The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

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Winemaker Sebastiano Rosa, International Man of Awesome

The Sassicaia winemaker takes a whirlwind tour of Hong Kong











At The Principal with Kavita Faiella and Sebastiano Rosa

The whole wine world is aware that Hong Kong is rocking, but our fair city is still very misunderstood. On a day-to-day level, Hong Kong people love to discover what’s new and they are surrounded by a multitude of choices and perhaps too much information, if such a thing exists.

So when Sebastiano Rosa, best known for his work at Tenuta San Guido (Sassicaia, Guidalberto, Le Difese) and Agricola Punica (Barrua, Montessu) visited us on short notice, we were both honored and in a mad scramble to organize interesting events. We wanted to share Sebastiano with Hong Kong, while also wanting him to come away with a real understanding of the city, its culture and its wine market. Fortunately, Sebastiano is very inquisitive and curious, so he allowed himself to better understand Hong Kong in a way that many visitors miss.

The highlight of Sebastiano’s visit was our evening at The Principal, still relatively new and an immediate star in HK’s restaurant scene. Wine Director Kavita Faiella was kind enough to join our dinner, and quite honestly she is reason enough to visit The Principal. Go with friends and become anti-social, losing yourself in the superb wine list she has put together.

The evening, like all of our events during the visit, featured wines of Sebastiano’s influence, including the emerging star, Sardegna’s Punica 2007 Barrua, a Carignano-blend that follows the Super-Tuscan blueprint of honoring local varietals among Bordeaux grapes. We actually served this last, after a 1997 Sassicaia, and it paired beautifully with an incredible selection of regional cheeses. As we bring more of this wine to Hong Kong, I have a really positive feeling for how it will be received.

Sassicaia, Guidalberto (Sebastiano’s “little boy”), and Le Difese not only shone at The Principal, but also at Dow Kee Restaurant in Wanchai, where twelve of us dove into a superb Cantonese arrangement, culminating with BBQ Roast Pork and succulent Suckling Pig. Le Difese and Guidalberto each showed us that the hype surrounding the 2009 vintage at Tenuta San Guido is justified. Both are stunners, and among the greatest vintages I’ve tasted of each. The Guidalberto in particular showed uncommon approachability and incredible balance in its youth, but it easily has another ten years of greatness ahead. It was only natural for us to wonder aloud how great the 2009 Sassicaia will become.

“Awesome” was the word Sebastiano used continuously throughout the meals, though he said it as if he’d been spending months trying to find the perfect descriptor. Perhaps such a mentality allows the wines of Tenuta San Guido and Agricola Punica to enjoy such international appeal while also remaining very distinctly Italian. Upon his departure, we heard the simple phrase we were all hoping to hear from “that James Bond winemaker,” as one top Sommelier referred to Sebastiano.

“I’ll be back,” he said.

We look forward to welcoming Sebastiano Rosa back to Hong Kong this fall for an extended visit.

Drinks on The Deck: Junk Season in Full Bloom

What to drink on your island escape











With the recent celebration of Hong Kong’s Dragon Boat Festival, Tuen Ng, it seems you’re more likely to find Hong Kong people on the water than on land during these super-hot days. To avoid getting island fever, we take to the waters on junk boats, and we do so properly armed with wines suitable for the broiling hot weather and bustling seafood restaurants on the outlying islands. Above all, Hong Kong’s love of decadence must be properly catered to.

Each week, more and more calls come in from clients for ‘junk wines,’ so it’s important that we’re prepared to recommend accordingly. Fortunately, I have a bit of experience in the matter and have also seen many a well-intentioned host go wrong in the July heat with massive, big name wines that make drinking milk seem like a fantastic choice.

Friulano is an Italian grape variety that seems to have been created just for junk season. Offering the citrus elements of Sauvignon Blanc, Friulano makes a wine that can provide great elegance and racy minerality that are both quenching and food friendly. It‘s my top choice when heading to Po Toi or Lamma for fresh calamari, or just to ‘replace drinking on a boat’ with ‘drinking well on a boat.’

Another favorite white for the high seas is Pigato, and I’ve long been a fan of those produced by Riccardo Bruna. Pigato is indigenous to the region of Liguria, and Bruna’s Le Russeghine is like a Margarita in a wine glass, with sea-salty flavors that make you feel like you’re on a boat even when you’re not.

For reds, I’ve been having great luck with Refosco as a wine that can be slightly chilled and also pairs great with grilled meats. Also from the region of Friuli, it’s a wine that can be enjoyed on a very casual everyday level, such as Marco Fantinel’s Refosco Borgo Tesis, a perfect and inexpensive aperitivo selection, to Miani’s cult-classic Refosco, which rabid collectors are constantly in hot pursuit of.

Whatever you select, I hope you’ll find something delicious that crosses the fine line of ‘drinking on a boat’ over to ‘drinking very well on a boat.’ Your shipmates will thank you.

A Chat with Judy Leissner, Improbable Winemaker

Working to make Chinese wines global











This week I had the pleasure to chat with Judy Leissner, proprietor of Grace Vineyard in China’s Shanxi province. Grace Vineyard has established itself as China’s premier producer of quality wine, and Judy’s unexpected journey from Goldman Sachs to assuming control of her family’s vineyard, thereby becoming a groundbreaking winemaker, has captivated the wine industry.

