The 23rd Parallel Q&A: Jennie Mack, AWSEC

In the third in a series of interviews for Grape Collective, I talk to Jennie Mack, Founder and Managing Director of the Asia Wine Service & Education Centre in Hong Kong. She has blazed a trail for wine education in Asia for over two decades now, and talks about the city’s early wine scene in the context of her own journey, the differing factors that have led to growth, and what the future holds for the field.

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Jennie, every year at the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair, it’s hard not to be impressed not only by our wine-loving population’s sheer level of interest, but by their desire to learn about it in a deeper, more technical sense – rather than just luxuriate in the event itself. Set the stage for us by winding the clock back 20 years: what was the wine scene like in HK, how did you start out, and what were people’s attitudes towards learning?

In the early 1990s, the wine scene here was actually non-existent: it was limited to the elite. It was the preserve of CEOs and Managing Directors – the wealthy. The general public just didn’t buy wine, let alone want to learn about it. That really was it.

For my first job I worked for the Quebec Government, so because they were consular it meant any wines bought were free of taxes [duty stood at 80% at the time]. I got exposure there, but when I started working for a software firm, my interest really started. The company would entertain important people in Macau and the like – I was invited along to dinners and was given responsibility to understand what we were drinking!

My husband Stephen was originally a sommelier in the UK when we first met, working for the Hong Kong Government so spoke Cantonese. Due to my background I spoke French. As we got to know each other he took me to Bordeaux: I still really knew nothing about wine but could speak the language so I acted as his interpreter. We enjoyed ourselves so much there, along with subsequent trips, we decided to set up a company.

So you fell in love in wine, but what was the genesis of the idea to educate people about it, as opposed to import and distribute, like many others have done subsequently?

Originally there were only a few wine shops in Hong Kong; we would go to private tastings and have fun just casually talking about what we were drinking. As people heard more about our knowledge of the subject, Stephen and I received offers to talk at events, give informal classes, that sort of thing. So we almost fell into it. Things started very slowly though; there was no grand plan to become some huge wine school!

Once the business had been set up, the clincher if you like was WSET. Right at the start of the 2000s, there was only one approved course educator in the city. He was retiring and WSET asked us if we would like to be involved. We jumped at the chance.

What were the main catalysts for the growth of your business then?

Three factors really. Firstly, WSET was obviously a huge deal for us: we suddenly had an internationally-recognised accreditation as our calling card, and it gave us a great advantage as the popularity of wine grew. The business was also repeat in nature, due to people’s desire to go from one level to the next.

Strangely, the SARS outbreak in 2002 helped us. We saw a real increase in the amount of people enrolling for courses during the crisis. It is hard to put my finger on exactly why, but it seemed to be happening because people quite literally had to stay off the streets: they needed things to do so wine education was one of them!

But honestly, the biggest help was the Government’s decision to reduce, and then remove, duty on wine [it went from 80% to 40 to zero in the 2000s, meaning Hong Kong is the only duty-free wine domicile among major economies globally]. By 2008, when it went to zero, it suddenly became so much cheaper for the general population to purchase wine, so it was no surprise when the scene just exploded. The HKIWSF you mentioned at the start – the format you know today was born that year for example.

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Everything happens for a reason! As you know our city has seen a huge rise in the quality and quantity of wine-focused restaurants and bars this past 5-7 years; as fashions have changed, how has that manifested itself in how AWSEC has educated industry professionals?

As consumers have become more knowledgable, the F&B industry has had to keep up. In terms of what’s popular, after a slow start I think people are generally moving away from Bordeaux and Burgundy now, so as they explore the New World more, it feels like there is a good mix between the high-end (which will probably always be there due to a strong sense of brand awareness) and the everyday.

This shift in fashion, especially from Hong Kong’s younger generation of drinkers, has provided impetus to the education movement, most notably via WSET which of course has such a wide-ranging syllabus. The restaurants and bars know they have to train their staff to stay relevant.

Right. And on the other side of the same coin, to what degree are you seeing demand for courses from people that do not work in traditional F&B roles?

There is huge demand! In fact, the amount of people we teach that are not directly in the industry are in the majority. When we first started, I would say around 80% of people who enrolled in our courses were normal, everyday consumers. Nowadays, F&B industry participation is much higher than 20%, but the private consumers still take up 60-70%. It’s great to see.

How do you think wine education will evolve in the next decade for you?

For starters, we are going to expand our offering to augment the core WSET courses. WSET is fantastically popular, and we love teaching it, but the courses are very broad in scope. We already do dedicated Burgundy/Bordeaux and Australia classes, but more tailored supplementary courses for areas such as Chile and New Zealand – also Saké – will provide great opportunities for people going forward.drogerspic_wsetsign

We’ll also continue our heavy involvement with company-specific education. As the lifestyle scene continues to grow in Hong Kong, we are getting more and more requests to do bespoke training for a specific group of people. It’s an exciting area.

