Wednesday 28 December 2011

Port and food pairing

When talking about pairing port with food, most of us associate it with the classic dessert matches such as chocolate, crème brûlée and cheese. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise to see port paired with a number of savoury dishes at the recent Vintage Port Academy events. We paired foie gras terrine on toasted brioche and parma ham with a 20 year old Tawny. The acidity of the Tawny cut through the richness of the foie gras—similar to the effect of pairing sauternes with foie gras—while the nuttiness of the wine complemented the smokiness of the ham. For Chinese cuisine, try a Tawny with Peking duck or hairy crab—you'll be surprised!

We also tried wagyu beef rump, venison patties and peanut crusted duck with mango with the fruitier Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) and classic Vintage Port. The sweetness of the wine contrasted the savoury yet fragrant meat, yet the weight and flavour intensity of both food and wine were strong enough to stand up to each other, making for a very interesting pairing. This fully reflects the essence of the Flavour Colours wine and food pairing concept. I also tried pairing a Singe Quinta Vintage Port with my mum’s homemade lamb dumplings (without vinegar or chili sauce) and the result was excellent. The wine intensified the meat’s aroma without overpowering it and the food in turn toned down the sweetness and heaviness of the wine. This demonstrates how versatile port can be. I can see that port could go very well with some Chinese claypot dishes such as braised ox tail or lamb brisket.

Vintage ports are best consumed within a week or so of opening, and this deters some consumers from opening them at home. WIth all these interesting potential pairings with savoury dishes, we don’t need to worry about wasting half a bottle of port any more.

By the way, serve port in a wine glass rather than a small liqueur glass for a full appreciation of its complex aromas. After all, port is wine.

Monday 26 December 2011

Pinot in all shades

I met Steve Farquharson, one of the owners of Central Otago’s Wooing Tree Vineyard in Hong Kong and found out we have a mutual friend who is running Adega do Cantor in the Algave. Pursuing the lead, we discovered that we both studied at Plumpton College. He graduated in 2003, a few months before I joined. What a small world.

Wooing Tree is a dream comes true. Steve and his wife Thea, sister Jane and husband Geoff were all IT professionals in the UK. They wanted to move back home to Otago, but doing something completely different, hence wine. They bought the land for Wooing Tree in 2002 and Steve, with no experience in wine apart from drinking, enrolled at Plumpton for the two years viticulture/winemaking course. Their first wine, Pinot Noir 2005, won the Open Red Wine Trophy at the 2006 Air New Zealand Award. Since then, their wines have won numerous medals and trophies in both national and international wine competitions, including the Best Pinot Noir in the 2009 Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition (HKIWSC), and Best Wine with Peking Duck in the 2011 HKIWSC.

Initially they planted only Pinot Noir, but this did not deter Wooing Tree from making a white wine called Blondie, made from 100% Pinot Noir (the grapes are pressed with minimum skin contact therefore the wine does not pick up the red colour from the skin), that won the Innovation Trophy in the 2008 Wine New Zealand trade show. A Pinot Noir Rose was soon to follow and the latest in the Pinot line up is Tickled Pink, a pink dessert Pinot Noir. Their three red Pinots are the easy drinking Beetle Juice, Wooing Tree Pinot Noir and Sandstorm Reserve. I asked Steve if there is a Pinot bubbly in the pipeline to complete the line, but he did not elaborate. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see one in a few vintages time. Right now, Wooing Tree also makes a Chardonnay and a Pinot Gris, though only a few hundred cases of each.

Central Otago wine is renowned for its fruit concentration and it shows in Wooing Tree. Both the Blondie and the Rose have about 4-5g/l residual sugar but taste sweeter because of their fruitiness. Both wines are refreshing with a good balance of acidity. I particular like the Rose for its structure, and I am convinced that it would win a medal for Best Wine with Dim Sum. The trophy winning Wooing Tree Pinot Noir is complex with a perfect oak integration. Its silky tannin matches well with the texture of Peking duck and the ripe fruit aromas stand up well to the sweet hoisin sauce.

No doubt Chris Foss, the leader of Plumpton’s Wine Department, is proud of Steve’s, and indeed other Plumpton students’ achievements. People sometimes laugh when I tell them I studied winemaking in England but we Plumptonians are making wine in every corner of the world from New Zealand, South Africa and Canada to Greece, Portugal, France and of course England. After talking to Steve and looking through the beautiful pictures of Wooing Tree, I am very tempted to just do the same.

Wooing Tree wine is available from At Style Wine.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Watch out the New Kid from the Old World

In November, the Georgian Government invited some 40 delegates from Asia, including media and importers, to attend the Georgia Beverages Tradeshow in Tbilisi. The Asian delegates were joined by visitors from the US and the Middle East to sample wines from over 30 wineries and other beverages at the exhibition.

The 3-day trip, although short, was action-packed. Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW was the guest of honour at the opening forum and she presented the Challenges and Opportunities of Asia’s wine markets to the Georgian producers, who hope to export their wines to this part of the world. Mr Zhu Sixu, deputy director general of the Guangdong Provincial Alcohol Monopoly Bureau, meanwhile, talked about the potential wine and spirits market in booming China.

Georgia has the longest wine making history, over 8,000 years, of any country in the world. Most wines are made from indigenous varieties, the most common being Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane (whites) and the red Saperavi, although some producers are experimenting with international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Wine styles are diverse, ranging from dry to semi sweet, and sparkling to fortified. Georgia adopts an appellation system similar to that in Bordeaux or Burgundy where wine can be named after the region or district.

Georgian wine (both white and red) was traditionally made in 'kvevri', ceramic jars containing grape juice, skin and stalks that were buried underground for fermentation and ageing. Some producers still use this technique today. Wine may be left undisturbed for months and white wine thus acquires the deep yellow or amber colour and high tannin. It is structured with herbal, nutty aromas but surprisingly fresh. It is certainly unique but I have to say it is an acquired taste, like Sherry.

WIth the spread of the natural wine movement and non-intervention winemaking practices, some producers in Italy, Germany, Austria and even the US are buying kvevri from Georgia to make their own ‘kvevri’ wine. According to Tina Kezeli, the Executive Director of the Georgian Wine Association, kvevri are exported to Europe at a price of €2/litre of capacity. Making kvevri is a highly skilled craft. The inside is lined with beeswax while the outside is coated with lime. However, it is a dying art and the priority of the industry is to establish a kvevri school to make sure this traditional craft is taught and preserved.

Nevertheless, even Tina admitted that kvevri wine will never be mainstream in the international wine market because it is expensive to make. On the bright side, the young generation of Georgian winemakers is spending time abroad and bringing modern winemaking techniques and sometimes investment with them back to Georgia. This is good news for Georgia because these young winemakers respect tradition but also realise their wine needs to appeal to the international consumers. They experiment with different times of kvevri wine on skin and stems, and even merge the traditional and modern winemaking techniques, such as fermenting juice with skin and stems in stainless steel tanks above ground, ageing kvevri wine in barrels, or blending indigenous and international grape varieties, with the aim of producing more accessible yet still unique wine. They are also focusing more on the dry style rather than the semi-sweet style which was preferred by the Russians.

