Sunday 23 December 2012

O:TU - a combination of wine excellence and marketing discipline

The PR office of O:TU Wine has been trying to organising a tasting between me and their winemaker Jan Kux on and off for a year, and we finally met just a few weeks ago. At first, I thought Jan was just another high-flying businessman turned winemaker who preferred to spend more time in Europe and therefore had to use a PR office to organise his meetings. Our conversation changed my impression.

Yes, winemaking was a second thought for Jan—he studied law and languages originally before deciding to switch to winemaking. Since then, he has accumulated over 20 years experience working in wineries in Germany, Alsace and Bordeaux, to name a few. Apart from running O:TU, he is also a consultant to several wineries in Europe.

A jet-setter he may be, but Jan is certainly not pretentious. Otuwhero Estates, the former O:TU, went into receivership in 2008 and the new owners went to Jan seeking help reviving the business. Apart from making the wine, he is also hands on with the selling and marketing side. While he respects terroir—we did talk about the different kind of soils in the 200ha vineyard—he believes even more in communicating with customers. The packaging has to strike a chord with the target audience and at the same time reflect the wine.

The result is a bold yet understated label, a combination of classic European and modern styling. Jan makes three Sauvignon Blancs, each with a defined market. O:TU Sauvignon Blanc, with vibrant green lettering on the label, is created with the young woman in mind, light and refreshing with a touch of residual sugar, while the more complex blend:102 with riper fruit and warmer-toned packaging is aimed at the more experienced consumer. The latest blend: 202, still in barrel at the moment, is a robust, food-friendly wine and no doubt will have a label to match.

But O:TU is about more than labels. A striking label may help sell a wine once, but if you want repeat purchases it needs quality to back it up. O:TU certainly has the typical Marlborough tropical fruit aromas, but all the wines are aged on fine lees until bottling, giving that extra mouthfeel and complexity to subdue the pungency and add a touch of Old World character.

Some wine professionals dismiss packaging, averring that consumers should judge a wine solely by its content. However, with thousands of brands around, having both the label and the quality can give the edge. Jan’s winemaking philosophy is about beauty, art, culture and appreciation of nature combined with a scientific approach. I couldn't agree more with this.

Sunday 16 December 2012

All that sparkles is not Champagne

It’s that time of the year again when sales of bubbly are traditionally at their highest. Despite the doom and gloom of the economy, people, especially wine lovers, do like to indulge. However, enjoying bubbly does not need to break the bank. There are plenty of good quality sparkling wines outside Champagne that one can enjoy all year round.

Champagne is expensive for a few reasons. The first is production. Secondary fermentation, where the bubbles are created (called the Traditional Method), occurs in the same bottle. The wine is then aged on lees, a procedure called yeast autolysis, to develop the bready and biscuity notes. The longer this period is, the more pronounced the yeast autolysis characters. By law, non-vintage champagne has to be aged on lees for a minimum of 12 months and vintage champagne for at least 36 months (and often much longer). The second reason is climate. Champagne is in a marginal grape growing area where grapes, when fully ripen, can still retain high acidity—a prerequisite for good sparkling wine. And last but not least is marketing. Only sparkling wine produced within the Champagne region can be called Champagne, and this helps build the aura of exclusivity around it. A lot of sparkling wine outside Champagne is produced using the same Traditional Method but only costs a fraction of the price. Admittedly, a fine Champagne often has more finesse because of the marginal climate, complex blending and use of reserve wine, that set it apart from the rest, but one should not dismiss the other sparklers as lesser quality.

Crémant is another French sparkling wine outside Champagne. It is made by the traditional method, using whole bunch pressing with extraction limited to 100litres of juice from 150 kilograms of grapes—exactly the same stringent approach as in Champagne. The wine has to spend a minimum of nine months on lees and the grapes are generally the best from the region for making still wine (the permitted grapes for Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir). Crémant de Loire is usually made from Chenin Blanc, or Pinot Noir; Crémant d’Alsace from Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and sometimes Riesling; Crémant Limoux, from the high altitude of Southern Languedoc, is made from Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay. Retail prices of Crémants are in the region of HK$200/bottle.

Most of us know Cava, a sparkling wine from Spain made in the traditional method with a minimum of nine months ageing on lees. Most Cava uses the indigenous grape varieties Xarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeo for whites, and Garnacha (Grenache) and Monastrel for rosés. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are also permitted. Cava has distinctive earthy notes (some say rubbery) because of the Xarel-lo. Most Cava is not for ageing, hence its modest price of just over HK$100/bottle. Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad, with up to four years on lees, is a steal at less than HK$200/bottle (Watson’s).

The New World, including Australia, New Zealand and the US, also produce good quality sparkling wine using Champagne grape varieties in the traditional method. The best comes from cooler regions of Tasmania, the Adelaide Hills, Marlborough and Carneros, all displaying riper fruit characters but a less defined structure than Champagne, but there are nevertheless some top quality New World sparkling wines that can rival Champagne. Cap Classique from South Africa uses mainly Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Chenin Blanc following the ‘champagne’ method. Serious Cap Classique producers are members of the Cap Classique Association and some are available in Hong Kong. And for something out of the mainstream, try Casa Valduga from Brazil (importer Wine Patio).

In my view, the two outstanding sparkling wines outside Champagne are English sparkling wine and Franciacorta DOCG from Italy. Both have the elegance and finesse of Champagne. Southern England has similar soil (chalk) to Champagne and climate change now enables England to ripen Champagne varieties reliably to make top quality sparkling wine. English sparkling wines are scooping awards in international competitions and have beaten Champagne in various blind tastings. The problem is quantity, as demand is outstripping supply. The few I have tried and like are Ridgeview and Camel Valley, both available in Hong Kong, plus Nyetimber and Bluebell (not yet in Hong Kong). Franciacorta, made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Bianco, must be aged on lees for a minimum of 24 months for non-vintage and 36 months for vintage.

Sparkling wine can also be produced using the Charmat or Tank method, meaning secondary fermentation takes place in a pressurised tank rather than in bottle. Charmat method wine usually spends no or minimum time on lees so production cost is considerably reduced. This method is particularly suitable for aromatic grape varieties where wine reflects the varietal aromas rather then the yeast autolysis characters. These wines should be consumed young and fresh. The most popular in Hong Kong is the Italian Prosecco with fresh aromas of apple and melon. Priced at about HK$100+/bottle, it is definitely value for money, particularly the DOCG which is of better quality. Another is German Sekt, the best being made from Riesling, although some serious producers make it using the traditional method.

The rising stars among sparklers are Asti and Moscato d’Asti from Italy with only one fermentation. They are highly aromatic with lower alcohol (7-7.5% and 5%), medium sweetness and less pressure, popular among young consumers.

With so many choices and reasonable prices, bubblies do not need to be saved for celebrations only. Enjoy one now.

Abridged version was published in the South China Morning Post on 12th December 2012

Thursday 1 November 2012

The Birth of the Wellington Wine District

If someone mentioned wine from Wellington, how many of us would associate it with South Africa rather than New Zealand?

Wellington was a ward (sub region) of Paarl until last month. On 21st September 2012, it was officially demarcated as Wellington District, on the same level as Stellenbosch and Paarl. Being a district instead of a ward also means that, if it so chooses, it could one day subdivide the district into wards although it is too early for that at this stage.

Duimpie Bayly, Chairman of the Demarcation Committee of the Wine of Origin System in South Africa, was proud to announce the birth of this new region. He explained that the distinctive terroir of Wellington differentiates this little region from Paarl and justifies demarcating such a small area.

