Winemaking in Hong Kong sounds about as improbable as growing potatoes on Mars. But, like Mark Watney, the astronaut played by Matt Damon in Hollywood blockbuster The Martian, Eddie McDougall has made the seemingly impossible happen, releasing four locally made wines under the label The Urban Project. One of them, Sampan, was awarded first runner-up in the Old World Red Wine Below HK$100 category in this year’s Restaurant Bar Hong Kong House Wine Awards.
McDougall, who calls himself The Flying Winemaker, has made wines all over the world.
“I started learning how to make wine when I was 19, in Australia,” he says. “I haven’t stopped since.”
Having worked in King Valley and Margaret River, in Australia, and Languedoc, in France, he came Hong Kong when an opportunity arose.
“I rebuilt [local winery] The 8th Estate after taking over from the Italian winemaker in 2009,” he says. “I made all the wines for the company and at the same time was able to produce the wines for The Urban Project.
“The 8th Estate is no longer in operation, which is really sad, as it was a great concept facility in which to make wines and a destination for people to visit a working winery.”
Since 2008, when the duty on bottles imported into Hong Kong was removed, it hasn’t made financial sense to make wine in the city. However, “the chance to make wine in Hong Kong was more about satisfying my curiosity whilst at the same time upholding my philosophy of trying something new,” says McDougall, who ships in frozen grapes.
“Following the harvest, the grapes are sent to a local winery where they are packed into 220-litre food-grade drums, which are then transported to a flash-freezing facility. In a matter of minutes, you can have 40 tonnes of frozen grapes unharmed and with all the freshness preserved,” he says. “Once the harvest is complete, I load it up into a reefer container, which is held at minus-18 degrees Celsius. It takes around two to four weeks to arrive in Hong Kong, where we carefully unload the grapes and thaw them out in the winery’s controlled ambient temperature.”
For his four Hong Kong-made wines released since 2014, McDougall used grapes from Entre-Deux-Mers, in Bordeaux, France; the American state of Washington; and McLaren Vale, in Australia.
“We have to ship everything over from different countries and there are no boundaries as to where I can produce wines from – in essence, the world is my vineyard,” he says. “The most challenging thing is convincing people that locally made beverages are good quality. The notion of everything having to be imported to our shores should be a thing of the past.
“Ask any Michelin-rated chef who has to bring meat or seafood from overseas – as long as you preserve the ingredients well and utilise transportation technology, [the creation of a product locally] can be easily done.”
Although operations in the 2,200 sq ft Ap Lei Chau winemaking facility are currently on hold, while investment is sought, McDougall sees a lot of potential in The Urban Project.
When the next vintage is in production, it’ll be “a cool experience concept that […] visitors could visit while enjoying some food and wine,” he says.
The Urban Project wines are available at restaurants such as Yee Tung Heen, Sole Mio, Classified, Chachawan, 22 Ships, Blue – Butcher Meat Specialist, and retailers City’super, Liquor Land and flyingwinemaker.hk.