Monday, 18 June 2018

Maxwell Wines: Max-well made wine

I planned my harvest gap year back in 2017 and asked for vintage work in my 2017 January newsletter. Mark from Maxwell Wines in McLaren Vale was the first to reply so there I was, for a month from mid March 2018. I only stopped at McLaren Vale for lunch a long time ago when I was visiting Australia as a tourist so it was a nice opportunity to get acquainted with this region which is only one hour drive from Adelaide.

Like most wine regions, 2017/2018 was an expected year. Most places started harvest earlier than usual, or even if they started later than usual, they still finished picking earlier as most grapes came in a shorter period of time. This happened in McLaren Vale as well. Mark told me that vintage usually starts around mid March but this year was a good two weeks earlier. By the time I joined the team, the whites (Chardonnay and Verdelho) have been picked so my work was mainly processing red grapes, mostly Shiraz but also Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Mourvedre. One of my duties were looking after the ferment including plunging-down where the side benefit was building my ABD muscles :)

Although moderated by sea breeze, McLaren Vale is still relatively warm and red grape planting is the norm.  Maxwell’s vineyard is planted with Shiraz, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon but there is also a small amount of Verdelho on poor soil. Luckily wineries are free to source grapes from other regions. Maxwell’s Chardonnay grapes come from Adelaide Hills next door and he also experiments with Kangaroo Island Shiraz. Its Silver Hammer Shiraz is generous, typical from McLaren Vale and is the best seller while the flagship Minotaur Shiraz is intense and deep. I particularly like the cooler climate wines including the Adelaide Hills Chardonnay and Kangaroo Island Shiraz. The barrel-fermented Verdelho goes particularly well with Asian fragrant herbs.

Probably because of culture but more likely because of labour issue, Australian wineries are highly efficient. Maxwell processes about 350 tons of grapes and there were only 4 people including me working in the cellar during vintage. Everyone worked individually, independently and often multi-tasked. Mark proudly explained that the grape receival flow including tipping grapes to the hopper, destemming, crushing and sending the juice either to the press or tank, was designed in such a way that only one person is needed to handle the entire process.

The family has been growing grapes for two generations but it was Mark who built the present winery some 20 years ago. He is still pretty hands-on in daily operation. Apart from being that single person responsible for grape receival (and he loves it), he tastes the fermenting juice every day and works closely with head winemaker Andrew Jericho to create the final blends.

A competent winemaker though Mark is, he is more of a marketing man and I think this is his secret of success. He conducts cellar tour and works at cellar door, talking to visitors enthusiastically and charming them to buy the wine. The wine quality is there but Mark’s extra nudge often converts visitors to customers and Maxwell has a loyal following.

While I was there, Mark was rebranding the logo from Maxwell to Max-well, a complete makeover from the more traditional visual to a contemporary one that plays on words (Max-well made, Max-well played, Max-well fed, and so on). Visit its revamped website,  it’s clever. Mark reckoned a young company without the long history and heritage needs to freshen the image regularly to attract new consumers - a marketing man talking!

The Maxwell family was in fact the pioneer of mead, wine made from honey. Mark’s father studied this ancient beverage and after numerous experimentation with different honey and yeasts, he finally released the first Australian commercial mead in 1961. As the saying goes, the rest is history. Maxwell is the largest producer of mead in Australia and success inspired others to follow suit. Currently there are four meads on offer: Honey, Sparkling, Spiced and Liqueur. They can be enjoyed straight, in cocktail or cooking. The diversification of the mead portfolio from the original honey mead is yet another evidence of the marketing thinking of Mark.

Maxwell Wines and honey mead are available in Hong Kong from wine’n’things.

McLaren Vale at a glance
My four weeks in McLaren Vale not only allowed me to visit other wineries, but also to explore the region.

The rolling hills are gentle enough for not-too-strenuous cycling, ideal for those who want to experience the region up close and at the same time, burn off a few calories. Hikers can wander around the numerous tracks in Onkaparinga River National Park and the pristine coast only 15 minutes from McLaren Vale is just perfect for beach lovers. No wonder both residents and visitors of Adelaide flock to this playground.

There are around 70 wineries in the region and they are surprisingly close together. Most offer cellar door tastings and a few, including Maxwell, have on-site restaurants that are extremely popular. The outstanding wineries I visited were:

Bekkers Wine: A boutique winery making only 1,000 cases of fine Grenache, Syrah Grenache and Syrah by husband and wife team, Toby Bekkers the viticulturist and French Emmanuelle the winemaker. They prove that wine at 15% alcohol can be elegant and with finese. Emma also makes a Chablis Premier Cru to complement the Bekkers range. They are looking for like-minded importer in Hong Kong.

