Hong Kong drinkers visiting Macau now spoilt for choice of world wines

A thriving hybrid wine scene in which every major producer is represented is the latest addition to Macau’s list of impressive attractions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 January, 2016, 11:08am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 January, 2016, 11:12am

Macau’s wine scene has been shaped by centuries of Portuguese culture and tradition. When Portuguese sailors first dropped anchor in the enclave, no doubt there were a few oak barrels on board. Today, Macau is a different beast – less “yo ho ho and a bottle of rum”, more ooh-ahh and a bottle of red. In any case, Macau’s dual Sino-Portuguese heritage makes it one of the few Asian nations with an established Eurocentric wine culture.

Weekend pilgrimages to Macau are a regular jaunt for many Hongkongers who, for decades, have escaped the hustle and bustle of our vast metropolis to the quieter shores of Coloane’s rustic fishing village. Hongkongers are Macau’s second largest group of visitors (after mainland Chinese), and its biggest drinkers. No mini-break to Macau is complete without a plate of its famous clams or roast suckling pig. Sundays spent drowning hangovers in a cocktail of garlic, olive oil and inexpensive Portuguese wine will always hold a special place in our hearts.

More recently, however, Macau’s glitzy transformation has given rise to an enviable chef culture. The city is awash with deluxe restaurants and foreign wine labels. In a city with this many world-class restaurants, high-quality wine is as easy to find as the ubiquitous egg tarts and almond biscuits. Portuguese wine is still abundant; its producers enjoy a massive hometown advantage here. Nowhere else in Asia can you find such a broad range of prized Portuguese reds and crisp acidic vinho verde, but these days French ranks first overall in volume and value.

The baccarat boom responsible for Macau’s recent prosperity is a double-edged sword, though. Intoxicated by the flow of cash from ultra rich gamblers, casino tycoons built boast-worthy cellars and lured world-class chefs to hang their Michelin-star hopes on. The cellars and restaurants remain, but big-spending high rollers have all but disappeared, caught up in Xi Jinping’s austerity measures. The local wine scene is gradually shifting to a more sustainable base of locals, expatriates and tourists who come to stay, play and dine.

Wine sales at the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel Macao have moved away from big brand names to a mixed bag of high-quality bottles. The hotel’s sommelier, Hedi Lao, says its Michelin two-star restaurant Zi Yat Heen now serves a greater variety of wines to more open-minded, less label-conscious drinkers – many of whom are from Hong Kong and Macau. She says the great VIP exodus is a period of stabilisation.

“The Four Seasons no longer sells Lafite and Margaux every night,” she told an audience at the recent Wine in China conference in Hong Kong. “Among the empty bottles, I see wines from Argentina, Australia and Spain.”

Traditionally, local Macau people don’t associate eating with drinking. However, many are returning from overseas with a new appreciation for wine, says Jonathan Mather, general manager of ASC Wines. “Someone who goes to hotel school in Australia or the USA is exposed to a new wine culture. When they return, they keep drinking those wines and pass on the habit to friends and relatives.”

Macau’s economic development has brought a steady stream of expatriates into the country, which is good for wine business. “The past nine years have seen expat numbers expand rapidly,” observes Michael Keen, director of sales and marketing at Fine Beverages Limited. Keen says expats diversified what was previously an underdeveloped wine market, however they alone cannot be relied upon to bolster restaurant and retail sales or fill the gap left by VIPs.

So, like many regional wine markets, Macau is looking longingly across the border to China, whose visitors will continue to be the tourism industry’s lifeblood. Luis Heredia, a renowned hotel and F&B consultant at San You Development, says China’s expanding middle class, and its anticipated overseas travel, will drive Macau’s growth in the next three years. Historically, this group has been more interested in baccarat than Burgundy, but while gambling and selfies at the Ruins of St. Paul’s still reign supreme, many Chinese are also seeking fine wine experiences.

Bhatia Dheeraj, chief sommelier at Robuchon au Dôme at the Grand Lisboa, says increasing variety on wine lists reflects a shift in the calibre of visitors to Macau. Dheeraj has noted an increased level of sophistication among Chinese travellers. Once upon a time, guests would refuse a sommelier’s advice for fear of losing face. Now at Robuchon, diners are moving beyond Bordeaux into top Australian brands and more.

French and Portuguese wines still top Macau’s Old World imports, asserts David Wong, executive assistant manager at the Institute of Tourism Studies in Macau. Australia flies the flag for the New World, but New Zealand, Chile, the United States, Argentina and South Africa are bringing more wines into the local market.

Long renowned for its Macanese fusion cuisine, Macau can now add to its list of attractions a thriving hybrid wine scene in which every major wine producer is represented.