24 June 2016
Much Ado about Sherry
In Asia’s wine-drinking capital, Hong Kong – where per-capita consumption is the highest in the region, according to Vinexpo data – the arrival of a rare vintage is always something to celebrate.
Among the rarest is a limited edition 19th century sherry, which British wine and spirit merchant Berry Bros & Rudd has decided to launch in Hong Kong.
With only 100 bottles of Barbadillo Vesos 1891 in existence with an £8,000 price tag, the luxury Amontillado sherry from leading Spanish winemaker Barbadillo is offered directly from a barrel in the family's personal collection.
After its existence was discovered, said Tim Holt, the Spanish-based Regional Sales Director of Bodegas Barbadillo, two masters of wine were invited to check on the quality, finding it to be “outstanding.”
Its gold leaf and platinum-trim packaging – including a lead crystal bottle carved into the shape of a traditional ink well – and Spanish leather presentation box complete “a true masterpiece and collector’s item.”
“We aim to share this slice of our history to put the spotlight on one of the great wine regions of the world and hopefully this will be a wake-up call to that fact,” said Mr Holt.
By fine-beverage standards, sherry has endured a relatively bad rap. “Most people think of sherry as something that’s sickly sweet, or can recall a great aunt who scandalised the family by being ‘at the sherry again’ before 11am,” said Jack Cummins, founder and General Manager of two Hong Kong-based businesses specialising in sherry and whisky. “The truth couldn't be more different,” he added. “Of the seven different types of sherry, blends aside, only two are sweet.”
Esteemed wine writer Jancis Robinson has also called sherry “the world’s most neglected wine treasure.”
“It’s a unique – and uniquely refreshing – wine style that is not found anywhere else in the world, and is quintessentially Andalucian,” she said.
Michelin-starred UK chef Jason Atherton identified the trend early when he adopted a Spanish theme for the second addition to his Hong Kong bar and restaurant portfolio. Ham & Sherry, opened in December 2013 in the trendy dining district of Ship Street Wan Chai, offering a list of more than 50 different sherries, including, according to Match Lo, Restaurant Manager and a venenciador “some of the rarest sherries from some of the oldest Soleras still in production throughout [the Spanish city] Jerez.”
The restaurant is part of Hong Kong-headquartered JIA Group, which operates 10 establishments in the city. “Restaurants globally are now offering sherries by the glass as an alternative to wine and cocktails,” said Yenn Wong, CEO and founder of the JIA Group. “Alongside, one of the most resolute trends in recent years in Hong Kong has been the ‘small plate’ phenomenon, fueled by the tapas concept, from Spain. Sherry is the ideal drink to accompany this style of dining.”
The Road to Sherry Sales
“Mr Cummins’ journey to the sherry business began after he sold the telecom business he’d established in Hong Kong, and left the city to travel the world. After five years of studying in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, the Briton returned to Hong Kong and identified an opportunity to market sherry.
“I love the history and wide variety of tastes of sherry, and think it’s deserving of a greater audience,” Mr Cummins said. “In Hong Kong, it is easy to set up a business, with transparent rules and a can-do attitude. Everyone is up for doing business and having fun.”
His online businesses were established in 2011, and continue to grow, selling via B2C (direct sales to the public from the website) and B2B, to bars and restaurants.
“We import sherry mostly from two companies: Equipo Navazos, an independent bottler, which started out as a way to find and bottle great sherries for friends and family; and Delgado Zuleta, the oldest bodega in the Spanish town of Sanlucar de Barrameda, dating back to 1744 and also served by Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck. It’s the cheapest one we offer and it’s great – ideal for this hot weather,” Mr Cummins said. “They also have an En Rama version – their whole Monteagudo range is excellent value.”
Hong Kong isn’t the only market to be offered part of the Barbadillo Vesos collection, but its “generous” allocation of 15 bottles was decided “since Hong Kong is such an international hub,” and “very much the go-to centre for these sorts of collector’s items,” Mr Holt said.
In Hong Kong to launch to collection in early June, he was “amazed” by how sophisticated the market is becoming.
“We’re talking very much about a niche market [for sherry], on which Hong Kong consumers are very knowledgeable,” Mr Holt said.
He added that the company has “already had good business” in the city with another collection of very old rare sherries, Reliquia (or Relics in English). “We do a limited edition release every year, in total about 120 bottles per annum, and have sold a good percentage (about 10 per cent of production) into Hong Kong on a regular basis over the last four to five years,” Mr Holt said. “The evidence is there that we have a core market, high-spending, looking for the best – this is our target market, and we do have that in Hong Kong.”
Jose Lau, Sales Manager at Berry Bros & Rudd, agreed that “Hong Kong is the market to be in” for the fine-wine merchant.
“The Hong Kong wine-drinking crowd has some very sophisticated palates; there are all sorts of drinkers who would appreciate the driest Fino sherry to the most luscious matured Barsac,” Mr Lau said.
The wine investment market is also strong in Hong Kong, he noted. “The best part is you have the option to consume your perfectly matured investment should you decide not to sell it. A collectable wine will have to be a very good wine, so collectors can definitely collect and drink it if they wish to.”