“Con el vino y la esperanza, todo es posible”

So goes the Spanish proverb: “with wine and hope, anything is possible”. It frames the country’s philosophy towards the F&B industry in Hong Kong pretty accurately; from a marginal presence just five years ago, the third-largest wine producing nation in the world is now starting to make a meaningful impact here.

But: “the local people are still in a learning phase”, says José Martino Alba (below), founder of Sinospan, a specialist Spanish food and wine importer that counts The Peninsula Hotel among their clients. “When I give most Cantonese people a young, full-bodied wine with 14% alcohol or more, josethey can’t finish a single glass. They’re not ready”.

A touch of hyperbole perhaps, but things have definitely improved. Spanish wine used to have an almost apologetic contribution to the city’s wine lists. Large producers like Campo Viejo, Torres and Marqués de Riscal made an appearance, but in terms of smaller-scale winemakers, there were next to none.

So what’s made the difference? “One reason”, José explains, “Hong Kong’s eating habits have changed. There has been a shift from large, individual plates of food to multiple, smaller plates that people share – something that was always the basis of our food anyway”. This in turn, he argues, lends itself to their young refreshing white wines, as well as mature, medium-bodied (and lower alcohol!) reds.

Because of this trend, Hong Kong now caters for all Iberian-related tastes: ranging from buzzy, counter-style eateries like 22 Ships, below, to over-the-top, nightclub-feel concept restaurants like Cataluyna (need a slow-roasted whole piglet on your table, broken up with a saucer before being smashed on the floor? You got it), you don’t have to look hard to get your Spanish fix.

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But it’s the wine that accompanies these restaurants, quietly going about its business with well-priced quality, which is worth seeking out. One of the handy things about Spanish wine is that in many cases, producers take care of all the burdensome ageing for you, meaning the wine you buy is developed and ready to enjoy at its best.

Consejo Regulador law dictates that minimum ageing requirements are imposed on a number different regions. For example in Rioja – the famous area that flanks the River Ebro in the north of the country – a red wine designated Crianza must spend at least 12 months in cask, and a further 12 in bottle, before release. For Reserva wines, the minimum time is 12+24 months, and for Gran Reserva (made in only the best years), it is 24+36 months.

Such was José’s drive to improve Sinospan’s profile, in 2011 he decided to directly showcase their products by opening a restaurant. Located in the hip Star Street neighbourhood, Plaza Mayor (below) aims to drop you straight into a traditional Madrid tapas bar. Naturally, their wine list is Plaza Mayorexclusively native: “we are the place Spanish chefs come to drink after they’ve finished work. The majority of the wine we sell you can’t get anywhere else”. This will be a good place to test the water.

The little venue stands on a quiet side street, mingling incongruously with crumbling apartment buildings, a public laundry, new/trendy social hang-outs and a Japanese fashion boutique. No cars are around. On what feels like the first cool night Hong Kong has had since early Spring, we stand on the pavement outside, using an old barrique as a platform for our conversation, as well as our glasses.cava

We try two wines. The first is Cava, Spain’s answer to Champagne, made in exactly the same way (the Traditional Method) but with different grapes. This one – made by Artemayor (right) – is 60% Macabeo and 40% Chardonnay, and carried a distinctive coppery-golden hue and a nose of mealy biscuit and baked apple. On the palate there is some stone fruit, but rich toffee and caramel, which carries on through to the finish, takes centre stage. It was a nice accompaniment to their delicious croquetas de jamón.

Second up was an interesting one. Montalvo Wilmot (left) from Tierra de Castilla, 150km south-west of Madrid, produce a montalvodeep red wine, 75% Tempranillo and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, which had bags of black cherry and plum on the nose and palate, with a pleasant sweet spice finish. This is the wine to drink with your meats and your paellas.

If you don’t feel like being sociable tonight, fear not, there’s also plenty of decent stuff to try at home: you’ll need to hunt around a little, but the city’s shelves have some good price point wines. For example, from Jason’s Supermarket Meg and I have recently had Rioja from the producer Carrizal: the 2010 Crianza, 2009 Reserva and 2007 Gran Reserva. All 13% alcohol and ready to drink, they all provide well-integrated red fruit and oak, with increasing body as you move up the scale. The Reserva was our favourite, and at just HK$119, worth every penny.

By the time I leave Plaza Mayor, all the tables inside are full. People like this place. Our conversation is cut short as José (and Laura Marin, his trusted sidekick) need to attend to business – their olive supplier is in town.

In spite of the growth, they sound a note of caution. “One big disadvantage we have against our competitors”, José says, “is that they all belong to a portfolio of restaurants, so if tastes change – which happens all the time in Hong Kong – they continue to make money from French food, Vietnamese, steaks or pizzas, whereas we might struggle. But – the wine will always be here”.