Travel-based education will be another offering for the serious wine enthusiast. For example we have done professional immersion programs in places like Champagne and Alsace. Things like this will be a great alternative for people who don’t necessarily want to climb the WSET ladder, instead developing a specialism, and so on.

Finally our push into the mainland: we have opened offices in Guangzhou and Shanghai in recent times, and now offer a full suite of courses. We hope this will really drive growth for us, because although wine in China is popular now, we really are only scratching the surface.

Most of all though, we just want to continue to educate people and stir their passion for wine. An anecdote my educators like to share – perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek – is that Asia has more Masters of Wine in the pipeline than any other part of the world. If we can help start even more people off on their journey, that’s good enough for us.

How about yourself though? Given you hold a WSET Diploma, wouldn’t you like to go on to qualify as an MW?

I’d love to, but I don’t think I have the time!

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This interview was originally published on Grape Collective, the current front cover of which can be seen below.

You can find out more about AWSEC, and the courses they offer, via their website.

If you like this article, please share by using the links below…and if you’re a fan of Twitter, you can follow me here. We also now have a Facebook page here.

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The 23rd Parallel is now on Facebook!

A happy Sunday to all, and indeed a wonderfully sunny one here in Hong Kong. The scene in Stanley was a mighty pleasant one earlier today…

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Just a quick note over our late-weekend glass of red: The 23rd Parallel now has its own Facebook page. Just go to the following:

https://www.facebook.com/the23rdparallel

Please click on the Like button to receive all the latest posts (and more) direct to your feed. Some cool interviews and articles to come over the next few weeks.

If you’re also on Twitter and want to Follow, a reminder that you can also keep up-to-date with everything right here:

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Enjoy the rest of your weekend…and Kung Hei Fat Choi!

The 23rd Parallel Q&A: Michael Palij MW, Vino Veritas

Achieving Master of Wine status at the age of 29, UK-based Canadian Michael Palij is the figurehead of Vino Veritas, a boutique importer and distributor of Italian wines in Hong Kong. A leading authority on the country, he writes the Italian section of WSET’s core textbooks. While on a whistle-stop tour of the city in which he used to live, he took a breather to talk to me about cultural shifts, Prada and Gucci, electrical analogies…and why he’s just one of the guys.

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Michael, talk to us about the wine scene in Hong Kong from your perspective: the brand awareness argument is fairly well understood now, and although we hear a lot about the wine-buying population exploring new areas outside classical France, in your experience at what speed is this actually playing out?

To sum it up in one word: slowly. The statistic that sticks in my mind is that 77% of all wine sales here are still French, and red. Of the remaining 23% up for grabs, Italy is trying to grab the proverbial 1% of the 1% at the moment. So that tells you everything you need to know!

If you look at where Hong Kong is, in a historical sense there are interesting parallels with other markets: if you take the UK in 1995 for example, 10% of all wine sales were Italian, and of that, 9.9% came from Lambrusco. Why am I telling you this? Because in any country, the wine-consuming population often portrays itself as a collection of sophisticates, but the reality is something very different when you look at actual sales numbers.

The city is going through exactly the same process right now. We’ve been through a phase where, fuelled by mainland China I have to say, a large demographic who suddenly had access to disposable income were guided by Robert Parker or whomever; having looked at a wine that had been rated with 100 points, they would say “I have the money, so I’ll buy the Mouton”. You can’t really blame people for that.

Per capita sales in Hong Kong are around 7.5 litres of wine per year. As a comparison Italy is around 10 times that, the UK 3-4 times bigger. But here’s the rub: the difference between what Hong Kong buys, and what Hong Kong consumes, is enormous. They only drink around 2.5 litres each per year, so where does that extra 5 litres go? It either gets exported, or stored ad infinitum at Crown Cellars [one of the city’s most renowned wine storage facilities] or wherever.

What you don’t see yet is a culture of drinking – and I mean generally, not just wine – by the adult population here; unlike in Europe and the States, where it is socially acceptable to say have a bottle of wine with lunch, people drink tea. For the most part, wine is still about “face”: at most demographic points it’s about gifting, it’s about being seen to be carrying out a ritual which is associated with sophistication.

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Some interesting perspectives there, not to mention numbers. In the context of Vino Veritas being a niche provider of artisanal Italian wines though, how are things playing out for you given what you’ve just said?

My view is that once people get a bit of social confidence, they don’t have to wear Prada or Gucci everyday, if you know what I mean. You can get to a point where they open wine just because it tastes damn good.

This will help us, and that is where Hong Kong is going to get to: now I don’t know if it’s going to happen tomorrow, or the next day, but that doesn’t matter to me. We’re here for the long term, by being focused on education, changing mindsets, brand building – all the things that will establish us as a leader in Italian wine.

