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.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Burgundy undiscovered appellations

It was the annual Bourgogne Week in Hong Kong and this year the spokesperson was Anne Moreau, owner of Domaine Louis Moreau in Chablis. Anne shared a few insights at the tasting.

We all know that Burgundy is a very tiny region with a big name, but I was nevertheless surprised when Anne put it in figures: Burgundy produces only 0.5% of the word’s production but commands 3% of the trade. Even with that tiny volume, Burgundy is available in 177 countries out of 196 in the world, Albeit a lot is by allocation and in small volume, still it is impressive.

While China is a big potential market, it is a challenge for the Burgundians. Most consumers are still buying wine by labels and they generally prefer oaky red wine. For now, Anne said they are happy to let Bordeaux, with the quantity, marketing power and resources, to open up China and other new markets because consumers, once they start drinking, always move from Bordeaux to Burgundy, which is the destination. This echoed another Burgundy producer, Marco Caschera from Vincent Girardin, who we had lunch a couple of weeks ago. Judging by the fact that Hong Kong, a traditional Bordeaux stronghold and is now Burgundy’s fifth biggest market in terms of value, the statement certainly rings true.

Burgundy produces around 2/3 white and 1/3 red. But in Hong Kong, red Burgundy accounted for 76% of value, mostly from the village and above appellations of Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits. The relatively small share of white wine is also mainly from the better known and iconic AOC’s. Probably this is the reason why the theme of this year’s Bourgogne Week is ‘Bourgogne AOSs Undiscovered Treasures’ that focused on the lesser known regions such as Petit Chablis, Givry, Mercurey and Montagny in Côte Chalonnaise;  as well as Mâcon Davayé and Saint-Véran in Mâcon, not to mention the simple but refreshing Bourgogne Aligoté.

I think it is a positive sign that BIVB (Bourgogne Wine Board) is pushing these smaller names. The wines may not be as complex and long lasting as their big brothers but they are accessible, affordable and enjoyable. We cannot just merely focus on the top wines and shun the rest as this will only reinforce the ‘snobbish’ image of wine, misleading average consumers that wine must be expensive.

Back to the vintage, Anne said 2015 was good for both white and red with balanced fruits and freshness. There were a few 2015 white wines at the tasting but in general, I enjoyed the 2014 whites more, especially Chablis. I’m looking forward to tasting some 2015 red maybe next year.

Here are some of the ‘undiscovered treasures’ that I will be happily sharing:

White:
Domaine Barraud Pouilly-Fuissé Alliance Vergisson 2015, from Syba (China) Ltd
Domaine Denoît Ente Bourgogne Aligoté 2014, from Burgundy Wine Co Ltd
Domaine Fabien Coche Bourgogne 2015, from The Juicy Grape
Domaine Patrick Hudelot Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits, Les Plançons 2011, from Natural Food & Beverages
Domaine Piguet Chouet Monthélie Cuvée Clara 2014, from Vins & Vignerons
Domaine Vrignaud Chablis 1er Cru, Fourchaume 2015, from Montrose Fine Wines
Louis Moreau Chablis 2015, from Continental Wines
Olivier Leflaive Montagny 1er Cru, Les Bonneveaux 2015, from Corney & Barrow

Red:
Bruno Clair Masannay Les Vaudenelles 2013, from Altaya Wines
Domaine Fabien Coche Mersault 2014, from The Juicy Grape

Friday, 16 June 2017

Lunch with Maison Vincent Girardin

Marco Caschera, the Commercial Director of Maison Vincent Girardin, is quite a character. Probably because of his Italian origin (he was born in France but his parents are Italians), he talked non-stop during the very entertaining media lunch where he presented his still in barrel 2015 white Burgundy. He also made a few daring comments that made us laugh, probably upset some people but certainly have the ring of truth.

Marco called his white wine ‘no makeup’ Chardonnay because it is fine, elegant and precise. He admitted that in the beginning of 2000, Vincent Girardin wines were about strong extraction and new oak but had since backtracked. He said it is important that wine first has to show fruits and then terroir. New oak masks the soul of wine and they certainly do not want to make American wine in Burgundy!

Because of this philosophy, Marco compared wines from 2003, an exceptionally hot year in Burgundy, to dead babies, that the wine was good when young but ageing potential was limited, except for the very few wine with great terroir.

