Former Hong Kong politician Henry Tang is arguably the biggest wine collector in the world and almost certainly the biggest in Asia. Among wine collectors, he has been described as larger than life, and in Hong Kong he is sometimes called sifu (师傅), Cantonese for master, or even caiye (财爷), the God of Wealth.
While in government, he was instrumental in helping make Hong Kong Asia's wine hub when he abolished import duties on wine in 2008. By 2010, more wine was being sold in Hong Kong auctions than in London and New York, the traditional wine trading centers. The Chinese mainland still charges import duty.
The former Hong Kong chief secretary for administration lost his bid in 2012 to become the Hong Kong Chief Executive.
Hong Kong-born Tang, 61, has spent more than 30 years collecting wine. He was born into a family in the textile industry and has been involved in business and many aspects of government for many years.
Despite all his resources, Tang says money alone is not enough to become a successful wine collector. It takes passion for appreciating wine that stands the test of time and a commitment to his own wine aesthetics, which he describes as the expression of terroir.
"So far, there hasn't been any wine that I desire but have been unable to acquire," Tang told Shanghai Daily in a face-to-face interview in Hong Kong late last month.
Tang compares himself to a glass of pinot noir, saying both he and the wine have "finesse, character and elegance."
Tang recently made headlines when part of his Burgundy collection went under the hammer at Hong Kong Christie's auction on March 16 and fetched US$6.22 million. The 810 lots included wine from 71 Burgundy producers, their vintages ranging from 1949 to 2010. Six magnums of Romanée-Conti 1995 were sold for HK$1,210,000 (US$156,695). Twelve bottles of Montrachet 1978 were sold for HK$847,000.
"It is the first single-owner Asian collector sale," says Simon Tam, Christie's head of wine in China.
"I realized I have far too much wine, and I would never be able to consume it in a lifetime. So I decided to present a selection of wines at auction, and provide wine lovers around the world with the opportunity to purchase great bottles and enjoy the journey. After all, the best wines are those shared," says Tang.
"I also hope to tell the world through this auction that Westerners are not the only wine lovers with major collections - Asians too have world-class collections," he adds.
Tam, from Christie's, agrees.
"In a short 10 years, Asian collectors learned a lot about wine and have amassed very fine collections quickly. They are a major force, not only in wine auctions in Hong Kong, but also in international auctions outside of the region," Tam tells Shanghai Daily.
Today they stand as an important buying group in each of Christie's sales in New York and London, he adds. "Buyers will become more discerning and concentrate on only the top wines with the best storage and provenance. We forecast increased demand for rarer and more difficult-to-source vintages in Asia."
Although Tang declines to disclose the size of his collection, he does say that the base of the collection is "at least thousands of bottles with both old and new vintages covering the five First Growth chateaux and Burgundy wines."
World-class collectors need to demonstrate that they have more than 20 vintages to prove their quality, and the wine needs to be cellared in a perfect condition, says Tam.
Tang has told the Wall Street Journal that his wines are housed in his various cellars around the world. "I have received many wine-related propositions, from buying wineries and vineyards to selling the wine collection, and I refused all of them. Wine is my person interest. It is impossible for me to enjoy it fully when it becomes a business."
Tang's recent wine auction reflects his personal taste, which is diverse and eclectic, says James Suckling, former European bureau chief of Wine Spectator magazine, and a friend of Tang's for more than 10 years.
"The wines sold at the auction feature a wide range of Burgundy, ranging from top-level Grand Cru to village level, from renowned Domaines to lesser-known up-and-coming producers," says Tam from Christie's.
"My wine aesthetics is that good wine is not necessarily expensive but reflects the terroir honestly and naturally, and that's why I love Burgundy," Tang says. "In this wine-growing area, there are many winemakers with passion and dedication making wine that best expresses terroir."
"A good wine has its natural color and aroma reflecting its vintage and terroir. Old wine has its distinct color with an orange tint. Burgundy wine has its due floral note, while Bordeaux wine distinguishes itself through its masculine character," Tang explains.
Tang doesn't like wines produced by winemakers who rely on various post-production techniques to make the so-called perfect wine.
He often visits French vineyards, observing operations and studying the soil, one of the key components of terroir, before deciding on a purchase.
