Friday 18 December 2015

Asia Wine Trophy, Asian wine market

With the increasing wine consumption in Asia, there are more wine competitions being held in this part of the world with the aim to help consumers choose wine. The biggest such competition is Asia Wine Trophy, organised by Deutsche Wein Marketing (DWM) and with International Organisation for Vine and Wine (OIV) as patronage. Its third running in 2015 attracted over 3,600 entries from 29 countries, assessed by some 110 judges from all over the world. Its host city is Daejeon in the centre of South Korea, the third biggest city in Korea and where the first Korean wine was made in 1968. The Daejeon city government, keen to promote its wine-based tourism, lends its full support to this competition.

According to Peter Scheib, a steering committee member, DWM is the biggest organiser of wine competitions in the world. Its four Trophies, the biannual Berlin Wine Trophy, the annual Portugal Wine Trophy and the annual Asia Wine Trophy, have a combined 15,000 wine submissions. Judges, who come from different countries, have diversified background from wine producers and importers to educators and journalists, to ensure an unbiased evaluation. All wines are judged according to the OIV international wine competitions’ guidelines on four criteria: appearance, bouquet, taste, and overall harmony. An OIV observer is on site to document and evaluate the tasting process, who may suspend the tasting if the standards are violated. More importantly, judges’ performances are also reviewed at the end of each competition. Only those who pass the review will be invited to judge at subsequent Trophies. Peter also emphasised that only a maximum 30% of wines would be awarded medals, including Grand Gold, Gold and Silver, to maintain the Trophies’ standards and to deliver a pleasant experience to consumers who purchase the winning wines.

Judges appreciate the competition as well. Peter Angele, one of the judges and a sommelier from Germany, was delighted to learn about the preferences of his Asian counterparts, while at the same time, happy to share his knowledge and enthusiasm of Silvaner, a German variety seldom seen in Asia, with them. Lee Jung-Hoon, sommelier in Seoul, was quick to point out that Silvaner would be a good match with medium palate-weight Korean dishes. In fact, the Nordheimer Vegelein Silvaner Spätlese Feinherb 2014 with only 8.3 g/l residual sugar, courtesy from Peter, won a thumbs-up from a group of Hong Kong and China judges who paired it with fresh lobsters and crabs.

In addition to the judging that lasted for four days, there were also seminars during the period with technical presentations on topics like viticulture and climate change, tasting sessions of less common wine such as those from China and Moldavia, as well as discussion on Asian markets trends and challenges. Jurors treasure these continue learning opportunities where they can share their insights with colleagues.

As one of the judges, one thing I learned is the commonalities and differences of various Asian wine markets. French wine may be the number one player in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, its leading position is being threatened in Japan and Korea, and certainly not the case in Singapore and Malaysia. However, all countries show that Chilean wine is the rising star because of its quality/price ratio and it privilege of Free Trade Agreement with some countries. Although red wine still dominates in all markets, the consumption of white and sparkling are increasing with sparkling wine particularly popular in Japan and Korea. All agreed that the young generation and female consumers are the driving forces of Asian wine markets. However, the markets are still skewed to the premium end where buyers drink wine for the status and for gifting; and the lower end where wine is consumed as an alternative alcoholic beverage to beer.

The majority of judges share the view that local food and wine pairing to introduce wine as part of lifestyle to Asian consumers is essential to develop the mid-market wine segment and to expand the consumer base. Stephen Hall, a New Zealand wine writer based in Malaysia, is an advocate and has been promoting  Malaysian/Singaporean food and wine pairing for over 20 years. Flavour Colours, a Chinese food and wine pairing i-Phone/i-Pad app based on flavour intensity, developed in Hong Kong, is another fine example of promoting wine culture in Greater China.

Judges also agree on the importance of social media platform, led by Facebook, to engage with the young consumers. Internet sales of wine, however, is allowed in some Asian markets such as Taiwan and Korea but  nevertheless, it is an important communicate channel. For example in Korea, online reservation of wine for pay later at a pick up store is a clever way to circumstance the ban.

Asia Wine Trophy and its parallel seminars demonstrated that although the Asian wine consumption is just at its beginning level (consumption per capita ranges from around 1.3  litre in China to 5 litres in Singapore), it is a long but exciting road for producers. Fellow wine judges, who are also wine ambassadors in their respective markets, should focus on how to sparkle the young consumers’ interests in wine by preaching the enjoyment of wine with local food.

Mami Whelehan, a wine and food columnist with 23 years experience in wine distribution in Japan and a panel chair in Asia Wine Trophy, concluded that medals are important in the Japan market as they serve as trustworthy guidelines
for average consumer. Park Chan-Jun, organiser of Asia Wine Trophy and a wine writer, echoed the view, and so did John Hung, Joe Sriwarin, TC Liong and Nelson Chow, presidents of Sommelier Association of Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong respectively.

Next time you see an Asia Wine Trophy medal award wine, try it and see if you agree with the judges.

Friday 11 December 2015

Casa Silva, Chilean terroir

At the recent Asia Wine Trophy judging, I learnt that Chilean wine is the rising star in all Asian markets. It was therefore no surprise that Mario Pablo Silva, CEO of Casa Silva, said that in China, Chile is the first wine importing country that cross consumers’ minds, and there is a whopping 65% of consumers who associate Chile with wine.

I have to say that Chile has come a long way. Some ten years ago, the majority of Chilean wine in the market was entry level, value-for-money wine mainly from Maipo. Now, wineries are pushing their mid and premium level wine - as Mario put it, they are promoting the new Chile where good quality wines made from different grape varieties that come from north to south and from coast to mountains. Indeed, Chile has checked all the boxes of capable of producing interesting and high quality wine. It is 4,200 km lengthwise with the Atacama desert, the driest place in the world in the north; and  the Antartica, the coldest in the south. Its narrow width, average 177 km, is cooled by the Pacific Ocean breeze in the west and the Andes Mountain wind in the east. The country offers an array of climate and soil. It is up to winemakers to explore the options of matching different grapes with the terroir.

