Sarah Heller discusses becoming Asia’s youngest Master of Wine, the evolution of Hong Kong’s wine industry and the vineyards she currently has her eye on…
Your wine career had something of a bumpy start…
A little bit, yes. After graduating from university, I had a job lined up with an Italian wine importer and they very generously sent me to tour a few Italian wineries over the summer. Unfortunately, part way through my first visit, I fell into a wine vat and fractured my spine, which was – in equal parts – mortifying and painful. So rather than start working, I had to return to Hong Kong for a prolonged period of rehabilitation.
When I arrived, the city had just cut all duty on wine, so the local wine market was exploding, while the US scene had become rather stagnant in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. It became clear that I should stay in Hong Kong and I began working for Debra Meiburg, one of the first Masters of Wine in Asia, and she really encouraged me to pursue my academic interests in wine. I’ve always been a little bit of a geek, so when I realised there was an academic qualification in wine – the Master of Wine certification – I just knew I had to go for it.
As Asia’s youngest Master of Wine (MW), what can you tell us about this particular qualification
Well, strictly speaking, the MW isn’t an academic qualification at all. It’s more like a guild, but one that requires a lot of study, hard work and success in several examinations if you want to become a member. As an institute, it was formed in 1953 as an offshoot of the Vintner’s Guild. Essentially, the MW is seen as official confirmation that its owner is particularly knowledgeable when it comes to all things wine-related.
How has Hong Kong’s wine market evolved over the 10 years you’ve been involved here?
Well, many things have changed. When Hong Kong first opened up and set about becoming Asia’s wine hub, the focus was almost exclusively on the fine wine segment and, in particular, on a tiny group of high-end producers in Bordeaux. Today, there’s far more diversity. While it’s still driven primarily by collectors, other sectors of the market have expanded considerably.
The food and beverage industry, for example, has become far more vibrant as things have progressed. Beyond that, there’s also an emerging group of younger collectors who have driven the move towards Burgundy, while also highlighting some of the once-lesser-known wine-producing regions, so it’s been an exciting time to watch the evolution of local wine preferences.
Have there been any particular regions that you have seen coming to the fore of late?
I think Italy has really been the one that’s proved something of a rising star over the last two years. I’m on the committee of an association called the Hong Kong Wine Society, and we’ve noticed a massive increase in interest in tastings of Italian wines, particularly prime Piedmontese varietals, such as Barbaresco or Barolo. In many ways, the Tuscan vintages are akin to Bordeaux, while Piedmonte is closer to Burgundy.
What projects are currently occupying you?
Actually, although I’m now an MW, I don’t have a regular nine-to-five schedule as everything I do is project-based. Wine education has been a big part of my career and I’ve long been involved with the Vinitaly International Academy – an Italian wine education institute – as a visiting lecturer. I’ve also designed a range of crystal glassware in partnership with Lucaris, a Thai crystal company. This will launch in November and has been crafted while keeping in mind the unique way Asian consumers enjoy food and wine.
Aside from that, I’m also collaborating on creating a new wine brand with a couple of partners – one is an Austrian wine producer and the other an Austro-Hungarian noble. This particular project came about as a way of introducing Austrian wines to the Asia market, but the project has now expanded to encompass all the wineries of Central Europe. We just launched in Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam and will shortly be in Poland and Sweden. We’re also hoping to produce a documentary that will chart the whole process of creating these wines sometime next year. Watch this space…
Are there any new wines that have recently caught your eye?
I think sparkling wines worldwide have become so much more interesting over recent years. While the French champagnes are, of course, delicious, it’s invigorating to see new players coming up. Right now, I’m particularly enamoured with Franciacorte – from the northern Italian province of Brescia – that produces such sparkling wines as Ca’ del Bosco and Bellavista. While champagnes can be compared to super-skinny supermodels, these are more like Sophia Loren – full-bodied, softer and warmer. Aside from that, I’m partial to a drop of Nyetimer or Rathfinny, both of which are English wineries.
Interview by: Tenzing Thondup
Photos: Jack Law
Art Direction: San Wong
Make-up: Margaret Wong
Venue: The Optimist