Why new Soho wine bar ThinkWine doesn’t want to be “a place just for Frenchies”

by: Nik Addams
31 Oct 2019

Stepping into ThinkWine, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve intruded upon somebody’s living room. With its eclectic mix of vintage decor and intricate wallpapers adorned with oil paintings, there’s an immediate warmth to the space that almost makes you forget that you are, in fact, in the middle of Central – the new Soho salon is located in the brand-new, escalator-adjacent LL Tower (which is also home to Kinship). 

ThinkWine Hong Kong interior
ThinkWine's interior is full of personality.

What soon becomes clear is that the 2,300 sq ft space is very much an expression of French-born co-founders Romain Loriot and Jean-Benoît Isselé – from the art feature composed of over 1,100 wine and champagne bottle tops collected by Loriot and his family, to the frankly intimidating gold-framed collages of signed menus Isselé’s grandparents amassed from some of the most celebrated restaurants in France that reads as a veritable who’s who of 20th and 21st century French gastronomy. “We didn’t call a designer – we did basically everything ourselves,” Isselé tells us about the design. “We wanted both our personalities to reflect the place.”

The eclecticness of the venue also echoes in no small way the Odd Couple dynamic of Loriot and Isselé. This may seem like a lazy analogy, but it’s not entirely inappropriate. While the young Frenchmen are equally well credentialed on paper – Loriot has worked as a sommelier at no less than four Alain Ducasse restaurants around the world, while Isselé made his name in Hong Kong as head somm at Franztén’s Kitchen and, most recently, Belon – the straight-laced charm of Loriot is the perfect foil for the natural vivaciousness of the spectacularly moustachioed ‘JB’. And while they don’t play into their roles for the sake of it, they do know that their contrasting yet complementary skills are what make the partnership work - each brings something different to the wine rack, so to speak, from the design, to the wine list itself. 

ThinkWine's climate-controlled wine cellar can be hired out for private events.

The menu – a leather-bound tome of some heft – is a selection of nearly 600 wines (and around 1,400 bottles) showcasing a diversity of terroir, appellations and vintages. “We tasted more than 600 wines over the past few months,” Isselé tells us. “It was a real experience of sharing – debating, choosing, arguing sometimes. But Romain made me discover amazing wines that are more his style, and I helped him discover others that were more my style. This complementarity made us strong together.”  

ThinkWine Hong Kong menu
ThinkWine's menu includes old and new world selections, with some bottles dating as far back as 1974.

Curating the menu was ‘more the Romain part of the game,’ Isselé says. “We wanted to be different by introducing winemakers which are not yet or partially represented in Hong Kong.” This culminates in ThinkWine’s ‘chateau-to-table’ concept, which Loriot describes as ‘our commitment to bringing the best quality wines to your table, whether it’s [from] a young rising star winemaker, or a famous chateau or domaine’. In total, over 120 winemakers are represented on the menu, with highlights including an NV Nicolas Maillart Grand Cru Rosé (HK$930 per bottle), 2003 Chateau Musar (HK$980 per bottle) from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, 2017 Derey & Freres Gevrey-Chambertin (HK$680 per bottle) and a rare 1976 Pommard Premier Cru “Les Pézerolles” (HK$7,300 per bottle) from Burgundy.

ThinkWine cheese and jamon
ThinkWine's food menu features a curated selection of premium cheese and cold cuts, perfect for pairing.

Given Loriot and Isselé’s restaurant credentials, it should come as little surprise that the food at ThinkWine is more than just an afterthought – your glass can be paired with fine French cheeses, wild Iranian caviar, or even a homemade Araguani chocolate tart with smoked salt and vanilla homemade chantilly.

As for the name? “Because we think wine is the best drink ever, we decided to go for simplicity and make the city think about wine,” Isselé tells us. In a city perhaps better known for its cocktails, this decision makes a lot of sense – even if it wasn’t always the plan. “We thought about [the name] a lot and in the early stages we were going to go with a French name,” Isselé says. “But we realised that it won’t make sense, even if of course there is a big French community in Hong Kong – we didn’t want to be a place just for Frenchies. Romain and I have travelled a lot over our careers, which gave us the opportunity to open our minds.”

JB and Romain might have contrasting styles, but their respective credentials are equally impressive.

From the name to the living room vibes, the spirit of openness can be felt throughout ThinkWine. Says Isselé: “ThinkWine is about a spirit of conviviality, and we are open to everyone who likes wine, no matter their level of knowledge. We really want this place to be like a second home for wine lovers.”

ThinkWine, 2/F, LL Tower, 2 Shelley Street, Central, +852 2886 3121; Open daily from 3pm-2am.