Spotlight on Hong Kong: Leading the Way in Asia

I recently returned from my second trip in the last year to Hong Kong. This time it was combined with a visit to Shanghai, further emphasizing the dichotomy between what we think of as “The China Market" and the established scene in Hong Kong. Lumped together, Asia is the Wild West for wine—and globalization as a whole. Laws, import tariffs, distribution, prices, and quality are inconsistent, but the mindset is rapidly expanding. As a crude generalization, Asia sees wine as a luxury good to be given as a gift, or shared at a business dinner as a sign of respect. Consequently, brand and image are paramount. Even so, Hong Kong is a market with the potential to transcend this stereotype and develop a culture around wine’s more noble pursuit—the joy of discovery.

The Hong Kong wine scene is on par with major cities in the US. You can explore wines well beyond the blue-chip names of France, Italy and Spain; you can scratch the surface of new developments coming out of California and have even better access to small producers from New Zealand and Australia than one might in the US. Yes, the broader market is still caught up with big red wines and labels, but the excitement and vitality of these highlighted, top sommeliers are quickly leading Hong Kong towards a more mature and vibrant landscape. – Geoff Kruth MS


Featured below are five sommeliers from Hong Kong: Nicolas Deneux (Head Sommelier, Grand Hyatt); Bhatia Dheeraj (Chief Sommelier, The Peninsula); Yvonne Cheung (Director of Wine, Upper House Hotel); Hervé Pennequin (Head Sommelier, Hong Kong Jockey Club—the largest private membership club in Asia, focused on horseracing, sporting and betting entertainment); and Elliot Faber (Beverage Manager for Yardbird, Ronin and Sunday’s).


How does the Hong Kong restaurant scene compare to other big cities in the US?

Nicolas: Hong Kong definitively has one of the most (the most?!) cosmopolitan restaurant scenes in the world, which allows sommeliers to be creative and to find new ways to surprise customers. Wine-wise, the market is not as mature (yet), but I’d argue that no other city has the potential that Hong Kong has. Consumers are learning very fast.

Yvonne: Hong Kong diners eat fast and expect even faster service. The interaction between guests and the service team is often less engaging than what I have experienced in the states. BYOB can be considered rampant, but the wines that flood our market are often pretty incredible on a day-to-day basis. Also, I don’t know how obsessive people in the states are about window seats, but here it is a record high…  

Hervé: Hong Kong, on a large scale, has nothing to be ashamed of, offering many fine-dining venues as well as traditional Chinese, Italian, more and more Spanish restaurants, all offering an array of food “scenes” along with wine selections that many restaurants in the US would love to have. The no-tax law on wines in Hong Kong also makes it easier to directly import great wines at great values.

Bhatia: To me the biggest difference I see is that Hong Kong is tax-free, whereas the US has state-set tax rates on wine.

Elliot: With rent that can literally double from leasing period to leasing period, it seems new restaurants pop up all the time. It was only a small number of years ago that most restaurants were owned by conglomerates with only slightly differing concepts, but now it seems that a lot of independent, chef-run restaurants are opening. Hong Kong is busy and exciting with a lot of energetic chefs… and the number of sommeliers is growing, too!


What are the most exciting wine and beverage trends hitting HK now?

Yvonne: Beverage trends change relatively quickly here. Recently, we've seen natural wines gain traction again, as well as a demand for artisanal spirits. There are always bits and pieces and word of mouth movements—like the rise of Riesling, new wines from the US, etc…  All of these “rumblings” continue to mark a shift away from Bordeaux, which is great for the rest of the world and on par with our thirsty and growing market! 

Nicolas: I’ve been in Hong Kong for five years now, and I can say that the city is finally opening up to more boutique labels/wines. The most interesting “learning curve” in the market in the past two years has definitely been in Champagne: moving from a brand-name world to one very interested in smaller scale producers and growers.

Bhatia: My hotel is based on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong, and we still have big Bordeaux devotees dominating the market; but the good news is that a lot of customers below the age of 40 are willing to explore new countries, regions and varietals as they seem to believe that it’s important to know more. These days I’ve been helping my customers discover Koshu from Japan and Slovenian Riesling. More customers have been asking for Sherry, and there’s no doubt that Sake is in big demand. I think something else new is going to be Calvados cocktails.

Hervé: We are finally seeing fresh white wines coming into appreciation by our club’s members. Since our weather is hot and humid for most of the year, it’s refreshing to see an increase in demand for something white and light besides Sauvignon Blanc (of course that’s the number one white varietal in favor, by far); Albariño, Grüner Veltliner, and some Rieslings are now more and more requested. And in the past few months, we’ve noticed a strong search for Japanese whiskies.

