Friday 14 December 2018

A feast of tastings

Q4 is the busiest season in the wine industry. In addition to the big scale consumer events and trade fairs, there are also more intimate trade tastings and meals. In less than four weeks, I have attended seven such tastings and there were a lot more during that period.

Tuscany’s Bordeaux
The first one was Ornellaia tasting with winemaker Axel Heinz. Ornellaia is renowned for its super Tuscan using Bordeaux varieties therefore I was surprised to have tasted two white wines. The 100% Sauvignon Blanc barrel fermented Ornellaia Bianco 2015 was particularly impressive with layers of aromas, fine texture and crisp acidity. The estate only has 5% of vineyard area for white varieties including Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Manseng, Viognier, Verdicchio and Vermentino. Axel said they are planning to plant Semillon, which he realised is the best blending partner of Sauvignon Blanc. Among the reds, Ornellaia 2007 stood out. It just started showing tertiary bouquet and had a smooth, harmonious mouthfeel. According to Axel, 2007 was not a perfect vintage but the wine has a strong personality.

The pioneer
Probably you heard of Pingus, its first vintage 1995 being declared by Robert Parker as one of the greatest and most exciting wines he has ever tasted. Its winemaker Peter Sisseck was in Hong Kong to present not Pingus but his other wines from Dominio de Pingus. Flor de Pingus is made from old vines Tinta Fino (aka Tempranillo) over 35 years old. The wine may not have the cult status of Pingus (and Peter stressed that it is the other wine, not the second wine), but it is a well-made wine with complexity and structure, and certainly with a much more accessible price. The elegance of vintage 2000 was particularly impressive and paired well with the roasted suckling pig. Ribera del Duero may be less civilised than Rioja or Priorat, Peter believes it has a lot to offer especially from the old vines. Therefore, to help the region realise its potential, he started a joint project Psi with local growers to maintain old vineyard plots and improve farming techniques, and made a vibrant wine with character under the brand Bodegas y Vinedos Alnardo in 2006. Both wines are available from Corney & Barrow.

From America to Armenia
Having trained under the late Robert Mondavi and worked as head winemaker at Opus One, Paul Hobbs was convinced that producing premium wine is the way to go. Combined this with his adventurous spirits and scientific approach, Paul founded Paul Hobbs Winery in 1991 and later CrossBarn, both in California; entered international partnerships in Viña Cobos in Mendoza, Argentina; Yacoubian-Hobbs in Vayots Dzor, Armenia and Crocus in Cahors, France, and consulted various wineries around the world. At an exclusive lunch at Tang Court, we paired seven Paul’s wines from four wineries with the beautifully presented Cantonese dishes. The wines that stood out for me were Paul Hobbs Richard Dinner Vineyard Chardonnay 2015, Paul Hobbs Nathan Coombs Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 and Viña Cobos Chañares Estate Malbec 2015. They were textural, poised and had lingering tastes. Asked if he would slow down after some 40 years trotting the globe, Paul answered maybe, but only after the finishes the two new projects: Hillick & Hobbs, a 100% Riesling estate in Finger Lakes, New York and a new venture in Galicia, Spain. Well, looks like he will never stop, but I look forward to tasting the Riesling. Paul Hobbs Wines are available from Watson’s Wine.

Size Matters
Wine connoisseurs and critics often focus on boutique domaines in Burgundy but the backbone of the trade is actually the big powerhouses that pump out enough decent quality wine to put Burgundy in the international wine world. Patriarche, an négociant-eleveur (merchant-producer) founded in 1780 is one such powerhouse. It has the biggest cellar - a 5km long dated between 13th and 17th century that can hold three millions bottles in Beaune, sells 60 million bottles of wine worldwide every year, is one of the biggest producers of Crémant de Bourgogne, and makes wine across all appellations from Régionales to Grands Crus. However, being big doesn’t mean compromise on quality. Export Director Vincent Goyat said Patriarche wine is about high quality for value. Its basic Bourgogne Chardonnay Cuvée des Visitandines is served on board British Airways; while the Mâcon-Lugny Les Charmes and the Mercurey 1er Cru Clos L’Evêque are pleasing with pleasant palates; Chablis 1er Cru Vaillons 2017 classic with a fresh lean mouthfeel and oyster shell note, while the 1er Cru les Rugiens-Bas 2015 is structured with depth but also an elegant floral aroma. Patriarche has always been focused on domestic market, and only started export to Asia in the past 5-7 years. Look out for their wines and see for yourself, available from wine'n'things.