Coriole Vineyards: Bound by no rules of the Old World, New World winemakers can experiment different varieties and style of wine. Coriole takes full advantage of this freedom by planting Italian varieties alongside the mainstream Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Grenache. When they released its Sangiovese in mid 1980s, hardly anyone could pronounced the name. Since then, the winery has introduced Fiano, Vermentino, Nero d’Avola, Sagrantino and Negroamaro to McLaren Vale. Owner Mark plans to experiment with a new variety every year. Their Fiano and Barbera are outstanding, and so is the Lloyd Reserve Shiraz. Their wines are available from East Meets West in Hong Kong and China.

Oliver’s Taranga Vineyards: Fifth generation family-run estate that is equally enthusiastic with non mainstream grape varieties. In addition to Italian varieties, the family also produces a Mencia Rosé (Spain), as well as thumbs-up Tempranillo and Sagrantino. Their importer in Hong Kong is

Waywood Wine: It’s always nice to meet someone in a far-away land and found out we are connected. Andrew Wood, owner of Waywood Wine is one such person as we both learned winemaking at Plumpton College. What attracted Andrew to settle down in McLaren Vale was his fondness of big Australian wine but what he actually made is not the typical jammy wine, but more refined and textural. The Grenache, Montepulciano and Tempranillo were impressive. Andrew’s wife runs the charming Luscious Red Kitchen, a relaxed café on site.

Yangarra Estate Vineyard: Part of the Jackson Family, Yangarra practises biodynamic viticulture and specialises in Southern Rhone varieties mainly in bush vines including Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Rousanne and Viognier. Their Roux Beaurte, a 100% Rousanne partly fermented in cement egg for 160 days has beautiful texture and minerality. The Ironheart Shiraz and High Sands Grenache are restrained with depth.

It is convenient to use Adelaide as a base to visit McLaren Vale and the nearby Adelaide Hills wine region. And when you are in Adelaide, Penfolds Magill Estate, the original home of Penfolds, is just 20 minutes from city centre. Drop by to taste their icon wine Grange, and even better, enjoy the wine at their Kitchen, a modern eatery that serves delicious food. I managed to catch up with chief winemaker Peter Gago an
d had a glimpse of their new but sold out creation g3. Unfortunately there was not tasting but Peter made it up by disclosing his future plan that I have to keep secret - watch this space!

If you have more than a few days to spare, make sure to drive up to Clare Valley, about 3 hours from Adelaide, for some of the best Australian Rieslings.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Harvests in South Africa

I first visited South Africa back in 1997 as a tourist and the country just blew me away. I was really impressed with the landscape, wildlife and most of all the friendliness of the people. It was also the first time I did tasting at cellar doors – at that time I was only an average wine consumer who didn't know much about wine. And it was this visit to a wine country that made me truly fall in love with wine. With my 12th visits back to the country just round the corner, the Cape Winelands never fail to amaze me.

This was my third time taking part in harvest in South Africa and I’m lucky enough to have worked at two wineries; Villiera Wines in Stellenbosch and Paul Cluver in Elgin, both family-owned estates.

MCC at Villiera
Villiera, in the Bottelary Hills sub-region of Stellenbosch, is one of the biggest players in MCC, Methodé Cap Classique, accounting for some 50% of its production. MCC is South African answer to Champagne, a sparkling wine where second fermentation must take place in bottle and that the wine must be aged on lees for at least 12 months. Any grape varieties are allowed but most MCCs are made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chenin Blanc and Pinotage. The Cap Classique Producers Association (CCPA) was established in 1992 by 12 like-minded producers who share the passions for bottle-fermented sparkling wine and are committed to promote South Africa’s premium MCC to the world. Today, MCC is widely recognised and smaller wineries are adding MCC to their portfolios. Now CCPA has over 100 members.

I spent four weeks at Villiera for MCC harvest and learnt a lot from the team led by Jeff Grier. Picking the grapes at the right time is obviously the key factor for making quality wine but it is even more so for sparkling wine in a warmer climate to pick the grapes just ripen in order to retain the acidity. Grapes are then pressed whole bunch at low pressure up to around 0.8 bar to avoid phenolic extraction (pressure in a bottle of champagne is around 5-6 bar). All MCCs at Villiera undergo full malo-lactic fermentation (MLF) partly to soften the acid but also to ensure only minimum sulphur dosage is required. Wine from cool climate region (Champagne, England) is naturally low in pH that deters bacteria growth, but not in the warmer Stellenbosch. With no or partial MLF, a much higher sulphur dosage is needed to prevent spoilage.

The winery has a capacity of 2,000 tons. However, being big doesn’t mean lack of innovation or experimentation. Villiera produces the first low alcohol MCC with 9.6% alcohol called Starlight Brut NV with 12 months on lees. Its Brut Natural vintage MCC, a Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) with natural fermentation and no additives, spends 3 years on lees to develop a creamy, yeasty aromas with a savoury palate. The grapes come from the best parcel on the farm and only tête de cuvée, the finer quality juice from the first pressing, is used for the wine. This year, winemaker Alexander experimented with fermenting a portion of the base wine in amphorae and old barrels for more elegance and better terroir expression. It will be very interesting to taste these wines, from the same juice and fermented the same way but in different vessels. He will fine tune the proportion of wine fermented in these vessels and perhaps include concrete egg for fermentation in future.