Elliot: Japanese whisky has definitely found a niche in Hong Kong. The lots are always high-ticket items at auctions, and the combination of the limited single-cask releases and the scarcity of every bottle seems to attract Hong Kong collectors and enthusiasts. On the wine side, although Burgundy definitely commands a strong presence, people are opening their eyes to concepts from “natural wine” lists to Sherry bars. It’s an exciting time in Hong Kong for anyone with passion and a good idea. 


What’s the most popular category of wine on your list?

Hervé: At the Club, Bordeaux Classified Growths and second labels lead the pack, then Burgundies from growers such as Armand Rousseau, Roumier and DRC.

Yvonne: Pinot Noir from all over the world!

Bhatia: France, Italy, USA and Spain followed by Australia, New Zealand and Chile. More dry red wines than whites.


Do you work with or is there a demand for Chinese wine, beer or spirits? Favorites?

Nicolas: The demand is very low… except maybe for Moutai (Chinese liquor/baijiu distilled from fermented sorghum).

Yvonne: I’ve had virtually no demand for Chinese beverages. In the last four years, I’ve maybe been asked for baijiu twice. We have plenty of Chinese guests though!

Hervé: We are working with a famous Chinese winery from the Ningxia region and their top cuvée, Chairman’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is really to be tasted.

Bhatia: I do work with some Chinese wines and beers… some wines that I like are 2009 Jia Bei Lan from Ningxia and 2008 Dynasty Merlot Series - Gold Label. Tried that last week with some somm friends and chefs; we found it wonderful.

Elliot: Our vodka is from a defunct baijiu distillery in Chengdu, made from five different grains and is pretty enjoyable, as vodka goes. Aside from that, my knowledge is limited and experiences have been painful. Oh! Young Master Ales is making extremely high quality craft beer here in Hong Kong, and while I don’t think they have plans to export anytime soon, the owner is extremely friendly, and anyone who wants to learn about beer and is in town should definitely consider a brewery tour.


How do you approach selecting wines for your program?

Herve: Unlike perhaps a free-standing restaurant, the Club’s policy is not “buy to invest”; rather, everything we purchase is purchased to move rapidly. So our selection is strongly dictated by our members’ preferences, and we are careful about offering “new” wine types. Honestly, we tried South African, Argentinian and Chilean wines… but the results didn’t reach our expectations. We try to track very closely our new selections by choosing three new wines per month: one white, one moderately priced red, and one higher priced red. These wines follow a yearly program, focusing on specific countries and different types of wine from each; then we rotate them from one year to the next. This allows us to track results in volume of sales per category and theme… leading us to eliminate those themes that don’t get our desired results. Aside from that, our general wine list is edited for the entire year and includes no more than 60 wines, selected based on past results, plus lots of Bordeaux of course.

Elliot: When I moved to Hong Kong, I had a list of about 150 labels ready for our new restaurant. After seeing the space, I realized that there would only be room for a small percentage of that. Our list now hovers around 20 selections—ten of them are exclusive single-vineyard bottlings or varieties from producers that have a presence in Hong Kong, and the others are from wineries who have no presence in Hong Kong. I decided that, with such little space to keep my wines, I had to keep things interesting and somewhat esoteric in order to separate myself from the other restaurants. I decided to tell the guests what they want to drink and not give them the option to fall into any safe decisions like a glass of Burgundy, Barossa Shiraz, or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Instead, we offer varieties like Pecorino and Zweigelt. The wines are approachable (even if unfamiliar) to the guest, and they still will excite someone more knowledgeable or interested in learning about different wines.

Bhatia: It has everything to do with quality. When I first arrived here, I would go and personally check the storage conditions of all the suppliers! Then comes cuisine. I like to taste my wines with all my chefs and other beverage/wine ambassadors, considering the collective feedbacks of how different people react to different wines. I do this every two months.

Nicolas: Our market is very big in terms of the number of wine importers and distributors. At the Grand Hyatt, we work with around 100 of them. I always involve my team and always look for “wine-growing wines” more than “wine-making wines.” Respect of the terroir is fundamental to me, especially in Hong Kong where consumers talk more about varietals than about soils or climates.


Service-wise, what's most (and least) important to you? What about to your guests?

Hervé: In Hong Kong, we must first give “face” to our members. When you acknowledge each member and call him or her by last name, they feel proud in front of their guests and will accept almost everything you can suggest they should order. Of course, our sommeliers are reminded to listen first: We are not on the floor to sell but to satisfy the desire of our members to receive an exceptional food and wine experience. Price is not an issue at our club to our members, but service is key to their satisfaction, and it comes from respecting them and their needs.

Elliot: The guests want to have an experience, to learn something and not be offended by what they are drinking. It’s important to me that my staff can share at least one piece of information about everything on the list and that they can make a suggestion based on what stage the guests are at in their meal.

Nicolas: In my opinion, less is more. Too many words can confuse consumers in the end. The wine should speak for itself.

