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.