Apart from wine, what makes Villiera stand out is their commitment to sustainability, both for the environment and people. The estate installed solar power back in 2010, the largest in South Africa at the time, and feed back surplus to the grid. The country has been in drought for three years and Simon, the viticulturist cousin, is looking for ways to minimise water lost in the dams through evaporation. The family, in conjunction with two neighbours, set aside 220ha of land for indigenous plants and turn it into a wildlife sanctuary. They are planting 100,000 indigenous trees in order to become carbon neutral. To help future generations, Villiera provides space and buildings on site for the Pebbles Project, a charity organisation that runs over 100 mobile farm schools for children living on farms. I was talking to the cellar team and the staff is grateful that the company sponsor them for various training courses. All these initiatives are reflected on the back labels of the wine. Check them out.

Good news is that the full range of Villiera wine is available in Hong Kong. Contact wine’n’things for more details.

Cool climate wine at Paul Cluver 
Paul Cluver family owns De Rust Estate in Elgin since 1896. In 1989, the farm became the first farm to plant commercial vineyards and supplied cool climate grape varieties to Nederburg. Subsequently, the family built its own cellar and produced wine under its own label, Paul Cluver Wines, in 1998. At that time, popular red grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz were the norm. Following the advice of the late Paul Pontallier after his visit to the farm, the family switched the focus to Burgundian varieties. Thanks to Paul Cluver, Elgin today is recognised as one of two South African cool climate regions for excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

However, instead of blindly following Burgundy, Paul Cluver, the fifth generation and managing director, realised that Elgin is not Burgundy: Elgin’s soil is shallow while Burgundy’s is deep; Elgin rains for four months in winer and spring whereas Burgundy rains every two weeks in summer. Vines are therefore irrigated but they also work to improve the soil structure with optimum microbial activities so vines can be more resilient to climate adversity.

Andries Burger, cellar master and brother-in-law of Paul, experimented with different winemaking techniques to make wine that reflects South Africa and Elgin. The results? Paul Cluver produces Pinot Noir that expresses the purity of fruit supported by a poised structure, multi-dimensional Chardonnay, and an elegant Sauvignon Blanc with creamy mouthfeel and mineral finish. The soon to be released 2017 Riesling is delicate with fresh citrus and floral notes.

Andries is very strict with what goes into the fermentation tanks. At the first day of harvest, he personally explained, with photographs, to the 20-persons sorting team what must be removed from the sorting table. He believes the extra attention paid in sorting is responsible for the last 5% of quality increase in wine, pushing up the wine from good to very good. Not every winemaker may agree but this is his philosophy.  Only winemakers with strong beliefs can make wine with personalities and identities, and I fully respect that.

In addition to wine, the family also produces an apple cider, Cluver & Jack, with another winemaker Bruce Jack. This hand-crafted cider is made with freshly pressed apple juice from apples grown in De Rust Farm using the methodology of Jack family. It is refreshing but with the complexity that high volume ciders made with apple concentrate lack.

Paul Cluver’s website described the family correctly as a close-knit group with a visionary, pioneering spirit. What they didn’t say is that the family is also caring. The great-grandmother started a school in the farm that eventually became independent schools with vocational training in the community. More recently, The Hope@PaulCluver Amphitheatre was initiated where funds raised from the live performances at the farm’s amphitheatre were donated to improve lives in the community. In terms of environment, 50% of its 1,000ha estate is set aside for conservation and forms part of the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve. Last but not least, Andries and Anné the winemaker make sure us, interns, enjoy and learn during our brief stay on the farm.

Paul Cluver does not have an importer in Hong Kong yet but some of his wines are available at Marks & Spencer.

After thoughts
South African wine industry is generous. Social responsibility is at the hearts of most wine estates. Villiera and Paul Cluver are just two leading examples. In fact, the Cape winelands are pretty much involved in the Pebbles Project, a non-profit organisation that supports children and their families in farming communities by providing schools, child care, training and healthcare, The latest Hemel-en-Aarde Education Project, started in early 2017, supports nearly 100 children from the valley. The annual Cape Wine Auction in February raised a whopping 17million rand (around HKD11million) for Pebble Projects. Another industry group, The Cape Winemakers Guild, runs a Development Trust and various programmes to support social development through further education in the industry.

Their winemakers are not stingy in sharing. I had more than a few mind stimulating discussions with them, ranging from technical and science to soil and winemaking philosophy. One simple question could often end up in a 15 minutes exchange. Andries Burger, cellar master of Paul Cluver, loves to draw benzene rings to explain chemical reaction. Nathan, winemaker at Villiera, had thought-provoking questions on the differences between fortified wine from Portugal and South Africa, and sparkling wine from England and South Africa.

