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.

Friday, 4 January 2019

Tokaj, the King of wines

When I was working in Holdvölgy during my gap year, I didn’t have time to visit too many wineries, therefore I jumped at the chance when I was invited to the Szepsy media luncheon, the winery located in the village of Mád in Tokaj and the neighbour of Holdvölgy.

Szepsy is a family own estate that has been making wine in Tokaj for more than 500 years. It was this family  who developed the Aszú technique in 1631 thus creating the king of wines. Unlike Sauternes that ferments both healthy and botrytis grapes together, Tokaji Aszú wine is made by adding aszú berries (heavily botrytis raisiny grapes with over 500g/l sugar) to healthy grape juice, fermenting wine or finished wine from a few hours to a few days before pressing and continue fermentation. The botrytis process dehydrates the grapes therefore concentrates the acidity and minerals, resulting in extremely rich and complex wine with a fresh finish. István Szepsy Jr, the 16th generation of the family, explained that using juice as base gives a fruitier wine but with a shorter finish, while Aszú wine using finished wine as base has a more complexity and oxidised character. He prefers to use fermenting wine as it captures the best of both worlds. The 2008 vintage we tasted, with150g/l sugar (equivalent to 6 puttonyos), was a joy. It was burst with flavours and every time I smelt, I sensed different aromas from floral and tropical fruits to honey and caramel. The acidity was just incredible.
Szamorodni, translated as ‘as it is’, is made using whole bunch of grapes that consisted of both healthy and botrytis grapes like Sauternes. The sweetness of the final wine depends on the degree or botrytis and therefore every vintage is different. We had the 2013 vintage, a lighter wine comparing to other vintages and it was great with the roasted pork, suckling pig and chilli prawns.

We also tried Szepsy’s dry Furmint from two different vineyards. The Szt. Tamas 2016 has a good structure with layers of aromas. I like Furmint for its acidity and freshness that make it particularly food-friendly.
At the end of the delicious lunch at Ying Jee Club, we were treated Szepsy Tokaji Esszencia 2007. Arguably the rarest wine in the world, Tokaji Eszencia is made from the free run juice of aszú berries that seeps out from the vats under the grapes‘ own weight. The juice has ultra high sugar content and takes years to ferment. The 2007 was rich and complex, and at the same time vibrant and fresh. Szepsy only makes Esszencia in good years. The last one was 1999 with 311 bottles, 2007 had only 200 bottles and 2018 will be the next vintage. The wine comes with a high price tag (HK$18,000 for a 500ml bottle) but in my view, it is a bargain comparing to first growth Bordeaux.

Szepsy is available from Wine Peers.

Friday, 14 December 2018

A feast of tastings

Q4 is the busiest season in the wine industry. In addition to the big scale consumer events and trade fairs, there are also more intimate trade tastings and meals. In less than four weeks, I have attended seven such tastings and there were a lot more during that period.

Tuscany’s Bordeaux
The first one was Ornellaia tasting with winemaker Axel Heinz. Ornellaia is renowned for its super Tuscan using Bordeaux varieties therefore I was surprised to have tasted two white wines. The 100% Sauvignon Blanc barrel fermented Ornellaia Bianco 2015 was particularly impressive with layers of aromas, fine texture and crisp acidity. The estate only has 5% of vineyard area for white varieties including Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Manseng, Viognier, Verdicchio and Vermentino. Axel said they are planning to plant Semillon, which he realised is the best blending partner of Sauvignon Blanc. Among the reds, Ornellaia 2007 stood out. It just started showing tertiary bouquet and had a smooth, harmonious mouthfeel. According to Axel, 2007 was not a perfect vintage but the wine has a strong personality.

The pioneer
Probably you heard of Pingus, its first vintage 1995 being declared by Robert Parker as one of the greatest and most exciting wines he has ever tasted. Its winemaker Peter Sisseck was in Hong Kong to present not Pingus but his other wines from Dominio de Pingus. Flor de Pingus is made from old vines Tinta Fino (aka Tempranillo) over 35 years old. The wine may not have the cult status of Pingus (and Peter stressed that it is the other wine, not the second wine), but it is a well-made wine with complexity and structure, and certainly with a much more accessible price. The elegance of vintage 2000 was particularly impressive and paired well with the roasted suckling pig. Ribera del Duero may be less civilised than Rioja or Priorat, Peter believes it has a lot to offer especially from the old vines. Therefore, to help the region realise its potential, he started a joint project Psi with local growers to maintain old vineyard plots and improve farming techniques, and made a vibrant wine with character under the brand Bodegas y Vinedos Alnardo in 2006. Both wines are available from Corney & Barrow.

