VISITING PORTRAIT WINERY, in a factory building on an ordinary street in the industrial area of Tsuen Wan, is an extraordinary experience. From standing on a busy main road, you’re suddenly in a cool, candlelit wine cellar. In the adjacent room are vats of wine and an enormous vodka still. Then there are the amazing taste experiences – from the juices to be fermented, to the wines, to the pear brandy and fruit vodkas. It’s a Willy Wonka factory of wine.
It’s also the first winery to release world-class wines and spirits made in Hong Kong. Here, Canadian owner Steve Jaray transforms must (freshly pressed grape juice including the skins, seeds and stems) from his vineyards in the US, New Zealand and Australia into award-winning wines – among them a highly accessible Sauvignon Blanc, a much-lauded Syrah rosé, three Grand Reserve single-varietal reds and a Riesling that won Best Ice Wine at this year’s China Wine Awards. Talking to Jaray, it’s hard not to get carried along by his passion for and knowledge about winegrowing. More importantly, as he says, “The wines are yummy.”
How do small-batch wines differ from wines produced on an industrial scale?
Everything we do, we do with a view to maximising the benefit of the wine. The temperature, the way the corks are inserted, the way the bottles are designed, the colour of the glass. The sad part of that is, in today’s society, it’s expensive to do that. The vast majority of wines are made in vats that are 10 times the size of ours. You can’t punch down with big tanks; the size of our tanks enables us to push the cap down and circulate the wines through, so that it’s done gently.
When you have a big, 10,000-litre tank that’s fermenting, the cap gets to be so solid – the cap’s the seeds and the skins – that you can walk on it. The only way to keep that wet is to pump the wines over. Well, that’s extremely hard on the wines; wine is a long-chain molecule: you put it through a centrifugal pump and you break down the wine, you change the flavour – and not for the better. We’ve developed a simple device – it’s a little plunger – and we stand at the top of these bins, we open the hatches up and we simply push down. We break the cap up and mix it by hand – and it’s gentle; it causes a lot of air and frothing. And it’s a beautiful way to make wine.
But what made you decide: “I want to make handcrafted wines”?
It was never something we wanted to do otherwise. All wine starts with the basic principles of making wine. The technology that takes on higher production, it’s a decision that makes itself. I didn’t decide, I’m going to make handcrafted wines; I just decided, I’m going to make wine and I’m not going to make it in the industrial way.
We want to make it with a true view in mind to preserving the flavours of the grape, and with a true view in mind to making these for a particular palate – the Asian palate: balanced, fruit forward. We’re going to ferment for a long time; we’re going to ferment them cold; we’re not in a hurry. Again, big production: Isn’t it great that you can ferment wines in four to five days? Boom! Slam them into wood; they’re in wood for two months; throw them into a bottle and away you go. Well, that doesn’t extract the flavour from the skins. Each one of our tanks is individually temperature controlled, so we can pull from that ferment the time and effort we want to pull, and that’s why these flavours are so predominant.
What do you see as the most important trends in wine in Asia?
The millennial marketplace is waking up to wines – the 25- to 35-year-old millennials. It’s no longer guys like me who are buying expensive collector’s wines – that’s always going to be a market, don’t mistake me. But the trend is to get into wines that are mid range, wines that are crisp and clean and approachable and organic-like – there are no chemicals per se – wines that are legitimate, wines that are fruit forward. When you think about the economics of having a cellar, it makes no sense – and that’s influencing the trend. If you buy a wine and you put it down, you run the risk that in five years it’s gone off or it’s corked or something. If there’s a trend, it’s quality and value coming together.
Who are your main clients?
More than half of our business is with the mainland, and growing exponentially – everyone form hotels to auto clubs, karaokes, wine clubs, social clubs. In Hong Kong, JW Marriott Hotels is a great partner of ours, as well as Mandarin Oriental, the Hong Kong Cricket Club, the American Club. Mark Conklin, general manager of the Marriott Hong Kong, loves our wines: he thinks our Reserve Cabernet is the best Cabernet they’ve had in the hotels for 15 years – his words.
At the winery I started tasting your wines from noon, and felt fine afterwards. Normally two glasses at lunch would give me a headache. Is the difference to do with additives?
Let me explain what happens. When you bottle wine, you have what’s called a headspace. If you put SO2 [sulphur dioxide] in there, you now preserve the wine. It’s a neutral gas – it has no effect on the wine at all. But a by-product of SO2 is sulphites that do entrain into the wine. Why do people use SO2? It’s extremely affordable, it’s extremely easy to use. We don’t use that. We use nitrogen. Nitrogen is logarithmically more expensive. And only small boutique wineries like mine have the ability to use it.
The other thing is tartaric acid – evidence of which is the little shiny crystals you’ll sometimes find on the bottom of a wine cork. That’s a product of highly produced wine where there’s no cold stabilisation. We take all of our wines down to two degrees for two or three weeks. Super-cold; the tanks are covered with ice almost. And what that does is it congeals the enzymes and the fat, and it settles it to the bottom, and we take that away, and then we take the wine off. If you don’t do that, tartaric acid, which gives huge headaches, stays in the wine.
What’s the most interesting experience you’ve had doing business in this part of the world?
You know, everybody loves our pear brandy. Well, what comes out of the still is very high in alcohol – about 80 percent. We then take that pear alcohol and we put it on pears, and then we double-distil it – and that’s what gives it a little bit of sugar, a little bit of sweetness…That’s how we make our vodka. It has a natural dilution to about 76 percent. Well, a large baijiu-and-wine distributor from Yunnan province tasted our product, which is beautiful at 40-percent alcohol. “It’s not strong enough,” he said. That’s when we said, as a joke, “Come and taste this” – and he didn’t think it was a joke at all. He ordered 1,000 cases or something of this very, very, very expensive alcohol, at 76 percent. He loved it.
TEXT / MADELEINE FITZPATRICK
PORTRAIT / UNTIL CHAN