Specific to Italy then, as people shift out of France, they look to Piedmont, they go to Tuscany; to what degree will that in turn shift into a case of, “well I know Piedmont, how about trying something different to a Barolo; how about we go across to the Marche, up to Veneto, or down south to Campania to try a big Taurasi?” Do you think we are years away from that, or are the seeds firmly sown already?

Well, I’m not sure the pathway is quite like that. I don’t think Hongkongers will instantly move away from France – to start they’ll move away from Bordeaux and Burgundy. They might move to another part of France, or they’ll try Bordeaux Supérieur instead of Classed Growth.

But here’s where it gets interesting. At exactly the same point we could short circuit that change and say to people, “instead of trying that different Bordeaux, how about giving our Taurasi a go?” I’m not entirely sure we’re quite yet at the point where Italy lives in a box called “experimentation” though; at the moment it still lives in a box called “not France”. We’ll get there though.

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So have there been any notable short circuits up to this point?

When we first started Vino Veritas, the first thing everyone would say to us was, “don’t try to sell white wine. People don’t drink it in Hong Kong”. In our first year of operation though, our biggest-selling wine was a white wine from a grape called Timorasso. By the look on your face [a blank one], I’m pretty sure that’s a varietal you’ve never heard of [I hadn’t].

So how did that happen? It was one of those rare occasions where I got up on my hind legs and said, “you really need to try this, here’s the story, I genuinely think you’ll like it”. People tasted the wine, listened to the story, and it all made sense to them. People are open to experimenting, but they are not open to being made a fool of – so you need to get this stuff right. It can work.

You make an interesting point on recommending wine: seeing as MWs are so thin on the ground in Asia, to what degree can you bring that influence, that caché, to bear on a commercial enterprise? Because of your position, how do you use it in the right way for the betterment of your business, and in order to promote Italian wines?

ferraritrentoI honestly don’t think I’ve ever stood up and spoken solely about Vino Veritas. I’m not wired like that. If you – anyone – are getting up and talking about wine, it ultimately helps our business. The more MWs we get in Hong Kong, the more people that talk about wine through events, the better. Education, and the respect people have for teachers, is huge here, so wine can and will really take advantage of this.

Aligned with the social and thematic changes we’ve talked about, I’m sure Italian wine will go from strength to strength in the coming years. It doesn’t need me to get on my soapbox to achieve that.

On a lighter note, you must find it interesting when you go to events in Hong Kong, witnessing people’s reactions when they find out your background. Presumably they’re falling at your feet because of your two little letters!

Honestly, the deification of MWs is very silly, and it’s definitely worse in this part of the world. I know there aren’t many of us who have achieved the qualification, but there are so many people who know a heck of a lot about wine, without having the letters after their name. I just happened to have a decent palate from a young age, and have managed to make a living out of promoting wine in a positive way. I’m still a normal bloke, who likes going out with his mates and having a few beers!

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This article was originally published on Grape Collective, the latest cover of which is shown below. You can find out more about Vino Veritas via their website.

If you like this article, please share by using the links after the image…and if you’re a fan of the Twittersphere, you can follow me here. Thanks!

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From Sobriety to Sangiovese in 50km

It’s over. Finally over. A self-imposed month of vinous exile is at an end. Instead of using hundreds of words to explain why it was necessary to stay booze-free, and the events that led us back to our favourite beverage, I’ll just use six pictures instead:

Saturday 30th January. An early morning start on The Peak:

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Over the next five-and-a-bit hours:

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The finish:

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The remnants:

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Starting the process of bringing the legs back to life:

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The reward…Brunello di Montalcino and Beef & Liberty burgers:

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And with that, What We’ve Been Drinking Recently is alive again!

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The 23rd Parallel Q&A: James Rowell, Altaya Wines

Sorry it’s been a while! During my self-imposed wine hiatus this past four weeks, instead of just staring at an empty Riedel glass I’ve been busy researching, interviewing and writing behind the scenes. In addition to my usual stories, I’m also delighted to report that I’ve been asked by New York-based magazine Grape Collective to write a series of Q&A-style articles about the wine scene here in Hong Kong.

Here’s the first one, originally published on their website on Monday. Hope you like it.

James Rowell is Manager of Corporate & VIP Sales for Altaya Wines, one of the largest importers and distributors of wine in Hong Kong. Also a certified WSET educator, he oversees trade into the city’s retail groups, hotels, restaurants, bars and event companies. Here he talks about the latest consumption trends, the challenges of selling, disruptive influences…and a window into the cultural aspects of wine habits here.

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James, can you give us a sense of Hong Kong’s wine scene today and how the business side has evolved? Also, what are people drinking; what do people like?

