|Shine Muscat grapes / gettyimagesbank
By Park Ji-won
HONG KONG ― Shine Muscat grapes ― developed in Japan ― are popular in Hong Kong. Despite their high price, the fruit is eaten for special occasions or given as a sign of respect.
Hongkongers' fascination with Japan and its produce helped it dominate the market for this fruit. But with an increasing number of producers from South Korea and China now offering high-quality grapes at better prices, the Shine Muscat market is changing.
For Fiona Mok, 29, an office worker in Hong Kong, eating Shine Muscat grapes was once reserved for special occasions ― bringing them as gifts when visiting a friend's home for a meal ― but now she enjoys them as an everyday fruit.
"My boyfriend bought me a bunch of Japanese Shine Muscat worth about HK$400 ($51) as a gift. But for me, they tasted similar to Chinese ones," she said. If it was up to her, she would choose the cheaper grapes, she added.
For price-conscious Hongkongers, Shine Muscat grapes' high price ― Japanese grapes can cost anywhere between HK$100 and HK$500 a bunch, while Korean varieties can go for up to HK$300 ― has been a hurdle. But cheaper Chinese Shine Muscat grapes, which cost HK$50 to HK$100 a bunch, are more affordable.
As a result, Chinese Shine Muscat grapes have been edging out their competitors in recent years.
According to Euromonitor data cited by the Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation (aT), grape consumption in Hong Kong increased every year on average between 2017 and 2020, but dropped by 16.6 percent in 2021. Another aT data set shows the volume of fresh grapes imported into Hong Kong fell from 240,798 tonnes in 2020 to 192,011 tonnes in 2021.
|Japanese Shine Muscat grapes are displayed in SOGO Hong Kong at Causeway Bay, Oct. 18. Korea Times photo by Park Ji-won
However, imports to Hong Kong of Shine Muscat grapes from South Korea and China have also grown.
Hong Kong imported 421 tonnes of fresh grapes from Korea in 2020 worth HK$49.9 million, and 567 tonnes worth HK$69.8 million in 2021.
At the same time, its imports of fresh grapes from China also rose, from 656 tonnes worth HK$9.5 million in 2020 to 896 tonnes worth HK$13 million in 2021.
China reportedly lacks the rights to sell Shine Muscat grapes to other countries, but is able to export them to Hong Kong as the market is categorized as domestic.
Kim Suk-ju, managing director of aT, says the consumption of Shine Muscat grapes in Hong Kong has been "growing over the last few years."
Industry insiders say that, even though the three countries grow the same variety, they taste different.
Kenneth Lee, CEO of fresh food importer Top Weal, who buys Shine Muscat grapes from all three countries, says that Korean and Japanese ones are "similar [in taste], and sweeter than Chinese ones."
For aroma, Korean Shine Muscat grapes have the edge, he says. "For texture and crispness, Japanese premium ones are the best," he says, citing in particular grapes from Okayama. Korean grapes rate between premium and normal for texture, he adds.
Chinese Shine Muscat grapes have thicker skin and "less aroma, sourness and sweetness," according to Lee.
|A Korea Shine Muscat Afternoon Tea set at the Hyatt Regency Hong Kong hotel on Sept. 29. Korea Times photo by Park Ji-won
While China is expanding its market share with its relatively cheap Shine Muscat grapes and Japan is trying to maintain its exports through established distribution networks, Korean exporters are targeting the middle and high end of the market to attract customers.
In September and October, aT joined hands with the Hyatt Regency Hong Kong hotel to introduce the Stay & Treat package, which included a Korean Shine Muscat afternoon tea set and a bunch of Korean Shine Muscat grapes.
The organization has also amped up advertising of Korean Shine Muscat grapes on Hong Kong trams this year.
"Japanese Shine Muscat grapes were already known to many. So we thought introducing Korean Shine Muscat grapes, which are new to Hong Kong customers, could give customers unique experiences," says Scarlett Chan, assistant manager for marketing and communications at the Hyatt Regency.
|Korean Shine Muscat grapes are advertised on a tram in Hong Kong. / Courtesy of Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation (aT)
Behind the story of the Shine Muscat war
The rights to sell the Shine Muscat grape overseas are supposed to be fully owned by Japan. The Shine Muscat was a variety developed by the Japanese National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in 1988, and it was registered as an official variety in Japan in 2006.
However, the Japanese organization missed the deadline to register the exclusive rights to sell Shine Muscat grapes in overseas markets, and to secure protected rights to the plant variety under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips). Those rights expire six years after the domestic registration of a plant variety if the rights owner doesn't file an application.
During this time, South Korea applied to register its Shine Muscat grape variety and was granted the rights to sell the grapes in 2012 without paying royalties.
It's not the first time something like this has happened. The Beni Haruka, a sweet potato variety developed in Japan, has been widely cultivated in South Korea after its developer also missed the deadline to register for the exclusive rights to sell it in overseas markets.
In 2021, Japan passed a law to restrict the overseas sales of seeds and seedlings. The law stipulates that to protect the intellectual property of a new breed, its developer can designate the countries to which it can be exported.
The government is reported to be considering telling developers of new plant varieties to limit cultivation to domestic growers.