Friday, 16 August 2019

Low alcohol / no alcohol wine? Are they wine?

The trend may not be obvious in Hong Kong but low-alcohol or no-alcohol wine/beer/spirits is getting popular in the UK and the US. Hong Kong importers offering these products claim sales are satisfactory. Is there a place for these low/no alcohol ‘alcohol beverage’ or is it just a fad?

Advocates of low/no alcohol wine argue that they want to socialise with friends and have a good time but don’t want to feel pressurised to drink. I, a devoted wine lover, have to admit that there are times that I don’t feel like any wine (or alcohol). It may be because I am too tired, not feeling well or just don't feel like to. However, I will still go out with friends and happily sip a sparkling water. If my friends pressurise me to drink, I don’t think they are my real friends.

I remember the very oily vegetarian dishes we had in temples when I was young. All the dishes served had names like ‘vegetarian fish’, ‘vegetarian goose’, and so on, and the food was shaped like a fish or goose. I think this is hypocritical; I love vegetarian food and will proudly have a nice bowl of salad rather than some kind of oily stuff in the shape of fish. The same applies to low/no wine, why drink something called ‘wine’ if you don’t want it?

Going back to wine, alcohol is a natural product of grape juice fermentation. Alcohol contributes to palate weight and supports the aromas. One way to make low alcohol wine is to make the wine in a normal process then deliberately remove the alcohol. To me, the process (usually by spinning cone or reverse osmosis) is just like chopping a limb off a person. The resultant ‘wine’ is unbalanced and incomplete.

The other way to make low alcohol wine is to stop fermentation midway before all sugar is converted to alcohol. However, the final product will also have significant sugar. So which one is a lesser evil? Alcohol or sugar?

The final alcohol in wine depends on the sugar the grapes contain when harvested. In the past 20-30 years, winemakers have deliberately left the grapes on vines for a longer period of time after the grapes have ripened (prolonging hang time), resulting in high sugar accumulation in berries thus higher alcohol content in wine. Recently, winemakers are choosing to pick the grapes when they are just ripe, producing livelier, fresher and lower alcohol wine naturally. Depending on your interpretation of low alcohol, a wine from a cooler region such as Germany has much lower alcohol than wine from a warmer region. Consumers who are concerning about their alcohol intake can opt wine from cooler regions. These wines will not have ultra-low alcohol unless they are sweet but they are natural and complete. 

And there is the taste. At a recent debate on the topic, we tasted some pretty horrendous low/no alcohol wine. The white wine tasted sugary with no acid structure and the red wine was like the bitter herbal medicine. These wines are often relatively more expensive because of the extra process necessary to remove the alcohol.

I’m not at all against alcohol free beverage but I don't’ agree to drink low/no alcohol in order to appease our peers, nor to I want to pay a premium for something that is not enjoyable. Low/no alcohol must taste god before they can take off. Until then, I will just stick to water or juice
.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Jura, the neighbour of Burgundy

Burgundy, home of world class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, has also some of the most expensive wines in the world. But because of the region’s fame and glory, most wine lovers overlooked its neighbour, Jura. However, the fact that Jura has successfully seduced Guillaume d’Angerville, a winemaker with six generations history in Burgundy, to develop a new brand there tells us perhaps we should take a closer look at Jura. 

The quest for a project in Jura was a Chardonnay from the region that Guillaume blind tasted in his favourite restaurant in Paris back in 2007. Since he always wanted to start something new outside he family estate, Jura seemed an ideal place because of its close proximity to Burgundy. Finally in 2012, he and partner François Duvivier acquired a 5ha biodynamically farmed vineyard with a modern winery, thus the birth of Domaine du Pélican. They subsequently bought another 5ha soon afterwards and leased 5ha more in 2014. Domaine du Pélican has all five permitted grape varieties planted: Chardonnay, Savagnin, Pinot Noir, Trousseau and Poulsard.

Jura is only one hour drive east of Burgundy (just over 100km) where the vineyards are at a slightly higher altitude than Burgundy (240-270m). But the region is sufficiently different from Burgundy because of its more diverse landscape and agriculture. Its soil is more clayey and has double the rainfall than that of Burgundy, and of course there are the different local yeasts. The Chardonnay 2017 we tasted came from four different parcels, was fermented in big barrels and aged in neutral barrels for 10 months. It is Burgundian style but with fresher acidity and less creamy mouthfeel.

