The Wine Guy Eddie McDougall: Drinking to the past, present and future
With the flood of wine lovers in Hong Kong, the waters of the fragrant harbour have never been so tasty. The city’s intake of the vinous nectar (6.4l per capita) has leaped far beyond Japan, which was formerly the highest consumer of wine in Asia at a piddly 2.4l per capita. With these geeky wine facts and figures, the question does need to be asked: when did this all start and where is it heading?
A lot of people would probably punch their fist in the air with confidence and say it all began with the abolishment of the 40 percent wine tax in back in 2008. To some extent they are right; that policy has certainly contributed to the boom in the industry. However, Hong Kong’s drinking habits date way back to when the English first settled in the late 1880s. It was common practice for the wealthier folks to import bottles directly from Europe. And, in the 1960s and 70s, the wine industry started to gain momentum with companies like AS Watson taking the reins.
A recent conversation I had over a bottle of white burgundy with an old-hand from the industry reveals that our city’s wine scene has been anything but dull since then. This conversation was probably the only lesson in history I ever paid any attention to. What really caught my attention is the advertising and promotional budgets of wine companies back in the 1980s and 90s. I’m surprised they even called it a ‘budget’ as the type of promotions often involved thousands of dollars which funded spa baths filled with expensive vintage champagne, bikini models and never-ending platters of fine caviar and oysters. All of this was simply in a day’s work. What also really takes my breath away is the shift in the duty going from a flat $5.36 per bottle in 1975 to 20 percent in 1984 and then up to nearly 100 percent in the 90s. I’ve been fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of a 1968 wine list from AS Watson, which listed a Château Margaux 1955 for $50. The exact same wine is now valued at approximately $12,000.
The dramatic changes don’t end there. The city’s wine scene continues to evolve and, in my opinion, it’s all been for the better. Gone are the days when old world wines valued at no less than $400 were an aficionado’s only choice. Nowadays, you can pick up a cheap and tasty Spanish wine for less than $250 or you can even buy bottles made in Hong Kong. Wines have even made their way on to dai pai dong tables and, on several occasions, I’ve seen the street stall’s boss using the emptied bottles as tissue paper holders. All these things bring tears of joy to my eyes.
As the city’s wine choices have become more varied and inclusive, the average oenophile’s demographic is also shifting. Wines are no longer considered a drink to be enjoyed by rich expatriates; the cool local kids are now part of the scene and they’re shaping wine consumption in wonderful ways. With all these happenings, a part of me feels that the next generation is steering this revolution towards a whole new place. Let’s see what it brings. Vino le revolution!