California Competes with Bordeaux

12 November 2010
Author: Jeannie Cho Lee


When I first arrived in Hong Kong in early 1994, there were very few Californian wines available in the retail scene, which was dominated by Remy (currently known as Maxxium). Even during the wine boom of the mid 1990s, Californian wines were nowhere to be seen. France and Australia with Italy in its coattails led the crescendo of that tidal wave. The 1997 financial crisis brought all imports crashing down with most markets suffering from a huge surplus caused by over-zealous importers. American wines generally escaped this boom and bust cycle in Hong Kong because they were never present. The US market was going through its own expansion and the domestic producers could hardly be bothered with exporting. This has changed dramatically in recent years. The domestic American wine market is going through its own issues dealing with the recent financial and economic crisis. Buyers and sommeliers on both the East and West coasts confided to me on my recent trip to the US that the expensive wines (over US$50 retail) were really suffering. It comes as no surprise that suddenly American wines are becoming more visible and more importantly, the producers are actually visiting frequently and working the market. The US is now the fourth largest supplier of wine to Hong Kong by value and expects its export to Hong Kong to increase from US$40 million to US$60 million in 2010 according to the US Agricultural Trade office in Hong Kong. The Californians are a bit late in their marketing efforts – the French companies with their long-term ties with the cognac and spirits distribution market in Asia are way ahead of the game. Even the Australians and Kiwis have been pounding the concrete pavements much longer in Hong Kong than their American counterparts. However, what the Californian wine industry has going for them are a large concentration of top, iconic wines that can wave the American flag en masse despite separate, individual marketing efforts. From the flurry of activities and invitations piling up on my desk, it is clear that the top Californian producers have determined that Asia, with Hong Kong being the platform to the Far East Asian market, will be the most important market in the coming decade. Compared to just two years ago, American wine related functions have tripled. This month alone, there are events with David Pearson, CEO of Opus One, with Peter Michael from his eponymous winery and Don Weaver from Harlan Estate. In the coming months, there will be a constant stream of Californian winery events. Just as Peter Gago conducts his vertical tastings of Penfold’s Grange, the leading Californian wineries are holding more verticals to prove that their wines not only have current sex appeal, but in ten or twenty years time, they will age beautifully. The one event that impressed me this month was the Harlan Estate vertical where top collectors of Harlan flew in from around the world to attend this historic tasting that showcased nearly all the vintages produced since its inaugural vintage in 1990. At a release price of US$500 per bottle with retail value (if one can find it) at close to US$1,000 per bottle, Harlan competes with the top Bordeaux on price point despite only twenty vintages of experience. There were two interesting takeaways for me from the Harlan vertical tasting: One was how much the wines evolved with time in bottle. After about fifteen years, much of Harlan’s hallmark brawny, concentrated muscular form had transformed into a supple, complex lighter style, shedding its baby fat along the way. Its first vintage, 1990, was all violets and perfume on the nose and on the palate, a wonderful elegant style despite layers of flavours that ranged from spices to cedar and cocoa beans. This is a classy wine that is lighter in weight than the riper expression found in the 1992 vintage, but it is offering incredible drinking pleasure at the moment. Another discovery in this tasting was how great the site expression of Harlan wines ranged. 2002 was typical of the rich concentrated Harlan style that was etched in my mind, but Harlan also expresses a lighter, earthier side in vintages such as 1999 and the 2001. The range in styles, the capability to age easily for decades (wine from the early 1990s were still children) and the complexity and depth found in the wines are indicative of first class wines from a region that will be competing toe to toe with the best from France in the fine wine market in Hong Kong. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to taste verticals of the Araujo Eisele Vineyard cabernet sauvignon and Opus One and the vintage that stood out for me in all of the tastings was the 1997 vintage. Although there are other great vintages from California – such as the 1994 and the 2001, the 1997 wines from these great producers is more complete and uniquely a Napa Valley expression. This vintage produced reds encased in a velvety warm tannin glove that gives it structure without any edges; they are brimming with ripe fruits and layered by flavours that go much further than mere fruit expression with the finish so long that it beckons another sip. The best examples, like the Harlan 1997, made me become lyrical rather than merely descriptive; the wine evokes emotion and passion and goes beyond what wine scribblers like myself can accurately convey. Like truly memorable moments, enjoying a 1997 Araujo, Opus One or Harlan is an experience that humbles you and makes you fall in love with wine all over again. Reprinted with permission from the South China Morning Post


Photo by Jason Tinacci, courtesy of Napa  Valley Vintners