Great Wine of China: Chinese producers are winning over the world with their vibrant pours

China has produced wine from grapes for centuries, and in recent years the vast country has become one of the world’s largest consumers of wine. The fruits of each winemaking region have their own distinct characteristics, and many local wineries have developed strong ties with overseas viticulturalists.

Master of Wine Fongyee Walker, co-founder of Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting and a specialist wine educator, can attest to the fact that many regions in China are crafting great wine.

Walker singles out three notable regions producing wines of character: Shandong for their gentle quality shaped by a maritime climate; Shangri- La in northwest Yunnan for the magnificent scenery and the freshness and vibrancy of its wines; and Xinjiang because of the vivacity of the culture “and the wonderful food that goes so well with the rich wines from that desert sun”.

Elegant Shandong

Winemaking in Shandong centres around Yantai on the northwest coast of the peninsula. “Shandong produces lovely wine,” says Walker. “The granite soils and the sea breezes coming off the bay allow so much of its coastal region to produce elegant wines.”

As a white-wine lover – “though not necessarily typical wines” – she is particularly fond of the gentle Chardonnays emanating from there, while the elegant Cabernet Francs with hints of leafiness also appeal. She notes: “It’s all about elegance, a refreshingness brought by that maritime acidity.”

Yunnan fruit

The mountain vineyards in Shangri-La reach as high as 3,000 metres, creating huge diurnal variation and giving the wines vibrant acidity and a pureness to their fruit. “That diurnal swing, those cold nights with very sunny days high up in the mountains, bring refreshing but ripe flavours,” she says.

Shangri-La reds excite the palate: “They produce really gorgeous Cabernets with a depth of fruit and a really refreshing mouthfeel,” she notes, adding: “Their Pinot Noir is a potential great star.” And speaking of her favourite whites: “Their Chardonnays are different from the Shandong style, and they offer a vibrancy of pure orchard fruit.”

Xinjiang riches

As for Xinjiang, Walker believes the desert landscape and crystal-clear sunshine have a profound effect on the quality of the wine produced, noting there is a warmth and beautiful roundness and richness in the wines there. “It’s hot, but this means that the red wines are full of fruit, and they have this wonderful, healthy fruitiness to them with beautiful tannins,” she says.

When China-based Walker travels to Xinjiang, she looks forward to pouring these rich reds, particularly the Syrah-Merlot blend. “It is so full of fruit and wonderful with the roast lamb of the area.” She is also partial to an Italian Riesling-style wine infused with green tea, which she describes as “a unique and favourite wine of mine. It has an aroma of jasmine flowers exploding.”

Perfect pairing

When planning a visit to Ningxia in north-central China, another key wine-growing area, she thinks of their beautiful Marselan grapes and how well these wines go with roasted Tan Yang lamb. The local Tan species of lamb is, she opines, “one of the most delicious lambs of the world. What a perfect match!”

Grape achievements

Walker was on the distinguished panel of judges including three Masters of Wine and three Master Sommeliers at the inaugural Wynn Signature Chinese Wine Awards held in Macau last month. Significantly, the event gives valuable feedback to those who don’t win trophies. “It provides a roadmap for producers all across China with different styles of wine – how to go forward, how to improve and bring their wine to new levels of quality,” she says.

Super Sicilian: Springing from vineyards aplenty, Sicily’s splendid indigenous grapes are setting the wine world alight

The island of Sicily has become one of the most important wine-growing regions of Italy. It is the country’s largest in terms of planting with some 98,000 hectares under vine. A total of 4.8 million inhabitants make it the most populous island in the Mediterranean Sea.

It is known throughout the world as the home of Mount Etna, one of Europe’s most active volcanoes – whose soils happen to be ideal for the growth of Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio (both red) and Carricante (white) grapes. Indeed, Sicily’s indigenous grape varieties are now widely appreciated by connoisseurs, who decades ago would only look to the island for Marsala, its famous fortified wine.