We also had a geology lesson from Marco on how hills were formed in Burgundy and soil eroded resulting in stony slopes with thin top soil and deep clay soil at the bottom of the hill. He said wines from stony parcels, like south Meursault, are more tense and elegant with pronounced minerality/saltiness, whereas wines from heavily clay soil, as in north Meursault, are round and supple. To emphasise his point, he further commented  that if a winemaker made a round and soft wine from a stony vineyard, it would be a failure in winemaking technique!

Back to his wines, 2015 was blessed with a farvourable growing season, having no disease and a cool harvest. All the six wines we tasted were certainly elegant with no makeup and terroir expressive. The outstanding ones are:

Meursault 1er Cru Les Perrières 2015: Perrières means stones and the site is considered as the Grand Cru of Merusault.

Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru 2015: Elegant and tense with minerality jumping out of the glass. According to Marco, the site has the poorest soil with only chalk hence the tight structure of the wine.

I asked Marco about what he thinks about New World wine, which is taking market share from the Old World. He was very relaxed and welcome the fact that New World wine in expanding the wine market. He said consumers drinking New World wine today will drink Burgundy one day. It is just like people drinking Bordeaux and now all drink Burgundy. Burgundy is the final destination that once wine lovers are there, they will not turn back. Well, I kind of agree but I will also certainly sneak out the back door of the Burgundian world and enjoy all the great New World wines! 😉

Vincent Girardin is available from Altaya Wines.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Another look at New Zealand Pinot Noir

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is a crowd pleaser but doesn’t really excite. To me, most Central Otago Pinot Noirs fall in the same category. They are pleasant, well-made but predictable. In contrast, Pinot Noir from Marlborough and Martinborough are more interesting.

I was proofed wrong at the New Zealand Pinot Noir SPIT Workshop, presented by Liam Steevenson MW and organised by Meiburg Wine Media. We tasted 12 wines from six different regions in New Zealand and those from Central Otago were among the best in the flight. According to Liam, Central Otago winemakers are moving away from the typical bold and heavy Pinot Noir and opting for more gentle extraction and using less new oak.

Liam commented, ‘A lot of winemakers and wine lovers alike have soft spots for Pinot Noir. It is a grape with more soul and substances than other grape varieties, with a huge reflection of the place. Its delicate skin also makes it tricky to handle at the cellar. Winemakers have to extract the maximum colour and flavours but not too strong to extract the bitter tannin from the pips and stems.’

Partly because of its thin skin, Pinot Noir is temperamental and prone to climatic influence, therefore quality fluctuates a lot (just look at Burgundy!). However, it is the most consistent in New Zealand with more than 10 consecutive good vintages. Grown only in relative small areas, New Zealand Pinot Noirs bear the hallmark of purity, but they also display very different regional expression that Liam summed up as:

Marlborough: Limestone and volcanic soil, wine is bright, glossy, round with sweet fruit;
Martinborough: Heavy clay soil, wine is savoury and spicy with more width, a food wine (wineries also attributed this to the Dijon clone);
Central Otago: Continental climate, wine has more weight and structure with concentrated dark red fruits.

To be fair, I think New Zealand winemakers are getting out of the typical New Zealand mould. The flight of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc I judged at 2016 CX HKIWSC was not the ‘McDonald’s’ Sauvignon Blanc I tasted a few years ago. I hope more winemakers are exploring and respecting the diversity of their terroir.


Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2014, Martinborough: Earthy, spicy with firm tannin. A good example of Pinot from the region. Available from Altaya Wines.

Muddy Water Pinot Noir 2012, Waipara: Fresh with charming red fruits and a hint of spicy notes, silky tannin. Corney & Barrow.

Apparently, it is a true wild fermentation as the grapes were fermented in the vineyard with only gentle hand plunging down. Available from

Felton Road Calvert Pinot Noir 2014, Central Otago: Biodynamic wine, it is fresh and elegant with that lifted end palate that I always associate with biodynamic wine. Available from Watson’s Wine.

Prophet’s Rock Pinot Nori 2012, Central Otago: Red fruits and spices with a nice and round mid palate. Available from Ponti.

Kumeu River Hunting Hill Pinot Noir 2014, Auckland: Nice balance of fruits and spices. An elegant wine that rivals a lot of Burgundies. Available from wine’n’things.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Anteprima Amarone 2013, bottle and barrel samples tasting

Wine lovers may argue the best Italian wines are ABC, ABB or ABBC. Whatever it is, the ‘A’, stands for Amarone, is universally agreed that it is one of the top Italian wines.