Wellington District has only just over 20 producers. Apart from the co-ops, most are small to medium size estates. The soil is mainly decomposed granite from Groenberg (Green Mountain) which is an extinct volcano. Vineyards in the foothills of the Hawequa mountains benefit from the various mesoclimates created by the folds and valleys of the mountains. Not only does the Hawequa acts as a rain barrier, it also channels the south-easterly winds (the Cape Doctor) down the valleys. Summer may be hot but there are cool pockets where vines are sheltered from the strong afternoon sun by the mountains. Some vineyards on the slopes can be 3ºC cooler than the valley floor. I agree that this terroir is definitely different from that of Paarl. In 2010, it was proclaimed ‘Top Wine Area’ at the South African Terroir Awards.

Wellington produces more than its fair share of award-winning Pinotages, a unique South African cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault. The rich chocolate-coffee easy drinking style, exemplified by Diemersfontein, is particularly popular among young consumers, while the more complex Cape blend with at least 30% Pinotage, such as Doolhof Minotaur 2008, appeals to more experienced drinkers.

Wine consumers have a love-hate relationship with Pinotage. Dave Hughes from The Pinotage Association admits that producers in the early days did not know how to make it, and the result was a green and bitter metallic taste (some people called it rusty nails). But with more understanding and experiment, Dave maintains that Pinotages these days are in much better shape, and consumers should not judge them from past history. Whilst I agree, I also think it’s fair to say that Pinotage is an acquired taste. It has to go with the right kind of food, like robust-flavoured Shanghai or Peking cuisines, or, as South Africans prefer, the braai (barbecue). Pinotage’s fruitiness and smoky aromas complement the sweetness of the food.

If you are a Cabernet fan, I would strongly suggest you try the Mont du Toit Le Sommet 2003, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. At nearly 10 years old, the blackcurrant fruit is well integrated with the tertiary aromas of truffles and preserved eggs.

Wellington whites are fairly full bodied because of its hot summer. I like the barrel fermented Chenin Blancs, notably Nabygelegen and Diemersfontein Carpe Diem, which are food-friendly and structured without being overly heavy. Those who prefer lighter style whites will be pleasantly surprised with the refreshing Signatures of Doolhof Sauvignon Blanc at only 12.5% alcohol. The vines are planted on a slope and only exposed to the cool morning sun.

Wellington has long lived in the shadow of Paarl but with this elevation of status it can be more proactive in marketing. South African wine routes are world famous but most tourists stick with the more well known Stellenbosch and Franschhoek regions. I have to admit that Wellington town is not as vibrant as Stellenbosch and certainly lacks the sophisticated touristy atmosphere of Franschhoek. But these are compensated by its tranquil and relax feel. The surrounding scenery is just as spectacular as Stellenbosch. If you like nature, you will not be disappointed. The Wellington Wine Walk is a 40 kilometre 3-day guided walk in the winelands and surrounding fynbos (the native small bushes of South Africa) that incorporates luxury accommodation and wine tastings—not a bad ‘exercise programme’ for wine lovers. If you are very lucky, you may even be able to glimpse the endangered Cape leopard. By the way, Wellington is only one hour from Cape Town and 30 minutes from Stellenbosch so there’s no excuse not to drop by.

Wellington is also known as the cradle of vines. Not only do its 28 nurseries supply over 90% of all vine cuttings to South African producers, they also export to countries including China and Uruguay. At the celebration dinner for the official launch of the Wellington Wine District, each guest was given a young vine to signify the new beginning of Wellington, a very meaningful idea indeed.

The South African wine industry will always be dominated by Stellenbosch, its big brother (like Bordeaux to France), but I hope we wine lovers will give a chance to its little siblings. Wellington may be the latest one but I’m sure there will be more to come. South Africa prides itself as a fauna rich and biodiverse wine kingdom and only by having more demarcated regions can we truly experience the diverse wine styles offered by this Rainbow Nation.

Congratulations Wellington!

Abridged version was published in the South China Morning Post on 1st November 2012

Sunday 14 October 2012

Red wine and oak

Chateau Margaux

Friends tell me they prefer red wine with oak. I also hear people say that wine must spend time in oak or it won’t be good. But exactly what does oak taste like? Indeed does it have any taste at all? And is it really essential that red wine be aged in oak?

Oak is good for barrel storage because it’s strong yet can be bent without breaking and, when wet, expands to allow watertight joints. More importantly, it imparts flavours and allows small amounts of oxygen transmission so the wine can develop over time.

Sounds simple enough. Yet for the winemaker there are lots of variables to play with. Consider just five:

First, where does the oak come from? French oak has tighter grain and more wood tannins but more subtle aromas while the wider grain white American oak has less tannins and more pronounced aromas. Hungarian and Slovenian are also available.

Second, how has it been toasted? Toasting is an essential link between wood and wine. It destroys wood tannin molecules but makes available all kinds of aroma, from coconut and clove to dark chocolate and smoke, depending on the temperature and length of toasting. Wine aged in untoasted barrels has no complex aromas and its tannin is so raw that it is like biting into a piece of plywood. A ‘light toasted’ barrel gives herbs and spices, while medium toasting brings vanilla, cinnamon and smooth wood tannin. Wine aged in heavily toasted barrels acquires pronounced roasted coffee and caramelised flavours and less wood tannin.

Third, how ‘old’ is the barrel—that is how many times has it been used? New oak imparts the most aromas and wood tannins. Second and third filled barrels impart only about 50% and 30% as much, and those over five years old virtually none at all. But even the oldest barrel still allows that vital oxygen ingress, softening the wine over time.

Fourth, how big is the barrel? Small ones have a higher wood area to wine volume ratio so impart more flavour per litre than bigger ones in a given time. Small new barrels, such as the 225l barriques from Bordeaux, give the most intense aromas.

Fifth, how long should the wine be kept in barrel? Times range from a few months to a few years. Obviously the longer the time the greater the potential for imparting flavour and the effects of oxygen.

When you consider how many permutations of just these five variables are available to the winemaker you can see how much room he has for influencing the final wine.

Not all wines benefit from maturing in oak, let alone new oak. A concentrated and structured Cabernet Sauvignon may stand up to 100% new oak for 18 months, or even ‘200%‘ new oak by racking the wine from one new barrel to another. But this combination would overpower a more subtle wine like a Burgundian Pinot Noir, which might need only about 30% new oak to preserve its delicate structure and some winemakers would not use new oak at all. Similarly, Dolcetto might need no time at all in barrels in order to preserve its primary fruit aromas.

Unfortunately, some consumers have the perception that ’the more oak the better’, leading some producers to over-oak their wine, which may be pleasing at first but quickly gets tiring. I did a blind-tasting of nearly 100 2009 and 2010 St Emilion Grand Crus Classés with Thierry Desseauve, a leading French wine critic, and we both agreed that most were over-ambitious with the oak, but then that is what some consumers prefer.

There is a joke that if one wants wood, one should just bite into toothpicks—it’s cheaper than buying woody wine! Oak, like other components including acidity, alcohol, tannin and sugar, should be integrated and never stand out. The aromas of spices and vanilla should complement the wine by adding complexity, not kill the fruit. Perfectionist producers might choose to age their wine in a mix of American barrels, French barrels and stainless steel, and/or new and old oak in different proportions before finally blending to ensure the right amount of oak is imparted.

New barrel maturation is expensive and slow. For entry-level wine aimed at satisfying consumers’ desire for oak, the industry has come up with alternatives to barrel maturation using wood chips and staves. They can be French or American oak with different toasting levels exactly like barrels, but at a fraction of the price. Bags of oak chips, reminiscent of giant tea bags, can be placed in the tank during fermentation, so by the time fermentation is completed the wine has already acquired some wood aromas and the ‘wood ageing’ time can be much shorter.

Chips or staves are usually used in conjunction with micro-oxygenation, where measured amounts of oxygen are bubbled into the tank to soften the wine, mimicking the effect of barrel maturation. These techniques were considered inferior when first introduced, but most winemakers master them now and can make consistently reliable good-value wine.