Island of extremes

“If you had to sum up Sicily in just a few words, it’s an island of extremes,” says Italian wine specialist Keti Mazzi, founder of Certa Wine Club. “Rocky volcanic coastlines give way to white sandy beaches. Crumbling architectural treasures of the ancient world sit next to some of the most theatrical and perfectly preserved paintings of the Baroque. It’s a cliché, but in Sicily, there’s truly something for everyone.”

Already a top-tier wine region in Italy, a country which itself is the largest producer of wine in the world, Sicily is poised for a new phase of expansion, believes Mazzi, as wine enthusiasts look for new territories and unexpected flavours.

Volcanic boost

Its fertile soil is primarily the result of an ongoing series of volcanic eruptions, and this, coupled with a pleasant climate, means it is perfect for making wine. Mazzi notes: “A true microcosm of Italy, Sicily can be described as a ‘viticultural continent’. Sicily is a continent for wine!”

Today, Sicily is primarily recognised for its Nero d’Avola and Grillo grapes, two local red and white varietals respectively that thrive across the diverse soils and growing conditions of the island.

Creamy white

Grillo had been used exclusively to produce Marsala in the past – in northwestern Sicily, an area granted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status – but now stars in some of Sicily’s most recognisable labels. “It delivers a refreshing, fragrant white wine with aromas of tropical fruit and a rich, creamy structure,” says Mazzi.

She says the Nero d’Avola grape variety is similar in style to Syrah: “It is Sicily’s most prolific red grape and produces a medium-bodied elegant wine with red fruit flavours, notes of pepper and a nice acidity.” Other common grape varieties on the island include Catarratto, Inzolia (both white) and Frappato (red).

Red beauty

Having spent several wonderful years in Sicily, the island is close to Mazzi’s heart and she is fond of many of its wines. Her ultimate tipple from the region, though, is Rosso del Conte, a flagship red from eighth-generation producer Conti Tasca d’Almerita in the central highlands. Its grapes originate from San Lucio, the first ‘grande vigna’ (large vineyard) created on the Tenuta Regaleali estate in 1959.

Mazzi loves the aromas emanating from this Sicilian beauty, indicating it retains a certain subtleness to its offering. She says: “On the aromatic level, Rosso del Conte never exaggerates in overripe notes while guaranteeing full phenolic ripeness.”

She believes the wine is a faithful expression of its terroir, recalling the high hills in the heart of Sicily, while a special signature appeal is that two grape varieties, Perricone and Nero d’Avola – which have a similar vegetative root – coexist.

Mazzi admires how the wine develops over time. “It is exuberant, vibrant and energetic in its youth, and with ageing develops a velvety touch without losing structure and flavour,” she says.

Hawke’s High: The lowland and coastal hills of New Zealand’s second largest wine region offer Bordeaux-style pleasures

Located on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, Hawke’s Bay has garnered a world-class reputation for the quality of its wines.

Famed for its fruity, earthy reds and full- bodied Chardonnays, Hawke’s Bay is one of New Zealand’s oldest wine-producing regions and its second-largest.

Viticulture vitality

“Summers are typically dry and warm and are followed by long autumns and relatively mild winters. This results in lengthy and consistent growing seasons, which are vital to viticultural excellence,” says Daniel Cheung, a freelance consultant in the food & beverage industry.

This benign weather system underscored by numerous geologically-young soil types enriched by centuries of volcanic activity contributes to one of the wine world’s most versatile areas. “The region makes an impressive array of wines, most notably Rhône- and Bordeaux-style reds that have good ageing potential,” notes Cheung.

Top draws

Cheung finds Hawke’s Bay particularly intriguing as it offers something different aside from the “star export of crisp, flinty Sauvignon Blanc”.

Powerful, aromatic expressions of Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are particularly highly regarded. “Equally remarkable are full-bodied and robust Chardonnays that have lots of ageing potential, says Cheung.”

Cheung has become fascinated by how Hawke’s Bay’s vignerons make the most out of a region underpinned by a coastal influence, while also dealing with the complex mesoclimates of a varied topography.

“They’ve always had a focus on quality and diversity, along with a rich history of winemaking innovations. Producers there know the importance of employing sustainable viticultural practices,” he says, also noting the region’s world-class aspirations.

