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Asian grapevine

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 May, 2012, 12:00am
 

My first two great bottles of Sauternes were with the late Barry Burton. I was a new arrival in Hong Kong in early 1994, and my wine-savvy girlfriend, Rita Lim, introduced me to her circle of wine friends and private tasting groups. This included the Hong Kong Wine Society, which was, and remains, the most active blind-tasting group in Hong Kong.

Burton was the chairman of the society from 1983 onwards as well as being inducted as a regent of the Hong Kong chapter of the Commanderie de Bordeaux in 1989. He knew everyone there was to know in the world of wine, and everyone knew him. In June 2000, Decanter wrote a story about 10 people who spearheaded the dramatic Asian wine boom, and he was at the top of its list.

Burton was interested in anyone (but especially women) who showed a real enthusiasm for wine. Not long after I met him, Burton invited me to a lunch with his 'wine mates'. The four of us drank three bottles over lunch: a 1984 Guigal Cote Rotie La Landonne, a 1988 Rayas and a 1990 Rayas. It was a lunch of many firsts - my first Rayas with two great vintages that left me in awe, even though both were incredibly young, and my first La Landonne, which blew me away from the first sip.

By the time dessert came around, Burton was in the mood for a sweet wine, and he opened the gorgeous 1983 Chateau Rieussec. 'Pure creme caramel on the palate, sweet honey notes but not heavy,' I scribbled furiously in my notebook. 'An amazing sweet wine.'

'If you think that's good,' said Burton, 'then try this.' He opened the 1980 Yquem.

This was my very first taste of Yquem, and the bottle for me was sheer poetry. I had never tasted a sweet wine with such complexity, elegance and depth. I learned later that it was not a great year for Sauternes and not one of the best for Yquem, but I found magic in that bottle.

Burton was often testing me and would shove wines under my nose and say, 'What do you think that is? Come on, it's obvious.' As I learned to broaden my wine horizons and build a solid palate memory for wines, Burton was often around to encourage, challenge or just to share my discoveries.

My first visit to Vinexpo was with him and the members of the wine society, and the Hong Kong Commanderie de Bordeaux in 1995. I remember a lunch at Chateau Palmer where Burton turned and said to me: 'Once you know what a great Margaux wine smells like, you never forget it.' To this day the perfume of the red wines from Margaux are imbedded in my mind, as are his words.

Over the next 18 years, as my career began to shift from business writing to wine writing, it was with the Hong Kong Wine Society that I trained my palate. It was widely known that these 30 diehards were devoted to discovering wines from around the world, with bi-weekly blind tastings followed by a relaxed meal where everyone relished the drinking as much as the tasting.

The evolution of the wine society is a direct reflection of the changes in Hong Kong's wine industry: when it officially came into existence on September 3, 1981, with 12 members, the wine-drinking community and society consisted mainly of expats. Burton was a founding member as was Vernon Moore, Citic Pacific's finance director, and Patrick Paul, partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers. According to Moore, the chairman of the wine society: 'In the early days, the number of members was limited to 30. It was fixed so that there was a good chance of being able to assemble the 24 people for a two-bottle tasting, and it meant everyone could get to know each other. There was always a long list of potential members who would be invited to tastings.'

The wine society has changed with the times. The membership limit has increased to 65, with 33 (52 per cent) of the members being Asian. Moore explains the lifestyle of its members has changed because of travel schedules, so gathering a group of 24 requires more members. 'To be elected a [wine society] member, the person has to attend tastings and demonstrate to the committee a keen interest in discussing and learning about wine,' he adds. Back in the mid-1990s, it took me several years to be granted membership, and these days, I'm sure the waiting list is even longer.

Wine society tastings have adapted to the changes in the wine market. 'Most tastings now have a theme that is a passion of one member who will work a long time to assemble an interesting dozen wines of a particular vintage, producer, district or grape. Comparisons of different parts of the world occur. The result is a [group] that has never had such frequency or diversity of high-interest tastings,' Moore says.

This is the group that Burton helped found and steered through the changing times in Hong Kong for three decades. He passed away suddenly on April 6. He will always be remembered for his generosity and his passion for this remarkable beverage. His spirit remains with all of us who truly love wine.

Jeannie Cho Lee is the first Asian Master of Wine. E-mail her at foodandwine@scmp.com or follow her at asianpalate.com

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