To understand Georgian wine, you need to know their history. Their wines were highly prized in Russia which imported over 90% of the production. One day in 2006, Russia turned its back on Georgia and put an embargo on its wine, citing counterfeiting. The Georgian wine industry suffered as a consequence but managed to attract foreign investment in around 2008, just before the war with Russia broke that drove potential investors away and caused a major setback to the industry and the country. Now Georgia is ready again and it is determined to step into the international arena.

I can see this determination in nearly every Georgian I met, from the wine industry to the government officials and from the young people to shop owners. Their wines may be rustic, the grape varieties difficult to pronounce, and wine regions/wine styles confusing, but give them time, they will shine. This exhibition was only the first step in introducing themselves to Asian customers.

I believe the combination of traditional craft and modern technique, the indigenous grapes, the history and story behind the country, and the determination of the Georgians will be a recipe for success for Georgian wine. I truly wish them all the best.

Importers interested in some unique wines can check out the Beverages Tadeshow website for wineries information or email Invest in Georgia.

Sunday 11 December 2011

What wines go with chilli spicy dishes?

No doubt you have heard someone (probably a westerner) saying that off dry wines go well with Asian spicy dishes because they tone down the spiciness, making the food more palatable. But hang on a second. Is that what we Chinese (or Asians) want—to eat spicy dishes without the fiery or numbing sensation?

This is the main difference between the average westerner and the average Asian over spicy food. Westerners want to tame the chilli while Asians (especially South Asians) think the spicier the better.

We had lunch with Casey McClellan from Seven Hills Winery in Washington last year, and paired each of his three wines, Tempranillo, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, with the same dish: chicken's feet in black bean sauce. Each pairing gave a very different impression. The Tempranillo was subtle but the sauce brought out the fruitiness in the wine, making it livelier but not overpowering. The Syrah had a spicy character which was accentuated by the peppery and spicy flavours of the dish, while the Cabernet was in perfect harmony with the chicken's feet, like a contented old couple. All three wines matched the dish but your ultimate choice would depend on how you like your spicy food.

While personal preference is certainly a factor, there are still basic guidelines for food and wine matching. Their styles can be contrasting (sweet vs spicy, acidic vs oily), but their intensity and body (richness) have to be compatible, otherwise one will overpower the other (check out Flavour Colours for more elaboration). We ran a spicy food/wine pairing exercise the other day and here is the verdict:

Chicken in spicy sauce (口水雞) with a Chilean Carmen Gran Reserve Chardonnay 2009: Although the wine is medium bodied with pronounced fruit, the dish was just a notch too heavy for the wine. The wine tasted thin and lost the fruit aroma after the food.

Hunan deep-fried prawns in chilli sauce with Chablis Domaine Laroche St. Martin 2009: Again the food was too heavy for the wine. It was actually better matched with the Chilean Carmen Gran Reserve Chardonnay 2009

Sautéed mutton with chilli in casserole with Chateau Croix Mouton Bordeaux Superior 2009: Unfortunately (or fortunately?) the food was too subtle (by mutton standards) and the wine was not intense. This mismatch turned out to be inoffensive but unsensational.

Sautéed spicy beef brisket in casserole and Domaine des Sénéchaux Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007:  The intensely flavoured dish was well balanced by the equally intensely fruit-laden wine. The weight of the food and wine were spot on—seamless!

The key for pairing spicy, or indeed non spicy, food with wine? The intensity of flavour and body. Sweetness, acidity and tannins are more a matter of personal preference. So next time you have (especially Asian) food with wine, trust your palate, not what the experts have told you. Have fun experimenting with the options that wine and food matching offers!

Sunday 4 December 2011

Another judgement

This time it was Viña Seña from Chile against Bordeaux first growth, led by Eduardo Chadwick, president of Viña Seña, and Jeannie Cho Lee MW. The main purpose was actually a vertical tasting of six Viña Seña from 1995 to 2008, but Jeannie decided to put in a few Bordeaux first growths to make the tasting more fun. The results, based on the votes of some 40 wine professionals and journalists invited to the tasting, saw Seña snatching the top five places out of ten, beating all the first growths. This demonstrated yet again how much Chilean wine has evolved and, perhaps more interestingly, how much wine professionals’ palates have changed.

Some critics argue that blind tastings like this are a waste of time because tasters ignore the track record, breeding and ageing potential of the wine. Therefore, New World wine almost always tastes better than Bordeaux because of its fruit concentration and higher alcohol. Also the line up is a giveaway: tasted between two big fruity wines, the more elegant Margaux in the middle seems thin and dilute.

While all of the above may be right, one shouldn’t dismiss all these tastings as pointless. In this Seña tasting, most of us (I was one of the tasters) knew which was Seña and which was Bordeaux, so if all we cared about was the name rather than the quality, we could easily have tweaked our scores to favour Bordeaux. But I presume most didn’t, hence the results. The exercise suggests that these tasters, most of whom were from the trade and the F&B industry, are open minded. This is important as these people are the gatekeepers—consumers rely on their recommendations when choosing wines, so hopefully they won’t be only promoting Bordeaux wine after this tasting. I am not saying Bordeaux is not good, but there are just so many wonderful and different styles outside Bordeaux that it seems a pity to pass them by. After all, we don’t want to eat abalone or wagyu beef every day!

To be honest, all the wines were of very good quality and our rankings were really down to personal preference. The one I really liked was the 1995 Seña. It has aged gracefully with such a complex bouquet and long length that most of us thought it was Old World, and it certainly fared better than the Mouton Rothschild of the same vintage. This busted another myth that New World wine can’t age.

Eduardo was surprised but definitely very pleased with the result. Hong Kong was the first stop on his Asian tour, and he was to repeat the tasting in Taipei and Seoul. No doubt he will take the tour to other major cities in the near future, just like his famous Judgement of Berlin back in 2004. It will be interesting to see how the results compare with Hong Kong's.

The rankings were:
1st: 2008 Seña
2nd: 2001 Seña
3rd: 1995 Seña
4th: 2007 Seña
5th: 1997 Seña
6th: 2007 Château Lafite Rothschild
7th: 2001 Château Margaux
8th: 2005 Seña
9th: 2005 Château Latour
10th: 1995 Château Mouton Rothschild

Seña is available from Maxxium Hong Kong.

Friday 18 November 2011

Spain, more than just Tempranillo

Spain has been quite active in Hong Kong lately. Less than a month after José Peñin’s visit to promote his Peñin Guide to Spanish Wine 2011, the Spanish were back in town for the first Grand Tasting of Top Wines from Spain, led by the President of the Rioja DOCa Regulatory Board, Victor Pascual, with whom I had an interesting discussion.