Surprisingly, Amarone has a relatively short history. It was made accidentally in 1936 when a barrel of Recioto, then the apogee of every Valpolicella producer, was left over-fermented, resulting in a pleasing dry red wine that was slightly bitter, hence the name Amarone (a great bitter). The wine was eventually bottled in 1939 but it was always called ‘Recioto Amarone della Valpolicella’ — the dried version of Recioto until 1990 when it was granted the DOC status and the name Amarone della Valpolicella was adopted. 

The period of appassimento (drying process) of Amarone is less than that of Recioto and only around 35-40% of water is lost. Minimum ageing requirement is 24 months. It is a rich, big and structured wine with a minimum of 14% alcohol. Dried fruits, spices and chocolate dominate the nose. 

The style of Amarone has been evolving over years. The traditional style is earthy, complex with no noticeable oak influence but firm tannin. The modern style is bolder, more upfront with riper fruits, more extract and noticeable oak aromas, higher alcohol (can be up to 17%) and more residual sugar. Recently, the style is swinging back from the modern to traditional style and winemakers are making all kinds of Amarones in between. The trick, according to winemakers, is to find the balance so the wine is expressive and reflects the philosophy of the maker. Nevertheless, today’s winemakers are focusing on making more refined wine that reflects the land, the tradition and that can age gracefully. Elegant and drinkabilty are on nearly every winemaker’s lips!


I was privileged to have attended the press session of the Anteprima Amarone 2013 tasting - the release of the vintage, with other international wine writers. Served by sommeliers bringing the wine to us at the table, we could choose to taste bottle sample, barrel sample (some Amaroness are aged for 5 or 6 years before being released), or both. I chose to taste all 83 of them, first bottle sample followed by barrel samples.

Nearly all the wine were too young to drink but they all showed complexity and depth in various degrees. I focused on the style and agree that more winemakers are moving away from the bold and jammy style, which for me is a positive direction. Amarone is a big wine already and most winemakers I talked to describe Amarone as a ‘meditation’ wine. The modern style may be pleasing at first impression but it is too heavy to have more than a couple of sips. To me, a meditation wine is about longevity and gracefulness. Therefore, a perfect Amarone should be powerful yet subtle, flavourful but with the freshness to support it. 

Quite some wines stood out at the tasting, including:



During the trip, we also visited a few wineries and here are the few that were particularly impressive:

Accordini Stefano, Fumane, Valpolicella Classica
Founded in the 70s with vineyards at 550m altitude, this family owned winery came a full circle by first having  vineyards in pergola system and wines aged in tonneau (900 l barrel), then changing to guyot system and ageing in barrique (225l barrel) sone 20 years ago and now back to pergola system and ageing in tonneau. The philosophy of Tiziano, the second generation now in charge, is to observe tradition but also ready to change. 

Accordini Stefano Valpolicella Classico 2015 DOC: a refreshing wine with fresh cherry and violet.

Accordini Stefano Acinatico Ripasso 2008 DOC: a beautiful wine with dried fruit nose and a savoury palate. We compared this with the just released, concentrated, 2014 vintage, to show the ageing potential.

Damoli, Negrar, Valpolicella Classica
Probably one of the smallest wineries in the region with less than 3 ha of vineyard, it is a brother-sister-father venture with brother Daniele being the winemaker and father Bruno looking after the vineyard while sister Lara does the talking. They do a lot of experiment including a white Corvina (Biahcheté), a simple but pleasant wine. 

Damoli Checo Amarone Classico DOCG 2009: Black fruits, spices and chocolate mixed with a slight savoury notes. Its first vintage was 2005 and the wine only released after at least 5 years of ageing. They were generous to share a 2001 vintage, which was an experimental vintage and only 35 bottles left.

Secondo Marco: Fumane, Valpolicella Classica
Translated as ‘According to Marco’, owner and winemaker Marco Speri comes from one of the historical winemaking families but decided to started his own winery in 2008 to show wine lovers his way of interpreting the grapes by combining tradition and technology, by making wine the way his father did but with modern temperature control. It is hard to create your own identity under the shadow of a prominent family but Marco succeeded. His biggest compliment is that the old men in Valpolicella appreciate his wine. Well, I certainly do, not only the wine but also the labels.