Lesson to take home? Not all wines need or are suitable for oak ageing. A HK$100 wine ‘aged in new oak’ probably means chips not barrels, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. As long as it is balanced and integrated, it’s a good wine. It is rather like fast food: the quality is there for the price you pay, but don’t expect it to taste and feel like Michelin starred cuisine. Jancis Robinson MW once said she has absolutely no problem with staves or chips as long as the wine is balanced and authentic.

Abridged version was published in the South China Morning Post on 16th August 2012

Monday 24 September 2012

China wine from the Scottish castle

I was so happy to be able to get my winery hands dirty again, this time at Treaty Port in Yantai, China.

Most wineries in China need to make a statement, and this one does so in the somewhat startling form of a Scottish castle set on a hillside overlooking a reservoir about 30 minutes south of Penglai. I was picked up from the airport in a blue London cab and greeted at the castle by staff wearing Scottish kilts. All very posh, and I was not quite sure what to make of the whole thing until I met the owner Chris Ruffle and his Australian consultant winemaker Mark Davidson.

Chris is a Yorkshireman who has spent years in China making his fortune as a money manager. It is easy to assume that the Treaty Port project is a rich man's toy, but instead of boasting how great the wines are, Chris talked about the diseases in the vineyards and other challenges. 2009 was the first vintage and there was no 2010 because the crop was lost to frost. 2011's was small and this year was better although still not significant. Chris and Mark are in constant discussion about how to improve the vineyards: planting grass between rows to bind the soil, using organic matter to improve it, raising the trellising higher to minimise the threat of mildew, replacing varieties that are not suitable for the site. He is open to ideas and the goal is to produce a good quality wine that China can be proud of.

To make sure the winery is run to international standards Chris employed Shao, a young local man with no previous winemaking experience, to learn from Mark, even sending him to Hunter Valley to work in Mark’s winery for a few months. Shao, sensing the opportunity, is hardworking and willing to learn. Instead of just doing whatever he is told, he thinks and tries to understand the 'why'. Eager to pass on some of my own winemaking knowledge, I saved wine and juice samples from before and after trials for him to taste, so he could see the reasons why we stopped fermentation of the Riesling at a particular point, or added bentonite to this tank, or blended the two rosés together. He told me he would like to develop a career in winemaking. He is in the right place at the right time. I wish him all the best. China's wine industry is going to need a lot more enthusiastic youngsters like him.

Yantai may not be the perfect location for vinegrowing, the Scottish castle may be too imposing for some, and Treaty Port wine may still need a few years to establish its identity, but having lived and worked here with the staff, albeit only for a couple of weeks, I do believe there is a future for Yantai and Treaty Port. Old World wine regions have had hundreds of years of experience to match the vine varieties with the terroir. Yantai is still at the experimental stage; they will get there one day. The important thing is the willingness to learn and improve, and—I can’t emphasise enough—the passion. A wine is always more enjoyable when you know the story behind it, and Treaty Port certainly has its story. Sure, there is lots to be improved, and the weather is not ideal but it is the enthusiasm of the Yorkshireman with his equally eager Chinese team who believe China can produce good wine that will make the difference.

If you have a chance, spend a relaxing weekend at this Scottish castle. You’ll be pampered by Emma, the manager of the castle and her brilliant cooks—local ladies who were sent to Shanghai to learn western style cooking. Enjoy the countryside, full of apple and peach orchards. And if you are lucky, perhaps you may bump into Mr Rothschild at the Lafite vineyard around the corner from Treaty Port.

Monday 27 August 2012

Paul Symington, the family man

It was absolutely fascinating to have the opportunity recently to talk to Paul Symington, the chairman of Symington Family Estates in the Douro, Portugal. We discussed everything from the future of port and climate change to history and the Queen’s jubilee celebrations.

What struck me was Paul’s emphasis on family values. Symington has over 350 years of history in Portugal and Paul is the 13th generation. He runs the company together with his two cousins Johnny and Rupert. When he was informed that he had been voted Decanter's Man of the Year 2012, he told Decanter he would only accept the award if he could mention and extend the honour to the family. He may be the face of the company, but it is the joint effort of all family members that makes Symington what it is today.

Paul firmly believes in the synergy between wine and family. Wine is long term and fits well with the time horizons of a family, especially for port and other premium wines that can evolve for half a century. He is proud to be selling today wine that his father put in barrels some 20 years ago. Big corporations, notably the public ones, often focus on the short term with today’s profit outweighing long term investment and heritage. To preserve and promote the moral values that are the backbone of family businesses, Symington joined with eleven other top international family estates to establish Primum Familiae Vini (PFV), the First Families of Wine, in 1993. PFV membership is by invitation only and is limited to a maximum of 12 families.

Being a family estate with long traditions does not mean lack of vision. Paul knows that the future of port lies with the premium sector—tawnies and vintages where Symington has a 34% market share—and the new consumers in the UK, US and Asia, and that the traditional image of cigars, port, gentlemen's clubs and copa (small port glasses) does not fit the lifestyle of today’s customers. To modernise port’s image, the three port houses under Symington—Dow’s, Graham’s and Warre’s—partnered with Croft, Fonseca and Taylor’s (The Fladgate Partnership) to establish the Vintage Port Academy. Its purpose is to promote the appreciation and knowledge of vintage port among fine wine consumers, collectors and wine professionals around the world. Some outside-the-box appeal includes pairing hairy crab and Peking duck, both Chinese delicacies, with tawny ports. To reinforce tradition and evolution, Symington launched Graham’s 1952 Tawny Port to celebrate the Queen’s 60th anniversary jubilee. The wine was served to overseas dignitaries at Windsor House. Paul’s ideal port scene is Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie sitting in front of a big flat screen television in their posh Manhattan apartment, enjoying port from a Riedel wine glass!

The Douro is home for the Symingtons. Paul grew up there in the vineyards with his brothers and cousins, and joining the family business was a natural thing for him. Today, Symington is the biggest landowner in the Douro with over 974ha under vines. Each family member also has his own private vineyard. Sales of Port  may be declining but the Symington family believes in the Douro’s terroir. Rather than investing overseas like other families such as Mouton or Mondavi, Symington only focuses on the Douro, expanding its portfolio into Douro AOC still wines. In 2010 it bought Cockburn’s Port from US company Beam Global Spirits & Wine in order to rebuild this 200 year old brand. Climate change, however, is a challenge as the average temperature has increased1.3ºC in the last 50 years. New planted vineyards are at higher altitudes and mostly north-facing. Luckily Touriga Nacional, the flagship grape of the Douro, is heat resistant and its sugar level does not increase as fast as in other varieties in the soaring temperatures.

Of course there are cases of family disputes leading to the collapse of great family empires such as Gucci. Paul understands the importance of keeping the family unified. All Symingtons start by doing basic work on the estates, then gain experience outside the Douro before joining the company. He is not worried about not having enough successors. There are enough daughters and sons—14—in the next generation, but it is up to them whether they want to join the family business. If you have a chance to visit the estates, keep an eye out for the young lads cleaning the table or serving you port, they may well be the next Symington Chairman, or the next Decanter Man/Woman of the Year.

Abridged version was published in the South China Morning Post on 26th July 2012

Saturday 18 August 2012

The perfect wine glass

A few weeks ago, I was asked, as a winemaker, to comment on these questions: How important or otherwise it is to have the ‘right’ glass for a specific grape variety? Are expensive wine glasses worth the money? Is there a simple, standard glass which we could use at home? Is glassware a subject which interests winemakers?

Not only does the booming wine market in Hong Kong bring in more wine from different parts of the world, it also attracts glass producers from left right and centre. Riedel and Baccarat have been in the market for a long time and now we also have newcomers Lucaris from Thailand and Plumm from Australia. Do we really need to have ten different shapes of wine glass at home to enjoy our collection from Chardonnay to Cabernet?