The wine trade in Hong Kong is now bigger and more complex than it has ever been. There is more choice, and there are more people involved as importers, distributors, and educators. Hotels, as well as serious independent restaurants, have significantly upped their game, offering higher quality, more esoteric wines with the intention of establishing their wine lists as a point of difference versus their competitors.

There is a growing, significant minority now in which a certain level of wine knowledge is more or less de rigeur. Even if they drink a French wine, they don’t automatically go to Bordeaux anymore; they realise for example that there is an equivalent standard, and perhaps with a better price point, to be found in other parts of the country. They also know that there is genuine similar quality from the New World, be it in the form of Napa Valley, Barossa or wherever.

A realisation has also taken place that at the lower levels, the classic French wine regions may not offer the best option – this has led people to explore other parts of the world, particularly Italy, Spain, more obscure New World sites and, in some cases, areas off the beaten track such as eastern Europe.

Given this trend then, to what degree do you see your customers pushing out into the corners and actually exploring these areas? You guys are obviously well grounded in the Old World, with huge strength in Bordeaux and Burgundy, but you have a large tail of New World wines…do you think there is that genuine interest for that here; are consumers ready?

In a certain way, they’re not. One of our problems is that as a company, people often think of us as only strong in the classic regions: big portfolio, lots of choice, lots of older vintages. But we say hang on, we have excellent Côtes-du-Rhone for HK$150 [US$19] a bottle and not only that, it’s made by some of the best producers from that region. We also have lovely wines from Alsace and Macon that are great to drink on a daily basis. Chile, Australia and New Zealand too. The direct-to-consumer market here has yet to genuinely buy in to this idea, that it’s okay to buy wine across a series of price points.

The big thing is having affordable, everyday wines. 5-10 years ago, they just weren’t available here, which in large part explains this dynamic. We are really trying to make sure that for example, the latest vintage of an Aussie Chardonnay, costing HK$120 [US$15], is there for the hotels and restaurants, as well as our normal private customers. At the moment, it is mostly the former group taking advantage of this, but things are changing.

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With that in mind, the distribution landscape must be extremely competitive in Hong Kong; given our crazy property prices, and the cost of renting retail space, tell us how you approach the issue of getting your brand and product in front of people…

I know a guy who has chosen to specialise in Hungarian wine – a very brave man, and not something I would chose to do – from a shop front in an obscure part of Kowloon. That’s his prerogative, and we wish him all the best. The problem you have here though is that because wine is a low margin business for the majority of your higher-volume stock, ultimately the economics of the business can catch up with you.

People usually have a store front as an adjunct to their web business – and we are in that group – although it often serves only to offer a tactile aspect to what they’re selling. The volume and profitability comes from our online operation, and gives us the ability to maintain our foothold in the wholesale segment of the market. I don’t just sell to big retail groups, restaurants and the like; I will sell wine to other wholesalers, art galleries, auction houses. I could probably add another half-dozen categories given the size of our portfolio, the fact we deal directly with producers and our pricing power.

These factors are an enormous help. The whole property situation here makes retail very difficult for smaller distributors, which solely as a wine lover is enormously frustrating.

It seems like you are very much in a position of strength. Could you identify a potential for disruption to this model though?

The retail offering from supermarkets for example has become more sophisticated and diverse in recent years, and they have the potential to be a disruptive force to traditional wholesalers and private client businesses like us: a lot of consumers, unless they’re particularly brand focused, are purchasing like this now.

There is certainly potential for supermarkets to up their game in the way they structure their wine selections, the way they present it in-store, connect to producers and generally make more of the massive food-related footfall they get on a daily basis.

You talk about customers being brand focused: would you describe the city’s wine-buying public as fickle, and what do you make of the explosion in wine education here and on the mainland?

Well, in my experience it is true that when it comes to people’s lifestyle choices, Hongkongers will often migrate to whatever puts them in a positive light in the eyes of their peers. The move away from the classic regions is definitely happening, so it is great that people are experimenting. To a certain degree being fickle when it comes to wine is a good thing.

This also speaks to the question of education: I often see people taking up courses solely for the betterment of their profile, building out their extra-curricular part of their CV and so on. That being said, if you consider that Greater China is now the second-largest market globally for WSET courses outside the UK, and the first course was only 10 years ago, it is amazing how far we have come in such a short space of time.

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If you like this article, please share by using the links below. You can also see its original appearance on Grape Collective here. With a focus on less-travelled wine areas, the engaging articles and videos make the site well worth checking out. I’m hugely excited to be contributing to the team (scroll down for my bio).

Finally, if you’re on Twitter, please follow me here. Thanks!

Wishing you a vinous 2016!

A quick post to wish you and your families and healthy, happy and wine-filled 2016! Huge thanks for your support since launching The 23rd Parallel just six short weeks ago – the following already established has been extremely flattering, so I’ll be doing my best to keep the content coming in the months ahead.

