Singapore: Southeast Asia's wealthiest market

Singapore is strong, stable and full of millionaires. Debra Meiburg MW maps the island city-state's wine market.

Singapore (Timo Wagner for Unsplash)
Singapore (Timo Wagner for Unsplash)

From crazy rich nationals to value-seeking expatriates, Singapore’s wine market is flush with cash. A major exporter with a population of less than 5.8m people, Singapore has one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world, at $64,000. About 90% of Singapore’s food and related items were imported in 2016. Annual domestic wine consumption is about two litres per person.

Despite high end-user costs, Singapore’s wine market endures. There are ‘sin’ taxes on alcohol, compounded by layers of supply chain expenses, and topped off with high on-trade mark-ups resulting from expensive overheads. Players are up against the tightest of trade margins. But Singapore is a comfortable market in which to do business, with a stable government, an open, growing economy, and an affluent target market.

View from the top

The Singapore wine market was valued at more than $1b in 2016 and is forecast to grow to $1.4b by 2021. Strong economic growth has boosted domestic spending; Singapore has the highest concentration of millionaires in Asia. Wealthy collectors, who are primarily ethnic Chinese, amass big name Bordeaux like blue chip stocks.
Lately though, some high-end Bordeaux has become too expensive for even this group, observes Kate Tan, general manager and executive director of wine importer Grand Vin. She sees growing appetite for better value wines, particularly from Burgundy. “Producers like Domaine Faiveley and Remoissenet Père & Fils are able to hold prices steady, whereas many Burgundy houses have limited bottlings that inevitably force prices upwards.” Tan says the Singapore climate screams out for Burgundy’s elegant wine styles. “Asia has built up an insatiable appetite for Burgundies because Pinot Noir pairs so well with delicate Cantonese cuisine.” White wine is still on the fringe. “Despite 365 days of summer, Singaporeans still prefer red wines.” 

Bordeaux and Burgundy are Berry Brothers & Rudd’s (BB&R) bestsellers, but regional private client sales manager George Lacey says there is some willingness to try new things. The British-based merchant has more than 300 SKUs in Singapore. “History and brand name inevitably drive buying decisions, but Singaporeans are very forward thinking,” says Lacey. Five years ago, BB&R Singapore’s Burgundy list exceeded its Bordeaux list, something not seen anywhere else in the world at the time. BB&R opened its first dedicated tasting room and wine school in Singapore’s Chinatown in 2014 and predicts 50% of global revenue will come from its fast-growing Singapore and international offices.

While French is favoured, other countries also benefit from the market’s steady growth. “Italy is experiencing a boom, especially Barolo, Brunello and Super Tuscans. Buyers are also looking for quirky varieties from Etna and Sicily,” says Lacey. 

To capitalise on this upswing, the Italian Wine Agency held its first-ever Borsa Vini Italiani in Singapore late last year. Gambero Rosso has been hosting its Top Italian Wines Roadshow in the city since 2014, while international wines are the showcase at The Wine Advocate’s Matter of Taste, held at the Regent.

Italian, French and Spanish wine producers consider Singapore an exciting prospect, with around half choosing it as their emerging market of choice. Western Australia’s Margaret River region is aggressively pursuing growth in Singapore, too. 

Lacey believes auctions are an underexploited space. Singapore has access to South-east Asia and excellent logistics expertise, making it the ideal hub for re-export to nearby markets. Lacey predicts private collectors in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos, China and Korea will form a major part of Singapore’s growth, as provenance is not as readily assured in their home markets.

Bright young things

Chief executive officer of local merchant Bordeaux Liquid Gold (BLG), Julian Poh, is counting on a new generation of enthusiasts to invigorate the city’s wine scene. “Singapore’s younger generation aged 25 to 35 has huge spending power,” he says. “We do events with banks for their employees and high-end clientele. There is a lot of demand for tasting classes and food pairing courses from this curious group.” Young financiers are one of Singapore’s most lucrative target markets. 

BLG specialises in sales and wholesale of en primeur and older vintages of Rothschild Estate and other premium wines. BLG’s clients spend S$300 ($217) per bottle, compared to the retail average of S$30-80. In addition, the merchant has about $56m worth of clients’ wine stored in Bordeaux City Bond, according to its website. 
Crystal Wines is one of Singapore’s leading importers. A major HoReCa supplier, Crystal also has a retail store in Singapore’s Valley Point neighbourhood and an e-commerce presence. 

Vinum Fine Wines is another major importer and wine merchant with bonded cellars in London and agency arrangements with Château Petrus, Château Trotanoy, Domaine Leroy, Domaine Dujac and Egon Muller. Vinum is the mother company of major restaurant group Les Amis, D&D wines (a joint venture with J&D Burleigh), and The Whisky Library.

Australia’s Treasury Wine Estates is a big player in volume terms. London-based merchants Corney & Barrow have also set up shop. Monopole delivers a strong international portfolio to HoReCa clients. Artisan Cellars’ portfolio features sustainable, organic and biodynamic wines. Food & Beverage International (FBI), an Italian specialist, imports 650 labels of Italian Estate produced wines for Singapore’s top Italian restaurants. Cellar Master serves the high-volume mass market.

