A Matter of Hong Kong - Part 1
Wednesday afternoon. After hours entering Burgundy 2015 notes onto HAL 9000, the computer currently running the TWA database, my taxi arrives to take me to Heathrow. I am bound for Hong Kong for the inaugural Matter of Taste event. First there are airport errands: buy a book to read, page-turner not Dostoevsky, quick caffeine refuel and in a rare moment of forward planning, Christmas present for the wife - tax free. Amongst the swarming passengers awaiting to board the A380, I spot a slightly disheveled Spanish gentleman doused with a faint scent of Tempranillo. Must be my WA compadre - Señor Luis Gutierrez. Our jabbering lasts through boarding and take-off, until approximately 30,000 feet above the Baltic Sea. Relieved of pent-up gossip, I decide to read my book since inflight entertainment has withered down to various mindless offshoots of the neverending Avengers franchise. I packed two books. Alan Bennett's compendium of diary entries, "Keeping On, Keeping On" and the biography of The Smiths' guitarist, Johnny Marr, both working class national treasures from Northern cities, both born with preternatural talent, their weapon of choice the pen and Rickenbacker 330 respectively. Bennett's masterfully written prose is wry and full of bathos; joyful to devour. Marr's story read in a facile manner compared to Bennett, but its simplicity is its strength, affecting in many places, enhancing his already gold-plated heroic status. To think that he composed the entire Smiths canon between the ages of 19 and 23. I spent those years in inertia, shrugging off hangovers instead of co-writing songs that changed lives. Then again, my vocation demands an accrual of experience. Irrespective of the current vogue for idiot guides, there is no shortcut to genuine wine expertise. It takes many years to create a deep well of first-hand tasting experience, a lot of vineyard dirt on worn-out soles of shoes, countless hours cross-examining winemakers whilst freezing your balls off in cold damp cellars. As a wine writer, I make a mental note to peak in my mid-50s. Then perchance a graceful decline like a mature Pauillac from a good vintage.
So from the Ural Mountains until Inner Mongolia, I sleep. This is unusual. Habitually during long-haul flight, my grey matter is too buzzing to enter "stand-by mode," otherwise I become addicted to the in-flight "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" quiz, so that I can relish a fleeting moment as a millionaire. For maybe the first time ever I watch nothing at all and wipe the sleep out of my eyes with Hong Kong on the horizon. Though I do miss the kamikaze landing at Kai Tak, the old Hong Kong airport where landing 747s had to thread themselves through tower blocks, its replacement is a breeze from exiting the aircraft to entering the arrival hall. New runway at Heathrow over the M25? Can't we just bulldoze the old one and rebuild a replica of Hong Kong's terminus?
I first visited Hong Kong in December 1994, the twilight days of its colonial era. Subsequently, it has reinvented itself as a financial powerhouse—copses of ever more elaborate skyscrapers pose around Kowloon Bay silently governing economies, whilst the bustling port delivers the building bricks of China's economy. And of course, if London has historically been the nexus of fine wine, then Hong Kong became its final destination, a vinous playground ignited by the waiving of import duties in 2010, a febrile social scene and a burgeoning thirst for knowledge. No surprise that more copies of my Pomerol tome were sold in Hong Kong than anywhere else (apart from the U.S.) and no surprise that Matter of Taste is rolling into town.
Luis and I book into our hotel: rooms small but clean, bed comfy, view straight into somebody's office. We head out for the evening to force our body clocks into their new time zone. However, before anything, I have another spousal cosmetics diktat to complete, so with the Mission Impossible theme running through my head, I hand a shop assistant my handwritten list of crucial cleansers, creams and ointments. I begin to wonder whether the enthusiastic shop assistant will ever cease loading more into the basket. It costs a small fortune that will have to be deducted from my daughters' college fund, then again, my wife has not a wrinkle to call her own. We meet a couple of friends for dinner and slake our thirst with “crazy” bottles. I have become accustomed to the boundless altruism, kindness and enthusiasm that typify Hong Kong, Luis astonished the way rarities are opened for the sheer joy of sharing, not showing off or self-aggrandizement. Before I leave, someone asks my itinerary and I reply that I will fly on to Shanghai this coming Sunday to conduct a seminar at the Prowine exhibition. They look concerned and warn me about Shanghai's notorious flight delays. I am sure I'll be fine. My bedside light switches off at midnight and as I expect, awake at the ungodly hour of 3:10am, brain refusing to switch over from Greenwich Mean Time. It usually takes me four to five days to adjust when flying east, exactly when I'll be returning.
