Tuesday, 12 December 2017

An Aussie in the Mosel-land

The second stop of my journey was Mosel in Germany. However, I was not with a typical Mosel winery.

Martin Cooper is an Australian winemaker who used to make wine in Margaret River but now he is making Riesling in Mosel. Asked why the move? Martin explained that he has always been the ‘Old World’ guy, and that people often compared his wine to those of Burgundian Chardonnay and Rhone Syrah. Since Riesling is the pinnacle of wine, he therefore decided he should be in Germany, the home of Riesling.

Martin believes that only extreme terroir produces serious wine because wine resonates the environment where it acquires its fingerprint. Therefore, wine produces from a region that grows various grape varieties, though well made, does not really have an identity. Of all Germany’s wine regions, he loves Mosel because it is the region with extreme terroir, steep slopes and marginal climate; and it focuses only on one variety, Riesling. In 2014, Martin took the plunge and teamed up with Kloster Ebernach, a working monastery for the mentally handicapped in the historical town of Cockhem in Mosel. The monastery has been making wine since 1673.

Martin practices biodynamic viticulture to fully express terroir. A lot of winemakers try to explain biodynamic farming but Martin interprets in a different way. He said plants are intelligent but reactive. Therefore, when treated with fertilisers and herbicides, they become lazy. Biodynamic promotes biodiversity but also encourages diseases. Vines therefore have to protect themselves from being attacked by producing more phenol, resulting in thicker and stronger skin. In winemaking, phenol is a positive attribute therefore wine made from grapes with higher phenol concentration has more complexity. He even compared this to human being - that over protected children are likely to become weak adults.

Probably because of his Australian training, Martin does not believe in biodynamic winemaking as it is unpredictable and has a high risk of volatility. He does, however, use minimum dosage of chemicals, and play with spontaneous yeast fermentation in amphorae.

I had a chance to work with Martin and his small team for a short period during 2017 harvest. He is self-confident, creative, yet a bit unorganised although in a positive way. His characters reflect in his wine. He makes all styles of Riesling from sparkling to sweet and also experiments with orange Riesling. The first vintage of his orange wine spent 40 days on skin, and he increased this to 300 days for the second vintage, then scaled back to 180 days for the 2016 vintage. The wine is refreshing with orange peel aroma, like drinking a pleasant cold tea in a summer day and its goes well with some strong flavoured food. Martin has three ranges of wine each with its own label, nice on its own but somehow doesn’t really convey the wine and
also lacks the common identity. However, don’t dismiss the wine because of the labels, the content is what counts.

Like most vintners in Mosel, Weingut Kloster Ebernach is a small producer but Martin is nevertheless watching out for more vineyards on the steep slopes. He is also looking for a partner that shares his vision. Anyone who fancies the idea of making wine in extreme terroir may want to have a chat with Martin.

While the quality of wine is the most important, it is the story behind the label that gets the attention of consumers. The adventure of a lone Aussie on the Mosel terraced slopes is certainly a unique story.

Monday, 20 November 2017

The Making of Chryseia

Being a winemaker and having been taking part in more than ten harvests, I always love going back to vineyards, getting my hands dirty with grapes and juice and learning tricks from winemakers. Therefore I am taking one year off to make wine around the world: Douro (Portugal), Mosel (Germany), Tokaji (Hungary), Sussex (England), Stellenbosch and Elgin (South Africa), McLaren Vale (Australia) and New Zealand. I will be sharing my journey and experience here.

When mentioning Douro, most of lovers will think about Port. However, Douro has been making still wine long before Port was created. The success of Port in the past 200 years meant that still wine was somehow neglected. Some winemakers started producing red wine earnest 30 years but its rustic style was not what wine lovers preferred.

Therefore 20 years ago in1998 when the Symington family, who owns some of the finest port houses including Cockburn’s, Dow’s, Graham’s and Warre’s, toyed with the idea of making still red wine, they decided to seek outside help rather than doing it on its own. Bruno Prats, a long time friend because of the Primum Familiae Vini (Leading Wine Families) connection, has just sold his Chateau Cos D’Estournel at that time. Since Bruno has always considered the Douro as one of the greatest terroir because of the long agebility or Port wine, therefore when James Symington discussed with him about the project, the two clicked. The joint venture, Prats & Symington (P+S), was established in 1999. The idea was to make an elegant Bordeaux style wine using the Douro varieties. Symington would provide the grapes and Bruno the expertise.

