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Hong Kong By the Glass

Fred Ferretti, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo / November 2012

A biennial wine trade fair brings a unique perspective to wine pairing, and even production, in Asia.

It was oddly pleasant, if a bit unusual, to be sitting in a latticed booth of Yè Shanghai, one of Hong Kong’s finer restaurants, eating crispy, fried sweetened river eels and drinking a Côtes du Fleuve Jaune du Désert de Gobi from the Hansen vineyards of Inner Mongolia, yet it was our particular way of participating in the enveloping wine frenzy that grips this city every two years.

Every two years Vinexpo vacates its Bordeaux terroir and moves en masse to Hong Kong to stir Asia’s wine pot. And stir it does. Since 1998 Vinexpo Asia-Pacific has held expositions in the Far East, a region that imports, tastes, makes, buys, and drinks wines in enormous quantities.

The numbers astound. An annual survey by the Inter­national Wine & Spirit Research group for Vinexpo de­ter­mined that Hong Kong’s average adult consumption of five liters a year each is the highest in Asia, more than twice the average in Japan and Singapore. The survey also found that China has replaced the United Kingdom as the fifth largest consumer of wines, last year buying 56.19 million nine-liter cases.

Hong Kong, its eye always on business and more business, has become the hub of Asia’s wine trade as well. Ever since it eliminated import and export duties on wines in 2008—going from 40 percent to zero overnight—Hong Kong has become ideal for shippers to not only ship to, but to transship through. This enactment made Hong Kong a haven for wine entrepreneurs, initially European, later for winemakers from Australia, New Zealand, and the United States as well. Since 2008, it has become a haven for wine investors’ liquid assets, literally with high security wine vault storage spaces popping up, and financially with investment funds dedicated solely to wines (particularly Bordeaux and Burgundies). The rowdy days of Château Margaux with ice and cola are long gone, while sleek businessmen have stepped in with an eye to wine as a tradeable commodity on the stock market—there to be bought, carefully stored, and sold at a premium a few years down the road.

These days the major auction houses, such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Zachys, Bonhams, and Acker Merrall & Condit, hold regular, periodic wine auctions, often timing sales to precede or coincide with Vinexpo. WineBid.com offers weekly sales on the Internet. A few days before the opening of the convention this year, the South China Morning Post published an 80-page giveaway magazine, Wine+, and sponsored a walk-around tasting of more than 100 2009 Bordeaux.

Among Vinexpo’s more than a thousand exhibitors was the eye-catching “8 Bordeaux Wine Box,” consisting of Mouton-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Lafite-Rothschild, Haut-Brion, Ausone, Cheval Blanc, and Yquem. Surrounding them, through the milling crowds, there were Italy’s “Big Three Bs”—Barolo, Brunello, and Barbaresco—as well as displays across the wine world. In all, 28 countries were represented, including Chinese winemakers such as Dynasty, Great Wall, Yantai, Grace Vineyard, and Kweichow Moutai.

To add spice to the three-day convention, restaurateurs, chefs, and winemakers created food-and-wine matches in Hong Kong restaurants. One notable effort was held by the Hall Winery of Napa Valley, which wedded its 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, stylishly reminiscent of New Zealand’s best, with a modern Cantonese dish of sea urchin, scallops, and steamed egg whites at Yan Toh Heen in the InterContinental Hong Kong hotel, one of the city’s best.

Vinexpo, to be sure, is in the business of selling wine, and each time it alights in Hong Kong it finds a city eager to embrace it. For three days, Vinexpo opened its doors to more than 14,000 visitors who tasted at will, using 75,000 glasses each day. It’s likely to need more glasses in 2014.