Harvest in South Africa is also sociable. Weekly wine hour, pre-harvest party, intern night, evening braai ...  Winemakers, interns and friends of various nationalities share jokes and experiences over glasses of wine. I miss the country and the people already!

Monday, 12 March 2018

English Sparklers

England has been making commercial wine for some 50-60 years but the wine was a joke as most of them was thin and tart. However, this did not deter the Englishmen from trying. Because of the marginal climate, the pioneers focused on sparkling wine made in traditional method using Germanic varieties such as Reichensteiner, Kerner and Huxelrebe. In mid 1990s, English sparkling wine started winning awards in international wine competitions and that attracted serious producers in the names of Ridgeview and Nyetimber. They planted only champagne varieties - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier to make sparkling wine that rivals Champagne.

The success of Ridgeview and Nyetimber inspired further planting of sparkling wine vineyards in Southern England. The investors were not only retired hobbyists but big boys from the city, farmers who converted their farms to vineyards, and not to mention foreigners with deep pockets. Existing wineries also jumped on the bandwagon and replanted vineyards with champagne varieties. The result? England and Wales now has some 2,000 ha under vines, with over 60% being Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier from 500 vineyards. Wine is made in the 133 wineries scattered from Cornwall to Kent.

England was part of the continent millions of years ago and the geology of the South Downs limestone ridge is in fact an extension of the Champagne region just 88 miles away. Combined this with the coolest cool climate and appropriate grape varieties, England, at least in the south, has the ideal terroir to make excellent fizz. Having tasted wines from more than 20 wineries, I am convinced that given the right marketing platform, English sparkling wine will have its rightful place in the international market. The fact that Pommery and Tattinger are setting up base in England is a testimony that even the French cannot ignore English bubbles.

English wine producers seem to have a fondness of Blanc de Blancs and Rosé sparkling wine. Blanc de Blancs from most wineries are excellent with precise acidity complemented by apple and citrus fruits with nuances of brioche and toasts depending on the time on lees, which ranges from 24 months to over five years. Chardonnay adapts very well to the English weather and soil, producing wine with finesse and elegance. Most Rosé sparkling is vibrant yet delicate with summer red fruits, again with crisp acidity. Some wineries are also experimenting with Blanc de Noirs and Cuvée Noir (red sparkling wine). Malo-lactic fermentation, a process that converts the harsh green apple malic acid to softer, creamier lactic acid in wine, is not generally encouraged in order to maintain the steeliness, which some winemakers described it as ‘Englishness‘.

Fizz aside, English still wine is also making a come back. Bacchus, a cross between Riesling x Silvaner and Müller-Thurgau, seems to find its home in England. It has the herbaceous notes of Sauvignon Blanc but not as pungent. The best I tasted was from Albourne Estate, a seven years old boutique winery. Probably because of sparkling wine, a few wineries are also making still Pinot Noir. Bolney’s and Gusbourne’s are the most impressive. And watch out for English Pinot Gris. The body is similar to Pinot Grigio but it has the depth of Pinot Gris.

But this is not where it ends. English wine industry does not have the rigid regulations of Old World therefore wineries have free hands to create what they think fit from their vineyards. Hattingley Valley makes Entice dessert ‘ice’ wine from frozen Bacchus grapes and Aqua Vitae distilled from the wine made from a parcel of Chardonnay that did not ripen sufficiently for sparkling wine. Gusbourne makes a Vermouth from Pinot juice while Bolney recycled the grape musts and pressings into a beautiful hand crafted Foxhole Gin.

The industry owes its success partly to Plumpton College, the only institution in the UK that offers a hands on wine production course where students tend the vineyards and make their own wine. Most winemakers and viticulturists were trained or have taught in Plumpton. Needless to say, Plumpton also has its own wine made from students. Its winery grew from a simple facility in a shed 20 years ago to a state-of-the-art winery where students can do various researches and experiments.

Despite the recent expansion, vineyard planting in the UK is only 6% of that in Champagne’s. The unpredictable yield (most wineries did not produce wine in 2012 at all because of disastrous weather), high labour and material costs mean that English sparkling wine will, at least for a while, remain an artisan product with a matching price (retail price between GBP25 and GBP75 for limited release). Having said that, the majority of the wine at the moment is being sold in Britain that may not be able to absorb all the future production. Wineries with vision realise this and they are looking at overseas markets in order to sustain the industry. Apparently, the US is the most promising because Americans just like everything English (think Meghan Markle and Prince Harry)! Asia, especially Hong Kong, is another market that wineries are pondering.

For importers looking for a niche product to complement their portfolios, here are a few suggestions. All of them make award-winning wines and are committed to raise the bar of the English wine industry even further.

