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.