While we can drink wine from any vessel, a suitable one should be odourless so you can smell the aroma, colourless so you can access the colour and age, clean with no residues of detergent otherwise legs or tears will be created along the side of the glass. It should not be too thick as that might distort the clarity. Thin-edged glass also helps create a finer stream of wine that runs across our tongue. A stem would be nice for holding the glass so you don’t warm up the wine unintentionally. The ideal shape is a tulip—a rounded bowl to aid swirling without spilling and releasing aromas, and an inward-sloping wall to trap the aromas. Any glass that fits these criteria will do. In fact, you can see that most wine glasses in the market share these features.

It is true that the same wine may smell different in different glasses because of the order in which the aromas emerge, but this is only on the initial impression. Some suppliers insist that different shapes direct the wine to the optimum position on our tongue where we can taste the most of the wine. I think these claims are exaggerated as our tongue only has four senses: sweetness, saltiness, sourness and bitterness. When we sip a wine, we let it flow around in our mouth. We think we can taste more because the aromas rise to the back of our nose to the receptor that handles the sense of smell. Our brain then interprets the smell in conjunction with the taste and touch impression from the mouth, leading us to believe we can taste citrus, strawberries, spices, and so on. I have attended several glassware tastings and to be honest, I find the differences insignificant.

To quote Michael Schuster, an expert wine taster and author, 'I don’t believe (the glass) affects the way we perceive a wine’s most important attributes after the initial attack. ie. texture, aromatic interest, length across the palate and the qualities and persistence of the finish. My wife Monika and I use Riedel stemware because it is the most beautiful range available to the wine-lover, but the limited selection we have is chosen on the basis of shapes and sizes we like, rather than on what we are likely to drink.' I believe this sums things up nicely.

To get the most out of a wine, it should be poured to more or less the widest part of the glass so the most aroma can be released and trapped for us to smell. Pour too full and there will be no space to trap the aroma.

One thing I would like to address is the habit some people have of swirling their wine. The bigger the glass, the more violently they swirl. This is a big mistake as all the delicate aromas will be gone after 30 seconds of vigorous swirling. Smell the wine first and only swirl a little if it is ‘closed’. The most delicate aromas can only be detected on the first sniff and without swirling. Unfortunately, too many people swirl the wine before even the first sniff. Try it yourself: take two glasses of wine; swirl one vigorously like those ‘professionals’ for 2-3 minutes; then compare its aromas with one that has not been swirled.

About 10 years ago, the standard professional tasting glass was the ISO glass. It has the ideal shape and it is small enough for a tasting portion. All wineries I visited at that time, from Stellenbosch and Barossa to Mendoza and Napa used ISO glasses. Today, they are using bigger glasses thanks to the marketing efforts of the manufacturers. But they still only use one shape for all their wines. Most critics agree that Riedel’s Chianti glass (or similar shape from other brands) is the best all purpose glass. It is important that if you are comparing and contrasting wines and varieties you should serve them all in the same shape of glass so that no wine has any apparent advantage or disadvantage—just as in a professional wine judging.

So to answer the question: no, it is not essential to stock a whole range of expensive wine glasses. Nevertheless, wine is for enjoyment, and the shape and elegance of the glass can enhance the aesthetic experience. It is like having a nice meal with the best chinaware and silver cutlery. The plates and forks do not make the food taste better but they make for a positive impression. But be careful when handling your glasses: I once broke three Riedel glasses in a row after dinner and it hurt!

Abridged version was published in the South China Morning Post on 17th May 2012

Sunday 5 August 2012

Georgian flagship wine

I have great confidence in Saperavi, the mostly planted red grape variety in Georgia, in leading Georgian wine to the international market.

A dark-skinned variety, Saperavi has pink flesh that gives a deep colour to the wine. Its high tannin and acidity provide the backbone for a wine with long ageing capability. It has black fruits and spicy characters rather like a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. With age, it develops a tertiary bouquet of chocolate, walnut and dried fruits. It is versatile and can be made in different styles: concentrated and tannic using the traditional kvevri method; easy drinking and fruity wine using stainless steel fermentation and minimum tannin extraction; or more elegant and structured wine combining the kvevri method and ageing in oak barrels. It can be dry as in Saperavi or Mukuzani, or semi sweet as in Kindzmarauli.

The Saperavi grape is capable of producing high alcohol wine but thanks to the continental climate in Georgia, most wine has a moderate alcohol level of 12.5-13.5%. Although it can sometimes be as high as 14.5%, it is always balanced by the high acidity. With careful branding and positioning, it could well be the equivalent of the Malbec of Argentina or Touriga Nacional of Portugal.

As my previous article pointed out, I think having a flagship wine is a good national strategy as it provides a clear way of differentiating the country concerned from other producing countries and allows for a focused campaign. Its quality and relatively easy-to-pronounce name plus Asians’ preference for red wine make Saperavi the logical candidate to be the leader among Georgia’s myriad indigenous grapes in this part of the world.

And the candidate for the whites? It has to be Rkatsiteli, by far the most widely planted grape variety with over 50% of total vineyard area. The wine has high acidity and versatility: from refreshing 100% Rkatsiteli, and Tsinandali (a blend of Rkatsiteli and Msvane), to kvevri style, dessert wine and fortified.

Wine lovers should watch out for the emergence of these exciting wines from Georgia—the country with the world’s longest winemaking history.

Sunday 8 July 2012

Villiera, a truly sustainable wine from Stellenbosch

Ask any brand owner or winemaker, they will all say there needs to be a story behind the wine. So what’s the story for Villiera, a family run Stellenbosch winery headed by cousins Jeff Grier the winemaker, Simon Grier the viticulturist and Cathy Grier Brewer the export and sales director?

I was convinced that Cathy, whom I have met a few times in Hong Kong, would say it is the family heritage, but to my surprise she said environment and sustainability. South Africa has been pioneering wine production integrity since 1988, and in 2010 it introduced the Integrity and Sustainability Seal that guarantees a wine’s quality and sustainability credentials. Wines of South Africa (WOSA) expects says 85% of the country's wine brands had been accredited by 2011. So how is Villiera different from the others?

Cathy explained that Villiera has reduced its vineyard area over the years in order to return about half of the land to its original state. Moreover, Villiera runs one of the biggest solar projects in South Africa, Apart from during harvest, when additional power is required, Villiera is run solely on solar power for the rest of the year. They have replaced water-guzzling foreign gum trees, planted over 60,000 indigenous trees, conserved and recycled water, and adopted a ‘no waste’ policy. What’s more, Villiera collaborates with two neighbours, The Cape Garden Centre and Klawerlei Estate, and set aside some 220 ha of land (the vineyard area is 180ha) as a wildlife sanctuary, consisting of dams (lakes) and marshland, which is home to various South African mammals and a great diversity of birdlife.

Villiera has not used insecticides for over 12 years, yet the vineyard is not organic. Asked why, Cathy says Villiera is more concerned about the ecosystem and biodiversity as a whole. Organic production is good for human consumption but may not necessarily benefit the environment. This fits nicely with the broader concept of sustainability, which is about producing wine over the medium to long term in a responsible way that promotes biodiversity and minimises environmental damage while at the same time being economically viable for the producer. Villiera is looking into the feasibility of becoming a carbon neutral estate.

Sustainability also extends to social responsibility. Villiera has undertaken several upliftment projects for the farm’s workers and children and also helps market the produce of the M’Huidi winery, which is owned by a black family. Villiera was the first winery to gain the WIETA (Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association) accreditation for promoting fair labour practices.

Sustainability apart, Villiera is 100% committed to quality. It experiments with various practices including altering picking times, growing different clones and using new winemaking techniques to make the perfect wine. Villiera Bush Vine Sauvignon Blanc is one such example. Realising the unique characteristics of the block of bush vines that existed when the Grier family bought the estate in 1983, Jeff decided to bottle the wine separately rather than blending it with the other Sauvignon Blancs. The wine from these low yield, 30+ year old vines is elegant, with flinty and peppery characters, quite different from a typical tropical fruit flavoured New World Sauvignon Blanc. I particularly enjoyed the 2010 vintage, which tends more towards cool climate characters, and the 2008 vintage, which at four year of age is still pleasantly refreshing.

