Wine certainly wasn’t the driving force of my trip this past summer to Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Food? Yes, definitely a big part with visions of laksa, won ton noodle soup, and Shaanxi noodles dancing in my head. History, sights, incredible culture, the chance to set foot on the Great Wall?
Of course, absolutely. You could even argue that cocktails played a role in our destination selection what with the number of world-class “mixologists” in Singapore and Hong Kong, and how many of the cities feature expat bars of all levels of formality that have been legendary drinking dens for decades or even centuries.
But there is the question of quality and availability. Wine is just not part of the tradition of any of these destinations. With its French colonial history, there’s no doubt that French wines have been in Shanghai a while. Starting in the 1980’s top-tier Burgundy and Bordeaux arrived in upper class Chinese restaurants and cellars as a status symbol.
Yet, wine still has a reputation for being second-fiddle in all four cities to other drinks. The British influence has led to lagers and ales being a big part of Hong Kong. We think of Singapore with the ubiquitous “Singapore Sling” created at the venerable Raffles Hotel (trust me, have it once then never again). Wine has only been a recent addition to the drinking puzzle outside of being a luxury import.
With the continued globalization and opening of China to capitalism and the way Singapore and Hong Kong have become as worldly and diverse destinations as almost anywhere in the world, wine has arrived and started taking root in each city’s eating and drinking culture. On one hand, China is aiming to be the next Bordeaux or Napa. While Bordeaux and Napa are aiming for China, and not just in sales. Château Lafite Rothschild has just made their first vintage of wine from vineyards on China’s Shandong Peninsula.
On the other, in 2011 Chinese basketball superstar Yao Ming started a label in Napa called Yao Family Wines. Would you like a bottle of the debut 2009 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon? It’s about $109, not bad for high end Napa Cabernet.
All four major cities are embracing wine. Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai are much more so than Beijing, but you can see Beijing’s interest increasing almost daily. Still, I’d say craft cocktails in Shanghai and Hong Kong are most prominent with beer playing a particularly key role in Hong Kong (just visit the packed environs at The Globe, one of the few craft beer bars, at happy hour). Wine is very present, but more in formal meals and settings than for casual drinking.
In the traditional, formal restaurants, the wines skew to big name producer, big name wines of France, Napa, and Australia. That’s nice, but safe. What is riveting is how the slow current of low production, boutique, unique wines are making it to the small chef-driven restaurants like Restaurant André in Singapore and Yardbird in Hong Kong that together are a big part of why now is such a fine time to visit each of these cities.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Remember, you’re a long way from Europe or North and South American grape-growing regions, making import logistics and prices daunting for small producers. Many of the same large-scale names pop up frequently on lists. Australia and New Zealand would be closest in proximity, especially for Singapore, but France and California seem most prominent everywhere.
Only 1.5 liters are consumed annually on average by the Chinese… hence it’s easy to infer the majority still prefer Tsingtao or other beers with dinner, or perhaps tea. Singapore’s eating culture centers so much on the food hawker centers where if any alcohol is imbibed, it’s a Tiger beer. The local drinking statistics are no different in Singapore than China but what is different are the enormous import taxes on alcohol, then passed onto the consumers. It’s expensive. Very expensive to drink wine and sell wine in China. Wine is served as a luxury item or served in Western restaurants meant for tourists and business travelers in both cases. Even with these low numbers, China drinks more red wine than any other country.
At least they think it’s first-rate red wine. Over half the Château Lafite Rothschild in China is counterfeit many reports say. Very little white wine is consumed period and unless you’re at major contemporary restaurants in Singapore, Hong Kong, or Shanghai, don’t expect much in the way of white or unique wines.
Hong Kong drinks more wine than anywhere else in Asia at just under 6 liters a person (still way, way below anywhere in Europe or the U.S.). It’s called the wine hub of Asia frequently for a reason. After the 2008 elimination of a 40% import tax on non-spirits alcohol, wine and beer imports expectedly sky-rocketed. Singapore continues to wait for their import taxes to relax (70 Singapore Dollars or $56 USD per liter of alcohol, multiplied by percentage of alcohol by volume, so a regular 13.5% abv bottle is Singapore $7.09). Not cheap.
