The closest link between the people that make wine and the people that drink it
For years I’d been told how the Japanese really ‘got’ Italian wines, gastronomy, fashion and culture generally. Indeed for many fine wine producers over the past 20 years Japan has become one of their top export markets. This was my first visit, proudly leading a group of Berrys’ suppliers: the Langhe’s Manuel Marinacci, Gianluca Viberti (Casina Bric 460), Mario Fontana, Davide Rosso, Lena Oddero (Vigneti Luigi Oddero), Veneto’s Luca and Giuli Ferraro (Bele Casel), Sara Carbone of Basilicata and Puglia’s Paolo Benegiamo (L’Astore Masseria) to what is evidently a very special country, with its deeply ingrained culture, where rich, ancient traditions are respected and valued. It was a humbling and enriching experience that challenged the (conceited?) preconception that West knows best.
My first visit to Japan was a most agreeable experience; it was, by turns, up-lifting, rewarding and surreal to see how the delightful team who make up BBR Japan are spreading Berrys’ unique message to a new and clearly very sophisticated constituency of wine drinkers. The BBR offices are, one cannot deny, a little less grand than No 3 St James’s St, although their location, at the heart of the Marunouchi district, is not without sophistication. And when one enters the Dining Room, the spirit of No 3 pervades the atmosphere, fine oil paintings and an impressive collection of 18th century bottles providing a subtle yet resonant backdrop to instil the BBR message and philosophy. I was there in my capacity as buyer of fortified wines, of our Iberian range and, most importantly, of Champagne and, by extension, English wines. I had been warned that the week would be quite intense and this certainly proved to be the case; the nine hour time difference and non-stop programme of lunches, seminars and dinners was undoubtedly challenging. But a pleasing challenge nonetheless and one that has left me with a far greater understanding of the Japanese appreciation of fine wines and even more importantly, of their stylistic preferences.
During a happy week in Japan I was able to acclimatise myself for the subsequent freezing conditions back in the UK. I missed the snow which fell in Tokyo while I was enjoying dinners in Hiroshima and Fukuoka, several stops down the bullet train line to the southwest, but the clear, crisp, weather conditions made this beautiful country even more special.
Immediately after landing we met the Japanese translators of Inside Burgundy over a cheerful meal. They have already pretty much done the translating and were full of questions, having ferreted out any inconsistencies in the text with impressive attention to detail. There are also some fascinating insights into language: did you know that in Japanese there are no single words for brother or sister – you have to specify elder brother, younger brother et cetera. So now I have lots of homework checking whether Denis is older than Jean-Pierre and so on.
Food throughout the visit was always very good and often magical – particularly a great sushi meal washed down with Krug Grande Cuvée and Puligny-Montrachet Combettes 2002 from Leflaive. Now at last I have learned that the slivers of ginger are to cleanse the palate between different bites of sushi rather than to act as another condiment. Congratulations also to l’Alliance restaurant for brilliant wine and food pairings over a dinner based around lafon Meursaults and a trio of 2006 Clos de Vougeot.
Among the high spots were the ‘Long Lunch’, a sort of mini Paulée held at the Hong Kong Cricket Club, who supplied a match to watch to boot. However we spent more time concentrating on the wines than on the cricket, generous guests bringing bottles from Lafon, Blain-Gagnard, Vougeraie, Roumier, Grivot, de Montille, Rossignol-Trapet, Perrot-Minot, Cathiard, Rémy, Fourrier, Dugat-Py and more.
The key will be to encourage appreciation right across the range and this should be possible. Wines such as Sylvain Loichet’s Ladoix Bois de Gréchon have found favour already, and good quality Bourgogne Rouge is being snapped up. As we expected, the learning curve develops frighteningly quickly.
We did many more wine events this year with Cantonese food which is a stimulating development. I like the idea of having lots of bottles open on the table so you can grab a sip of whichever one might please you with whichever nibble of dim sum or peking duck catches your fancy. Dishes which I really enjoyed this week included braised pomelo skins and some baby roast pigeon. Apparently I was just too late for seasonal snake soup.
Wine dinners are more common than Dim Sum Restaurants in Hong Kong at present. To be honest one can get a little blasé about the frequency you get to drink great wine. However once in a while you experience a night that just stops you in your tracks and takes you that little bit closer to your maker! Well last week, unexpectedly, I managed to find myself sat at dinner – awaiting some of the finest food in Hong Kong (we were at 2 Michelin Starred Amber)… oh and also a vertical of the iconic First Growth going back to 66!
