How to turn the complexity of the Italian wine into a plus point
Italy is a model of biodiversity with a deeply historic culture of food and wine as a sustainable part of a healthy lifestyle. As these values are increasingly shared around the world, we think Italy can lead this movement. The opinion of MW Sarah Heller, the Vinitaly International Academy Ambassador.
Although Hong Kong mainly represents a strategic hub for wine exports all over Asia (especially towards Chinese mainland), thanks to the promotional work done by Masters of Wines and Italian wine ambassadors, this market is getting more mature and curious about particular and niche products.
In this regard we interviewed MW Sarah Heller, who, thanks to her promotional and educational work, is contributing to the positioning of the Italian wine sector in the Hong Kong market.
Sarah, we have seen that you are the youngest female Master of Wine as well as the youngest in Asia-Pacific. Can you tell us more about your experience and passion for the world of wine?
My experience with wine really started in Italy while I was working as an assistant chef in a small restaurant in Torino; my chef was passionate about the wines of Piemonte and so he would take me for drives in the countryside every weekend to visit wineries. Of course I encountered the region's famous, important wines like Barbaresco and Barolo but I also got to know the local treasures like Ruché, Grignolino and Freisa, and my love of the local and particular has stayed with me and informed everything I do ever since. Through my platform in Asia (I am the wine editor for Asia Tatler and Chairman of the major Chinese wine competition WINE100) I have tried to build a curiosity and sense of adventure in a new generation of wine lovers.
As MW and VIA Ambassadors, what are the educational activities aimed at promoting Italian wine and what contribution can the figure of MW make to encourage the recovery of the sector?
The main educational organisation I am involved in is the Vinitaly International Academy, of which I am the faculty. With my colleague Henry Davar, I teach the Ambassador program, which is the crown jewel of the academy and the pinnacle of Italian wine education. Our mission is to reframe the perception of Italian wine: we don’t apologise for its complexity and uniqueness and instead turn its perceived weakness into a strength. Italy is a model of biodiversity with a deeply historical culture of food and wine as a sustainable part of a healthy lifestyle. As these values are increasingly embraced around the world, we think the sector will thrive and Italy will lead that movement.
With regard to Hong Kong, how did Covid-19 affect the wine market?
Hong Kong has always been a luxury wine market and because consuming alcohol is not part of local culture, wine consumption is concentrated among an elite, westernised group. Covid-19, if anything, exaggerated this trend because existing wine lovers consumed as much or more than before because they were stuck at home, whereas those who might have consumed wine casually when out to dinner or at a bar were no longer drinking at those venues. It does seem like more young collectors are starting to have an impact on the market; you see that play out in the types of wine that are gaining popularity: more Italian wines (from a low base), a lot more Burgundy and less Bordeaux.
Can you tell us more about the positioning of Italian products in the Hong Kong wine market? What prospects for the future?
In Hong Kong, for a long time Italian wine and Italian food were almost exclusively served together in Italian restaurants. However, through the efforts of a number of dedicated Italian wine lovers
(I especially want to mention JC Viens of Grande Passione, as well as Alan Kwok who has taken over JC’s prior role as Master of the Hong Kong Delegation of the Ordine dei Cavalieri del Tartufo e dei Vini di Alba) two developments have occurred: one is that more people are actively trying to pair Italian wine with local food and also more people are starting to perceive certain Italian wines (especially Barolo and Barbaresco and Supertuscans) as luxury collectibles on a level with Bordeaux and even Burgundy.
In your experience, do you have any advice for Italian wine producers regarding the export of their products to Hong Kong? How is it possible to effectively reach the asian market?
Hong Kong is an increasingly mature, established market, but it is not particularly high-volume so it is not the kind of market where it makes sense to try to compete on value for money with a mass-market product. There is space for artisanal niche products and an increasing interest in, for example, native grape wines from Italy. Reaching out to VIA ambassadors based in Hong Kong is a great way to introduce your products as they are actively out there to support these kinds of wines.