And how is that domestic wine? That has never and probably will never work in the tropical climates of Singapore and Hong Kong (more on Hong Kong’s domestic wine later). In a country of 1.35 billion residents, there are just a handful of wineries. Of them, most are major corporations concerned with margins over quality. From my brief experience tasting one label of domestic wine, there is potential in the terroir and wine-making. That’s too small a sample size though to say anything assertive. But you can sense the domestic industry getting more serious after centuries of making house wine quality or less. I wouldn’t be shocked if a decade from now there is a legitimate wine industry and two decades from now one that is a real player on the global stage.
Xi’an the next St. Helena? Well, hey, you never know.
False wine. Domestic wine of all calibers. Imported wine with stiff taxes and long distances. It’s all a complex puzzle. Clearly Singapore and Beijing aren’t exactly Bordeaux or Mendoza on the wine circuit. But amidst the deservedly much praised dining scenes, I learned over three weeks that certain cities are keeping that wine desert label, while others could easily be destinations both to eat and enjoy wine with the cuisine..
My recent trip commenced in China’s capital. To cut to the chase, it’s not right now a great city for fine dining or wine outside a handful of places, mostly thanks to the 2008 Olympics. And even if the fine dining is lagging, regional cuisines like those served by Three Guizhou Men, Bao Yuan, and Noodle Loft are a strength. Nobody will overlook the city’s signature Peking duck at the likes of Da Dong, Duck de Chine, or Siji Minfu. Eating will be a reward from long strolls in the inner crammed hutongs and the Forbidden City crowds.
Beijing is a fascinating city that is no doubt going through a drastic transformation. It’s huge; probably too huge. It’s too crowded. Traffic makes Los Angeles freeways seem free-flowing and the drivers truly are life-defying maniacs. Yes, there is smog here except it only seemed “bad” to me, never to the point of buying a gas mask.
Yet, Beijing is a city of power, growing more modern by the hour and more importantly, the capital of China. With that title, you’re in the world spotlight. Wine follows the spotlight.
Being a small chain that is the best known Peking duck kitchen in the capital, Da Dong knows travelers from worldwide are visiting them. Da Dong specializes in a leaner Peking duck that packs immense flavor and wafer thin crisp skin without the glutinous pork belly-like appeal of the dish. The duck is terrific, certainly up to the hype.
The wine list? Eh, no surprises, here. It’s big name, big pockets or quickly downhill. Under “World Premier Selection Wines” there is the Penfold Grange Shiraz and Almaviva’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, and Cabernet Franc blend. Are the vintage years missing on the menu? Yep. You’re guessing until the bottle arrives. And the bottles are served plenty warm. There’s still some work to do but then again, Da Dong doesn’t bother to call for a taxi for any guests either. At least the duck is stellar.
Another spot popular with tourists is Dali Courtyard in one of the hutongs. It’s one set menu with no choices. The tropical region of Yunnan’s dishes range from excellent to enjoyable to unfortunate tourist fuel. It’s a fiery, powerful meal that wildly ebbs and flows. The wine is what probably existed often in Beijing ten years ago: a white, a red, and then a token two high-end Napa reds. It’s tourist wine…for tourists.
The high-end hotels have some important wines as would be expected. The Kerry Hotel in the heart of the FiDi right by Beijing’s ultra-modern, space ship-evoking CCTV Headquarters building. Beijing maybe has a dozen of these buildings. Shanghai for comparison would be closer to 50, reflecting the differences in the two cities in architecture and wine. Bar Centro at the Kerry is a typical high end business hotel lobby bar, the unofficial power happy hour and wine-drinking spot with an enormous sparkling wine list. The Kerry knows its clientele and caters to it. Again, big name producers that are solid and not daring.
Attached to the Kerry by an overpass in the China World Trade Center is the Shangri-La China World Summit Wing Hotel. It has a 79th floor restaurant (Grill 79), a lounge, and even a wine bar that has a notable by the glass selection that’s perfect for an apértif and (smog or cloud blocked) panoramic view. Don’t let the fact that the website lists only four wines convince you otherwise.