Casa Silva is in its fifth generation. The family originated from St Emilion in France and settled in Colchagua Valley in Chile in 1892. It has several vineyards including the oldest one, Angostura, in Colchagua where the family has been planting since 1912; and Lago Ranco, in Patagonia where the family has their holiday home and only experimental wines are made. Casa Silva’s vision is to be recognised as a high quality fine wine producer; the leader, innovator of a new generation of Chilean premium wine; as well as an advocate of environmental sustainability - certainly ambitious but not impossible - as its wines do reflect the family commitment.

I particularly like its Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, where grapes come from the Colchagua’s seacoast. Both wines are elegant with fresh fruits aromas and a mineral palate but save the pungency of typical New World wine, and at a steal of only $160/bottle.

The Gran Terroir Syrah is also impressive. Although with 14.5% alcohol, it is well-balanced without the jammy palate and supported by black fruits and spices - another bargain at $135/bottle.

Microterroir is Casa Silva’s premium wine made
from 100% Carmenere. The grapes come from the best selection from its Los Lingues vineyard at the foothills of the Andes. The wine is elegant with multi-layered aromas. We had a vertical tasting of four vintages fro 2006 to 2009 and my favourite is the 2007 - a perfect combination of black fruits, spices and perfume. Retailed at $440/bottle, it is certainly a much better-value wine than most.

It is no wonder that Chilean wine is a rising star.

Casa Silva is available from Sino Vantage.

Friday 4 December 2015

The passions of Leopard’s Leap

Leopard’s Leap Family Vineyards, located in Franschhoek and founded in 2000, is a mass-market brand probably dismissed by most wine connoisseurs. However, after talking to its owner Hein Koegelenberg, I believe it is a remarkable brand that connects average consumer to wine not via aspiration or status symbol, but genuine, affordable things that ordinarily people care and enjoy - food, conservation and literature.

Hein’s definition of ‘passion for food’ is broader than just eating. Most wineries in South Africa has award-winning restaurants offering exquisite menus. At Leopard’s Leap, the family-oriented restaurant offers relaxed rotisserie-style lunches something similar to a Sunday roast or a dim sum lunch where family and friends can spend hours catching up. What’s more, there are also regular cooking classes where participants learn to cook recipes that they can easily prepare at home. But what impressed me most is its courageous wine cocktail recipe, including some classics with a twist such as Chenin Blanc Martini, and out-of-the-box surprise like Merlot Milkshake served in a whisky glass. I’m sure traditional wine lovers would be horrified but hey, we have to move on with consumers! If this is what makes the younger generation to try wine, so let’s go with the flow. Sooner or later they will gradually drink Chenin Blanc without martini and Merlot without ice cream, and we’ll have more converted wine consumers.

The worldwide population of leopard has been decreasing due to threats to their habitats and hunting. Cape Mountain leopard refers to the smaller version of leopards inhabiting the mountains of the Cape Province in South Africa close to the Cape Winelands. It is guesstimated that there are less than 1,000 Cape leopards in the wild. Leopard’s Leap is a sponsor of Cape Leopard Trust, an NGO aims to conserve the endangered Cape Mountain Leopard, by ‘adopting’ leopards roaming the Cape mountain ranges, and providing an interactive wall showcases at the premises as an educational tool for visitors to learn about wildlife conservation. A lot of wineries in South Africa are keen supporters of sustainability and Leopard’s Leap takes it one step further by being actively involved.

Leopard’s Leap is also dedicated to nurture local authors and promote South African literature by creating platforms and sponsoring book launches and literary events. It is also a founding sponsor of the annual international Open Book Literary Festival held in Cape Town. In a country where education for the under-privileged is still an issue, this initiative touches a lot hearts.

I definitely think Leopard’s Leap got the right marketing mix to engage to mid-market average consumer. However, this alone won’t make it a truly successful brand unless it has the quality to back it up. Leopard’s wine certainly doesn’t disappoint. It has a few tiers that appeal to different market segment, from the entry-level social enjoyment Lookout and the well-structured varietal wines Classic, to the specially crafted Family Collection and the exclusive Culinaria Collection - all well-positioned to encourage new consumers to trade up.

Try these wines:

  • Classic Chenin Blanc 2015: Refreshing with an elegant, subtle nose. Goes well with scallop.
  • Classic Chardonnay Pinot Noir Rosé 2015: A new wine (first vintage); a well-balanced Rosé with red fruits and appealing mouthfeel.
  • Classic Shiraz 2011: Elegant black fruits with a hint of pepper, fine tannin.
  • Family Collection Shiraz Mourvedre Viognier 2009: A serious wine layered with fruits and spices with a smooth mouthfeel and lingering finish.

The big brother of Leopard’s Leap is La Motte, a Rupert family winery also run by Hein. According to Hein, La Motte is exclusive and aspiring while Leopard’s Leap is inclusive and friendly. Nevertheless, wines from both brothers are over delivered on quality.

Both La Motte and Leopard’s Leap are available from Royal Oak.

Monday 23 November 2015

Australia's biggest family winery

I’m not a big fan of wines from Australian big wineries but I have to admit that recently I have tasted some which exceeded expectation. It was with the renewed faith that I attended a casual tasting with Garrick Harvison, the Asia Pacific General Manager of McWilliam’s Wines Group.

The Hanwood Centenary Reunion in 2013
McWilliam’s is four biggest winery in Australia after Penfolds, Jacob’s Creek and Hardy’s but it stands out because it is a family run winery. Garrick insisted that McWilliam’s may be big, it still makes wine with passion very much like a small family owned business. J.J. McWilliam established the Hanwood Estate in Griffith, New South Wales and now the winery is run by the sixth generation. In 2013, it celebrated its 100th year anniversary. Today, winemaker Scott McWilliam continues with the family tradition to make wine that the family is proud of. The family’s achievement is recognised by renowned wine critics including Matthew Jukes who named McWilliam ‘Winery of the Year 2014’, as well as James Halliday who gave it a Five Red Star Winery recognition in 2014.