From America to Armenia
Having trained under the late Robert Mondavi and worked as head winemaker at Opus One, Paul Hobbs was convinced that producing premium wine is the way to go. Combined this with his adventurous spirits and scientific approach, Paul founded Paul Hobbs Winery in 1991 and later CrossBarn, both in California; entered international partnerships in Viña Cobos in Mendoza, Argentina; Yacoubian-Hobbs in Vayots Dzor, Armenia and Crocus in Cahors, France, and consulted various wineries around the world. At an exclusive lunch at Tang Court, we paired seven Paul’s wines from four wineries with the beautifully presented Cantonese dishes. The wines that stood out for me were Paul Hobbs Richard Dinner Vineyard Chardonnay 2015, Paul Hobbs Nathan Coombs Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 and Viña Cobos Chañares Estate Malbec 2015. They were textural, poised and had lingering tastes. Asked if he would slow down after some 40 years trotting the globe, Paul answered maybe, but only after the finishes the two new projects: Hillick & Hobbs, a 100% Riesling estate in Finger Lakes, New York and a new venture in Galicia, Spain. Well, looks like he will never stop, but I look forward to tasting the Riesling. Paul Hobbs Wines are available from Watson’s Wine.

Size Matters
Wine connoisseurs and critics often focus on boutique domaines in Burgundy but the backbone of the trade is actually the big powerhouses that pump out enough decent quality wine to put Burgundy in the international wine world. Patriarche, an négociant-eleveur (merchant-producer) founded in 1780 is one such powerhouse. It has the biggest cellar - a 5km long dated between 13th and 17th century that can hold three millions bottles in Beaune, sells 60 million bottles of wine worldwide every year, is one of the biggest producers of Crémant de Bourgogne, and makes wine across all appellations from Régionales to Grands Crus. However, being big doesn’t mean compromise on quality. Export Director Vincent Goyat said Patriarche wine is about high quality for value. Its basic Bourgogne Chardonnay Cuvée des Visitandines is served on board British Airways; while the Mâcon-Lugny Les Charmes and the Mercurey 1er Cru Clos L’Evêque are pleasing with pleasant palates; Chablis 1er Cru Vaillons 2017 classic with a fresh lean mouthfeel and oyster shell note, while the 1er Cru les Rugiens-Bas 2015 is structured with depth but also an elegant floral aroma. Patriarche has always been focused on domestic market, and only started export to Asia in the past 5-7 years. Look out for their wines and see for yourself, available from wine'n'things.

Wines that charm
Hélène and Patrice Lévêque, owners of St-Emilion Grands Crus Chateau Barde-Haut and Poesia, Clos L’Eglise in Pomerol and Chateua d’Arce in Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux, was in town to present a vertical tasting of 10 vintages from 2005 to 2016. Patrice is the winemaker who spends most of his time in the vineyards and Hélène is the marketing lady. Hélène explained  that they didn’t inherit any estates but selected the sites with the best possible terroir. She doesn’t believe in ‘the perfect wine’ but each wine and vintage does have its own charm and identity that appeals to consumers’ emotion in different way. This is absolutely true because the audience all had different preferences. Some liked the more fruit forward 2005 vintage but Hélène and I preferred the leaner 2006 vintage. Most, however, agreed that the 2015 and 2016 have huge potential. This once again confirmed that there is no right or wrong about wine, everyone has his own preferences. In addition, we also had the chance to taste the 2016 vintage from their other estates. The St-Emilion Poesia with 30% of Cabernet Franc is elegant and is my favourite. The Lévêques’ dream is beyond Bordeaux. Hélène is excited about Bodega Poesia, their Argentinian project in Lujan de Cuyo where Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon were planted in 1935 on its own roots at 900m altitude. The wine was not available at the tasting but I look forward to trying it. Judging by the passion of the couple, it will be as charming as their Bordeaux wines.