Bottoms up for wine novices

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 July, 2011, 12:00am


In the famed Chateau Lafite-Rothschild wine cellar in Bordeaux, three university students from Hong Kong raised their glasses and took a sip.

Good as the vintage was, they never expected it would earn them the runners-up spot in an international student's wine-tasting contest, opened to Asia for the first time this year.

Fergus Chau King-fung, Holly Lau Man-shan and Alex Yau Ka-siu, all from the Chinese University's Faculty of Law, ended up bringing home two bottles of Lafite worth more than HK$20,000 as their prize in the 20 Sur Vin contest.

They competed against teams from Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard universities in the elimination rounds at the vineyard that produces one of the world's most expensive wines - and were just one point behind first-placed Harvard.

After taking multiple-choice questions, contestants taste wines to rank the year of production and describe characteristics such as fruitiness, acidity and alcohol level.

'We knew little about wine till four months ago when we started to prepare for the competition,' said Lau.

The students said they had long been interested in wine tasting but lacked any opportunity to pursue it because there was no wine society at their university - or indeed any other university in Hong Kong. Chau said: 'It was important that we knew how to taste wine in formal occasions and present ourselves.'

Their breakthrough came in October when Raymond Luk, a member of the university council, founded the CUHK Wine Society, which now has about 60 student members. Luk, the honorary adviser of the wine society and a wine lover for more than 10 years, coached the students for the competition with help from other professionals in the industry.

They were taken to various wine-tasting events to train their tongues for better sensitivity. The students said the most difficult part was describing the character of the wines.

'At first it was only other people's fancy descriptions which set the wines apart as they tasted pretty much the same to me. But then the more wines I tried, the more difference I could taste,' said Lau.

A wine-tasting culture in Hong Kong took off after the government put a zero tax on wines in 2008, said Luk. 'The more competitors in the market, the higher the quality and the cheaper the price, and the more people buying - which triggered their interest in knowing more about wine,' he said.

Professor Joseph Jao-yiu Sung, vice-chancellor of Chinese University, said he hoped the wine society could help correct stereotypes of wine tasting. 'Wine tasting does not equate to casual drinking, or even drunkenness; rather it is an art, a culture and an etiquette interchange,' he said.

Luk said more university wine societies should be encouraged in Hong Kong as they were common in universities abroad. 'To have a good try you need only take a sip. So it's pure appreciation,' he said. 'The Cambridge wine society was set up in 1792; ours in 2010. The gap means that Hong Kong should catch up.'