Friday, 15 September 2017

China’s hidden secret

Those following the China wine industry for a while probably agree that it is going in the right direction.The outstanding wineries that are on everyone lips are Silver Heights, Helan Qingxue, Skyline, Chateau Nine Peaks, to name a few. And I’m glad to add another one on the list: Canaan Wine (迦南酒業) in Hebei. The only issue is that the wine is not commercially available ... yet.

Founded in 2009, Canaan Wine is a new project of Domaine Franco-Chinois, a Sino-French joint venture winery more focus on scientific research. It has 300 ha under vines on different altitudes: 500m for red varieties, 600m for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and 900m for aromatic white such as Sauvignon Blanc.

I was lucky to have visited the vineyard and winery with winemaker Zhao Desheng. The vineyard is meticulous and they have their own nursery. I was even more impressed with the winery. It is clean and well maintained but more importantly, there are small stainless steel tanks, the first time I saw in China wineries! Not only do small tanks allow experimentation, they also provide more flexibility so there won’t be half empty (or half full) tanks where wine is more prone to oxidation and spoilage. The barrel rooms are temperature control and there are a full bottling line and laboratory.

Desheng spoilt me with the tasting. The first was a 2016 Chardonnay barrel sample (100% new). It has intense spices and yellow fruits on the nose but the palate is fresh with good acidity and lingering length. It was a nice surprise and set the pace for the tasting. Next to follow were bottled Cabernet Sauvignon (2012, 2013, 2014), a 2012 Syrah Reserve and a 2012 Domaine Franco-Chino Reserve. The wines are of different styles but they are all integrated and exhibit a certain elegance.

I persuaded Desheng to give me some Pinot Noir. We tasted the 2015 tank sample which was vibrant, full of cherries and balanced. The 2013 in bottle was more restrained with developed bouquet of spices and pepper.

I thought this was a perfect end of the tasting and I was shown a botrytis Sauvignon Blanc. It has dried fruits and nuts aromas, a little volatile acidity and good acidity. I suddenly very envied Desheng’s job. He said the owner said the wine is not good enough to be released so he has to keep trying and has all the freedom to experiment. I didn’t visit too many wineries in China and Canaan Wine is one of the most un-Chinese winery I visited.

Canaan Wine certainly has ambition. They are developing a tasting room/visitor centre with catering facilities so they have all the intention to make the wine commercially available. Let’s hope we don’t need to wait for too long.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Burgundy undiscovered appellations

It was the annual Bourgogne Week in Hong Kong and this year the spokesperson was Anne Moreau, owner of Domaine Louis Moreau in Chablis. Anne shared a few insights at the tasting.

We all know that Burgundy is a very tiny region with a big name, but I was nevertheless surprised when Anne put it in figures: Burgundy produces only 0.5% of the word’s production but commands 3% of the trade. Even with that tiny volume, Burgundy is available in 177 countries out of 196 in the world, Albeit a lot is by allocation and in small volume, still it is impressive.

While China is a big potential market, it is a challenge for the Burgundians. Most consumers are still buying wine by labels and they generally prefer oaky red wine. For now, Anne said they are happy to let Bordeaux, with the quantity, marketing power and resources, to open up China and other new markets because consumers, once they start drinking, always move from Bordeaux to Burgundy, which is the destination. This echoed another Burgundy producer, Marco Caschera from Vincent Girardin, who we had lunch a couple of weeks ago. Judging by the fact that Hong Kong, a traditional Bordeaux stronghold and is now Burgundy’s fifth biggest market in terms of value, the statement certainly rings true.

Burgundy produces around 2/3 white and 1/3 red. But in Hong Kong, red Burgundy accounted for 76% of value, mostly from the village and above appellations of Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits. The relatively small share of white wine is also mainly from the better known and iconic AOC’s. Probably this is the reason why the theme of this year’s Bourgogne Week is ‘Bourgogne AOSs Undiscovered Treasures’ that focused on the lesser known regions such as Petit Chablis, Givry, Mercurey and Montagny in Côte Chalonnaise;  as well as Mâcon Davayé and Saint-Véran in Mâcon, not to mention the simple but refreshing Bourgogne Aligoté.

I think it is a positive sign that BIVB (Bourgogne Wine Board) is pushing these smaller names. The wines may not be as complex and long lasting as their big brothers but they are accessible, affordable and enjoyable. We cannot just merely focus on the top wines and shun the rest as this will only reinforce the ‘snobbish’ image of wine, misleading average consumers that wine must be expensive.

Back to the vintage, Anne said 2015 was good for both white and red with balanced fruits and freshness. There were a few 2015 white wines at the tasting but in general, I enjoyed the 2014 whites more, especially Chablis. I’m looking forward to tasting some 2015 red maybe next year.

Here are some of the ‘undiscovered treasures’ that I will be happily sharing:

White:
Domaine Barraud Pouilly-Fuissé Alliance Vergisson 2015, from Syba (China) Ltd
Domaine Denoît Ente Bourgogne Aligoté 2014, from Burgundy Wine Co Ltd
Domaine Fabien Coche Bourgogne 2015, from The Juicy Grape
Domaine Patrick Hudelot Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits, Les Plançons 2011, from Natural Food & Beverages
Domaine Piguet Chouet Monthélie Cuvée Clara 2014, from Vins & Vignerons
Domaine Vrignaud Chablis 1er Cru, Fourchaume 2015, from Montrose Fine Wines
Louis Moreau Chablis 2015, from Continental Wines
Olivier Leflaive Montagny 1er Cru, Les Bonneveaux 2015, from Corney & Barrow

Red:
Bruno Clair Masannay Les Vaudenelles 2013, from Altaya Wines
Domaine Fabien Coche Mersault 2014, from The Juicy Grape

Friday, 16 June 2017

Lunch with Maison Vincent Girardin

Marco Caschera, the Commercial Director of Maison Vincent Girardin, is quite a character. Probably because of his Italian origin (he was born in France but his parents are Italians), he talked non-stop during the very entertaining media lunch where he presented his still in barrel 2015 white Burgundy. He also made a few daring comments that made us laugh, probably upset some people but certainly have the ring of truth.