A few weeks ago we had an informative vertical tasting of the Old Bush Sauvignon Blanc and the flagship Monro red (a Merlot dominated Bordeaux blend) under Cathy's guidance. Unfortunately, the older vintages were from the library collection and not available for sale. Other award winning wines from Villiera include the Cap Classique Monro Brut and Traditional Brut NV, and the traditional barrel fermented Chenin Blanc. Available from Northeast.

Sunday 24 June 2012

Appreciating Riesling

Riesling is a difficult grape to understand and appreciate. It has many faces, from sparkling (Sekt from Germany), and dry to sweet made from botrytis noble rot grapes or grapes frozen at -8ºC, and with all kinds of sweetness in between. The common characteristics of all Rieslings are high acidity and relatively low alcohol.

In my discussions with Mosel winemakers, including Reinhard Löwenstein, the 13th generation of Weingut Heymann-Löwenstein, and biodynamic winemaker Clemens Busch, they all stressed the influence of slate on German Rieslings. Blue slate lies deeper underground and vines have to work hard to get the trace minerals, resulting in wine with more minerality—the typical elegant Mosel style. Red slate has a more rounded mouthfeel with gooseberry and red fruits, while grey slate gives more yellow and tropical fruits. At the Riesling Journey masterclass conducted by Carsten Klane from German Fine Wine in Hong Kong last month, we tasted several German Rieslings alongside Rieslings from Alsace and Australia, and the differences were obvious. German Riesling has a tighter and leaner structure, especially the Mosels which can be steely, while Alsatian Riesling is bolder. Australian Riesling is generous but lacks the subtlety of those from the Old World when compared side by side.

Apart from the sweet noble rot and ice wine Rieslings, where consumers know that the wines are, well, sweet, many people are confused and put off by the off dry/medium style Rieslings from Germany. I have to confess this is the reason I didn’t go near Riesling when I first explored wine. The trick, instead of focusing on the sweetness, is to think about the balance between sweetness, acidity, alcohol and fruit. A well-made medium dry Riesling is not cloying like syrup, but concentrated and fruity with a nicely balanced sweetness set against the acidity. It can go well with a variety of savoury dishes from steamed dumplings (蒸餃子) to Kung Pao chicken (宮保雞丁) and sweet and sour prawns (咕嚕蝦球).

A couple of useful tips on sweetness when you buy German Riesling: Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese are categorised according to the sugar level at the time of harvest. They can all be either dry or medium. You need to interpret this with reference to the alcohol level. For example, a Kabinett with 11% alcohol will be dry while one with 8% alcohol will by semi-dry. Similarly, a dry Spätlese has about 12-13% alcohol and  a dry Auslese about 13-13.5%.

Here are a few useful German - English translations to help you read the labels:
  • Trocken: Dry. Any wine with this word will have less than 9g/l residual sugar.
  • Grosses Gewächs (GG)/Erste Gewächs: Equivalent to Grand Cru. Dry wine from Erste Lage (first growth vineyards) under the VDP classification. Alcohol level usually 12-13.5%.
  • Halbtrocken: Off-dry, usually 9-18g/l residual sugar.
  • Feinherb: Half-dry, an unregulated designation, usually sweeter than halbtocken, in the range of 12-40g/l residual sugar.
  • VPA: the Association of German Quality Wine Estates.
Clemens-Busch is available from German Fine Wine, and Weingut Heymann-Löwenstein is available from Berry Bros & Rudd.

Saturday 2 June 2012

Holdvölgy, modern marketing thinking

Most wine lovers are probably unaware that Tokaji was the first wine region to be classified, way back in 1730, 26 years before port wine and 125 years before the Bordeaux 1855 classification. The vineyards were sorted into three classes based on the soil, sun exposure and potential to develop noble rot. Tokaji Aszú wine has long been enjoyed by royalty, writers and composers, but, like most Eastern European countries, Hungary fell victim to communism, and not until the Soviet Empire's collapse in the 1990s did its glory slowly begin to revive. In 2002, UNESCO recognised Tokaji as a World Heritage Site for its distinct vinicultural tradition.

Holdvölgy (Moon Valley in English) is situated in the heart of this legendary region in the Mád basin (equivalent to Grand Cru). Pascal Demko, the passionate owner, strives to produce high quality wine true to the Tokaji region from his 25 hectares, comprising 19 parcels on seven different sites. Being a lawyer with a rational mind, Pascal employs a team of professionals including the young and enthusiastic winemaker Stéphanie Berecz, who is responsible for making all the outstanding Holdvölogy wines across its two lines: the classic luxury Holdvölogy line, and the premium, fun Hold and Hollo line.

There is no doubting the quality of the wine. But what impresses me most is the marketing thinking behind the two lines: in tune with today’s consumers yet true to the origin and conscious of quality.

The Holdvölogy line ranges from dry Furmint to sweet Tokaji Aszú. Pascal has given each wine a ‘philosophical’ name that reflects its character. The English names certainly save non-Hungarian consumers the embarrassment of attempting the seemingly impossible-to-pronounce Hungarian grape names:

Meditation - Dry Tokaji Furmint: mineral touch and refreshing;
Expression - Dry Tokaji Hárslevelü: floral and vivid;
Signature - Sweet Tokaji Aszú style: Traditional Aszú wine with a contemporary twist;
Culture - Sweet Tokaji Aszú: Superior quality and traditional

The first vintage was 2006 for Culture and 2007 for the others. They were only released in 2011 and are now selling at Michelin star restaurants in London.

Coming from a background of marketing consumer goods when wine was still largely confined to the ‘connoisseur’ segment, I find the wine industry in general is, even today, still quite conservative when it comes to marketing. So I definitely give a thumbs up to Pascal’s second brand, Hold and Hollo. In my view, this should be a hit with young, fun loving consumers. Marketed under two labels: dry and sweet with sharp green and pink latex labels respectively, Hold and Hollo does not emphasise grape varieties or vintages, but focuses instead on innovation, creativity and originality. I can see the young 20+s sipping it in bars, and, if allowed, it could even be selling in the lifestyle sections of department stores like Lane Crawford, City Super and Selfridges.

Pascal has no representative in Hong Kong or Asia yet, but I am confident that a like-minded distributor would find representing Holdvölgy and Hold and Hollo rewarding.

Sunday 20 May 2012

The Douro Boys

Apart from port, the next best thing from the Douro (or indeed Portugal) from a wine perspective is probably the Douro Boys.

An alliance of five independent family estates: Quinta do Vallado, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Vale D. Maria, Quinta do Vale Meão and Niepoort, Douro Boys was created in 2003 to ‘put the Douro on the map’. Back then, Portuguese wine was little known outside Portugal, let alone in Asia. Douro table wine had a few disadvantages: it was the little cousin of port, both in terms of popularity and quality. The best grapes were often designated for producing port, and most estates made table wine almost as an afterthought. White wine was often oxidised and red austere.

The status of port in the Douro is beyond doubt. All members of the Douro Boys make ports, but they have also noted the growing trend of red wine consumption. They believe in two things: to make the best quality wine with what the land offers them—indigenous grapes and terroir—and to be out there promoting their wines.

Douro wine is a blend of indigenous grapes. The names are sometimes near impossible to pronounce and it is difficult to single out a distinctive aroma that can be associated with the wines. An easy way out would be to replant the vineyards with international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. Luckily, the Douro Boys have not.

