Think of champagne as a tonic

Asia's thirst for wine may have grown tremendously over the last 20 years, but it is still in its nascent stages, says Mr Simon Tam, auction house Christie's head of wine for China.

The region still has potential for growth in terms of sales in both volume and value, as well as in terms of wine knowledge and understanding.

In fact, many of the world's most prized and expensive wines are now being snapped up by what the auction house calls Asian Private clients, wealthy Asians who want to remain anonymous.

In November last year, a new world auction record for Romanee-Conti was set when a case of 1978 Romanee-Conti Grand Cru sold for HK$3,675,000 (S$594,000) to an Asian buyer. That works out to about $49,500 a bottle.

Wines from this estate in Burgundy are some of the most expensive and sought- after in the world.

He adds that these Asian buyers are not clueless either - they know what they are after and most do not splash out unless they understand wines.

Over breakfast and flutes of chilled 2005 Cristal champagne at Wild Honey at Scotts Square recently, Mr Tam, 46, tells SundayLife!: "Wines, for a very long time now, have been undervalued. Asian buyers are recognising the importance of provenance, scarcity and rarity of wines."

The Hong Kong-based auctioneer was in town for a wine event.

He says one of the reasons the focus of wine in Asia has turned to Hong Kong is because of the city's exemption of all duties on wine, which was introduced in 2008.

Had Singapore adopted a similar policy with respect to abolishing taxes on wine, it is likely that the focus would have turned here because of the country's globalised nature, he adds.

"Singapore is, for me, the most Westernised of the Asian countries," he says.

He believes Singapore is in many aspects, the regional centre for wine culture because of its early colonial influence and sophisticated wine community.

The Hong Kong-born, Australian-bred father of one, who has a degree in wine- making, also runs the International Wine Centre, a Hong Kong-based wine consultancy and school. He set it up 24 years ago to promote wine education in China.

The market there has matured significantly over the years, he says.

Whereas it used to be about big-name premium wine labels such as Petrus, Lafite and Latour, it is now maturing as the Chinese learn more about the fermented beverage and other wine regions.

Indeed, the days of diluting prestige wines such as La Tache and Lafite with soft Fanta Orange, Coca-Cola, Sprite and other soft drinks, are now gone, he says.

In 1998, he recalls how he took on a consulting job in China to help a karaoke bar create the best possible combination of Lafite and soft drink.

Of that experience, he says: "It was very painful, but I also respected that such issues were the growing pains of a new wine market.

I could have walked away, but in doing that, I would not have been able to help steer the industry."

He sees his role, as both Christie's head of wine and as a wine consultant and educator, as one that can bridge the "deliciousness of the West with the thirstiness of the East".

He wants to help close the cultural divide between East and West.

Much of the education, he says, starts with being able to describe and understand the aroma, flavour and texture of wine. The vocabulary in communicating these sensory pleasures is still severely lacking in Asia, he says.

He says: "People in Asia may not know or understand the scent or flavours of raspberries, forest undergrowth or marmalade. I like to describe wines in a way that I think people in Asia understand."

He cites examples such as ginseng, and the textures of thick soups and herbal tonics. For instance, when he used dang gui (angelica sinensis) to describe one of the prominent flavours in a 1950 Dom Perignon champagne at a recent event, participants immediately understood the flavour profile he was getting at.

In the West, he says the flavour would probably be described as white truffle, something that those in Asia may not be as accustomed to.

Mr Tam had been exposed to the world of international wines from an early age as his family used to run Chinese restaurants in South Australia. The restaurants were known for having extensive European wine lists, he says. His parents moved to Adelaide just before he turned five. He also has two younger brothers.

And as a result of working in the family business, the pairing of Chinese foods with wines came naturally to him.

He saw this skill as an opportunity to share his love for wine and food with other Asians and moved to Hong Kong in 1990, after travelling to Europe where he worked at cellar doors and as a winemaker.

Asked what Christie's does to weed out counterfeit wines, Mr Tam would only say that the auction house "has a blacklist" and "a very labour-intensive process" to prevent counterfeits from being auctioned.

He says: "Counterfeit art, watches, music, bags and clothes have been around for ages, so much so that these have become facts of life.

"There will always be opportunists and no categories are immune."

Still, the fact that there have been counterfeit wines on the market shows that wines have become such desirable products that it makes people want to go the extra mile, he says.

"It is not our job as auctioneers to prove that the wine is fake. It is our job to identify wines that arouse suspicion.

"We would then say that we believe that the wine is not appropriate for the market. The wines are not our property, they are consigned to us by the owner to bring it into the market for a maximum return."

This article was first published on May 25, 2014.
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