager of the company, encourages his suppliers from the same country to promote the wines of their origin in unison. In 2013 they organized the first tasting event with Australia’s First Families of Wine (AFFW) in Hong Kong. Headlined by Henschke, the event was crowded with 200 people. “People came for Henschke, which is already famous in the market, but they got the chance to try others and eventually purchase wines they didn’t know before.” Hosting more than a hundred consumer events per year, Jeremy explains that there is always a drawing card in their events but the attendants are often impressed at the end of the evening by the wines they never heard of before. “People trust Watson’s Wine and they know what we offer won’t be bad.” Consumers are attracted to the event by the big brands but at the end they have the chance to try something new and expand their palate. Taking advantage of the city’s vibrant gastronomic scene, the company also collaborates with trendy restaurants for wine-pairing dinners to convert food lovers into wine lovers.
Lastly, considering the wine industry is an important economy for Hong Kong, the government dedicates enormous support to promote wine culture. Over 1,000 exhibitors participated in Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair to receive 20,000 wine buyers around the world and 27,000 wine lovers with a number of themed tastings and masterclasses, with a highlight on Slovenian wines in 2016. The event exposed not only trade people but also serious wine connoisseurs to new wine regions. On the other hand, the more casual four-day Hong Kong Wine & Dine Festival attracted 140,000 people last year who are interested in wine and culinary culture. The four-day festival promotes wine culture, together with food, as a lifestyle product to develop the taste of the next generation and lay a foundation for the future wine market.
It would appear that letting people try more is the key but how is an important factor. Some event organisers employ a friendly and casual method to draw people to experience new wine regions; while some build on the accustomed taste of more seasoned wine drinkers of the city and encourage them to explore beyond the classics. With the increasing perception of wine being a lifestyle product, the market will no longer be one dimensional: wine lovers have more opportunities to encounter wines from different countries throughout the year with an array of well-organised events.
Graham Kwok was awarded The World of Fine Wine Scholarship in January 2017 for outstanding achievement in the WSET Level 3 exam. He is a Brand Marketing Manager at Watson’s Wine in Hong Kong.