The red barons
Vincent Cheung Ting-kau's love of wine started on a slow boat to Marseilles. 'When I was about 18, I was on my way to university in England. In the 1960s, if you went to England you either went by boat or plane. By boat, you could go directly to England or take the French route via Marseilles. I thought the best way was the longest way,' he says.
'At all our meals on the boat, we had red wine and white wine - that's how I started. I was in tourist class; when they had leftover wines in first class, the waiters would take it and give it to us to taste.' From that humble start, Cheung went on to become a top collector of Bordeaux.
In the 1960s and 70s, even drinking wine was quite unusual in Hong Kong. 'People were still drinking VSOP and XO cognac; they were not wine drinkers,' Cheung says. 'I still remember when we went to Gaddi's, and the wine list was just one page.'
How things have changed. The wine list at Gaddi's at The Peninsula has grown from a page to a thick tome, as befits a French fine dining restaurant. Wine is now so common that most restaurants have decent wine lists. The abolishment of the wine tax two years ago has made it more affordable.
But Annette Pocklington, business development director of wine importer Fine Vintage, sees the growing interest of wine coming more from awareness. 'People are well travelled or overseas educated, plus with the internet you can learn about wine,' she says.
Asian wine collectors, like Cheung, are helping to boost Hong Kong's global standing. The number of mainland buyers at Christie's global wine auctions increased 180 per cent from autumn 2008 to autumn last year. Hongkongers are also willing to pay more than buyers in other major centres. At Christie's wine auctions in Hong Kong last year the average price per lot was HK$126,000 - almost five times higher than the average lot in New York. Some are speculating that Hong Kong is showing signs of surpassing New York as the largest wine auction centre in the world.
At one of Cheung's wine caves, in an office in Central, the shelves are crammed with bottles, and cases are stacked shoulder high. The labels on the bottles and cases are well known ones from exclusive (and expensive) wineries from Tuscany, Burgundy and California. But it's the Bordeaux wines that dominate.
'I started collecting in the mid-70s. Wines were good value back then. Even as a young lawyer, I could afford to buy a bottle of Lafite to take to a party - it was about HK$150. Those were the days.' Now, a bottle of Bordeaux Premier Cru would cost about HK$50,000.
Cheung explains his love of Bordeaux: 'It's simple. Bordeaux, with its variety of grapes, produces the best wine in the world. Many areas in the world try to say they make wine as good as Bordeaux, but you never hear of any of the Bordeaux chateaux saying that they make as good a wine as other winemakers outside Bordeaux.'
For David Hong Kin-hay, another collector, the wine bug hit when he was a young man accompanying his parents on buying trips for the family fashion business, The Swank. 'I started tasting wines when I was still in school, but that was just for fun; I didn't understand or appreciate wines back then. On buying trips, we got to meet a lot of principal suppliers and they'd invite us for dinner. That was when I started to find wine interesting.'
It was a fourth-growth Bordeaux - Chateau Talbot - that Hong, now managing director of The Swank, remembers as the first wine he really loved, but he's now known as being a major collector of Burgundies.
'In France, in 1984 or 1985, I was introduced to Burgundy. The wine is so complex - and that it's made from a single grape makes it more interesting for me. It's fascinating because there are so many flavours, even though they're made of the same grapes [pinot noir for red wines, chardonnay for white].'
Although Burgundy is his passion, Hong says he's learned to appreciate wines from other places. 'New World wines are not bad. Some people might say they're not good, that they're cheap, but I don't see it that way. I don't think the price of the wine has an effect on the appreciation - as long as you understand the culture of that country and understand the wine, then you can appreciate it.'
Hong is lucky that his frequent trips to Europe allow him to taste different wines, and he travels to Burgundy at least every other year. 'You have to understand the culture of Burgundy,' he says. 'The Burgundians want to share - they are not profit-minded. They have such a small production that they'd rather share their wines with people they know. When you visit them, they bring out their best bottles to share with you, and invite you to eat with them. This is the atmosphere in Burgundy; it's quite different from other areas.'
To add to his collection, Cheung makes annual trips to Bordeaux. 'I buy most of my wines directly from Bordeaux. You can't buy wines directly from the chateau owner - even if you know them, you have to go through negociants [merchant distributors]. You can't always buy as much as you want - they have allocations.'
Cheung keeps his wines in various locations in Hong Kong, London and Bordeaux, but says he doesn't know how big the collection is. 'I don't know how many cases I have,' he says. 'I keep them on a computer file.'
Hong refuses to reveal how many bottles he has. 'It's a sensitive issue; I don't want to tell people how large the collection is, or what the value is - it's irrelevant. I know many of my friends, they have collections you wouldn't believe.'
Hong and Cheung are aware of the ephemeral nature of their collections. 'Wine is meant to be drunk,' Hong says. 'If I open the last bottle of a vintage, I don't regret that it's the last in my collection because if I wait five or six years to drink it, it might not be good any more.'
Cheung agrees. 'Wine is for enjoyment. After a certain number of years, the wines become extinct. But wine is being produced every year. There are a lot of good wines around the world. I've been going to Bordeaux regularly, and have drunk a lot of older vintages directly from the chateau - so at least I have my memories of them.'
The two collectors have parlayed their focus into professional, international wine organisations: Cheung is grand ma?tre for Asia of the Commanderie de Bordeaux, while Hong is le grand senechal of the Hong Kong chapter of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin.
'I joined the Commanderie in the 1980s,' Cheung says. 'The maitre of the Commanderie left Hong Kong and I took over in 1998. It's a non-profit, charitable organisation - in the past few years we've given away more than a million dollars annually.'
The Chevaliers du Tastevin is dedicated to promoting Burgundy wines, Hong says. 'It's a worldwide association. I started the Hong Kong chapter in 1980 - there were four or five other members and now we have about 170 members.'
Wine drinking is a social activity, Hong says. 'It's necessary to drink with friends to appreciate it ... when you go out with a friend, you want to share the wine if you think they'll enjoy it. And the next time, the friend will bring wines he thinks you'll want to share - that's the fun of the whole thing.
'If I'm travelling and see good wines that are difficult to get in Hong Kong, I'll buy them and share them with my friends because they won't have the opportunity to buy them,' Hong adds.
Although Cheung and Hong have chosen to focus their collections on wines from certain regions, they're open to tasting others. 'I never say, 'This is a good wine and this is a bad wine,'' says Hong. 'There are no good wines and bad wines, it depends on the individual and how they view it; it's personal taste.'
Cheung says his best wine experience was at a dinner given by Piaget. 'They invited about 18 people to the French consul-general's place and we drank 18 bottles of the rarest wines - from Bordeaux and Burgundy. I remember drinking a 1956 Petrus and 18-something Yquem. There was something like a 1928 Palmer, and maybe a 1921 Lafite.
'It's not something you can ever experience again - it was absolutely incredible. The [food] menu was insignificant. But the wine menu is somewhere in my collection.'