A ripening market
SU HUA NEWTON holds a partially filled glass of red wine in her right hand, twirls it slightly, and with her left hand waves the fruity aromas under her nose before taking a sip and swallowing.
'Far too good to spit out,' she told her wine appreciation audience. The wine happened to be the same unfiltered Newton merlot served to President Hu Jintao at the White House during his recent visit to the United States.
Dr Newton, a co-owner of Newton Vineyard in Napa Valley, California, was in Hong Kong to make several wine presentations during the recent Vinexpo.
As one of the few Chinese winemakers outside the mainland, and like many other winemakers around the world, Dr Newton believes in the importance of claiming a presence in the growing Asian wine market. (Her vineyard produces organically grown unfiltered wines, with no sulphur added during the grape washing and fermenting process.)
According to wine promoter Vinexpo, the consumption of still and sparkling wines in Asia is tipped to grow by 45 per cent between 2000 and 2010, an average yearly increase of 4.5 per cent. Last year, China (including Hong Kong) consumed about 510 million bottles of still and sparkling wines.
Thomas Lim, director of Maggie Beale Enterprises, a company that has been importing and distributing wine in Hong Kong since 1980, said the local wine industry was competitive, and this looked set to intensify as the economy continued to improve.
'We are seeing the comeback of smaller importers who specialise in certain countries or styles of wine. This is a good thing, as more trade buyers and purchasers are looking to provide something different for their customers,' Mr Lim said.
As in any other business, it is important to know your subject and know your customers. It is also crucial to keep up to date with supply and demand and international drinking trends.
Mr Lim advised those looking to make a career in the wine industry to gain as much wine experience as possible. This includes reading about wine, making comparisons between different wines, and attending wine courses. In Hong Kong there are many courses to choose from, including short programmes and international certificate programmes taught in Chinese and English.
Meanwhile, wine consultant Simon Tam of the International Wine Centre pointed out that the success of any wine brand and wine merchant in China entirely depended on how well the wines could be assimilated into the Chinese lifestyle.
'You are not likely to achieve huge sales if you promote your red with char-grilled steak or spaghetti,' he said. 'Chinese people will always eat more Chinese food than foreign foods.
'The wine industry is colourful and dynamic, and you have to be equally colourful and vibrant to represent it well. You can't fake that you like something when it doesn't evoke a sense of warmth and fussiness.'
As Hong Kong's wine market continues to mature, local and international distributors are increasingly turning to the mainland for wine sourcing.
'It is fantastic to see China's growing fascination with wine,' said Cerentha Chow, brand development manager, Moet Hennessy Diageo China.
Ms Chow said the challenge was to build a brand on quality and consumer loyalty, rather than succumb to quick profit volume drivers that could have a limited future. This required commercial acumen, perseverance and passion.
'Commercial acumen is essential,' Ms Chow said. 'The global wine and spirits industry is a serious business and is no place for anyone who cannot analyse key financials or speak intelligently to a client about costs of goods, profit margins and business plans.'
Perseverance is a must for anyone working in the fledgling mainland wine market.
'Trust me, you need it,' she said. 'The passion comes through when you are representing your brands. It drives innovation in your marketing programmes and counters compromise.'
Boris de Vroomen, managing director of Riche Monde Hong Kong, said the wine market was highly fragmented, but education and the high disposable income found in parts of Asia and the mainland would help to raise brand awareness among consumers.
He said today's wine consumers had a wide range of products to choose from and they also enjoyed a sense of luxury. And consumption patterns were showing a greater variety, which included drinking wine at informal gatherings.
'To operate in this arena requires a solid knowledge and a technical understanding of the wines,' Mr de Vroomen said.
'It also requires a deep knowledge in the positioning of brands, and at the same time you have to be aware of consumer trends and consumer needs.'
Corked An often heard expression that describes an unpleasant musty odour or flavour. Some people accuse a wine of being 'corked' simply because they don't like it.
Vintage Wine A wine made from grapes harvested in a specific year, which is indicated on the wine label.
Aged Wine that is stored in a cellar or under appropriate conditions for at least a year. Ageing mellows or softens the flavour of the wine.
Cellar Where serious wine fans store their wine. The wreck of the Titanic holds one of the world's most unique wine cellars, and some of the bottles are still intact.
Complexity Wine fans say a wine has a lot of complexity if it has all the right flavours, if it feels 'rich' or if it is in 'balance', or if they simply cannot think of anything else to say.