Friday, 19 April 2019

Natural wine? Is there artificial wine then?

The latest buzzword in the wine circle is natural wine. Natural wine bars frequented by young hipsters are popping up around the world. What’s the fuss?

First of all, look at this. There are many yeast strains in our environment. When grapes, or any fruits, are left unattended, yeasts ferment sugar in grapes and turn it into alcohol. The process of fermentation, therefore, is natural. However, depending on the yeast strains that react with sugar, the resulting wine can be very different, some palatable and some funky or even undesirable. Whatever the quality, the final product is often cloudy with sediments, and eventually turns into vinegar because of oxidisation or bacteria spoilage.

When man commercialised wine, they planted vineyards in manageable manner to control quality and quantity. In the wineries, they used cultured yeasts – selected strains of natural yeast – to make sure pleasant wine is produced. Natural fining agents such as egg white and gelatine derived from fish bladders were used to combine with the suspended particles in wine to form bigger precipitates that can be filtered from wine, thereby making the wine bright, clear and visually pleasing. To make sure the wine has a longer life, winemakers added sulphites to protect the wine from oxygen and microbial spoilage. The entire fermentation is still natural and the products used to ensure the quality standard are also natural.

As the demand of wine increases, producers use chemicals in vineyard to increase yield and protect the vines from disease, just like all other agricultural products. Synthetically produced fining agents replace real egg whites and fish bladders. Winemakers may use yeast nutrients (ammonia products) to ensure a smooth and thorough fermentation, and control factors such as fermentation temperature and extraction. They may also ferment or age wine in different materials containers such as stainless steel tanks or wood barrels to make fruitier or more complex wine. The fermentation process is still natural but man exerts more control in the process to maintain quality.

Today, the term natural wine has no official definition. It is an approach to vine growing and winemaking that vines are farmed organically, biodynamically or sustainably; and wine is made hands-off without the aid of cultured yeasts, fining agents and filtration. Sulphites may or may not be added to final wine. The quality of wine ranges from pleasant, fresh and pure, to gamey, sour and foul. A few things for sure are that natural wine has no vanilla or cinnamon aromas as they are not aged in new barrels, and they cannot be stored for a long time because of no or minimal preservatives.

To me, all wines, whether using inorganic or biodynamic farming, wild or cultured yeasts, synthetic fining agents or without fining, with our without sulphites, are all naturally made. The rise of natural wine is like an anti-establishment movement. Consumers are fed up with mainstream, industrial products and embrace alternatives. It is like hippies lifestyle in the 70s and to a certain extent, the election of non-mainstream government all over the world.

There are both good and bad conventional and ‘natural’ wine. Drinking ‘natural wine’ is a lifestyle choice but consumers must know how to identify bad ‘natural wine’ rather than blindly accept it as ‘natural’. Producers who label their wine ‘natural’ to disguise fault are cheating consumers outright.


I am not against natural wine and in fact I love the well-made natural wine. But thinking out loud, I wonder if ‘natural wine’ will still be cool if its quality becomes more predictable, more consumers accept it and it eventually becomes mainstream. Maybe another style of wine will takeover?

Friday, 29 March 2019

Underdog grapes

Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB) organises regular masterclasses in town but most of them are focused on their famed grape varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Therefore, the fact that the first BIVB masterclass this year was ‘An in-depth analysis of the Aligoté grape’ came as a surprise - in fact, a very nice surprise.

I’m pretty sure that not all Burgundy fans heard of Aligoté. The grape has been grown in the region since 17th century and was granted its own AOC, Bourgogne Aligoté, in 1937. In 1997, Bouzeron was recognised as its village appellation. Despite its large growing area in Burgundy from Chablis in the north to Mâconnais in the south, it only has 6% of the planting. It used to have equal footing with Chardonnay but sadly after phylloxera, vinegrowers ditched Aligoté for the more accessible Chardonnay.

Aligoté is subtle with lively acidity and a mineral note, a wine in the background that supports food rather than taking the centre stage. Its texture and subtlety reminded me of Semillon from Hunter Valley. Most people may dismiss them at first sip because they are not as pretty as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, but you will be rewarded especially if you have the patience to wait. Ivy was very kind to share an18 years old  Aligoté which has layers of exotic spices and a savoury yet light palate.

A lot of grapes, especially those neutral ones, suffer from poor reputation not because they don’t shine like their more glamorous siblings but because vinegrowers and winemakers treat them like work horse grapes, maximising their yield for distillation or making characterless wine. However, given proper management in the vineyards, the lack the attractive aromas of these varieties is often more than compensated by its texture and flexibility to match with food. Take Aligoté for example, mainly used for Kir and Cremant de Bourgogne, spoke out in this masterclass. The wines presented were made by the few dedicated winemakers who take the variety seriously.

There are still many underdogs in the wine world, notably Airén, Pinot Bianco (or Pinot Blanc) and Müller Thurgau. Airén is the most widely planted grapes in Spain mainly destined for distillation or mediocre wine, but I did try a couple including Más Que Vinos in La Mancha that defy the norm.  Pinot Bianco is pretty much an inoffensive house wine but Germany is leading the way to revive it under the name of Wiessburgunder (Pinot Blanc in German). Weingut Stigler in Baden, amongst others, produces a Weissburgunder Trocken, Ihringen Winklerberg ‘'GG'' from its oldest Weissburgunder plot. The wine was wonderful with a wide spectrum of Cantonese dishes from shrimp dumpling to roasted suckling pig.