So much the McWilliams care about the family value that there is a charter stating that the family is not to sell the company - now that means something!

The family has four core brands and each brand sources grapes from a specific region. The idea is to make the best possible wine that expresses the best region, rather than making wine under the generic ‘South East Australia’ appellation. McWilliam’s brand is New South Wales, comprising of Riverina, the biggest and warmer region where most of its entry and mid-levels wines are made, as well as the four cooler, smaller and more exciting regions, Hilltops, Orange, Tumbarumba and Canberra where its premium Appellation series comes from.

We tasted six wines, four from the mid priced Hanwood Estate and two from the Appellation series. I was particularly impressed by the Hanwood Estate especially when I found out it is available from Park’n Shop at only $99/bottle. The 2014 Riesling was vibrant with intense citrus nose that is versatile to pair with deep fried, slightly spicy dishes or even enjoy on its own. The 2013 Chardonnay had a nice balance between yellow fruits and wood with a round mouthfeel, while the Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, both 2013, were pleasant without the usual heaviness of Australian wine. I have to agree with Garrick that Hanwood Estate over-delivers - good news for consumers!
The two Appellation wines were outstanding. The 2013 Chardonnay grapes were sourced at altitudes between 500 and 800m from the coolest region in NSW, Tumbarumba, at the foothill of the Snowy Mountains. The label, an artist impression of the vineyard with a snow-capped mountain at background, captured the essence of the region. The wine had a racy acidity with fine fruits and an elegant appeal, the impression actually quite matched with the label. The Canberra Syrah 2014 displayed all cool-climate characteristics of floral and white pepper supported by spices and fine tannins. This was the one wine I didn’t spit out!

After trying these wines, I’ll definitely try its entry level range, J.J. McWilliam, also available at Park’n Shop at $79/bottle. It may well be one of the best value wines in town!

Friday 30 October 2015

A gem from Lebanon

If you don’t like the style of Chateau Musar, you will probably dismiss all Lebanese wine thinking they are all the same but it will be so wrong. Try Domaine Wardy and you’ll change your mind.

Lebanon is one of the oldest wine producing countries with the first documentation around 2,000 BC. Like most wineries, Domaine Wardy is situated in the Bekaa Valley, a plateau at 900m altitude, and its vineyards are planted on the slopes of Mount Lebanon reaching 1,400m altitude. Although the first vines were planted 130 years ago, it only focused in producing Arak, the anis flavoured national spirit. It was not until some 30 years ago that the winery invested in wine production and today, it has 12 wines including white, rosé and red. Its Arak remains the bestseller.

Given such a long winemaking history, it was surprising that there are only two indigenous grape varieties in Lebanon, Obeideh and Merwah (although some reckoned they are actually Chardonnay and Semillon respectively but there is no DNA proof yet). Therefore, like other wineries in Lebanon, Domaine Wardy planted French varieties including Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. In addition, there is also Tempranillo, mainly used as a blending component. Winemaker Diana Salame Khalil explained that the winery is still relative young and that they can afford to experiment. She also makes a white blend, Clos Blanc, dominated by the native variety Obeideh.

Probably because of the high altitude that moderates the temperature, allowing the grapes to ripen slowly without losing acidity, I found the wine understated, balanced and elegant. Its Sauvignon Blanc is restrained with a savoury mouthfeel that tips it towards a Sancerre instead of a full blown Marlborough counterpart. All the wine we tasted were food-friendly. My favourite picks were:

Rosé du Printemps 2012: A Provence style made from a blend of 80% Cinsault and 20% Syrah using saignee method. It was pleasantly fresh given the vintage. The smokiness added an extra dimension to the citrus and raspberries aromas, making it perfect with the dim sum we had. It also went well with the sweet and sour prawns.

Clos Blanc 2013: A blend dominated by 40% Obeideh and 35% Saunvignon Blanc with the rest made up of Chardonnay (15%) Viognier (5%) and Muscat (5%), it is more on the aromatic style with floral, white fruits and melon. The heavier palate weight supports stronger flavoured dish such as the chicken fillet with black bean sauce we had.

Private Selection 2005: A complex wine with layers of black fruits, tea leaves, herbs and spices made from Cabernet Sauvignon (55%), Syrah (40%) and a touch of Tempranillo (5%). An elegant wine that will age gracefully.

I always believe that wine is made in the vineyards and Domaine Wardy’s wine certainly reflects this.

Damine Wardy is available from Evercohol.

Friday 23 October 2015

Luce - the brand, the style, the wine

Attending the Luce’s 20th anniversary dinner in Hong Kong was a privilege and the occasion was made even more memorable because it was hosted by Erika Ribaldi, its cheerful Asia Export Manager.

Luce is one of the brands of the Frescobaldi family. It is a super Tuscan wine made from Merlot and Sangiovese in Montalcino created by Robert Mondavi and Vit
torio Frescobaldi back in 1993. Although the Fescobaldi family took full control in 2005, Luce still remains a vision shared by the two families and a harmonisation of the Old and New Worlds — Sangiovese gave the finesse and structure while the Merlot filled it with opulence and fragrance. There is no doubt on the quality of Luce but I was more intrigued by its marketing effort and its brand power.

Luce is more than just a wine. It has evolved into one of the most creative brands that embraces the chic Italian design and fine quality. Its distinctive logo, a sun surrounded by tongues of flame, can be found on glassware, furniture and even cheese (yes, we were served this at dinner). It also has a couple of restaurants, one in San Francisco and one in Bangkok, under its name. The main course of the dinner was served on a Luce’s plate.

