How Asia’s wine culture is thriving in different ways
PUBLISHED in the South China Morning Post: Thursday, 29 October, 2015
Asian wine markets share many similarities; but do we really all look alike? To find out, I took advantage of the prestigious talent that was in Hong Kong recently to judge the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit Competition. I posed the questions: what are the trends, limitations and opportunities in your markets? Our explorations revealed much common ground. Almost all Asian countries have grown up drinking red wine, predominately from France. No surprises there. And while Hong Kong shares a common history with erstwhile British subjects, Singapore, India and Malaysia, the SAR’s wine market is more mature than its counterparts – Hong Kong holds clout over its siblings in both vintage and stature.
Unlike Hong Kong, most Asian countries are burdened by high wine import costs that drive up the cost of a bottle, particularly at hotels and restaurants. Taiwan is an exception. Oppressive levies – some as high as 400 percent – hang in the air like southeast Asia’s annual autumnal haze.
Differences are worth celebrating, though. The world would be an exceedingly boring place if Asia were one big homogenous glass of ‘same-same’. Just as each Asian country has their own set of traditions, personality traits and eccentricities, they also have their own distinctive wine cultures.
India battles punitive taxation and the burdensome British legacy of bureaucracy. Despite this, Subhash Arora, wine guru and editor of delWine – India’s first wine newsletter – estimates more than 1 million Indians drink wine, and growing. Subhash said the perfect storm of high tax and growing consumption means investment is being poured into local wine production and the benefits are beginning to filter down into better, export quality wine.
Malaysia does not produce wine for export, but it does send knowledgeable sommeliers to all corners of the globe. Thomas Ling, the country’s first Certified Sommelier, said wine and spirits education is expanding to feed the service industry’s appetite for skilled Malaysian sommeliers. Local job opportunities exist, but they are concentrated in Malaysia’s duty-free tourist zones. To stretch your ringgit further, set your compass to Langkawi, Tioman, Labuan or, most recent TZ inductee, Lake Kenyir.
Meanwhile in Singapore, appreciation of fine wine has peaked, according to Timothy Goh, Director of Wines at les Amis Group Singapore and Jakarta. Instead, distributors have switched their attention to bright young things. The city’s young finance executives are flocking to trendy wine bars in droves, not only to be seen, but also to expand their wine knowledge. “Every Thursday and Friday night, wine bars are packed with young drinkers who are not just there for the booze, but also want to learn something about wine,” said Timothy.
In Thailand, appearances aren’t always what they seem. Pairach Intaput, President of the Association of Thai Sommeliers, said there are more than 300 wine importers thriving in the heavily taxed Thai market. The secret to their success lies beneath the surface in what Pairach calls the ‘submarine market’, which sells directly to discerning high-end private clients through offshore channels.
Thailand’s underground market sits in sharp contrast to Taiwan’s neon flashing, retail-dominated scene. The country’s huge BYOB culture bypasses sommeliers wine lists by means of an efficient courier service. Retailers, when called upon, will deliver bottles from the customer’s own private storage locker directly to the restaurant in time for dinner. Consumers don’t even have to visit the store. At the opposite end of the spectrum, penny-pinching students imbibe France’s more obscure wines from regions such as Jura in the southwest, thanks to ubiquitous supermarket chains like Carrefours. Wine author, Yusen Lin, says small bottles of French wine (the likes of which most Hongkongers will never lay eyes upon) retail for less than the price of imported mineral water. Costco is another foreign retailer with a foothold in Taiwan. Almost every Taiwanese owns a Costco card to help make their California dreams come true.
Japan, on the other hand, prefers the old world. Tokyo boasts one of the highest numbers of Michelin-star restaurants in the world. To support the city’s fabulous eateries, there is an army of more than 10,000 sommeliers who, by the nature of their training, favour all things French. But Kenichi Ohashi, Asia’s first homegrown Master of Wine, says high taxes and a low Yen are reviving domestic wine production and spawning micro wineries in Hokkaido.
Korea’s wine market owes a lot to Koreans’ love of storytelling. Paul Eun, beverage manager at The Ritz Carlton Seoul, says brands gain traction in Korea on the back of great tales. It is said, for instance, that Chile’s popular San Pedro 1865 can help anyone play 18 holes of golf with 65 shots. And with that little furphy, the brand shot to super stardom faster than a K-Pop band. Drops of God, a famous Japanese manga series about wine, also had a huge impact on Korea’s wine scene.
For all our differences – from how we buy wine to where and with whom we consume it – three characteristics unite Asian countries: first, our passion for more and better wine education. It seems the endless pursuit of knowledge is a genetic predisposition in this part of the world; second, our passionate, enduring affair with red wine; and, finally, our universal love of food glorious food.