That point will resonate with the army of Spanish fans across the city. Despite the challenges, having been following his passion for his native wine in Hong Kong for over 20 years, it doesn’t look as though José is going to give up on his journey of cultural education any time soon.

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In addition to Rioja and Cava, give these exciting Spanish wines a try:

Albarino from Rias Biaxas: very fashionable right now; intensely aromatic and a great alternative to Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. Refreshing acidity and citrus-led, these wines can also reflect the Atlantic Ocean-facing region they come from. Sounds strange, but you may find yourself saying, “I can smell the sea in this wine”.

Verdejo from Rueda: a fuller-bodied version of Sauvignon Blanc, because of the warmer climate in which the grapes grow, as well as the tendency to ferment in barrel under skin contact. Instead of citrus and green fruit, look out for mango, peach and banana on the palate. A strong partner for heavier and/or sweeter Chinese food.

Priorat: a relatively new entrant on the Spanish red wine scene, and comparable to Super Tuscans by way of that break from tradition in blending local grape varieties with international ones. Available across all price points, drunk best with hearty food.

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Also, don’t forget to check out what we’ve been drinking recently here – lots of new wines up there since my first post.

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When people enhance a wine’s character

The Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair, held at the HKCEC. The annual gathering of trade and public over this 3-day event, seeing over 1,000 producers and 20,000 people come through the door, puts the city in its most telling light: business-driven, sociable, high-energy and chaotic.

Given the dominance of international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in today’s wine market, initially the aim of our visit was to taste as many marginal and local grape varieties as we could find, but instead our experience at the HKIWSF turned into a series of engaging encounters with a handful of personalities behind some of the less-well-known wine producing regions. The appetite was there, but would the wines back it up?

martina

After a swift tasting through some of Spain’s wines, Meg and I introduce ourselves to the charming and enthusiastic Martina Hunn from Kilian-Hunn wines (pictured above, with her family). Located in the Baden Anbaugebiete of south-west Germany, close to the Swiss border and on the doorstep of the Black Forest, this was the first time their wines had made an appearance at a wine show in Asia. “Hong Kong is a really intimidating place, but we believe we have the wines to impress people”, Martina says.

The philosophy (and labels) attached to her wines appear to make a weisdeliberate move towards the razor-sharp stylistic marketing of the New World. With a line-up of single varietals and a focus on freshness and aromatic character, she believes this represents their best chance to penetrate the market here. Starting with the whites, the self-styled “Cuvee Martina” is a pale lemon-green, fruity offering made predominantly from Müller-Thurgau. Simple and straightforward. The Weiβburgunder (Pinot Blanc, left) had real personality to it though; typical of Alsatian varieties from across the border in France, it demonstrated an attractive floral nose and a stone fruit-led, weighty body. The Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) followed a similar path, with even more punch on the palate due its slightly higher alcohol content (13% versus 11.5% in the Weiβ). Three very enjoyable wines, and ones that deliver on spatburgthe philosophy.

We move on to their Spätburgunder, or Pinot Noir (right). “It can get to 40 degrees centigrade in the Summer”, Martina explains, “so we pick relatively early in order to avoid that jamminess you can get with this grape”. It makes sense: the wine had a style similar to that of a Pinot from New Zealand’s North Island – medium in body and alcohol, red fruit with some sweet spice cues. It was wonderfully fresh and clean, and with that integrated oak, added quality.

Consistent with this theme of wineries from less-well-known parts of established wine nations producing notable output, Deep Woods Estate from Margaret River grabbed our attention in the Australian section. An oft-quoted boast from this part of the country is that they “only produce 5% of the wine, but win 30% of the awards”.

Steve Bradshaw, responsible for Australia & Asia marketing, instead focuses on a more humble approach, citing how Margaret River, in spite of its marginal contribution to Australian production, is developing a margriverreputation for high quality wines through measured investment and a strong respect for traditional methods (“I can recall when tractors used to drive up and down the main street through the town”).

Due to its Bordeaux-like climate, the Indian Ocean-facing region is famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon, but Burgundy stalwart Chardonnay was the main topic of conversation. Australia’s interpretation of the famous grape has flip-flopped over time, from over-oaked – and therefore overbearing and unfashionable – full-bodied types a decade ago, to austere, almost neutral styles in more recent years.

Of late though, Steve says, Australian winemakers are starting to “get it” by blending differently-made parcels of wine together – in their case, some fermented slowly in cool, anaerobic conditions; some in new, large-format oak and some in old, traditional 225l barriques. Lees stirring is also hillside_chardyused selectively. Although more onerous, the resulting output has given them much greater optionality about the type of wine they want to produce, with that all-important focus on quality and consistency.

We try their estate (“Hillside”) Chardonnay, left: bright lemon, it was citrus and green fruit-driven with subtle vanilla courtesy of the old oak. Well rounded and pleasant, designed for early drinking. The reserve wine, with its combination of new and old wood in addition to the batonage process, was layered and complex. A strong acid thread should ensure good development; these wines will definitely be worth keeping an eye on.

