Monday, 30 September 2019

Millton, not your typical kiwi wine

At the #DrinkChenin Day a few months ago, there was an impressive Chenin Blanc from Gisborne, New Zealand. Therefore, when I knew the owner of the winery, Annie Millton, would be in town to present the wine, I jumped to the chance.

Located in Gisborne on the eastern coast of North Island, Millton Vineyards was established by James and Annie Millton in 1984 after their stint in France and Germany. They started by replanting most of Annie’s father vineyards and practised organic farming. Just after two years, the Milltons turned to biodynamic viticulture in 1986, the first vineyard in New Zealand to do so. Their winemaking philosophy is ‘Grown not made’.

New Zealand wine is mostly single varietal or Bordeaux blend and that 98.6% of the total vineyard area (36,680 ha) is made up of 11 varieties. Gisborne is the most diversified region with the most ‘other varieties’ planted (159 ha of 1,180 ha, equivalent to 13.5%). This is reflected in Millton Vineyards where over 10 varieties are cultivated.

There are only 22 ha of Chenin Blanc in New Zealand. Millton Te Arai Chenin Blanc 2016 was fermented and matured in old 600l barrels. It has pleasant aromas of citrus and white fruits supported by fresh acidity. Clos de Ste Anne Naboth’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2015, its flagship wine, is elegant with multi-layered flavours.

The intriguing wine at the tasting was the Libiamo Field Blend 2017, a blend of Viognier, Marsanne and Muscat fermented and aged on skin for a whopping 200 days! The wine is slightly cloudy but it has fresh fruit and herbal aromas. I love the structure and texture on palate. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it has character and is definitely a clean, well-made natural wine. Apparently the Libiamo blend is different every year. The 2018 vintage was a blend of Viognier, Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Muscat with only 48 days of skin contact.

Millton’s Chenin Blanc may make one associates it with South Africa but I think it is its Libiamo that carries the South African winemaking creativity. James and Annie also make a Libiamo Amphora Chenin Blanc and Crazy by Nature white and red blends but these wines are not available in Hong Kong yet.

The winery stands out from the other New Zealand wine producers and shows to wine lovers that New Zealand is more than the mainstream wines. I hope we can see more diverse New Zealand wine like Millton’s in the market.

Millton Vineyards is represented by wine’n’things in Hong Kong.

Friday, 16 August 2019

Low alcohol / no alcohol wine? Are they wine?

The trend may not be obvious in Hong Kong but low-alcohol or no-alcohol wine/beer/spirits is getting popular in the UK and the US. Hong Kong importers offering these products claim sales are satisfactory. Is there a place for these low/no alcohol ‘alcohol beverage’ or is it just a fad?

Advocates of low/no alcohol wine argue that they want to socialise with friends and have a good time but don’t want to feel pressurised to drink. I, a devoted wine lover, have to admit that there are times that I don’t feel like any wine (or alcohol). It may be because I am too tired, not feeling well or just don't feel like to. However, I will still go out with friends and happily sip a sparkling water. If my friends pressurise me to drink, I don’t think they are my real friends.

I remember the very oily vegetarian dishes we had in temples when I was young. All the dishes served had names like ‘vegetarian fish’, ‘vegetarian goose’, and so on, and the food was shaped like a fish or goose. I think this is hypocritical; I love vegetarian food and will proudly have a nice bowl of salad rather than some kind of oily stuff in the shape of fish. The same applies to low/no wine, why drink something called ‘wine’ if you don’t want it?

Going back to wine, alcohol is a natural product of grape juice fermentation. Alcohol contributes to palate weight and supports the aromas. One way to make low alcohol wine is to make the wine in a normal process then deliberately remove the alcohol. To me, the process (usually by spinning cone or reverse osmosis) is just like chopping a limb off a person. The resultant ‘wine’ is unbalanced and incomplete.

The other way to make low alcohol wine is to stop fermentation midway before all sugar is converted to alcohol. However, the final product will also have significant sugar. So which one is a lesser evil? Alcohol or sugar?

