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
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.