The mid market

A healthy market of collectors is desirable, but a vibrant wine scene also needs a vigorous mid-market. Thankfully Singapore has enough thirsty expats (1.4m) who feel compelled to seek out deals from shopfront and online retailers. 

1885 The Bottleshop and Oaks Cellar are Singapore’s top premium retailers. Crystal Wines, Straits Wine and Wine Connection are big in the entry- to mid-level market. Consumers purchase everyday wines at major supermarkets Cold Storage, FairPrice and Marketplace.

Euromonitor International found that internet retail was the fastest growing off-trade channel for wine in Singapore in 2017. Online supermarket RedMart represents the height of convenience, selling groceries, homewares and alcohol. Vinomofo, an Australian-based e-commerce success story, was welcomed to Singapore in December 2016, receiving 25,000 orders in its first year, claims founder Justin Dry. Vinomofo and other online-only merchants deliver deals on small batch wines by side-stepping Singapore’s middlemen – the agents, importers and distributors who drive up logistics costs. “Singaporeans were paying way too much for wines for too long,” Dry told Singapore Business Review. 

Quintino Dellarosa, who launched Dellarosa Wine in November 2017 to offer Singaporeans affordable organic, biodynamic, natural wines, agrees. “An online shop helps cut most of the logistics costs, which normally burden the final price of a bottle.” 

Other players in Singapore’s e-commerce space include Millésima, The Vintage Club and Cru World Wine. The French Cellar offers a monthly online subscription service. Traditional retailers and high-end wine merchants which have expanded into e-commerce report mixed results, with a subdued response to online sales efforts.

On the wild side

In social Singapore, wine bars are a huge part of the wine trade. Park 90 at the Regent is popular with collectors, featuring hundreds of 90+ Robert Parker-point labels, with about 50 by-the-glass. The list is curated by young rising star and head sommelier Mason Ng and offers memberships with access to limited release wines not available on the list.

But Parker points aren’t the only pursuit in town. Grand Vin’s Kate Tan says wine bar patrons are openly curious and follow international trends. “Epicurean experiences are a national hobby!” she exclaims. “Recently there has been a movement on natural wine with the opening of Le Bon Funk and RVLT… Orange wine and natural wine can be easily found in the market.”.Grand steakhouse The Black Swan has natural wines on its list, as do Cheek Bistro and Gattopardo.

Atlas Bar in the grand lobby of the Parkview Square building is an homage to opulence, focusing on Champagne and gin. But one of the smallest among the city’s new wine bars, Le Quinze Vins (LQV) has one of the largest collections with 5,000 French wines. Boulevard gets swamped by the after-office crowd, as does Wine Connection.
Overseen by an award winning sommelier and president of the Sommelier Association of Singapore, Gerald Lu, the rustic Praelum in Duxton Hill is serious about wine. The historic shophouse has about 1,000 bottles in a walk-in cellar that are retrieved for Lu’s weekly-rotating wine list. Lu is wary of over-optimism about Singapore’s domestic sales, saying greater imports don’t necessarily equate to strong on-trade business, noting some high-end wines are purchased but not consumed here.  

Another eccentricity of Singapore is its high-end BYOB culture, where collectors bring their own trophy bottles to restaurants. That leaves expats to form the bulk of on-trade customers, insiders say. Despite their willingness to experiment, small, upcoming wine producers find Singapore a hard market to crack. While sommeliers and restaurateurs appreciate the value and quality of small wine producers, Lacey concedes “margins are everything”. High rent and costs mean many restaurants play it safe to meet their bottom lines. Another barrier to entry is market size. “With a small population already crowded with wine merchants it can be extremely competitive [difficult] for small producers to compete for business in major restaurants and hotels,” Lacey adds. 

Food and Beverage International’s Italy-based director, Dane Knight, says the restaurants he deals with are feeling the pinch from high costs. In his experience, it’s tough for small producers to break into the market. “The wines have to be well known,” he says.


Tan says the biggest influences on buying decisions are country and region, with France and Australia big winners. Budget is next, followed by reviews by international wine critics, then peer recommendations, then suggestions by salespeople. Casual drinkers head to retail store tastings to try new wines before buying. 

Among collectors, Lim Hwee Peng is a respected wine judge and educator who delivers courses by the French Wine Scholarship program and other international certifiers. Singapore’s first Master of Wine, Tan Ying Hsien MW, teaches classes and hosts wine tastings through his Taberna Wine Academy. Veteran wine writer, publisher and blogger Poh Tiong Ch’ng runs events for private collectors and has extensive connections in Bordeaux and Champagne. Meanwhile, the Insta-crowd looks to Johan Poell (@pulignyfirst).

When all is said and done, Singapore’s growth is gradual and safety and stability are hallmarks of doing business.  

Debra Meiburg MW

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