Victor emphasised that Tempranillo is now recognised as one of the world's noble grapes and in recent years has been the most widely planted variety in a number of countries. He said Tempranillo’s personality is closely linked to the territory in which it is grown, and it reaches its fullest expression in Rioja. Moreover, oak, whether American or French, new or old, is an integral part of Rioja, giving wines from the region their individual characters. Rioja wine is balanced in terms of alcohol level, acidity, body and structure. Its easy-to-drink character is a safe choice for consumers and matches a wide range of cuisines. If Tempranillo is the national grape of Spain, then Rioja must surely be the national wine.

Great as Tempranillo and Rioja may be, one should not forget other Spanish varieties and regions. Grenache (Garnacha) and Carignan (Mazuela) are the silent partners of Rioja, giving the wine a fruitier profile, brighter colour and higher acidity. Grenache and Carignan are also the stars in Southern Spain where it is too hot for Tempranillo. Priorat gives them their fullest expression as most grapes come from old vines.

I always think Spanish white wine is under-rated. Albarino from Rias Baixas has pleasant, non-pungent aromas, good acidity and texture and is versatile enough to pair well with many medium intensity dishes.

Of course we should not forget Sherry. It has never been a big thing in Hong Kong but I particular like the lighter Fino and Manzanilla styles, which are great aperitifs and refreshing after a whole day of wine tasting. In London a few sherry tapas bars have sprung up, serving only sherry. I would love it if there was a similar bar in Hong Kong in the near future.

Last but not least, a good quality Cava is always an alternative to Champagne. At Wine Future, I tasted a very good one, Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad with up to four years on lees, and was told that it was retailing at Watson’s Wine for only $198! Stock up quick, before they increase the price.

I only tried wines from three producers at this tasting. Big tastings like this are more like social events. It took me two hours to walk from one end of the room to the other and I was exhausted from talking, not tasting. Anyway, the wine that stood out was Pago de los Capellanes Parcela ‘El Nogal’ 2005, 100% Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero. It is vibrant, concentrated, with a long length but not heavy. Available from Ponti Wine Cellars.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Tasting with experts

I was really fortunate to have attended Jancis Robinson MW’s ‘Beyond Bordeaux’ and Robert Parker’s ‘The Magical 20’ tastings at Winefuture, and, on each occasion, to have sat next to other eminent experts, Michel Bettane and Dr Tony Jordan respectively. After listening to all four, and later talking to yet more experts, all passionate in their views and yet sometimes holding completely opposing opinion, I began to wonder how they can all be right.

While there were universal opinions about quality—the Brazilian sparkling wine had too much alcohol, the 1990 Burgundy was past its peak, the Turkish Öküzgözü was a well-made, balanced wine and the Ridge Monte Bello 1995 was just perfect—there were widely differing preferences when it comes to style. Most New World experts seemed to like the Lynch-Bages because of its ripe fruit aromas but Michel (very much Old World) reckoned it lacked elegance and the fruit was 'cooked'. Some favoured Le Gay because of its structure; others dismissed it as too herbaceous. Some said the Antinori Tignanello had brettanomyces written all over it, while others considered it complex.

For me, the tastings and discussions were inspiring and confusing in equal measure. I am still on learning curve but after pondering it for a while I was able to distil a conclusion. What I learned is that it's a two step process: quality then style. The quality of a wine is the most important thing—all the experts had more or less the same views on this. The Old World school also focuses intently on integration, especially with oak. Once we know how to tell the difference between a good and a poor quality wine, then we can start to explore the different styles of wine and see what we personally like, be it Old World or New. As I said in a previous article, each of us has his own style preferences, and we should not allow others to dictate what we should drink or like. After all, it is our palate.

Thoughts on Winefuture

The Hong Kong Government must have been delighted with its decision to host Winefuture, a conference that attracted a Who’s Who of the international wine industry, reaffirming Hong Kong as an important wine hub in Asia.

Most speakers were professional and provided insights to the audience. I particularly enjoyed the panels ‘Looking ahead - regions, varieties, styles’ led my Tim Atkin MW, and ‘The use of the Internet and social media’ led by Lulie Halstead. Tim had obviously done his homework and threw probing questions to his panel speakers, while Lulie was brilliant in leading an interactive discussion among local and remote speakers (Gary Vaynerchuk was talking through Skype).

However, I found some panels superficial and one-dimensional, and a lot of subjects overlapped or were covered by more than one panel. Worse, some key issues and challenges facing the industry were ignored—economics, alcohol levels, government regulation, health, to name a few. The closing panel, ‘The final debate: the future of wine’, should have distilled the essence of the conference, but it was sadly rushed. I was particularly annoyed that after waiting ten minutes for my turn to ask the question, "What are the speakers’ views on low alcohol wine?", the question was misinterpreted, and conference chairman Pancho Campo MW was rushing to close the panel in time for the junk trip scheduled in half an hour. Given that some big brands are now marketing ranges of low alcohol (5.5%-9%) wine in the UK and that consumers, especially new consumers, are increasingly expressing concern over health and obesity, I think this is an important issue, one of many the wine industry has to address, and very much on-topic for a conference like this.

The objectives of Winefuture, if I interpret it correctly, are to address the opportunities and challenges facing the industry now, and debate the way forward. In my opinion, it would be more likely to achieve these objective if its conferences were broken into five category topics:

• Product: environment, climate change, alcohol levels
• Supply chain: supermarket power, consolidation, direct sales
• Business and economics: the financial crisis, vertical/horizontal integration
• Marketing: the new generation of consumers, communications
• New markets: China, India, Brazil, Russia

Half a day should be devoted to each topic to allow for a meaningful in-depth discussion. Participants should be invited to submit questions at least a week beforehand and moderators should summarise the questions for the speakers in advance and prepare a debate. There should also be plenty of time for the audience Q&A during the discussion.

Nevertheless, despite these reservations, I thought Winefuture was a success. For those who listened, there were some thought provoking insights from the speakers. Although it was at times a little disorganised, I am grateful to the Wine Academy for the enormous amount of work they must have put in to pull it together and for assembling such a star line up of speakers. And in particular I thank Pancho for addressing participants’ concerns quickly, improving the conference and panels 'on-the-fly' each day. By the way, all panel discussions will be available on the Winefuture website.

Sunday 30 October 2011

Flagship wine: ambassador or juggernaut?

What is the wine or grape that first springs to mind when someone mentions France, Spain, Argentina or New Zealand? Bordeaux, Tempranillo, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc? These are considered the flagship wines of those countries, the ambassadors. But do they really bring value to their motherland's wine industry? Or do they shine so bright that they stultify it?

You can argue it either way.

Start with Italy. It has over 350 indigenous grapes, but the one variety that is its claim to fame is Sangiovese, used in so many great wines from Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino to the Super Tuscans. Sangiovese brought the world’s drinkers to Italy and introduced them to its many siblings—Nebbiolo, Aglianico, Pinot Grigio and more. Today, consumers everywhere appreciate the diversity of Italian wines, but they still pay respect to Sangiovese.