Great Gravels

He believes the wines have a unique spirit to them that is uplifting. “A perfect example would be the incredible tale of the subregion known as Gimblett Gravels – 600 hectares in size, with a soil structure that is stony, with a distinctive minerality and a fine, dusty character,” he says.

“Though the area wasn’t used for growing vines until the early 1990s – it was saved by the rejection of a mining application – it has since quickly risen to prominence for producing rich yet elegantly structured red wines that rank among the finest in the world.”

Superior Syrah

Cheung has a particular fondness for two wines emanating from the region. First up is Le Sol 2019 from Craggy Range, which was awarded New Zealand’s Winery of the Year 2023 by the prestigious The Real Review. “This is a top- notch 100% Syrah that’s now an icon wine of the Gimblett Gravels subregion,” he says.

Describing the tastes and aromas of one of his favourite tipples, he identifies its “dark, fruity nose with a good amount of focus and peppery warmth. Rounded and generous on the palate with a great long finish, this is a seductive Syrah.”

Crisp Chardonnay

Produced by the pioneering Brajkovich family, Kumeu River’s Rays Road Chardonnay 2020 is another Hawke’s Bay favourite of Cheung. He enthuses of this cellar-worthy wine: “Crisp and mineral-forward, this single vineyard Chardonnay is crafted in a Burgundian style. The citrusy bouquet complements its refined linear character, all of which culminate in a reverberant finish.”

Langhe Lasting: The noble Italian winemaking area where age-worthy reds rule

The Langhe, located in northwest Italy, is a hilly area that has attained international recognition for its deeply embedded and longstanding winemaking culture. It is a key part of the Piedmont region, which is officially designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site. In the Langhe, two of the world’s pre-eminent red wines, namely Barolo and Barbaresco, are made purely from the native grape of Nebbiolo.

Red heaven

Matteo Ascheri is president of the Consortium for the Protection of Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe and Dogliani, an organisation which helped secure DOC status for Barolo and Barbaresco in 1966, and then, in 1980, their elevation to DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), Italy’s highest classification of wines.

Sip of royalty

Hailed as ‘The King of Wines and the Wine of Kings’ some 175 years ago, Barolo is a grand wine with the noblest of histories. “It was sipped in the courts of Europe,” says Ascheri. “It is now made in 11 communes in the vicinity of Barolo village and is enjoyed the world over for its glorious dark red appearance and its fruity and spicy power.”

He likens these aromas and tastes that “develop over a long, captivating finish” to “red berries, cherries in liqueur and jam; roses and violets; and cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and vanilla. Occasionally liquorice, cocoa, tobacco and leather can be discerned on the nose and palate, too.”

Barolo producers must age their wine for a minimum of three years before bottling. To qualify as Barolo Riserva, it has to be aged for at least five years. “The pride of many collectors’ cellars, Barolo is a prized wine that benefits from long ageing, with 10 or 20 years considered the norm,” notes Ascheri.

Fruits and florals

Barbaresco arose in the pretty village of that name about 50 years later. Domizio Cavazza, a Barbaresco native and the first head of the Enology School of Alba, organised a collective of growers in 1894 to make wine solely from the Nebbiolo grape. “Barbaresco lures wine lovers with a stimulating bouquet of fruits and florals – including raspberries, red-berry jam, geraniums and violets – as well as hints of green pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, hay wood, toasted hazelnuts, vanilla and even aniseed,” says Ascheri.

“It must be aged for two years in oak before bottling and earns the title of ‘Riserva’ after four years. The wines are at their smoothest and most nuanced when aged from five to 10 years, though the best vintages can lie for longer.”

Vintage appeal

Ascheri points out that bottles of both these wines from superior vintages are often purchased to be cellared and treasured as valuable collectibles. Connoisseurs seeking more tangible delights will be tempted to open them on special occasions, though. “Barolo and Barbaresco are natural accompaniments to rich, hearty dishes like braised meat, aged cheese and truffles – another of the Langhe’s great gastronomic gifts to the world,” he says. He is a strong advocate of their sublime qualities, stating: “Befitting their classification as premier, age-worthy red wines, the robust, full-bodied Barolo, redolent with dark fruit, earth and spice, and the elegant, red-fruited and floral Barbaresco make unique gifts to be laid down and enjoyed at their prime.”

