City's supermarkets offer great value wines if you know what to look for
Great deals on good wines can be found on local supermarket shelves if you know what to look for. Rob McGovern goes bargain hunting with an expert
Not knowing the difference between bad, good or great wine can make casual wine shoppers reluctant to take a leap of faith. But for most of my drinking life, I have enjoyed bottles of wine that cost no more than about HK$70. So I am convinced that with a little inside knowledge the average Hong Kong supermarket would reveal affordable wines ranging from drinkable to excellent.
To put this theory to the test, I persuaded Charles Curtis, a Master of Wine and former head of wine for Christie's in Asia and the Americas, to go shopping with me at a branch of ParknShop in Central. As we survey the shelves I ask if there are tips or tricks to quickly identify a potentially good wine from the label alone. The short answer is yes and no.
Don't be put off if sulphites are indicated on the label. If a wine doesn't contain sulphites it is "probably going to be disgusting", according to Curtis. The alcohol content can also be misleading. "They have a half a per cent leeway in terms of labelling. So it's not a solid indicator."
Knowing the logos of some of the more famous producers can help, too, and he urges beginners to do a little homework to familiarise themselves with the biggest names.
The most important advice for fledgling wine connoisseurs, however, would seem to be that practice makes perfect. "My motto has always been 'the more you drink, the more you know' and so I am a big advocate of never drinking the same thing twice," Curtis says.
It doesn't take long before he spots something. "Gunderloch is a really well-known name. This is their least expensive wine, but it's under HK$90," he says. "Gunderloch is really well known for more famous wines, but the entry level is a great place to start."
Getting into his stride, he looks at some rieslings - "I love German riesling, and it goes so well with food" - before turning to different appellations.
"Sancerre is a pretty well-known appellation. Seems pretty reasonably priced. HK$128 is not out of the realm of possibility," he says. "On a hot day a cold glass of Sancerre would be a great thing."
Noting the Lafite symbol on a bottle of Los Vascos, he declares the wine from the Colchagua Valley in Chile another good option. It isn't Chateau Lafite, of course, but produced by the winemaker for Lafite-Rothschild, arguably the most famous Bordeaux winemaking company.
Bordeaux wines are very popular in Asia, and Curtis points to a Michel Lynch that price-conscious drinkers could consider, "because you know the name Lynch maybe from [Chateau] Lynch-Bages".
Curtis is well versed in what is popular in China as a columnist for the Chinese version of La Revue du vin de France, a monthly wine magazine. He gets a touch excited when he spots a 2010 Bordeaux Supérieur Chateau Marjosse, particularly as the famous winemaker, Pierre Lurton, "even put his name on the bottle". We will be drinking this later.
Curtis admits to having classic tastes, so New World wines are not always his first choice. "I would totally roll the dice on [the drinkable HK$59 Bergerac we looked at]. ... Bergerac is a very particular place and the wines adhere to a relatively circumscribed description," he says. "There are only so many things it can taste like, whereas if something says southeast Australia that's like a whole continent's worth of vineyards and you will have no idea what it is going to taste like unless you know the producer."
However, a handful of New World producers catch his eye.
"The Yalumba Y series was calling out to me," he says of the South Australian wine, so that goes in the basket, too. Curtis then chooses a Gran Feudo Edición 2010 Tempranillo from Spanish producer Bodegas Chivite. At just HK$88 for two bottles, this was perhaps the best bargain in the shop.
Having trained as a chef, receiving the Grand Diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Curtis is also able to suggest food to go with the wine. He points us to a dai pai dong. "I think Cantonese food is one of the most versatile cuisines on the planet and there are very few wines that don't go with it. You can find a Cantonese dish to match almost any wine out there."
We order shrimp with cashews, salt and pepper squid, spare ribs with black bean sauce and chicken liver and gizzard with pepper.
"The standard wines, the Bordeaux or the Sancerre that I was eyeing among the white wines, would be very, very versatile. The sweeter wines, like the riesling we were looking at, would be for spicier dishes," Curtis says.
Some wine buffs might sniff at boxed wine or screw-cap bottles as lower quality tipple, but he says consumers should not be put off by the packaging.
"There is nothing about the packaging that innately makes it lower quality. It is for current consumption."
Sampling the screw-cap Spanish tempranillo, he says: "Produced in Navarra by one of the oldest producers in Spain, this is absurdly good value at this price. It shows a pure, clean expression of fresh, red berry fruit on the nose, while on the palate it is light and clean with admirable balance and equilibrium. Not a heavyweight, it is still thoroughly well made with a very pleasant fruit character."
We crunched our way through the gizzard as we opened the HK$119 South Australian Shiraz-Viognier Y Series 2011 from Yalumba. "The aromas jump from the glass with notes of fresh raspberry and an exotic floral note on the nose," he says. "On the palate there is a bit more punch than the tempranillo, with more weight and alcohol in evidence. A great example of what makes South Australia so popular with consumers."
Curtis advises starting with the cheapest and finishing with what would hopefully be the best, moving from the lightest bodied wines to the richest, the HK$139 Bordeaux Supérieur 2010 from Chateau Marjosse. "This must be among the best wine values anywhere on the market today. It is produced by Pierre Lurton, general manager of Bordeaux power chateaux Cheval Blanc and d'Yquem from his home estate in the Entre-Deux-Mers region. He uses his expertise to produce a wine that definitely punches above its weight, with concentrated aromas of blackcurrant and spice on the nose with just a hint of smoke and earth. On the palate the wine has genuine density and concentration, with firm tannins, a rich, velvety texture and admirable length. Went down quite a treat - definitely a wine to buy by the case."
The rest of the wine disappears as we finish the food, and I come away with a new found confidence in buying wine from the supermarket.
Tips by Master of Wine Charles Curtis to help you choose the right tipple
Books, magazines, websites/blogs offer plenty of advice and nuggets of knowledge that will help you make an informed decision.
Tasting wine with people who know what they're talking about will help you. There are dozens on meetup.com
Wine fairs, tastings or even having friends over for a tasting will help develop your ability to differentiate between wines and open you up to more varieties.
There are many apps that offer advice. Some allow you to scan labels and get advice and notes from other users and experts. And you can follow these experts, producers and other drinkers on Twitter and ask questions. Wechat is another option for trading tips.