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.