Mouth by South West: A patchwork of hidden vineyards in the French Sud-Ouest offers a rich range of wines

Southwest France has a long winemaking tradition with ancient grape varieties that predate the Romans. Stretching out from the foothills of the Pyrenees, the broad area of two administrative regions – Occitania and Nouvelle-Aquitaine – has a varied landscape and a wide range of highly specific vineyards and winemaking.

The mosaic of vineyards in the South West France wine region produces sparkling, white, rosé and red wines, all with different profile characteristics, according to Nicolas Eyquem, Head Sommelier at Black Sheep Restaurants.

Eyquem adores the natural beauty of the Sud-Ouest and delights in the diversity of wines in the region from appellations that are generally less well known like Irouléguy in the Northern Basque Country, Gaillac. Monbazillac, Cahors and Madiran and Fronton.

Franckly drinking

Eyquem is particularly fond of the wines from Franck Lihour. Lihour makes wine in the Jurançon appellation, located between the Pyrenees and the ocean. The estate covers 55 hectares with meadows, woods, cereal crops and 12 hectares of certified organic vineyards.

“Franck made the choice to isolate the plots of vines to produce single-vineyard wine – one dry, one sweet and three plots yielding his Caubeigt, Memòria and Tauzy wines. These are made with native grapes such as Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng and reintegrated Petit Courbu and Camaralet in the blends,” says Eyquem.

He also applauds Lihour’s winemaking vision, using native yeast and adding a few sulphites only at bottling to keep the purity and the tension of the wines.

Pyrenees pleasure

Highlighting the talent and versatility of Sud- Ouest winemakers, Eyquem describes the tastes and aromas of some of his favourite wines from vineyards spread across the region.

First up is Pyrénées-Atlantiques wines, which are produced inland from Biarritz in the foothills of the mountain range. “The dry white wines from Irouléguy, Jurançon and Béarn are lively, vibrant and aromatic with exotic citrus and apricot flavours,” he says.

Moving on to the south of the Dordogne wine region, he favours “the red wines from Madiran, made with the Tannat grape, and Cahors from Malbec. They are dark in colour, robust, sometimes rustic, and concentrated, with black fruit dominant and a touch of spice.”

Gaillac sparkle

At Gaillac, a commune in the Tarn department, a méthode-ancestrale sparkling wine is made with the Mauzac grape. “The result is a semi-sparkling style of wine with a touch of sweetness, combined with dried apple-peel flavours,” says Eyquem.

According to the sommelier, Marcillac made from the unique Fer Servadou grape is the most famous wine from the patchwork of small appellations in Aveyron in the Massif Central. “It’s a lovely light red, juicy and peppery.”

Bergerac delights

He then highlights the sweet-wine appellations of Bergerac, “Using Bordeaux [grape] varieties, Monbazillac, Saussignac and Rosette are generating botrytized wines that are mellow with candied apricot, vanilla and honey flavours,” he says. He heartily recommends these wines, which are proudly offered on his wine list.

Exultantly Tuscan: Hilly terroir, plentiful rain and super wines characterise the beautiful Italian region

Regarded as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, Tuscany is steeped in culture and boasts a beautiful landscape and climate that is ideal for making wine. With a strong regional identity, the capital is the magnificent Florence, while other fantastic places in this tourist haven include Pisa with its leaning tower, Siena, Lucca and Grosseto. With a long-established winemaking tradition, famous wines in Tuscany include the Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Chianti and Morellino di Scansano reds and the white Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

Tuscany is a very hilly region, with elevated land constituting about two-thirds of the total area, much of which is used for agriculture. The western shoreline touches the Ligurian and the Tyrrhenian seas. It has a fairly mild climate, though further inland there are greater fluctuations in temperature and it can be very rainy at times, which has helped to develop fertile soil.

Magical landscapes

David Reali, who works for Italian food and wine importer Certa, hails his Tuscan homeland as his favourite wine region. He says: “It is named for the pre-Roman Etruscan inhabitants, and has magical inland and shore landscapes with amazing sandy or rocky beaches, mountains, hills and flat areas.”

