I don’t have a collector’s cellar, I just have a drinking one,” proclaims Henry Tang, who served as chief secretary of Hong Kong between 2007 and 2011, and who is rumoured to have one of Asia’s largest wine collections. “I don’t see the purpose of keeping wines for years and years to then sell on to make a profit. Wine is for enjoying, and for drinking when it is ready.”
Tang’s early, humble forays into the vinous world were as a student in the United States in the early 1970s. “In those days, the normal alcohol options were beer or whisky,” Tang says. “Whisky, I couldn’t drink. I just got drunk too quickly, and beer was too full of bubbles. I switched to wine and that suddenly ignited my curiosity.
“I could buy a gallon of Cabernet Sauvignon from the supermarket – jug wine is what we called it – for only 99 cents, but then saw the same name of Cabernet Sauvignon in a wine merchant selling for US$100! And for my eager brain, I was keen to find out how the same grape – Chardonnay or Merlot, for example – could vary so much in price and taste.”
The politician’s wine “eureka” moment came on return to his home city, when dining at the Mandarin Grill. “I was back in Hong Kong to work,” Tang remembers, “and had been exploring wine for the previous couple of years, when suddenly this bottle of Cheval Blanc 1947 came out. It’s widely known to be one of the most classic vintages ever made.
“I remember I was tucking into a beef stroganoff when the wine just hit my senses. It was so rich and aromatic, and I realised how great a mature Bordeaux wine could be when it’s kept well and looked after. Bordeaux needs to be kept for the right amount of time and not rushed. For example, I am drinking some of my 1982 vintages now, and they are drinking very nicely.”
Building up any type of collection takes time and patience, and that is especially true with wine. Some of the finest tipples from the top estates sell out within minutes of their release, and it takes an in-the-know broker or wine merchant to alert the customer when good deals are to be had. Building such a close, trusting relationship is essential to success, and for Tang, this was Justerini & Brooks, the London-based fine-wine merchant with the world’s most enviable Burgundy portfolio.
Founded in 1749, Justerini & Brooks was awarded its first royal warrant in 1761 and has held one ever since, supplying quality wines (alongside another venerable, respected and British wine merchant, Berry, Bros & Rudd) to Queen Elizabeth II. Justerini & Brooks is also credited for bringing the en primeur phenomenon (whereby wine is sold while still in the barrel, before bottling, as a means of investment) to London – and then onward to the rest of the world.
Tang, in fact, began collecting in London, in the 1980s. The British capital offered a significantly wider selection of wines than Hong Kong in those days, and the Asian city was still decades away from abolishing wine duty. “Hong Kong was a very strict place back then, with very severe duties, and London was a much better option,” the politician recalls. “Justerini & Brooks had the best portfolio in the trade and I’ve kept with them ever since.”
While Tang is an avid fan of Burgundy, he began by collecting Bordeaux, and admits that he still remains very much committed to France’s most famous wine-producing region. “Some people may be surprised when I say this, but Bordeaux is actually one of the easiest places to start when learning about wine,” he says, referring to the 1855 classification ordered by Napoleon III. The French emperor was so keen that overseas visitors only experienced the best wine that France could offer that reds were ranked from First to Fifth Growths, and whites from Superior First Growth to Second Growths.
“But I think I had a bit more of an exploratory palate,” he adds, “because when other people were going after the First Growths, I was looking at some of the Super Seconds, as they are called, and also Burgundy.
“When I started doing en primeur, I told Chad [Chadwick Delaney, managing director of Justerini & Brooks] that when I believe in a producer, I believe in his or her talents. So in good years, they will produce great wine, and in not-so-good years, they will still produce good wine.”
Today, Tang has collections in Hong Kong, London and France, and maintains that they are still “drinker’s cellars”. A precise system is in place to ensure he knows when wines in each location are suitable for drinking, allowing wines cellared in the UK or France to be shipped to Hong Kong at the ideal time. He dismisses the idea that expense equates to quality, and believes that overly brand-conscious wine buyers are making a mistake. “It’s an absolute fallacy,” he says. “I could love a bottle for HK$300, let’s say. It’s because most people are not confident enough about their palate to dare venture out from the famous brand names.”
For budding wine collectors and consumers, Tang suggests going for Burgundy’s village-level wines over the more expensive options of premier cru or grand cru. “You don’t have to buy the main labels from a producer to get good wine,” he explains. “A lot of winemakers have a second wine, which is still very good and cheaper than the grand vin.”
Poor weather conditions in Burgundy have recently resulted in reduced yields. This fact coupled with market sentiment has made prices of Burgundy skyrocket in the last few years. “It’s simple supply and demand,” Tang argues. “While Bordeaux’s biggest estates produce hundreds of thousands of cases each year, Burgundy only makes a few thousand, and so I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the high prices yet. That’s why other regions, such as the Rhône Valley and even California, Oregon and Germany, are looking so appealing now.”
Hong Kong cut duty on wine in 2008, and since then the market has diversified considerably. Wine consumers – especially the younger generation – are becoming more experimental in their tastes and beginning to discover more affordable good-quality options. “Young people nowadays are exploring so many different wines,” Tang says. “It’s not just French and champagne anymore. Wines from the New World, from Chile, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, for example, are becoming much more popular with everyone.”
Tang adds that today’s Hong Kong is so much more sophisticated than in his early days as a collector. “You really can find anything you want here,” he enthuses. “The Hong Kong wine industry has seen an incredible change over the last few years and Hong Kong itself is very multicultural, so it’s only natural that it should progress in this way. Also, Hong Kong people are very hospitable and are very generous at opening some of their old wines. I have some wine-producer friends who say that if they want to drink some of their own older vintages, they come to Hong Kong!”