This grand Event did have a rocky evolution. Poor Big Si The Wine Guy was down to host but had to pass the baton onto me (tough life), and then 24 hours before Frederic Engerer (the genius behind Latour’s incredible run in the modern era) had to urgently fly back to Bordeaux as well. I had a feeling the event was cursed and all the bottles would end up corked! Fortunately we had the perfect replacements in Jean Garandeau (Ch. Latour’s Sales and Marketing Director) and Jeremy Quievre (Latour’s Asia Representative) – who were both at Amber hours before decanting and fine tuning the evening with more detail and tactical acumen than Sir Alex.
The BBR HK Team was fortunate enough to attend the Robert Parker tasting at Wine Futures last Tuesday (amazingly most of our rivals did not bother!). As well as being able to taste alongside the great man, this reaffirmed just how spectacular the 2009 vintage is. All of his “Magic 20” showed superbly in one way or another – and cemented the greatness of this vintage. We were fortunate enough to have our Fine Wine Director, Simon Staples, present and he has written an intro and his brief notes on the “Magic 20”. Please note that due to the special nature of this Event, demand picked up dramatically for these wines, so please be sharp, in order to secure the stock you want.
You may very well receive numerous emails like this over the next few days, for that I apologize, but I was very fortunate to have been invited and it was amazing and I need to tell someone about it!
It was the first time I had ever seen Robert Parker in action and I have to say I was bowled over. He was professional, passionate, authoritative but above all humble. I was somewhat star-struck, truth be told, as was the rest of the captivated audience.
I generally prefer my Friday nights tucked at home with Sarah, my wife, with a decent bottle, my legendary chorizo chilli pasta (sadly I am the only person that calls it so) and a couple of episodes of the West Wing or Boardwalk Empire. Well my security blanky was firmly torn asunder last night as I rather bizarrely found myself in downtown Shanghai at the global launch of our partners, Vertu, and their eagerly awaited new wunder-phone The Constellation. A touch screen marvel and I have to say a thing of real beauty.
We were not sure what to expect of the evening but I was promised we wouldn’t be idle and our eyebrows should be raised by close of play. They weren’t wrong!
As we struggled through Shanghai’s teeming Friday evening traffic and headed towards the famous Bund and it’s incredible light show all eyes were drawn away to the dozen or so enormous tracer lights further up stream that cut into the overcast and starless sky. Looking like a scene from the Oscars, could this possibly be our destination? As we turned into several banks of officious security guards it seemed apparent it was. We asked our jovial taxi driver to pull over his 30 year old, battled scarred Ford Cortina so we could stroll over rather the last few hundred yards rather than arrive as four crumpled messes in a cloud of CO2. We eased ourselves out rather looking like four clowns emerging from their clown mobile under the big top. This evening’s Motley BBR Crüe consisted of the ever whimsical and dapper Dan, Adam Bilbey, our Hong Kong sales manger, Geordie Willis our Hong Kong PR and Marketing genial guru, Rufus Beazley our Shanghai head honcho and secret weapon, angelic Anglo looks, Caesar buffont and fabulously fluent in Mandarin. The team was topped off by our Hong Kong Chairman and all round bon viveur K.K Mui.
If there’s one constant in this life it is that every time I fly out from Hong Kong, I fly out an utterly broken man. I must have looked a pathetic sight as I shuffled along through passport control, bleary eyed and doing my best to keep it together after a week of impressively late nights and intense days of tastings and lunches. I’m probably not going to get much sympathy from most of you, but honestly sometimes being a wine merchant can be pretty tough… honestly!
Back in Shanghai with batteries re-charged I have a chance to reflect on what was not only a fantastic, but also very significant week.
I’m very excited; I’m very, very excited. In fact I’m as excited as a steamed-up Dim Sum dumpling that’s just realised he’s been served up as the Hong Kong representative in the annual Chinese Dim Sum Cup! And no, of course it’s not linked to the symbolic win of Italy over France in the Six Nations Rugby…but plenty to do with having just returned from a week leading five Piemontese producers – Cantinas Giovanni Rosso, Cascina delle Rose, E.Pira, Cascina Fontana and Mascarello Bartolo – to BB&R Hong Kong, their exclusive importers.