Secondo Marco Valpolicella Classico 2015 DOC: lively, fresh cherries and good length. The label is a ballet  dancer to denote the lightness of the wine.

Secondo Marco Valpolicella Amarone 2010 DOCG: still very fresh, the wine is well-integrated with depth and structure. The weight-lifter on the label implies a powerful wine.

Monte del Frá Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Lena di Mezzo 2010: We had a vertical tasting of 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2009 vintages. The 2010 is a blend of black fruits, dried prune and spices with a soft, integrated palate. 

Monte del Frá Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Scarnocchio 2009: Scarnocchio is the ‘Grand Cru’ site, a very old terraced vineyard that lies within the 17.8 ha Lena di Mezzo. This is a complex wine with multiple bouquets, powerful yet austere. 

La Dama Recioto della Valpolicella Classico 2012 DOCG: Zesty with ginger and cinnamon and candied fruits. The grapes were from the parcel where the grapes reach a high sugar level yet maintain a high acidity, no wonder the liveliness. 

Aldegheri Lugana Cà Perlar 2015 DOC: Made with 100% Trebbiano di Lugana grapes and fermented after three weeks of drying then aged briefed in large old oak, the wine is fresh with yellow fruits, and a rich, mineral finish. One of the fine examples how a neutral grape could be made into an outstanding wine.

I Campi Soave Classico Campo Vulcano 2011 DOC: Soave is next to Valpolicella and some producers have vineyards in both regions. This Soave has intense aromas of citrus and yellow fruits, fresh acidity and persistent length.

For more information on Valpolicella region and its wines, check out the Consorzio’s website.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Japan study trip - wine and sake

It was the annual HKIWSC wine judges study trip again and this time we went to Japan for both wineries and sake breweries visit.

After a stressful start of missing the train by five minutes that delayed the trip by one hour in the first day, we eventually arrived Yamanashi, the oldest wine region in Japan where we visited two wineries, Grace Winery (available from wine’n’things) and Chateau Mercian.

The two wineries are at the extreme opposite but both share the same commitment to quality. Grace is a small family owned estate managed by father and daughter while Chateau Mercian is one of the largest wineries in Japan run by a team of winemakers and corporate staff.

Koshu is the native Japanese grape variety that has been cultivated in Yamanashi for more than one thousand years. It is traditionally trained in pergola system but the quality was usually substandard because of high yield. To improve the quality, Grace Wine decided to plant Koshu in VPS (vertical positioning system) to maximise sunshine thereby concentrating the flavour. In contrast, Chateau Mercian continues with the pergola training but  experimented with ‘Ichi-monji’ spur pruning that resulted in lower yield and better quality fruits, instead of using the traditional ‘X shape’ cane pruning. It is interesting to learn that two very different approaches could achieve the same objective.

We tasted four Koshu from each winery. From Grace, the Koshu were all vinified the same way in stainless tank but with the fruits from different regions and vineyards. All the wines shared the same delicacy and purity but with different expressions. The Private Reserve 2015, made from grapes from Katsunuma village, has more pronounced white fruits notes probably because of the clay soil where vines are grown; while the Cuvée Misawa Akeno Koshu, a single vineyard wine, is precise with intense minearality and steeliness. This horizontal tasting was a perfect showcase of how a neutral grape could shine given the right management at vineyards and cellars.

At Chateau Mercian, two of the Koshu were fermented in stainless steel tank while the two Koshu Gris de Gris (2015 and 2005 vintages), had skin contact. The 2015 Gris de Gris was fermented and aged in oak, giving a more structured, slightly tannic, smoky wine with more yellow fruits aromas. Koshu, because of its delicate flavour, is great with sashimi but this Gris de Gris would be good with more flavourful dishes such as yakitori.


The other highlights were:
Grace Extra Burt 2011: a very small production of Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine with 36 months on lees, was made from 100% Chardonnay grown at Misawa Estate in Akeno that has the longest sunshine hour in Japan. Its vividness and   purity are not dissimilar to English sparkling wine.

Grace Cuvée Misawa Rouge Ridge System 2009, a 100% Cabernet Franc again from the Misawa
vineyard in Akeno, was the most impressed in the line up with ripe fruits, integrated palate and elegance. It was only made in limited volume in the best year and is not for sale. We were very privileged to have tasted one of the  547 bottles made.

Chateau Mercian Syrah 2013 from the 620m altitude Mariko Vineyard in Nagano Prefecture, a typical cool climate Syrah with lovely white pepper nose and fine tannin. Only 1,700 bottles were made.