Like Italy, Portugal has over 300 native grapes, but it does not promote any particular variety in the international arena. The fact that one grape often has different names depending on where it is grown (north, centre or south) doesn’t help. As a result, perhaps, Portuguese wine has little recognition outside Portugal even today (except Port and Mateus Rosé). A few years ago, ViniPortugal decided to start marketing Touriga Nacional as the national grape, hoping it would achieve similar status to Sangiovese and bring the world to its many other wines. We are still waiting to see the results.

Most will agree that Tempranillo is Spain’s flagship grape. But what about Grenache (Garnacha)? It is an important variety in Rioja where Tempranillo gained its fame, and produces the expressive and concentrated wines of Priorat and the south. In fact, Grenache has more characters than Tempranillo as a varietal, yet it always seems a few steps behind.

Sauvignon Blanc, specifically from Marlborough, put New Zealand on the world wine map. Now every wine region outside New Zealand wants to produce a similar style of Sauvignon Blanc. However, this flagship grape has been so successful that all other great New Zealand wines are living under its shadow. The average consumer—and I am referring to the average, not those in the wine circle—is not even aware of Otago Pinot Noir, let alone the wines of other regions.

Chile is known for offering the best value in several international grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay. Yet it struggles to establish an identity. Conversely, its neighbour Argentina is, in a sense, better positioned in the world wine market because of its flagship grape, Malbec.

So, is having a flagship wine or varietal a good or a bad thing?

Thursday 20 October 2011

Tasting wine

I was inspired to write this after talking to the participants at 'Test Your Palate', an open bottle tasting event for the general public held alongside the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit Competition. I hope it will help people grasp the few essential points of tasting.

The spectrum of primary fruit flavours in wine depends on the degree of ripeness. For white wine it ranges from green apple (just ripe) and citrus (lemon, lime) to white fruit (pear, peach), yellow fruit (nectarine, apricot), and tropical (mango, pineapple). Generally speaking, wines from cooler climates concentrate the more delicate flavours while warmer climate white wines display the heavier fruit aromas. Similarly, the flavour spectrum of red wine begins at red fruit (strawberry, raspberry, cherry) and extends to black fruit (blackcurrant, blueberry, blackberry). So instead of naming ten different fruits, one can simply say "yellow fruit" or "black fruit" to place the wine in the appropriate position.

Broadly speaking, aromatic white wines have added aromas such as delicate floral (Riesling), grassy and passionfruit (Sauvignon Blanc) or the heavier rose and ginger (Gewurztraminer). Red wine aged in barrels may acquire spiciness (French barrels) or the sweeter scent of vanilla/coconut (American barrels). Earthy and mushroomy notes are likely to be found in aged red wines.

Minerality is a controversial descriptor. Some experts say it’s a reflection of terroir and can only be found in cooler climate (Chablis) while some dismiss it as total nonsense. I was confused by ‘wet stones’ until I realised it referred to the smell of the sea. My own interpretation of minerality is a mixture of savouriness and acidity on the palate; nothing to do with wet stones!

Test your palate, Trust your palate

The Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit Competition, the biggest in Asia, ran for three days in October. One novelty was that each evening, after the official judges had finished their work for the day, the venue opened its doors to wine lovers from the general public. Over the three evenings participants had the chance to taste over 1,600 wines, from the most major to the most obscure grape varieties, and from the most popular to the least known regions. This new event, called 'Test your Palate', was the first of its kind in Asia. The idea was to give the public a chance to try their hand as wine judges, tasting exactly as real judges do in the same setting and giving an opportunity not normally available to the average wine drinker to do in-depth side-by-side comparisons of many many wines for a very reasonable entry fee. Apart from being great fun, there was also the educational side: the official judges were present and participants were free to ask them any questions they had, from viticulture to wine quality.

Being one of the organisers of the event, and one of the judges of the Competition, I stayed for all three evenings and found it enjoyable talking to participants, most of whom were wine students or serious wine lovers. We discussed everything in the wine world from indigenous grapes in Georgia to Australian wine marketing strategies. However, the most common topic was tasting: how can one identify the different aromas; how to detect this and that; how can one smell more things…?

I think people make it too hard, focusing on trying to taste what the 'expert' tastes rather than on what they themselves taste. Some wine experts like to flood their tasting notes with all kinds of descriptors (blackberry, blueberry, blackcurrant, black cherry, black plum), while some may dismiss a non-faulty wine purely on its smell ("too tannic"). But what I tried to explain to participants was that different people (not only experts) have different vocabularies based on their own experience. While one might name 20 different aromas just by sniffing, they can probably all be grouped into seven categories: fruity (from green apple to black fruit), floral, herbaceous/vegetative, spicy, caramelised, smoky and microbial). Tannins, acidity and sugar can only be tasted (not smelled) and they are essential for wine ageing. So don’t be intimidated by all the flowery tasting notes. Develop your own vocabulary and association of aromas. Once you've built confidence in using your own system you'll enjoy your tasting so much more. Don’t let other people dictate what you should drink or like. It is your palate, trust it.

Click here for a few tasting tips.

Sunday 9 October 2011

An interview with José Peñin

Less than a month after James Halliday’s visit, another wine critic was recently in town promoting his latest wine guide. This time it was José Peñin from Spain. José has over 30 years experience in wine journalism. He is sometimes called the Robert Parker of Spain and was awarded the Jury Special Prize for the best wine guide in the 2007 Gourmand Book Prizes. The Peñin Guide to Spanish Wine 2011 features more than 13,000 wines of which over 8,000 were sampled by a team of four tasters.

It was frustrating having to talk to José via an interpreter who only had minimal wine knowledge, as complex questions and answers were often lost. I know I could have got a lot more insightful opinions if I could have spoken to him directly—I should have learnt my Spanish better! Nevertheless, I can just about profile his general thoughts on Spanish wines.

Like most experts, José believes in terroir. Spain’s various wine regions are capable of producing widely differing wine styles thanks to differences in climate, soil and altitude. But it is always important to choose the right grape varieties. Tempranillo may be the flagship grape of Spain, but in hot, dry Priorat it will not produce the same great wine it does in Rioja. The south should concentrate on Garnacha (Grenache), Monastrell (Mourvèdre) and Cariñena (Carignan). He also disputes the notion that high alcohol is a consequence of global warming, asserting that Priorat wines have always been 14.5% alcohol or above. Instead, he emphasises the significance of high altitude vineyards. The high altitude counterbalances the high temperatures, allowing grapes to ripen slowly and fully without accumulating too much sugar. Hmm. I agree with most of this but wonder how many will accept his view about global warming. Or maybe something was lost in translation?

Asked about his favourite wine, José says he is still exploring. Regardless of the grape, the region or the price, good wine must have personality. He has certainly stuck to this philosophy when tasting the wines for the Peñin Guide. And for the Great Spanish Wine tasting in Hong Kong he was accompanied by 26 wineries that had scored 90 points or above. Most are small to medium size wineries with vines of great age, some over 100 years old. The wines are concentrated and expressive and definitely have personality.

