Cul­ture Shock

WITH HONG KONG’S RISE AS A WINE HUB, WRITES James Suck­ling, IT’S OF­TEN FORGOTTEN THAT OTHER PLACES IN ASIA ALSO HAVE A STRONG WINE CUL­TURE

Hong Kong Tatler - - Opinion -

Walk­ing around Bangkok’s Thon­glor dis­trict on a balmy Fri­day evening, I was im­pressed to see so many peo­ple drink­ing wine in­stead of beer or cock­tails. There was a wine bar or a sign ad­ver­tis­ing wine by the glass on just about ev­ery block. While peo­ple talk of Hong Kong be­ing the cen­tre of Asia’s wine uni­verse, and of Shang­hai be­ing the wine cap­i­tal of Main­land China, Thai­land’s dy­namic wine mar­ket prob­a­bly has more pre­mium wine drinkers than any other coun­try in Asia.

Al­most 1,000 peo­ple at­tended my Great Wines of Italy event at the Grand Hy­att Erawan Bangkok in De­cem­ber, un­der­scor­ing the strength of the Thai mar­ket. Lead­ing im­porters es­ti­mate the size of Thai­land’s pre­mium wine mar­ket—con­sumers who spend US$20 for a bot­tle of wine on a regular ba­sis—to be about 900,000 peo­ple. That could be two or three times the cur­rent size of the pre­mium wine mar­kets of Hong Kong and Main­land China.

“Wine is very popular with young drinkers as they move away from spir­its or beer,” says Max Benedetti, CEO of Ita­la­sia. His com­pany is one of the largest wine im­porters in Thai­land and spe­cialises in Ital­ian wines, which he says have about a third of the mar­ket. Many con­sumers in their 20s and 30s are at­tracted to wine, he says, be­cause they see it as some­thing dif­fer­ent from what their par­ents drink.

An­nual sales of Prosecco, the light sparkling wine of north­east Italy, stand at about 500,000 bot­tles, 50 times the vol­ume of Cham­pagne sold in Thai­land. “It fits the Thai taste,” says Luca di Filippo, CEO of G Four, a key wine im­porter in Thai­land. “They like the light­ness and fresh­ness. Cham­pagne is too acidic.”

Ital­ian wine is ex­tremely im­por­tant in Bangkok, con­sid­er­ing the cap­i­tal has more than 350 Ital­ian restau­rants. Yet France—in par­tic­u­lar, Bordeaux—still rules, as it does in most other Asian mar­kets. I have spent many week­ends in Bangkok with vint­ners and wine col­lec­tors and the bot­tles of great Cham­pagne and Bordeaux flow freely. “We get to­gether reg­u­larly with a group of friends to drink great wines,” says a Thai wine col­lec­tor who lives in Bangkok and Los An­ge­les. “We tend to drink great Bur­gundies more now, but the best Bordeaux are still very spe­cial.”

In­deed, most pri­vate wine cel­lars in Bangkok have fine col­lec­tions of Bordeaux, with choice vin­tages of Mou­ton Roth­schild, Haut-brion and La­tour, not to men­tion rare Right Bank wines such as Che­val Blanc, l’eglise- Clinet, Pétrus and Lafleur. Even the ail­ing monarch, King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej, was a wine lover in his prime.

Given its long his­tory of so­phis­ti­ca­tion in wine con­sump­tion—with the mid­dle and up­per classes know­ing wine well and un­der­stand­ing its sig­nif­i­cance in en­hanc­ing a meal and life it­self—it’s sur­pris­ing that Thai­land isn’t bet­ter known as a pre­mium wine mar­ket. As the Thais con­tinue their long tra­di­tion of wine ap­pre­ci­a­tion along­side new mar­kets in China and other Asian na­tions, they may be the real con­nois­seurs of Asia, at least for a while yet.

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