Temple Restaurant Beijing
But when it comes to wine on a world-class stage, Beijing has had two particularly notable destinations. New York chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud opened his Maison Boulud in 2008 and closed in late 2013. Temple Restaurant Beijing, opened in 2012, is part of the Temple Hotel, part of a 600 year old former temple compound.
They’re connected by similar French lists and inflected cuisine, and by one of Temple’s co-owners Ignace Lecleir, who helped open Maison Boulud (he also worked previously at Restaurant Daniel in New York). France is the focus of Temple’s wine program but it’s complete in all directions. All I need to say is the list even notes biodynamic and organic wine, which I’d confidently venture to say is the first and only of its kind in Beijing.
A glass of complimentary Champagne sets the tone for an evening of a superb do-it-yourself gravlax and accoutrements starter, king crab salad with avocado mousse, and a (too dainty and seasonally improper timing) main plate of suckling pig and pumpkin purée. Opt instead for seared pigeon with foie gras pistachio croutons. No matter what, the soufflés at dessert will be the eating highlight. They’re textbook examples of the forgotten genre.
The Jura is the darling of American wine directors and has made its way to Temple. You’ll find a Savagnin from the Maison Pierre Overnoy and “L Mailloche” by Stéphane Tissot. The Burgundy labels on the list are striking, in particular a strong selection of Montrachet from Grand Cru to Chassagne-Montrachet. States-wise, the hard to find Sandhi Chardonnay from Sashi Moorman Raj Parr from the Santa Rita Hills even appears here. I was shocked and thrilled.
Not to be outdone, Bordeaux holds its own. The 1999 Chateau Margaux can be yours’ for 16,500 RMB ($2,685 USD) and the 1970 Pétrus for 69,500 RMB ($11,300 USD). Ok, that’s definitely the high-end.
On a more rationale scale, superb bottles abound too. Consider the Jean-Marc Brocard 2011 Chablis or the Camins del Priorat from acclaimed producer Alvaro Palacios or the 2012 Frappato from Sicily’s cult favorite vintner Arianna Occhipinti (her wines are hard enough to find in the states and they’re here in Beijing!). The very popular Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner appears here, too.
Note: Temple even has its own online wine shop. They mean wine business and are a game-changer in the capital. The food could use a bit more sharpness and creativity. However, with Temple’s wine programs and environs, it’d be daunting for any chef anywhere to compete.
Outside of Temple, venture to Opera Bombana from the chef Umberto Bombana who has two Michelin stars each in Shanghai and Hong Kong and the exciting new Mosto that anchors Sanlitun, Beijing’s flashiest and most modern enclave. Brian McKenna at The Courtyard, Capital M, and Green T. House round out your best wine list bets.
After landing in Shanghai, we immediately had dinner at the classic Shanghai cuisine stalwart Jesse that is very much on the tourist radar but still doesn’t fall into catering directly to them. Wine is elementary compared to the wild herbs wrapped in tofu skin and the captivating sweet red pork braised in a crockpot. Be proactive like Giulia Lami, an Italian wine importer in Shanghai and Beijing who I met while dining at Jesse. Her table brought its own bottles to enjoy for the best of both worlds in Shanghai food and drink, with no corkage fee. Note on Jesse, only go to the original on Tianping Lu, not the “new” Xin Jishi branches.
Jesse is the norm for traditional restaurants. It’s not the same story for the city’s modern establishments. Shanghai is a front-line cosmopolitan city where finding great wine isn’t a hard task like in Beijing. You’re not far from the London and New York leagues here.
Paul Pairet’s modern French eatery Mr. and Mrs. Bund (on the Bund with a gorgeous view) is ranked the 76th best restaurant in the world according to The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List (yes, they rank 100). It’s whimsical, creative and futuristic takes on comfort food, a little Vegas-flashy, all leading to a very enjoyable night out. But it might not even be the tenth best restaurant in Shanghai alone. The wine list is top tier no doubt in Shanghai. On your iPad, your cellar choices are endless, especially with French labels. As a bonus, 32 wines are served by the glass in 3 sipping sizes to go with the “black cod in a bag” and Meunière truffle bread that easily was one of the knock-out bites of the trip (with all the xiao long bao soup dumplings I consumed in Shanghai, there was no shortage of spectacular single bite treats in Shanghai).
