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.