The following day and I am feeling so lethargic and somnolent that I could curl into a ball and hibernate. However, hibernation is not on the itinerary and would not go down well with management. Two revitalizing café lattes later and I feel less narcoleptic, go down to reception where I spot a gentleman attired in such a bizarre tie that I can only conclude it to be Mark Squires. He looks as disorientated as anyone would be arriving from Philadelphia. I should get up and say hello, but postpone greetings until later, lest I use up a precious bar of energy needed for this morning's TV interview. My belated awakening is kick-started thanks partly to the interviewee, who to use a phrase, is "easy on the eye." She tells me that she occasionally models...as if I need to be told. She has a face that lights up and looks a million dollars in front of a camera, whereas mine looks $1.50 by comparison. This is not an act of self-deprecation. Strangers have remarked that I look much better in the flesh than in photos, which can either be taken as a complement or an insult. Probably both. At one point I am asked to discuss the differences between expensive and cheap wines, examples corralled either side of the table. "Expensive" is represented by a 1999 Echézeaux from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Fair enough. You wouldn't find that in the supermarket aisle. "Cheap" is represented not by a decent Chilean or South African Pinot Noir, but instead an Echézeaux from another slightly less well-known grower. I guess "cheap" is relative to one's disposable income. Fatigue finally ebbs away and the interview goes well. During our conversation between takes, I deduce that she harbors no ambition to become an MW, however, I appreciate her enthusiasm and desire to learn, almost envious of her position at the brink of a vinous world opening up.
From here, a traffic jam back across the harbor to a traditional Hong Kong restaurant since Luis asked if I could arrange for him to experience local cuisine. I asked a local friend who takes us to Jiang-Su, which is wise since neither Luis nor I could make head or tail of the Cantonese-written menu and would blithely order head and tail of some animal of indeterminate taxonomic origin. The cuisine is simple but splendid, especially the "iced vegetables," apparently à la mode in the Far East. From here, we briefly join another group of oenophiles finishing lunch, enabling us to polish off the last couple of inches of 1952 Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Malconsorts from Charles Noëllat. It's just a beautiful old Burgundy that sends tingles down the spine.
A brief rest at the hotel and my energy bars are now nearly at 100%. Luis and I have two separate dinners this evening. Since his evening has a Spanish theme, I presume it will commence around midnight and finish just before daybreak. I walk to the Island Shangri-La, the most salubrious hotel I have ever stayed at when conducting tastings with Bob and Lisa a few years ago. It is certainly more luxurious than the Grand Hotel in Southend-on-Sea that had iron bars over the window, presumably to prevent guests from escaping. Tonight's soiree welcomes around 40 guests in the hotel's penthouse restaurant entitled Petrus, though the theme is not an iconic Pomerol but an iconic Pauillac in the shape of Pichon Baron. There are several vintages back to 2003, plus the stunning 2009 Suduiraut to ensure everyone leaves feeling sweeter.
Though I know both properties inside-out, it is wise to brush up on facts and figures and vagaries of the growing seasons since inevitably questions are fired in your direction, from time to time, one predesigned to trip you up. Whilst I have a veritable library of anecdotes after years of first-hand experience, it is easy to muddle statistics. Irrespective of a winery's reputation, I forego the ceremonial nature of the events. Wine is not a preening po-faced beverage even if some proprietors and oenophiles treat it as such. Such events and dinners should be insightful and educational, but that does not preclude them from being convivial and fun. I have witnessed too many pompous wine events where the expert is wheeled in to sermonizing direct from a Wikipedia page, the congregation silently speculating what they have done to deserve this. Yes, I have seen someone doze off as excruciating detail of the malolactic fermentation entered its umpteenth hour. Maybe he was dead? I never found out. No, tutoring a wine tasting is akin to being the warm-up act. The main act is the wine itself and enjoyment thereof. You are responsible for getting guests in the right mood, feel enthused about the wine; slip in as much information as possible without lecturing.