At the dinner, Erika was wearing a series of golden tattoos (albeit temporary), one of which was a necklace with the Luce’s radiant sun. I’m sure it could be developed into another successful Luce’s line of accessories.

The appeal of brand is most prominent in Japan. With 6,000 bottles per year or 50% of its Asian sales, it is Luce’s biggest Asian market. 80% of the customers are female, who are attracted by Luce’s elegant and stylish brand. Erika said the Japan market can still grow bigger but unfortunately with only around 80,000 bottles produced annually, the wine is on allocation only. To celebrate the 20th anniversary, Luce has made 10 exclusive gift box consisted of all 20 vintages, two of which are available in Japan.

I’m not saying that all wine brands have to follow Luce’s approach, and certainly not many brands have the resources to extend their names to other products. However, it demonstrates that a more consumer-oriented lifestyle strategy, backed by good quality, does take the brand closer to consumers and thereby increasing sales. Terroir and technical details are relevant and important but sometimes, a little personal touch may just differentiate a brand from the crowd.

Luce is available from Jebsen Wines

Friday 16 October 2015

More than just Pinot Grigio

ASC recently hosted an Italian Grand Tasting featuring seven wineries from Alto Adige to Sicily. Wines were diverse but I was surprised to find five Pinot Grigios from three wineries, and each has its own different style.

It’s true that a lot of Pinot Grigio being served as house wine is inoffensive but often bland. A well-made Pinot Grigio should be delicate with citrus, apple aromas and vibrant, while some serious ones, like those below, are concentrated with a depth of flavour.

Alois Lageder Porer Pinot Grigio: Single vineyard biodynamic wine from Alto Adige. 20% was barrel fermented while the rest in stainless steel tank. The wine has an uplifted aroma, a round mouthfeel and an integrated spice.

Masi Masianco Pinot Grigio: Blended with semi-dried native Verduzzo grapes, the wine is more aromatic and intense than an average Pinot Grigio, with fresh stone fruits and honey notes. Definitely a wine to serve with food rather than just gulping.

Banfi San Angelo Pinot Grigio: A 100% Pinot Grigio IGT wine from Montalcino, richer than the typical Pinot Grigio from northern Italy because of the warmer Tuscan sun but still retained the acidity. The minerality from the calcareous soil added the extra dimension. I tried it the other day with dim sum and it was perfect!

The Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) developed a PinotG Style Spectrum from crisp to luscious to differentiate them. It would be fun to have a PintoG dinner with wines from Italy to New Zealand and see how they fare and pair with food.

All the above are available from ASC Fine Wines.

Friday 9 October 2015

Interview with Boschendal’s lady winemaker

Lizelle Gerber, the white winemaker of Boschendal, joined the wine industry quite accidentally. She was in the military while visiting a friend at Elsenburg College, an agricultural college in Stellenbosch with a fully operational winery. Knowing that she likes outdoor and practical training, she signed up for the winemaking course even though she grew up in a family where drinking wine was not the norm. She considered it a challenge and she likes challenges.

Lizelle never looked back. Her winemaking career started at Zevenwacht Estate (South Africa), a harvest in Alsace (France) and followed by a few years at Avontuur (South Africa) where her wines won numerous awards. She eventually joined Boschendal, one of the original wine farms in Franschhoek, South Africa and the most premium DGB’s brand, in 2006. She is responsible for its Méthode Cap Classique (MCC, sparkling wine made in traditional method), all white wines and the entire Elgin series. The Elgin Pinot Noir is the only red wine she made in Boschendal.

MCC is something that is dear to Lizelle, probably because two of her sparkling wines she made during the first vintage at Boschendal were highly recognised. The Grand Cuvée Brut 2007, a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that has spent 36 months on lees, won a double gold at Veritas Awards 2011, while Jean Le Long 2007, a blanc de blanc with 60 months on lees, was awarded a silver medal in Veritas Awards 2013. Lizelle is particularly proud of the latter. The Chardonnay grapes were selected from old vines from the cooler sites and only 500 litres of juice was extracted from one ton of grapes. Supported by crisp acidity, the wine has an array of aromas from citrus and dry lemon peel to biscotti that intermingles with the fine bubbles.

Lizelle also showed us her latest wine, Rachel’s Chenin Blanc 2015, that was just off the bottling line a few weeks ago. Chenin Blanc, although originated from Loire, has the most planting in South Africa. It is diverse and the style can range from fruity and easy drinking to oaked aged with ageing potential. Rachel belongs to the fruitier style but with a twist. 10% of the wine was fermented in old oak barrels to add a bit of texture and give a round mouthfeel. It paired beautifully with the scallop tartar but also stood up to the panfried foie gras that we had for dinner, demonstrating the versatility of the variety.

The Elgin series is Lizelle’s baby. She developed it back in 2008 with the aim of
producing a portfolio of super premium appellation specific wines from single vineyard sites that expresses the Elgin’s cool viticultural climate. It took her five years to bottle the first wine in 2013. Of the three wines from the series, Lizelle found the Sauvignon Blanc the most challenging and satisfying - to rein in the pungent aroma and prolong the ageability. She certainly overcome the challenge as the first vintage (2012) was awarded the gold medal at The Michelangelo International Wine Awards 2013.

How about female winemakers in a male dominated world? Lizelle said when she was at Elsenburg, there were only two female students in a group of 12. Women have had to work three to four times harder to prove themselves. She witnessed the acceptance of female winemakers over the past 15 years and now they are just viewed as fellow colleagues, without any gender issue. At Elsenburg today, the male and female students split is about half.

Given her passion for MCC, Lizelle urged wine lovers to give it a try. Most of them are better than the entry level champagne but at less than half the price. The more serious ones, like the Jean Le Long, can certainly rival the prestige bubbly. She also insisted that we should not just call the wine South African sparkling, the official name is Cap Classique!