Savagnin is a very old variety from northeast France and is thought to be related to the aromatic Gewürztraminer. In Jura, it is known for its famous oxidative style of Vin Jaune but Domaine du Pélican Savagnin Ouille 2017 was made the same as its Chardonnay with regular top up of the barrels. It is fresh with pine nuts, white fruits and a touch of mineral that was perfect with the Miso marinated black cod wrapped in hoba leaf from ZUMA. The word ‘ouille’ means top up, so consumer can differentiate it from the common oxidative Savagnin.

Poulsard is another old variety from eastern France. It is aromatic, fragile with a pale colour but Guillaume said it can age well if handled properly. The 2017 we tasted certainly has a hint of Burgundian Pinot Noir character. Trois Cepages, a blend of Pinot Noir, Trousseau and Poulsard, is more masculine than the 100% Poulsard with both red fruits and pepper notes.

At another Jura wine event just 10 days after this tasting, I had a chance to taste more wine from the region. I found Jura wine in general may have less complexity than Burgundian but it is more than compensated by freshness and purity. Guillaume praises the more genuine and open style of people in Jura and probably this is somehow reflected in the wine.


I can’t say loud enough that there are a lot more wine regions and grape varieties than the mainstream wines  we mostly drink. Don’t worry about not having a clue of the place or variety, just try and let your palate do the judging. Even better, if you are planning to visit a wine region, spare a few days to visit its neighbours to compare the wine. As a matter of fact, I just did what I said - exploring Burgundy, Jura and Alsace in July!

Domaine du Pélican is available in Hong Kong at Corney & Barrow.

Friday, 5 July 2019

James Bond Champagne Bollinger celebrated La Grande Année 2008

I never say no to bubbles so it was with pleasure that I attended the launch of Bollinger Le Grande Année 2008 lunch recently, and especially that 2008 is a legendary vintage for champagne.

2008 had perfect weather condition in Champagne, cool climate growing season with minimum disease risks. Temperature increased in the last few weeks before harvest resulting in fruits with fine acidity and great concentration. According to Decanter, it is a 5/5 vintage and the wines are real keepers.

La Grande Année 2008 is a blend of grapes from 18 crus (villages), with 71% Pinot Noir and the rest being Chardonnay, it is the second vintage with the highest Pinot in the blend, just a little less that the 1979 vintage with 75% Pinot Noir. True to La Grande Année’s style, the wine was fermented in small aged old barrels giving it a round and rather rich mouthfeel, which is supported by layers of aromas from floral to exotic spices and fresh acidity, thanks to its 9 years of less ageing.

Bollinger’s Export Area Manager Bastien Mariani explained that Bollinger is all about craftsmanship and gastronomy. To illustrate this, we were treated a 4-course lunch at Clipper’s in The Peninsula paired with standard bottle and magnum La Grande Année 2008. Wine evolves slower in big bottles. The magnum is livelier while the standard bottle, still fresh but with an earthy undertone. According to Bastien, magnum complements lighter flavoured dishes while standard bottle is best served with stronger flavoured dishes. The magnum with langoustine carpaccio was excellent. The standard bottle was paired with the roasted quail, which was pleasant, but together with the sauce was a touch too powerful even for this manly James Bond champagne.

Another point that Bastien mentioned was that champagne (or sparkling wine made in traditional method) has two lives. The fist was before disgorgement when the wine develops its complexity and the second life starts after disgorgement when freshness and acidity come into play. Because of this, Bollinger now puts the disgorgement date on the back label of La Grande Année 2008. A more recent disgorged sparkling wine will be fresher than the one that has been disgorged for a while. Therefore next time you buy premium champagne for cellaring, it’s best to get those with a later disgorgement date - if it is mentioned on the label.

I haven’t tried a lot of 2008 vintage champagne but judging from Bollinger La Grande Année 2008 and various reports, 2008 is certainly worth keeping. Bollinger is available from Jebsen Fine Wines.


