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.