Tang says he's not surprised that wines from big-name wineries such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Henry Jayer sell at record prices no matter who the collector is since they have their market price.
He is impressed, however, by some inexpensive wines. For example, Simon Bize from France is usually sold in Europe at 30 euros (US$39) a bottle, but it is sold at the auction for 80 euros, indicating that buyers are willing to pay a premium for wines that he himself appreciates.
Many people collect wine for investment and many collect to demonstrate their wealth, status and taste. Of course, many also collect because they love wine.
Tang says he collects wine purely for drinking, which partly explains his approach to collecting which is relatively less speculative than other collectors.
"I don't do vertical collection intentionally because I respect the idea of optimal drinking," says Tang.
A vertical collection is composed of several consecutive vintages of the same wine. For example, a vertical of Romanée-Conti may include a bottle of each vintage from 1990 through 1995.
Older wine is not necessarily better and Tang says wine should be consumed when it's optimal. Simon Bize, for example, is not suitable for long storage, according to Tang.
"However, last week, I tasted a bottle of Romanée-Conti La Tache 1962. The wine, although old, smells florally, tastes pure and lively," he says.
"I also collect both good and bad vintages out of respect for winemakers," Tang says further of his strategy.
Whether it's a good year with perfect sunshine and rainfall or a bad year, winemakers put the same dedication and commitment into their wine, Tang explains.
Henri Jayer (1922-2006) is a vintner Tang holds in highest regard. He has bought his wine every year consecutively since the 1980s. Tang has visited the Jayer winery and talked with him many times. He calls Jayer a Burgundy master who can make outstanding wine in a good year and maintain his wine at a certain level in a bad year.
Tang considers his collection of Henri Jayer his greatest achievement.
His collecting strategy clearly contributes to good relations with various chosen wineries. An essential principle with Tang is provenance: the verified history of a wine's geographic origins, its chronology of storage and ownership.
Provenance includes the assessment of the liquid and is extremely important when it comes to older vintages and guarding against wine fraud.
"Buying a firsthand wine, especially en primeur (buying wines early when they are still in the barrel) is undoubtedly safe because I know how it's born, bottled and shifted to my desk, in detail. However, if I buy an old wine, verifying provenance is the most important thing," says Tang.
Respected wine sifu
Tang buys his wines from an auction house, directly from known wineries and reliable collectors whom he has known for many years. To verify provenance, he checks every detail, including geographic origin and how the wine is cellared.
The authenticity of some of Tang's wines on the auction list is doubted by some wine insiders, including three bottles of 1959 Romanée-Conti and a case of 1978 Romanée-Conti Montrachet.
"My focusing on provenance can virtually eliminate the possibility of buying fake wine," Tang says.
Some collectors, critics and wine lovers in Hong Kong call Tang sifu, a Cantonese expression meaning teacher and master, showing regard for his knowledge acquired through 30 years of collecting and tasting.
"He really is like a teacher in many ways, and Henry likes nothing better than discussing the details of wine, from production to flavor profiles. The sifu always enlightens everyone about the subtleties of the wine experience," Suckling, formerly with Wine Spectator, writes in his blog.
"Very often, when I dine in a restaurant in France, the sommelier tries to serve me the bottle, which is not corked, and there's something wrong though it's usually hard to discern. But they never succeed and escape from my tasting," the sifu says.
Tang is also held in respect because of his generosity, often sharing his wine collection with friends.
Suckling recalls that Tang and he attended the Cannes Film Festival when Tang was Hong Kong's chief secretary and wanted to promote Hong Kong's film industry.
"He poured magnums of 1983 Petrus to the two dozen press members attending! They were all from his private cellar in London," Suckling recalls.
"I love sharing, that's why I prefer collecting the outsized bottle," Tang says.
Tang enjoys holding wine dinners with friends. "I don't like drinking wine by itself. Wine is intrinsically linked with food from the time it was born."
Besides collecting wine, Tang is also known as a food connoisseur. Steak with Cabernet Sauvignon and pizza with Barbaresco are among his favorite pairings.
"But the perfect pairing for me is Burgundy pinot noir with any food. The wine is so versatile," says Tang.
"I would not dare call myself sifu but I do introduce wine culture to my friends a lot," he adds.
