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?