Paying a visit to British Wine Merchants is an unparallelled experience steeped in tradition, writes James Suckling.
"Many Asian customers have traditionally bought from the UK, and have account managers with whom they have long-standing relationships," says Hew Blair, the chairman and buying director of Justerini & Brooks, a London-based wine merchant that carries a Royal Warrant. It just opened an office in Hong Kong earlier this year. Blair adds, "The St James's factor is also important. Buying hats, shoes, shirts, cigars, and wine from this part of London has long been a tradition."
Aside from Justerini & Brooks, other top British wine merchants for the Asian market include Farr Vintners, Berry Bros & Rudd (BBR), Corney & Barrow, Bordeaux Index and BWI. The fact that Christie's and Sotheby's, two of the lead- ing wine auction houses, are also based in London only adds to the attraction of buying in the UK.
Simon Staples, sales and marketing director for BBR, says, "We do have a few hundred Hong Kong clients who buy through the UK. They are mainly those who already had accounts with BBR in the UK, and have moved here or have been buying from us long before 1998 when we set up our office in Hong Kong." He continues, "Outside of Hong Kong and Tokyo, the most demand in the UK comes from Singapore (where we are about to open), Seoul, Taipei and Kuala Lumpur."
The appeal of visiting a wine merchant such as BBR or Justerini & Brooks is second to none. I remember my first trips to these two merchants in the early 1980s, and I was in awe of the professionalism and sense of tradition. I felt like I was part of the aristocracy, conveying my wine desires to the consultant.
When I worked in St. James's in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I used to love to go to BBR and buy a bottle of Madeira. I would telephone ahead, and the voice would say, "Would sir like his Madeira decanted?" By the time I arrived at the store, the fortified wine would already be double- decanted back into its original bottle.
Those kinds of experiences are still unique to London. Having a personal wine adviser is extremely important to savvy connoisseurs. "I just like the experience, and I know that I am going to get good information on buying wines that I like to drink," says Tan Boon Seng, a Malaysian wine collector living in Hong Kong.
Wine selection can be vast in London compared to just about anywhere else in Asia. Adrian Cheong, a Hong Kong-based surgeon who owns the Château Haut-Brisson winery in Bordeaux and buys regularly in London, adds, "I can get the wines that I have no hope of buying in Hong Kong, such as good Alsace, Madeira, Massandra, Rioja and Burgundy, at decent prices. I have bought from several trusted English merchants since the very beginning of my wine-buying life, so I'm confident of the wine's provenance. They answer emails promptly and are courteous."
"It's a misconception that it's all about Bordeaux in Asia," adds Gary Boom, the owner of Bordeaux Index in London and Hong Kong. "More and more customers are looking for the very best examples of wines from all different wine regions. For example, we have fabulous Burgundy and Italian sales in Asia."
Provenance is a major issue for many Asian buyers. In fact, many will pay a premium for wine from exceptional sources, such as bottles direct from wineries or English cellars.
"If purchasing wines for investment purposes, we strongly advise our clients to purchase either ex-Bordeaux or ex-London," says Andy Lench, the head of BWI as well as Bordeaux Wine Locators in the US, France and Hong Kong. "Due to the high value of the investment-grade wines, it is of paramount importance that one be able to track the life and journey of each individual case. The more a case of wine has travelled, the less likely it is to be in the best possible condition."
Buying wine in the UK without tax or duty, or in-bond, is a deciding factor for many Asian buyers, especially investors. Trust is another important reason why many look to British merchants with long-standing reputations - some centuries old. An increase in fake wines sold in Asia, particularly in China, worries buyers.
"Badly stored and fake wines, a huge issue in Asia, will come under increasing scrutiny, as will their purveyors," says Adam Brett-Smith, a direc- tor of London's Corney & Barrow, established in 1780. "The fact is, our dodgy English climate is naturally good for both storage and distribution."
In fact, the top fine-wine storage facility in the world, Octavian Vaults, is in England. "Our customers prefer to purchase stock that has never been shipped from Europe," says Jo Purcell, who opened Farr Vintners Hong Kong office in 1997. "And they want it to be properly stored."
There's something special about buying wine in the UK - great British traditions never grow old.