Sister establishment Bar Rouge is all about the scene, screaming bottle service. Not that walking by the official champagne Moët et Chandon’s logo at the entrance means anything… but you’ll find some solid bargains too like the Casa Lapostolle Sauvignon Blanc from Chile’s Casablanca Valley. It’s a jet set spot meant more for Cosmopolitans than biodynamic wines and you wish it were vice versa.
Luckily, because the Bund is the main stretch for a grand tourist night out and has an old historic European influence (you feel like the Huangpu River is the Thames with constant rain and old clock tower), there are excellent wine choices surrounding you.
The grande dame bars The Jazz Bar at the Fairmont Peace Hotel and The Long Bar at the Waldorf Astoria are meant more for vintage cocktails but there’s nothing wrong with a glass of Chardonnay in the spectacular environs. M on the Bund now is a classic but 15 years ago when it opened helped usher in the Bund’s contemporary age. The restaurant has both a 300 label “short list” ready for drinking now, then also a substantial “long list” ranging from a Santorini Assyrtiko- Athiriri by Sigalas to Pio Cesara’s Barolo. Neither list is slanted towards price, both have high and low ranges. Organic, biodynamic, and sustainably farmed wines are all noted.
The House of Roosevelt at 27 Bund and Napa Wine Bar and Kitchen are key spots for deep wine lists. The former focuses on the Old World and even has climate-controlled cellars for Roosevelt Club members. The latter proudly boasts 700 labels, ranging from the Yao Ming Cabernet Sauvignon to a roster of the non-Napa Domaine de la Romanée Conti back to a 1994 vintage La Tache. Frankly, the Napa wines are what you’d expect but far from extensive. French wines are the strength at Napa Wine Bar with fun additions from outliers like the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia and Valais, Switzerland.
Shanghai isn’t Las Vegas when it comes to celebrity chef restaurants but the city does have a higher than normal roster of internationally recognized names. Most prominent is Jean Georges Vongerichten’s Jean Georges and his new seasonal Italian-driven concept, Mercato, both in the Three on the Bund building.
I visited Mercato for a dinner and must say it was right at the top of my experiences with Jean Georges’ restaurants (ABC Kitchen in New York being the top over his formal flagship). The cuisine and ambiance follow the fresh, seasonal Italian approach that can enjoyed anywhere in San Francisco or New York these days. Still, the spaghetti with a basil-pistachio pesto would fit in Liguria and crowds cheer the outstanding, beautifully blistered pizzas.
China’s Grace Vineyards
Mercato is where I had the opportunity to try domestic wine with Grace Vineyards’ Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Chardonnay showed controlled oak levels with pleasing floral and mango notes. The Cabernet Sauvignon was poised to age strongly enhanced by balanced fruit and healthy tannins. I sensed a light wine-making touch that also signals the winery is in good hands and on the upswing.
Grace is based in China’s Shaanxi Province, in the country’s Northwest that is similar to Bordeaux in climate. Grace’s estate even has a full restaurant and elegant hotel, not unlike what you might find in Bordeaux itself. The winery started in 1997 but didn’t fully launch until more recently becoming part of Spanish giant Torres’ Asia portfolio. In all, over 2.5 million bottles are produced by Grace with 13 different wines made by an Australian vintner. Could I tell that the wines were part of mega-global portfolio? It didn’t seem like it. They were delicate and showed careful control of texture, oak, and fruit.
London-based Jason Atherton’s “gastro bar” spot Table No. 1 and Commune Social are routinely considered some of the most vibrant and riveting in the city. The lists are wonderfully diverse, from the Mioli Rosé from Brazil to Kleine’s Zelaze Cellar Selection Pinotage from South Africa’s Stellenbosch. Only California seems to be a bit negelected outside of Kendall Jackson and Shafer.
Near the shopping mecca of Xintiandi, spring for the boutique Italian wines at Luccio’s. On the other side of town by Jing’an Temple, Henke’s from the Australian chef Craig Willis is a highlight, towing the line between wine bar, trattoria, and Australian café all in one. Other recommended spots in Shanghai that are more wine bar than spots to eat include Project Wine, Uva, Burdigal, and Dr. Wine. Yes, if only every doctor specialized in wine treatment/tasting.
