Hong Kong Power brokers

Hong Kong is not only the gateway to southeast Asia, but a significant import market in its own right. Shenée Tuck identifies the major distributors.

Fung, Hosford, Longworth
Fung, Hosford, Longworth

The gladiators who do battle in Hong Kong’s competitive wine scene operate in an open, transparent market. Friendly rivalry between players encourages creativity, allowing them to carve out distinctive market positions and offerings to help wine buyers and suppliers find the best fit for their businesses.

A thriving local wine scene, combined with Hong Kong’s proximity to mainland China, make it an appealing prospect. Wine imports totaled HK$12bn ($1.5bn), or 62.9m litres in 2016, up almost 12% on 2015; about 43% of imported wines were re-exported to China and Macau. The peak of Hong Kong’s epicurean enthusiasm is autumn’s celebration of international food and wine, beginning with the Wine & Dine Festival, which attracts around 145,000 people, including 14,000 tourists from China and overseas. In 2017, festival goers were treated to wines from 21 countries at 290 booths – a good snapshot of this jam-packed market, where more than 350 distributors fill each and every niche. 

Before listing the most notable Hong Kong distributors, it’s important to define exactly what one is. In Hong Kong, unlike most other parts of the world where business functions are separate, distributors are also importers, retailers, wholesalers and – in some cases – buyers from other distributors. Many supermarkets, restaurants and bars import wines directly from negociants or wineries. Within that framework, it is difficult to pinpoint who is the most influential. Some importers focus their energy on one or a small group of regions; others specialise in fine or boutique wines. This article explores Hong Kong’s major categories and distribution channels, and which distributors feature prominently in those. The best source for a full listing and analysis of Hong Kong's 350+ importers is Debra Meiburg’s Guide to the Hong Kong Wine Trade written by the Master of Wine.

Retail

Watson’s Wine, which operates in both the retail and wholesale markets, is one of the biggest distributors in town, with a network of 30 retail outlets in Hong Kong, some in China and Macau, and a well-visited website. Watson’s has a portfolio of 2,000 wines from 20 countries, with exclusive rights to around 400 brands, including Domaine Leflaive, Montes, D’Arenberg and Domaine de la Vougeraie. Most notably, Watson’s has one of Hong Kong’s largest portfolios of New World wines.

A fringe benefit of Watson’s scale is how it feeds through into other aspects of its operation. “Watson’s has the resources and network to structure great educational master class-styled tastings (about 200 a year),” says Anty Fung, general manager at Hip Cellar and AnOther Place . “They bring in classic examples from regions all over the world, well-known and otherwise.” 

Other prominent Hong Kong retailers include the international chain Marks & Spencer – 24 of its stores stock popular, easy-drinking wines such as Miraval rosé – and the upmarket Wine Shop Enoteca.

Local knowledge

Ponti Wine Cellars, led by the charismatic Antonio Koo, an Officer of the Order of Agricultural Merit, operates four retail stores and a successful wholesale business which carries more than 1,500 brands, 80 exclusively. Ponti is an example of nimble, efficient, competitive Hong Kong service. Ace Lee, senior sommelier at Hotel Icon, says: “Ponti always meets my requests fast, at a good price, and with great service.” 

An established local player with deep roots in the Hong Kong market, Ponti can afford to be picky about new brands. “For us to consider any new brand, the wine must be outstanding quality, competitively priced, and possess truly unique selling points that we can promote,” says Koo. He suggests studying distributors’ wine lists before seeking representation. Then create a story about why a specific wine will fit into their portfolio. “Top wine scores from wine critics and great overseas performance do not guarantee a brand will perform well here,” he says. 

Jebsen Fine Wines is another notable local importer, with substantial on-trade reach due to their well-established beer and spirits distribution. Jebsen’s portfolio includes Champagne Bollinger and Marchesi de Frescobaldi and in 2016 decanterchina.com reported Jebsen had made the jump from importer to brand owner, expanding its portfolio with a range of wines under Jebsen Wine Estates.

Posh portfolios

Altaya Wines has one of the most upmarket portfolios in town, consisting mostly of Old World wines. Founder Paulo Pong has built a reputation as a reliable source of new vintage releases for many major brands and regions. Ronald Sit, wine buyer at MWM Wine School by Debra Meiburg MW, says Altaya is his go-to for well-priced classic wines: “If I need to source wines from Burgundy, Rhône and Champagne, Altaya is my preferred supplier.” But, while Altaya respects the classics, it also drives market trends – it was one of the first distributors to include cult California wines in its portfolio. 

Fine and rare wines are the specialty at Ginsberg+Chan whose quirky positioning “For cult wine addicts and rebel wine lovers” has attracted a devoted customer base. The boutique firm offers brands from France, Italy and the US. Director Jason Ginsberg says his customers appreciate the firm’s personal touch. “Local and regional customers like dialogue, tips on where to eat and what to drink, and they are always looking for deals,” he explains.

Cru World Wine’s sourcing model is “Whatever you need, we’ll find it.” Cru has mastered direct-to-consumer sales and e-commerce in a market where on-line is lagging. Sabrina Hosford, Hong Kong-based global head of retail sales and marketing, says Cru benefits from the buying power of its network, which has its roots in England. “We are able to leverage relationships that our chairman has built over almost 40 years in the UK trade,” she notes. 

