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.

Friday, 18 January 2019

The Noble Family from Barolo

The noble family Cordero di Montezemolo has managed the Monfalletto property at the heart of Barolo in La Morra village for 19 generations since 1340. Alberto Cordero di Montezemolo, who was in Hong Kong recently, explained that the estate was a multi-agricultural farm until his orphan grandfather Paolo focused on wine production, and the family was blessed with a historical single vineyard plot of 28ha on the hill, a rarity in Barolo. Including purchased and leased vineyards, the estate has 56 ha of vines under production.

Arneis is a native white grape variety in Piedmont but has given way to red grape varieties in the 20th century to the point of extinction. Cordero di Montezemolo was one of the pioneers to revitalise this grape variety. We tasted Cordero di Montezemolo Arneis 2017, fresh with yellow fruits and a hint of herbal notes that was great as aperitif or with snacks.

Barolo is the jewel of the estate. Alberto said they use a mixture of French barriques and Slovenian casks for ageing depending on the vineyards. This makes the wine approachable when young but not overpowering. Monfalletto Barolo is a blend of the estate’s vineyards where the vines are between 15 and 50 years old. The 1996 is elegant with prominent floral notes and a sense of lightness on palate, a delightful pairing with the ossobuco. Enrico VI Barolo is from a single vineyard of only 2.2 ha in the Villero cru with a more powerful and austere expression that is quite different from the Monfalletto’s.

The family also produces Barolo Riserva ‘Gorette’ only in the best years. Paolo always had a special Barolo for friends visiting him at the cellar and this wine is made with this moment in mind. The wine, bottled in magnum, is only offered to visitors of the winery. So next time when you are in Barolo, make sure to visit Cordero di Montezemolo.

Cordero di Montezemolo is available from Cuvées.

Friday, 4 January 2019

Tokaj, the King of wines

When I was working in Holdvölgy during my gap year, I didn’t have time to visit too many wineries, therefore I jumped at the chance when I was invited to the Szepsy media luncheon, the winery located in the village of Mád in Tokaj and the neighbour of Holdvölgy.

Szepsy is a family own estate that has been making wine in Tokaj for more than 500 years. It was this family  who developed the Aszú technique in 1631 thus creating the king of wines. Unlike Sauternes that ferments both healthy and botrytis grapes together, Tokaji Aszú wine is made by adding aszú berries (heavily botrytis raisiny grapes with over 500g/l sugar) to healthy grape juice, fermenting wine or finished wine from a few hours to a few days before pressing and continue fermentation. The botrytis process dehydrates the grapes therefore concentrates the acidity and minerals, resulting in extremely rich and complex wine with a fresh finish. István Szepsy Jr, the 16th generation of the family, explained that using juice as base gives a fruitier wine but with a shorter finish, while Aszú wine using finished wine as base has a more complexity and oxidised character. He prefers to use fermenting wine as it captures the best of both worlds. The 2008 vintage we tasted, with150g/l sugar (equivalent to 6 puttonyos), was a joy. It was burst with flavours and every time I smelt, I sensed different aromas from floral and tropical fruits to honey and caramel. The acidity was just incredible.
Szamorodni, translated as ‘as it is’, is made using whole bunch of grapes that consisted of both healthy and botrytis grapes like Sauternes. The sweetness of the final wine depends on the degree or botrytis and therefore every vintage is different. We had the 2013 vintage, a lighter wine comparing to other vintages and it was great with the roasted pork, suckling pig and chilli prawns.

We also tried Szepsy’s dry Furmint from two different vineyards. The Szt. Tamas 2016 has a good structure with layers of aromas. I like Furmint for its acidity and freshness that make it particularly food-friendly.
At the end of the delicious lunch at Ying Jee Club, we were treated Szepsy Tokaji Esszencia 2007. Arguably the rarest wine in the world, Tokaji Eszencia is made from the free run juice of aszú berries that seeps out from the vats under the grapes‘ own weight. The juice has ultra high sugar content and takes years to ferment. The 2007 was rich and complex, and at the same time vibrant and fresh. Szepsy only makes Esszencia in good years. The last one was 1999 with 311 bottles, 2007 had only 200 bottles and 2018 will be the next vintage. The wine comes with a high price tag (HK$18,000 for a 500ml bottle) but in my view, it is a bargain comparing to first growth Bordeaux.

Szepsy is available from Wine Peers.