Wines that charm
Hélène and Patrice Lévêque, owners of St-Emilion Grands Crus Chateau Barde-Haut and Poesia, Clos L’Eglise in Pomerol and Chateua d’Arce in Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux, was in town to present a vertical tasting of 10 vintages from 2005 to 2016. Patrice is the winemaker who spends most of his time in the vineyards and Hélène is the marketing lady. Hélène explained  that they didn’t inherit any estates but selected the sites with the best possible terroir. She doesn’t believe in ‘the perfect wine’ but each wine and vintage does have its own charm and identity that appeals to consumers’ emotion in different way. This is absolutely true because the audience all had different preferences. Some liked the more fruit forward 2005 vintage but Hélène and I preferred the leaner 2006 vintage. Most, however, agreed that the 2015 and 2016 have huge potential. This once again confirmed that there is no right or wrong about wine, everyone has his own preferences. In addition, we also had the chance to taste the 2016 vintage from their other estates. The St-Emilion Poesia with 30% of Cabernet Franc is elegant and is my favourite. The Lévêques’ dream is beyond Bordeaux. Hélène is excited about Bodega Poesia, their Argentinian project in Lujan de Cuyo where Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon were planted in 1935 on its own roots at 900m altitude. The wine was not available at the tasting but I look forward to trying it. Judging by the passion of the couple, it will be as charming as their Bordeaux wines.

Wednesday 28 November 2018

Pinot Palooza - Welcome to the world of Pinot

Big scale wine events are abound in Hong Kong, including the annual Wine & Dine Festival, Taste Hong Kong and various country generic tastings such as Discover South Africa, Riesling Weeks and also James Suckling Great Wines series. But as far as I’m aware, there has not been a big scale single varietal tasting event yet.

Organising a single varietal tasting in such a scale is challenging as there is not enough differentiation in single varietal wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, like all other grapes, may taste different depending on where the grapes are grown and winemaking techniques but the style of wine is pretty much similar. In my view, there are only two varietals that can push this boundary, Riesling and Pinot Noir.

Riesling is a white grape with many faces, from sparkling and dry to off-dry and delicious sweet wine, while Pinot Noir is similarly diversified and can be made into sparkling, rosé and of course red wine. Both grape varieties are used in Canada for ice wine.

Finally, we have the chance to experience one of these two multifaceted grape varieties, Pinot Noir, at Pinot Palooza on coming Saturday (1st December). First launched in Melbourne back in 2012, Pinot Palooza has since extended to 11 cities in 5 countries with Hong Kong being the latest addition.

You might have read or heard that Pinot Noir is a temperamental grape variety (remember the movie Sideways?) and winemakers can’t help but talk about soil and clones. However, don’t be intimidated by this. Pinot Palooza is all about Pinot Noir and music. Founder Dan Sims likens wine to music, “It’s not meant to be intimidating because like music, wine has so many different artists and genres, countries and labels.” He suggested that we should approach Pinot Palooza as we would a music festival. Spend time at the Main Stage for the classic but also explore the Fringe and Emerging Stages for something new and non-mainstream, and there is also the Dance Tent for fun, easy-going, and in my words, everyday-drinking good quality Pinots.

I am totally with Dan. Wine should be accessible. We can enjoy a glass or two and at the same time learn about it, preferably in a social setting. Pinot Noir maybe temperamental but it is also diverse, attractive, inspiring and fun. Its low tannin makes it particular suitable for Chinese cuisine as tannin often clashes with soy sauce and Chinese herbs. The lighter style Pinot Noir from Burgundy and Adelaide Hills goes well with the lighter Guangdong dishes while the more fruity and structured style from Central Otago and South Africa is perfect with roasted meat and Peking Duck. Martinborough Pinot Noir has a savoury and earthy character that can stand up to heavier dishes.

Get your ticket now and enjoy a day of fun and music, while sipping and exploring everything about Pinot. See you there. 

Wednesday 31 October 2018

Central Otago | Tasmania

The two most southern wine regions in the Pacific known for their Pinot Noirs but there are much more than just Pinot.

