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

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

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

Friday, 7 June 2019

Tasmanian wine, less is more

Hong Kong wine trade is overwhelmed with trade tasting and we just cannot go to all of them. I am glad that I made an effort to Tyson Stelzer’s recent Tasmania tasting, which turned out to be one of the enjoyable events.

The walk-around tasting was generous in time with a five hours duration and there were only 32 sparkling wines and Pinot Noirs that Tyson said were the best of Tasmania. This meant we could tasted in a relaxed and focused environment. Less is more.

Tasmania is not your typical Aussie wine. Being the southernmost wine growing region of Australia, it has a cool maritime region capable of producing elegant wine with finesse, very unlike the majority full-bodied jammy Australian wines from the mainland. Tyson explained that Tasmania has two distinctive subregions, the cool dry south and the cool humid north. The cool dry climate gives more tannic wine because the vines are more stressed by low moisture. On the other hand, cool humid climate wine is in general softer and more delicate. This difference is particular evident in Pinot Noir because of its thin skin, and this showed well on the three Pinots from Darlymple where two came from Piper’s River in the north and one from Coal River Valley in the south.

Tyson is a huge fan of Tassie’s sparkling wine, which he believes, together with English sparkling wine, can rival some of the fine champagne. Again, the humidity factor plays a significant role. Sparkling wine from the wetter north is shaped by acidity while those from the dryer south is marked by phenolics with a more grippy texture, similar to champagne made in dry, warm years.

Because of its isolation, wine production in Tasmania is niche and boutique. This island state only represents 0.9% of the total Australia’s wine yet it makes up more with its value. The price of grapes is more than five times its counterpart from the mainland. According to Wine Tasmania, 100% of its wine is sold above A$15, as opposed to only 7% in the mainland. This firmly put Tasmania in the Australian wine map as the leading premium cool climate wine growing region, another demonstration of less is more.

A whopping 2/3 of the vineyard planting is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and nearly 30% of the island’s production is made up of sparkling. Tyson’s tasting showcased pretty much the best of Tasmania. Luckily for us is that most of these wines are available in Hong Kong.

My favourites include Pressing Matters Point Noir 2014 and Norton Sparkling NV, both from Coal River Valley, and Dawson James Pinot Noir 2014 from Upper Derwent Valley, all available from Pinot Shop Hong Kong, a shop dedicated to cool climate New World Pinot Noir. Check out their exciting portfolio.

Another must try is Jansz, a producer of only sparkling wine where the fruits come from Piper’s River, Tamar Valley and Coal River Valley. Their wines are available from Watson’s Wine.

Friday, 17 May 2019

What wine can learn from whisky?

Blended whisky has been losing market share to single malt whisky in the last 10 years. To counteract, Chivas Regal recently held the world’s first whisky blending competition in Hong Kong for both consumers and professionals. I was honoured to be one of the judges and even more impressed with the outcome, perhaps something that even Pernod Ricard, owner of Chivas Regal did not anticipate.

The candidates first attended a 3-hour workshop and then were given five components with distinctive characters - floral, creamy, citrus, fruity and smoky to make up their own blend. At the judging, they had to present their blends and explained to judges the reason behind the blend. The judges are not from whisky or spirits profession, but all are connected to blending, including perfume specialist John Paulo Hui who plays with over 600 perfume raw materials, coffee trainer Chris So (also from the wine trade), lyricist Leung Pak Kin and myself, a winemaker and where blending is absolutely essential in winemaking.

What strike me was not the technical aspect of the blending, but how the candidates connected the blends to the stories, and nearly all were derived from their own experiences - about life in Hong Kong or the places they grew up, about families and about love. Only two professional contestants focused on making a blend that is perfect for the cocktail they had in mind. All judges could feel the stories while tasting their concoctions.

