Pairing wine with Chinese food is more than a Cottage industry
Gourmet and wine merchant Ada Leung was born in Hong Kong, but grew up in Canada. She attended the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and then returned to Hong Kong, where she worked in sales and marketing before founding wine importing company, Cottage Vineyards International in 1996.
After a false start, she mothballed the business and went into financial information services. She used the proceeds of her information services company to re-established Cottage Vineyards in 2006. Leung's passion is pairing Asian cuisines with wines from regions that are not well- known in Hong Kong.
When did you first become interested in pairing food and wine?
I was 11 years old. My grandfather discovered that there is nothing that can elevate the dining experience more than wine, so the family interest in it started three generations ago. My parents were very open to us having exposure to wine at an early age, and when I graduated from the children's table in the kitchen to the adults' table in the dining room I found that the food tasted so much better. Food and wine pairings were always part of the dinner table conversation, so it just seemed natural.
Why do you think the wine business didn't work out for you in the 1990s?
I studied marketing and English literature, so I wasn't really in the field of wine. When I graduated I wanted to work immediately, and in Vancouver the pace is a little slower. In Hong Kong, I discovered, you can make things happen very quickly. I launched Cottage Vineyards in 1996.
Then, in 1997, the stock markets crashed, and after that all the hotels and restaurants tightened their budgets. So, in 1998, I decided it was time to get out of the business. I took a small loss, but I was wise because the recession lasted until around 2003. Then in 2006 I listed my financial information services company, exited, and went back into the wine business.
What did you do differently the second time around?
In 1996, I was focused on what are now called Pacific Northwest wines, but back then wine books didn't even have a term for them.
The second time around, I started with France, because my sister was there working as an opera coach. Since she travelled quite a bit, I had a few places in France to stay, and it was easier for me to go there to do sourcing without the usual overheads. I started out with the main regions. I had wines from the Languedoc, from Savoie and Jura, and, of course, the Loire Valley.
I had Pineau des Charentes and Blanquette de Limoux, and all those types of wines remain in our portfolio. Today, we do a little bit of Portuguese, we do quite a bit from Spain. Italian has increased and we also handle wines from Austria, Washington State and Australia.
Does food and wine pairing continue to drive your business?
It is always about food and wine pairings. We've done a lot of pairings with Chinese food. The most popular have been pairings with Shanghainese cuisine - the hairy crab and the oily yellow crab match really well with the wines of Jura, and so do dried fungus, dried oysters, dried mushrooms, dried scallops and oyster sauce.
We've worked on finding wines which will not clash, but bring out elements like the umami character of Chinese cuisine.