Finally I had a chance to visit these two wine regions back to back, and I’m glad to learn that the regions are more diverse than most of us think.

Central Otago is the most inland wine region in New Zealand with semi-continental climate. Although the six sub-regions, Gibbston, Bannockburn, Cromwell, Bendigo, Wanaka and Alexandra, are relatively close to each other, they are separated by mountain ranges therefore have variations in temperature, rainfall and sunshine hours. Simon, vineyard manager at Domaine Thomson, remarked that the different styles of Pinot Noir across the sub-regions in Central Otago is more to do with climatic differences rather than soil.

Central Otago is big on Pinot Noir, but wineries are also mindful not to be stereotyped into a single-varietal region. While most producers are still largely focus on Pinot Noir, they are making various styles —fruity, accessible, age-worthy, estate blend, sub-regional, single vineyard wine — to make sure they don’t fall into the homogenous trap. I am particularly impressed with Valli Vineyard, the only winery that makes four different sub-regional wines including Gibbston, Bannockburn, Bendigo and the new Waitaki sub-region in North Otago. Gibbston is the coolest region and the wine is softer with finer tannin while the warmer Bannockburn region results in more structured wine with intense fruit. Bendigo is the warmest but the vineyard is the highest at 400m altitude and the vines are the youngest. The wine has similar flavour profile as the Bannockburn’s but a leaner structure with more finesse. Waitaki is maritime with less diurnal temperature difference and the resulting wine has vibrant fruit with a hint of earthiness and fine tannin. According to winemaker Jen Parr, the differences in the wine are from the individual sites with measured winemaking to capture what the site wants to express.

No doubt winemaking technique also contributes to the final wine style. Valli swapped some of the Gibbston fruits with Burn Cottage’s Lowburn site in Cromwell. Burn Cottage Valli Gibbston Pinot Noir shares the same floral notes and similar palate weight with Valli Gibbston’s but with an extra touch of spices and a livelier profile. Both wines have years of life ahead. 

Other notable Pinot Noir makers are biodynamic producers Burn Cottage, Domaine Thomson, Felton Road and Rippon; early pioneers Chard Farm and Rockburn (rebranded in 2002), Asia-hand Misha’s Vineyard (check out their website for their Lucky number 8), mighty Mt Difficulty (because they are one of the largest producers in the region and the view from their cellar door is magnificent in a clear day) and husband and wife team Maude Wine. Together, they make nearly 40 Pinot Noirs, each a slightly different shade from the rest. Wooing Tree makes Pinot Noir in all kinds of colour from Blondie (still blanc de noir and the bestseller) to the late harvest Tickled Pink.

And Central Otago is not only about Pinot Noir. Aromatic whites thrive here and nearly all producers who make white has a Pinot Gris. Valli makes a cool Pinot Gris orange wine called The Real McCoy with 21 days on skin and 12-13 months in neutral barrel. Mount Edward is reputable for the Riesling but also makes Grüner Veltliner and Chenin Blanc. Rippon has Ostenier, a cross between Riesling and Sylvaner; a lovely Mature Vine Riesling and a beautiful Gamay only made in good years. Scott Aliprandi from Rockburn Wines experiments with his own Syrah from one of the highest altitude vineyards close to Queenstown. It is nice to see that winemakers are trying out all possibilities. 

Central Otago’s undulating landscapes, rugged mountains, deep gorges and mirrored lakes is a heaven for outdoor sports. Queenstown, the gateway to the region, is lively and bursting with energy. The Winery, a bar-cum-retailer with over 80 NZ wines served in enomatic machines is a good place for comparative tasting. Serious wine lovers may want to spend a few days in Cromwell, the heart of Central Otago for easier wineries visit. Nightlife in Cromwell is pretty much minimal but the nearby Bannockburn Hotel, a regular spot for winemakers, has a serious wine list and serve both NZ and further afield with Coravin. 

The wineries that have representations in Hong Kong are below. Others are looking for importers.

After a quick research, I ventured to Tasmania, or Tassie as the Aussies call it, visiting 14 wineries in six days starting from the south and making my way to the north via the east coast. I had no idea what to expect but trip was as inspiring as all other wine trips.