Last night’s NYE was a very low-key one, a welcome moment of calm after what had been an extremely hectic 4-5 weeks. The wine of the night was a 2006 Pol Roger Rosé, below. Tasting notes as ever are right here.

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By way of a catch-up, a few of my blog highlights so far have been:

  • Favourite post: the perils of a holiday romance! Can a wine lose its mojo?
  • Most talked-about/educational post: those Port and mince pies…here
  • Favourite wine: 1985 Chateau Leoville-Barton. Incredible
  • Most promising development: 2013 Churton “Best End” Sauvignon Blanc
  • Unconventional and surprising: 2008 Kurni Rosso
  • Most indomitable character: it has to be Igor Serdyuk at HKIWSF. Leading the charge for Crimean wine – with genuine quality

The first three months of this year will be a lot less hectic, mainly because I’m running the 50km Green Power Hike on 30th January, then the Seoul Marathon on 20th March: a lot of training to get done so January is, unfortunately, going to have to be a dry month. Where’s that spittoon?!

In no particular order, here is a selection of some of the things I intend to write about in the weeks and months to come:

  • A look at Hong Kong’s current wine trends, featuring interviews with leading industry figures
  • The growth of wine education in this part of the world
  • Tasting the wines of a boutique Napa Valley producer, and the challenges associated with making a footprint here
  • sherry tasting: trying to decode this very unique wine
  • What its like to be studying for the Master of Wine qualification: a chat with a second year student
  • How to establish an Italian wine distributor in Hong Kong
  • A retrospective of New Zealand‘s wine scene, using texts and data from 50+ years ago
  • Margaret River trip: the three of us are heading down to WA at the end of March; I plan on getting my hands dirty in a winery!

If you have any ideas for subject matter you’d like me to investigate (i.e. taste) and write about, just holler.

Please continue to follow The 23rd Parallel and remember to share, discuss, retweet and recommend via Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, word of mouth, carrier pigeon, smoke signal and morse code.

Thanks for your help, and Happy New Year!

Dave

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Can a wine lose its mojo?

Have you ever spent a memorable holiday in a wine-growing area, shipped your favourite wine home in the expectation of future enjoyment, but when you opened that first bottle, at best it didn’t seem quite as good as you originally remembered, or at worst, was a complete let down?

For Christmas dinner this year, we paired our turkey with a Kiwi Pinot Noir. It was good without being spectacular, so it immediately got me thinking – wasn’t this identical wine miles better when we first drank it in New Zealand just five short months go?

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Our festive red – a 2010 Churton “The Abyss” Pinot Noir – was definitely enjoyable, but there was something missing compared to the previous experience we’d had with it. While in Wellington in July, the three of us had dinner at the renowned Boulcott Street Bistro, above; to go with our lamb racks and slow-braised beef short rib in its intimate Gothic cottage setting, we had the same vintage of the same wine.

Like many wine list decisions, this one was based on some degree of understanding of its provenance: having previously ridden pushbikes through the stunning scenery of the Marlborough wine region (below), where Churton is made, and then met their winemaker Sam Weaver at a tasting here in HK, we were confident it would be a good choice. And, as my notes at the time showed, so it proved: we were enthralled by its “seductive savoury, red fruit and exotic spice perfume” and on the palate, “its medium body was delicate and harmonious, mixing cherry and strawberry with black tea and brooding smoky oak. Lovely long finish”.

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So what happened? In search of a more romantic hypothesis, we’ll discount the potentially damaging effects of the wine’s long journey from New Zealand’s South Island to Hong Kong, as opposed to the short hop across the Cook Strait. Also, the wine was bought from a very reliable supplier here, so storage will almost certainly have been sound.

Instead, we can look to the notion of being immersed in a different (read: enjoyable) set of surroundings, and the effect a more relaxed state has on your impression of the sensory inputs you receive. I’ll let someone far more qualified in the projection of imagery than I to demonstrate this point. In his 1958 novel Dr No, Ian Fleming describes the arrival of everyone’s favourite spy in Jamaica as follows:

The Blue Hills was a comfortable old-fashioned hotel with modern trimmings. He was shown to a fine corner room with a balcony looking over the distant sweep of Kingston Harbour.

James Bond ordered a double gin and tonic and one whole green lime; when the drink came he cut the lime in half, dropped the two squeezed halves into the long glass, almost filled the glass with ice cubes and then poured in the tonic. He took the drink out on to the balcony, and sat and looked out across the spectacular view.

He sat for a while, luxuriously, letting the gin relax him: he thought how wonderful it was to be away from headquarters, from London, and, as all his senses told him, that he was on a good tough case again.

That, to me, sounds like the best damn gin and tonic I’ve never had.

In 2004, Meg and I visited the picturesque Greek island of Santorini. There we visited Domaine Sigalas, one of the leading proponents of the distinctive local grape, Assyrtiko. Having completed a tour under the charming guidance of Paris Sigalas himself, we sat outside the winery (below), enjoying tasting flights of his unoaked dry white, as well as their naturally sweet “Vinsanto”, to go with a simple yet delightful lunch spread.

