Our rounds at the 11th edition of the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair turned up key drink trends for 2019.
The 11th edition of the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair built on the previous year’s success, further emphasising the growing importance of Asian markets to wine and spirit producers around the world. Held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre from 8 to 10 November last year, the fair attracted 1,075 exhibitors from 33 countries, and 19,000 trade visitors from 73 countries. There was much to sip, and plenty to ponder. We sift our notes to bring you the three biggest trends we took away from our rounds at the fair.
Look East—In Europe
Central and Eastern European wines had been gradually growing their presence at previous editions of the fair, and this year’s event was no different, with Slovenian wine producers camping out in a large pavilion. The wine offerings were a little cautious, though, with many wineries choosing to showcase consumer-friendly varieties like Chardonnay and Merlot, instead of their indigenous varieties like the white Ranina and Zelen.
Radgonske Gorice, Slovenia’s sparkling wine specialist, quenched attendees’ thirst with various samples of penina, the Slovenian moniker for bubbly. The Zlata Radgonska, Penina Brut ‘Zelo Suho’ (‘Very Dry’) was particularly impressive: made with secondary fermentation in the bottle, the Chardonnay offered a crisp, citrusy and fresh profile, with delicious notes of green apple. “Foreigners are often surprised that we make sparkling wines,” said Katja Kovič, Radgonske Gorice’s export representative. “Our north-eastern region of Pomurska is probably too cold to make red wines, which is why whites, especially sparkling ones, are more popular.”
On the other hand, Vinakoper, a winery located in Slovenia’s warmer Istria coast, demonstrated the potential of Slovenian reds with ambrosias like the Capris Plemenito Rdece, a rich, lush blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Refosco. “Most people would say Merlot is easier to drink than Cabernet Sauvignon,” said Blaž Edšidt, export manager of Vinakoper. “But I find the opposite to be true in our region. Because of our Mediterranean climate, we get a lot of wind from the sea, which helps to moderate temperatures. So the tannins in our Cabernet Sauvignon aren’t that harsh.”
Slovenia’s neighbour, Croatia, also popped up at the fair, albeit with a smaller presence. Croatia Wine HK, a Hong Kong-based importer, served up sips from Cmrečjnak and Stampar, two wineries from the Međimurje region in northern Croatia. Pušipel, an indigenous, acidic white variety also known as Furmint in Hungary, drew plenty of curious drinkers. Stampar winery’s Pusipel Classic 2016, was a crowd favourite, thanks to its steely, easy-drinking and refreshing character.
Selling smart, Buying Smarter
Marketing wines for Asia’s digital savvy consumers was the main theme at this year’s Wine Industry Conference. Speaker and Master of Wine, Sarah Heller, shared her positive views on the popularity of online wine sales in China—the world’s largest alcohol e-commerce market—citing the effectiveness of e-commerce wine platform Lady Penguin, which is managed by founder Wang Shenghan. The company earned 50 million yuan in sales last year. “[Wang’s] videos on Lady Penguin provide an interesting look at how wines are presented as entertainment,” noted Heller. “She creates amusing situations out of wine-drinking. So many of us focus on the educational aspect [when marketing wines], which can be dry and academic. We forget that consumers don’t want to get a Master’s degree before they can enjoy wines.”
On the other hand, speaker David Wainwright, director of Wainwright Advisors, a Hong Kong-based fine wine authentication and sourcing business, offered his take on counterfeit rare and fine wines in Asian markets. “The quality of counterfeits coming out today is extremely high. Sometimes I have to get their wine labels under magnification of 30 to 50 times to be able to tell the difference,” revealed Wainwright. “Regarding Henri Jayer’s Burgundies, there are 20 times more fakes than there are real ones out there. In 2017, I looked at 435 bottles of Henri Jayer, and I could confidently say that only 15 bottles were authentic.”
Wainwright highlighted that the absence of a business registration document from a supplier and a fake address on a merchant’s website are red flags to look out for before you a blow a few grand on any top Burgundy or Bordeaux. “It’s not just old releases that are being counterfeited. I’m even seeing 2013 counterfeits of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. If something is too good to be true, it usually is,” he added.
Drams get experimental
Whisky offerings continue to rise at the fair. State-owned Taiwanese whisky producer Nantou Distillery’s Omar range of whiskies demonstrated the unique local character of their single malt drams. The whiskies are finished in lychee and plum liqueur barrels; a method born out of an experiment to utilise the used barrels from Taiwan’s thriving fruit liqueur production.
Nantou Distillery, which doubles up as a winery, also finishes a whisky in a barrel that was used to age Black Queen—a deep, inky red wine that is popular in the region. “We are currently experimenting with other wine cask finishes,” said Chung Pei Yuan, Nantou’s senior whisky maker. “For now, I can’t tell you what kind of wine those casks were used for; it’s a secret. But the barrels will still come from our own winery.”
At the Emerging Trends in the Global Whisky Market seminar, speaker Leigh McGrotty, a certified whisky ambassador and trainer, highlighted how American whiskey producer, Lost Spirits Distillery, has scrapped the rulebook with its Abomination range of whiskeys: the spirits (or ‘peaty malts’ as they are called) undergo a much guarded chemical process that allows them to be created—and aged—in just six days, while reproducing the mellow flavours that come with traditionally aged drams. Scotch whiskies, on the other hand, are legally required to have a minimum maturation of three years in the barrel. “Obviously, this [method] has caused controversy. Some people think it is madness,” says McGrotty. “But others who are open to the idea of new technology in whisky production may see this technique as important as the invention of the coffee still.”
McGrotty also touched on shuttered Scottish distilleries that are making a comeback, a trend that underscores the optimism in today’s Scotch whisky scene. For example, the Edinburgh-based Port of Leith distillery, which is due to open in 2019, marks the return of whisky-making in the capital after almost 100 years. The distillery is also Scotland’s first ‘vertical’ distillery: the narrow, four-storey building will house a grain mill and mash at the top, and fermentation and distillation facilities on the lower floors. It will also have its maturation warehouse on a berthed boat, a design meant to observe the influence of the water’s rocking motions on the drams’ ageing process.
“I think it is an incredible time for whisky around the world because people are more willing to experiment and push the boundaries,” said McGrotty.