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