The Wandering Palate's Wine Purveyor
Importing, distributing and retailing wine is a tough business and highly competitive – everywhere. In Asia it is hyper-competitive and in Hong Kong, with its recent zeroing-out of import duties, it has become insanely competitive.
Here is a market that is arguably out of control and quite possibly the island might sink under the weight of wine flooding in to it. When duties were axed, the floodgates opened with every man and his dog importing wine direct from merchants and vineyards all over the world. Needless to say, the established Hong Kong merchants have taken a hit.
In tandem with this, practically all the major wine auction houses from the United States, United Kingdom and Europe have established offices in Hong Kong, along with wine traders from all corners of the globe seeking to profiteer from the bourgeoning fine wine trade – or more accurately, super-premium wines, and all looking towards Hong Kong as a conduit to mainland China and what is perceived as the world's wine Eldorado.
And there lies the important distinction between being a wine trader and wine merchant.
The traders simply want volume and velocity, and there is always a good deal of discounting and exploiting of margins that would otherwise go towards strategic infrastructure and layers needed to be a distributer and to transport and store wine properly. Unfortunately human nature favors the bargain mentality and the consumer is invariably seduced by price over quality – of service as well as of wine.
Meanwhile, the merchants, or least the dedicated professional ones, want to represent the wineries to the best of their ability, building the brand and developing a mutually beneficial relationship between the merchant, winery and consumer. In the mix are what the trade call ‘on-premise' or restaurants, wine bars and hotels that are strategic in this brand-building process and evolution of wine culture with sommeliers the educators and gatekeepers.
It takes a good deal of capital and human resource to be a ‘good' wine merchant and to achieve the economies of scale that facilitate refrigerated transport, temperature-controlled storage and delivery, highly skilled wine professionals in purchasing and informed sales and marketing staff - all imperatives.
Altaya ticks all the boxes of a commendable and reputable wine merchant and in my opinion is the benchmark in service and range of wines in Hong Kong. Established in 2001, admittedly as a small wholesale wine company that primarily catered to private clients and slightly preoccupied with en-primeur Bordeaux, they have made the transition to a fully-fledged purveyor of some of the best vineyards from around the world and a perfectly eclectic mix of grape varieties, styles and regions – something for everyone.
They are the exclusive agent to more than 75 brands from Burgundy, Alsace, Rhone Valley, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Austria, and the United States and as a declaration of being a tad influenced by my own personal drinking preference in this review and accolade, they represent many of my favorite vignerons:
New Zealand stars, Ata Rangi (one of my favorite vignerons on the planet), also Churton, Pyramid Valley, Rippon
A solid Aussie pack headed up by legendary Barossa winemaker Rolf Binder, also Kilikanoon, Yabby Lake, Kalleske, (could do with more Australian)
Eben Sadie Family Columella from South Africa, (amazing wines and Eban is inspirational)
Two of Burgundy's best, Marquis d'Angerville and Henri Boillot
Champagne as good as it gets - Pol Roger, Salon, Jacques Selosse,
Excellent white wine specialists Jermann, Schiopetto, F.X. Pichler, Alphonse Mellot
A bevy of great Rhone Valley producers, Beaucastel-Perrin- La Vieille Ferme, Michel Ogier, Henri Bonneau, Roger Sabon, Georges Vernay, Les Cailloux, Chave,
A formidable line up of Italian produces including my favourite vineyard on the planet – Fontodi in Chinati, also Antinori Solaia, Tenuta dell'Ornellaia Masseto, Sassicaia, Bruno Giacosa, Clerico, Luigi Pira, Altesino, Argiano, Castello di Ama
Also, what has to be the most impressive selection of USA wines in Asia, Harlan Estate and Bond, Colgin, Walter Hansel, Kistler, Ramey, Peter Michael, Cristom, Beaux Freres, Bergstrom
Put it this way, it's a class act and if I ever developed a ‘cellar palate,' I'd be happy with this cellar!
I first met Altaya's proprietor, Paulo Pong, back in 2001 when he was had just begun trading and I had just moved from Australia to Hong Kong. He's a very personable sort of chap - totally obsessed with wine and has a good palate, and I would venture to say he now has a ‘wandering palate' as well, although I suspect he still enjoys a fair amount of Bordeaux claret.
They do see themselves as having an Italian focus, and certainly their excellent range of Italians reflects this. And I always feel that if a merchant has either fallen in love with Italian wine or even come to grips with it, they are truly passionate about wine and dedicated and will go to great lengths to promote what they see as real wine.
More importantly, Altaya's diversified portfolio and open-minded approach brings a valuable contribution to the evolution of the wine culture in Hong Kong, a market that is still very much driven by big brands, elite Bordeaux Chateau and the status and wine snobbery that serves only to stunt the growth of enjoying wine on a daily basis and grasping true price/quality rapport.
In my five years of living in Hong Kong, I researched the wine trade exhaustively and although a lot has changed in the ensuing years with meteoric growth, largely due to the zeroing out of duty (I paid 80 percent when I was there – painful!), in my time there, I always came back to Altaya if I had to depend on service and a one-stop shop in terms of a broad selection of wines. I still by from them today, even though I live in Singapore.
Canvassing the on-premise trade extensively on who they thought were the best merchants, the feedback I got was unanimously “Altaya” and a resonating “great service and know what they are talking about.” Service and knowledge is the touchstone of the wine trade and you simply cannot build a loyal clientele without it.
Altaya provide a full wholesale service dealing with both trade and private customers with the convenience of online ordering through their website www.altayawines.com You can purchase wine from them in complete confidence that all wines are in top-condition and come from only the best sources, and most importantly transported (largely air-freight) and stored in temperature-controlled conditions.
Above all their attributes, Altaya are celebrating their 10th birthday this year and while they may not have the venerable tone of an old London wine merchant, 10 years is commendable effort in Asia moreover their exponential growth and influence in the bourgeoning Hong Kong market is invaluable.
Paulo Pong is also a partner in The Press Room, an all-day brasserie serving simple yet excellent French-European fare and needless to say, you can get a decent drink, at a decent price. It is located at G/F 108 Hollywood Road, near Man Mo Temple. www.thepressroom.com.hk
Understanding that many consumers in Hong Kong, or the Asia market as a whole, purchase wines on the spur of the moment and in bottles, or certainly not in the multiple dozens that in some markets is the norm, and I am sure wine storage plays a part here (although every household should have a wine fridge). I would like to encourage consumers to seek the advice of reputable merchants like Altaya, who can provide you with expert advice and help you manage or pre-plan purchases, to which you will not only save money, but spare yourself from all the supermarket swill.