She also remarked on Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault created in South African that has a love-hate relationship with both winemakers and consumers. It is true that the earlier Pinotage was a hit and miss but with better understanding of the grape variety and improvement in winemaking technique, Pinotage proved to be a versatile variety which can be made into various style of wine from easy drinking to one with longevity.

Established in 1685, this year is the 330th anniversary of Boschendal Estate, the second oldest estate in South African and only two months younger than its bigger brother Groot Constantia. Celebrate its birthday with a glass of Lizelle’s Cap Classique, or even better, pay a visit to its historical manor house in Franschhoek!

Boschendal is available from Royal Oak.

Monday 5 October 2015

Bairrada’s ‘Godfather’, Luis Pato

If you don’t know Luis Pato, owner of the winery of the same name in Bairrada, Portugal, his casual and suntan look probably leads you to think he is just one of the many winegrowers making rustic style wine in a small village somewhere in Portugal and that the wine is mainly for local consumption.

Luis is a pioneer winemaker in Bairrada, the wine region to the west of Dão and north of Lisbon in Portugal, known for its tannic red wine made from Baga grapes. Luis was the first winemaker, back in 1985, to destem the grapes prior to fermentation and used French oak for ageing, thus taming its tannin and rusticity making it more approachable. In 1988, he planted ungrafted Baga on sandy soil to make a pre-phyloxera wine. Pé Franco was born in 1995, seven years after the vines were planted.

And if this is not enough, Luis made the first red wine with white grapes in 2011 to celebrate the birth of his second grandson. It is 94% Maria Gomes (also called Fernão Pires, a white grape) and 6% Baga's skin. Since regulation allows a wine not to state the grapes under 15%, Luis can name this wine as a single varietal white wine. He was experimenting with no sulphur red wine in 2013, it didn't’ work but he continues trying.

Luis makes sparkling, white and red. We tasted 13 of his wines plus five back vintages. I’m particularly impressed by these:

Luis Pato Baga Método Antigo Espumante 2013: a sparkling made in Rural Method (only one fermentation first began in tank then the fermenting wine is transferred to sealed bottles to finish fermentation, trapping the carbon dioxide inside). It is probably not everyone’s cup of tea as it tasted different in a nice way
- with bright red fruits and a bit of tannin.

Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Branco 2013: a white wine made from Bical, Cerceal and Sercialinho, all native Portuguese grapes. It is fresh, zesty with a mineral note. The 2003 vintage reminded me of an aged Riesling. I was surprised when Haigan Wong from Adega Royale, the importer of Luis Pato, told me this is the ‘entry level’ white wine.

Quinta da Ribeirinho Pé Franco Tinto 2008: 100% Baga from ungrafted wine. Black fruits with a hint of floral, a structured yet graceful wine reminded me of a Nebbiolo. The back vintage we tasted (2001 I seem to remember) showed that that the wine can age well.

Luis Pato is available from Adega Royale (an importer focus on Portuguese wine).

Friday 25 September 2015

Penfolds RWT vertical tasting

Peter Gago, chief winemaker of Penfolds, was in town again, this time to conduct the first ever full vertical tasting of Penfolds RWT from the first vintage 1997 to the latest 2012, a total of 16 years.

RWT stands for ‘Red Winemaking Trial’, the code name given to the wine when it was developed in 1995 by then winemaker John Duval to complement Grange, or in Peter’s words, to protect Grange. Penfolds’ belief is that as time goes, customers’ tastes and preferences change but instead of changing the style of wine, Penfolds develop a new style for the customers’ changing palate: Grange is Shiraz made from grapes sourced from multiple vineyards and aged in 100% American oak; St Henri is also from various vineyards but aged only in old French oak while RWT is a single vineyard wine aged in partial new French oak.

RWT is not trying to be French, but rather, it is a modern wine that combines the power of Barossa Shiraz with Penfolds’ winemaking philosophy and the old style European structure. The vines are old with average age around 70 years (the oldest ones are over 100 years). The fruits are therefore concentrated thus the wine does not require too much extraction. Like Grange, the wine finishes fermentation barrel, meaning than it is pressed off skin and transferred to barrels when there is still some sugar, and does not have any post-fermentation maceration to extract more tannins. This makes the wine accessible even in youth but also has the  potential to age a long period because of its concentration.

Vertical tasting of single vineyard wine is compelling because not only can one taste the evolution of wine over time, one can also taste the weather. It is true that Barossa’s weather is much more consistent than wine regions in Europe so vintage variation is not as marked. Still, a couple of wines did stand out: 2008 has more sweet fruits and caramel aromas suggesting it was a warmer vintage; while 2011 has the pronounced violet and perfume that reflects the cooler weather. For me, I was most impressed by the ageability of the wine. The 18 year old 1997 vintage has a long length and is drinking well now with a mix of sweet berries and savoury notes.

In the case of RWT, you may also taste the winemakers’ fingerprint. The first six vintages from 1997 to 2002 were overseen by John Duval while Peter Gago took over since 2003. Annette Lee, fellow wine writer, insisted there was a stylistic difference between 2002 and 2003, that the former was elegant but in a sad way whereas the latter was more vibrant. Hmmm, perhaps the young Peter did inject some energy to the wine?

Penfolds is available from Jebsen.

Monday 21 September 2015

Wineries chats

Although it’s easy to pick up news and information from magazines and social media, It is always nice to talk to wineries to learn something first hand. The Wine High Club portfolio tasting, with a dozen representatives from wineries attending, presented exactly such opportunity.