This is the power of emotion and story-telling which sadly is kind of missing in the wine people. Most wineries and winemakers are too fixated on terroir. Soil and climate are no doubt related to the quality of wine but while we in the trade find them fascinating, unfortunately it doesn’t resonate with most consumers. The second most used story after terroir is family history but if seven out of ten wineries are emphasising this, it is not unique anymore. Winemaking maybe technical but wine is a social, lifestyle beverage and it has to be connected to the consumers emotionally. I urge all the winemakers to tell their personal stories - why they want to make wine, their first wine, their dogs, and so on. Terroir and family history can come later once consumers are listening.

There are wine blending workshops but again they are focus on creating a technically correct blend. Perhaps we should copy Chivas Regal and organise a ‘blend from your heart’ workshop. Does it matter if it is a Bordeaux blend or a whacky tempranillo-pinotage blend as long as it tastes good and has a moving story behind?

Back to the Chivas blending competition, the winner of the consumer session is ‘Dram of a Day’ created by Gigi Wong. The story is about a typical Hongkonger who wakes up cheerful but has to juggle tasks during the long working hours until finally has a moment of relaxation at night. The fresh citrus note denotes the start of the day which then moves onto the heavier aromas corresponding to the daily tasks and finally the smoky flavour then ends the day.

The winner of the professional session is Ronald Ho from Safe Bubbles and Malt. His blend is called Chivas Regal Turadh, a firm but smooth whisky that Ronald said will rejuvenate the drinker from the hectic schedule, just like the blast of sunshine between two raining days in typical Scottish weather.

I’m sure my opinion is not agreed by most in the industry but perhaps food for thought?

Monday, 29 April 2019

Spätburgunder, not quite the hidden gem of Germany anymore

Sure Riesling is Germany’s most well known wine but Spätburgunder (aka Pinot Noir) is quietly catching up. Joel Payne, nicknamed Mr German Wine by Karl Bachmair from Bachmair Wines, guided a full house of sommeliers and media to taste nine such fine wines from five German wine regions recently.

Spätburgunder is nothing new in Germany. Like most grapes in Europe, it was brought from Burgundy and planted by monks at least in the 4th century although it was only first documented in 14th century. However, because of poor ripening, the wine was a hit and miss and the majority was rosé rather than red wine. But things have changed in the past couple of decades. Climate change, clonal selection, improved viticultural practice and experience in winemaking technique all propel Spätburgunder to today’s height.

Germany offers different styles of Spätburgunder. Its climate is similar to Burgundy and there is no shortage of Burgundian style Spätburgunder. The 2015 Malterdinger from Weingut Bernhard Huber in Baden we tasted is one of them. Bernhard Huber began estate bottling in 1987 after he took control of the family’s vineyards and slowly increased planting to around 26ha. His son Julian inherited the estate after he passed away and continued Bernhard’s legacy. According to Joel, his wine is often mistaken by professionals, including respected French wine critic Michel Bettane, as Burgundy Pinot in blind tastings. Julian believes in small is beautiful and less is more. His goal is to only make Grand Cru Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. 

On the other end is the more international New World style Pinot Noir. Contemporary winemakers age the wine in new oak barriques (225 litres) resulting in fuller-bodied wine with more depth and structure. Philipp Kuhn 2015 Kirschgarten Grosses Gewächs is an outstanding wine of this stye.

Spätburgunder also makes its way into sekt, German’s sparkling wine. The Raumland 2010 Pinot Prestige Brut Blanc de Noir from Rheinhessen, spent a whopping 88 months on lees, is multi-dimensional with layers of fruits, hints of brioche and smokiness supported by crisp acidity. It was voted the Best German Sekt in Gault Millau Guide 2018.

Baden and Pfalz, the two Southernmost wine regions in Germany, have the most plantings of Pinot Noir but the variety is also grown in Württemberg and Rheinhessen, as well as the warm pockets in Ahr and Nahe. Its planting area, at 11, 784 ha, ranked the third in the world after France and the USA; and is more than New Zealand and Australia combined.

So next time when you need a red wine to compliment your German Riesling, look no further. Spätburgunder is not a hidden gem anymore. You can find them at Bachmair Wines