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.