The Assyrtiko in its dry form, with citrus, minerality and razor-sharp acidity, was a perfect foil for the feta cheese, olives and sunny yet barren surroundings of the volcanic island’s eastern plain. The Vinsanto, a result of sun-dried fruit, was balanced, indulgent and complex.

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Months later, back at home in London, we opened a bottle of each in an attempt to lift our spirits after a long week at work. It was cold and wet outside. No notes exist, but I remember both wines being completely underwhelming: the acidity of the dry Assyrtiko being out of balance with the fruit to the point of sourness, and the sweet wine being cloying and flabby. They could not have been further from the wines we sampled on that lovely Mediterranean island.

If we assume that modern packaging, transportation and storage are sound enough for a wine to be tasted “equally” all over the world (something, I admit, will not always hold true), it is not a stretch to suggest its quality therefore is determined not only by the physical combination of fruit, soil, aspect, climate and vinification – the middle three the French like to call terroir – but also the physiological inputs of human condition and one’s response to our environmental surroundings.

With the Churton and Sigalas, were they genuinely worse when not consumed in their immediate place of origin? Or when drunk locally, were we psychologically duped, the wines somehow getting lifted to a higher level? I suspect the answer is probably somewhere in between: consensus is they are both very good wines (go here and here for tasting notes), so it is a reasonably safe assumption that our perception of their quality was a combination of all the factors noted above, and probably more when you think about elements such as serving temperature, stemware, accompanying food and so on.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said, “our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts”. The nature and origin of a wine’s observed quality is a fascinating subject to consider and, crucially, one which often forms the basis of a given producer’s pitch to us as consumers.

Does anyone else have an experience of a wine disappointing, or worse still falling flat on its face, as soon as you got it back home?

Old Empire Long Lunch

It is 5:58pm as we walk back out into Causeway Bay’s crowded streets. Feeling bleary-eyed in the cool December air, at first it takes us a moment to re-establish our bearings amid the chaos of Tang Lung Street. People are everywhere; buses and taxis shoot past. One of the group should have been on his way to the airport 30 minutes ago: “I really need to get going, otherwise I am a dead man”. And with that, like Keyser Söze, he’s gone.

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Five-and-a-half hours earlier, the four of us had taken our seats at Wooloomooloo Prime on the 27th floor of the Soundwill Plaza building (above), for what would be an epic journey through eight terrific wines from around the world. The lunch would be a Christmas social, a recap of the year, as well as an eccentric celebration of our common backgrounds. All being British, the lunch would serve as a nostalgic – but perhaps more relevantly, comedic – backdrop to a conversation about The Old Empire.

In keeping with the spirit of the event, we start with arguably the greatest Brit of all time: Sir Winston Churchill. The Prime Minister had drunk Pol Roger Champagne since the 1920s, but it was not until he attended a dinner at theWinston-Churchill-Odette-Pol-Roger British Embassy in Paris at the end of the Second World War, where he was seated next to the beguiling Odette Pol-Roger, his predilection for the famous Épernay house was sealed. Their close friendship (right) lasted until Churchill’s death in 1965, and in 1984 Odette decided to name their prestige blend in his honour, launching it at Blenheim Palace, the place of his birth.

We drink the 2000 Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill. A shimmering golden colour with only minimal bubbles, its nose was beautifully layered: first toast and vanilla, it moved on to stewed apple before taking on somewhat of a mineral note, typical of a younger wine. Still very fresh. On the palate it was enormously rich and full-bodied, less fruit but delivering biscuity autolytic cues as well as more of that oak influence. A long finish confirmed its undoubted quality – what a start.

We then moved through some awesome food to go with our chosen bottles: Fines de Claire oysters and Iberico ham while we considered the menu (and drank the SWC); scallops and crab cakes as starters, before a selection of meats from the butcher’s block including a superb bone-in ribeye Tomahawk.

This was how we found the wines:

2013 Greywacke Pinot Gris

  • Cloudy Bay founder and photographer Kevin Judd set up his own label in 2009, and this past couple of years has seen the fruits of his labour rewarded with real quality. This one was pale lime-green in colour; a quirky aromatic wine with a complex nose of white flowers, stone fruit (esp. peach) and a slight candied note. Very enjoyable, and a perfect way to kick things off post-fizz, this off-dry wine had a full-ish body with refreshing acidity and a nice green fruit finish

2010 Domaine J-M Boillot Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru

  • A deep gold colour, this Premier League chardonnay from one of Puligny-Montrachet’s Grand Cru sites was mineral, rich and toasty. Surprisingly, not much fruit there but a Chablis-like steeliness instead. A perfect accompaniment, as well as a stylistic contrast to the Greywacke, for our starters