One last comment from José: when he is with family and friends, it doesn’t matter what wine he is drinking—it is the company that matters.

My favourites at the tasting were:

Domaines Lupier La Dama 2008: 100% Grenache from Navarra. Concentrated and expressive.

Paco & Lola 2010: 100% Albariño grapes from Rias Baixas. Intense aroma, fresh and lively.

Vinyes Domenech Teixar 2007: 100% Grenache from Montasant. Powerful, spicy and round tannins.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Argentina, a land of passion

Finca Sophenia, set against the mighty Andes in Mendoza, has everything one needs to produce a perfect wine—high altitudes rising to 4,000ft, a cool climate, long sunshine hours, high diurnal temperatures, well-drained soil, water from melted Andes snow for irrigation, a gravity-fed winery, the latest vinification equipment ... but I think the real secret of its success lies with Roberto Luka, the finca's driving force.

Roberto has been in the wine export business for many years and has been president of Wines of Argentina. With insight of the industry, he made sure Finca Sophenia was founded on the best possible site, he focuses on export markets and he engages Michel Rolland as wine consultant to ensure the wine suits international consumer tastes.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Blind tasting with a twist

Prior to Le Grand Day of Indulgence, we had a fantastic blind tasting dinner at Crown Wine Cellars with Michel Bettane, Thierry Desseauve (two highly respected French wine critics) and Pierre Lurton, director of Chateau Cheval Blanc and d’Yquem. Every guest brought a bottle or two from their own collection and these were split into flights, each of which might or might not contain one or more bottle of Cheval Blanc. The challenge for the Frenchmen and the guests was to decide if there was any Cheval Blanc in each flight and, if so, how many bottles and what vintage. It was the most entertaining blind tasting game I have ever played.

Flight 1: The experts correctly picked one Cheval Blanc but the wrong vintage (1970 instead of 1971), and there was indeed a Cheval Blanc 1970 in the flight that they didn’t pick. The other two were Leoville-Las-Cases 1970 and Latour 1970. Pierre was quite shocked that he couldn’t pick the 1970!

Flight 2: Cheval Blanc 1982 was correctly identified. The others in the line up were Leovile Poyferre 1978, Vega Sicilia 1981, Beychevelle 1989 and Vega Sicilia 1991.

Flight 3: Everyone picked Wine No. 3—wrongly. The flight was Phelps Insignia 1994, Vega Sicilia 1995 and Angelus 1993. No Cheval Blanc.

Flight 4: Cheval Blanc 1996, Gaja Barbaresco 1998, Cheval Blanc 2001 and Angelus 2003 magnum. Again only one of the two Cheval Blancs was correctly identified. Michel cheekily said he preferred the last wine (the Angelus) without asserting that it was a Cheval Blanc.

All wines were of superb quality and I found it really difficult to pick the Cheval Blanc, and impossible to identify the rest. We had to rely on the subtle differences of style, tannin texture, and American/French oak characters. Nevertheless, it was inspiring and we can all use this as a reference for designing our own blind tasting games. How about an international Cabernet line up and pick the Margaret River, or everyone brings a bottle and each has to pick his own? Or, even more creative, pick the odd one out?

Sunday 11 September 2011

Tasting in Guangzhou

I hopped on a Guangzhou bound train for a cool climate wine tasting last week, part of a three-city (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou) tasting tour organised by the Austrian and German embassies to celebrate the launch of the ‘Cool Climate Wine’ book written by Susie Wu and Michael Thurner. Some 63 wineries from Austria, Germany, Alsace and one from Tokaji were invited to present their wines.

China is supposedly a red wine-loving nation, so, apart from just tasting, I wanted to see how mainland Chinese drinkers responded to these mostly white wines from cool climates. The results were interesting.

I started with whites, tasting the Austrian Grüner Veltliner in the company of a local importer. After two glasses, he was already looking for reds and strayed away.

Only about an hour into the tasting the place got noisier, and merrier, and more alcohol was consumed—no one was spitting apart from me. Broadly speaking, there were two types of conversation among guests: price—how much for a container?—and status—how important the guest was (it seemed most were the biggest importer somewhere). Among the producers several carried the bemused look of someone in China for the first time. I asked a few what they thought. All said they were impressed. Perhaps they still had the illusion that ‘if every Chinese person spends one dollar on my product...’.

Sunday 4 September 2011

An interview with James Halliday

A graceful gentleman, James Halliday was in town recently with an entourage of seven equally outstanding winemakers to promote the 2012 edition of his Australian Wine Companion. The book, 4.5cm thick with over 700 pages and some 3,400 tasting notes, represents only half of what James has tasted during the year. The rest can be found on his website.

James is a prolific taster. He has written over 69,000 tasting notes, spanning some 10 years of tasting—6,900 per year or nearly 600 a month! No wonder he is proud of his iPhone app. The book can only hold 3,400 tasting notes, otherwise it would become impractical to publish and carry around, but with the iPhone app one can carry his entire collection on the move in the nifty device. I admire James not only because he embraces technology but also because, until recently, he wrote all the notes himself. Unlike most wine critics who have a team of reviewers behind them, James tasted and wrote his notes single-handed until three years ago when he engaged a part time reviewer as part of his succession plan. After all, this gentleman is over 70 years old.

While he thinks it is important for Australia's wine industry to defend its UK and US markets, James is truly ‘gung ho’ about China. Although China does not have an established wine culture, its people, especially the young, are learning fast. He reckons China will be the biggest market for all New World wines in less than a generation. So it was no surprise that his entourage’s next stop after Hong Kong was China, fully supported by Wine Australia.

I believe the only way for Australian wines to secure market share in China (and indeed Asia) is to shake off once and for all the ‘cheap and cheerful’ image that still dogs it. Take Hong Kong for example: Australian wine has long been the wine of choice for novice drinkers who do not want to spend too much on a bottle, but as these consumers become more confident many tend to trade up to Old World or even New Zealand wines, leaving the Aussies behind.

Encouragingly, there are more and more quality conscious Australian producers who recognise this. Instead of churning out factory-produced oaked Chardonnay and big fruity Shiraz, they are releasing hand-crafted, small production, terroir-driven wines with individual style. Some of them were showcased at Mr Halliday’s media lunch and the masterclass that followed. Here are my favourites (Available from Maxxium):

By Farr Geelong Chardonnay 2009: creamy, mouth-filling but not fat, with multi-layered flavours.

McHenry Hohnen Rocky Road Vineyard Margaret River Chardonnay 2010: an elegant, barrel fermented Chardonnay; far superior to a lot of Burgundies.

O’Leary Walker Wines Polish Hill Riesling 2010: lime, honey, mineral and smoky; somewhere between a Mosel and a Rheingau.

Saltram No. 1 Barossa Shiraz 2006: High alcohol perfectly balanced by the rich fruit flavours and tannins. Went very well with the equally rich braised pork belly casserole with preserved vegetables.