Sunday, 23 June 2019

Sister grapes: Chenin Blanc and Riesling

15th June is #DrinkChenin, a day of celebrating his versatile grape variety around of world initiated by South African Chenin Blanc Association. With the support of importers, Wines of South Africa (WOSA) teamed up with Loire Valley Wine Bureau, New Zealand Wine, Oregon Wine Board and Washington State Wine to showcase 16 Chenin Blancs to wine lovers at a cosy bar, To Be Frank, to close to 100 curious wine lovers .

Most guests are not from the trade and they only try Chenin from one country or at most two (South Africa and Loire, in that order), and some haven’t tried Chenin yet. I tried to give them an overview of Chenin in less than one minute and decided to use Riesling as comparison. Chenin Blanc may not be as widely known as Riesling but it is as noble and versatile as Riesling.

I’d like to think Chenin Blanc as the sister of Riesling. Both are versatile and can be from bone dry to luscious, sparkling, sweet, single varietal or in blends; and both have crisp acidity. They also have similar flavour profiles: citrus, apples and pears in cool climate and lighter style; and stone fruits, exotic fruits and honey in warm climate and riper style. The reason Chenin being the elder sister is because it has a fuller-body than Riesling. Like Chardonnay, it can handle new oak well to add complexity, which is something Riesling doesn’t like. A seriously-made Chenin Blanc is as age-worthy as a Riesling.


Chenin Blanc can be dated back to the 9th century in Loire, France. It was introduced to South Africa in the 17th century where it was known as Steen. Only until mid 1960s when the University of Stellenbosch confirmed that Steen was in fact Chenin Blanc. While Chenin Blanc’s influence is declining in France, it is thriving in its adopted home of South Africa. Today, South Africa has the most planting of Chenin Blanc in the world at close to 20,000 ha, comparing to the 9,000+ ha in France. Other countries that are making Chenin, albeit in a much smaller quantity, are the US, Argentina and New Zealand.

Although most Chenin Blanc is 100% varietal wine, creative South African winemakers take it a step further to make multi-dimensional white blends. The Sadie Family ‘T Voetpad (available from BB&R), David & Nadia Aristargos (soon available from wine’n’things) and Keermont Terrasse (available from Value Vigilantes) are some of the best examples of Chenin blends. What’s more, most of these are made from old vines. They may lack the fruit forward palate but are more than compensated by the textural depth. South Africa now certifies vines older than 35 years old with a Certified Heritage Vineyards’ seal that shows the year of planting.

It is therefore a pity that such a chameleon grape is not more popular in the world. Please don’t wait until 15th June to drink Chenin. Explore the many styles available in Hong Kong and even better, try them with Riesling or Chardonnay side by side. You’ll be surprised.

Chenin we tried at the #DrinkChenin:

South Africa (from refreshing to full bodied)
:
1. The Winery of Good Hope Bush Vine Chenin Blanc 2018, available from Victoria Wines
2. Bellingham Homestead The Old Orchards Chenin Blanc 2018, available from wine’n’things
3. Keermont Terrasse (Chenin blend), available from Value Vigilantes
4. Radford Dale Vinum Chenin Blanc 2017, available from Victoria Wines
5. Villiera Traditional Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2016, available from wine’n’things
6. Holden Manz Chenin, 2017 available from Babington Wines
7. Stellenrust 53 Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2017, available from Kedington Wines
8. Mullineux Straw Chenin Blanc 2017, available from Berry Bros & Rudd

Loire
1. Chateau Soucherie Anjoy Blanc Ivoire 2015, available from Chaeau Soucherie Hong Kong
2. Chateau Soucherie Savennieres Clo des Perriees 2013, available from Chaeau Soucherie Hong Kong
3. Domaine des Roches Neuves, Saumur Clos Romans 2015, available from Sarment
4. Domaine du Clos Naudin Vourvray 2014, available from Vines & Terroir
5. Domaine de Belliviére - Jasniéres 2015, available from Cytise Distribution

Others:
Goon Tycoons Chenin Blanc 2017, Australia, available from Wine Brothers
Millton Te Arai Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2016, New Zealand, available from wine’n’things
L’Ecole 41 Chenin Blanc 2015, Washington, US, available from Golden Gate Wine
Origin Chenin Blanc 2016, Oregon, US, available from Golden Gate Wines