The result? Chryseia 2001, its second vintage, made into the Top 100 in Wine Spectator 2003. Since then, the portfolio has expanded to include Post Scriptum and Prazo de Roriz. Post Scriptum, PS in short because it is the wine after Chryseia, was launched in 2002, a difficult year where the grapes were not good enough for Chryseia, hence it is also nick named Baby Chryseia. Prazo de Roriz was released in 2009 after the company purchased Quinta de Roriz, now home of Chryseia. The quinta, located at the south bank of the Douro River with a spectacular view of the river, has a history dating back to 1764 and even a chapel on site, complements Chryseia’s image and philosophy. Ten years on, Chryseia 2011 was ranked Number 3 in Wine Spectator Top 100 2014. It is considered one of the best still red wine from the Douro.

I had the opportunity to have participated at the Quinta de Roriz 2017 harvest, talked to Bruno Prats, Symington Chairman Paul, Symington Douro Still Winemaker Pedro Correia, and worked with Luis Coelho, the ‘man’ behind Chryseia, and his team. It was tough with 12 hours per day for three weeks but the experience and insight worth the effort.

So what are the secrets behind Chryseia?

The first and ultimate is vineyard and grape varieties selection. Quinta de Roriz and Quinta de Perdiz, both located in Cima Corgo (the middle part of the Douro Valley) but with different facings, provide the ingredients for the wine. The grapes are of Grade A quality if they were to be made into Port. Although there are other varieties in the vineyards, only Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca (also known as Touriga Francesca) go into Chryseia as Bruno believes these are the varieties best suited to make outstanding wine in the Douro. Jancis Robinson compared them with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

Next is the fermentation process. Traditional  Douro red wine is made similar to Port with high extraction. The wine therefore is not as refined. To ensure Chryseia is elegant with ageing potential, fully ripen grapes are fermented under controlled temperature with a long post fermentation maceration period. In this case, only desirable phenols, rather than harsh tannins, are extracted. The wine, still in contact with skin, continues to evolve, developing the mid-palate and forming the structure. The important task of winemaker is to decide when to press. Tasting the wine everyday with Luis was a fascinating experience to witness the creation of the wine. It is like slow cooking, the chef needs to constantly taste the food to avoid over-cooking.

Wine destined for Chryseia at this stage, is then transferred to new barrel for ageing. Bruno explained the winemaking process of Chryseia up to this stage is pretty similar to making a first class Bordeaux. The only difference is the size of barrel. 400l barrels are used rather than the 225 Bordeaux barriques because the Douro grape varieties have more fruit expression compared to the Bordeaux counterpart. Too much oak will over-dominate the fruit character. Bruno summed up, Bordeaux wine emphasises structure and it must age before drinking, whereas Chryseia is more expressive that can be accessible when young but it can also age. Chryseia only has 17 years winemaking history but Bruno is confident that it can age for at least 20 years. His son, head of LVMH wine estate Jean Guillames, recently tried the first vintage Chryseia 2000 and remarked the wine was still very fresh. Incidentally, I also tasted Chryseia 2000 before I headed to the Douro and definitely it has not passed the peak yet.

The final key is blending. The team, led by Bruno and Charles, will taste all the barrels and select the final blend of Chryseia in winter and spring the following year. If the wine was not up to their standard, no Chryseia will be made, as in the case of vintage 2002. On the other hand, only limited quantity of Chryseia is made even in an exceptional year. The components that don’t make into Chryseia will be used for the second wine Post Scriptum. This means that the best years of Chryseia are also the best years for Post Scriptum.

While the above are all critical to making a great wine, I strongly feel, after working at the estate, that team effort is a major contributor. At Quinta de Roriz, a team of some 20 pickers select and only pick the best bunches under the blazing sun. When the grapes arrive at the cellar, another team of 10 people sort the grapes first by bunches and then by berries to get rid of leaves, dried grapes and unripe berries from going into the fermentation tanks. And of course there are also colleagues managing the fermentation tasks. As most of us work, eat and sleep at the quinta, we are being looked after by Ana and her mother, taking care of our meals and even laundry. Luis understands team spirit well.  At the beginning of harvest, he conducted a tasting to the team, explained the philosophy of the wine so we all knew our work does matter and treated us  to the harvest dinner. The best, however, was the end of vintage leitao (yummy home-roasted baby pig) party, cooked by Luis himself. Even though we worked 12 hours everyday, everyone was energetic and looked forward to the next picking day.


Bruno and the Symington Family have the vision to create the best still red wine in the Douro; Pedro and Luis execute the vision, and the team does the ‘work’. A great wine is not only made by one person alone, but the entire team.

Prats & Symington Wine, including Chryseia, Post Scriptum and Prazo de Roriz, are available at Watson’s Wine, Hong Kong
Vino Veritas, Macau
Fleur de Paris, Shenzhen, China

Friday, 13 October 2017

Penfolds recorking clinic

My previous encounters with Peter Gago, the Chief winemaker and the face of Penfolds, always involved tastings and comparing various Penfolds wines and vintages. Our latest meeting was surrounded by even more Penfolds, some were rare and limited release wines, but we didn’t taste a single drop. Peter was explaining the recorking service that Penfolds has been providing to its customers around the world since 1991.