Tyrell’s Vat 9 Hunter Shiraz 2009: Old World style; elegant with a balance between fruit and a soft tannin from 60-90 years old vines.

Long may this trend continue, because if it does the future for Australian wine in Asia should be bright.

Sunday 28 August 2011

New Kid from the Old World

I suspect many people might not even know where Georgia is, let alone have experience of tasting Georgian wine. Georgia, in the Caucasus between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, was part of the Soviet Union until 1991 when it gained its independence. It claims to be the oldest wine producing region in the world with an 8,000 year winemaking history that is an essential part of the country's cultural heritage. Georgian wine was traditionally made in 'kvevri', ceramic jars containing grape juice, skin and stalks that were buried underground for fermentation. The wine was thick and tannic.

Georgian wines were highly prized in Russia which imported over 90% of the production. A falling out in 2006 saw Russia putting an embargo on Georgian wine (citing counterfeiting), leaving Georgia to look for new export markets. In hindsight, the embargo can be seen as good news for wine lovers in other parts of the world.

The country has a mild climate moderated by the Black Sea to the west. Cool summer nights retain the acidity in the grapes and the mineral-rich waters from the Caucasian mountains provide natural nutrients to the vines. There are over 400 indigenous grapes, of which some 38 are used for winemaking, all unfortunately with pretty much unpronounceable names—another language for the wine lovers!

There are still a lot of small growers making wine using traditional methods while the bigger ones are adopting modern techniques, producing wines that are more accessible when young.

Georgia adopts an appellation system similar to that in Bordeaux or Burgundy where wine can be named after the region, district or village—more confusion for consumers! However, wine lovers should not be deterred by the confusing labelling or alien-sounding grapes. After all, we all learn to, more or less, master the French appellations. I have recently tried a few Georgian wines and found them surprisingly pleasant:

Tbilvino Tsinandali Special Reserve 2007 (white): A blend of Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane grapes, barrel fermented and aged in oak for nine months. Floral and ginger nose with refreshing acidity and appetising palate. At 12.5% alcohol, this is a food friendly wine that goes well with sashimi or steamed pork dumplings.

Tblivino Mukuzani, Special Reserve 2003 (red): 100% Saperavi grapes. Red fruits with prunes, dry leaves and pepper nose. A wide spectrum of aromas supported by fresh acidity and ripe tannin. An elegant wine with 12.5% alcohol.

Available from Georgian Valleys Corporations Ltd

Saturday 20 August 2011

The Queen’s bubblies

England is known for its ale and bitter, but English wine? Many will probably dismiss it or even scorn it – but not so fast: England may not be the right place for a bold alcoholic Shiraz but its terroir and climate are perfect for sparkling wine. 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. There are at least a dozen wineries in Southern England, mainly in Sussex, making some fabulous sparkling wine.

I studied for my winemaking diploma at Plumpton College, Sussex so I had a chance to witness first hand the growth of the sparkling wine industry. People thought it was a joke at first, until English sparkling wines began to beat champagnes in various blind tastings.

Sunday 14 August 2011

Summer Wines

The temperature in Hong Kong has been soaring for months and it looks like there is at least another month to go before the mercury drops back to a more bearable 27ºC. I haven't felt like drinking any reds these last two months, even in a freezing cold restaurant; it just doesn’t feel right (like those people who eat hot pot in summer with the air-conditioning blasting on top of their heads—what a waste of energy!).

Most people, sadly, switch to auto mode and reach for a red wine when having (especially) Chinese meals regardless of the dish. But open your eyes and you will find there are actually a lot of interesting whites other than Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc out there that beautifully complement Chinese meals in this weather.

At a recent South African WOSA wine tasting, we had Cap Classique (sparkling), Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay with some typical dishes: siu mai (pork dumpling), marinated steamed chicken (貴妃雞) and sliced abalone. All these wines went well with the food. The bubbles of the Villera Monro Brut 2007 accentuated the fragrance of the fresh abalone, while the complexity and richness of the barrel fermented Bellingham Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2010 complemented the texture of the siu mai. The lightly flavoured chicken was perfect with Bouchard Finlayson Missionvale Chardonnay 2009.

Unlike New World whites, which emphasise varietal flavour and tend to be fruity, the subtlety of Old World whites often makes for a good food match. Albarino from Rias Baixas in Spain is generally a good choice with Cantonese cuisine as both the wine and food have multi-layered yet non-dominating flavours. We had a vegetarian four course meal paired with four wines at The Mira’s WHISK a few months ago and found the Pazo de Senorans Albarino 2009 a good match for three of the four dishes: watermelon and tomato cannelloni, eggplant ratatouille and gnocchi with pumpkin sauce. Only the asparagus and mushroom risotto was too rich for this wine.

Equally good matches are the full bodied Priorat white wines with heavier seafood dishes such as scallops in black bean sauce, spicy prawns and deep fried cuttlefish. I suspect the asparagus and mushroom risotto would go well too.

Just last week I tried the Tbilvino Tsinandali from Georgia, a white wine made from indigenous Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane grapes. Surprisingly flavoursome with floral and ginger nose but crisp and elegant on palate: a heavenly wine with sashimi and sushi.

Don’t waste the rest of summer. Go and get a few bottles of white and bubbly (I just bought two cases!)

Saturday 6 August 2011

White wine from Priorat

Over 90% of Priorat is big, powerful reds. However, don’t pass up on the whites if you come across them. They are mostly made from local varieties of Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo and Pedro Ximenez. Most of the vines are quite old (over 20 years), and vinification follows the traditional method of barrel fermentation and lees stirring. The best examples are complex and full bodied with spicy and smoky characters, a nice change from fruit driven New World whites and a great match with the flavoursome fried/grilled fresh seafood of the Mediterranean coast. Try Clos Mogador Nelin 2009, Marco Abella Òlbia 2008 (only 800 bottles produced), or Mas d’en Gil Coma Alta 2009.

Sunday 31 July 2011

A taste of crop yield - a vertical tasting of Martinborough Vineyard Pinot Noir

It was nice to see Paul Mason, winemaker at Martinborough Vineyard, in Hong Kong after I had earlier visited their winery in April. Instead of tasting different Martinborough wines, Paul conducted a vertical tasting of their five Pinots from 2003 to 2009.

While all wines had the same footprint of firmness and savouriness, which are the characteristics of Martinborough's terroir, the 2003 and 2007 were particularly concentrated and rich. The savoury character was more pronounced, both wines displaying a mushroomy, earthy nose backed by a lingering palate. The reason was that both years had a very low crop yield: 2003 had 50% of normal crop and 2007 only 25% due to frost and bizarre weather conditions—a winemaker's nightmare but a wine lover's delight!

In contrast, 2006, 2008 and 2009 had a more benign weather pattern. The crop yields were normal at about 5 tons/ha. All three vintages display lively red fruit characters and 2009 in particular has a floral nose and an elegant structure. Paul has experimented with partial whole bunch fermentation in the past few years and perhaps the floral character was a result of it. The 2008 had 10% whole bunch fermentation while 2009 had 15%.

