Friday 30 September 2016

Georgian wine revisited

My last article of Georgian wine was in 2012. Although I haven’t written anything on Georgian since then, I did attend its tastings organised nearly every year by Meiburg Wine Media, including the Georgian Wine Festival 2016. I noticed quite a few things have changed.

First is the recognition of Georgia. Back in 2011 when I visited Georgia with some 40 importers and media from Asia, hardly anyone knew where Georgia was. At this year’s master class, Debra still joked that we should not mix up this Georgia, with over 8,000 years of winemaking history, with the US Georgia. In reality, a lot of wine lovers, and certainly most in the wine trade, are aware, if not exactly pinpointing the location, of this winemaking country between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

The second is the awareness of Qvevri (or Kvevri) wine. They may not have tried it but most realise it is the traditional winemaking method where wine is made in amphorae (although not the entire process). I like Qvevri white wine for its blend of floral, spices and stone fruits aromas but surprisingly fresh, light and dry palate.

Then it is the availability of Georgian wine in the market. In Hong Kong, Georgian wine is still confined to a few small yet focused importers but the increase in import was an impressive 230% in 2015, while China is Georgia’s fifth largest export market (around 760,000 bottles in 2015). Japan also saw its import of Georgian wine increased by 21% in 2015.

Last and the most important, is the improvement in wine quality. Qvevri wine is always of high quality if an acquired taste. However, it only contributes to around 5-8% of the total Georgian wine production. The bulk of Georgian wine is made in modern wineries using stainless steel tanks and barrels. When I was at the Tbilisi Georgian Beverages Tradeshow in 2011, the wine quality was hit and miss because of winery hygiene or practices and vineyard management (too high yield). At this tasting, the wine quality has leapfrogged. All the wines were clean and well made. albeit a few of them might have a bit too much oak.

What I was glad to see is that Georgian wineries are not rushing to plant international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay alike even though making wine with these varieties is a short cut to export markets. Georgia has 526 indigenous grape varieties most with un-pronounceable names but they are unique characteristics. I would hate to see them disappear.

These were a few outstanding wineries/wines at the tasting:

Bagrationi 1882: The Bagrationi royal family introduced secondary fermentation in bottle from France to Georgia and in 1882, the wine won worldwide acknowledgement in St Petersburg, Russia, hence the name. Its Classic Brut NV made with Chinuri and Tsitska was outstanding. Bagrationi 1882 is available from Ancient Wines Ltd.

Chateau Mukhrani: Founded in 1878 by the Prince of Mukhrani, heir of the royal family of Georgia, the winery owns 100% of the vineyards and controls crop size to produce the best quality grapes. I particularly like its white wines: Reserve du Prince Goruli Mtsvane 2013 and Rkatsiteli 2014. Chateau Mukhrani is available from Georgian Valleys Co.

Tamada: Meaning ‘Toast Master’, this is a joint venture between Pernod Ricard and Georgian shareholders. Its Napareuli 2009, a 100% Saperavi dry red wine, is a good representation of this mostly planted red variety in Georgia.

Winery Khareba: a big producer with some 1,000 ha of vineyards in Kakheti, Imereti and Racha-Lechkhumi. Try their range of Qvevri wines.

Usakhelauri Vineyards: A relatively new comer in 2001 and only planted with Usakhelauri red variety. The winery only produces two unfiltered wines: a semi-dry and a semi-sweet. Even the bottle is unique.

Let’s hope more importers and restaurants could carry Georgian wine.

Friday 23 September 2016

Generation Riesling 10 Years Young

Not long ago, German wine, with its flowery label and medieval font, was viewed as old-fashioned. Its name, based on sweetness level at harvest – Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese further added to the confusion. The result? Consumers shunned German wine save the well-established brands and flocked to the more modern and drier New World wine. To revive the image of German wine, German Wine Institute (Deutsches Weininstitut DWI) initiated Generation Riesling in 2006, and how much things have changed since then!

Generation Riesling is a platform for Germany’s young winemakers under 35 years old, who are committed to contribute and change the image of German wine, to showcase their products to both domestic and international markets. The first presentation was on 8th June 2006 with 25 young winemakers in London. To date, it has 530 members from all 13 German quality wine regions. Members at their 36th birthday will be given birthday cards and retire from the group. Generation Riesling is dynamic, cosmopolitan and innovative. Over 60% of its members have made wine overseas from Austria and France to New Zealand, South Africa and the USA, and 30% of the members are female. Their wines are mainly dry style with simple and modern labels, a far cry from the traditional German wine.