Like with Shanghai, you could easily write a book on wine recommendations in Hong Kong. It’s a full-on wine culture scene.
Hong Kong’s wine circuit highlight would be the various restaurants and bars at the flagship Mandarin Orientalin Central. And the highlight wine during my meal at Man Wah, its formal Cantonese restaurant, was the tangy, delightful 2008 Bella Ridge Estate Kyoho from the Swan Valley in Western Australia. What’s Kyoho, you ask? It’s a semi-sweet Japanese grape that sports an orange hue and yields bright acidity to cut the sweetness, like a lighter Sauternes. Now if only the dessert were as interesting as the Kyoho…
Man Wah sports a shockingly good West Coast United States selection with Sanford’s Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir, Domaine Serene’s Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir, and Ridge’s 2007 Montebello …for 4,650 HKD ($600 USD). Elsewhere at the hotel are the Krug Room, partnering Krug Champagne with innovative tasting menus and the highly regarded, one Michelin star restaurant, Pierre, combining a stunning view of the harbor with haute French, the type that is waning in Paris. Swing by the M Bar for its view and a nightcap. Follow my advice to bypass the sweet cocktails for a glass of wine from the hotel’s stocked cellar.
From the Mandarin Oriental to the grand flagship Peninsula or the Intercontinental right on the harbor in Kowloon, hotels in Hong Kong actually are places to seek out for a drink on purpose.
It wasn’t just fatigue from a rain-filled day trip to Macau but I very much enjoyed the 2012 Domaine Ott Les Domaniers Côtes de Provence Rosé atop the Ritz Carlton Kowloon at the International Commerce Center’s 118th floor (!) Ozone Lounge and Sky Bar. It was a plush, forceful Rosé example, showing a savory burst complimented by great cranberry and watermelon. Then again a Corona would taste great with this view in the world’s highest bar.
It’s not all hotel-themed for great wine in Hong Kong, though. Think… yakitori joints? In one case, yes.
Back towards Central, Yardbird is a cramped, eternally popular yakitori spot that is best known for saké, skewers of every chicken part, and a fantastic dish of spicy Korean fried cauliflower, doesn’t at first seem like wine territory. It definitely is. Gems include the 2012 Broadside ‘Wild Ferment’ Chardonnay from California’s Edna Valley and the 2010 Gusbourne Pinot Noir from… Kent, England. For a list of 18 labels, you’d be hard-pressed to find more diversity or excitement in Hong Kong or many other cities.
A visit to Hong Kong requires dim sum at the likes of Tim Ho Wan and Luk Yu Tea House but those aren’t wine territory. The Chairman provided me a terrific traditional Cantonese dinner and deserves to be on every must-eat list. Yet the only wine served by the glass period was an undistinguished Riesling, so it was a Tsingtao meal for me.
For traditional Cantonese and a great wine list, Ming Court in Kowloon is heavily advised by local writers. As well, Hong Kong has no shortage of destination restaurants glittering with Michelin stars and boasting plenty of European, Australian, and California producers, again mostly in hotels. Amber in the Landmark Mandarin Oriental (different hotel from the aforementioned Mandarin Oriental), L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Central (not in a hotel), and Caprice at the Four Seasons International Finance Center all have top tier wine programs.
On the wine bar front, recommendations include the Riedel Bar, California Vintage, Central Wine Club, and Classified. The last one is something the U.S. doesn’t have much of: a small group of all day cafés with charming, finely edited wine lists.
And believe me, it’s true: Hong Kong has one urban winery. The 8th Estate Winery makes wines from grapes grown world-wide, then flash-frozen, and delivered. Among selections are a 2010 McLaren Vale Shiraz from Australia, a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington state, and a 2011 Merlot- Cabernet Franc Rosé from Bordeaux.
