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.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Pinot Palooza - Welcome to the world of Pinot

Big scale wine events are abound in Hong Kong, including the annual Wine & Dine Festival, Taste Hong Kong and various country generic tastings such as Discover South Africa, Riesling Weeks and also James Suckling Great Wines series. But as far as I’m aware, there has not been a big scale single varietal tasting event yet.

Organising a single varietal tasting in such a scale is challenging as there is not enough differentiation in single varietal wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, like all other grapes, may taste different depending on where the grapes are grown and winemaking techniques but the style of wine is pretty much similar. In my view, there are only two varietals that can push this boundary, Riesling and Pinot Noir.

Riesling is a white grape with many faces, from sparkling and dry to off-dry and delicious sweet wine, while Pinot Noir is similarly diversified and can be made into sparkling, rosé and of course red wine. Both grape varieties are used in Canada for ice wine.

Finally, we have the chance to experience one of these two multifaceted grape varieties, Pinot Noir, at Pinot Palooza on coming Saturday (1st December). First launched in Melbourne back in 2012, Pinot Palooza has since extended to 11 cities in 5 countries with Hong Kong being the latest addition.

You might have read or heard that Pinot Noir is a temperamental grape variety (remember the movie Sideways?) and winemakers can’t help but talk about soil and clones. However, don’t be intimidated by this. Pinot Palooza is all about Pinot Noir and music. Founder Dan Sims likens wine to music, “It’s not meant to be intimidating because like music, wine has so many different artists and genres, countries and labels.” He suggested that we should approach Pinot Palooza as we would a music festival. Spend time at the Main Stage for the classic but also explore the Fringe and Emerging Stages for something new and non-mainstream, and there is also the Dance Tent for fun, easy-going, and in my words, everyday-drinking good quality Pinots.

I am totally with Dan. Wine should be accessible. We can enjoy a glass or two and at the same time learn about it, preferably in a social setting. Pinot Noir maybe temperamental but it is also diverse, attractive, inspiring and fun. Its low tannin makes it particular suitable for Chinese cuisine as tannin often clashes with soy sauce and Chinese herbs. The lighter style Pinot Noir from Burgundy and Adelaide Hills goes well with the lighter Guangdong dishes while the more fruity and structured style from Central Otago and South Africa is perfect with roasted meat and Peking Duck. Martinborough Pinot Noir has a savoury and earthy character that can stand up to heavier dishes.

Get your ticket now and enjoy a day of fun and music, while sipping and exploring everything about Pinot. See you there. 

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Central Otago | Tasmania

The two most southern wine regions in the Pacific known for their Pinot Noirs but there are much more than just Pinot.

Finally I had a chance to visit these two wine regions back to back, and I’m glad to learn that the regions are more diverse than most of us think.

Central Otago is the most inland wine region in New Zealand with semi-continental climate. Although the six sub-regions, Gibbston, Bannockburn, Cromwell, Bendigo, Wanaka and Alexandra, are relatively close to each other, they are separated by mountain ranges therefore have variations in temperature, rainfall and sunshine hours. Simon, vineyard manager at Domaine Thomson, remarked that the different styles of Pinot Noir across the sub-regions in Central Otago is more to do with climatic differences rather than soil.

Central Otago is big on Pinot Noir, but wineries are also mindful not to be stereotyped into a single-varietal region. While most producers are still largely focus on Pinot Noir, they are making various styles —fruity, accessible, age-worthy, estate blend, sub-regional, single vineyard wine — to make sure they don’t fall into the homogenous trap. I am particularly impressed with Valli Vineyard, the only winery that makes four different sub-regional wines including Gibbston, Bannockburn, Bendigo and the new Waitaki sub-region in North Otago. Gibbston is the coolest region and the wine is softer with finer tannin while the warmer Bannockburn region results in more structured wine with intense fruit. Bendigo is the warmest but the vineyard is the highest at 400m altitude and the vines are the youngest. The wine has similar flavour profile as the Bannockburn’s but a leaner structure with more finesse. Waitaki is maritime with less diurnal temperature difference and the resulting wine has vibrant fruit with a hint of earthiness and fine tannin. According to winemaker Jen Parr, the differences in the wine are from the individual sites with measured winemaking to capture what the site wants to express.

No doubt winemaking technique also contributes to the final wine style. Valli swapped some of the Gibbston fruits with Burn Cottage’s Lowburn site in Cromwell. Burn Cottage Valli Gibbston Pinot Noir shares the same floral notes and similar palate weight with Valli Gibbston’s but with an extra touch of spices and a livelier profile. Both wines have years of life ahead. 

Other notable Pinot Noir makers are biodynamic producers Burn Cottage, Domaine Thomson, Felton Road and Rippon; early pioneers Chard Farm and Rockburn (rebranded in 2002), Asia-hand Misha’s Vineyard (check out their website for their Lucky number 8), mighty Mt Difficulty (because they are one of the largest producers in the region and the view from their cellar door is magnificent in a clear day) and husband and wife team Maude Wine. Together, they make nearly 40 Pinot Noirs, each a slightly different shade from the rest. Wooing Tree makes Pinot Noir in all kinds of colour from Blondie (still blanc de noir and the bestseller) to the late harvest Tickled Pink.

And Central Otago is not only about Pinot Noir. Aromatic whites thrive here and nearly all producers who make white has a Pinot Gris. Valli makes a cool Pinot Gris orange wine called The Real McCoy with 21 days on skin and 12-13 months in neutral barrel. Mount Edward is reputable for the Riesling but also makes Grüner Veltliner and Chenin Blanc. Rippon has Ostenier, a cross between Riesling and Sylvaner; a lovely Mature Vine Riesling and a beautiful Gamay only made in good years. Scott Aliprandi from Rockburn Wines experiments with his own Syrah from one of the highest altitude vineyards close to Queenstown. It is nice to see that winemakers are trying out all possibilities. 