The final alcohol in wine depends on the sugar the grapes contain when harvested. In the past 20-30 years, winemakers have deliberately left the grapes on vines for a longer period of time after the grapes have ripened (prolonging hang time), resulting in high sugar accumulation in berries thus higher alcohol content in wine. Recently, winemakers are choosing to pick the grapes when they are just ripe, producing livelier, fresher and lower alcohol wine naturally. Depending on your interpretation of low alcohol, a wine from a cooler region such as Germany has much lower alcohol than wine from a warmer region. Consumers who are concerning about their alcohol intake can opt wine from cooler regions. These wines will not have ultra-low alcohol unless they are sweet but they are natural and complete. 

And there is the taste. At a recent debate on the topic, we tasted some pretty horrendous low/no alcohol wine. The white wine tasted sugary with no acid structure and the red wine was like the bitter herbal medicine. These wines are often relatively more expensive because of the extra process necessary to remove the alcohol.

I’m not at all against alcohol free beverage but I don't’ agree to drink low/no alcohol in order to appease our peers, nor to I want to pay a premium for something that is not enjoyable. Low/no alcohol must taste god before they can take off. Until then, I will just stick to water or juice

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Jura, the neighbour of Burgundy

Burgundy, home of world class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, has also some of the most expensive wines in the world. But because of the region’s fame and glory, most wine lovers overlooked its neighbour, Jura. However, the fact that Jura has successfully seduced Guillaume d’Angerville, a winemaker with six generations history in Burgundy, to develop a new brand there tells us perhaps we should take a closer look at Jura. 

The quest for a project in Jura was a Chardonnay from the region that Guillaume blind tasted in his favourite restaurant in Paris back in 2007. Since he always wanted to start something new outside he family estate, Jura seemed an ideal place because of its close proximity to Burgundy. Finally in 2012, he and partner François Duvivier acquired a 5ha biodynamically farmed vineyard with a modern winery, thus the birth of Domaine du Pélican. They subsequently bought another 5ha soon afterwards and leased 5ha more in 2014. Domaine du Pélican has all five permitted grape varieties planted: Chardonnay, Savagnin, Pinot Noir, Trousseau and Poulsard.

Jura is only one hour drive east of Burgundy (just over 100km) where the vineyards are at a slightly higher altitude than Burgundy (240-270m). But the region is sufficiently different from Burgundy because of its more diverse landscape and agriculture. Its soil is more clayey and has double the rainfall than that of Burgundy, and of course there are the different local yeasts. The Chardonnay 2017 we tasted came from four different parcels, was fermented in big barrels and aged in neutral barrels for 10 months. It is Burgundian style but with fresher acidity and less creamy mouthfeel.

Savagnin is a very old variety from northeast France and is thought to be related to the aromatic Gewürztraminer. In Jura, it is known for its famous oxidative style of Vin Jaune but Domaine du Pélican Savagnin Ouille 2017 was made the same as its Chardonnay with regular top up of the barrels. It is fresh with pine nuts, white fruits and a touch of mineral that was perfect with the Miso marinated black cod wrapped in hoba leaf from ZUMA. The word ‘ouille’ means top up, so consumer can differentiate it from the common oxidative Savagnin.

Poulsard is another old variety from eastern France. It is aromatic, fragile with a pale colour but Guillaume said it can age well if handled properly. The 2017 we tasted certainly has a hint of Burgundian Pinot Noir character. Trois Cepages, a blend of Pinot Noir, Trousseau and Poulsard, is more masculine than the 100% Poulsard with both red fruits and pepper notes.

At another Jura wine event just 10 days after this tasting, I had a chance to taste more wine from the region. I found Jura wine in general may have less complexity than Burgundian but it is more than compensated by freshness and purity. Guillaume praises the more genuine and open style of people in Jura and probably this is somehow reflected in the wine.

I can’t say loud enough that there are a lot more wine regions and grape varieties than the mainstream wines  we mostly drink. Don’t worry about not having a clue of the place or variety, just try and let your palate do the judging. Even better, if you are planning to visit a wine region, spare a few days to visit its neighbours to compare the wine. As a matter of fact, I just did what I said - exploring Burgundy, Jura and Alsace in July!

