Champagne and Dim Sum in Hong Kong

Lawrence Ferber offers us a taste of Hong Kong’s burgeoning wine culture.

Long and deservedly holding a reputation as a foodie’s city, Hong Kong just recently received its own Michelin Guide, while 2009 was proclaimed Food & Wine Year. So I was eager to attend Hong Kong’s Wine and Dine Festival, in which a portion of the West Kowloon Waterfront was transformed into a giant carnival of sorts – a snaking labyrinth of stands offering samples of international wines, and plenty of nibbles from local restaurants and a local culinary school. This festival was part of an aggressive campaign to put fine wines at the forefront – and the fact the wine tax was abolished last year was certainly a notable factor in this movement’s timing.

A glass in hand for sampling, and convenient pouch in which to store it around my neck, I strolled the Festival’s extensive lanes of stalls offering tastes of everywhere from France’s Bordeaux region to – hold on to your kitsch – Hello Kitty wines (because that’s what you want at your wedding, isn’t it? Hello Kitty champagne!).

Fortunately, great strides have been made since the days when Chinese mixed soda (Coke and 7Up, usually) with wine to make it palatable to their rookie tongues. To wit: the Hong Kong-published book, Asian Palate, by Seoul-born food-wine expert Jeannie Cho Lee, enlightens the “increasingly prominent role of wine in Asian dining.” And there is a swelling legion of local sommeliers in Hong Kong.

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Nelson Chow, Chairman of the HK Sommelier Association, has made wine education a career, teaching a new generation of Asian chefs and sommeliers the ways of wine appreciation. When I met him in a classroom at Hong Kong’s Hospitality Industry Training and Development Centre, sets of “nose” kits–little vials containing synthesized examples of many popular wine notes–were set on the tables. 

Chow informed me that there is only a single Western expat sommelier working in Hong Kong today (at Alain Ducasse’s Spoon in Kowloon’s Intercontinental Hotel).

The rest are locals, and many upscale, sophisticated restaurants–from Cantonese like the Mira’s Cuisine Cuisine, to the expat-crammed European brasserie The Press Room–are filling their wine cellars, or bringing in new ones, at a breakneck pace. Wine promotions are everywhere, such as the W Hotel’s twice-weekly “Wine-derlust” all-you-can-drink (and snack) event at its Living Room lounge.

And at CépageCépageCépage, an amazing new upscale French eatery from Singapore’s Les Amis group that boasts over 2,500+ labels in its glass-enclosed cellars, the Chinese sommelier John Chan made opening a bottle into pure theater: pouring perhaps a fifth of its plum-colored contents into a bulbous decanter, artfully swinging it around, then sampling a swig to ensure it had opened enough before sharing it with the two diners seated before him.

Part of the Hong Kong sommelier’s challenge is the fact that Cantonese meals typically include a number of shared, and conflicting, courses at once – say, chicken feet and scallops and bok choy. Some fun wine facts I culled over several meals and sommelier chats: Chinese vegetables don’t really go with Chardonnay. Steamed fish and scallops are badly paired with red wine. Champagne is a good accompaniment with dim sum (especially spring rolls) since the acidity and fizziness fantastically cleans the palate.

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Of course, one bit of wine knowledge that doesn’t really get talked about so much is wine made with snakes, or several varieties of animal penises. Some of these you can find in a supermarket or even Seven-11. I blanched at the latter wine, made with the penises of “dog, deer, and sea lion,” but tasted it nonetheless. Closer to a whiskey, I’d say, than wine.

Semi-sweet even. The snake wine, however, was vile. Pungent, harsh. I’m at a loss for words, really. One local told me that I might consider making my own penis wine – I could purchase dried animal reproductive organs at an herbalist’s, chop them up, and use the liquor of my choice. But I think I’ll stick to Hello Kitty champagne.

For more restaurant picks in Hong Kong, visit the National Geographic Hong Kong Guide.

Photos: Above, Hello Kitty Champagne at the Hong Kong Food and Wine Festival; Middle, John Chan at Cépage; Bottom, Snake Wine. By Lawrence Ferber.