Tasmania has four wine growing regions pretty much lie in the eastern half of the island: Tamar Valley, Pipers River, East Coast and Coal River Valley. Unlike Central Otago that has semi-continental climate, Tassie’s wine regions are influenced by their proximity to water (either ocean or rivers). At latitude 41º- 42º S, it is 3º- 4º closer to the equator than Central Otago but without the intense summer temperature. I found Tassie’s Pinot Noir, in general, more delicate, more floral and softer than Central Otago’s with a couple of exceptions such as Freycinet (also outstanding sparkling) and Home Hill Kelly’s Reserve (from Huon Valley west of Hobart). However, this doesn’t mean that Tassie’s Pinot Noir is lesser quality. It’s like comparing Volnay with Chambertin. It all depends on the occasion, the food and the company. 

Pinot Noir is up and coming, but Tasmania has already put its mark in the international arena with its sparkling wine made in traditional method with champagne grape varieties. Central Otago can be hot in summer thus pushing the sugar in grapes a little too high for sparkling wine production. In contrast, Tassie does not really have the heat spikes thus allowing grapes to ripen more slowly while still retaining the acidity. In fact, some wineries/labels, all located in Pipers River, are solely making sparkling wines with worldwide acclaim, including Jansz Vineyard, Clover Hill, House of Arras and Pirie, the sparkling wine label developed by Andrew Pirie while he was working at Tamar Ridge, now part of Brown Brothers. 

Andrew Pirie is probably the most respected winemaker in Tasmania, if not Australia. He started Ninth Island in the mid 1970s followed by Pipers Brook. After he left the corporate world, he founded Apogee and continued his research on cool climate wine. It was fascinating to hear his view on the correlation between temperature and humidity (or aridity), that two wine regions may be on the same latitude but produce different wine because of humidity. Based on the climatic index, one can thus use vineyard management technique such as trellising to facilitate grape ripening in cool climate. He restricts his vineyard plot to 2 ha only in order to best manage the site without scarifying quality. He makes 10,000 to 20,000 bottles a year of Vintage Brut and Rosé, which are elegant with finesse, and a small quantity of still wine, Alto Pinot Gris and Alto Pinot Noir. I can easily spend the entire day talking to and learning from him.

Another stand out winery is Pressing Matters in Coal River Valley in the south, founded by retired barrister Greg Melick, hence the name and the label with a thick law book. Vineyard Manager Matt Connaughton told me that Greg tasted a Pinot Noir from next door’s farm some years ago that impressed him so much that he decided to make his own in similar terroir and eventually Pressing Matters’ plot came into the market. For now, there is only one Pinot Noir but there is a range of Riesling from dry to Auslese style. The wine are conveniently named R0, R9, R69 and R139, indicating the level of residual sugar in the wine. The R0 Riesling is more delicate than the Clare’s dry Riesling and the range is more akin to Mosel’s. Matt is enthusiastic and the discussion with him from soil and climate to sustainability and biodynamic practices made the tasting more memorable.

Like Central Otago, Tassie’s aromatic whites including Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Riesling suit the conditions but there is also a fair amount of Chardonnay, probably because it is also used for sparkling wine production. Josef Chromy, Freycinet, Devil’s Corner, Pipers Brook all have well-made Chardonnay with and/or without oak. Domaine A in Coal River Valley is one of the handfuls that produce Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot because of its exceptionally warm site, and Pooley Wines, also in Coal River Valley, is experimenting with Syrah that I think certainly has potential.  

I used Hobart and Launceston as bases to explore the wine areas. It was a bit of a drive but there are nothing much in the small towns/villages closer to the wine growing regions. What compensated is that Tassie is also home to crafted gin and whisky. I had a gin tasting at Society Salamanca followed by a nightcap at The Salamanca Whisky Bar in Hobart. I was at Launceston during the Queen’s Birthday long weekend so most eateries were closed, but was super-happy to have discovered Geronimo, an Italian restaurant with a cool wine list and delicious food. The east coast of Tassie is a nature paradise but may be a bit remote for those who only want to visit wineries. However, don’t be put off by it. Devil’s Corner has a great cellar door where two independent operators serve pizzas and seafood (including oyster) in a casual al-fresco setting with a great view of the vineyards and ocean right behind it. It attracts a lot of people in good weather who just want to relax with friends and family with a good bottle of wine. 

Wineries with importers are:

Central Otago and Tasmania share some commonalities but they are also distinctively different. Both are great vocation destinations especially if you like outdoor activities. I did a bit of hiking in both places but hopefully I’ll have chances to revisit again for more adventures and tastings. 

