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Asian cities’ wine cultures sober to hot
By John H. Isacs

Cities like wines are distinguished by their own unique cultures and identities. In this week’s column I’ll look at some leading wine cities in Asia and poke some fun on the sometimes too serious art of wine appreciation.

The cities I’ll examine are Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei and Shanghai. First stop is the land of the rising sun and the super sophisticated wine scene in Tokyo.


In my global wine travels I’ve run into and made friends with many of Japan’s leading wine writers, educators, sommeliers and professional trade people. Overall they are quite knowledgeable and diligent wine enthusiasts. Not surprisingly the top restaurants, bars and clubs of Tokyo have a high standard of wine service, probably the highest in Asia.

But my Japanese friends are the first to warn me that this layer of wine excellence is quite thin and still floating on the top. Most white collar professionals in Tokyo have limited knowledge and curiosity concerning the finer aspects of wine culture. But to be fair, this is true everywhere, even in Italy, France and Spain.

So in Asia I would give Tokyo the prize as the most sophisticated wine city. The wine style that best typifies the wine culture of Tokyo is Chablis as this wine beautifully combines minimalism, focus and complexity. Of course, it’s also terrific with sushi and sashimi.

Hong Kong

A few years ago some farsighted city officials in Hong Kong made the sagacious decision to eliminate wine import taxes. As a result, Hong Kong quickly became the region’s wine hub with more wine auctions, exhibitions and other events than any other city in Asia.

In fact, Hong Kong even overtook London and New York as the world’s most important wine auction city. How did Hong Kong come so far, so quickly?

The elimination of import taxes played a huge role but we also have to admit that the culinary culture of Hong Kong has long been a trend setter in Asia.

Integrating wine culture into an already advanced epicurean environment was a natural and wine appreciation in Hong Kong quickly progressed from a mostly niche expatriate pastime to a larger segment of general society. But all is not well with Hong Kong wine culture.

Many of my wine acquaintances in Hong Kong like to promote Hong Kong as the key to the China wine market. I beg to differ and believe the old adage “the tail doesn’t wag the dog” is particularly appropriate. While it’s true that next to Tokyo, Hong Kong has the most sophisticated wine culture in Asia, it is also not terribly innovative and original.

More than any other city in Asia, the wine culture of Hong Kong copies and defers to the west, particularly to Europe. I’ll be the first to admit that in the world of wines and food, learning from and emulating other cultures is a good thing, as France learned from Italy, Italy from Greece, and today everyone is gaining inspiration from Spain.

But this can go too far and hinder unique cultural identities that are so essential to the wine culture of cities. Just like we don’t find generic wines very interesting, it’s also hard to get excited about a wine culture that lacks its own strong identity.

Hong Kong is a great place but the inherited, sometimes pompous nature of its wine culture make it less appealing to me and less influential to other cities in China.

The brilliant decision to eliminate wine import taxes makes Hong Kong the most legislatively progressive, but when I associate the wine culture of Hong Kong to a wine, I must pick a reserved, old-fashioned Medoc Bordeaux which, by the way, I love.


I love Taipei and frequently return to the city where I spent so many of my formative years. At the very top of society, Taipei has a small number of some of Asia’s most sophisticated and knowledgeable wine buyers and collectors.

Wine selection and service at Taipei’s better restaurants and bars has gradually improved and more young people are learning about wine, but compared with the other cities mentioned here, progress has been maddening slow.

This is somewhat confounding as in other gourmet areas, Taiwan in general has been very progressive and a trend setter in the region. But this cannot be said of Taipei’s wine culture.

Perhaps too many of Taiwan’s wine professionals are working on the mainland and Taiwan’s economy hasn’t been particularly vibrant, but I find it quite frustrating to view the general complacency of the Taipei wine scene.

Despite my great fondness for Taipei, I must give it the prize as the sleepiest wine culture in Asia and compare it to a nice bottle of Sauternes. The city and this great style of sweet wine are equally lovable and delicious, but in terms of progress and popularity they just aren’t going anywhere.


Last but not least we arrive in Shanghai. I’ve written about wine in 19th-century Shanghai and during the roaring 1920s and 1930s. But in the 1990s Shanghai had to start all over again while Taipei, Hong Kong and Tokyo already had fairly vibrant wine cultures.

Wine culture in Shanghai today is the tale of the good and the bad. The good is the incredible number of new creative restaurants, importers and retailers, wine professionals from around world moving to and working in our city, and most important of all, the growing curiosity among the local populace.

On the negative side, wine service in most restaurants and hotels is still not at the level of Tokyo, Hong Kong or Taipei and there are just as many bad importers and retailers as there are good. This is the nature of a new market and one thing Shanghai does well is move and progress quickly, so my hopes are high. In fact, I’d like to make the argument that in the future it will be Shanghai, not Hong Kong, Tokyo or Taipei that will have the most important and influential wine culture in Asia.

Perhaps because it’s my new home, perhaps because I write for Shanghai Daily and just maybe because I believe Shanghai has always had a natural gravity of regional importance, I do believe Shanghai will eventually lead. I believe the combination of being able to incorporate international cultures and people, while keeping its own unique identity will prove to be a winning formula for Shanghai.

Shanghai therefore wins the most promising future award that can be compared with some of the hottest wine styles like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Spanish Toro reds, Super Tuscans and any other wine you love.

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