Hong Kong is in the throes of a love affair with wine, and a Vancouver native is helping to fuel the passion.

Lysanne Tusar opened Hong Kong's first winery, the 8th Estate Winery, one year ago this month.

Tusar doesn't cultivate grapes there; the city is too humid and too dense for that.

Instead, she works with a master vintner to select grapes from abroad. So far, they've tapped vineyards in Washington State and Italy. Australia could be next.

The grapes are harvested and then frozen -- a process called flash freezing -- and shipped to Hong Kong where they're thawed, then aged and blended at the company headquarters, located on the third floor of an industrial building.

Tusar, 29, whose background is in marketing but who has always had a personal interest in wine, told ctvbc.ca via email that she was drawn to Hong Kong because of the growth potential.

"The more I expanded on the idea, the more evident it became that this was the right time and place to start this business," she said.

"It was something I just couldn't ignore."

Tusar's father, Denis, a wine connoisseur who has traveled extensively in Hong Kong, said Hong Kong residents have historically been big Cognac drinkers.

But in recent years, the culture has shifted to wine.

"The people in Hong Kong are very sophisticated, have very good palates, and expect the best," he said.

Expanding client list

The winery houses 350 oak barrels and aims to produce 100,000 bottles of wine each year.

According to the company's website, only a handful of white, red and dessert wines are offered at the moment. They include Gewurtztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Shiraz.

The majority of sales are out the cellar door, Tusar said. But many restaurants, hotels and retailers are starting to supply her wines, including the Kowloon Shangri-La Hotel.

Tusar insists that the freezing process happens so quickly, and the freezing technology has come such a long way, that the quality of the grapes is not compromised.

"In certain cases, the freezing process has actually enhanced the quality by activating the colour transfer and creating a deeper, richer colour and taste to the wines," she said.

Sandy Oldsfield, winemaker at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in Oliver, B.C., agreed that from a scientific standpoint, there really shouldn't be any difference between grapes that are shipped straight to production versus those that are frozen.

"From a quality perspective, I wouldn't see a massive difference," she said.

Oldsfield added that she understands why Tusar was drawn to Hong Kong. The wine market in Asia is booming, she said.

"They're hungry for wines from around the world."

According to data from the B.C. Wine Institute, the top 10 destinations for B.C. wine exports include China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Major wine hub

The Hong Kong government appears eager to transform the city into a major wine trading and distribution hub.

Last year, Hong Kong eliminated all wine duties.

The city's tourism board is promoting 2009 as a "Food & Wine Year."

In a speech this week at a wine industry conference, Yvonne Choi, the permanent secretary for commerce and economic development, announced that the University of Hong Kong's School of Professional and Continuing Education has signed a partnership agreement with the Bordeaux Wine School for a wine MBA course.

Choi said wine trading and distribution business grew 42 percent in the first eight months of this year compared to the same period last year.

And, she said, Hong Kong is poised to overtake London as the world's second largest wine auction centre after New York.

Barry Macdonald, director of the Hong Kong-Canada Business Association Vancouver, told ctvbc.ca that there's also a big push right now in Hong Kong to sell wine to mainland China.

The burgeoning wine industry has not gone unnoticed by international media. In the just last few weeks, Tusar has been cited in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Fodor's travel blog, and on CNN.

"The wine industry is growing so much here and people are getting really interested and involved with wine," Tusar said. "The patriotism is strong, too, with many people wanting to support a local product."