My first discussion was on the popularity of prosecco with William Spinazzè, owner of Tenuta Santomè in Veneto, Italy. I always presume prosecco is the introductory bubbly to inexperienced wine consumers who will eventually move on to champagne. William disagreed. He believes prosecco is complimentary to champagne. It is just like red wine made in stainless steel only and red wine aged in oak - you can like both and enjoy them in different occasions. Yes, Tenuta Santomè has a fruitier version (extra dry with 15g/l residual sugar) for the novice drinkers but they also make a more elegant brut style for champagne lovers who prefer a lighter prosecco as aperitif. One point to note is that prosecco, unlike champagne, is about freshness and fruitiness therefore Tenuta Santomè only processes the second fermentation and bottles the wine on demand to ensure its prosecco in the market is young - not a cheap process but it shows their dedication. Although three quarters of Tenuta Santomè’s the production is processo, don’t forget to try its red wine made from the native grape Raboso Piave, an intense yet elegant wine that goes well with barbecue.

Another Italian producer I met was the sister/brother duo Silvia and Giovanni Scagliola, the fourth generation of Scagliola located between Alba and Asti in Piedmont. Their main production is Mocasto and Barbera. Asked if they think they are being overshadowed by Barolo and Barbaresco, they don’t think so as the success of Barolo and Barbaresco have put Piedmont in the international wine world. What they hope is that more wine lovers would explore other Piedmontese wines. However, one hurdle they have is limited marketing resources. Unlike most wine producing countries, Italy does not have a generic wine board that helps wineries to develop overseas markets, and perhaps because of Italian characters (Italian always argue!), individual wineries do not really collaborate. This is probably one of the reasons why Italian wine is not as popular in Hong Kong as one might have expected. In terms of volume, Italian wine is only on the 6th place with around 6% market share, lagging behind Chile and Spain. Luckily, the younger generation of winemakers/wineries owners realise that they cannot only rely on domestic markets and are are more willing to cooperate with their neighbours to develop overseas markets. Given the diversity of Italian wine and grape varieties, I do hope to see more of them in Hong Kong. We tried three of their Barbera d’Astis and they were not disappointed.  

I was glad to see Clemens Busch, owner of Weingut Clemens Busch from Mosel, a VDP member practising biodynamic viticulture who just joined Wine High Club. Most vineyards are located in Pündericher Marienburg, one of the best sites in Mosel. Clemens had the foresight of buying abandoned hillside parcels in the area back in the 80s when most farmers decided to grow pinots on the plains. To date, he owns 17ha of vineyards and 99% are planted with Riesling. He echoed the trend towards dry Riesling and that his customers in Australia, Japan and the US all prefer the drier style. In fact, Clemens Busch is an advocate and nearly 90% of his wine is dry. Long fermentation and lees contact give his dry Riesling that extra depth and dimension. His three Marienburg Riesling Trocken GGs (wines from different vineyards with different slates) are classic illustration of how successful German Riesling can express the different terroir and micro-climate.

Finally I had a chance to talk to Jean-Manuel Jacquinot, winemaker of Champagne Jacquinot & Fils, and was delighted to discover our common link - English sparkling wine. He was the consultant oenologist at Nyetimber Vineyard when I was studying at Plumpton College and later the sparkling wine mentor for UKVA (United Kingdom Vineyard Association). We have a lot of common friends including lecturers and classmates at Plumpton. Back to the wine, Jacquinot makes a Blanc de Blancs and a Blanc de Noirs, both are from single vineyard and single year. However, the wines cannot be called vintage because they only spend 24 months on yeast autolysis. I always love Blanc de Blancs for its precise acidity and crispness and Jacquinot’s is exactly what I like about a Blanc de Blancs. The Blanc de Noirs, in contrast, is more structured. Harmonie, a vintage champagne which is only made in the best years, was another gem I discovered.

Before I left, I had a quick taste at Domaine Servin, one of the largest and oldest domaine in Chablis, before I needed to dash. Servin wine ranges from basic AOC to Premier Cru and Grand Cru. The AOC Chablis was refreshing perfect for summer, while the various premier and grand crus once again demonstrate how a well-made wine can reflect soil and micro-climate. Everyone have different preferences and my favourite is ‘Les Preuses’ 2012 Grand Cru, a bit tight now but certainly have potential to age gracefully. I bought got two bottles but wonder if I can resist the temptation to open them too soon.

Wine High Club’s portfolio is mainly French and Italian wine, definitely worth checking out.

Friday 4 September 2015

Lunch with Rathbone: PinotG, Chinese food pairing

Most of us know Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris are the same - both means Pinot Grey in English. Pinot Grigio is Italian and the bulk comes from Northern Italy which is usually lighter and simpler, while Pinot Gris is from Alsace in France and is more opulent and fruitier. Pinot Grigio is usually the one featured as house wine or wine by the glass, while Alsacian Pinot Gris is usually available by bottle at a higher price. So it was surprising that Darren Rathbone, CEO and Group Winemaker of three Australian wineries: Yering Station, Mount Langi Ghiran and Xanadu, said the opposite.

It was a small lunch hosted by Darren with the Northeast team where his Mt. Langi Ghiran Cliff Edge Pinot Gris 2010 was featured. It has only 12% alcohol so I asked why the wine was called Pinot Gris instead of Pinot Grigio. To my surprise, Darren actually thinks that Pinot Gris is the lighter one and Pinto Grigio the heavier one. In fact, he said he has organised blind tastings where consumers and winemakers alike always confuse the two. Granted, this wine, although was light, did have a dense texture, stone fruits and spices aromas of a Pinot Gris probably because it has been aged in old barrels for a short time. No wonder it could stand up to the steamed dumpling with pigeon and porcini mushroom (牛肝菌乳鴿小籠飽).

Australian and New Zealand produce all shades of Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio. Because of this many variations, the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) developed a PinotG Style Spectrum from crisp to luscious to differentiate them. I hope more wineries, from both New and Old World, could adopt this to make it easier for consumers.

By the way, the lunch with Darren and the Northeast team was really entertaining. The plan was to pair each wine with a dish but luckily Betsy from Northeast at the last minute decided against it. Instead, the three white wines were served together with the first four dishes (dim sum and seafood), followed by a flight of three red wines with the remaining four courses. I’m all for this approach as everyone has different palate and it will be too uniform to only follow one way of wining and dining.