I like the firmness and structure of the 2003 and 2007. The 2009 is more towards the elegant end and it will be interesting to see how it ages. Available from Northeast.

Sunday 24 July 2011

Priorat’s Carignan (Cariñena)

Wine lovers tend to dismiss Carignan as quality wine because it is high in everything (alcohol, colour, bitterness, acid, yield) but fruit. It was widely grown in Southern France in the 1980s to produce low quality wine. Nowadays, it is often used in blends to push up alcohol and colour, and there is a cap on the maximum percentage allowed in some Southern French appellations.

So it was a pleasant surprise to try some really good Carignan (Cariñena) at the Espai Priorat tasting. The wine is interesting with savoury characters and firm tannin, a good expression of terroir because the vines are at least 50 years old (most 80-120 years old), grown in poor soils with roots pushing deep into the slate beneath for water and nutrients, and of very low yield. Who says Carignan can only produce inferior wine? Try these:

Sao del Coster Planassos 2005
Ferrer Bobet Selecciò Especial 2008
Trio Infernal No. 2/3 2006

Sunday 17 July 2011

Smokiness and burnt rubber: typical of Pinotage?

Most people who try Pinotage associate it with a barbecue smoky nose, and some even extend this to other South African reds such as Shiraz. I recently had a lively discussion about this with a few South African winemakers and estate owners, over beer and gin & tonic.

First was to define smokiness and burnt rubber. Both Yngvildt Steytler from Kaapzicht and Eben Sadie from the Sadie Family agreed that smokiness is a positive term and burnt rubber is not. Unfortunately the majority of consumers are not that precise and they often interchange these two terms depending on the level of that aroma. And to be honest, there are some who actually like the ‘burnt rubber’ character.

Anyway, Yngvildt believes that the ‘off’ flavour actually results from a dirty winery. A winery that observes proper hygiene does not have this issue. She could be right, as some critics attribute the ‘burnt rubber’ smell to brettanomyces, a yeast spoilage that occurs in dirty wineries.

Eben, however, has another opinion. Burnt rubber is a sulphide compound that may develop during the winemaking process but will disappear after a certain period of ageing. He reckons some producers rush to bottle and release the wines too early, hence the problem.

WInes of South Africa (WOSA) commissioned research to find the cause of the ‘burnt rubber’ smell a few years ago but the result was inconclusive. Scientists found no specific link between the aroma and any particular grape variety, region or vintage, so it is still a mystery to date.

A wine-loving friend of mine (by no means an expert) reckons it is the result of the bush fires that have happened throughout history and continue to happen pretty much every year around the Cape area. The burnt fynbos (native bush) finds its way into the soil and is absorbed by the vine roots and reflected in the wine. This is conceivable as obvious smokiness was found, for example, in Australia’s McLaren 2009 vintage after the bush fire that occurred before harvest.

South Africa’s ‘burnt rubber’ issue will surely continue to be debated in the years to come. Right now, for those who think burnt rubber is Pinotage, try these examples and think again:

Kaapzicht Steytler Pinotage 2007: Sweet fruit aroma and a spicy nose. Soft tannin. Yngvildt believes there is good hygiene in the cellar. Available from Kingdom Vineyard.

Scali Pinotage 2009: Red fruits and brambles, and a smooth tannin.

Kanonkop Pinotage 2005: Rich and complex with black fruits and spices and a hint of coffee (rather than burnt coffee) on the back palate. Available from Northeast.

Sunday 10 July 2011

South Africa - Variety is in our Nature

I have always had a soft spot for South Africa. My first time there was in 1996. After a few weeks on the road driving around the canyons, Kruger and the Garden Route, we finally arrived at Stellenbosch where we spent a week tasting wine every day, duly starting at 9:00am when the cellar doors opened. Since then, I have been back to the Stellenbosch area five times and have had the privilege of doing vintages at Ashanti and Thelema.

Therefore it was great news that Wines of South Africa (WOSA), was finally organising a long overdue South African wine tasting in Hong Kong recently. 29 wines from Cap Classique and Chenin Blanc to Bordeaux blends and Pinotage were presented to packed audiences in two sessions: the trade masterclass with tutored tasting in the afternoon and a consumer walk-around tasting in the evening.

Terroir or winemaker’ skills?

Terroir is the latest buzzword in the New World where most winemakers now claim they respect terroir and make their wine with the minimum interference. So it’s quite a surprise to come across the Chalk Hill Alpha Crucis Winemakers’ Series, a collection of six wines made by six different winemakers using the same block of Shiraz with all vines treated the same during the growing season. The objective is to isolate the winemaking from the viticulture so as clearly to demonstrate how much influence the winemaker can have on a wine. It also reveals whether the gender of the winemaker contributes to any stylistic difference.

The six winemakers employ different techniques, from destemmed, cold soaked fermentation with cultured and/or natural yeasts to ageing on lees, and they use various barrel sizes and combinations of old and new oak. I haven’t yet tried the wines myself, but Stuart Mosman. from Chalk Hill says the wines from the lady winemakers are generally more fragrant and soft while those from the macho winemakers are more at the firm end.

An interesting exercise, confirming that for sure winemakers are influential in the process of winemaking, whatever the terroir. When I was in college I fermented a single batch of Müller Thurgau with different strains of yeast, and even with this one variable there were noticeable differences in the resulting wines. In fact, artisan winemakers often batch-process their grapes in a number of ways and then blend the wines together to make the perfect end product. It would be interesting to blend the six Alpha Crucis wines together and see if an even better result could be achieved. Available from Leisure Wines.

Saturday 2 July 2011

Bordeaux Gimblett Gravels blind tasting: who’s the winner?

At a recent judgement tasting organised by New Zealand's Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association in Hong Kong, Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW and Rod Easthope of Craggy Range led a blind tasting of Gimblett Gravels 2009 vintage against Bordeaux classed growths (including all five first growth) 2008 vintage. Some 30 experienced tasters including media from Asia (Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Singapore), sommeliers, F&B directors and serious wine lovers were asked to rank their top eight wines out of the sixteen tasted. They were told in advance that the sixteen comprised eight Gimblett Gravels Bordeaux style wines and eight Bordeaux, and the labels were listed; so this was a blind tasting but not double-blind.

Friday 1 July 2011

Passion for Pinot

The Altaya team
Pinot Noir comes in many shapes, from elegant Burgundy to oaky Californian, and everything in between. Altaya provided a perfect opportunity for us to experience this spectrum of styles in a single setting at their recent ‘Passion for Pinot’ tasting. Churton (Marlborough) and Beaux Freres (Willamette Valley) are both biodynamic but the latter displays more structure on palate, while Gladstone (Wairarapa) is concentrated and intense, reminding me of the Martinborough style but more accessible and a steal at less than $200/bottle. Vincent Girardin is a perfect demonstration of how diverse the appellations and villages of Burgundy can be.

