At Asia's only urban winery, The 8th Estate Winery, things are done a little differently. To start, most of the grapes aren't grown in Asia—they're flash-frozen and shipped across the seas to the Harbour Industrial Centre in Ap Lei Chau in Hong Kong. From France, Italy, Australia and even Washington state, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier, Shiraz, Merlot and many others make their way to a nondescript warehouse sitting on the edge of Hong Kong Island.
But in perhaps the most interesting divergence from traditional winemaking, the winemaker for the winery isn't a full-time position. In fact, the winemaker may not even return for the next vintage. Winemakers from across the globe, quite often familiar with the actual vineyard the grapes are purchased from, find making wine in this way in Hong Kong is a welcome challenge. It can even allow the winemaker to improve on a particular vintage, as by the time the grapes arrive at the production facility in Hong Kong, the winemaker may have already finished processing the grapes in their home country.
Lysanne Tusar, the director and chief marketing officer, says that there usually aren't any problems in finding willing winemakers.
"A month later they fly out here and have a second chance to do the same fruit. If there was anything they didn’t like or want to adjust along the way they can do that immediately. Winemakers adore it because that never happens. Winemakers get one crack at it per year, right, so here they’re getting a big advantage and doing it twice," she said.
The most difficult part of running The 8th Estate is simply in being the first.
"Someone mentioned this to me once: The first one through the wall is always the bloodiest. Because it’s an unknown quantity and it’s an unknown process to anyone here, that breeds a lot of hesitation and skepticism about how to go about these things, so there’s been a lot of education on our behalf to sort of get the governing bodies and everyone involved with the manufacturing to understand our processing and that it’s unique and that it’s very different to anything else. So it's always a bit of a challenge in trying to educate, not just our clients, but anybody that we work with on the processing," she said. "It’s always a constant. After six years I thought it would have been better by now but it’s a very consistent thing. The more and more people do this, the easier it would be for everybody."
Many are hesitant about this style of winemaking, even within Hong Kong itself. The people are more familiar with the traditional, Old-World style of winemaking, and educating others is a constant process, says Tusar.
"I didn’t really think that wine could be decent if it came from frozen grapes. I was a little skeptical and I think a lot of people are, and that’s fair. But it turns out, and a lot of independent studies have been done on this, as long as it is frozen properly at the beginning—so flash freezing or snap freezing—as long as it’s done very, very quickly, there’s no decomposition to the structure of the fruit, there’s no chemicals or condensation. It’s really quite a great way to preserve," she said. "The only thing that I sort of added to it was transporting the grapes while frozen, the theory being that as long as they stay frozen there’s not a whole lot that can happen to them. They’re in pretty good suspension and then they can travel 10,000 miles to meet their production facility."
Another added benefit, she says, lies in the small amount of maceration occuring while the grapes are frozen. This allows richer, deeper color in some cases. They noticed that a 2008 Nebbiolo, which is typically a very light color, came out with a rich, dark and beautiful ruby wine.
"When you take a step back and look at it, it’s a bit of a reflection on the Hong Kong people itself. You can go up to anyone and whether they be Asian or Western or whatever, they all have, for the most part, such an interesting international background, whether they be from mainland China or the UK or from the U.S. or Australia or Thailand or the Philippines or wherever, everyone seems to be from somewhere else when they’re in Hong Kong. And yet we all define ourselves as Hong Kongers. We’re very proud to be from Hong Kong and represent the city. So there’s a strong degree of patriotism even though a lot of our heritages don’t go back too far. So it’s kind of a reflection of that. Everything is made here and it (the wine) is a product of Hong Kong, but on the flip side there’s the heritage to it, that it comes from all these great regions around the world to be made here and be the best of both worlds."