Friday, 29 November 2019

Exploring French wine regions on foot, by bike and car

Wine lovers always choose to go to wine regions for holiday and I am no exception. My adventure in July was Burgundy, Jura and Alsace. I have never been to this part of France and my French is pathetic, but this is exactly why it was fun.

Some friends were excited about my trip and asked which wineries I had made appointments to visit. Actually I didn’t and didn’t want to. It would be a work trip if I have arranged meetings in advance. Moreover, I much prefer to see wineries that I haven’t heard of, there are always nice surprises waiting round the corner!

Beaune was my base to explore Burgundy, where there are well-signed cycling tracks and hiking routes. I spent a few days cycling and hiking amongst the vineyards and famous villages including Volnay, Chassagne-Montrachet and Aloxe-Corton, then a day driving down to Beaujolais. There is no dramatic landscape but the scenery is pleasant and calming. It seems that the life at all these villages only revolves around wine. I only tasted at six wineries but they were all authentic and friendly. All cellar doors close at lunch time for at least 2 hours and some need prior appointments because they may be working in vineyards.

Most established negociants have tasting rooms in Beaune. A not-to-be-missed is Patriarche for its underground cellar with self-guided tasting using a a tastevin that you can keep. There are also a few independent wine shops that carry boutique, individual labels. I didn’t have any luck in Beaujolais but was glad to find the Jean Foillard Cuvée 3.14 2014, made from 100 years old vines at one of these shops.

While in Beaune, make sure to spend a good few hours at Hospices de Beaune (also called Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune) to learn about the history; and drop by La Moutarderie Edmond Fallot to taste the many mustard flavours, including Pinot Noir!

Restaurants abound in Beaune. Those around the square inside the old city wall are great for people watching but for a few good glasses of wine, highly recommended are Maison du Colombier and Le Bistrot Bourguignon for an extensive wine list, and Le Comptoir des Tontons for organic and natural wine. Caves Madeleine has a good reputation but it was full when I was there.

In case you visit Dijon, Dr Wine is the place to for good one for wine and tapas.

My next stop Jura was the most unexpected. I used Arbois as the base, drove around the region for few days, and learned everything from Savagnin to Poulsard and Trousseau, all local varieties. The other two permitted varieties are the most widely planted Chardonnay (43%) and Pinot Noir. Jura is certainly more rustic than Burgundy but the scenery is totally different and more spectacular. Baume-les-Messieurs, ranked one of the most beautiful villages in France, is surrounded by high cliffs, while Chateau-Chalon is a hilltop village and a Vin Jaune only AOC. Arbois itself is a quiet historic town with the Cuisance River passing through it. The main streets are dotted with tasting rooms and wine shops. Apparently, it is the first AOC denomination in France!

For me, the local variety Savagnin is the most fascinating. It is full-bodied with crisp acidity, citrus and floral notes. The most famous wine from the region is Vin Jaune (yellow wine), where Savagnin is aged under a layer of flor (like fino sherry) in oak barrels for a minimum of 6 years and 3 months without topping up or fortification, and bottled in a special 62cl bottle ‘Clavelin’. The wine style is known as ‘oxidative’ style because it is aged without topping up but this is what I don’t understand. The wine is aged under a layer of flor which by sherry’s definition, is biological ageing rather than oxidative ageing. Yes, the wine is golden yellow but it is nowhere like the brown colour of oxidative Amontillado or Oloroso sherry. The wine has the nutty sherry character yet fresh on palate. I scratched my head every time I tasted Vin Jaune but my hopeless French forbid me to have any meaningful discussion with the locals. I welcome anyone who read this to share his/her thought.

‘Tradition’ Savagnin is aged without topping up and in a shorter period of time than Vin Jaune, so the wine can still develop the ‘sherry’ character although not as obvious. In contrast, ‘Ouille’ Savagnin is aged with topping up giving more fruit-forward wine. Domaine André et Mireille Tissot even made an Amphore Savagnin. Apart from dry wine, Savagnin can also be made into Crémant (sparkling wine), Vin de Paille (naturally sweet wine made with dried grapes), and Macvin du Jura (liqueur wine made by adding marc brandy to unfermented grape juice).

Another surprise in Jura is a variety called Melon à Queue Rouge, a mutation of Chardonnay that has a red stem. It is planted only around Arbois and just a few producers are making this as a varietal wine, including Domaine de la Pinte.

Only two hours drive from Arbois, Alsace is a totally different world. The architecture, names of villages, wines and to a certain extent culture, are more Germanic than French because of historical reasons. Croissants in bakeries are replaced by bretzels (pretzels in Germany). There are times that I was wondering if I was in Germany or France.

