By 11 a.m. on the first day of Vinexpo Asia-Pacific in Hong Kong, the narrow aisles of the nearly 215,000-square-foot exhibition space were packed. Among the jostling visitors, Mandarin was frequently overheard, as was Cantonese, the local dialect in Hong Kong. Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese added to the din. And the noise kept building throughout the trade show's three days—when the doors closed on May 29, organizers announced that 2008 had broken attendance records with more than 8,000 visitors, an increase of 24 percent from 2006.
If three days can give a hint of how big a continent's demand for wine is, Vinexpo proved that Asia is thirsty. This was a far cry from the deserted aisles of 10 years ago when Vinexpo Asia-Pacific debuted in Hong Kong. In 1998, the economic circumstances could not have been worse. Now, China's and Hong Kong's gross domestic products continue to grow by double digits, while other Asian economies are close behind. Newly wealthy consumers are flocking to wine.
Adding to the buzz this year, Hong Kong has eliminated all duties on wine, effective the same week the Bordeaux chamber of commerce-sponsored show came to town. "So far in 2008, wine imports into Hong Kong rose 120 percent by volume and 200 percent by value compared to the same period last year," said Chief Secretary of Hong Kong Henry Tang, speaking at the opening ceremony. Tang added that the government was committed to making the territory into Asia's wine hub.
As the value of the U.S. dollar continues to sink, European winemakers are looking to Asia as an increasingly valuable market. So exhibitors were just as eager to pack the hall. "Compared to 2006, it was madness," said Antonio Koo, executive director of the local Ponti Wine Cellar. "There was much more activity this year and many people were coming to Hong Kong to get a feel for the market. It was overwhelming."
For European wineries, the event was a valuable showcase. French companies occupied half the exhibition space, with the remainder divided predominantly amongst producers from Italy, Spain and Germany. South American producers had a visible presence. Australia, New Zealand and California, however, did not.
"Where are the Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans?" said Jacques Lurton, who owns and operates wineries in several countries. "The French have been very good at taking over this event and improving their position in Asia. This event reinforces the idea that Vinexpo is really a French show." Lurton, who came to launch his eponymous brand of wines from France and his Australian wine from Kangaroo Island, was happy with the quality of visitors.
Questioned about the lack of New World producers, Robert Beynat, chief executive of Vinexpo, said, "The only New World producers now are India and China. If anyone is really interested in importing Australian wine, there are enough choices there [inside Vinexpo Asia-Pacific]." But none of the large Australian brands were present and even Macedonia and Moldavia had a larger presence than New Zealand.
Their loss was Bordeaux's gain. Major tastings held by the Association des Grands Crus Classe de St.-Emilion and the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux were packed. Alfred Tesseron from Château Pontet-Canet said he was overwhelmed at the response. The Union des Grands Crus tasting began at 10 a.m. on the show's second day, and was scheduled to finish at 3 p.m., but began thinning out by noon since most producers had run out of wine. "We didn't expect such a response. There were so many people who came at exactly 10 a.m.," said Tesseron.
"Chinese wine lovers are becoming more and more sophisticated," said Jean-Guillaume Prats of Château Cos-d'Estournel, who is a frequent visitor to Asia. "At the same time, the general consumer interest in learning and tasting wine is growing very quickly, even faster than America." Prats was involved in a commercial tasting of Bordeaux's 2004 vintage.
Rhône producer Michel Chapoutier was also pleased with the turnout. "For our single-vineyard wines, Asia is a more important market for us than the U.S.A.," he said. "Half of our single-vineyard wines are sold in Asia while the U.S.A. only has 4 to 5 percent."
While Vinexpo attracted the trade, local wine lovers who didn't attend were still able to bounce from one exceptional tasting to another for over a week. Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux arrived just before the show to host several dinners. "We have big hopes for Asia," Pontallier said. "China has the culture to understand and appreciate fine wine and Hong Kong is the key place—a center for fine wine, not just a gateway to China. I will be back in Asia very soon." Paul Symington of Dow Port hosted meals pairing verticals of Dow's Vintage Port—including 2000, 1994, 1977, 1970 and 1963—with Chinese food.
Frédéric Engerer of Château Latour was also in town for a pre-Vinexpo gala dinner organized by Berry Bros & Rudd and the Landmark Mandarin Hotel. Thierry Marx, the Michelin two-star chef from the Château Cordeillan-Bages resort just outside Pauillac, prepared a 12-course meal matching six vintages of Château Latour—2003, 2002, 2000, 1996, 1990 and 1982.
Adding to the buzz, auction house Acker Merrall & Condit hosted exclusive fine wine evenings throughout Vinexpo week as a warm-up to its first Hong Kong auction on May 31. Dinners included verticals of Château Pichon-Lalande, Angélus and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Acker's inaugural auction broke several records: A case of DRC Romanée-Conti 1990 sold for a world record of $242,308. The total take was $8.2 million, the most successful Asian wine auction ever.
Not surprisingly, the greatest number of visitors to Vinexpo came from mainland China. But while interest in Asia's wine market grows every year, alcohol import policies within Asian economies—especially China's—continue to be cumbersome, with exorbitant duties, and high nontariff barriers. But European wineries obviously believe the potential is too great to be ignored.