Marco called his white wine ‘no makeup’ Chardonnay because it is fine, elegant and precise. He admitted that in the beginning of 2000, Vincent Girardin wines were about strong extraction and new oak but had since backtracked. He said it is important that wine first has to show fruits and then terroir. New oak masks the soul of wine and they certainly do not want to make American wine in Burgundy!

Because of this philosophy, Marco compared wines from 2003, an exceptionally hot year in Burgundy, to dead babies, that the wine was good when young but ageing potential was limited, except for the very few wine with great terroir.

We also had a geology lesson from Marco on how hills were formed in Burgundy and soil eroded resulting in stony slopes with thin top soil and deep clay soil at the bottom of the hill. He said wines from stony parcels, like south Meursault, are more tense and elegant with pronounced minerality/saltiness, whereas wines from heavily clay soil, as in north Meursault, are round and supple. To emphasise his point, he further commented  that if a winemaker made a round and soft wine from a stony vineyard, it would be a failure in winemaking technique!

Back to his wines, 2015 was blessed with a farvourable growing season, having no disease and a cool harvest. All the six wines we tasted were certainly elegant with no makeup and terroir expressive. The outstanding ones are:

Meursault 1er Cru Les Perrières 2015: Perrières means stones and the site is considered as the Grand Cru of Merusault.

Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru 2015: Elegant and tense with minerality jumping out of the glass. According to Marco, the site has the poorest soil with only chalk hence the tight structure of the wine.

I asked Marco about what he thinks about New World wine, which is taking market share from the Old World. He was very relaxed and welcome the fact that New World wine in expanding the wine market. He said consumers drinking New World wine today will drink Burgundy one day. It is just like people drinking Bordeaux and now all drink Burgundy. Burgundy is the final destination that once wine lovers are there, they will not turn back. Well, I kind of agree but I will also certainly sneak out the back door of the Burgundian world and enjoy all the great New World wines! 😉

Vincent Girardin is available from Altaya Wines.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Another look at New Zealand Pinot Noir

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is a crowd pleaser but doesn’t really excite. To me, most Central Otago Pinot Noirs fall in the same category. They are pleasant, well-made but predictable. In contrast, Pinot Noir from Marlborough and Martinborough are more interesting.

I was proofed wrong at the New Zealand Pinot Noir SPIT Workshop, presented by Liam Steevenson MW and organised by Meiburg Wine Media. We tasted 12 wines from six different regions in New Zealand and those from Central Otago were among the best in the flight. According to Liam, Central Otago winemakers are moving away from the typical bold and heavy Pinot Noir and opting for more gentle extraction and using less new oak.

Liam commented, ‘A lot of winemakers and wine lovers alike have soft spots for Pinot Noir. It is a grape with more soul and substances than other grape varieties, with a huge reflection of the place. Its delicate skin also makes it tricky to handle at the cellar. Winemakers have to extract the maximum colour and flavours but not too strong to extract the bitter tannin from the pips and stems.’

Partly because of its thin skin, Pinot Noir is temperamental and prone to climatic influence, therefore quality fluctuates a lot (just look at Burgundy!). However, it is the most consistent in New Zealand with more than 10 consecutive good vintages. Grown only in relative small areas, New Zealand Pinot Noirs bear the hallmark of purity, but they also display very different regional expression that Liam summed up as:

Marlborough: Limestone and volcanic soil, wine is bright, glossy, round with sweet fruit;
Martinborough: Heavy clay soil, wine is savoury and spicy with more width, a food wine (wineries also attributed this to the Dijon clone);
Central Otago: Continental climate, wine has more weight and structure with concentrated dark red fruits.

To be fair, I think New Zealand winemakers are getting out of the typical New Zealand mould. The flight of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc I judged at 2016 CX HKIWSC was not the ‘McDonald’s’ Sauvignon Blanc I tasted a few years ago. I hope more winemakers are exploring and respecting the diversity of their terroir.


Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2014, Martinborough: Earthy, spicy with firm tannin. A good example of Pinot from the region. Available from Altaya Wines.

Muddy Water Pinot Noir 2012, Waipara: Fresh with charming red fruits and a hint of spicy notes, silky tannin. Corney & Barrow.

Apparently, it is a true wild fermentation as the grapes were fermented in the vineyard with only gentle hand plunging down. Available from

Felton Road Calvert Pinot Noir 2014, Central Otago: Biodynamic wine, it is fresh and elegant with that lifted end palate that I always associate with biodynamic wine. Available from Watson’s Wine.

Prophet’s Rock Pinot Nori 2012, Central Otago: Red fruits and spices with a nice and round mid palate. Available from Ponti.

Kumeu River Hunting Hill Pinot Noir 2014, Auckland: Nice balance of fruits and spices. An elegant wine that rivals a lot of Burgundies. Available from wine’n’things.