Apart from wineries, we also visited two sake breweries, Izumi Bashi (available from city;‘super) in Ebina and Nechi Otokoyama in Niigata. I don’t know a lot about sake but definitely want to learn more after this trip.

At Izumi Bashi, owner Yuichi Hasahiba gave us an intense course on sake brewing and a practical session on sake making - mixing steamed rice and kouji rice, as well as kimoto (mashing the rice mixture). This was followed by a 8-course Japanese fusion dinner paired with 10 sake from sparkling to sweet at his own restaurant to showcase the versatility of his sake.


At Nechi Otokoyama, sake was made like wine with vintages as owner Yoshiki Watanabe believes wine and sake share the same principles. We were shown the rice fields along the banks of Nechi River before having a very informative tasting of  three vintages of sake made with Gohyakumangoku and Koshi-Tanrei respectively.

The trip was educational as well as super fun, with lots of delicious food and the snow was added bonus. Thanks again Kenichi, Micky and Sarah for organising another  memorable HKIWSC judge trip! Looking forward to the next one.



Friday, 13 January 2017

The baron of Barossa

Peter Lehmann founded one of the biggest wineries in Barossa but it is not because of the size that he is called the baron of Barossa, but because of how he founded the winery.

Back in late 1970, Peter Lehmann was working at Saltram where they bought grapes from some 150 independent grapegrowers. When Saltram decided not to do so anymore because of surplus, Peter realised that most of these growers’ livelihood was at stake. Therefore, instead of breaking the bad news to them, he resigned from Saltram, bought the grapes from the growers and made the wine with the breakaway team. In doing so, he saved the vineyards which would have otherwise been bulldozed. After 30 years, Peter Lehmann Wines is still working with these growers, most now in their third generations, and making everyday drinking to premium wine using their grapes. Peter, therefore, is highly regarded in Barossa and Australia for being the saviour of the Barossa vineyards.

Ian Hongell is the third generation chief winemaker at Peter Lehmann Wines, who has been with the winery since 1998 and was under the mentorship of Andrew Wigan, then second generation chief winemaker and one of the breakaway team members back in the 70s. Prior to joining Peter Lehmann, Ian has worked at Penfolds, California and France. During his first visit to Hong Kong recently, we discussed his winemaking philosophy and tasted a few of his gems over a delicious lunch.

Ian’s biggest frustration is generalisation. A lot of people think all Barossa wines are heavy, jammy and rounded but there are in fact many different styles depending on the winemakers and where the fruits come from. For him, he believes oak gives structure to wine but it should only be in the background, not in the wine as it will mask the sense of place. Therefore, he has cut down the use of new oak and oak ageing time. This is certainly reflected in the wine we tasted. 

Portrait Eden Valley Dry Riesling 2015:
A fresh, crisp wine with intense lime and apple aromas, the wine was made in tank with no malolactic fermentation to highlight its freshness. Ian called this his cocktail wine they he enjoys in any hot afternoon. Portrait is Peter Lehmann mid-price range that showcases the true characters of the Barossa.

Masters Wigan Eden Valley Riesling 2011:
One of the Masters Collection series named after Andrew Wigan, the wine was made from grapes at the best and cool sites at Eden Valley, and only released after five years of bottle ageing. It is multi-layered with a hint of honey but none of the petrol note that is too often found in young Riesling from warm climate.

Masters Mentor Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon 2012:
Another wine from the Masters Collection with structure and finesse; The cool 2012 allowed the wine to develop elegant blackcurrant fragrance with a savoury notes on palate. Apparently, Barossa is actually considered as a relatively cool climate region in Australia. Hard to believe but then everything is relative.

Stonewell Shiraz 2012 and 1988:
This is the best Shiraz of the vintage and the best possible expression of the Barossa. Ian presented two vintages, 24 years apart, to show the longevity of the wine. The 2012 was still tight but has a great depth while the 1988 was generous and opulent.

Ian is proud of the evolution of the wines over the years even under the challenge of climate change. By tackling the issue through vineyard management, picking grapes earlier and adjusting winemaking techniques, he is able to make wines with bright fruits and freshness rather than heavy jammy monsters.

Peter Lehmann Wines is available from ASC Fine Wines.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Food and wine - mix and match

There are a lot of wine competitions in the world but only a handful judge with food. The Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Wine & Spirit Competition (CX HKIWSC) is one of the few and in my opinion, probably has the most comprehensive food/wine matching category.