The light-heartedness of the group’s name contrasts nicely with the considerable avoirdupois (weight) of its members: dynamism and determination. They are accessible but the wines are serious. Each quinta has its own style and together they offer a good breadth of selection. With their energy, enthusiasm and commitment, they trot the globe, reviving the Douro image and in fact raising the overall quality standard of Douro wine. The international press writes about them with passion; critics rate their wines with respect and wine lovers, well, just love their wines.

Try yourself to see which of the Douro Boys is your style. Distributor of:
Quinta do Vallado, Quinta do Vale Meão and Niepoort: Vino Veritas
Quinta do Crasto: Adega Royale
Quinta do Vale D. Maria: Global Wine Cellar

Saturday 5 May 2012

Brazilian bubblies

I don’t think many of us have tried Brazilian wine, let alone Brazilian sparkling wine. Therefore I was pleased to be invited to the Casa Valduga tasting. It is one of the largest and oldest wineries in Vale dos Vinhedos in the south of Brazil. The climate is humid and temperate but luckily the vineyards, located at between 450m and 650m above sea level, are cooled by the mountain breeze.

The verdict? This was actually my second time to taste Brazilian sparkling and I have to say Casa Valduga is better. Three wines, Espumante 130 Brut NV, Reserva Blush 25 Brut 2009 and Gran Reserva Extra-brut 60 2006, are made with classic champagne grape varieties in the traditional method. All are lively with a slight mineral note in the back palate. The Rose is fresh and soft, while the Espumante has more structure.

I won’t compare Brazilian sparkling wine, or in fact, any sparkling wine with Champagne. It is not fair. Champagne grows in a marginal climate and its production techniques have been perfected by years of experience. It is more refined and elegant but not many will have a glass of it every day. Sparkling wine is much more value-for-money, relaxing and fun. We should enjoy them for what they are: Prosecco for its freshness, Cava for the concentration and Brazilian for its liveliness.

Casa Valduga also has a Reserva Moscatel and a Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, available from Wine Patio in Hong Kong.

Friday 20 April 2012

Rioja: American or French oak?

Classic Rioja is aged in American oak to develop the soft and mellow structure with a hint of vanilla. Especially for the reserva and gran reserva, there is the mushroomy, olive bouquet thanks to spending a long time in American oak barrels and in bottle. In the face of competition both from the New World and within Spain (Ribera del Duero, Priorat), some Rioja producers are making more modern style wines with higher fruit concentrations, and ageing them in French wood. The wine is more powerful, more spicy and usually a shade darker.

To find out more about the region's use of barrels, I attended the 1st Grand Tasting of Rioja Wines where some 60 Rioja producers showcased their wines. It was very interesting talking to the producers. The traditional camp insisted that they will never use French barrels because Tempranillo, the major variety in Rioja, expresses itself most fully in American oak, and the wine would lose its flagship identify—sweet red fruits, gentle and easily appreciated characters—in French barrels. One producer even has its own cooperage to import American oak and make its own barrels. In the other camp, however, producers claimed it is about the evolution of Rioja over time. One critic even went further, saying it has historically been mostly a matter of cost saving, since American barrels cost much less than French.

The truth, I concluded, is that it is all about satisfying consumer preferences. Many of today's consumers, accustomed to New World styles, prefer the deeper-flavoured French oak aged Rioja. Sensing the division, some producers offer two lines: one using American oak and the other French. Some even age a single wine in both oaks (either blending them together after ageing or first ageing in French oak and then American, or vice versa). One whom I talked to was from the traditional camp but is nevertheless adjusting his style: he makes a modern style Rioja still using American oak but with alterations to winemaking techniques such as maceration time and fermentation temperature.  

There are many different styles of Rioja. They are classified by their time spent in barrels and ageing period. Joven may spend no or only a few months in barrels; crianza must spend a minimum of 12 months in barrels and 12 months in bottle; reserva a minimum 12 months in barrels and 24 months in bottle and gran reserva 24 months in oak and 36 months in bottle before being released.

So how do you know which style the wine is? The back label will distinguish joven, crianza and reserva but may or may not indicate French or American oak. So look at the overall packaging. American oaked Rioja tends to have traditional labels and packaging such as the gold netting, while the French oaked styles will usually sport a more modern front label.

For me, I found some of the modern styles too ambitious with the French oak; I prefer the more subtle and elegant classic style. But this is a personal choice and can also depend on the occasion. Find out for yourself which you prefer. As always, in the end you can only find out by tasting.

These are the wines I tried:

La Rioja Alta: Classic style, American oak only. China distributor: Aussino
Paternina: American oak only, but Banda Azul is a modern version aged in American oak
Bodegas Izadi: Classic style but aged in a mix of French and American oak barrels
Bodegas Orben: Modern stye using French oak only (same owner, Group Artevino, as Bodegas Izadi)

Sunday 8 April 2012

In remembrance of Barry Burton (1942-2012)

It was sad to have received an email on 7th April from the Hong Kong Wine Society, not about wine tasting but the passing away of Barry Burton, the Chairman and a friend.

There are too many superficial people around but Barry was genuine. He had a larger than life character, always cheery, actually listened to people and showed interest in the discussion. He was never pretentious, even with his standing. Unlike many who take things for granted, Barry said thank you.

I only knew him for about two years. I am fortunate to have known him, even for such a short time, and have tasted together on a dozen occasions. Some people may be replaceable, but not Barry.

So long Barry.

Friday 30 March 2012

Dim sum and wine pairing

Hong Kong has many wine lovers, but a lot of them do not have wine with their daily Chinese meals, saying it is too difficult to find a single wine that  goes with all the different food flavours on the table, or that it is only a casual meal. The recent Moët Hennessy Flavour Colours Evening challenged these myths.

12 favourite dim sum dishes and 12 Moët Hennessy wines were carefully selected, each allocated to the most appropriate zone of Flavour Colours: Blond, Ivory, Tan or Brown. Guests were encouraged to mix and match different pairings within a zone. The message was that Chinese food and wine pairing was fun and easy, just go with the flavour intensity and the viable pairings are limitless. What if the food flavours on the table cover more than one zone? Well, have two glasses of wine—a blond or ivory, and a tan or brown. Sip the delicate wine with the steamed fish (蒸魚) and the powerful one with the stir fried beef with oyster sauce (蠔油牛肉). After all, we have a pot of tea and one of hot water at dim sum; surely we can have two glasses of wine in front of us.

More importantly, and this is what I firmly believe, Chinese food and wine pairing does not need to be snobbish and restricted to banquet style dinners. Wine can go with everyday food and in the most casual of settings. A glass of Shiraz with your lunch box of roasted barbecued pork rice (叉燒飯), both in the Tan zone, is much more appealing than a can of soft drink! And remember, nobody drinks Margaux or Mouton every day. There is a lot of good quality wine under HK$200 out there, and a glass of wine can be cheaper than a Starbucks latte. What's more, an opened bottle of wine can be kept in the fridge for 2-3 days without problem.

We may not have a traditional wine culture, but this should not stop us enjoying wine with our noodles and fried rice. Gourmet coffee was new to us 30 years ago and now there are speciality coffee houses on every street corner. I would love it soon to be just as common to see friends and families having their weekend dim sum brunch with wine.

Photo: courtesy of Anty Fung 

Saturday 17 March 2012

Kumeu River, family pride

Another successful immigrant story. The first generation of the Croatian Brajkovich family, Mick and Kate, bought a small vineyard in Kumeu River northwest of Auckland. Maté, from the second generation, set the foundation by moving away from the old style fortified style wine and planting international varieties. Now, the estate, headed by mother Melba, is run by the third generation: Michael (Master of Wine), Marijana, Milan and Paul.

Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW, wrote in Wine Advocate, "If you can taste history, duty and family pride in a glass, it’s there in the Kumeu River Chardonnays.... now producing some of New Zealand’s greatest Chardonnays, not to mention the world’s." Well, I can’t taste history and duty in the glass, but I certainly can taste the quality and effort the team puts into its wines.