2008 Dry River Pinot Noir

  • Following the recent tasting, we decanted for well over an hour and it made a big difference: more primary fruit on the nose, especially strawberry and raspberry, as well as sweet spice and a touch of white pepper, it was pleasant but still somewhat closed. All the elements of tannin, fruit, acidity and alcohol were balanced enough though, to suggest this should be long-lived (damn: only two bottles left)

2000 Domaine Leroy Pommard “Les Vignots”

  • What, hopefully, the Dry River will taste like in 8 years’ time. Beautifully perfumed, it has trademark Pinot red fruit, but now perfectly integrated with a savoury character, best described as “meaty”. On the palate it was delicate and balanced, medium-bodied with nothing out of place. A pleasure to drink, and an outstanding example of premium aged red Burgundy

2001 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva

  • For a 14-year-old, this Spanish favourite seemed remarkably young on the nose. A Tempranillo fruit bomb of blackcurrant and black cherry jumped out of the glass, and it was only when tasted that some of the more secondary (winemaking) character – oak, vanilla – started to come through. Fruit forward with plenty of soft tannin, it was perfect with the Tomahawk

2000 Chateau Haut-Bailly

  • A classic Claret from a brilliant vintage. Sweet spice, oak, blackcurrant and graphite on the nose, followed by mellow tannins and lovely red fruit on the palate. We were starting to flag after the previous six wines, but still lucid enough to appreciate the quality of this excellent wine

2007 Klein Constantia Vin de Constance

  • Worth reading the history of this famous wine. A terrific way to end our vinous odyssey, this sweet wine from South Africa was a deep, coppery-gold colour. Rich, full-bodied and unctuous (but not cloyingly so), it had cinnamon and clove, orange marmalade and tropical fruit attacking the senses…fantastically matching our apple crumble and cheesecake desserts

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It is fair to say that by the time we had worked through the above, with darkness starting to fall, we had long since moved away from discussing the virtues – or lack thereof – of Britain’s rich and varied history. Instead, our long lunch turned into what the best social events always do: outstanding food and wine serving as a canvas for friends to share hour after hour of great conversation.

Roll on Christmas!

A healthy week in Hong Kong

Sunday, and our livers are just about intact.

At the denouement of what has been a brilliant week of fun, food and wine, the final act is one where we step into a culinary Alice In Wonderland moment. Or perhaps it is Willy Wonka: in an edible forest-floor scene, below, a white and dark chocolate death cap draws you in, before bouncing between milk chocolate Piedmontese truffle, hazelnut “brothers” and dark chocolate and raspberry barrels. Goodness.

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As we reflect on the past seven days, it is fair to say there has been fun, sadness, great conversation, scenery, awesome food and, without doubt, some terrific wine along the way. So, to go with the What We’ve Been Drinking Recently section – where you can find full tasting notes of all the stuff we’ve tasted – here’s the run-down on where we have been, and what we have eaten, since last weekend…

Kicking things off last Saturday: dinner was had at Moonshine & The Po’Boys in the Star Street neighbourhood (below). In spite of the depressingly predictable need-to-get-you-out-in-two-hours Hong Kong service, the food here is genuinely worth putting up with the pushy waiting staff for.

Chargrilled calamari, dirty rice jambalaya, catfish tacos and, for the main event, a half chicken and a bone-in mini tomahawk were made with skill and love – a million miles away from the chain group dining scene here, and fully reflective of Southern food at its best.

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Sunday: at home in Stanley, doing the Port and mince pies road test. Truth was, the only thing that tasting an above-average amount of fortified wine gave us, when drunk with those rich and delicious sweet festive treats, was a suppressed appetite. Home-made soup was all we needed for dinner that night.

Monday: in the China Resources Building in Wanchai, doing a Christmas wine tasting with Berry Bros & Rudd. Tactical eating needed to take place beforehand, so a portion of mexican rice with chicken and okra from healthy new kid on the block Nutrition Kitchen did the trick.

Tuesday: the only place I went to of any note was the gym at The American Club. Meg made a dinner of pesto and breadcrumb-coated salmon, with couscous and vine-roasted tomatoes. But seeing as it is silly season, the already-opened Port from two days earlier looked at us like a neglected child, so we had to just check in with a couple of small glasses. Both the Otima 10 and 2008 LBV were still in fine fettle.

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Wednesday: G7 Private Dining on Glenealy Street in Soho. The team, along with our better halves (above), assembled for a cracking Italian-inspired dinner. The double magnum of Ornellaia was a real treat as it held court over the latter half of the following menu:

  • Antipasti of burrito di bufala, sturia cold-smoked sturgeon, grilled polenta and gorgonzola, and cotechino with green lentils
  • Chestnut soup
  • Casarecce pasta with wild boar ragu and porcini mushrooms
  • Clams steamed in white wine and chorizo
  • Wild red venison saddle
  • Cheese selection with jam and crackers
  • Panettone with pistachio creme fraiche

Thursday: an emotional farewell to friends in Stanley after a run from HKCC to home. Our host’s amazing spread contained a honey-glazed ham, a manuka-smoked salmon, broccoli cakes, home-made cheese pies and an incredible array of dips, sticks and other finger food miscellany. A grazer’s paradise.