Tuesday 28 August 2018

Made in Bali

Located just south of equator at 8ºS, Bali is known for growing rice and exotic fruits. But wine grapes? Most wine professionals will tell you impossible because it is just too hot. In fact, Bali has been growing table grapes since the beginning of the 20th century and like rice, there are three harvests per year as there is no winter for the vines to be dormant. However, this doesn’t stop some forward-thinkers (or you can say stubborn) to try making wines in this tropical island that attracts tourists from all corners of the world including Jakartans.

Hatten Wines is the pioneer of Balinese wine. The winery was established in 1994 and the vineyards, around 35ha in total and expanding, are located in Singaraja, northeast of Bali where it is the driest. At the beginning, Hatten only made Rosé (still and later a sparkling) from local table grape Alphonse-Lavallée of French origin. Only after the 100th harvest in 2001 then Hatten its portfolio using local grapes including the near extinct Probolinggo Biru, and Belgia in the Muscat family. The portfolio now has seven wines: sparkling made in traditional method (white Tunjung and rosé Jepun), dry Aga white, semi-sweet Alexandria white, semi-sweet Rosé, light Aga Red, and solera-aged fortified wine Pino de Bali.

Sababay Winery, the second oldest Balinese winery, was born in 2010 out of the urge to help local grapegrowers after Mrs Mulyati Gozali visited their farms. Set up in a cooperative framework, about 300 farmers provided local grapes Muscat St Vallier and Alphonse-Lavallée from some 80ha of vineyard in the north to make seven wines: White Velvet from 100% Muscat St Vallier (aka Belgia), Pink Blossom Rosé, reds Black Velvet and Reserve Red, Moscato d’Bali, semi-sweet Ludisia and ruby port style Masscetti. Probably of its close involvement with the farming community, Eva Gozali, daughter and CEO, is super-excited that Sababay has been invited to partner with Wonderful Bali, the tourism body, to promote the island/country.

Isola Wine by Cantine-Balita, an Indonesia-Italy partnership, soon joined the duo in 2012. In addition to Muscat St Vallier and Alphonse-Lavallée, the winery also grows Malvasia Nera and some Syrah.  At the moment, only three wines are made: Isola white (Moscato), Isola Rosé and Isola Red.

Winemakers from all these wineries agree that growing grapes is the most challenging in Bali. James Kalleske, Australian winemaker at Hatten, said the company spent the first 10 years of trial and error to finally come to where it is today. Balinese vineyards use Pergola system, an overhead trellis where grapes are hung below the leaves. The system keeps workers shaded and cool, and at the same time protects the grapes from sunburn and rain. While the white varieties, Probolinggo Biru and Belgia grow reasonably well, the red Alphonse-Lavallée often struggle for phenolic ripeness. Hatten has a 10 ha R&D vineyard where James and researcher Jeremy Pramana
experimented with over 40 varieties in Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP) training and alternating long and short pruning to limit harvest to only once a year. Because of the high vigour, vines develop apical dominance where the distal few buds are most advanced comparing to those near the trunk head. Jeremy bent the cane upward to form an arc that slows down the flow of nutrients/water to the end of the cane enabling the nodes in the middle of the cane to develop properly. Tempranillo is a disaster but James is happy with the progress of Chenin Blanc and Syrah.

Nicolas Delacressonniere, the French winemaker at Sababay, echoed James. To improve grape quality, Sababay limits harvest to twice a year and does not pick in wet season. The farmers are compensated by receiving a higher price per kilogram of grapes. While Alphonse-Lavallée can be made into a delightful rosé, it is not ideal for a world-class red and therefore, like Hatten, Sababay is working with farmers to grow other varieties. Nicolas is tired of the old style thinking and rigid regulations in France that restrict competitiveness of French producers, and love the challenges in Bali as he has freehand to use innovative techniques to improve the wine quality. His motto is, ‘yesterday’s innovation is today’s tradition’.

From the onset, Cantine Balita planted Malvasia Nera to give more colour to Alphonse-Lavallée and to increase fruitiness. Italian winemaker Giacomo Anselmi and assistant Agung Willys, while work closely with farmers to implement strict vineyard practices such as green pruning and restrict harvest to two times per year to improve grape ripening, also plan to experiment with other Italian varieties including Glera, Nero d’Avola and Primitivo to up the quality of wine.

