They come fresh or frozen, battered or plain, by the dozen or by the kilogram. There are canned ones, pickled ones, plain ones and spicy ones. In every other regard, you could be browsing supermarket shelves anywhere in the world – but the abundance of chicken feet is the giveaway that you’re in Asia.
Stroll over to the wine department, and you’re on more familiar ground. All the top brands are on sale – the Creeks, the Crimes, the Crests – alongside other familiar names from around the world. Here in Singapore, they even stock own-brand bottles from British supermarkets: Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Rioja, Tesco Finest Soave, M&S Classics Zinfandel. It goes without saying that these are the classic matches for battered, pickled and spicy chicken feet, respectively.
At the opposite end of the scale, Singapore’s fine wine merchants and Michelin-starred restaurants boast lists of Bordeaux, Burgundy and beyond that are every bit as comprehensive and extravagant as those of any big city in the world. The same is true – less predictably, perhaps – when it comes to the more niche novelties on which the hipper enclaves of cities like London pride themselves. The incredible diversity of wine available here – from top-shelf clarets, to unexpected obscurities – is a natural reflection of Singapore’s entrepot position. In fact, there are far more similarities than differences between the wine scenes of Singapore and London – or New York, for that matter – as I have found since relocating here from the UK three years ago.
This year, the arrival in the city of the latest branch of wine lovers’ members club 67 Pall Mall – for which I work as head of wine, Asia – celebrates that diversity and takes it even further. With a list of 5,000 wines by the bottle and 1,000 by the glass, there is, as you would expect me to say, something on offer for all palates. But creating such a list was no mean feat, relying on three key factors: procurement, popularity and pairings. And while wine lovers here are motivated by the same forces as at the club’s original London site, each of these factors comes with its own local inflection.
Just as in the London club, the challenge in Singapore lies not in finding enough wines to include but in choosing which to exclude. There are around 400 wine importers here, with licences reasonably easy to obtain. But with high duty costs (around S$9, or £5, per bottle), as well as expensive overheads for warehousing, wine doesn’t come cheap.
That doesn’t restrict choice, however. Every possible flavour of fine wine is readily available: verticals of the holiest Burgundy grands crus, fabled California icons, anthologies of Super-Tuscans… I once visited a warehouse containing literal pallet-loads of Sassicaia, stretching off to vanishing point, all in original wooden cases. They weren’t even for sale, just quietly maturing until reaching their peak of drinkability – and price.
Sourcing fine wine, therefore, is simply a matter of picking the best bottles to provide maximum choice. With so many mature wines on the market, there is no need to buy young vintages. Caution must be exercised around fakes, however. That means never buying from auction, identifying the most trustworthy suppliers and working with authentication experts on our most valuable bottles. Consequently, the club wine list boasts all the most famous names, as well as plenty of options at more affordable levels from undiscovered châteaux, overlooked appellations and misjudged vintages.
Beyond the classics, though, Singapore has specialist importers of wine from many small regions. Very often, these are run by part-time enthusiasts from the country in question, eager to share the wines of their motherland in their adopted home. There is every curiosity you can think of, be it autochthonous varieties such as Pošip from the Croatian island of Korčula, unexpectedly vibrant Syrah from the Swiss canton of Valais, or any number of world-class sparkling wines from the southern half of England.
Burgundy reigns supreme, but the best-informed Singaporean wine drinkers are open-minded and open-mouthed for more niche wines
Even in mainstream countries, the viticultural fringes are well represented. From Spain, there are trendsetting wines from the Canary Islands, their esoteric and powerful flavours popular with sommeliers. Natural wines from Italy, Australia, Georgia and France abound – so much so that Singapore boasts several well-established bars and shops dedicated to the cause. Even the most (unfairly) unfashionable wines such as vintage Madeiras and VORS Sherries are readily available.
Whether it is driven by passion or profit, Singapore’s wine scene offers an embarrassment of riches.
Having lots of different wines available doesn’t mean they will sell themselves, of course. For that, 67 Pall Mall has a team of 15 sommeliers who are on hand to advise – but there also needs to be an understanding of the most popular styles among the clientele.
It’s true that Burgundy reigns supreme, and the top tier of Singaporean wine drinkers has an insatiable thirst for what are quite rightly revered as the most sublime wines of the type. Bordeaux is perennially popular, too, although it is not as hyped as it was across Asia ten years ago. The bubble may not have burst, exactly, but it has certainly deflated.
So far, so normal: the same consumption habits dominate wherever fine wine is found. But it’s not just about lusting after cult classics and posting #DRC #Blessed humble brags on Instagram. The best-informed drinkers in Singapore are open-minded and open-mouthed for niche wines such as those detailed above – partly because such wines are valid and interesting in themselves, and partly because they are enthusiastically promoted by their advocates.
Singapore has some other local particularities. Rosé is a largely ignored category, which is perhaps counterintuitive for the year-round tropical climate; whereas rich, potent Amarone is an unexpectedly popular niche. The reasons for these quirks are not easily explained. It could be that the ripeness of Amarone – especially those with some residual sugar – is a preferred match with flavoursome and spicy Asian cuisine, although there is little evidence to support this. By comparison, the most obvious candidates (to a Western palate, at least) to pair with such cuisine – aromatic, non-dry whites such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer – are conspicuous by their absence. And that brings us to the arcane art of food and wine pairing.
Just as the wine list at 67 Pall Mall represents the diversity of wine available, so the food menu also shows a cross-section of cultures. There are European classics such as tarte flambée, arancini, pâté en croute and even the famous Scotch egg, as well as plenty of Asian flavours.
These come together in fusion dishes, exemplified by 67’s signature bang bang burrata, which has a dressing of black vinegar, ginger, Sichuan pepper and crushed peanuts. Conventional thinking would suggest the likes of a Riesling Kabinett or Vouvray demi-sec to match. While they are readily available, they are rarely, if ever, the bottle of choice. In the first weeks of the club’s operation, I variously saw it washed down with Leflaive Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet, Nyetimber Classic Cuvée and Two Paddocks Pinot Noir – and they all got on famously. Wine and food pairing is, of course, an entirely subjective exercise, so there is plenty of scope for experimentation. However, one golden rule at 67 Pall Mall is to tone down the chilli heat, which can otherwise easily kill off wine.
The sophistication of Singapore’s wine scene – much like those of Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo and other major Asian destinations – is every bit as developed as any global city. Any of those locations could host 67 Pall Mall, but Singapore was particularly well primed. It is less overcrowded than Hong Kong but with the same international connections – and, crucially, a much more stable outlook. Ultimately, though, while the context may be different, the understanding and appreciation of wine, in all its glory, is much the same wherever you are in the world.