Bluebell Vineyard Estates: A pig farm turned vineyard owned by a Singaporean couple in East Sussex. Winemaker Kevin Sutherland experimented with part barrel fermented/ageing base wine for the Blanc de Blancs with impressive results.

Bolney Wine Estate: Founded in 1972, Bolney is one of the oldest wine estates in England making a range of still and sparkling wines in all colours. The Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir are outstanding while Blanc de Blancs 2013 was served in British Airways First Class. They have outgrown their second winery built in 2006 and are planning a new one. Sam Linter, the second generation and winemaker, has creative ideas in moving forward, such as the production of hand-crafted Foxhole Gin. Other ideas are in the pipeline.

Chapel Down: The biggest winery in the UK producing just under 20% of English wine with a few out-of-the-box creations, such as the Chardonnay Albarino with a nice savoury palate, an Orange Bacchus fermented on skin and aged in barrels, and the just released grape based vodka and gin. Their wines are available at Victoria Wines in Hong Kong.

Court Garden: A father and son team who diversified into vinegrowing from sheep farming in 2005 because of foot and mouth disease. Originally intended to sell grapes to other wineries, they decided to develop their own brand, making both sparkling and still wine.

Gusbourne Estate: Owner Andrew Weeber, a retired South African surgeon, has big plan. They just built a new visitor centre and are planning to increase production. The flagship Blanc de Blancs has a minimum of 36 months on lees and the Pinot Noir is delicate with ripe red fruits and a hint of pepper. Their wines are available at BB&R in Hong Kong.

Hattingley Valley Wines: Another farm (cereal crops) turned vineyard, and also a project of retired lawyer Simon Robinson, Hattingley Valley makes excellent sparkling wine in a fairly oxidative manner and with a high proportion of base wine fermented in old barrels, thus adding complexity and depth to the wine. Winemaker Emma Rice, who was voted UK Winemaker of the Year in both 2014 and 2016, is also making use of by-products to make experimental wine including Entice dessert wine and Aqua Vitae. There is also a brandy, currently in English oak barrels, waiting to be released. By the way, Emma was just voted England most influential woman in wine by The Drinks Business.

Hush Heath Estate: Owner Richard Balfour-Lynn is dedicated to produce a world-class Rosé sparkling wine therefore for seven years (2004-2010), the estate only produced one wine – Balfour Rosé Brut. Now they are producing all kinds of sparkling wine, still wine and also a white and rosé apple cider where the secondary fermentation took place in bottle, just like their sparkling wine. When I was there, they were in the middle of expansion including new planting and a new winery. Available from Castello del Vino in Hong Kong.

Ridgeview Wine Estate: Founded in 1995, Ridgeview was on of the pioneers dedicated to produce sparkling wine and is probably one of the most well-known English sparkling wine producers in the international arena.  Also a favourite of the Royal Family, Ridgeview sparking wine had been served at state banquet to Barrack Obama and Xi Jinping, as well as the celebrations of the Queen’s 80th birthday and her Diamond Jubilee. Like other wineries with positive outlook, Ridgeview is planning more plantings and a new winery.

Wiston Estate: The estate has been owned by the Goring family for more then 200 years but it was only until 2006 that vines were planted because of the passion of Pip Goring, wife of Harry Goring originated from Cape Town. Out of the 6 ha vineyard, they make Brut, Rosé, Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs in both non  vintage and vintage style (8 wines in total). I only tried their Brut NV and it was gorgeous with depth and a nice marmite palate. The winemaker is reputable Dermot Sugrue who also has his own brand Sugrue Pierre.

By the way, there is a English wine and British gin tasting on 22nd March in Central (for trade only) where some of the wine mentioned above will be featured. Enquiry at

Saturday, 3 February 2018

The ugly duckling of grape

The third stop of my wine-making gap year was Mád, a small village in Hungary’s Tokaj wine region with the most Grand Cru vineyards sites classified in 1737. The village only has three restaurants, two mini-supermarkets, one bar and it takes Sunday off. This solitary place surrounded by rolling vineyards with majestic sunrise was my home for a month where I learnt all about Aszú berries, the ugly ducking of wine, under the guidance of the Holdvölgy team - winemaker Tamás Gincsai, viticulturist Károly Erdélyi and three wonderful ‘Aszú’ ladies. These Aszú berries will be transformed to one of the most beautiful wines in the world.

Botrytis Cinerea is a mould that infects grape berries under humid condition, and it can turn into undesirable grey rot or the sought-after noble rot. For noble rot, berries must be ripened when they are infected. The misty humid mornings must then be followed by warm and sunny afternoons so affected berries can be dehydrated thus concentrating the flavours, sugar and acidity. Berries affected before they are ripened or if the weather does not cooperate, the mould will turn into grey rot. Noble rot berries shrivel like raisins and taste sweet with intense aromas. In contrast, grey rot berries are totally dried inside (imagine a paper balloon) and taste musty and sour. A bunch of grapes often consists of healthy grapes, and various degree of noble and grey rots.