JR: What do you see as the current perception of winemaking in China?

JL: Most people certainly wouldn’t think of China as a wine-producing country, and certainly not being very good at it. It is important to ignore noises and keep you head down to go against the logical outcome.

JR: What needs to happen for people outside of China to consider trying Chinese wine?

JL: It cannot happen immediately. Time is part of brand building, and local producers need to work together for this joint effort.

JR: Who and what have influenced you as a producer?

JL: Jean-Michele Cazes of Lynch Bages and Miguel Torres. Both are so driven, yet down to earth and want to succeed not only for themselves but also for their countries.

(Judy also admires the branding and collaboration of Champagne producers as well as how Burgundy producers tend to their vines like their children.)

JR: Who are other Chinese winemakers we should look for?

JL: Demei Li recently won a Decanter award for his work with Jia Bei Lan and I admire his passion and commitment to educate. Also, Emma Gao of Silver Heights–this is a very small production with only about 3,000 bottles per wine, but it’s trying to be the best of the best.

JR: When you are not drinking your own wine, what are you drinking?

JL: I will open different wines at similar or higher prices to my own and see how they compare. Otherwise, depending on my mood, it will be Champagne or Pinot Noir.

Hong Kong’s Changing Tastes, Evolving Market, and Wide-Open Fields

An insider’s view on why Hong Kong is a pretty interesting place for wine enthusiasts











The times they are a-changing in Hong Kong, especially if you read into recent happenings in our world of fine wine. For a long while, whiskey and Bordeaux have been the twin standard bearers of the banner for Hong Kong’s finest drink. However, recent trends indicate that our juggernaut wine and spirits market–combined with a shifting collective palate–is ready for a major revolution. Sure, whiskey and Bordeaux will likely remain at the forefront of generally acceptance; however, the community is clearly embracing other wines and spirits with comfort bordering on wild enthusiasm.

This weekend, a wine auction focusing on Italian fine wines will take place in Hong Kong. While many may attend simply to get while the getting is still good, others who’ve been more investment minded will be curious to see how these wines perform at the sport of auction. Will a wine like Montevertine’s Le Pergole Torte fly completely under the radar, or might this auction raise its profile among rabid collectors who were previously unfamiliar with its beauty? And more importantly, will this auction drive increased representation for Italian wines at HK’s major auctions going forward?

The announcement that Chateau Latour intends to forego the En Primeur process going forward has also raise, well, every eyebrow in town. The investment machine of En Primeur may be threatened should Latour’s strategy of holding wines until deemed ready for release throws the cash and investment cycle for a loop, particularly if it proves to be successful. As creatures of habit, wine investors are already exploring new strategies rather than packing it in.  Burgundy and many Italian wines immediately offer a supply and demand formula that Bordeaux has managed to thrive despite lacking, and this has investors investigating, instigators instigating, and the rest of us watching intently.

We’ll see what comes of these and other developments in our wine world. Yet it seems 2012 is a crossroads, and every direction now seems possible.  Whichever wine or spirit category finds a way to brand itself as the next big thing is likely to win the day. Regardless, we’re in an exciting stage right now and I’m hopeful that collectors, investors and enthusiasts will embrace whatever lies ahead with the same enthusiasm that’s driven our region to prominence.

At the very least, whoever wins the lots of Le Pergole Torte should enjoy this less-competitive time. I suspect it will not last very long once their friends have a taste.

Hong Kong Restaurant Service Raises the Bar

What a difference a pro makes











From afar, it may seem that the Hong Kong wine market is still all about the most expensive Bordeaux.  Auction results will always catch headlines and there’s no doubt that most wine investments are made with Bordeaux at the core. On the ground in Hong Kong, however, you see a different focus, one that’s local, service-based, and palpable.

It’s in the restaurants, the clubs and the pubs, where the service standard among waiters and sommeliers, along with constantly improving selection at the finest restaurants to the local pubs, continues to raise the Hong Kong wine game on a very accessible level.

In the past, Hong Kong has not received high regard for its standard of tableside service in restaurants.  For example, a great many Italian restaurants until very recently were listing French wines before Italian wines on their lists.  This was owing to the fact that it was uncommon to find professionals eager to lead their guests into trying new experiences. But things seem to be changing.

Last week, I attended a dinner at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University at which the students executed every aspect of the evening.  The students put forth a wonderful effort and gained hands-on experience that they can take into the bustling Hong Kong food and beverage scene.  There was no discussion of Lafite or DRC; that’s not what is motivating this group.  Rather, it’s  their collective commitment to making Hong Kong a premier region for consistently outstanding dining, further proof of the overall rise experience quality in Hong Kong.

Looking beyond the shock-value of HK’s sales results, we see that the dedication of both imported and up-and-coming local industry professionals is enhancing Hong Kong as a wine and service destination, from top to bottom.   These pros are enriching the lives of local foodies and curious visitors from abroad.  And it’s only going to get better.

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