David Whitley raises a glass in the high-tech Hong Kong bars transforming wine tasting at the touch of a screen.
The gimmicky blue table has brought out the inner child. It's like being in a science museum all over again, tongue lolling in concentration as buttons are pressed and switches fiddled with.
This particular piece of touchscreen whizz-bangery, however, is for educating adults, not children. The sliders control factors such as acidity and fruitiness, the ultimate aim being to find a wine you love. Identify a contender and another finger jab conjures detailed tasting notes. It's a very Hong Kong approach to wine tasting.
Amo Eno was a serendipitous find. As any forlorn pedestrian in Hong Kong will know, there's a big difference between working out where A and B are on a map and getting to either. Finding the right exit to a sprawling shopping centre is also an art form. Take a wrong turn on the third floor of the giant IFC Mall and this little shop of sparkling glasses is easily missed.
Opened in December, Amo Eno is among a new crop of innovative wine bar-shop hybrids popping up on Hong Kong Island. The marriage of wine and technology is its obvious distinction, but there's a strong emphasis on education, too. The Enomatic dispensing machines along the walls pour wines sourced from around the world, including Morocco, Slovenia and Uruguay, in precise volumes between 25 millilitres and 150 millilitres. The drops range from bargain finds to premium vintages and the cost of each sample is deducted from a prepaid card.
The clever bit is that card is linked to the hyper-gadgety tasting tables. If you're taken with a particular wine, you can use your card and the table in tandem to research the source and vinting history in more detail, save the research for future reference, and share on Facebook or Twitter.
A similar disregard for the fusty old way of tasting wine is applied at the Flying Winemaker in Lan Kwai Fong. It has a darkened, secret-session-in-the-back-room-among-friends vibe and an enthusiastic mateyness that seems to flow freely between staff and clients. It's the new flagship shop of Eddie McDougall, who through canny self-promotion and an upcoming television series is positioning himself as Hong Kong's celebrity winemaker. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Australia, McDougall worked with many of Victoria's top winemakers before setting up his own label, Umami, in King Valley. He returned to Hong Kong in 2009 as chief winemaker for what was then Hong Kong's only winery, the 8th Estate.
This timing neatly coincided with Hong Kong's overnight emergence as Asia's major wine-trading centre. Wine imported to Hong Kong was subject to a whopping 80 per cent duty before February 2008, when all tax on wine imports was abolished, making Hong Kong the only "free" wine port among the world's major economies. Within four years, Hong Kong has surpassed the US, Britain, France and Japan to become the world's wine auction capital.
McDougall spotted the opportunity. "The future of the wine industry exists in Asian consumers," he says, "so it's important to establish myself at a young age to be a leader in the industry."
While many of the wine bars established after the 2008 changes have been high on price, pretence and prestige imports from old-world vineyards, the Flying Winemaker is trying to do something different.
"People [here] are too focused on French, French, French ... There are so many great regions that are unexplored and people are not educated enough yet," McDougall says. "I'm sick of high-end, first-growth Bordeaux and the likes... I'm looking for the modern-art equivalents from Australia, South Africa and Portugal."
This enterprising spirit infuses WineSkool classes at the Flying Winemaker. The textbooks are thrown out; the emphasis is on interaction and the idea is drilled in that it's perfectly acceptable to drink wine out of a plastic cup.
The final stop on my amble around Hong Kong's wine innovators is Portrait, in the Soho district of Hong Kong Island. "It's not a bar or a shop," the Canadian entrepreneur behind the venture, Steven de Jaray, says. "It's a tasting room." All the wines served here are made by Portrait staff at Tsuen Wan, in the New Territories. It is Hong Kong's second winery and it is already winning awards.
Hong Kong is roughly as suited to viticulture as Alaska is to growing bananas, so Portrait imports grapes from selected growers around the world and produces wine in Hong Kong. Another major legislative change has made this operation blindingly logical. The Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement means products substantially made in Hong Kong can be imported into mainland China without duty. Thus, wine made in Hong Kong has a major advantage in the ballooning Chinese market.
It doesn't take long after sauntering into Portrait's tasting room for glasses to appear and be filled. The label's award-winning Farmgirl Syrah Rosé is the highlight of a seven-wine range.
The experimental attitude extends to the rather attention-grabbing copper still in the corner. At weekend evenings, it's used for distilling demonstrations - Portrait also makes raspberry and lychee brandies.
The barman pulls out an unlabelled bottle. "Would you like to try the pear brandy?" he asks. "I made this on Thursday. The formula's not done yet, but it's worth a try."
He's right, it is. In Hong Kong's new raft of experimental wine bars, preening is out. Playing is in.
David Whitley stayed courtesy of the Upper House, Langham Place, Eaton Smart and Icon hotels.
Sake makes its mark
CHANGES to Hong Kong's tax laws haven't benefited only wine-lovers — sake has started to appear on drinks menus across town.
Ayuchi Momose, a certified sake sommelier, recently opened Sake Bar Ginn in Lan Kwai Fong. Once found (it's hidden on the fourth floor of a building on D'Aguilar Street) the venue is understated class.
Momose was raised in Yokohama, spent 12 years working in New York, then spotted the opportunity to bring sake into Hong Kong tax free. She says she aims to change the way sake is viewed in Hong Kong.
"Hong Kong people are very keen on brands," she says. "All Japanese restaurants carry the same kind of sakes and I'm trying to bring in good value. Also, a lot of places only serve by the bottle, not by the glass. There's no reason for that — it's good for almost a week after opening."
Sake Bar Ginn has more than 100 bottles behind the bar and tasting flights that plot the available sakes on a spectrum marked fragrant, smooth, aged, rich. Experimentation is encouraged in classes where drinkers can sample different types of sake and discuss the variations.
Cathay Pacific has a fare to Hong Kong from Sydney and Melbourne (about 9hr, non-stop) for about $1198 low-season return including tax; see cathaypacific.com. Qantas also flies non-stop and Virgin Atlantic from Sydney only. Australians don't require a visa for a stay of up to three months.
Amo Eno is at Shop 3027, podium level 3, IFC Mall, 1 Harbour View Street, Central. Closest metro: Central. See www.amoeno.com.
The Flying Winemaker is at 31 Wyndham Street, Lan Kwai Fong. Closest metro: Central. See eddiemcdougall.com.
Portrait is at 31 Staunton Street, Central. Closest metro: Central/Sheung Wan. See portraitwinery.com.
Sake Bar Ginn is at unit 4C, Ho Lee Commercial Building, 38-44 D'Aguilar Street, Lan Kwai Fong. Closest metro: Central. See sakebarginn.com.
For rare peace, large rooms and stellar service, the Upper House is challenging Hong Kong's long-standing high-end favourites. Double rooms cost from $HK4950 ($601). See upperhouse.com.
If it's a relative bargain you're after, the Eaton Smart is slick and throws in lots of extras such as market tours and tai chi classes. Double rooms cost from $HK968. See hongkong.eatonhotels.com.