Yvonne: I admit I am a pretty unrelenting stickler for most service aspects such as glassware placement, temperature, foil cutting (hate it when there’s a jagged cut, or a piece of metal hanging off), timing of pours, and even the direction of the ice bucket. But overall, my main concern is the ease in which a guest can reach his/her glass…  table maintenance is the most important service component for me! As for the guests, most want to focus on their friends and conversation, not on service, so while engaging with guests is high up on my list, it is often not on theirs.

Bhatia: Professional wine service is like putting on a show. Everyone is watching you. It’s important to me that my sommeliers and I are not zombies on the floor. It’s key to avoid launching into “the routine” and straight away talking about wines or presenting the wine list—that’s the worst way to create an impact and offers the least likelihood of your guests ever looking to you for suggestions. 


Favorite spot to grab a bite or drink after work?

Yvonne: Yardbird. Incredible food, beverages, people, vibes…  AND they serve food till midnight!  There is also a delicious Thai food stand called Ratcha Moo Yang in the red light district that is best enjoyed with a good friend for company…

Elliot: Sake Bar Ginn in Lan Kwai Fong has the greatest sake selection in town, hands down. It is just a few floors above the craziest street in the city and has a terrace that over looks at all. The food is classic Japanese bar snacks, and the staff is incredibly knowledgeable; the owner gets her parents to ship bottles from home in Japan, so everything comes in super fresh and in extremely small quantities.

Bhatia: Butler cocktail bar is an amazing hidden gem by Japanese bartenders—a creative bunch of individuals behind the bar. Mes Amis for a quick beer and nachos. Delaney’s Irish bar for stouts. Hair of the Dog to chill with my staff over few drinks. Istanbul Express for their Turkish rolls. And sometimes Hau Fook Street for local delights or congee after a long, tiring day. All these places are open till 3AM, hence they’re all the places where you’ll find F&B folk.


Best wine list besides your own in town?

Elliot: Café Gray Deluxe at the Upper House Hotel is selling Vin Jaune by the glass, and if that is common in other parts of the world, it isn’t here! Not only are they offering it, but people are ordering it and enjoying it because the staff knows what it is and how to talk about it. Also, 121BC is after my own heart: They have a completely Italian selection, all from small producers from Puglia to Valle d’Aosta.

Yvonne: Robuchon.

Bhatia: Robuchon, Amber, Petrus, Café Gray Deluxe, Amuse Bouche.

Nicolas: Robuchon is definitely the most extensive. Pierre restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental (sommelier Hubert Chabot) and Caprice restaurant at the Four Seasons (sommelier Sebastien Allano) feature nice, smaller production wines at reasonable prices.


Best cocktail or beer program?

Yvonne: Cocktails are excellent at Quinary and Sugar, and the Globe has the greatest beer program!

Bhatia: The folks from Ronin and Yardbird are on top of their game.

Nicolas: Ruggers is a tiny, local bar in Causeway Bay (the densest district in Hong Kong, population-wise). They do a great job and feature great beers from Belgium, England, USA, Australia, France, etc… Draft selections change regularly, and their special promotions are innovative. The Globe in central is more well known as it’s in a western and more touristy district. As for cocktails, Wyndham the 4th features great creations from great products; all their drinks are very precisely made. Otto e Mezzo, by far, is the best for Martinis. If you’re looking for something more out of the box, Barsmith features amazing Japanese cocktails from Japanese whiskies or their own infusions.


What is the value of certification (through the CMS or other bodies) in your market today?

Hervé: In Hong Kong, the WSET program is very well followed, and I must say it is successful because they are consistently assisting the development of the individual throughout the levels of the program. The CMS is certainly regarded as a higher level, but one cannot go without the other; they complete each other.

Elliot: There are a lot of different educational bodies training sommeliers here, but the quality of education and focus of each institution varies greatly. I would love to see the CMS make a stronger presence in Hong Kong; they have already started, and I think it will make a difference in the overall quality of what people enjoy drinking here.

Yvonne: Certification is certainly important in Asian academics. For wine, however, it is still somewhat unclear: certification is respected, but not expected. 

Bhatia: It indeed has a great value, and more and more food and beverage professionals are willing to take more exams to learn more and have better insight. Also, the amount of respect, recognition and sometimes ability to negotiate salary or promotions comes along with these certifications.

Nicolas: I don’t see much influence so far. In Hong Kong, it’s more valuable to know the important guests and to get along well with other sommeliers. Hong Kong has a population of nine million, but it works like a village. Our guests also appreciate us sharing our findings after we have traveled to various wine regions. There is a true sense of trust we can develop with our guests by sharing with them—that’s more valuable to them than knowing what level of certification the sommelier has. 



Top row: Nicholas Deneux (left), Yvonne Cheung (right)
Middle row: Elliot Faber (left), Bhatia Dheeraj (right)
Bottom row: Hervé Pennequin