A continent of connoisseurs

Image of Jancis Robinson

When I started writing about wine in the 1970s I was told firmly that Asians would never become wine drinkers. There was commonly supposed to be something about the Asian palate and physiology that had them cast as either teetotallers or beer or spirits drinkers. When, for example, the Liu brothers from Hong Kong starred in the Oxbridge wine-tasting teams in the late 1970s, they were considered the exceptions who proved the rule.

How wrong we all were. Asia has become the focus of the world’s fine wine trade and it’s happened in a remarkably short time – principally since February 2008, when the Hong Kong government slashed wine duty to zero in an effort to make the southern Chinese enclave a fine wine hub. Today, more fine wine is auctioned in Hong Kong island than anywhere else in the world and virtually all of the fine wine traders who clustered around London now have a Hong Kong outpost. On Monday last week, for example, a bank holiday in Britain, it was a normal working day for the likes of Farr Vintners and Bordeaux Index, as so few of their customers nowadays are based in Britain and so many in Asia.

A significant proportion of the wine bought in Hong Kong finds its way to other parts of Asia, mainland China in particular but also to Indonesia, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Macau. Many of these countries have high duties on wine, typically ad valorem taxes that are punitive for fine wines. So some entrepreneurs have developed businesses designed to minimise the duty collectors pay when importing wine into their country from Hong Kong. Because Chinese regulations permit duty-free hand carrying of bottles into China, some businessmen run teams of wine mules over the border, the human equivalent of the white vans that used to import “personal allowances” of duty-free drink and cigarettes from Europe into the UK.

Hundreds of fine wine traders, French merchants and Bordeaux châteaux owners have China’s new millionaires firmly in their sights, and will be hoping to carve a direct route to them the week after next when Vinexpo, the Bordeaux-based company that operates a biennial wine fair in Bordeaux, holds a counterpart in Hong Kong. Indeed this opportunity for meeting and greeting the supposed top bidders is given as an excuse for postponing the release of many keenly anticipated 2009 bordeaux primeurs.

When I was in China in March I asked leading figures in the wine trade there how many individuals they thought were willing, able and keen to buy first growth bordeaux 2009 (which some are predicting will cost more thousands of pounds per dozen than ever before). Answers varied between 5,000 and 10,000 – far more than there are in the cash-strapped traditional markets. Chinese magazines are now peppered with ads for wine, along with luxury fashion labels. The next generation of players in the bordeaux wine scene are now more likely to be sent on apprenticeships to Shanghai or Hong Kong than to New York or London.

The Asian wine scene is very much more than Hong Kong and China. Japan and Singapore have long histories of connoisseurship. Japan, the first Asian market to show real interest in importing top-quality European wine, is still very much a player, in spite of recent economic vicissitudes.

The Singapore wine market is livelier than ever and is more dependent on local entrepreneurship than on any foreign influence. Importers, often allied with the restaurant business, sell direct to the public, and in a more creative, user-friendly way than most British wine buyers are used to. Two large casinos have opened recently and their buyers, on behalf of their high rollers, can absorb all the grand cru burgundies and first growths that their suppliers can source for them. In fact one notable development in Singapore is that more and more wine lovers are realising that tough, tannic red bordeaux may not be the ideal wine for their sultry climate. Red burgundies, and Pinot Noir in general, are increasingly appreciated there, along with the equally chillable Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.

The Asian country with perhaps the greatest current growth in demand for fine wine is Indonesia. Duties on wine in Indonesia are as high as its temperatures and humidity, however, which is presenting challenges for even the most creative wine importers and exporters. In spite of its latitude, Indonesia is home to no fewer than three wineries, all on Bali, and at least one dependent on grape juice imported from Australia.

The French tried to introduce viticulture to Vietnam in the 19th century but today wine produced by wineries there is based, as in most Asian countries, on a mixture of home-grown grapes and bulk imports. Great efforts have been made to develop vineyards and expertise in Thailand, however, and heavy local import taxes give them a huge price advantage over cheaper imports from Chile and the like. As in China, there are more attempts to develop wine tourism than there are in most of Europe.

India has its own wine industry, its own punitive wine duties, and its own distinctive drinking habits. Even the most determined French wine exporter has found it hard to break the Indian social tradition of drinking long and hard – whether wine, spirits or beer, or all three – before rather than with food. Indeed parties tend to be measured a success by how late the food is served, a long way from the measured progress of a traditional French dinner with wine.

What India does share with most of Asia is the extent to which wine is associated with status. Recipients of hospitality will routinely check the scores and price of the wines they have been served – unless their host has been brazen enough to assure them on serving that they were “hundred-point wines”.

Asia presents glorious opportunities for the world’s wine producers – even if for consumers it is having an inflationary effect on prices at the top end. But because wine and face are so intimately intermingled, it is also paradise for unscrupulous traders passing off fake wine, everything from the most obvious “Château Lofite” to much more cunning, counterfeits. Those tracking down fine wine fraud are finding it even more difficult to persuade collectors that some of their bottles may not be genuine in Asia than in the US or Europe.


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