You only have to watch the video interview below to witness the buzz the trip generated. In fact so successful was the trip, the first for all bar Davide Rosso, that they’d barely touched down back in Milano and they were already planning their return!
Waking up in Kyoto to a cloudless sky……I could not have enjoyed my visit to Kyoto more. At dinner on the night I arrived, the first guest introduced himself to me with the words ‘I read modern history at Oxford in the late 1970s’ which had a certain familiarity. The title of his recent article “Even a sardine’s head becomes holy: the role of household encyclopedias in sustaining civilisation in pre-industrial Japan” has a classic tongue-in-academic-cheek ring to it.
Kyoto sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains, giving a skyline resembling the Cloudy Bay label whichever way you look. We had an 8.00am start the following morning, not to begin the days tasting, but to visit various temples and gardens: the Kiyomizu temple and the golden Kinkakuji temple, along with the rock garden at Ryoanji stand out. Then the Bullet Train back to Tokyo, keeping time despite a blizzard of snow.
Other highlights included a press lunch accompanied by the exquisite food of Pierre Gagnaire. I suppose this cuisine could be called fusion but it was so brilliantly perceived and executed that it was hard to imagine that France and Japan were not eternally fused in culinary harmony.
There were so many fabulous wine dinners that I am quite glad to have returned in one piece. Dinners at Mosaique and Bulgari stand out, along with a finale at La Belle Epoque in the Hotel Okura where I was staying. I was brilliantly looked after at this lovely Hotel. Sommelier Egawa-san presided over our superb wine dinner on the final night.
This year’s trip was coloured by the incipient Chinese New Year, a festival of much greater magnitude here than 31st December/1st January is in Europe. Mind you it is rash to offer any generalities about Hong Kong because this city changes so fast. I really enjoy seeing so many different phases of life in such a short space of time, and place. One minute was a grand western-style meal in a sought after location with views high over the city – Café Gray for example, or Amuse Bouche, where we had a brilliant dinner with biodynamic wines, the next a street meal – Dai Pai Dong – though we did cheat a bit by washing down our immaculate dumplings with a bottle of Corton-Charlemagne.
Wherever you go in Hong Kong you bump into old friends, also just passing through – Sylvain Pitiot of Clos de Tart broke his journey from Paris tio Auckland with half a day in Hong Kong, nipping in to the city centre to have lunch at Alfie’s.
Appreciation of Burgundy has changed so rapidly in Hong Kong. This is a material city and five years ago the only question seemed to be ‘how does this wine compare to DRC?’ The investment angle is certainly still there, but now there are so many more people who want to find out the story behind, and who appreciate the subtleties of the wines. Burgundy has a great future here.
Tokyo is a city that moves at a million miles an hour; A thriving hubbub of delectable juxtaposition, from the Gucci’s and Todd’s of Ginza to the Harajuku girls congregating around the Meiji Shrine – a blog such as this will never truly do it justice. Consequently, rather than tell you about the spectacle of live sumo (left. I never thought that watching fat men wrestle could be so hypnotic), the wonders of the Tokyo National Museum, or the greatest Manhattan I have ever tasted (forget ‘Lost in Translation’, Radio Bar serves the city’s best cocktails hands down… ), I have decided to simply tell you of one of my highlights, the Tsukiji Fish Market. Tokyo has long been a Mecca for foodies, with Japanese chefs now dictating modern dining trends the world over, and so on our first morning we dutifully made the pilgrimage to Tsukijishijo Station, the home of the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world.
By gee what a year it has been. Needless to say it has gone quicker than Liverpool’s title ambitions and this is by no means down to the quite incredible year we have seen in the wine trade. In truth, Hong Kong is a fairly easy place to settle in, everything as at your doorstep and there is every kind of Western amenity for the unadventurous… oh, and there is more live Premier League football on than back in Blighty! So I was settled in quick as a flash and that was a good thing.
It’s been a few weeks since my arrival back in HK and yet my thoughts are still very much in Europe in what was a defining trip for the HK Sales Team, to Piedmont and Burgundy. Granted my ever-expanding belly is the proof of this trip, however, I think the ever-expanding enthusiasm of our sales team about both regions is the real tale of the tape!
I have to admit to being just a touch concerned about the logistics of this little jaunt to Europe. Fly to Turin via Paris, drive to Piedmont, train from Turin to Chambery, drive to Beaune with a few stops on the way. What could go wrong with twelve staff, two cars, Nick “Schumacher” Pegna driving one and Adam “I’m dodgy on the left, let alone the right” driving the other? Oh and I forgot to mention the MOUNTAIN of luggage our females colleagues were carrying with them (I have never seen Chanel wellington boots before!)