Before losing the election in 2012, Tang had been Hong Kong's chief secretary for four years and had spent at least six years in other government positions. While in government, Tang had to sacrifice some of his passion for wine to serve the public interest.
Before 2002, when he first joined government, he visited Burgundy once a year, but during a decade in public office, he says he visited Burgundy only once. After leaving government last year, he has visited his beloved wine-growing region three times.
Cutting import duty
Slashing Hong Kong's wine duty to zero is recognized one of Tang's major contributions to Hong Kong's development.
Tang initiated the duty-free policy by first halving it in 2007, and later the new Financial Secretary John Tsang completed it by reducing the other half.
Hong Kong started to abolish all taxes on wine imports in 2008, spurring a boom in the wine trade. Today Hong Kong surpasses New York and London as a wine auction hub.
"My original intention was to create more jobs by injecting economic vitality," he says. He quotes statistics to show that the no-tariff policy created 5,000 new jobs directly related to wine auctions, logistics, exhibitions, hospitality and trade industries. Many other new jobs are indirectly related to wine trade.
Some Hong Kong locals call him the "Wine Caiye."
According to Tang, advanced logistics management, convenient transportation and open attitudes toward Western culture have contributed to Hong Kong's rise in the wine world.
Shanghai has the potential to become a second Hong Kong in Asian wine trade, he says, but it has some significant limitations - tax, culture and ensuring authenticity.
"First is the regulation. Complicated tariffs prevent Shanghai people from sourcing wine freely from all over the world," Tang says.
"Second is the culture. Although in the past five years, the wine culture in Shanghai has developed much faster than Hong Kong which already appreciates wine culture, it takes time to mature."
"Third is the quality. Shanghai's wine storage has room for improvement. Guaranteeing wine authenticity is still a big challenge for the city," Tang says.
Q: Were there some value surprises in your collecting?
A: It's my collection of Le Pin 1982. During the 1980s, a wine dealer who knew my taste, often introduced me to some newcomers, including Le Pin, a young unknown winery established in 1979 in Bordeaux.
I was shocked at the price 600 British pounds (US$927.26) a case. At that time, a case of Chateau Mouton (First Growth Bordeaux) cost around 300 British pounds per case. I was impressed by the taste and bought several cases.
Today, Le Pin has become one of the most sought-after and expensive wines and its 1982 vintage is said to be the best with very few production, 300 cases. It's hard to source one case even if you are willing to pay 60,000 British pounds.
I am not just surprised but also inspired. Successful collection is based on being confident in my own wine taste.
Q: Do you recall an embarrassing moment in collecting?
A: It happened during the 1990s. Aubert de Villaine, owner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, showed me around Vosne Romanee Village, pointing out which vineyard makes Romanée-Conti, which one produces La Tache. When we crossed a small vineyard, only around a hectare, he kept silent. Later he said the vineyard La Grande Rue, and did not belong to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Production is low and the quality is not very good.
I thought that if the vineyard is surrounded by other vineyards producing top wines, then its terroir should not be too bad. And maybe Villaine wasn't candid since it wasn't his vineyard. I insisted on buying a parcel and found that he was totally correct. The taste is not good. I still have most of them.
Q: How did your interest in wine begin?
A: My interest in wine started with curiosity. Forty years ago, I studied at Michigan University in the United States, where beer and whisky are popular. I don't like either, calling them gui lao liang cha 鬼佬凉茶 (literally "Westerners' herbal tea). I turned to wine and soon became curious about why a bottle of French Cabernet can be 100 times more expensive than a Cabernet made elsewhere. I looked for answers in the library but failed. I was inspired when I became friends with a wine shop owner.
Q: What's the next wine collecting trend?
A: I think wine collecting will turn back to old Bordeaux wines. In the past few years, new wine collectors prefer buying cases of new Bordeaux wines to satisfy their demand for quantity, which pushes up the price. However, old Bordeaux wines, sold by the bottle, haven't won their favor, so prices remain reasonable.
Q: Is there a wine that especially touches your heart?
A: I tasted a bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc during the 1970s, when I finished my studying in the US and came back to Hong Kong. I was deeply impressed. How could a Bordeaux wine be so rich yet balanced?