The old town of Colmar is very attractive with traditional half-timbered houses, floral displays and canals, while most Alsatian wine villages, located on slopes or hill tops, are equally picturesque. The region is bicycle-friendly and a hiker’s paradise. I was so excited to have come across a wine festival while cycling through the village of Eguisheim, and ended up spending 3 hours there!

I also attended the Wine and Gastronomy Fair in Ribeauville. 11 restaurant stands were set up where each restaurant showcasing one dish accompanied with two wines. There were music, DJs and revellers were dancing the night away. For an extra fee, wine lovers could sample over 270 wines according to style and grape varieties: Crémant, Chasselas, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois, Muscat, Riesling, Rosé, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer in a separate tasting parlour. Guess where I spent most of my time😀.

The two must-try restaurants in Colmar are L’Un Des Sens run by two sommeliers and Le Cercle des Aromas serving 250 wine by the glass. Le Grognard in Riquewihr has a good wine list and an even better rum list.

The trip was super enjoyable. To see and experience a wine region first hand is the way to understand its wine. We may be familiar with Burgundian fine wine but visiting the villages and seeing people working in vineyards allow us to appreciate the lesser appellation wines. Mingling with locals certainly help us broaden our horizon. Moreover, wine regions are not only about wine. There are history, culture, outdoor activities and of course fine cuisines. Please plan your next holiday exploring wine regions.

Recommended wineries:
Patriarche, Beaune, Burgundy (available from wine’n’things)
Mestre Pere et Fils, Santenay, Burgundy
Christophe Vaudoisey, Volnay, Burgundy
Domaine Michel Voarick, Aloxe-Corton, Burgundy
Domaine André et Mireille Tissot, Arbois, Jura
Domaine de la Pinte, Arbois, Jura
Domiane Jacques Tissot, Arbois, Jura
Domaine Désiré Petit, Pupillin, Jura
Domaine Berthet-Bondet, Chateau-Chalon, Jura
Domaine Ginglinger Pierre Henri, Eguisheim, Alsace
Domaine Zinck, Eguisheim, Alsace
Domaine Jean-Paul Schmitt, Scherwiller, Alsace
Domaine Clé de Sol, Ribeauville, Alsace

Monday, 30 September 2019

Millton, not your typical kiwi wine

At the #DrinkChenin Day a few months ago, there was an impressive Chenin Blanc from Gisborne, New Zealand. Therefore, when I knew the owner of the winery, Annie Millton, would be in town to present the wine, I jumped to the chance.

Located in Gisborne on the eastern coast of North Island, Millton Vineyards was established by James and Annie Millton in 1984 after their stint in France and Germany. They started by replanting most of Annie’s father vineyards and practised organic farming. Just after two years, the Milltons turned to biodynamic viticulture in 1986, the first vineyard in New Zealand to do so. Their winemaking philosophy is ‘Grown not made’.

New Zealand wine is mostly single varietal or Bordeaux blend and that 98.6% of the total vineyard area (36,680 ha) is made up of 11 varieties. Gisborne is the most diversified region with the most ‘other varieties’ planted (159 ha of 1,180 ha, equivalent to 13.5%). This is reflected in Millton Vineyards where over 10 varieties are cultivated.

There are only 22 ha of Chenin Blanc in New Zealand. Millton Te Arai Chenin Blanc 2016 was fermented and matured in old 600l barrels. It has pleasant aromas of citrus and white fruits supported by fresh acidity. Clos de Ste Anne Naboth’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2015, its flagship wine, is elegant with multi-layered flavours.

The intriguing wine at the tasting was the Libiamo Field Blend 2017, a blend of Viognier, Marsanne and Muscat fermented and aged on skin for a whopping 200 days! The wine is slightly cloudy but it has fresh fruit and herbal aromas. I love the structure and texture on palate. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it has character and is definitely a clean, well-made natural wine. Apparently the Libiamo blend is different every year. The 2018 vintage was a blend of Viognier, Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Muscat with only 48 days of skin contact.

Millton’s Chenin Blanc may make one associates it with South Africa but I think it is its Libiamo that carries the South African winemaking creativity. James and Annie also make a Libiamo Amphora Chenin Blanc and Crazy by Nature white and red blends but these wines are not available in Hong Kong yet.

The winery stands out from the other New Zealand wine producers and shows to wine lovers that New Zealand is more than the mainstream wines. I hope we can see more diverse New Zealand wine like Millton’s in the market.

Millton Vineyards is represented by wine’n’things in Hong Kong.

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.