He recalls fondly the area’s outdoors lifestyle, with locals relaxing over good food and wine, and explains why Tuscany, being packed with cultural attractions, draws so many tourists. “The weather is what I love most about my native region. Plus, the history of Tuscany, especially Florence; my city is called la Culla del Rinascimento [the cradle of the Renaissance].”

As Reali points out, winemaking is a world with infinite variants determined by soil, climate and vinification. Tuscany is a stellar Italian wine area for a variety of reasons. “It is a region with a temperate climate that has significant differences between areas, including variations in soil and various landscapes, which is really suitable for grapes,” he says.

Top crop

He highlights the topography as an important factor. “In Tuscany, 67% of the region is hilly, 25% mountainous and 8% flat. Numerous precipitations, mostly concentrated in spring and autumn, are perfect for the vineyards, although it is starting to be a challenge considering the world climate change.”

The proud Tuscan outlines the region’s wine crop. “The main red wines in Tuscany are Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, while white wines produced here are Trebbiano, Vermentino and Vernaccia.” The native Sangiovese grape – one of the 10 most planted grapes in the world – is the singular star of Brunello di Montalcino and the main component of Chianti Classico and Nobile di Montepulciano, three top wines to which Reali is particularly partial.

Sensational Sangiovese

Describing the tastes and aromas of his favourite wines from Tuscany, he elaborates: “The main characteristics of Sangiovese are red and black cherry, liquorice, black tea and nuances of violet aromas. If aged, it can offer aromas of leather, undergrowth and tobacco. It is typically dry with chalky tannins.”

The region’s famed Super Tuscans, which first emerged in Chianti in the 1970s, embrace non-indigenous grapes, often boldly blending Sangiovese with international varieties like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah to create complex and highly structured wines.

Cool Chilean: Saluting the bright, mineral South American west coast whites born in mineral-rich soils

Perhaps a little surprisingly given its far-flung New World location, Chile has a long history of making wine. Production dates from the 16th century with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, while further developments in the mid-19th century saw the introduction of French wine varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carménère and Cabernet Franc.

Fantastic fourth

The 1980s saw a growth in the industry with improved fermentation techniques and the South American country is now firmly established on the winemaking map, with recent figures placing it as the world’s fourth-largest exporter of wine. Falling between the latitudes of 32°S and 38°S, the vineyards of Chile have been defined into several distinct regions since December 1994. Coquimbo in the north and the Central Valley areas of Maipo, Cachapoal and Colchagua are considered among the best.

Limarí Valley, a sub-region of Coquimbo, is one of Bernice Liu’s favourite wine regions. The Hong Kong actress, winemaker and Wine Maven platform entrepreneur (winemaven.io) clearly adores the quality of the viticulture emanating from the area. “This region is a pretty cool place for wines,” she enthuses. “It is where my Chardonnay comes from!” She makes Lunoria and Vartiere Chardonnay in collaboration with Pagnel winery.

Chardonnay hooray

The main wines produced in the region are Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Liu believes the location has some distinct advantages for certain wines, stating: “Limarí Valley is one of the most prized areas for Chardonnay in Chile, with great soil and climate conditions. With it having a sea-to-soil likeness, fresher whites are able to be produced here.”

She cites Concha y Toro winery as an example of a famous producer of lovely white wines in the valley.

Roots and routes

Chile also has historical advantages that have cemented its winemaking tradition. As Liu points out, it was not affected by the phylloxera louse. Feeding on the roots and leaves of grapevines, these insects destroyed much of the wines worldwide in the late 19th century.

Mineral shine

There is good minerality in a soil that tends to be made of clay, silt and chalk in Limarí Valley. Due to a relatively moderate amount of rainfall, the vines on these mineral-rich soils are fed with drip irrigation, and this combination creates fresh wines with a notable mineral edge, a quality noted by Liu when describing her favourite wine from the region.

“Naturally, my Lunoria and Vartiere Chardonnays are my favourites,” she says. “I love medium-bodied whites, with good natural acidity. With moderate amounts of clay soil, minerality shines through, and makes them a great food pairing wine, especially with Asian cuisine and the varied flavours from dish to dish.