The verdict was consistent. All the three wines matched with dim sum but we agreed that the Yering Station Reserve Chardonnay 2010, was the best overall match. Its multi-dimensional flavour and creamy texture went nicely with the fresh yet intense flavours of deep-fried scallop and prawns.

The rest of the dishes, Cantonese barbecued combination and deep fried chicken, were matched with three reds. Both the Xanadu Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 and the Mt Langi Ghiran Langi Shiraz 2006 were winners. Betsy was pleasantly surprised that the Cabernet went well with the sautéed kale in ginger sauce. It made sense because the kale was quite intense, nothing like the average stir-fried or steamed vegetables.

As a wine, the Yering Station Village Pinot Noir 2011 was great. It was elegant but the food were too overpowering. In my opinion, it would go better with the dim sum and seafood.

Once again, it proved that wine and food matching is not that difficult. The palate weight is the crucial point. We just have to remember that light food goes with light wine, and heavy food goes with heavy wine, and don’t be shy to have two glasses of wine of different palate weight with your Chinese meal to match with your food.

Yering Station, located in the cool Yarra Valley, is the first winery that the Rathbone’s family purchased. Looking for wine to compliment those from Yering Station, the family subsequently bought Mount Langi Ghiran in the Grampians, another cool climate region renowned for Shiraz, as well as Xanadu in Margaret River for its elegant Bordeaux blends (both white and red). All the wines are available from Northeast Wines & Spirits.

Friday 21 August 2015

The golden manor house

Don Pino and family
Probably because of my visit to Mt Etna in 2014, I love to learn more about indigenous grapes from Sicily. Therefore, even though I could not stay behind for the Sicilian wine dinner that Marco from Italy Small Vineyards had kindly invited me to, I still went along just to taste the wine and talk to Guiseppe Laudicina, sales manager and one of the family members of Baglio Oro from Marsala in western Sicily.

Baglio Oro is a family estate founded by Giuseppe’s grandfather, also called Giuseppe or ‘Don Pino’. He used to sell grapes and bulk wine to other wineries but then the family realised just how good quality grapes the vineyard could produce and decided in 2012 to start making and bottling the wine under their own label, Baglio Oro. Oro means gold, probably referring to the family’s other business in jewellery, while baglio means manor house, referring to the building on the estate. The family converted one part of the manor house into a winery and cellar and retained another part as a ‘Museum of Rural Life’, showcasing ancient Sicilian arts, crafts and domestic appliances once used in everyday life on the island. Don Pino is still pretty much hands-on in the vineyard, and he is helped by his children and grandchildren.

The vineyard is located in the upper part of Marsala at 160m altitude, blessed by the southern wind that moderates the otherwise too high temperatures. Of the white wines we tried, the Grecanico (same as Garganega used to make Soave in Veneto) only had 11% alcohol, a pleasant wine with floral and citrus notes. It was a hot afternoon and both Ali fromWine Times HK and I thought of Lamma, beach and seafood. The wine also reminded me of Muscadet from the Loire, the perfect summer afternoon drink for Hong Kong.

Catarratto is the island’s most widely planted variety. It was used to produce the sweet fortified Marsala wine in the past and now is often distilled or made into grape concentrate. When made into wine most Catarratto is pretty ordinary but Baglio Oro Catarratto, with good concentration and freshness, is one of the better IGTs that express the variety well. Giusseppe said all the white wine underwent skin maceration to extract more flavours. He compared this to eating a healthy and ripe apple with the skin—that is where all the flavours are.

Another local grape variety we tasted was Grillo, a full-bodied white wine with herbaceous and perfume aromas. I could imagine that it would be perfect with the tuna tartar Marco had prepared for dinner. While Baglio Oro doesn’t make Marsala, they do make a late harvest Grillo, Yema. At 14% alcohol and 80g/l residual sugar with multi-dimensional flavours and surprisingly elegant, it is rather like a heavyweight spätlese Riesling.

Cherry/oak barrels
The red wine, a 100% Nero d’Avola from 2012, was vibrant, a lot less meaty than most Nero d’Avolas. Giusseppe stressed that they want to preserve the true varietal expression of each grape variety so only use oak sparingly. In fact, they commissioned Li Causi from Marsalbotti, a family-run artisan cooperage in Marsala, to construct a series of 160hl barrels made of a combination of cherry and oak so that the cherry wood could tone down the strong oak aromas. This wine only stayed in these cherry/oak barrels for a few months to make sure the wood flavours support but not dominate the varietal characteristics.

All the wines are well-made and honest. I’m glad that I didn't miss the chance to taste them.

Baglio Oro is available from Italy Small Vineyards.

Saturday 15 August 2015

Dialogue with Banfi 

Castello Banfi, considered one of the top estates in Brunello, hosted a media lunch recently. It was an intimate event with around 10 wine writers, two ASC members, Paolo Fassina, Banfi’s Asia Manager, and Cristina Mariani-May, its co-CEO.

I had met Cristina briefly before and judging by her accent and her address I thought she was American, probably married into the family... but how wrong could I be! So it was nice that I could finally set the record right at the event. Cristina is in fact 100% Italian and the third generation owner co-managing the company with her first cousin. Yes, she lives in New York but so did her grandfather, who was a wine merchant, and founded the company Banfi. The company’s name was inspired by his aunt Teodolinda Banfi, a lady with a big personality who was the head of household at the Vatican and an expert on wine.

Longing to find its roots back in Italy, the family established Castello Banfi in Tuscany in 1978, gradually assembling a contiguous estate of 2,780 ha in Montalcino. Banfi is not the biggest estate in Montalcino but it does have the biggest single vineyard. Only about a third of the property is planted with vines, the rest is home to olive groves, fruit trees and woods. In addition, the family also owns the historic winery Bruzzone in Piedmont, now dedicated to producing sparkling wine.