A few wine regions are famous for their noble rot sweet wine but I have to say Tokaj is the region that really masters the art of noble rot winemaking. Tokaj makes different styles of wine from botrytis grapes at different stages of development therefore pickings are extremely selective. Any one parcel of vines is picked a few times during the harvest season. Picking is a long process, naturally done by hand and with cautious. At Holdvölgy, a 26ha wine estate, the 2017 harvest began on 30th August and lasted until mid November. I experienced first-hand picking of the botrytis grapes for every style of wine.

Grapes for sparkling and dry wines were picked first. Only healthy bunches were picked and botrytis-affected berries were removed on site. This was followed by grapes for late harvest wine, which were picked a couple of weeks later. The grapes were slightly over-ripen with some noble rot berries. However, only bunches with around 20% noble rot berries were selected and all grey-rot berries from the bunches had to be discarded. The wine is sweet with intense ripe fruits aromas and a hint of botrytis bouquet, similar to an Auslese from Germany.

Szamorondni is a Polish word meaning ‘as it is’. It is a traditional style of Tokaji wine that is made from grape bunches picked as they are, including both healthy and noble rot berries with various degree of botrytis. It can be dry or sweet. Grape bunches with less noble rot berries are used to make dry Szamorondni, while those with more noble rot berries are used to make the sweet Szamorondni. Holdvölgy made both styles in 2017 and these grapes were picked at different time when winemaker Tamás reckoned the grape bunches were ready for the style of wine he had in mind.

Holdvölgy planted all six permitted grape varieties in Tokaj: the well-known Furmint, Hárslevelü and Sárgamuskotály (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains), as well as the lesser-known Zéta, Kabar and Kövérszölö. They ripen at different time with Zéta being the first and Furmint the last. Picking started at sunrise and viticulturist Károly would tell the team what to pick - healthy bunches of Hárslevelü only with no botrytis berries, Sárgamuskotály bunches with 20% or 50% noble rot, or pick all Furmint except those with more than 80% botrytis bunches. Károly followed the weather forecast closely as it could change the harvest plan. For example, if rain or cloudy weather were forecasted in the next few days, noble rot development would slow and more grey rot could develop. In any case, removal of grey rot berries was absolutely necessary. It is easy to differentiate the bad rot from the good one when there are only two berries but believe me, it is confusing when you have to look for them in a bunch. I had to use all my senses - sight, smell and taste to make sure I did the job properly.

And those were the easy pickings.

The most time consuming was the picking of Aszú berries, the heavily botrytis, raisin-like berries. Berries are picked individually only when they achieve the level of botrytis equivalent to over 500g/l sugar (around 27% potential alcohol). Different grape varieties and bunches/berries develop botrytis at different speed therefore each bunch has to be visited a few times before all the berries are picked - a painstakingly long and slow process. While the picking team was busy selecting the bunches to pick, the three ‘Aszú’ ladies at Holdvölgy would patiently pick the ‘ready’ berries, about 40 kg on average per day (a bunch of grape weighs around 1kg). They would do so every day during the entire harvest season until the last Aszú berries were picked.

Tokaji, the king of wines, is made in a unique way different from other noble rot sweet wine. Sauternes is made the sweet Szamorondni way using a mix of healthy and noble rot grapes; while Beerenauslese (BA) and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) are made only with botrytis affected berries. In both cases, grapes are pressed and only the juice is fermented. Tokaji is made by macerating Aszú berries in fermenting or finished base wine from 10 hours to a few days before they are pressed and continued to ferment. This skin contact method similar to that in red wine making extracts more flavours from the raisin berries. The wine is therefore extremely rich and complex. The sweetness of the wine depends on the amount of Aszú berries added to the base wine, traditionally measured in puttonyos. Tokaji 3 puttonyos has at least 60g/l residual sugar, and Tokaji 6 puttonyos has a minimum of 150g/l residual sugar. The Hungarian grapes have high natural acidity and the dehydration process also concentrates the acidity therefore Tokaji always has an incredible fresh finish no matter how sweet the wine is.

Unfortunately, after World War II during the Communist era, state-owned Tokaj producers flooded the market with inferior sweet wine. The wine, heavily oxidised and often artificially sweetened, was labelled with various puttonyos. According to Gergely Somogyi, editor of, the 70s and 80s were the darkest period of Tokaji wine. In the late 1990s after Hungary became a republic, independent wineries re-established in Tokaj with the aim of reviving the industry. In 2014, the Tokaji Trade Council eliminated the 3 and 4 puttonyos categories, and introduced the new quality level, Tokaji Aszú, for the 5 and 6 puttonyos categories. The term puttonyos was therefore officially abolished. For a wine to be named Tokaji Aszú, it must have at least 120g/l residual sugar. Wineries welcomed the change as part of a renaissance for the Tokaj region.

