Hong Kong Treasure Trove

Hong Kong collectors have amassed treasure troves of great wine
May 17, 2001
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East Beats West

Hong Kong collectors have amassed treasure troves of great wine

By Jeannie Cho Lee

When auction prices for wine soared in the mid-1990s, fingers pointed toward the Far East, where an estimated 30 percent of the successfully bid-for lots were being shipped. Overnight, it seemed, a relatively small group of wealthy Asian collectors had developed a taste for fine wine, and they were willing to pay record amounts for the best, from classic Bordeaux to California cult wines.

These collectors don't worry too much about their effect on the market. They are buying the wines to drink. Late last year, a small group of wine lovers gathered for their monthly tasting dinner, which was on this occasion held in an elegant Hong Kong restaurant called Petrus.

Fifteen wines, including some from the best vintages of renowned producers, and a forest of Riedel glasses took up nearly every inch of table space. Although the atmosphere was friendly and casual, all the wines were tasted blind, in several flights, between courses. One flight featured the top Bordeaux from the 1961 vintage; to their surprise, the tasters preferred Cheval-Blanc to Margaux.

"This is all just for fun," explained Thomas Bohrer, who hosted the evening. Bohrer is managing director of Habanos Fine Wines & Cigars, and his Hong Kong clientele list reads like a who's who of prominent businessmen who unflinchingly spend five figures on a case of wine. "Most of the men here have collections that surpass those of fine wine merchants, including mine," added Bohrer.

Most Hong Kong residents suffer from the workaholic mentality. Many highly successful, but highly stressed, businessmen have found a refuge in collecting, especially status symbols such as cars, watches, stamps, coins, maps and antiques. More recently, wine has joined the list. During the 1997 Asian economic crisis, Hong Kong collectors took advantage of lower prices, while elsewhere in Asia, fine-wine purchases came to a halt.

One of the wine collectors in attendance at the Petrus event was Henry Tang, who has a personal collection of nearly 45,000 bottles. Since he already owns a great number of older Bordeaux wines, he was most intrigued by a flight of five cult wines from around the world, including Antinori's Solaia 1997; 1997 Tua Rita, from Italy; 1998 Château Andréas, from Bordeaux; 1997 Vinattieri, from Switzerland; and 1995 L'Ermita, from Spain. "I'm open-minded," said Tang. "I like to try new wines and experiment. However, I prefer this more restrained 1997 Solaia over the other, more 'cult-like,' wines."

    "I really don't expect to make any money out of it, none of us do. It's just for fun."

-- James Tien

"Henry is in a category all by himself," said Bohrer. "He doesn't have to visit châteaus or go to wine merchants, they come to him. I can't think of very many wine collectors in the world who are in his league."

"I am an eclectic, adventurous collector," Tang said. Still, his vast collection leaves out none of the traditional collectibles. In his 3,000-square-foot, temperature-controlled warehouse, cases and cases of the finest wines, including all the first-growths back to 1945, are carefully stored and guarded. Tang does not collect verticals but rather, "good wines from only the best vintages." But of wines like Pétrus, Tang has nearly every vintage since 1945.

Tang has never followed trends, preferring instead to create his own. "I bought most of my Bordeaux and Burgundies way before prices skyrocketed to the ridiculous amounts they command now. I look for wines not yet rated by wine critics. This way, the winemakers are more modest in both their attitude and their prices," said Tang. Some of his recent purchases include Merlot from Switzerland's Ticino region that Tang said "tastes delicious and will age nicely," and New Zealand Pinot Noir.

    "I've never seen another place where really rare and fine wines are opened daily."

-- Thomas Bohrer

Among Tang's wine converts is fellow politician and businessman James Tien. As one of the 60 members of the Legislative Council, Tien is involved in enacting laws and approving public expenditure for Hong Kong. Within the Council, Tien chairs the important Panel on Economic Service. Tien is one of Hong Kong's more active politicians, frequently contributing editorials in the main English-language newspaper, The South China Morning Post. He expresses personal opinions, as well as political views held by the Liberal Party, of which he is chairman.

There is an air of serious determination about Tien, and his numerous commitments obviously hold priority over his passion for wine. "I have no buying strategy, I don't have the time," explained Tien, who has a 12,000-bottle collection, predominantly of fine red Bordeaux. "What and when I buy depends on how busy I am when I walk into my office in the morning. And if I am not that busy, and I see a list of wines from an upcoming auction or from a merchant, I may buy if the prices look reasonable."

One of his impulsive, yet lucrative, purchases 10 years ago was 100 cases of 1982 Lafite. Now wine merchants are trying to buy back some wines from his 1982 first-growth collection.

Tien is among a small group of Hong Kong businessmen who began to purchase wine on a regular basis just over a decade ago. "In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when we were all learning about wine, we would get together quite often and exchange information. A few of us began to buy more and more wines, which turned into good investments," he said.

But Tien waved away the notion that wine is anything more than a hobby. "I really don't expect to make money out of it, none of us do. It's for fun. We are not serious [wine collectors], we're casual." Tien laughed and realized that despite the casual atmosphere, there are some serious purchasers among his group of friends. "Sometimes we bid against each other in London, and we don't even realize it until later. Then we would say, "So you're the one who got those wines.'"

One of the people Tien bids against for Pomerols is flamboyant businessman George Wong, chairman of Hong Kong Parkview Group, a growing investment, holding and property development group. Wong only began collecting wine in the mid-1990s, mainly to stock up on his favorite, Pétrus.

More often over the past two years, it is not George Wong, but his son, Alex, who attends wine gatherings. George Wong is happy to let his enthusiastic 23-year-old son handle the wine purchases, both for his own collection and for the Parkview Hotel and restaurants. In just 18 months, Alex Wong has more than doubled his father's collection from the original 2,000 bottles of rare wines from Pomerol to 5,000 bottles of what he called "a more balanced collection."

Alex was enthusiastic about the 1997 Tua Rita, "It's wild and so sexy!" And Thomas Bohrer was pleased with the dinner overall. "Wine collectors here are wine drinkers first and collectors second," he said. "I've never seen another place, in Europe or America, where really rare and fine wines are opened daily. When I go to Europe and someone opens a 1961 Pétrus or a 1945 Mouton, it is a big thing, and you expect someone to bow, not to the host but to the bottle. I think the greatest wines in the world are being consumed in Hong Kong in the greatest numbers."

"This was fun. Let's do this again next month," Bohrer suggested at the close of the dinner. "Who's going to bring what?"

For the complete article, please see the May 31, 2001, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 56. (Subscribe today)

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