Domaine du Pélican is available in Hong Kong at Corney & Barrow.

Friday, 5 July 2019

James Bond Champagne Bollinger celebrated La Grande Année 2008

I never say no to bubbles so it was with pleasure that I attended the launch of Bollinger Le Grande Année 2008 lunch recently, and especially that 2008 is a legendary vintage for champagne.

2008 had perfect weather condition in Champagne, cool climate growing season with minimum disease risks. Temperature increased in the last few weeks before harvest resulting in fruits with fine acidity and great concentration. According to Decanter, it is a 5/5 vintage and the wines are real keepers.

La Grande Année 2008 is a blend of grapes from 18 crus (villages), with 71% Pinot Noir and the rest being Chardonnay, it is the second vintage with the highest Pinot in the blend, just a little less that the 1979 vintage with 75% Pinot Noir. True to La Grande Année’s style, the wine was fermented in small aged old barrels giving it a round and rather rich mouthfeel, which is supported by layers of aromas from floral to exotic spices and fresh acidity, thanks to its 9 years of less ageing.

Bollinger’s Export Area Manager Bastien Mariani explained that Bollinger is all about craftsmanship and gastronomy. To illustrate this, we were treated a 4-course lunch at Clipper’s in The Peninsula paired with standard bottle and magnum La Grande Année 2008. Wine evolves slower in big bottles. The magnum is livelier while the standard bottle, still fresh but with an earthy undertone. According to Bastien, magnum complements lighter flavoured dishes while standard bottle is best served with stronger flavoured dishes. The magnum with langoustine carpaccio was excellent. The standard bottle was paired with the roasted quail, which was pleasant, but together with the sauce was a touch too powerful even for this manly James Bond champagne.

Another point that Bastien mentioned was that champagne (or sparkling wine made in traditional method) has two lives. The fist was before disgorgement when the wine develops its complexity and the second life starts after disgorgement when freshness and acidity come into play. Because of this, Bollinger now puts the disgorgement date on the back label of La Grande Année 2008. A more recent disgorged sparkling wine will be fresher than the one that has been disgorged for a while. Therefore next time you buy premium champagne for cellaring, it’s best to get those with a later disgorgement date - if it is mentioned on the label.

I haven’t tried a lot of 2008 vintage champagne but judging from Bollinger La Grande Année 2008 and various reports, 2008 is certainly worth keeping. Bollinger is available from Jebsen Fine Wines.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Sister grapes: Chenin Blanc and Riesling

15th June is #DrinkChenin, a day of celebrating his versatile grape variety around of world initiated by South African Chenin Blanc Association. With the support of importers, Wines of South Africa (WOSA) teamed up with Loire Valley Wine Bureau, New Zealand Wine, Oregon Wine Board and Washington State Wine to showcase 16 Chenin Blancs to wine lovers at a cosy bar, To Be Frank, to close to 100 curious wine lovers .

Most guests are not from the trade and they only try Chenin from one country or at most two (South Africa and Loire, in that order), and some haven’t tried Chenin yet. I tried to give them an overview of Chenin in less than one minute and decided to use Riesling as comparison. Chenin Blanc may not be as widely known as Riesling but it is as noble and versatile as Riesling.

I’d like to think Chenin Blanc as the sister of Riesling. Both are versatile and can be from bone dry to luscious, sparkling, sweet, single varietal or in blends; and both have crisp acidity. They also have similar flavour profiles: citrus, apples and pears in cool climate and lighter style; and stone fruits, exotic fruits and honey in warm climate and riper style. The reason Chenin being the elder sister is because it has a fuller-body than Riesling. Like Chardonnay, it can handle new oak well to add complexity, which is something Riesling doesn’t like. A seriously-made Chenin Blanc is as age-worthy as a Riesling.

Chenin Blanc can be dated back to the 9th century in Loire, France. It was introduced to South Africa in the 17th century where it was known as Steen. Only until mid 1960s when the University of Stellenbosch confirmed that Steen was in fact Chenin Blanc. While Chenin Blanc’s influence is declining in France, it is thriving in its adopted home of South Africa. Today, South Africa has the most planting of Chenin Blanc in the world at close to 20,000 ha, comparing to the 9,000+ ha in France. Other countries that are making Chenin, albeit in a much smaller quantity, are the US, Argentina and New Zealand.

