Wine Opinion: Menus tell of a culture taking root

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 February, 2014, 9:20am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 February, 2014, 9:20am

Hong Kong is a metropolis built around trends and the question of whether wine is a passing fad lingers uncomfortably. But a sure sign that a trend has grown roots is its appropriation by local culture, sometimes beyond all recognition à la Canto-pop, or Cantonese "French" toast.

So the appearance of wine on the tables of every breed of Chinese restaurant should be encouraging.

Chen Xuguang, CEO of large Chinese beverage distributor C&D, is very negative on the prospects of Chinese pairing food with wine, saying that Chinese drinking culture is not about pairing, but rather about community and, to paraphrase him, machismo. But Hong Kong wine lovers seem intent on bringing wine to the table nonetheless.

Mostly in grand fashion, judging by the DRC, Mouton and the like that can be ogled at restaurants and private kitchens from Causeway Bay to Kennedy Town. One consultant, who has developed many Hong Kong restaurants' wine programmes, notes that in Hong Kong, unlike London and New York, the tables near the door are most prized because of their visibility to entering diners.

But over and above this "Lamborghini factor", many Hongkongers have accumulated prodigious collections. Rather than drink these rarities alone at home, they prefer to bring them out to share with friends in the familiar environment of a Chinese restaurant.

But for those of us without the vaunted cellars, Chinese restaurants are still something of a wine desert.

This finding was one result of the Meiburg Wine Media and Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit Competition Survey 2013, a general survey of the populace run by us to collect data on consumer preferences and spending habits.

The results showed that the face of the Hong Kong wine trade is much more local than generally believed. More than 60 per cent of our 196 survey respondents employed in the wine trade identified themselves as Chinese, and small wine businesses are increasingly being owned by locals.

But this doesn't seem to have pushed more boutique options into Chinese restaurants. One local couple who recently started a boutique importer say that most of the small players simply don't have the connections.

It is generally the handful of big players who have the connections with the manager that determines what's on the wine list.

Representatives from Telford International and Jebsen, two big players, affirmed that they do work with what our survey called "traditional Chinese restaurants". These are not the high-end hotel restaurants, which have access to their parent hotel's cellars.

Telford, which represents Chinese winery Grace Vineyard and Shaoxing yellow wine from Dong Fang, have good penetration in these outlets, according to general sales manager Paolo Ponghellini. He is not personally responsible for this area, however; as expected, the sales director of the Chinese restaurant division is primarily Cantonese speaking.

Christian Pillsbury of Applied Wine, who has helped many Chinese restaurants integrate wine into their business, says that very little hard data exists. But from his experience, the field is strongly bifurcated between those willing to make the investment and those unconcerned whether they're selling wine or Blue Girl beer.

Those who do invest in storage, staff training and something other than the thick-lipped glasses of yesteryear (often replacing them with classic Riedel or the Asian brand Lucaris' stemware) are often surprised by the success of the programme.

The adventurous nature of diners is also encouraging: the attitude that "if it's not red and French or Australian, it's not wine", is fast disappearing.

But many traditional Chinese restaurants have, in Pillsbury's words, surrendered the fight to BYO (bring your own), reducing corkage fees from their once-lofty heights (HK$200-HK$500 at one stage) in order to survive in a very competitive field.

The HK$1,000 mark is about the limit for bottle purchases from the wine list - when wine gets more expensive than this, patrons bring their own.

Taking the restaurants' view, this may be a minor failing, given the highest margins for them are at the lower end.

We're simply grateful to see wine in this formerly "vinophobic" zone at all. With every bilingual wine list we see the roots of wine grow deeper.

Debra Meiburg is a Master of Wine


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