Probably because of the American influence on discipline and the quest for perfection, John and Harry Mariani, the second generation, collaborated with the University of Milan on a Sangiovese Clonal Research project that eventually identified 15 clones out of 650 on the Banfi estate and the surrounding area that best represent the characteristics of the Sangiovese grape. Since 1992 Banfi’s new plantings of Sangiovese always have at least three or four of these 15 clones that are suitable for the specific soil and are complementary to each other.

The other thing that Cristina is proud of is the hybrid fermenters made of a combination of wood and stainless steel, which help produce the optimal wine: less stringent, softer and fleshier. The evidence? James Suckling rated Banfi’s 2010 as its best vintage.

The lunch turned out, it seemed to me, to be a two-way interview. While we were asking Cristina about the wine and the estate, she was quizzing the media at the table about the Hong Kong/China wine market with questions like why the Chinese prefer red wine, are drinking habits changing, what is the future of Italian wine in this part of the world, resulting in a lively and entertaining discussion. Although we all had different opinions, one thing for sure is that the recent consolidation resulting from the anti-corruption drive on the mainland is a positive thing in building a sustainable wine market in China. We should focus on the younger generation and instead of talking about wine in a technical and inaccessible way, we should help them to enjoy and welcome wine as part of their everyday lifestyle.

Going back to the wine, the welcome drink was Tener, a sparkling wine with an unusual blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay using Méthode Charmat (fermentation in tank). Simple but pleasant, it was perfect both as an aperitif and to pair with the shrimp spring roll we had for lunch. I particularly like the San Angela, a 100% Pinot Grigio IGT wine from Montalcino. It is richer than the typical Pinot Grigio from northern Italy because of the warmer Tuscan sun. These two value-for-money wines would be an ideal introduction to new consumers especially alongside dim sum.

The Brunello di Montalcino 2010, with its black fruits accompanied by hints of earthiness and spices, is drinking well now, thanks to those hybrid wood/stainless-steel fermenters, while the single plot Brunello di Montalcino Poggio Alle Mura 2010, with more depth and concentration, will age beautifully.

Banfi is certainly not the artisan producer one may be looking for in Brunello and its wine may be made with the American market in mind, but so what as long as it is made well and with such a passionate owner behind it?

Banfi is available from ASC Fine Wines.

Friday 7 August 2015

Wine consumption in Hong Kong

At a recent lunch with Darren Rathbone, CEO and Group Winemaker of three Australian wineries: Yering Station, Mount Langi Ghiran and Xanadu from Australia, together with the Northeast team, and a few friends from the F&B and media side (Ali Nicol from Wine Times HK was one of them), the discussion turned from the general wine and food matching to the more thought-provoking of how to crack the Chinese restaurant market, have them to sell more wine leading to more Chinese to consume wine.

This topic comes up regularly but nobody has an answer. Is it that Chinese are just not into drinking? Darren replied with a definitive no. He said Hong Kong Chinese brought up or born in Australia, as far as he is concerned, drink like and as much as average Australian do, and they drink with Chinese meals. It’s only visitors and new immigrants who don’t drink that much.

Shane Wilkins, F&B Director from The Langham where there is a two Michelin stars T’ang Court, and Dennis Cheung, sommelier of Celestial Court in the Sheraton where we were having lunch, also chipped in, saying that both their Chinese outlets serve a fair share of wine, but admitted that the majority are high-end and BYO (Celestial Court charges a whopping $500/bottle corkage fee!).

The retained imports in 2014 was 29.38
There are ever increasing wine events and dinners in Hong Kong but the latest figures showed that Hong Kong wine import in terms of volume in the last few years was pretty stagnant and in fact slightly decreasing at 4.1-4.2 litres/capita (note that this is official net import figure, not consumption), meaning that consumers are not drinking more and the market is not expanding. Threading together other observations and discussions, it is quite clearly that there is only a small core of wine consumers in Hong Kong (mostly comprised of trade) who drink more than their fair drink and nearly every day, and then there is a bigger group of occasional drinkers who may drink anywhere between 1-4 times/month. The majority of consumers is drinking even less or nothing at all. I had the same conclusion two years ago and it hasn’t changed.

Judging by the comments of Darren, Shane and Dennis, it is not that Chinese don’t drink or cannot tolerate alcohol. So why isn’t the wine market growing? I really think we only have ourselves to blame, that we fail to make wine more accessible by talking jargons rather than enjoyment, thereby scaring away average consumer who feel they do not have adequate knowledge to try it.

Sadly, this ‘I know it all’ attitude seems to be infectious. Wine consumers who think they like wine and all enthusiastic to enrol in one of the many wine courses often graduate to view wine as a challenge that they have to guess the grape varieties and name all the aromas. Once they guess the first wine (correctly or not), they then move on to the second one. Worse, they often show off their acquired knowledge by talking about (guess what?) jargons and labels in front of their ‘normal’ friends, thereby intimidating them rather than aspiring them to drink wine. They change from wine lovers to wine snobs and forget that wine is about enjoyment.

The other issue is the F&B industry. House wine or wine by the glass is likely to be the first glass of wine for average consumer. However, most house wine is way overpriced for the quality. These first timers may not understand wine but they can certainly tell that the wine doesn’t taste good. For $80 a glass of bad wine, they’ll probably go back to beer or cocktail. I was told that one bar owner refused to change the house wine because he bought it for $19/bottle and sold it at $60/glass.

Another hurdle is availability. We eat Chinese/Asian food most of the time but unless we dine at the likes of T’ang Court or Celestial Court, wine is not readily available at our local restaurants. This further reinforce the misperception that wine is a special occasion beverage. If we can persuade these restaurants to serve wine by the glass at a fair price, I think the wine scene will be different. In fact, I would love to see our leading fast food chains serving wine by the glass with their evening meal combos in not too distant future.

Only by taking away the prestige image of wine can we truly expand the market. Let’s work on this together.