Winemaking in Hong Kong sounds about as improbable as growing potatoes on Mars. But, like Mark Watney, the astronaut played by Matt Damon in Hollywood blockbuster The Martian, Eddie McDougall has made the seemingly impossible happen, releasing four locally made wines under the label The Urban Project. One of them, Sampan, was awarded first runner-up in the Old World Red Wine Below HK$100 category in this year’s Restaurant & Bar Hong Kong House Wine Awards.
McDougall, who calls himself The Flying Winemaker, has made wines all over the world.
“I started learning how to make wine when I was 19, in Australia,” he says. “I haven’t stopped since.”
Having worked in King Valley and Margaret River, in Australia, and Languedoc, in France, he came Hong Kong when an opportunity arose.
"In 2009 I took over the winemaking position at [The 8th Estate] winery and, as part of the job, I was put in charge of rebuilding it to commercial production capacity - buying the equipment and making sure it was a proper winemaking facility. I produced the wines and at the same time was able to produce the wines for The Urban Project," he says, of his own label, which came later.
“The 8th Estate is no longer [producing], which is really sad, as it was a great concept facility in which to make wines and a destination for people to visit a working winery.”
Since 2008, when the duty on bottles imported into Hong Kong was removed, it hasn’t made financial sense to make wine in the city. However, “the chance to make wine in Hong Kong was more about satisfying my curiosity whilst at the same time upholding my philosophy of trying something new,” says McDougall.
“Following the harvest, the grapes are sent to a local winery where they are packed into 220-litre food-grade drums, which are then transported to a flash-freezing facility," says McDougall, of the importation process employed by The 8th Estate. "In a matter of minutes, you can have 40 tonnes of frozen grapes unharmed and with all the freshness preserved. Once the harvest is complete, it is loaded it up into a reefer container, which is held at minus-18 degrees Celsius. It takes around two to four weeks to arrive in Hong Kong, where we carefully unload the grapes and thaw them out in the winery’s controlled ambient temperature.”
The four Hong Kong-made Urban Project wines released since 2014 are based on grapes from Entre-Deux-Mers, in Bordeaux, France; the American state of Washington; and McLaren Vale, in Australia.
"All the wines I produced under the Urban Project are wines [that were] under my control [while he was working for The 8th Estate] - there were support winemakers there but I finished all the wines up to the point of commercial sale.
“The most challenging thing is convincing people that locally made beverages are good quality," says McDougall. "The notion of everything having to be imported to our shores should be a thing of the past.
“Ask any Michelin-rated chef who has to bring meat or seafood from overseas – as long as you preserve the ingredients well and utilise transportation technology, [the creation of a product locally] can be easily done.”
Although operations in The 8th Estate's old 2,200 sq ft Ap Lei Chau winemaking facility are currently on hold, McDougall sees a lot of potential in The Urban Project, which has thus far relied solely on relabelling 8th Estate bottles.
When the next vintage is in production, it’ll be “a cool experience concept that [...] visitors could visit while enjoying some food and wine,” he says.
The Urban Project wines are available at restaurants such as Yee Tung Heen, Sole Mio, Classified, Chachawan, 22 Ships, Blue – Butcher & Meat Specialist, and retailers City’super, Liquor Land and flyingwinemaker.hk.