Entries of CX HKIWSC come from all over the world but the target is primarily Asian markets, hence judges, except one of the directors Debra Meiburg MW, and an international VIP guest judge, are all Asian wine professionals. Realising that Asian wine markets are still developing, the competition incorporated the food/wine matching category since it inaugurated in 2009. Instead of pairing all the entries with one or a few dishes, wineries can choose which dishes they think their wines would match best and then enter accordingly. The competition started with four Chinese dishes and now has expanded to 12 Asian dishes from five countries. I am lucky to be part of this oldest competition in Asia since the beginning and witness the evolution of the wine/food matching category.

Judges assess the quality and typicity when judging wine. However, when judging food/wine matching, we have to focus on the interaction between food and wine. A wine might not be outstanding on its own but could do wonder when combine with food. While there are guidelines of wine/food matching, such as matching according to flavour intensity, cultural background and personal preferences also play a role. A judge who loves spicy food would prefer a red wine to accentuate the spiciness while another judge may want an equally intense fruity/off-dry wine to tone down the spiciness. Both wines fit the guideline of matching wine and food based on flavour intensity but the which matching is better is subjective depending on the individual’s palate.

Therefore, the CX HKIWSC food/wine matching session is always the most fun and exciting as judges with different nationalities and background will debate on each pairing. Last year, the organiser also invited food and lifestyle journalists to assess a few pairings alongside judges, and it was interesting to realise that we have different priorities. Wine judges usually have a taste of wine, then the food followed by the wine again to see if the wine tastes better or worse, while most media judges would have the food first, then wine and food again to see if how the food fares. Although we had different opinions in some cases, we in fact agreed on over 75% of the pairings.

Most consumers may not know the characteristics of the wine but they know the flavour intensity of typical Asian dishes. The result of the food/wine matching give consumers indications on the wine styles and thus help them select wine from the myriad available in the marketplace. Once they are more familiar with different wine styles, they will be more confidence to try new wine styles and experiment with more food/wine  matching.

Here are the trophy wines for the competition dishes, see if you agree.

THAI DISHES

BEST WINE WITH KAI HOI BAI TOEI [FRIED CHICKEN IN PANDAN LEAF, 香蘭葉包雞] 
The Kings Bastard Chardonnay 2015, Marisco Vineyards, New Zealand

BEST WINE WITH TOD MAN PLA [CURRIED FISH CAKES WITH SWEET CHILLI SAUCE, 泰式魚餅]
Monsoon Valley Blended Rosé 2014 Siam Winery, Thailand

BEST WINE WITH SINGAPORE CHILLI CRAB, 新加玻辣椒炒蟹
Asia de Cuba 2015, Hiestand Weingut & Hofbrennerei, Germany

CHINESE DISHES 

BEST WINE WITH HONEY GLAZED CHAR SIU 蜜汁叉燒
Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 Yealands Estate Wines, New Zealand

BEST WINE WITH SMOKED PIGEON WITH OOLONG TEA LEAVES 凍頂烏龍茶燻鴿
Mulderbosch Faithful Hound Red 2014 Mulderbosch Vineyards, South Africa (available from Altaya)

BEST WINE WITH CANTONESE BRAISED BRISKET 廣東牛腩
Nest Egg Shiraz 2013, Bird in Hand Winery, Australia (available from wine'n'things)

BEST WINE WITH CRYSTAL KING PRAWN WITH PARMA HAM 巴馬火腿大蝦
Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Achleiten 2015, Domäne Wachau, Austria

JAPANESE DISHES

BEST WINE WITH WAGYU BEEF TEPPANYAKI 和牛鐵板燒
Eden Hall Shiraz 2015, Eden Hall, Australia

BEST WINE WITH SASHIMI 日本刺身
Tamanohikari Junmai Ginjo Shukon 2015 TAMANOHIKARI Sake Brewing Co, Japan

BEST WINE WITH GRILLED UNAGI 照燒鰻魚
Porão Velho 2014, Encosta da Vila, Portugal

INDIAN DISHES
BEST WINE WITH MURG MAKHANI (BUTTER CHICKEN 牛油煮烤雞)
Val du Charron Black Countess 2013

BEST WINE WITH MUSHROOM AND PEA MASALA 馬沙拉蘑菇青豆
FIOL Prosecco DOC