Hong Kong Wine? You Better Believe It

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Liam Fitzpatrick

Vintage stuff Hong Kong winemaker Steve Jaray in his north Kowloon cellar

It's no secret that China has become one of the wine industry's biggest markets. Imbibing 262 million bottles of wine last year, the Chinese outpaced the Japanese to reign as Asia's biggest wine enthusiasts — and there's one Chinese city where that's particularly true. The residents of Hong Kong consumed the most wine on average in Asia on a per capita basis, downing an average of 6.3 bottles per person in 2010, the most recent year studied. Now Hong Kong has even started making wine, using imported grapes.

Portrait Winery is a local winemaker and distillery punching well above its weight in the competitive Chinese market. It runs a tasting room (complete with floorboards recycled from a 16th century Chinese door and a small but fully operating pot still) in the city's SoHo entertainment district, and maintains expansive cellars and a winemaking facility in the Tsuen Wan industrial district of northwest Kowloon.

Now in its third year, Portrait makes what it calls "Grand-Cru style" wine from grapes grown primarily in vineyards in Southern Oregon, Australia's McLaren Vale region and Waipara Valley in New Zealand. Some Italian and French grapes are used too. "Good wine is not made, it is grown," says owner Steve Jaray of his precious fruit, which is flown in, crushed and blended in Tsuen Wan, before maturing in state-of-the-art stainless steel tanks and more than 100 French and American oak barrels.

Any wine snobs tempted to dismiss Hong Kong wine as a curiosity should try a glass of Portrait's surprisingly good vintages. Portrait (named for the cheeky, Alberto Vargas-style pin-up girls that adorn its labels) has won 15 accolades at the Hong Kong China Wine Awards in the last three years, including a gold medal for a sophisticated 2009 rosé, a silver medal for a red meritage and a "Most Innovative Wine & Spirits" award in 2012, beating entrants from renowned wine regions in the U.S. and France.

Wine is not the only alcohol brewed at Portrait. The firm distills liquor, including an award-winning brandy made from American Bartlett pears, a vodka made from intensely aromatic pineapples grown on China's Hainan island and a version of Chinese baijiu — potent grain liquor. But wine is at the heart of the operation. Several types are made. Among the more popular are the Debutante mélange, boasting a crisp balance of peach and pear aromas lingering with hints of pineapple; the Farmgirl rosé, a vibrant, dry Syrah laden with strawberry and citrus aromas; the Aviator meritage, an elegant Bordeaux-style blend brimming with tiers of cherry and cassis; and the Librarian pinot gris, a refreshingwhite infused with notes of ripe pear and banana.

Though Jaray, a Canadian entrepreneur, and his master winemaker Andrew Powley, a New Zealander, are not native to Hong Kong, the two describe Portrait's can-do, pioneering ethos as a reflection of the city. The company averages an output of about 3,000 to 4,000 cases per year, aiming to keep its products exclusive and handcrafted. It has also started a VIP program that allows local wine enthusiasts to buy and house their own cases of Portrait wines at the climate-controlled Tsuen Wan cellars. Four times ayear, Portrait hosts "pick-up parties" in its cellars, where members collect their bottles and stay for food pairings and barrel tastings.

Hong Kong isn't going to appear on a list of the world's great wine producing regions anytime soon. But the fact that great wines are being turned out in the unlikely surroundings of a Kowloon factory building is testament to the extraordinary enthusiasm for wine sweeping the territory and its vast, booming hinterland. "Hong Kong is a city where people are screaming out to figure out why they're spending money on wine and what the flavors are," Jaray says. Perhaps Portrait can help Hong Kong paint a fuller picture.