Although most Chenin Blanc is 100% varietal wine, creative South African winemakers take it a step further to make multi-dimensional white blends. The Sadie Family ‘T Voetpad (available from BB&R), David & Nadia Aristargos (soon available from wine’n’things) and Keermont Terrasse (available from Value Vigilantes) are some of the best examples of Chenin blends. What’s more, most of these are made from old vines. They may lack the fruit forward palate but are more than compensated by the textural depth. South Africa now certifies vines older than 35 years old with a Certified Heritage Vineyards’ seal that shows the year of planting.

It is therefore a pity that such a chameleon grape is not more popular in the world. Please don’t wait until 15th June to drink Chenin. Explore the many styles available in Hong Kong and even better, try them with Riesling or Chardonnay side by side. You’ll be surprised.

Chenin we tried at the #DrinkChenin:

South Africa (from refreshing to full bodied)
1. The Winery of Good Hope Bush Vine Chenin Blanc 2018, available from Victoria Wines
2. Bellingham Homestead The Old Orchards Chenin Blanc 2018, available from wine’n’things
3. Keermont Terrasse (Chenin blend), available from Value Vigilantes
4. Radford Dale Vinum Chenin Blanc 2017, available from Victoria Wines
5. Villiera Traditional Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2016, available from wine’n’things
6. Holden Manz Chenin, 2017 available from Babington Wines
7. Stellenrust 53 Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2017, available from Kedington Wines
8. Mullineux Straw Chenin Blanc 2017, available from Berry Bros & Rudd

1. Chateau Soucherie Anjoy Blanc Ivoire 2015, available from Chaeau Soucherie Hong Kong
2. Chateau Soucherie Savennieres Clo des Perriees 2013, available from Chaeau Soucherie Hong Kong
3. Domaine des Roches Neuves, Saumur Clos Romans 2015, available from Sarment
4. Domaine du Clos Naudin Vourvray 2014, available from Vines & Terroir
5. Domaine de Belliviére - Jasniéres 2015, available from Cytise Distribution

Goon Tycoons Chenin Blanc 2017, Australia, available from Wine Brothers
Millton Te Arai Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2016, New Zealand, available from wine’n’things
L’Ecole 41 Chenin Blanc 2015, Washington, US, available from Golden Gate Wine
Origin Chenin Blanc 2016, Oregon, US, available from Golden Gate Wines

Friday, 7 June 2019

Tasmanian wine, less is more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 May 2019

What wine can learn from whisky?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 29 April 2019

Spätburgunder, not quite the hidden gem of Germany anymore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 19 April 2019

Natural wine? Is there artificial wine then?

The latest buzzword in the wine circle is natural wine. Natural wine bars frequented by young hipsters are popping up around the world. What’s the fuss?

First of all, look at this. There are many yeast strains in our environment. When grapes, or any fruits, are left unattended, yeasts ferment sugar in grapes and turn it into alcohol. The process of fermentation, therefore, is natural. However, depending on the yeast strains that react with sugar, the resulting wine can be very different, some palatable and some funky or even undesirable. Whatever the quality, the final product is often cloudy with sediments, and eventually turns into vinegar because of oxidisation or bacteria spoilage.

When man commercialised wine, they planted vineyards in manageable manner to control quality and quantity. In the wineries, they used cultured yeasts – selected strains of natural yeast – to make sure pleasant wine is produced. Natural fining agents such as egg white and gelatine derived from fish bladders were used to combine with the suspended particles in wine to form bigger precipitates that can be filtered from wine, thereby making the wine bright, clear and visually pleasing. To make sure the wine has a longer life, winemakers added sulphites to protect the wine from oxygen and microbial spoilage. The entire fermentation is still natural and the products used to ensure the quality standard are also natural.