Tokaj was the first wine region to be demarcated in 1737 and the Mád basin has the highest number of Grand Cru sites of mostly volcanic soil. The story of Holdvölgy, translated as moon valley, began with a one-hectare vineyard in the Nyúläszó Grand Cru site in Mád, a birthday present from Pascal Demko’s mother to his father. Pascal, a trained lawyer with a passion for wine, slowly acquired more land and eventually made his first wine in 2006 from 26ha of vineyard in seven Grand Cru sites in Mád. Today, the estate produces two ranges of wine: Holdvölgy with a elegant and classy label, and Hold And Hollo, an eye-catching, stylish label for casual occasions and cool consumers.

The quality of Holdvölgy award-winning wine is without doubt. Both ranges are being served in fine dining restaurants and trendy bars in Europe; and Hong Kong sommeliers and wine lovers are asking for them. Having spent a month with the team, one word that constantly popped in my mind about Holdvölgy is precision. From grape picking to wine labelling, every process is immaculately carried out to convey the essences of the estate and its wines. Vision is a dry white blend of Furmint, Hárslevelü and Kabar that defined the house style; while Signature is a sweet blend combining various Tokaji winemaking techniques such as but not limited to late harvest, Szamorondni and Aszú, that Pascal compared to free style figure skating - freedom to express using highly skilled techniques. The other wines are called Meditation, Exaltation, Eloquence and so on - names that reflected exactly what are in the bottles. Even the easy-going Hold And Hollo range is presented in a highly orderly manner where the capsule, the silicon label and the bottle are all aligned.

Some people compare winemakers to artists but I would say Holdvölgy is more like a designer, which probably comes from Pascal’s professional training.The team creates beautiful wine and communicates it effectively to the customers. Looking from the other way, customers have high expectations after seeing the bottles and they are not let down by the content. Artists can be emotional whereas designers are unambiguous but both achieve perfection in different ways.

Holdvölgy wine is not available in Hong Kong or China yet. I have no doubt both ranges will be well-received by consumers. Hold And Hollo label will be a hit if marketed right. All Pascal needs is a far-sighted partner who shares his vision.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Douro and Mosel, similar yet so different...

Two of the most famous wine regions along the rivers are probably the Douro in Portugal and the Mosel in Germany. Both have similar topography - winding rivers, steep slopes with altitude between 400 and 600m planted with vines, and of course spectacular scenery. However, this is where the similarities end. The differences in climate, soil and grape varieties make the wines produced in these two regions a world apart. After spending a few weeks in the Douro Valley, I went straight to the Mosel. It was fascinating to compare and contrast these two regions, learning and understanding why their wines are so different.
Top: Douro; Bottom: Mosel 
First let’s look at the Douro. The river is nearly 900km long flowing from Spain but only the last 200km is in Portugal. The wine region, also called Alto Douro, is situated to the east of Marão Mountains and stretched nearly to the border of Spain. The three sub-regions from west to east are Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior. The climate is largely continental with hot, dry summers and cold winters. Rainfall drops progressively from west to east with around 1,200mm per annum in Baixo Corgo to 700mm in Cima Corgo and down to less than 400mm in Douro Superior. The soil is mainly schist, stony, poor and with good drainage. The Douro is the world’s largest area of mountain vineyard, and is one of the wildest wine regions in Portugal, if not the world. Although harsh, wine has been made in the region for over 2,000 years and the vineyards were demarcated in 1756. The Douro was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001 because of its historic, narrow, stone-walled vine terraces.

Turning to Mosel, a tributary of the Rhine and only 545km long, also has some 200km flowing in Germany. Vineyards are found along this stretch of Mosel River and its tributaries, the Saar and Ruwer. The region is divided into Southern Mosel, Middle Mosel and Lower Mosel (also known as Terraced Mosel). It is pretty much at the other end of the climate spectrum comparing to the Douro with cool summers and mild winters where average annual temperature is around 10ºC across the entire region. Annual rainfall is between 670mm in Lower Mosel and 900mm in Southern Mosel. Soil varies in the region, from gravels and sands on flat land to quartzite sandstones in Lower Mosel. The 400 million old Devonian slate in all colours: blue, grey, brown and red, can be found in half of the vineyards. Mosel is the world’s biggest steep slopes wine region (over 18º, 30%), with the steepest one at 67º.

Top: Port vineyard close to river in the Douro;
 Bottom: Ürziger Würzgarten in Mose
In the Douro, temperature and rainfall, not soil, are the deciding factors of viticulture. Port is made from ripe and concentrated grapes, and top quality port vineyards have often been planted on the lower slopes in the deep, hotter and drier Douro valley, where the yield is low. These days, producers may plant red varieties on north facing slopes or at higher altitude (300 to 400m) to produce fresher grapes for blending. Recently, some wineries are experimenting with international white varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer planted at around 500m above sea level with encouraging results; and there is even a sparkling wine producer with vineyards on the high slopes of Alto Douro.