Penfolds Recorking Clinic was inspired by Chateau Lafite-Rothschild who recorked old bottles for customers. While the French did this subtlety, the Aussie took the concept to a new height by flying a team of winemakers and a manual corking machine to provide this ultimate after-sales service to customers who own   any Penfolds red wine older than 15 years old free of charge.

The Hong Kong Clinic returned after its inauguration in 2001. This time, more than 400 back vintage wines were registered including the first vintage releases of Magill Estate Shiraz and RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz tracing back to 1983 and 1997 respectively, not to mention Penfolds Grange and St. Henri Shiraz spanning decades. Among the customers are movie star Jackie Chan, who sent in a few cases of Penfolds, and a gentleman who took half a day off and brought over 30 bottles from his father’s collection.


The fill level of the wine is the first thing to be inspected at the Clinic. The level of wine decreases over year due to evaporation so it is natural that the older the wine, the lower the fill level. The second step is to open the wine and assess the condition. Around 15ml of wine will be poured for tasting and winemakers will then advise on cellaring and drinking windows, after which bottle is then topped up with the later vintage of the same wine. In between stage, inert gas is bumped into the wine to display oxygen in the bottle. If the wine condition is satisfactory, it will be certified, recorked with a new dated cork, capsuled and finally beautifully wrapped in tissue paper before returning to the customers. Although the process will not extend the life of the wine, it nevertheless stops the wine from further deterioration.


However, if the fill level of the wine is way lower that the vintage indicated, or it is at the low shoulder already, or if the wine passes the peak, Penfolds will still service the wine but only put a blank cork without any capsule. Customers are therefore able to enjoy the wine but the wine will have no resale value.

Health check was the reason when Penfolds opened the Recorking Clinic 26 years ago but as Peter elaborated, the Clinic has also become an ‘Authenticity Clinic’ as customers can trace the bottle using the unique certification number. It also takes the bad wine out of the secondary market. Sometimes the Penfolds team might come across rare and old bottles in good conditions, and they would offer to buy back from customers. But above all, it is the engagement with customers first hand that keeps the Clinic running. Peter said 20 years, Australia customers went to the Clinic with the wines and kids. Now, these kids grow up and will take the wines to Clinic with their own children. The sentiment as well as quality is the secret to build customer loyalty.

Friday, 15 September 2017

China’s hidden secret

Those following the China wine industry for a while probably agree that it is going in the right direction.The outstanding wineries that are on everyone lips are Silver Heights, Helan Qingxue, Skyline, Chateau Nine Peaks, to name a few. And I’m glad to add another one on the list: Canaan Wine (迦南酒業) in Hebei. The only issue is that the wine is not commercially available ... yet.

Founded in 2009, Canaan Wine is a new project of Domaine Franco-Chinois, a Sino-French joint venture winery more focus on scientific research. It has 300 ha under vines on different altitudes: 500m for red varieties, 600m for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and 900m for aromatic white such as Sauvignon Blanc.

I was lucky to have visited the vineyard and winery with winemaker Zhao Desheng. The vineyard is meticulous and they have their own nursery. I was even more impressed with the winery. It is clean and well maintained but more importantly, there are small stainless steel tanks, the first time I saw in China wineries! Not only do small tanks allow experimentation, they also provide more flexibility so there won’t be half empty (or half full) tanks where wine is more prone to oxidation and spoilage. The barrel rooms are temperature control and there are a full bottling line and laboratory.

Desheng spoilt me with the tasting. The first was a 2016 Chardonnay barrel sample (100% new). It has intense spices and yellow fruits on the nose but the palate is fresh with good acidity and lingering length. It was a nice surprise and set the pace for the tasting. Next to follow were bottled Cabernet Sauvignon (2012, 2013, 2014), a 2012 Syrah Reserve and a 2012 Domaine Franco-Chino Reserve. The wines are of different styles but they are all integrated and exhibit a certain elegance.

I persuaded Desheng to give me some Pinot Noir. We tasted the 2015 tank sample which was vibrant, full of cherries and balanced. The 2013 in bottle was more restrained with developed bouquet of spices and pepper.

I thought this was a perfect end of the tasting and I was shown a botrytis Sauvignon Blanc. It has dried fruits and nuts aromas, a little volatile acidity and good acidity. I suddenly very envied Desheng’s job. He said the owner said the wine is not good enough to be released so he has to keep trying and has all the freedom to experiment. I didn’t visit too many wineries in China and Canaan Wine is one of the most un-Chinese winery I visited.

Canaan Wine certainly has ambition. They are developing a tasting room/visitor centre with catering facilities so they have all the intention to make the wine commercially available. Let’s hope we don’t need to wait for too long.