In an attempt to live up to Charles Walter Berry’s famous 1930s definition of a wine merchant: ‘The closest link between the people who make the wine and the people who drink the wine’, I recently headed to Frog’s Leap Winery in Rutherford, Napa Valley to help out for a week during the harvest. I’d never been to California before and I must admit that in the few days before my departure, the relentless suggestions from colleagues that this was nothing more than a glorified holiday had started to infiltrate into the sub-conscious. However, on arrival it seemed that owner John Williams and General Manager Jonah Beer hadn’t received the memo and I was quickly put to work.
I must say I feel rather sorry for Jasper Morris, Burgundy Buyer for Berry Bros. and Master of Wine. When he first visited Hong Kong in 2005, his trip might have included some leisurely lunches and tastings with the select few who were developing a passion for the region of Burgundy and its spectacular wines. Fast-forward five years and in a three-day whirlwind tour of dinners, interviews, master classes and tastings, there was barely a second to draw breath. On making this rather apologetic observation at the end of the first day of his trip (his crammed schedule was, in part, down to me), I was relieved to be greeted with a grin, “This is exactly how it should be!” enthused Jasper, “no time to let the jet-lag set in!”. Of course this was no ordinary trip as clutched in Jasper’s right hand was the culmination of all his unsurpassed experience in one of the most complex and revered wine growing areas in the world, his new book Inside Burgundy.
Most weeks here start with a blank canvas; on a Sunday night you are looking at your outlook diary and thinking… ‘I might just have a quiet relaxing week this time round!’ Well last Sunday I was in that position, with only one blot on the copy book – a rather swanky dinner with a client on Tuesday night.
I was recently challenged by a good friend of mine to name a Hong Kong drinking establishment known for its signature tipple. As one of the world’s foremost cosmopolitan cities (if you’ll forgive the pun) one might think this a relatively straightforward task. In Venice, say, an epicure of any repute might head to Harry’s Bar to savour Giuseppe Cipriani’s famous 1948 cocktail the Bellini. Similarly, a true cocktail aficionado would be hard-pressed to visit London without dropping by to sample one of Alessandro Palazzi’s revered Martini’s at Duke’s Hotel in St. James’s. Hong Kong unfortunately fares less well. After some serious deliberation the only two we could come up with were the strawberry daiquiri at Feather Boa and the jelly shots served at Al’s Dinner. A sad state of affairs indeed!
Things are changing though and classic cocktails are fighting their way back on to the menus of the city’s best drinking dens. This resurgence can perhaps be attributed to a new breed of bartenders who have set out to evangelise the fine art of cocktail making. We were lucky enough to welcome several of these pioneers to the eagerly-anticipated Hong Kong launch of No. 3 London Dry Gin, hosted at The Fine Wine Reserve by BBR Brand Heritage Director Ronnie Cox.
In attendance were Peter Kendall from Sugar, Sam Jeveons from The Upper House, Matt Radalj from Republik and Roy Woo from KEE Club. I was genuinely enthused by meeting these guys. Their knowledge and the enthusiasm they have for their art is infectious. With new venues putting an onus on sophisticated elegance rather than ostentation, the zeitgeist looks like it might endure.
Well it’s been a week but slowly and surely the memories of my “jazzy” Hawaiian shorts and Binging beach in Bali have subsided and it’s back to work as usual. With most of trade taking August off, it is usually fairly quiet this time of year. After hurricane 2009 EP, there was debris scattered everywhere and many smart buyers did some looting and picked up some bargains from those forgotten-about vintages (‘06 Cos and Pontet for starters).
Well that was that then. Time for the beach and a mojito… 2009 Bordeaux En Primeur is done. It’s already interesting to read the views of merchants, critics, negociants and pretty much anyone with an opinion, on what has taken place over the last few months. So what the heck, this is my two bob’s worth from what I have witnessed in Hong Kong.
|Ex-UK fine wine salesman Adam Bilbey has joined Berrys' Hong Kong office and will be reporting on the market, the joys of the Far East and the life and times of a 20-something in the fine wine capital of Asia.|
|Read updates from him and the rest of the team to stay abreast of this fast-paced and exciting market.|
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