In contrast, the climate in the Mosel region is fairly similar but the many different soil types make it possible to produce wine of different expressions. Riesling and slate are made for each other. Blue slate Riesling highlights the minerality while red slate Riesling has more stone fruits aromas. The famous Grand Cru site, Ürziger Würzgarten with red volcanic rocks, gives Riesling a distinctive spicy flavour. Müller-Thurgau thrives on the gavel and sand, while the Pinots - both Weissburguder (Pinot Blanc) and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) are at home on limestone and marl soils. However, because of its cool climate, no vineyards are planted on the north-facing slopes.

Top: Building patamares in the Douro;
Bottom: Steep slope harvester in Mosel 
Both wine regions face challenging conditions in planting vines on slopes. In the Douro, terraces, both the narrow ancient walled terraces with only one or two rows of vines and the more recent, broader patamares (platforms) are necessary on steeper slopes, while vinha ao alto (vertical vineyard) where rows of vines on wires running up and down the slopes is the preferred technique on gentler slopes of around 20º (30%). In the Mosel, vertical plantings using wires can often be seen on slopes steeper than 20º and monorails are used for transporting materials up and down the slopes. Only on the steepest slopes are terraced vineyards. Vines on recently planted vineyards, whether vertical plantings or on terraces, are trained on wires but in older vineyards, vines were planted individually with a stake and trellised in Mosel Arch, where two canes are bent into heart shape, to prevent soil erosion. Because of the terrain, only limited mechanisation can be used and harvest is totally done by hand in both regions. Having said that, a German company has developed an award-winning steep slope harvester in 2016 that can work on both slopes up around 35º, and narrow terraces. A producer in the Douro has bought the machine and a few Mosel wineries rented it for the 2017 harvest. Since it is more and more difficult to get manpower for harvest, and that the machine can pick gently and a lot faster than man (it works as fast as 40 people), it won’t be a surprise that more wineries will opt for at least partial machine harvest in these regions.

Top: Touriga Nacional in the Douro;
Bottom: Riesling in Mosel 
As for grape varieties and wine styles, the majority in the Douro are indigenous grapes where some 30 of them can be used to make port, a fortified wine where the best can be aged for over 100 years. Still wine, predominately red, has been made in the region for a long time but it was only in the last 20 years or so that it was being noticed. Today, a few producers focus on producing still wine (both red and white) and some even experiment with international aromatic white varieties planted at high altitude. Blending is essential for port but most still wine are also blended from different local varieties. In Mosel, on the other hand, over 90% wine is white of which 2/3 is Riesling, and nearly all wine is 100% single varietal. Riesling grown on different soils has different expressions and it can be made in sparkling and from dry to sweet. The rare sweet wine, Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA), like port, can age gracefully for over 100 years.

Both regions have spectacular scenery but again in opposite spectrum. Vineyards in Douro are remote and rugged. On top of the vineyards, you either feel you are very small or you own the whole world depending on your state of mind. But on most Mosel vineyards, you enjoy the space while the view of village, and therefore civilisation, is always in sight.

Most wine lovers are aware of the facts above but it’s an inspiration to be in both places at the same time. I was in the Douro making and tasting big red wine only five days before I was in Mosel making and tasting the delicate Riesling. Both regions make fantastic wine and I think this is the best illustration of terroir - a combination of climate, soil, geography and man (to plant the right varieties in the right place).

Luckily, both regions are tourist-friendly. Plan your next holiday in one of the regions or even better, visit both regions and see for yourself the contrast like I did.

Top: Vila Nova de Gaia;
Bottom: Traben-Trarbach
Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the city of Porto, is a mecca for port lovers where major port houses age their wines in lodges. Cellar tours and tastings designed for all levels of engagement are offered, and you can pamper yourself in The Yeatman, a luxury wine hotel and spa in Porto with spectacular views over the UNESCO World Heritage city and the Douro River; or enjoy Northern Portuguese cuisine at Vinum Restaurant & Wine Bar in the Graham’s Lodge. It is easy to do a day trip to Pinhão in the heart of the Douro to visit a few more port houses and wineries. However, the best is to spend a few days in the valley and take the boat cruise to admire the vineyards from river level.

As for Mosel, numerous villages dotted along the river and and there are always cellar doors/wineries in or very close to villages that welcome wine lovers. If you are there during harvest, you can try federweisser (fermenting grape juice) in some wineries. You can hop on and off boats to visit these historical villages, notably Cochem, Traben-Trarbach and Bernkastel-Kues. For the energetic ones, go cycle along the river or hike up one of the steep vineyard sites.