Indonesia has 90% import duty on wine and there are also excise and GST. Considering the fact that average income of Indonesian middle class is around US$250/month, even very basic entry level imported wine, retailed between 360k-400k rupiah (US$25-28) per bottle, is a luxury item for most locals. Holidaymakers also find wine too expensive comparing to their home countries. Balinese wine, at around US$20 per bottle, therefore is an attractive option for them. All these three wineries cited local market is their focus, with the majority of sales come from Bali, Jakarta trailed behind.

When there is a will, there is a way. Round about 2000, producers were determined to make quality wine from only international grapes to compete with imported wine. Instead of planting vines in Bali, they import raw materials from other grape growing countries and process them in Bali. Australian Mitch Hayhow from Cape Discovery explained that on one hand there are surplus grapes in some wine producing countries and on another hand, there are emerging countries that are asking for reasonably priced quality wine. What he does is to bring these two sides together. Cape Discovery imports frozen musts and clarified juice from vineyards in West Australia, the US and New Zealand and make wine on demand. Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition. As a matter of fact, Hatten Wine also has a second label called Two Islands where wines are made from imported Australian juice.
Mitch said that even though he is not making terroir-driven wine, he has people on the ground to make sure the grapes are harvested according to his specifications. His goal is to make good quality wine focus on varietal distinction. Priced between Balinese wine and entry level imported wine, it won universal approval on price to quality ratio from a group of Malaysian wine professionals including importers, sommeliers and educators that I showed the wine to. Cape Discovery wines also won a few medals from international wine competition including

Plaga Wine is another producer taking advantage of the much lower import duty of non-alcohol raw materials to make wine in Bali. Headed by a spanish speaking team including marketer Juan Diaz from Chile, winemakers Plabo Gonzalez from Argentina and Jordi Moreno from Spain, the company imports both grape concentrate and juice from Central Valley in Chile, Sicily in Italy, and La Mancha in Spain with on-the-ground quality control at harvest. Plaga’s primary target is young Indonesian and the retail price is in par with locally grown wine. In the true Latin spirit, their message
is upbeat — to have fun and celebrate anytime, anywhere. Juan showed me the video of the soon-to-be-released Moscato and I have to say it is spot on in engaging his consumers.

There will always be debate about making wine using grapes from third countries. However, grapes are often transported from across regions to the cellars for processing. Transporting musts and juice in frozen state should in theory preserve the quality (and some may even argue preserving terroir). Urban wineries where grapes are sourced often from different countries are sprouting in metropolitan cities such as London, Sydney, Vancouver and Washington’ and we have our own Urban Project in
Hong Kong. If consumers think urban winery is hip, there should be nothing wrong with Cape Discovery, Two Islands and Plaga.

After discussing with the winemakers, observing the local market and trying all the wines, I can only respect  these Balinese wineries and what they are doing. Like other Asian countries, Indonesia has not developed wine culture yet and imported wine is largely beyond the reach of average consumers. However, these should not stop curious locals to taste and enjoy wine without feeling intimidated. Alphonse-Lavallée or Belgia may not be mainstream wine but so be it if Indonesian like them. If wine made from imported raw materials is as good as wine made from
grapes in the same country, why should we challenge it? It’s much better than a lot of products making from synthetic materials. Perhaps the wine industry is lagging behind other industry in terms of creativity and innovation?

Where to buy in Hong Kong:
Hatten Wines: Vines and Terroirs (available at Hotel ICON and The Peninsula)
Sababay Wine: Whole Green Peonies

Thursday 9 August 2018

Gimblett Gravels/Hawkes Bay revisit

The last time I was in Gimblett Gravels was three years ago in 2015 when I did a harvest at Unison Vineyard. I was only there for three weeks and left after all the grapes were picked. Therefore it was fitting that I went back to Unison during my extended winemaking journey but this time for post harvest work. I arrived two days after the last Cabernet Sauvignon was picked.

There is still plenty to do after grapes are picked, especially for red wine. My work included punching down, pressing, lots of racking, barrel work and blending trials. It was less frantic but still heaps to learn - how long should post fermentation maceration last and when to press; what to look for at blending, effective barrel stirring .... all under the guidance of highly-regarded consultant winemaker Jenny Dobson and owner Philip Horn.