Aromatic show

“The aromas and taste of these wines have hints of floral, vanilla, ripe stoned fruit and a bit of oak to ease the acidity. Minerality from the clay soil is also present,” she adds, again referring to the mineral edge in the wines of this region.

“The best part is that though they are served cold, the glass can be left to stand and the aromatics really start to show.”

Vine Glorious: Bordeaux producers bank Left and Right on their ability to craft complex collectable wines

Bordeaux is considered a benchmark in the world of fine wine. Located in southwest France, the region is known for its exceptional terroir that is home to more than 7,000 wine-producing châteaux. Talented winemakers craft compelling wines within the red, white and sweet categories.

Michelle Chan, Christie’s Head of Wine in Asia Pacific, identifies Bordeaux’s unique geographical location situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde estuary and its diversity of soils as key factors behind its acclaimed output. She adds that the region’s long history of winemaking expertise has resulted in the development of specific winemaking techniques, such as blending multiple grape varieties to create complex and balanced wines.

Divide and conquer

bordeaux wine

Bordeaux is positioned at the centre of the confluence of the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, which flow into the Gironde, and Chan stresses that understanding the difference between the ‘Left Bank’ and ‘Right Bank’ of Bordeaux is essential in grasping the region’s varied wine offerings. The area to the west, on the left bank of the Garonne, and between the Garonne and the Dordogne, “is famous for its powerful and structured red wines, predominantly made from Cabernet Sauvignon. Notable appellations include Médoc, Graves and Pessac-Léognan. These wines are full-bodied with firm tannins, ideal for long-term ageing,” she says.

bordeaux wine

East of the Dordogne is the Right Bank “renowned for its Merlot-based blends, which are typically more approachable and supple when young. The most prominent appellations are Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, producing rich, opulent wines with velvety tannins and exceptional balance.”

Chan also notes that the region produces outstanding white wines and is hailed for its sweet wines.

Pick of the best

bordeaux wine

Such is the quality of wines the region has to offer, Chan finds it difficult to choose a favourite.

First on her list is Château Latour à Pomerol 1961. “This opulent and refined Merlot-based wine from Pomerol has enticing aromas of black cherries, truffles and hints of tobacco. The palate displays a velvety texture with well-integrated tannins and flavours of ripe dark fruits, earth and sweet spices.”

Next is Château Mouton Rothschild 1945 of which she says: “This iconic vintage features a complex and captivating bouquet of cassis, pencil shavings and cedarwood. The rich and full-bodied palate showcases layers of dark fruit, leather and tobacco, complemented by a firm tannic structure and exceptional balance.”

bordeaux wine

She also adores large-format Bordeaux wines and highlights the magnums of Le Pin 1982 – expressions of lush, seductive character and incredible depth – auctioned by Christie’s in Hong Kong in May. For sweet wines, she plumps for Château d’Yquem 1967. “This golden-hued sweet wine, made from a blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes, has an incredibly complex nose with aromas of honey, apricots, candied orange peel and botrytis spice.”

Collectors’ tips

For those beginning a Bordeaux wine collection, Chan stresses it is essential to educate oneself on the various appellations, châteaux and vintages. Her recommended vintages are 1945, 1947, 1949, 1959, 1961, 1982, 1989, 1990, 1996, 2000, 2005, 2009, 2010 and 2015.

Also Read: The Best Food and Wine Pairings: Which wine goes well with which dish?

A Fine Romance: Candles and wine come hand in hand for Ian Carroll through his two successful shops in Central

Ian Carroll laughs when asked about the similarities between his two seemingly unrelated but highly successful enterprises – Carroll&Chan, a purveyor of candles, and Soho Wines & Spirits. After some reflection, he says: “Candles and wine – romance, what else?”

In reality, there were different reasons for the inception of these companies. Having arrived in Hong Kong in 1999 with his wife, Liana, who was posted to the territory with the European Union diplomatic mission, Carroll needed a visa to extend his stay and so decided to set up a business. His wife had noticed there were few places to buy candles and suggested opening a candle shop. The Candle Company was launched in Central in 2002.