As the demand of wine increases, producers use chemicals in vineyard to increase yield and protect the vines from disease, just like all other agricultural products. Synthetically produced fining agents replace real egg whites and fish bladders. Winemakers may use yeast nutrients (ammonia products) to ensure a smooth and thorough fermentation, and control factors such as fermentation temperature and extraction. They may also ferment or age wine in different materials containers such as stainless steel tanks or wood barrels to make fruitier or more complex wine. The fermentation process is still natural but man exerts more control in the process to maintain quality.

Today, the term natural wine has no official definition. It is an approach to vine growing and winemaking that vines are farmed organically, biodynamically or sustainably; and wine is made hands-off without the aid of cultured yeasts, fining agents and filtration. Sulphites may or may not be added to final wine. The quality of wine ranges from pleasant, fresh and pure, to gamey, sour and foul. A few things for sure are that natural wine has no vanilla or cinnamon aromas as they are not aged in new barrels, and they cannot be stored for a long time because of no or minimal preservatives.

To me, all wines, whether using inorganic or biodynamic farming, wild or cultured yeasts, synthetic fining agents or without fining, with our without sulphites, are all naturally made. The rise of natural wine is like an anti-establishment movement. Consumers are fed up with mainstream, industrial products and embrace alternatives. It is like hippies lifestyle in the 70s and to a certain extent, the election of non-mainstream government all over the world.

There are both good and bad conventional and ‘natural’ wine. Drinking ‘natural wine’ is a lifestyle choice but consumers must know how to identify bad ‘natural wine’ rather than blindly accept it as ‘natural’. Producers who label their wine ‘natural’ to disguise fault are cheating consumers outright.

I am not against natural wine and in fact I love the well-made natural wine. But thinking out loud, I wonder if ‘natural wine’ will still be cool if its quality becomes more predictable, more consumers accept it and it eventually becomes mainstream. Maybe another style of wine will takeover?

Friday, 29 March 2019

Underdog grapes

Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB) organises regular masterclasses in town but most of them are focused on their famed grape varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Therefore, the fact that the first BIVB masterclass this year was ‘An in-depth analysis of the Aligoté grape’ came as a surprise - in fact, a very nice surprise.

I’m pretty sure that not all Burgundy fans heard of Aligoté. The grape has been grown in the region since 17th century and was granted its own AOC, Bourgogne Aligoté, in 1937. In 1997, Bouzeron was recognised as its village appellation. Despite its large growing area in Burgundy from Chablis in the north to Mâconnais in the south, it only has 6% of the planting. It used to have equal footing with Chardonnay but sadly after phylloxera, vinegrowers ditched Aligoté for the more accessible Chardonnay.

Aligoté is subtle with lively acidity and a mineral note, a wine in the background that supports food rather than taking the centre stage. Its texture and subtlety reminded me of Semillon from Hunter Valley. Most people may dismiss them at first sip because they are not as pretty as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, but you will be rewarded especially if you have the patience to wait. Ivy was very kind to share an18 years old  Aligoté which has layers of exotic spices and a savoury yet light palate.

A lot of grapes, especially those neutral ones, suffer from poor reputation not because they don’t shine like their more glamorous siblings but because vinegrowers and winemakers treat them like work horse grapes, maximising their yield for distillation or making characterless wine. However, given proper management in the vineyards, the lack the attractive aromas of these varieties is often more than compensated by its texture and flexibility to match with food. Take Aligoté for example, mainly used for Kir and Cremant de Bourgogne, spoke out in this masterclass. The wines presented were made by the few dedicated winemakers who take the variety seriously.

There are still many underdogs in the wine world, notably Airén, Pinot Bianco (or Pinot Blanc) and Müller Thurgau. Airén is the most widely planted grapes in Spain mainly destined for distillation or mediocre wine, but I did try a couple including Más Que Vinos in La Mancha that defy the norm.  Pinot Bianco is pretty much an inoffensive house wine but Germany is leading the way to revive it under the name of Wiessburgunder (Pinot Blanc in German). Weingut Stigler in Baden, amongst others, produces a Weissburgunder Trocken, Ihringen Winklerberg ‘'GG'' from its oldest Weissburgunder plot. The wine was wonderful with a wide spectrum of Cantonese dishes from shrimp dumpling to roasted suckling pig.