Kumeu River is not the best viticultural site in New Zealand. It has relatively high rainfall and low sunshine hours, and is kept cool by the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea. Some grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and even Merlot, struggle to ripen there. After trial and error, the Brajkoviches found that Chardonnay is their star. Some 60% of the vineyard is planted with Chardonnays. Different clones are used in different soils and on different aspects, resulting in a range of Chardonnays each having its own style and character. Michael, the eldest brother and winemaker, has worked in Bordeaux and Burgundy, so Kumeu River’s Chardonnays are geared towards the classical Burgundy style using indigenous yeasts, barrel fermentation, malo-lactic fermentation and ageing on lees to add texture and complexity. Paul, the youngest brother, responsible for marketing, was proud to tell us that guests at blind tastings often mistake Kumeu River Chardonnays for Burgundy premieur crus. At a fraction of the price of those Burgundies, Kumeu River certainly outperforms on quality.

We tried all their Chardonnays. Each has its own characteristics. My favourite is the single vineyard Kumeu River Hunting Hill Chardonnay 2007 which is well defined and elegant, yet concentrated. Paul said it is an excellent match with crayfish (lobster). Kumeu River Mate’s Vineyard Chardonnay, named after their late father, is made from a low yield vineyard, the oldest on the estate. The 2009 vintage has more ripe fruit aromas and complexity on the palate, with a tighter structure.

Paul does not think being medium sized and family owned places them in a less advantageous position compared to the big boys. The secret is to partner with similar-sized and like-minded distributors to spread the family story. Well, Kumeu River certainly has one competent partner here: Northeast, run by an equally passionate mother-and-daughter team.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Single Quinta Vintage Port

Some months ago, The Vintage Port Academy held a series of masterclasses and tastings in Hong Kong. Not only were we treated to several wood aged and vintage ports, but selected writers and journalists were also invited to a rare tasting of Single Quinta Vintage Ports from six different port houses: Croft'sDow'sFonseca, Graham’sTaylor's and Warre's. As the name suggests, single quinta vintage port is made with grapes from a single estate, as opposed to classic vintage port which is a blend from different estates. It is not made every year; only in good but not declared years (all the grapes will be used to blend classic vintage port in declared years). Single quinta is usually the backbone of any classic vintage port blend and is made in exactly the same way - aged 2 to 3 years in casks then bottled without filtration. In a sense, single quinta vintage port is the expression of a particular quinta, while classic vintage port reflects the style of a particular house.

According to Euan Mackay from Symington Family Estates and Nick Heath from Fladgate Partnership, who led the tastings and masterclasses, Douro is probably one of the most difficult places for grape growing. It is very hot in summer and very cold in winter. The mountainous vineyards mean that all operations have to be carried out by hand. Water is precious but luckily the soil is mainly schist, which is not only great for drainage but also good for preserving water. Having said that, soil is actually not the major factor in differentiating single quinta styles. Rather it is the climate, landscaping, slope facing and grape varieties that make the difference.

This tasting was both educational and fun. All six ports had subtly different characteristics. The most interesting were the Quinta do Bonfim and the Quinta da Roêdo, which are next door to each other but the easiest to tell apart. The tutored tasting was followed by a blind tasting in a different order, and, not surprisingly, none of us got them all right.

Here are the characteristics of each port:
• Fonseca Quinta do Panascal: 1/3 Tinta Roriz. Dense rich fruit character, opulent.
• Warre’s Quinta do Cavadinha: Relatively cool site (250m above sea level), 37% old vines. Fresh and elegant.
• Dow’s Quinta do Bonfim: South facing site with prolonged exposure to the sun. 50% Touriga Nacional and Touriga Francesa. Structured, complex and austere.
• Croft Quinta da Roêda: South facing. 50% Touriga Francesa. Ripe plum fruit, jammy, soft and round mouth feel.
• Graham’s Quinta do Malvedos: Younger vines (about 20 years old), fruity and floral, less austere.
• Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas: North facing site, strong floral character, elegant and refined.

For those who like port but don’t want too tough a challenge, try a blind tasting game of Ruby Reserve, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), Single Quinta Vintage and Classic Vintage. Ruby Reserve is more vibrant with fresh fruit character. LBV is richer, softer and rounder because of spending more time in oak. Single Quinta Vintage has more personality and develops earlier. Classic Vintage is more balanced and complete and can age for over 20 years in bottle. You can also put a 10 or 20 Year Old Tawny Port into the blind tasting but the colour will be a giveaway if you don't use black glasses. Tawny’s structure is provided by its acidity, not (perhaps surprisingly) by tannin, and it has more of the prune and coffee kinds of oxidised aromas.

Saturday 4 February 2012

Bird in Hand, the gold mine winery

What makes Bird in Hand stands out is its location. At 400m above sea level in a cool pocket of the Adelaide Hills, the grapes enjoy a long ripening season with warm days and cool nights, enabling them to ripen with full flavours but still retain their acidity. Couple this with the mineral-rich soil from the former gold mines, plus the philosophy of making balanced wines that compliment rather than dominate food, and it is no surprise that all the Bird in Hand labels have numerous awards under their belts.

Bird in Hand has three labels, all named after defunct gold mines that operated in the district in the mid 1800s. Two in Bush is an easy-going 'drink now' style fermented in stainless steel tanks, while Bird in Hand is a more serious wine that has spent some time in barrels. Nest Egg is the finest and only released in the best years with a limited quantity. I love the Bird in Hand Riesling 2010 for its liveliness and crisp acidity, and the Nest Egg Chardonnay 2008 for the complex nose and creamy mouthfeel.

If you are a fan of sashimi you must try pairing it with Bird in Hand Sparkling Pinot Noir. Its vibrant red fruit aroma enhances the freshness of the fish and it stands up to the wasabi and soy sauce flavours. And of course, the appealing pale salmon colour is perfect next to salmon or tuna sashimi. The judges in the 2011 Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition 'Best Wine with Sashimi' panel, including renowned chef Yanagita from Nadaman in the Hong Kong Shangri-La, all agreed that they were a perfect match. The wine was the trophy winner in that class. I was told that Japanese restaurants in Hong Kong are queuing up to buy it.

Bird in Hand is a family business. Andrew Nugent is the resident viticulturist and winemaker while brother Justin is the travelling ambassador. With our booming neighbour, no wonder Justin is spending more and more time in China. They have just opened a replica Bird in Hand cellar door in Dalian (大連), decorated with vines from the Adelaide Hills vineyard, and have plans to open more in the second tier China cities. The winery is producing 70,000 cases of wine per year at present but has a capacity of 200,000 cases — hopefully just enough to satisfy the thirsty Chinese demand.

Get your wines from Northeast before they are snatched up by the Japanese restaurants or our mainland compatriots.

Saturday 28 January 2012

White wine - Golden wine?

For the Chinese, wine, by default, is red. There are various reasons why white wine is not popular in China: first, red is a lucky colour; second, the literal term 'white wine' in Chinese means the local white spirit made from rice, not grape wine; third, some say the Chinese simply don’t like white wine. But the last reason is not really valid—numerous blind tastings have demonstrated that they do like white wine if they can’t see the colour. So is it because of the confusion over the name? After all, the Chinese have a saying, ‘No need to fear being born on a bad date, but do fear being given a bad name’ (唔怕生壞命,最怕改壞名).

So how about calling white wine 'golden wine' (金酒)? Jasper Morris MW reckons it is a good idea, especially since white wine is not white anyway. Its colour ranges from pale lemon to deep gold. So he thinks the term may not even be appropriate in English. But I’m not sure if it isn't a touch too tacky, just like the lucky Chinese ‘eight’ character on Lafite 2008. China itself may have 1.3 billion Chinese, but there are still a lot of Chinese outside China who see nothing wrong with the term ‘white wine’. Equally, I’m sure there are many mainland Chinese who don’t want to be treated superficially.

