Rare treats are being uncorked at wine dinners for those with a taste - and a budget - for the finer things, writes Amy Ma
When the staggering HK$28,880 per head six-course dinner was announced, all 12 seats were snapped up within a day. The Saturday night event, organised by Restaurant Petrus at the Island Shangri-La, is an example of Hong Kong's growing interest in wine: although the menu will be replete with gastronomic delights, the focus of the evening is on the wines.
Wine dinners - once the preserve of high-end restaurants - have become a frequent feature around town. At the luxury end of the spectrum are dinners such as the one at Petrus, where the bottles include champagne Krug 1990, Burgundy grand cru Chevalier-Montrachet Domaine Leflaive 1989, Bordeaux premier cru Chateau Margaux 1982 and the highlight - and the namesake of the restaurant - a magnum of Chateau Petrus 1945.
'The price [for the dinner] may seem high but the magnum of Chateau Petrus alone is listed at HK$380,000 on our wine list,' says Kent Wong Koon-kwan, the restaurant's sommelier.
Petrus executive chef Frederic Chabbert says: 'These wines are so rare, to find them is like searching for a priceless antique. Even if you find one, you must find someone willing to sell it to you. That is why many of our regular customers who know the prices of these wines will really appreciate this wine dinner.'
Wong recalls a similarly pricey event to mark the handover, when guests each paid HK$25,000 for a meal featuring 12 vintages of Petrus. Nowadays, little occasion is necessary to warrant a wine dinner.
'There are two main reasons for wine dinners,' says Patrice Le Nouvel, the Petrus maitre d'. 'Sometimes, it is done by the restaurants to provide something special for their guests. Other times the restaurants work together with wineries to promote and educate diners about the producer's wines.'
For Patrice Noyelle, the chairman of Pol Roger Champagne, the latter reason prompted him to arrange a wine dinner earlier this month at the Pawn in Wan Chai. Noyelle chose a casual restaurant rather than a fancy hotel to 'rejuvenate the brand image for a younger generation who love their wine but want to enjoy it wearing jeans and running shoes'. For Pawn owner Paolo Pong Kin-yee, wine dinners of this sort 'help raise the profile of the restaurant'.
Pong has the benefit of also being a wine merchant as the founder of Altaya Wines. His long-term relationships with various wineries insure that his restaurants, which also include Press Room and Classified in Central, enjoy well-priced wine dinners, such as one in May that featured Chateau Pichon Lalande and Chateau Angelus for just HK$1,980.
Sichuan restaurant Lumiere only started doing wine dinners in 2006 but has built a strong rapport with wine distributor Watson's Wine Cellars, and has many opportunities to collaborate with wineries through them. Consequently, Lumiere offers six-course wine dinners for a bargain price of just under HK$600.
While the home cook hosting a dinner party usually makes the meal, then picks the wines to match, it's the opposite with wine dinners, where the food is the support, rather than the focus. 'Chefs have to learn to work a little differently and focus more on the flavours of the wine,' says Pino Piano, the director of the Gaia Group. 'One problem that can arise is when the producer wants to feature all red wines, which may lead to a menu that is too heavy,' says Piano. 'You can't let every course be lamb or foie gras because those foods pair best with robust reds. But we have done a dinner with four red wines once from Berry Brothers. It's just harder, not impossible.'
'New World wines are sometimes difficult to match with food compared to Old World wines because they lack acidity,' says executive chef of the Pawn and Press Room, David Tamlyn, who often incorporates the featured wines as ingredients in his recipes. Pong agrees.
Asian cuisine is not traditionally consumed with grape wine, so there are no pairing traditions for chefs to draw on when creating a wine dinner. Lumiere chef Robert Shao Tak-long works closely with food and beverage manager Benson Ng Chung-ko, who believes, 'Pinot noir goes surprisingly well with Sichuan food because it is light in texture but complex in flavour, and on the sweeter side. Riesling and gewurztraminer can help cool your tongue.' Fine-tuning the menu means that Shao taste-tests his creations alongside the wines up to 10 times.
Working on several versions of what goes best with the wine isn't possible, however, when the wine is rare, as it is with the Petrus dinner. For the dinner this Saturday, Chabbert, Le Nouvel and Wong are working together to predict which foods will best showcase the wine based on their memory of similar wines they've tasted before.
'Often guests who open great bottles of wine will offer some to us, so I have tried a lot of wonderful wines,' says Chabbert. 'And Kent [Wong] has tried so many more than me, so he will help me decide on the main meat for the dish. For the Montrachet, we experimented with different types of seafood and ended up [choosing] Brittany lobster, which has the same sweetness and texture as scallops, but is something more special that our guests don't see every day. And as for the meat, we experimented with different cuts that vary slightly in fattiness. We finally decided on the leaner tenderloin cut of Wagyu beef to not overwhelm the tannins in the Chateau Petrus.'
For some dinners, wineries send their own chef, such as the case at Gaia for an Antinori pairing. 'The winery has their own restaurant, and all their recipes are especially designed to showcase their wines,' says chef Paolo Monti.
Other times, wineries will send a representative to attend.
'People ask about the grape variety, the assemblage or blending process and the history of Pol Roger,' says Noyelle. 'Sometimes they tell me things they've heard about the wine and teach me more about the company than I know myself.'
With so much involved, planning for the wine dinners can take up to three months to arrange - but it's not something the restaurant does to make money; many barely break even. 'Wine dinners are not profitable at all,' says Pong. 'Whatever discount we get from the wine producers, we usually try to pass that as a promotion to our guests.'
Instead of using the wine dinners to make money, they're seen as long-term investments to promote wine education for their customers. 'We are really quite spoiled by the great choice of wines we have here,' says Pong. 'Now with zero wine tax, Hong Kong is becoming a great entry point to introduce wine to all of China.'
Pong says that although the rise in euros has dampened the boost from the elimination of taxes, wine sales have increased 10-15 per cent at his Classified retail shop.
The number of restaurants hosting wine dinners is increasing - but, strangely enough, it's not even a concept in France.
'In our chateau, we showcase our wines nightly and always have it with our food. But we just call it dinner,' says Noyelle. 'Maybe for Hong Kong, one day it will be the same as in France, where every dinner is a wine dinner.'