According to wine critic and writer Stuart Pigott, who is also an advocate of German wine, about 50% of Generation Riesling members are from families with generations of winemaking history. The older generations in the 60s to 90s did not share ideas with neighbours and would try their best to block their children to change anything when they took over. In contrast, young winemakers in the past 10-15 years believe in sharing and exchanging experiences. Their motto is ‘We are stronger than I can ever be’. For them, wine is a part of pop culture. They gather in groups and present wines together in serious settings with quiet music in background but the events will eventually turn into parties with pop music. This attitude was carried through at Generation Riesling 10th birthday celebration. We (an international press group) were invited for the more serious seminar led by Stuart Pigott followed by a walk-around tasting with wine presented by 30 members, including nine founding members (a
ka older than 35 years old). For us, the tasting ended promptly at 6:00pm and we had to make way for their after-work party, which featured wine bars, food stations and DJ until the small hours!

Generation Riesling is not only about Riesling. While 55% of wine is Riesling, around 24% is devoted to the Pinot family – Spätburgunder, Grauburgunder and Weissburgunder (Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc). Not many people are aware, Germany is the Pinot Paradise – it ranks #3 in Point Noir planting after France and the USA, #2 in Pinot Gris planting after Italy and #1 in Pinot Blanc! They are followed by Silvaner, Lemberger (Blaufränkisch in Austria) and the fast demanding Sauvignon Blanc.

What is also great about German wine, be it Riesling or Spätburgunder, is its versatility and paring with Asian cuisines. The high acidity balances well with the fattiness in food while the fruity aromas compliment the fragrance of Asian spices. The relative low alcohol is an added bonus that makes diners feel less tiring at the end of the evening.  

We visited eight Generation Riesling wineries, partied at the famous annual Roter Hang Festival (the famous vineyard slope in Rheinhessen with red soil) with a Riesling Lounge, and attended the Generation Riesling 10th birthday party. All the wines we tried were excellent. Here are a few that I have the most impressions:

Sekt-und Weingut Winterling, Niederkirchen, Pfalz:
Susanne Winterling is the cheerful winemaker and also the German Wine Princess in 2007/2008. Her specialty is sparkling wine but her Sauvignon Blanc 2015 and Deidesheimer Herrgottsacker Riesling Spätlese Trocken 2015 are equally impressive.

Weingut Gaul, Grünstadt-Sausenheim, Pfalz
An all female winery with Dorothee being the winemaker, Karolin responsible for export, assisted by mother Gaul and the family she-dog. The father sadly passed away a few years ago but the ladies managed to modernise the winery with a new logo and a state-of-art building that housed the tasting room on ground floor and Dorothee’s home on first and second floors. The 2015 Sausenheimer Hütt Riesling Trocken Zugpferd, equivalent to Gold Capsule and not bottled yet when we tried, is intense with citrus and yellow stone fruits showing great ageing potential. The 2015 Sausenheimer Grauburgunder Trocken is a pleasant wine that will go well with Thai green curry.

Juwel Weine, Weingut Eller, Alsheim, Rheinhessen
Another modern winery run by sister duo Juliane and Katharina Eller. Juliane is the winemaker and though only 26 years old, she is determined and has a clear vision of how she wants to make the wine. Her wine, like the logo, is clean, elegant and fresh with a good balance of acidity and minerality. Unfortunately, most of the wines were sold out but the even basic level, Gutsweine (estate wine), we tasted showed very well the talent of Juliane.

Weingut Schätzel, Nierstein, Rheinhessen
Kai Schätzel is a serious winemaker. He is one of the newest VDP members (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, the oldest national association of fine winegrowing estates anywhere in the world) and the Winemaker of the year 2015. His winemaking philosophy is less alcohol, less exuberant fruit, more minerality and a more distinctive flavour profile. Even his VDP Grosses Gewächs has only 11-11.5% alcohol; but its lack of power is more than compensated by the elegance and precision. Kai is also one of the few young winemakers, together with Keller and Gunderloch, who go against the trend and promote the off-dry style Kabinett. He explained it was the calling from the vineyards. His 2014 Nierstein Riesling KabiNett – P Magnum, from the most legendary and steepest vineyard in the region, Pattenthal, is retailed at a whopping €99!