Central Otago’s undulating landscapes, rugged mountains, deep gorges and mirrored lakes is a heaven for outdoor sports. Queenstown, the gateway to the region, is lively and bursting with energy. The Winery, a bar-cum-retailer with over 80 NZ wines served in enomatic machines is a good place for comparative tasting. Serious wine lovers may want to spend a few days in Cromwell, the heart of Central Otago for easier wineries visit. Nightlife in Cromwell is pretty much minimal but the nearby Bannockburn Hotel, a regular spot for winemakers, has a serious wine list and serve both NZ and further afield with Coravin. 

The wineries that have representations in Hong Kong are below. Others are looking for importers.

After a quick research, I ventured to Tasmania, or Tassie as the Aussies call it, visiting 14 wineries in six days starting from the south and making my way to the north via the east coast. I had no idea what to expect but trip was as inspiring as all other wine trips.

Tasmania has four wine growing regions pretty much lie in the eastern half of the island: Tamar Valley, Pipers River, East Coast and Coal River Valley. Unlike Central Otago that has semi-continental climate, Tassie’s wine regions are influenced by their proximity to water (either ocean or rivers). At latitude 41º- 42º S, it is 3º- 4º closer to the equator than Central Otago but without the intense summer temperature. I found Tassie’s Pinot Noir, in general, more delicate, more floral and softer than Central Otago’s with a couple of exceptions such as Freycinet (also outstanding sparkling) and Home Hill Kelly’s Reserve (from Huon Valley west of Hobart). However, this doesn’t mean that Tassie’s Pinot Noir is lesser quality. It’s like comparing Volnay with Chambertin. It all depends on the occasion, the food and the company. 

Pinot Noir is up and coming, but Tasmania has already put its mark in the international arena with its sparkling wine made in traditional method with champagne grape varieties. Central Otago can be hot in summer thus pushing the sugar in grapes a little too high for sparkling wine production. In contrast, Tassie does not really have the heat spikes thus allowing grapes to ripen more slowly while still retaining the acidity. In fact, some wineries/labels, all located in Pipers River, are solely making sparkling wines with worldwide acclaim, including Jansz Vineyard, Clover Hill, House of Arras and Pirie, the sparkling wine label developed by Andrew Pirie while he was working at Tamar Ridge, now part of Brown Brothers. 

Andrew Pirie is probably the most respected winemaker in Tasmania, if not Australia. He started Ninth Island in the mid 1970s followed by Pipers Brook. After he left the corporate world, he founded Apogee and continued his research on cool climate wine. It was fascinating to hear his view on the correlation between temperature and humidity (or aridity), that two wine regions may be on the same latitude but produce different wine because of humidity. Based on the climatic index, one can thus use vineyard management technique such as trellising to facilitate grape ripening in cool climate. He restricts his vineyard plot to 2 ha only in order to best manage the site without scarifying quality. He makes 10,000 to 20,000 bottles a year of Vintage Brut and Rosé, which are elegant with finesse, and a small quantity of still wine, Alto Pinot Gris and Alto Pinot Noir. I can easily spend the entire day talking to and learning from him.

Another stand out winery is Pressing Matters in Coal River Valley in the south, founded by retired barrister Greg Melick, hence the name and the label with a thick law book. Vineyard Manager Matt Connaughton told me that Greg tasted a Pinot Noir from next door’s farm some years ago that impressed him so much that he decided to make his own in similar terroir and eventually Pressing Matters’ plot came into the market. For now, there is only one Pinot Noir but there is a range of Riesling from dry to Auslese style. The wine are conveniently named R0, R9, R69 and R139, indicating the level of residual sugar in the wine. The R0 Riesling is more delicate than the Clare’s dry Riesling and the range is more akin to Mosel’s. Matt is enthusiastic and the discussion with him from soil and climate to sustainability and biodynamic practices made the tasting more memorable.

Like Central Otago, Tassie’s aromatic whites including Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Riesling suit the conditions but there is also a fair amount of Chardonnay, probably because it is also used for sparkling wine production. Josef Chromy, Freycinet, Devil’s Corner, Pipers Brook all have well-made Chardonnay with and/or without oak. Domaine A in Coal River Valley is one of the handfuls that produce Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot because of its exceptionally warm site, and Pooley Wines, also in Coal River Valley, is experimenting with Syrah that I think certainly has potential.  

I used Hobart and Launceston as bases to explore the wine areas. It was a bit of a drive but there are nothing much in the small towns/villages closer to the wine growing regions. What compensated is that Tassie is also home to crafted gin and whisky. I had a gin tasting at Society Salamanca followed by a nightcap at The Salamanca Whisky Bar in Hobart. I was at Launceston during the Queen’s Birthday long weekend so most eateries were closed, but was super-happy to have discovered Geronimo, an Italian restaurant with a cool wine list and delicious food. The east coast of Tassie is a nature paradise but may be a bit remote for those who only want to visit wineries. However, don’t be put off by it. Devil’s Corner has a great cellar door where two independent operators serve pizzas and seafood (including oyster) in a casual al-fresco setting with a great view of the vineyards and ocean right behind it. It attracts a lot of people in good weather who just want to relax with friends and family with a good bottle of wine. 

Wineries with importers are:

Central Otago and Tasmania share some commonalities but they are also distinctively different. Both are great vocation destinations especially if you like outdoor activities. I did a bit of hiking in both places but hopefully I’ll have chances to revisit again for more adventures and tastings.