How about the Kowloon Cuvée? Still waiting for that…
Much like Hong Kong and Shanghai, Singapore’s high-end restaurants execute superb wine programs. Tippling Club’s wine program by Marcus Boyle, combined with some of the city’s most unique cocktails and cooking, the restaurant in the CBD could compete with anybody in any city. Any of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel’s destination spots like Cut by Wolfgang Puck, Waku Ghin from Tetsuya Wakuda (the Wolfgang Puck of Sydney), or Osteria and Pizzeria Mozza, are all winners. For a pool-side bar with an equally strong wine list and bay view, don’t skip the Fullerton Bay Hotel’s Lantern Bar.
The premier wine experience of the trip not surprisingly came with the premier dinner of the trip at Restaurant André in Singapore. The French-inspired, very personal cuisine of chef André Chiang (who was born in Taiwan and trained in legendary kitchens of France) follows his “Octa Philosophy,” encompassing the key components of cooking: pure, salt, artisan, South (France), texture, unique, memory, and terroir. Sommelier Ken Hasegawa follows the concept with a meticulously focused wine “book” that literally arrives as a few pages in the opening of an actual French novel.
All of Hasagawa’s wine selections are organically and bio-dynamically grown and made by small lot French producers. If you’re looking for a wine list that focuses intensely on one unique niche, this is it. His apértif choice actually was the ultimate highlight of the evening and possibly the trip. A NV Brut Blanc de Blancs Réserve Sélection from Michel Turgy in Champagne had an irresistible creamy texture, full of orange peel and a decidedly soft finish.
Over the course of roughly two dozen bites and dishes, wines arrived after every two or three. Hasegawa was always on the mark. The Patrick Piuze 2012 ‘Les Minots’ Vaillons Chablis Premier Cru gracefully enhanced the salinity rush of a seawater emulsion enveloping Gillardeau oysters and a Granny Smith apple mousse that seems designed to look like a miniature under-the-sea village.
Choosing a Riesling after a Chablis is unorthodox but the savory slate tones of the Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss Alsace 2008 Kastelburg Grand Cru was the perfect white to red bridge with dishes of needlefish with sea urchin, caviar, and braised aubergine, and a delightful blue lobster with a rutabaga marmalade. Its slate undertones were brought out by the age, gracefully taming the sweet without being sugary elements for a pitch-perfect, elegant expression. That’s a good thing with delicate, slightly salty, slightly sweet foods it was paired with.
Next up came Sancerre… Rouge. Yes, Pinot Noir, not Sauvignon Blanc from the mecca of Sauvignon Blanc. More rustic and sandy than typical Pinot Noir, the Domaine Vacheron 2011 vintage Rouge was the comfort wine of the evening, mellow in the presence of “Texture,” an inventive charred squid and smoked piquillo pepper aioli “dip” for charcoal-stained fried dough served with charcoal (make the right choice).
For the “Memory” dish, a warm foie gras jelly with a top layer of Perigord black truffle coulis is the only dish every diner receives every day from Chef André, the 2008 Roc d’ Anglade GSM Vin de Pays from Langlade in the Languedoc-Roussillon was poured. The GSM was particularly nifty at cutting the foie gras’ sweet heft and the two most notable food dishes from the kitchen: a simple, strikingly tender tri tip with mixed heirloom beets and berries and the subsequent cheese course where Chef André dehydrates skim milk, wraps it over a wedge of Camembert, and tops it with a quenelle of hay flavored ice cream, served in a Camembert basket made exclusively for the chef. A major victory for Hasegawa in finding a forceful wine that could also tailor to these versatile chef creations.
The festivities wrapped up with the 2012 sweet Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley’s Chateau de la Roulerie followed with enough sweetness to accent a closing Snickers truffle (nuts and chocolate exterior with a liquid caramel center, all on top of chocolate soil), yet enough levity to stay in the background for a delicate chilled musk melon soup and the unabashed sweet onslaught of churros sitting in a glass with nutella and pain d’epices
It’s a long trip from most any wine region to any of these but hey, it’s a small world when we see riffs on churros and Snickers close out a beautiful meal in Singapore. The wine world is growing. Wine programs throughout the trip proved all of these destinations care deeply about wine. And soon, perhaps wine from the Far East will become a hit in Paris and New York. I certainly learned that nowadays, no matter what major city you are in, it’s almost a guarantee that good wine is appreciated.