Leo Donworth, Gladstone's cellar door manager
If you are into Pinot, how about a Pinot evening with your friends? Your welcome drink could be a Blanc de Noir sparkling or champagne followed by a Sancerre Rosé, a Central Otago and an Ahr (Germany). Progress the evening with one or two classic Burgundies from different regions and compare them with a concentrated Martinborough and a big, oaky Sonoma. According to Flavour Colours, PInot's styles span three colour zones, from a light Ivory to an intense Tan, making it one of the most food-friendly and versatile varieties. For all but the heaviest of dishes you can find a Pinot to match.

If I had to choose just one grape variety for the next ten years, it would be Pinot for sure.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Old vines in Priorat

Priorat’s harsh climate—long hot summers (above 30ºC) with cool nights (12-14ºC), minimal rainfall, thin top soil and high altitude (vines grow at 300m to 800m above sea level)—is ideal for producing good concentrated wine. And it is the age of the region's vines that gives its wine the ultimate quality.

Grapes were first grown here in the 14th Century by monks—hence the name Priorat. The most widely grown red varieties are Garnacha Noir (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignan). Some of the vines are well over 100 years old and each vine only yields about 150g of grapes. (As a benchmark, vines producing good quality wine typically bear about 1kg of grapes and those destined for the entry level tend to have a minimum yield of 2kg per vine). It takes seven vines to produce only one bottle of wine! Wines from such old vines are complex, dense and concentrated. Although alcohol is high—minimum 14.5% but more often 15% or 15.5%—the wine is well balanced with both fruit and savoury characters. With everyone talking about a return to low alcohol wine, Priorat's reds are the perfect reminder that high alcohol wine can be of premium quality as long as it is balanced.

Priorat was the second region in Spain to be awarded DOCa status (the first was Rioja). Most producers are small to medium size, family run and full of passion. Check out the Priorat website to see if any of the wines are available in your country.

My picks include:
Celler Joan Simó Les Eres 2006: 55% Cariñena, 25% Garnacha Red, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon
Torres Priorat Perpetual 2008: Cariñena and Garnacha Red
La Conreria d’Scala Dei Iugiter Selecció 2006: 65% Garnacha Red, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cariñera.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Priorat's new generation

In May, I attended Espai Priorat, the first international exhibition of Priorat wines. Priorat has been growing vines since the 14th century but has had its fair share of ups and downs. With the far sightedness of winemaker René Barbier, who became convinced of the region’s potential and bought his first land there in the early 80s, Priorat's wine industry picked up again. In 2000, there were only some 40 producers; now there are 90. While there are a few big boys around, most are of the younger generation who left the region and are now returning to family tradition.

Celler Joan Simós is a 12-year old winery founded by Gerard Batllevell Simó, an interesting character. His family is from Priorat but he ran a clothing business in Barcelona. When he inherited his mother’s house in the village of Porrera he decided that making and selling wine was more fun than selling clothes, so he converted the old house into a cellar and harvested grapes from the family's old vines and made his first 1,000 bottles of Les Eres. It quickly sold out, and the rest is history. He is now making some 20,000 bottles a year under three labels. I kept pushing him why his business sense gave way to his heart, as starting a winery is no small investment — just one French barrel costs about €600-700 and he can’t sell the wine until it's spent at least 15 months in oak — not to mention the fact that he had no winemaking knowledge. The answer? His first wine received 92 points from Wine Spectator and a pat on the shoulder from his customers, and he enjoys a quality of life in the countryside that he could never find in the city.

Marco Abella, a medium sized winery of 23 ha is another story. The Marco family had been planting vines in Priorat since the 15th century. In 2001, David Marco, an engineer, and his wife Olivier Bayés, a lawyer, decided to take the family business to the next level. They built a modern gravity-fed winery and introduced organic viticulture, aiming to produce wines that respected the Priorat terroir. They use only natural yeast fermentation and long maceration. The resulting wines are complex with a sense of place. I particular like their white Òlbia, with just 800 bottles made from old Macabeo and Garnacha Blanca.

Sangenis i Vaqué is another family winery run by father and two young daughters; Les Cousins is a label made by two cousins Adria and Marc; René Barbier, who founded Clos Mogador, has his son as his right-hand man..... With all this passionate young blood pouring into Priorat, I feel certain we will see more exciting things from this region.

Saturday 4 June 2011

Robert Mann, another terroir believer from the New World

‘The best thing a winemaker can do to make the wine better is nothing,’ says Robert Mann, the senior winemaker at Cape Mentelle. He learnt this during his six years at Hardy’s when the team tried to make every wine taste like Penfolds Grange and ended up over-extracting, over-oaking — basically over-making the wine. I'm sure a lot of winemakers would like to be in Robert's current position as he is making wine using some of the best grapes from the Margaret River.

Margaret River has been identified by Dr. Gladstones as the best region to make Bordeaux style wine in Australia, as it as it has a similar but more reliable climate and similar but more ancient gravelly soils, allowing vines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, to show their best. The only thing that separates Robert from the Old World crowd is his use of cultured rather than indigenous yeasts. Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon is restrained with a floral and fragrant nose not dissimilar to Chateau Margaux. However, I wonder if it would have the same savoury aroma that gives Chateau Margaux that extra complexity if Robert used wild fermentation?

Sunday 29 May 2011

Wine and Art

Most wine tastings are held in hotels or restaurants so it was a welcome change when Summergate had its Life | Wine event in The Space, an art gallery in Hollywood Road, recently. The wines were arranged by country in three separate areas dotted with photographs and various displays. Guests could taste wine from one country then move on to others, or they could, like me, go back and forth tasting one variety first, then a second (I started with Sauvignon Blanc followed by Riesling and Chardonnay then the reds).

I was there for about two hours and, sadly, I didn’t see one person other than me looking at the art around them. I wonder if some of them even noticed the displays at all! Perhaps this was because it was a trade tasting. The event was to switch to a consumer tasting in the evening and I hope the art was more appreciated then. Personally, I think Hong Kong should have more of these ‘lifestyle’ tasting events. Hunter Valley has its wonderful Jazz in the Vines, so why can’t Hong Kong have a Jazz and Wine evening, or an Art and Wine Show?

I would love to see a Travel Photography and Wine Exhibition in the Hong Kong Arts Centre with each country's wine showcased along with photographs of that country. The pictures would speak for the wine, which is itself expressive of the culture of the country. Surely this would be one way to make the meaning of terroir more easily understood by consumers.

Sunday 22 May 2011

Portuguese white: a melting pot of Old and New Worlds

I miss Portuguese wine, especially the whites. That's what I drank most when I was working as assistant winemaker at Adega do Cantor in the Algarve . While Portuguese red wine is slowly being recognised internationally thanks to the popularity of Touriga Nacional and the marketing efforts of ViniPortugal, the white wine is still lagging behind. I have to admit that the quality of the whites was kind of hit and miss some 10 years ago, but the new generation of winemakers, adopting New World winemaking techniques such as temperature controlled fermentation and better cellar hygiene, are making some world class examples these days.

Part of the fun: operating the forklift