As for Müller Thurgau (also known as Rivaner in Germany) mainly grown in cooler regions such as Germany, England and Northern Italy, is a cross between Riesling and Gutedel created in 1882 to produce earlier ripening and bigger crop than Riesling. As you can imagine, the wine is often light and unassuming. But I have faith that this ugly duckling will one day be transformed. The first wine I made was Müller Thurgau fermented in four different yeasts for my final project at Plumpton. I still have two bottles with me and am waiting for a suitable occasion to open them.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Château Mercian, in harmony with nature

Listening to Kenichi Ohashi MW is always a joy because he is passionate. At the recent Château Mercian masterclass, he gave a quick rundown on the relatively unknown history of the estate that showed its quest for making the best possible wine in Japan.

Dai-Nihon Yamanashi Budoushu-Gaisha (大日本山梨葡萄酒會社) was the forerunner of Château Mercian established more than 140 years ago in 1877. At that time, they had the vision to send two young Japanese to France to learn everything about grapegrowing and winemaking. When they returned, they started producing wine using the native Koshu grapes. The journey was not a smooth sailing but the endurance eventually paid off and the brand Mercian was born in 1949. The company introduced Merlot in 1976 and subsequently planted Chard
onnay in the high altitude cool climate region of Hokushin using vertical shoot positioning training in 1985. Château Mercian took a leap forward by engaging the late Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux as advisor to refine the wine in 1988.

Japanese wine could be either wine made from 100% grapes grown in Japan or bulk wine bottled in Japan. Luckily the law changed in October 2018 and now only the former can be called Japanese wine. One of the reasons for the change is because the quality of Japanese wine is gaining international recognition and it is time to champion the nation’s own produce. Château Mercian, currently the biggest producer with annual production of 500,000 bottles, plans to double the volume in 10 years amid increasing export growth. Hong Kong is one of the key markets which is not surprising judging by our love for Japanese cuisine and culture.

Led by chief winemaker Mitsuhiro Anzo, the estate focuses on Yamanashi (山梨縣) and Nagano (長野縣) Prefectures, together accounts for 88% of wine production. The vineyards in Yamanashi are mostly planted with Koshu and the hybrid Muscat Bailey A, while the drier Nagano vineyards are home for European varieties such as Cabernets, Merlot and Chardonnay. Mercian has two working wineries. A third one located in Nagano, called Mariko Winery, will be in operation later this year.

Château Mercian was in Hong Kong to launch its range of Icon wines. The two Chardonnays from Nagano on the opposite banks of Hokushin river, Hokushin Right Bank Chardonnay Rivalis 2017 and Hokushin Left Bank Chardonnay Rivalis 2017, have totally different expressions. The sandy and iron-rich gravelly right bank results in a powerful yet retrained wine while the clayey left back produces a more mellow and expressive wine. The Mariko Omnis 2015 Bordeaux blend has a fine structure with pleasant floral, herbal,  black fruits characters with a hint of earthiness.

In addition to the icon range, Kenichi and Jeannie Cho Lee MW also showed us the Terroir series. I love both Koshus. The Iwade Koshu Kiiroka Cuvée Ueno 2017 was light and pristine while the Fuefuki Koshu Gris de Gris 2017 with 28 days maceration and 2% new oak is more textural. Mariko Syrah 2015 is a typical cool climate Syrah that reminded me of Gimblett Gravels.

Last but not least is the Muscat Bailey A 2015. This hybrid grape variety has a foxy character that I have to say, at best, is acquired taste. Anzo-san tamed it by maturing it in American oak for 24 months. The wine expresses fine raspberry notes with fresh acidity and mild tannin, a far cry from the Muscat Bailey A that I tend to stay away.

While I agree with Château Mercian that its winemaking style is ‘finesse and elegance’, I think ‘Zen’ maybe more appropriate. The wines are subtle yet expressive, poised but not plush. They are the reflection of Japanese harmonious relationship with nature.

Château Mercian is available from Hing Lung Food Place Ltd.