What’s your opinion? A sensible marketing move to avoid confusion, or blatant commercialism? Please vote for your preference. Love to hear your comments or perhaps more alternatives.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Burgundy en Primeur 2010

What a joy to start 2012 with the tasting of some fabulous Burgundy 2010, most of it straight from the barrel and flown direct to Hong Kong, courtesy of Berry Bros & Rudd. Even better was a chat about the 2010 vintage with renowned Burgundy expert, Jasper Morris MW.

Burgundian producers did not expect 2010 to be a good vintage. The first strike was the plummet in temperature in a short space of time from -3ºC to a record low of -19ºC on 19th December 2009. Since the sap hadn’t gone back down yet, quite a number of vines were killed by the cold air, severely reducing the crop level. The second hit was bad flowering weather in May, which was cool, wet and windy, leading to small and uneven bunches, further reducing the yield. In hindsight, the small crop actually saved the vintage, because summer was not particularly great. A big crop would not have been properly ripe. Furthermore, the smaller berries increased the skin to juice ratio, leading to more concentrated wines as a result. Mother nature struck again on 12th September 2010 in the form of a massive thunder and hail storm, damaging some Chardonnay which was about to be harvested. Luckily a north wind came soon afterwards to dry the grapes, preventing the spread of rot. The harvest in mid September was carried out in sunny weather.

The end result? A classic vintage with elegance and finesse. The Pinot Noir show a perfect balance between acidity, tannin and fruit; while the whites display a density of fruit that is well-integrated with the fresh acidity. According to Jasper (and after tasting the wine I agree), the 2010 vintage is much more 'Burgundian'. 2009 may be more pleasing, but it is more 'international' than true Burgundy.

The negatives? The yield was down between 30% and 50% across the region. Given the latest enthusiasm for Burgundy, there won’t be enough to satisfy demand. Despite this, most producers have kept their prices the same as 2009’s, unlike their counterparts in Bordeaux.

Many wine lovers find it confusing to navigate the myriad labels of Burgundy. Burgundy classifications are by geographic district rather than producer. Yet, two vineyards of the same Cru status next door to each other may produce wines that seem miles apart. The quality of Burgundy wine has always been hit and miss. Jasper says this is because most Burgundian producers have traditionally been farmers who learned by on-the-job training from their fathers. Today’s young generation of producers have formal oenology training, some even have overseas vintage experience. He is seeing big improvements in quality in all categories of Burgundy wine including the regional appellation.

Jasper selected 34 wines for BBR’s 2010 Burgundy en primeur tasting. There are some real bargains. Patrick Javillier Bourgogne Blanc Cuvée Oligocène is full of life and a steal at £150 per 12 bottle case. My other favourites are the complex Domaine Jean Grivot Clos de Voueot Grand Cru (£570 for 6 bottles), the generous Maison Camille Giroud Corton Clos du Roi Grand Cru (£270 for 6) and the elegant Domaine du Comte Armand Pommard Clos des Epeneaux (£345 for 6). Visit BBR’s website for more information.

Sunday 15 January 2012

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc with a twist

It was a pleasant surprise to have tasted this wine at a recent tasting organised by Sogrape. I was expecting the overtly pungent fruit driven Sauvignon Blanc that is typical of Marlborough, but Framingham’s is more subtle. It still has all the characters of a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc but they are toned down, and with added complexity and creamy mouthfeel. A chat with winemaker Andrew Hedley revealed that the grapes were sourced from eight different sites and were fermented in batches, some in stainless steel at cool rather than cold temperature to avoid the estery characters, and some in barrels at even higher temperature. The finished wine was left on lees for a few months with partial malo-lactic fermentation before final blending. No wonder it has such a nice texture and subtlety. Andrew explained that most of their sales come from restaurants and therefore they have to make food-friendly wine. Typical Sauvignon Blanc tends to be too pungent and overpowers the food. He certainly has a point!

I also tried his Classic Riesling, an off dry style again fermented at cool temperature and left on lees for a few months. I liked the wide spectrum of flavours, the firm structure and the nicely balanced residual sugar. Framingham was among the second generation of producers in Marlborough and one of the first to have planted Riesling. They make a range of Rieslings from dry and off-dry to botrytis infected sweet wine, all in relative small volumes. Framingham has ten wines under the label and an experimental F-series that uses different winemaking techniques.

I like their philosophy of trying different varieties (they have a Montepulciano) and have adopted both New and Old World winemaking techniques rather than joining the bandwagon to make standardised Sauvignon Blanc. I wish more wineries could be as daring. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc may have put New Zealand on the wine map, but it’s time to move on.

By the way, Framingham Point Noir 2009 was a double trophy winner at the 2011 Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit Competition, snatching both Best Pinot Noir and Best New World Pinot Noir. Their wines are available from Leung Yick Co Ltd.

Sunday 8 January 2012

Biodynamics wine explained

‘What is biodynamic wine?’ Ask this question of Christine Saahs, owner of Nikolaihof from Wachau, Austria, and you will receive a two hour lecture, exactly what we had recently!

Biodynamics advocates believe soil is a living thing. Conventional farming, with heavy use of fertilisers, chemicals, pesticides, etc, is like junk food to the soil that ‘kills’ it. Biodynamic farming builds healthy living soil through interaction with and in harmony with the environment so it can nurture plants and produce wholesome food that vitalises humanity. Advocates also believe there is a link between the soil and the moon. The earthly and cosmic powers integrate and create a new quality in the final produce.

Yet while these all sound credible, some biodynamic practices like burying cow horns filled with cow manure and dynamising the compost (stirring a mixture of herbs and water vigorously for a period of time), are regarded as superstitious by many and draw criticism. However, even in those cases I do think there are possible scientific explanations: cow horns consist of calcium, an essential element for improving soil structure and regulating soil acidity, and it may possibly leach into the decomposing manure and then into the soil. Stirring vigorously, like whisking ingredients vigorously when baking, introduces more oxygen into the mixture which could promote micro-organism growth in the soil. I also think that using different herbs and wild flowers to prevent or cure vineyard diseases and pests is akin to the Chinese drinking herbal medicine. Chinese doctors will tell you that their medicine helps restore your internal balance but won’t explain to you how. As for following the lunar calendar, the gravitational forces that cause tides exist on land as well. Biodynamic vinegrowers irrigate when the tide is high on the premise that water will be ‘pulled’ into the vines more easily. Similarly, they prune when the tide is low to minimise sap loss at the pruning wounds.

Aren’t all of these quite logical? Christine summed it up well, ‘Biodynamics is one step ahead of organic farming. Organic farming sustains the health of the soil; biodynamic practices improve the health of the soil’.

Whether conventional, organic or biodynamic, I believe it is the passion and belief of the practitioners that makes the difference. Christine is so convinced of biodynamics and speaks with such passion that she, dressed in her traditional Austrian outfit, looks like a biodynamic human being. But both good and bad wines can be made whatever viticultural practices are used, and only when growers put their heart and attention into the vineyard can they grow grapes that are healthy and of high quality. I suppose this is what home cooking is all about: mums cook with love and care!

Having said that, I do think sometimes biodynamics enthusiasts go a little too far. Christine said biodynamic wine, even after bottling, still responds to the moon. The wine tastes fruitier on a 'fruit day', more vibrant on a 'flower day' and neutral on a 'root day'. I questioned this but didn’t get a satisfactory answer. Yes, wine is a living thing because it evolves in the bottle due to reaction with (or lack of) oxygen, but does it really respond to the moon?

We tasted five wines, all intense and fresh with a common earthy aroma. While I couldn’t tell whether they were biodynamic in a blind tasting, I am certain that they were all very well-made wines from a caring winemaker. By the way, we tasted the wine on a 'root day', so according to Christine, not the best day for tasting.

Nikolaihof's wines are available from Cottage Vineyards.