As for Müller Thurgau (also known as Rivaner in Germany) mainly grown in cooler regions such as Germany, England and Northern Italy, is a cross between Riesling and Gutedel created in 1882 to produce earlier ripening and bigger crop than Riesling. As you can imagine, the wine is often light and unassuming. But I have faith that this ugly duckling will one day be transformed. The first wine I made was Müller Thurgau fermented in four different yeasts for my final project at Plumpton. I still have two bottles with me and am waiting for a suitable occasion to open them.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Château Mercian, in harmony with nature

Listening to Kenichi Ohashi MW is always a joy because he is passionate. At the recent Château Mercian masterclass, he gave a quick rundown on the relatively unknown history of the estate that showed its quest for making the best possible wine in Japan.

Dai-Nihon Yamanashi Budoushu-Gaisha (大日本山梨葡萄酒會社) was the forerunner of Château Mercian established more than 140 years ago in 1877. At that time, they had the vision to send two young Japanese to France to learn everything about grapegrowing and winemaking. When they returned, they started producing wine using the native Koshu grapes. The journey was not a smooth sailing but the endurance eventually paid off and the brand Mercian was born in 1949. The company introduced Merlot in 1976 and subsequently planted Chard
onnay in the high altitude cool climate region of Hokushin using vertical shoot positioning training in 1985. Château Mercian took a leap forward by engaging the late Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux as advisor to refine the wine in 1988.

Japanese wine could be either wine made from 100% grapes grown in Japan or bulk wine bottled in Japan. Luckily the law changed in October 2018 and now only the former can be called Japanese wine. One of the reasons for the change is because the quality of Japanese wine is gaining international recognition and it is time to champion the nation’s own produce. Château Mercian, currently the biggest producer with annual production of 500,000 bottles, plans to double the volume in 10 years amid increasing export growth. Hong Kong is one of the key markets which is not surprising judging by our love for Japanese cuisine and culture.

Led by chief winemaker Mitsuhiro Anzo, the estate focuses on Yamanashi (山梨縣) and Nagano (長野縣) Prefectures, together accounts for 88% of wine production. The vineyards in Yamanashi are mostly planted with Koshu and the hybrid Muscat Bailey A, while the drier Nagano vineyards are home for European varieties such as Cabernets, Merlot and Chardonnay. Mercian has two working wineries. A third one located in Nagano, called Mariko Winery, will be in operation later this year.

Château Mercian was in Hong Kong to launch its range of Icon wines. The two Chardonnays from Nagano on the opposite banks of Hokushin river, Hokushin Right Bank Chardonnay Rivalis 2017 and Hokushin Left Bank Chardonnay Rivalis 2017, have totally different expressions. The sandy and iron-rich gravelly right bank results in a powerful yet retrained wine while the clayey left back produces a more mellow and expressive wine. The Mariko Omnis 2015 Bordeaux blend has a fine structure with pleasant floral, herbal,  black fruits characters with a hint of earthiness.

In addition to the icon range, Kenichi and Jeannie Cho Lee MW also showed us the Terroir series. I love both Koshus. The Iwade Koshu Kiiroka Cuvée Ueno 2017 was light and pristine while the Fuefuki Koshu Gris de Gris 2017 with 28 days maceration and 2% new oak is more textural. Mariko Syrah 2015 is a typical cool climate Syrah that reminded me of Gimblett Gravels.

Last but not least is the Muscat Bailey A 2015. This hybrid grape variety has a foxy character that I have to say, at best, is acquired taste. Anzo-san tamed it by maturing it in American oak for 24 months. The wine expresses fine raspberry notes with fresh acidity and mild tannin, a far cry from the Muscat Bailey A that I tend to stay away.

While I agree with Château Mercian that its winemaking style is ‘finesse and elegance’, I think ‘Zen’ maybe more appropriate. The wines are subtle yet expressive, poised but not plush. They are the reflection of Japanese harmonious relationship with nature.

Château Mercian is available from Hing Lung Food Place Ltd.

Friday, 18 January 2019

The Noble Family from Barolo

The noble family Cordero di Montezemolo has managed the Monfalletto property at the heart of Barolo in La Morra village for 19 generations since 1340. Alberto Cordero di Montezemolo, who was in Hong Kong recently, explained that the estate was a multi-agricultural farm until his orphan grandfather Paolo focused on wine production, and the family was blessed with a historical single vineyard plot of 28ha on the hill, a rarity in Barolo. Including purchased and leased vineyards, the estate has 56 ha of vines under production.

Arneis is a native white grape variety in Piedmont but has given way to red grape varieties in the 20th century to the point of extinction. Cordero di Montezemolo was one of the pioneers to revitalise this grape variety. We tasted Cordero di Montezemolo Arneis 2017, fresh with yellow fruits and a hint of herbal notes that was great as aperitif or with snacks.

Barolo is the jewel of the estate. Alberto said they use a mixture of French barriques and Slovenian casks for ageing depending on the vineyards. This makes the wine approachable when young but not overpowering. Monfalletto Barolo is a blend of the estate’s vineyards where the vines are between 15 and 50 years old. The 1996 is elegant with prominent floral notes and a sense of lightness on palate, a delightful pairing with the ossobuco. Enrico VI Barolo is from a single vineyard of only 2.2 ha in the Villero cru with a more powerful and austere expression that is quite different from the Monfalletto’s.

The family also produces Barolo Riserva ‘Gorette’ only in the best years. Paolo always had a special Barolo for friends visiting him at the cellar and this wine is made with this moment in mind. The wine, bottled in magnum, is only offered to visitors of the winery. So next time when you are in Barolo, make sure to visit Cordero di Montezemolo.

Cordero di Montezemolo is available from Cuvées.