Private clients

Hong Kong collectors are in a class of their own. A survey for the Meiburg book  found private clients represent 37% of importers’ sales. This group purchases their wine primarily from prominent English merchants who have a broad range of old vintages and participate in events like en primeur. 

Berry Bros & Rudd (BBR) and Farr Vintners established full-time businesses in Hong Kong in the late 1990s. Amanda Longworth, BBR’s head of marketing and wine services in Hong Kong, told the Financial Times, “BBR has more than 9m bottles in warehouses in the UK. This opens up a world of wines generally unavailable in Hong Kong.” 

Farr Vintners carries a highly sought-after portfolio of fine wines, particularly from Bordeaux. Their wholesale and private client business (direct access to clients) is buoyed by competitive pricing. Jo Purcell, managing director for Asia at Farr Vintners, says collectors represent the bulk of her company’s business: “Our private customers are big buyers in their own right, some bigger than many wholesale accounts.” 

Fine Wine Experience is renowned for its guided tastings. “Their Vintage Pairs and vertical tastings put together a range of wines that are hard to find,” says Anty Fung. Corney & Barrow also have a substantial Hong Kong following.

On trade specialists

In a landscape teeming with restaurants, bars and five-star hotels, it’s no surprise that some distributors make a living dealing almost exclusively with on-trade. Kedington Wines has a portfolio of more than 40 brands, with a number of gems from Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Spain and South Africa, including De Martino, Marques de Caceres and Wirra. 

Links Concept imports bottles primarily from family-owned wineries with whom it nurtures close relationships by arranging annual visits for its employees to France, Australia, Italy and elsewhere. 

Regional specialists

Golden Gate Wine Limited was Hong Kong’s earliest US specialist, supplying wine to homesick expatriates and returning travellers from California, Oregon and Washington (Far Niente, Domaine Serene and Calera). Wines from New Zealand, Italy, France and Australia now complement Golden Gate’s portfolio, but the distributor remains American at heart. 

New Zealand specialist Northeast Wine and Spirits (Wine’n’things) opened in 1993. The expanded portfolio now encompasses more than 40 New World brands from Australia, South Africa, US, Chile, China, Japan and Argentina. The firm hosts events for trade and consumers and is actively engaged with fans and followers on social media. 

Hong Kong’s most enduring love affair is with Bordeaux. English merchants carry a broad range of  vintages from the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s in bonded warehouses in the UK, but local merchants offer younger bottles with the added advantage of prompt delivery. “Bordeaux 2010, 2009, 2005 and 2000 vintages are popular at Hotel Icon,” says Ace Lee. Both he and Anty Fung shop at My Cellar. 

Beyond Bordeaux, Burgundy is on the rise. “Burgundy 2015 is my most highly-demanded new vintage,” says Fung. “L’Imperatrice is a good supplier with consistently reasonable prices.” 

Natural and boutique wines

Natural wine (made without chemicals and with minimal technological intervention) is a trend that has gained traction in Hong Kong, albeit more slowly than in European markets. La Cabane Wine Cellar is Hong Kong’s most prominent natural wine shop, stocking mainly French wines. The importer also operates La Cabane Wine Bistro, where guests enjoy natural wine and an organic menu in rustic French style. Cytise Distribution, another boutique French specialist, offers wines from Jura and Savoie, and Provence’s Château Simone.

Cheese Meets Wine deals in Italian artisanal wines. Anty Fung appreciates the personalized, knowledgeable service smaller importers provide. “They are small enough that you actually get to speak to the managing director or owner and feel the passion they have for their wines,” she says, referring specifically to Bachmair Wines (German) and The Swiss Wine Store (Swiss). 

Great way to China

Wineries thinking about dipping their toe into China might seek out one of the 61% of Hong Kong importers who also do business on the mainland. Many Hong Kong-registered wine exporters enjoy streamlined clearance of wine re-exported to mainland China to registered Chinese importers. 

ASC Fine Wines was the No. 1 player in Greater China even before it opened a Hong Kong office. ASC employs about 800 people and has six temperature-controlled warehouses in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Hong Kong and Macau. Its portfolio includes brands from the US, Italy and France, including Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Michele Chiarlo, Louis Jadot and Biondi Santi (exclusively). 

Kerry Wines is a well-networked firm in Hong Kong with offices in Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen in south China. Kerry’s portfolio of more than 40 classic Old World brands includes Champagne Jacquesson, Domaine Francois Carillon as well as Oregon’s Adelsheim. Although fairly new in Hong Kong, it’s  a sister company to the local Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts group.

Jointek Fine Wines has a concentrated portfolio of 40 quality brands from France, Spain, China and Hungary (Champagne Thienot, Dourthe, Chateau Ramafort) which it distributes in Hong Kong and China. 

Summergate Fine Wines and East Meets West are two significant Hong Kong players with roots as prevalent importers in China.

Shenée Tuck is an employee of Hong Kong based Meiburg Media, publisher of the “Guide to the Asian Wine Trade” series.

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