AXA Millésime's commercial director, Corinne Michotte, makes it even easier, somebody I know well after countless visits to Pichon Baron. She's a bubble of fun, not one to mince her words, overflowing with Gallic passion and feisty character, equipped with a sound vinous knowledge. It's all good banter. Those seated on my table ask many questions throughout dinner, though one repeats last night's negative reaction when I mention my Sunday sojourn to Shanghai. The food incidentally is top notch, lamb so tender and flavorsome, barbecued on the roof terrace, which may or may not be permitted by authorities. Then again, who's going to raid the 53rd floor of a luxury hotel? Foregoing late night beers, I get back to my hotel around midnight for a good night's sleep, awake at 3:20am with my brain roiling with thoughts and ideas reserved for daylight hours. Well, at least that is ten minutes later than the previous night. My body clock is adjusting in the right direction.
Saturday is the Matter of Taste event in the ballroom of the Shangri-La. Shaking off the fug of morning fatigue, Luis, Mark and I conduct a media meet 'n greet with a gaggle of journalists and bloggers, one of whom I recognize as a fellow taster when I used to judge the International Wine Challenge. The wine community might be global, but it's small and communal. You are likely to meet the same faces a few years later, maybe in a different country or continent. Jet-lag induced nausea forces me to return to the hotel for an hour's kip, curtailed by a phone call informing me that a TV crew has arrived for an interview. Probably best to get dressed and head back to the ballroom for another piece to camera, this time with a friend, Nelson, who is the editor of a local glossy wine magazine. They take some photos and they advise that I'll be on a future front cover. I assume that they want to sell fewer copies that month.
I am ready to rock 'n roll once the hour arrives for my first of four MOT masterclasses, ready for the redoubtable Xavier Pariente, the owner of Troplong-Mondot. I have an affinity with this Saint Emilion because it was the first château I ever dined at, back in 1997 with the late and much-missed Christine Valette. I remember sipping the 1990 on the terrace, probably a bit sozzled, concluding that this vocation beat insurance underwriting. Xavier is a real character and I like him a lot: brutally frank, very opinionated, unpredictable and perfectly happy to say the wrong thing in the right way. Bordeaux needs more Xaviers. Case in point, upon pronouncing his 2007 Troplong-Mondot, a success in the context of the vintage, Xavier stands up and adjudges it rustic. "I don't like it," he announces. A Bordeaux proprietor skewering his own wine is a rare occurrence indeed. My advantage over Xavier is that I am the writer, therefore I can reaffirm that the 2007 Troplong-Mondot is unquestionably a lovely off-vintage. We both ricochet views off each other. Sometimes we agree but when we do not, neither of us pulls our punches. Of course, nowadays mobile phones allow every word I have ever written accessible with a click of a button (as long as it's OK with HAL 9000). In such open forums, everyone can tackle any reviews or opinions, including winemakers. Wine criticism should be a two-way communication, between critic and reader and/or critic and winemaker, and these masterclasses are all the better for it. Bring it on.
The evening is a Grand Finale dinner attended by both growers and subscribers at the Tien Yi restaurant. As always, one hopes to have landed on an entertaining table. I fear not since the cross-table conversation is entirely in Spanish. In my year covering the country's wine, the only phrase I learned was "Cafe con leche por favor." Maybe I'll just have to listen the entire evening? My fears are quickly allayed—the assortment of Portuguese and Argentinean winemakers are both entertaining and fun. Plus, I had forgotten how damn delicious the red wines from Dao or Douro can be in the hands of talented winemakers. The only problem on our table is lack of the fairer sex. For some reason, the adjacent table is 100% female and ours is 100% male. Is there some boy/girl segregation, just in case any shenanigans ensues after one too many shandies? Fortunately, Corinne Michotte joins and her personality and liveliness spices up our table to no end. Luis occasionally weaves his way through the crowd brandishing ancient Spanish wines, a 1959 CUNE one of the vinous highlights of the evening. It is such a pleasure seeing some of my old Spanish friends such as Telmo Rodriguez and ever-beaming 101-point María José López de Heredia. I've brought along a bottle of 2008 Essencia from the Royal Tokaji Company that had recently been sent to my home to review for the end-November issue, but had to join me in Hong Kong because to be frank, I'm just not at home this month. Having already penned the note, this elixir is too rare and special not to share it with winemakers, some experiencing it for the first time. I ask the waitress for a dozen porcelain rice spoons and like a doctor pouring medicine for a class of sickly children, offer the Essencia around. It's too unctuous to drink from a normal glass because too much becomes glued to the sides. It's the perfect way to end the evening.
I depart around 11:30pm. Hooray! I go to sleep immediately.
Boo! I wake up at 3:20am. Again.
Part 2 will follow tomorrow...
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