Two wine dinners in two different cities, six months apart and both with a focus on premium wines. The first is organised by distributor Daloc at the Park Hyatt in Saigon. They have brought in the owner of a grand cru from Bordeaux, Henri Lurton, and together with a four-course dinner at the Hyatt’s Square One, we get to sample three vintages of Chateau Brane Cantenac, the oldest from 1995. The wines cost hundreds of dollars a bottle. It is a treat.
The second wine dinner has a different flavour. Instead of Bordeaux reds we are sampling top-end Australian wines, a new world flavour hosted by Jackson’s steakhouse in Hanoi. Distributed by The Warehouse, on the table are wines by Jansz, Giaconda, Yalumba, John Duval, Henschke and Rockford. The price point for some of these hits the VND4 million or VND5 million realm and once again, there is a real element of pleasure to tasting such great wines. It is an extravagance, an extravagance we are told that in these times few of us can afford.
Hard Done By?
Yet the fact that both these events are happening during a period of relative economic hardship says much. In the west the bottom has largely dropped out of the market for premium wines — you only need to look at the well-documented travails of Australian vineyards to see the effects of the global downturn. So the producers are instead turning their attentions to Asia, whose economies have largely escaped the cycle of borrowing, bankruptcy and unpayable debt. Here there is a strong market for premium products, so strong in fact that many of the grand cru producers have turned their attention to China and the countries in its vicinity.
Henri Lurton concurs. “We have never seen such an explosion of exports globally,” he explains. “The demand in China for some labels has been phenomenal. It’s a new market for wine. There are some people who know what they like. But there are more who only know price.”
And indeed price is part of the reason for the popularity. The need to spend on top-end products is part of an Asian desire to live ‘the luxury lifestyle’ — the more expensive, so the theory goes, the better the quality. It’s a trend that Vietnam has taken on in equal proportions.
Bring Your Own
Yet as many a restaurateur will attest, testing times have led to a change in spending habits, particularly on the dining front. Bien Nguyen, the man behind Xu in Saigon, and part of the management team of 1911 in Hanoi, saw 2012 as “a medium to cheap market for wines”. It is, he says, a reflection of the subdued economy.
Yet, when there is “corporate entertaining and special occasions put on by the wealthy socialites, we see the Crystals and grand cru come out.”
He adds: “These people with money are always looking for value. They have great wine at home. So they’ll most likely they will bring in their own wine and pay the corkage fee.”
With the economic slowdown in Vietnam, it may seem surprising that the market for top-end wines is still ticking along. Yet going premium is aspirational, and once you have a taste for the good stuff, it’s difficult to make a retreat. Instead the belt-tightening has come in a different form — bring your own. The VND300,000 to VND400,000 paid in corkage amounts to a saving that is keeping the retail industry bubbling along, although what the restaurateurs who no longer make the huge mark-ups think about it, is another matter. — Nick Ross