The appropriately-named Vianney de Tastes from Château Bélingard in the picturesque Dordogne region was our next memorable meeting. Often disparagingly tagged as “Bordeaux copies”, the vineyards south of Bergerac produce approachable, easy-drinking wines: Vianney was keen to explain how, in spite of having to operate within the rules of the Appelation d’Origine Contrôleé, they could still be innovative and make wines that were relevant in today’s market.

He takes a “semi-organic approach” to winemaking, with minimal use of sulphites so that the grapes can “express themselves”. Very true in the case of his blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Gris, the latter a clonal mutation of the hugely popular Sauvignon Blanc. “The French market is so traditional, but we realise we have to adapt to stay relevant”, Vianney explains as the basis for this new wine. Great for a hot climate, the Semillon provides body but the Gris leads with citrus and floral notes on the nose, and lovely acidity on the palate. Refreshing and uplifting, and at “€7 a bottle”, what a bargain.

We then sample their reserve sweet wine from AOC Monbazillac, a combination of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and the exotically-perfumed Muscadelle. Although well inland, Dordogne’s valleys see the appropriate combination of early-morning mists and warm, sunny afternoons to produce the famous Botrytis fungus, or noble rot. Not cloying, the wine is light, balanced, with high acidity to counteract the sugar. The honeyed marmalade finish is terrific, leading me to ask for a top-up before we head off.

Following a willing but ultimately unsuccessful foray into the world of Chinese wine – a Cabernet Sauvignon from Ningxia had blackcurrant and herbaceous varietal character, but really lacked balance, while a Sauvignon Blanc “Icewine” left us with an unpleasant burnt honeycomb finish that felt like it would last until Christmas – we happened upon a crowded stand, full of jostling spectators keen to try wines from…the Crimea.

Although seen as a new addition to the wine scene in this part of the world, Czar Nicholas II founded the famous Massandra winery near Yalta in 1894, so the region has provenance. We were glad we battled through, igoras there was a real story here, not to mention some genuinely good wines. Among the throng, we managed to engage with Igor Serdyuk (right), Deputy General Director of the Alma Valley winery and “part-time journalist” (he is also a master of modesty, as he is actually a leading Russian wine writer, and a contributor to such lofty overseas titles such as Robb Report and Forbes). He walked us through how the Crimea’s mild Mediterranean-style climate, with the cooling influence of the Black Sea, made it an exciting spot for the production of classic grape varieties. They are also aiming for growth: “currently we produce 500,000 bottles per year; by 2018 we want to be at three million”, says Igor, confidently.

We started off with their Riesling. They halt fermentation to leave 15g/l of residual sugar, but still manage to run it up to 14% alcohol while maintaining the acidity the grape is noted for, so the resulting wine is refreshing but has real backbone. Fruit was more tropical than green, but in spite of the difference, I couldn’t help thinking we were drinking an off-dry Spätlese from Mosel in Germany, albeit one with an electric-alma_rosepowered turbocharger attached to its back.

More surprises followed. Dressed in delightfully retro Soviet-era labels, we tried Alma’s Summer Wine (left), an off-dry 50/50 blend of Shiraz and Pinot Noir. Ostensibly a rosé, the “wine to drink on the beach” came in at just 11% alcohol but still had proper red fruit character delivered with fresh, crisp acidity without being dulled by the leftover sugar. They achieve this with dedicated fruit for the wine, so the colour and acidity are just right, then start vinification with a short cold maceration before direct pressing. These guys do it properly, and the result is impressive.

Next, the “wine to drink with your picnic” (below; sold for US$5 locally) led me to think we would be tasting something only marginally higher in body than the previous offering: instead it nearly alma_picnicblew my head off. This Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz mix was black fruit-led, high in acidity, tannin and alcohol – reminiscent of a Coonawarra blend – leading me to comment, “Igor, I’m not sure I would categorise this as a picnic wine; shouldn’t this age for a few years first?”, to which the retort was as bracing as the wine itself: “that’s because your Western palate defines a picnic as tapas-style cold cuts, whereas in my part of the world a picnic is big barbecued red meats”. He made a valid point, and the wine was indeed perfect for its intended use.

Having then run through their standard and reserve Tempranillos and Shirazes, both strong with everything in place, we offered our thanks for his time and wished him all the best as they, like Martina, Steve and Vianney, attempt to drop anchor in the Hong Kong market.

“Before you leave”, Igor said quietly, “let me show you something on my phone”. It was a picture of a brief hand-written note on Alma Valley headed paper, from none other than Vladimir Putin: “Very delicious, very beautiful and qualitative! Good luck!”

With quality and support such as this, you can’t help thinking this particular part of wine’s new frontier won’t have any problem in achieving their goals.