Carroll had already succeeded in various entrepreneurial ventures. Born in Dublin, the amiable Irishman’s early business activities involved buying and selling various goods. During a buying trip to Hong Kong in the mid-’80s, he was blown away by the dizzying spectacle of traders and hawkers in Nathan Road selling watches and myriad electronic products and knew one day he would return.

Booking ahead

His first major business success came during his time in Brussels, where Liana worked at the European Commission. Establishing one of the first online hotel reservation websites, he benefitted immensely from first-mover advantage and an element of good fortune.

Speaking from the Carroll&Chan candle store in Lyndhurst Terrace, he says, “I was lucky because I got an agreement with a couple of people in big hotel groups, and one of them had a hotel in Havana. Americans could not book Cuban hotels in America at the time, and because my website was European, I used to get Americans booking trips to Havana regularly.”

He also struck gold with a hotel on the top of Machu Picchu.

Perseverance pays

He sold this business after moving to Hong Kong. The candle shop also proved a huge success almost from the outset, though it was not without its early teething problem. Initially, it was challenging to get anyone to supply to his embryonic enterprise.

Using a phone book, he literally turned up at companies in Kowloon and the New Territories that claimed to be candle manufacturers. No one wanted to know when they discovered he was selling the candles for the Hong Kong market. Then, finally, one supplier asked him if he was selling to the US market. “I said yes. They said – come in!” he recounts.

Carroll later owned up to the lie, but the supplier still agreed to honour the deal and a 20-foot container lorry soon arrived outside the store’s original Lyndhurst Terrace address. Having no staff at the time, he started unloading the 100 boxes from the container himself whereupon the police showed up and told him to remove the vehicle as it was obstructing the street. The lorry driver drove off and they ended up unloading the candles at a factory in the New Territories – not exactly the most convenient location for his fledgling shop.

Hive of activity

Business boomed during the store’s first Christmas and as the years passed, he noticed customers were increasingly asking about the adverse effects of burning paraffin. In 2017, he decided to create his own candle brand, Carroll&Chan, with a focus on natural and environmentally friendly products.

Now all his candles are made from beeswax. “Beeswax is the only wax that is not actually made in a factory,” he says. “It is not processed; it is made by bees in the beehive. The beeswax is melted and made into a candle.

“It is a natural product; it does not create soot when it burns. It burns brighter because it has a higher melting point, and because of the structure of the wax it burns longer, too.”

Carroll enjoys educating people about environmental matters and highlights the fact that his fragrances are approved by the International Fragrance Association.

He stresses how harmful other candles made in factories are to the environment: “The forests of Malaysia or the jungles of South America are burned down to grow oil palm trees or grow soy beans. For soy wax candles, the beans are taken to factories and mixed with chemicals and made into wax.”

Asia affinity

All of Carroll’s candles and most of his other products are made in a small workshop in Kwai Fong, though some are produced in the Netherlands for the European market.

Carroll&Chan has a shop in Amsterdam and there are plans to expand to the China and US markets. Carroll&Chan fragrances and reed diffusers are inspired by the scents of Asia. The reeds are made from rattan, a natural product, and the oil flows up via the reeds and diffuses into the air. “They offer a flame-free experience of lemon grass or lavender or whatever scent you want,” he says.

“Another important thing about the brand is that it is an Asian brand and inspired by Asia. Asia is home to so many beautifully fragrant flowers and spices.”

The ‘Chan’ part of the brand name comes from the birth surnames of the Carrolls’ two children, who were adopted in Hong Kong.

He is particularly fond of the scent of sampaguita, the national flower of the Philippines. “It is a form of jasmine and produces an amazing smell,” he notes.

Another favourite flower is white michelia, a type of magnolia cultivated in Southeast Asia. “I thought that would be a fantastic scent and we should start it, so I got a French perfume company to take that flower and develop a fragrance. It is very popular.”

Wine growth

Carroll’s wine business, which also dates back to 2002, grew out of a grocery store that had formed part of a deal to buy out a candle company in Staunton Street. Initially, he wanted to dispense with the grocery store but saw the opportunity to develop a wine business when he noticed customers were coming in for the wine.