Friday: a long lunch on the terrace at ON Dining in Central (below). Wine was definitely the focus here (that ’85 Leoville…holy moly), but we took in some lovely gnocchi with serrano ham, roasted Chalans duck, as well as an atlantic cod with artichoke macaroni. The scenery and conversation, the perfect accompaniment to the wine, made the afternoon fly by.

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And so to our final chapter, last night: The Mandarin Grill + Bar. Family will soon be arriving in Hong Kong for Christmas, so this was mine and Meg’s Christmas date night. Our first time there and it was, simply, mind-blowing.

We start with half a dozen oysters – Kumamoto from the US, and Whitstable Bay from the UK – to go with the Ruinart fizz. But before we get going though, placed on the table are two mini girolle mushroom soups in a bird’s nest, a pair of breadsticks dressed as branches with edible flowers and what is described as “exploding liquid olives” (below).

After the fun and games, we take in the below over the following three  hours (the below descriptions for which, while matching the actual menu, do not even begin to come close to expertly describing the experience…I’ll leave that to the foodies):

  • M: Lobster bisque / D: scallops with watercress and nori salad
  • M: Beef, braised short rib and prime cutlet / D: lamb shoulder
  • M: Cheesecake / D: bread and butter pudding

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A truly memorable meal; the small details – as well as skill of execution – made each step of the journey a pleasure. The accuracy of taste, and total immersion as a dining experience was a fitting, not to mention calorie-busting, end to an excessive seven days.

As we finish up our chocolate fungi, our stomachs are well and truly on the canvas. What a week though. The only thing that could possibly help us now is a large cup of peppermint tea…as well as no food for the rest of the year. Somehow, I have a feeling it won’t happen.

Three special bottles for two special people

Hong Kong has always been a place for transients. People flit in and out of the place, leading to a somewhat shallow, disconnected culture among the expatriate community. When we first landed in 2009, this view was consensus, but now it could not be further from the truth: our children are growing up here, we decorate our homes as if we owned them (some hope!) and, most importantly, the true bonds of friendship have been formed.

Because of this, saying goodbye to two of our closest friends last night seemed particularly poignant. This weekend they are heading back to their native New Zealand with their two children, having spent the last 13 years here.

As we walk through the village, the big temperature board at Stanley Main Beach reads 23 degrees. Under this cool and clear Hong Kong evening, we assemble at the home of their immediate neighbours, gracious and accommodating. Next door, now that the packers have been through, only empty rooms and years of memories remain.

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The pretty little garden – beautifully lit with fairy lights and candles – plays host to our small gathering, filled with its generous spread (above) and conversation about what everyone’s plans are for Christmas. The kids fly in and out, adding energy to what is an otherwise reflective atmosphere.

To mark their send-off, we agree it was only appropriate we open some true Kiwi vinous heavyweights, as well as a ringer in the form of a French bottle we gifted them 3 or 4 years ago…here goes.

2008 Dry River Pinot Noir: this Martinborough-made wine has always been a serious Pinot, made in Burgundian style and built to last. Seven years in, it is more savoury than fruit on the nose now, with a noticeable savoury farmyard character. A touch closed, it could have done with some time in a jug first, but a pleasure to drink

1997 Chateau Montrose: rocky minerality and graphite jumped out the glass, and, in keeping with the 1996 vintage tried recently, the fruit made a late appearance once we were actually drinking it. This one seemed more approachable though. Lovely balanced and classy Claret from the St Estephe AOC of Bordeaux’s Left Bank.

2009 Te Mata Coleraine: probably NZ’s finest example of a Cabernet Sauvignon-led blend, made with fruit from the picturesque vineyard with the eponymous house. Leather was the first thing that hit me, then red fruit from the 43% Merlot. Grainy tannins on the palate indicated the longevity this wine will enjoy away from our bottle, then rich dark fruit and mocha on the finish. Brilliant wine

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As the evening draws to close, speeches and thanks are given, and the emotion of the moment becomes clear. Our friends have, in this mini community of ours, been central to a lot of people’s lives for many years now, and their presence will be genuinely missed.

We will, of course, see them again, not that we ever needed an excuse to head down to the fantastic part of the world that is New Zealand. As the notion of where – and what – home is becomes increasingly hard to fathom, we consider the life we enjoy here in Hong Kong, and how our own family’s future may indeed pan out.

Here’s to you, Marcus and Katrina.