Weingut Sinß, Windsheim, Nahe
Energetic winemaker Johannes Sinß is proud of his wine and keen to show us the terroir by presenting different colour of slates and stones from his vineyards alongside the wine. His 2015 Weissburgunder Windesheim S is a perfect example of what a Pinot Blanc can be.

Weingut Hörner, Hochstadt, Pfalz
Playing with his name, Thomas Hörner designed three different labels of horns to differentiate the wine. His 2014 Grauburgunder Widder has ample fruits supported by lifted acidity. His rosé, an unusual blend of Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, is well balanced and delicious. It is definitely worth a try if you don't mind asking for it – it is called Horny Rosé.

Weinbau der Lebenshilfe Bad Dürkheim, Bad-Dürkheim, Pfalz
This is part of a bigger life coaching social project. All workers are disabled, either physical or mental, and winemaker Jan Hock, found suitable roles for all of them in the vineyard or winery. The vines are organically grown and wines are made in traditional method. Teamwork is the key and everyone is proud of being a part of the family. Their ortswein (village wine), 2015 Sylvaner Dürkheimer and 2015 Riesling Wachenheimer are good representatives of wines at this quality level. What’s more, we feel good drinking the wine because we know it is for a good cause.

Generation Riesling is by no means the only young winemaker group but it is the biggest and most organised. There is another one called Generation Pfalz where members are being nominated every year by a panel and an even smaller group called Wine Changes with only 12 young winemakers from villages near Neustadt Weinstrasse in Pfalz. Nevertheless all these groups are like-minded – they are passionate and creative. They are inspired to find new ideas and ways to breathe new life into their regions. Their wines are true to the land but without the stiffness. They are the ones who will make German wine fashionable again.

Weingut Schätzel is available from The Juicy Grape
Weinbau der Lebenshilfe Bad Dürkheim is available from JOYVINO

Thursday 15 September 2016

Mahi Sauvignon Blanc, understanding Marlborough’s terroir

Brian Bicknell, winemaker and owner of Mahi Wines, was in town recently to host a Sauvignon Blanc blending class, and I was one of the lucky one to be invited.

Before the blending exercise/competition, Brian explained the topography, geography and climate of Marlborough and how they interplay. I’ve been to Marlborough a couple of times (before my wine time) and also listened to other people talking the different valleys in Marlborough before but Brian’s explanation, together with his simple drawing, was clear and easy to understand. Mahi’s website even has a video from Google Earth to illustrate their different vineyard locations. It is entertaining yet informative!

Brian brought along four pairs blending components - tank samples just finished fermentation. They were:
1. wines from grapes grown different vineyards (Ward Farm and Wadworth),
2. wines using different oak regime (new oak and old barrels),
3. wines using different yeast fermentation (wild yeast and neutral cultured yeast),
4. different pressings (free run juice and pressed juice).

We first tasted the different component and it is interesting. The Ward Farm wine has a more precise acidity while the Wayworth wine has a broader mid-palate. The new barrel wine has a more creamy mouthfeel with added complexity; the wild yeast fermentation wine has a broader palette and the pressed wine is more structured. After the tasting, Brian grouped us into five teams to come up with our ideal blend in 10 minutes. Our team first blended all components in equal proportion then adjusted accordingly. OK, we didn’t win but we like what we blended.

Prior to bledning, Brian showed us three of his Sauvignon Blancs:

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2015: a blend from six different vineyards and included both barrel fermented wine (12%) and wild yeast wine (10%) but no pressed wine. The wine is surprisingly subtle and elegant, with ripe fruits but not pungent.

Boundary Farm Sauvignon Blanc 2013: a single vineyard wine from the warmer site Boundary Farm. The wine was barrel fermented with wild yeasts and minimal handling to express the terroir. It is complex with texture and depth.

Boundary Farm Sauvignon Blanc 2010: An older single vineyard wine from Boundary Farm with the winemaking method. Brian wanted to show us Sauvignon Blanc can age. and he was right. The wine has more savoury notes along the style of a Sancerre.

By the way, Mahi is a Maori word meaning ‘our craft, our work’. Brian believes wine is a great example of place. However, even if you have a grand cru vineyard but management is poor, it will be shown in the grapes and the subsequent wine. His philosophy is to allow the vineyards to speak through the wines. I kind of give up on Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (and I know I’m not the only one)  but Brian’s Mahi Wines changed my opinion.

Mahi Wines is available from Altaya Wines