At the time there were few wine merchants in Hong Kong and it was not considered an attractive business. “It wasn’t difficult, but there was licensing and all sorts of paperwork required,” he says.

In 2008, the government abolished the duty on imported liquor with an alcohol content under 30%. “So suddenly you could import wine, Martini [Bianco and Rosso], Baileys [Irish Cream]and beer without any paperwork. All you needed was an invoice. Everybody, I think, in Hong Kong who went to Spain, Italy or Portugal became a wine importer,” he recalls.

Running two successful enterprises is time-consuming, so Carroll recently brought in a local business partner, who mostly handles the wine store. Soho Wines & Spirits is handily located near the Central-Mid-levels escalator and stocks a carefully curated selection of wine. He does not claim to be a wine expert – at first he imported wines that were inappropriate for the Hong Kong market. Now he has the good judgment to let others make the decisions.

Photographer: Jack Law Art Direction: Joseff Musa Fashion Stylist: Jhoshwa Ledesma Videographer: Jack Fontanilla Hair & Make Up: Heti Tsang Venue: Carroll&Chan

Hailing The Cab: The big, bold style of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has gripped the wine world

Cabernet is the variety that put California on the international wine map. It is also the single most widely planted wine grape in Napa Valley and, indeed, around the world. There are more than 450 wineries in Napa, a valley that is 30 miles (48km) long and five miles (8km) across at its widest point.

But Cab is also a team player. It is the lead grape in nearly all Bordeaux-style blends from Napa. And as long as 75% of the grapes in the bottle are Cabernet Sauvignon the wine label may read Cabernet, although many Napa vintners prefer to label a Bordeaux blend as a ‘Meritage’ or a red blend. At last month’s Collective Napa Valley Together Again Weekend, an auction that raised US$3.8 million (HK$29.8 million) for local charities, I visited one of Napa’s noted wineries, Alpha Omega, for an al-fresco lunch hosted by owners Robin and Michelle Baggett.

Alpha Omega appetite

The scenic winery is located in the prime Rutherford sub-appellation of the larger Napa AVA (American Viticultural Area) and was founded by the Baggetts in 2006.

Highlighting Alpha Omega’s barrel during fermentation program, winemaker Matt Brain during lunch uncorked the 2018 ERA Barrel Select Reserve, a limited production of 900 cases. We also savoured the 2012 AOX Barrel Select, another limited-production wine available through the winery’s allocation list. “These are barrels that speak to me,” notes Brain. Expressing remarkable texture and density, the AOX was a delicious pairing with the dessert of rich, dense chocolate block cake.Alpha Omega has made its mark with Cabernets that reflect Napa’s powerful, full-fruit style. Brain is bringing his own touch, though. “Definitely I want to continue the fantastic wines that put us on the map, but the difference is to subtly start to layer in my own personal beliefs, to bring in a little bit more balance, more complexity of the vineyard,” he says.

To that extent, he brings what he calls multiple picks and intentionally assigned cooperage. “I’ve actually been going to vineyards and doing two picks [of grapes] – one smaller, just a little bit earlier in season, and blending it back for a little bit of herb, spices and terroir expression to the wine.” He works closely with individual coopers for custom-made French oak barrels to help enhance the wine’s flavour profile. “If you play in the playground of ripe Napa Cabs, you run the risk of losing individuality,” he opines.

Brain is a big proponent of barrel fermentation in a warm room. “It speeds up the fermentation process and we get really good concentration,” he says.

Winemakers for a day

Before lunch, Brain led a blending session in the winery for a small group, offering the barrel samples of 2022 Cabernets from four different vineyards: two wines with tension and complexity, and two that were hedonistic and rich. While a few of the novice winemakers gravitated towards the leaner wines, most went for the riper, richer rewards reaped from Tench vineyard on Atlas Peak. Brain also offered Malbec and Petit Verdot for blending “to see how blenders shaped the Cabernet”.

As for the Omega Alpha 2022 Cabernet, which made the top 10 list of lots at the weekend’s barrel auction, Brain states: “It’s a great vintage – approachable and lighter in tannins.”