Unison is a boutique winery with just over 40 tons of grapes processed this vintage. Working in a small cellar is totally different from working in a bigger one. It is more relaxed because everything is in a much smaller scale but it also means we have no one to pass the jobs to. More importantly, we need to be much more careful not to make any mistakes that may lead to unnecessary wastage or worst, ruin a batch of wine. After all, a litre of wine means a lot more to a small winery than a big one. We even put leftover samples back in tanks/barrels rather than chucking them down to the drain. I learnt to appreciate and save every single drop of wine.

Gimblett Gravels is a sub-region of Hawkes Bay that lies on the east coast of North Island of New Zealand. As the name implies, the soil is composed on a mixture of stones, gravels and sand. Unlike most vine-growing region, Gimblett Gravels (and in fact most Hawkes Bay) is largely flat but this free-draining gravelly soil enables the region to produce world-class wine. About 90% of vines are red varieties with Merlot leading the pack, followed by Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties. Merlot dominated Bordeaux blend is the jewel of the region but I think their Syrah, with the elegant cool climate pepper character combined with ripe dark fruits aromas, is the star. Depending on producers, Gimblett Gravels Syrah can be fruit-forward and accessible when young or refined, savoury with ageing potential.

Unison’s Syrah is of the latter style. Its current release is 2013 vintage. Philip kindly organised a vertical tasting of his Syrah from 2013 to the just bottled 2016 for me and it was fascinating. The oak regime was slightly different in each year but the wine certainly reflected the climatic condition of the year. 2014 and 2016 were warmer and both wines have good concentration while 2015, being a cooler year, resulted in a  more fragrant and slightly softer wine. I love the 2015 probably because I was there picking and processing the grapes!

Unison also makes a small amount of white wine from sourced grapes. This year there are six barrels of Chardonnay which I fervently stirred every other day, and a small tank of Pinot Gris. Because of different fermentation techniques, the wines have totally different but equally lovely texture. I found that Unison wine tends to be more restrained in general probably because Jenny has lived and made wine in Bordeaux for some 20 years.

Hand crafted wine
Perhaps because Hawkes Bay is not as well-known as Marlborough or Central Otago, winemakers are not pressured to only focus on one style of wine or one grape variety. I visited a few wineries and happy to see creative ideas abound. The most impressed was boutique winery de la terre with only 5.3 ha of vineyards consisted of Viognier, Chardonnay, Shiraz, Montepulciano, Barbera, Tannat with the latest addition being Tempranillo. Owner Tony Prichard spent 30 years making wine for big brand Montana that was eventually bought by Pernod Ricard. He said being a ‘corporate’ winemaker is like being in a trap with golden handcuffs that drains creativity. In late 2000, he made the decision to get away from industrial winemaking, built his own winery with local earth (hence the name de la terre), and since then made wine the way he wants. He said Viognier has a bad reputation of being fat and clumsy therefore he decided to make an elegant, textural Viognier that is not varietal driven. He loves being experimental hence all these non-mainstream varieties and stays away from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. His Grand Reserve Tanat is just superb!

Tony was not the only ‘corporate’ winemaker who started his own label, Warren Gibson of Trinity Hills created Bilancia in 1998 and they were joined by Rod Easthope, formerly chief winemaker at Craggy Range. Rod has two lines, Rod Easthope that is available at Naked Wines in the UK and Easthope Family Winegrowers, the top hand crafted wine that Rod has 100% freedom to do what he desires. The winery for this label is perched above the Ngaruroro River next to the family house and vineyard, a playground of Rod where he does 100% whole bunch fermentation and foot treading in 500kg bins for his red wine; and ferments white wine in concrete eggs and barrels. For those who dismiss Gamay as candied fruit drink in the form of Beaujolais Nouvelle, you have to try Rod’s Gamay Noir. It is elegant with profile not dissimilar to Pinot Noir. Apparently there are only around 6 ha of Gamay in the whole of New Zealand, and Rod has access to nearly half of it. He made his first Chenin Blanc this year in barrel but plans to ferment it in concrete egg next year.

Sacred Hill co-founder winemaker Tony Bish also ventured to start not only his label, Tony Bish Wines which only makes Chardonnay fermented in different vessels, but also The Urban Winery, a wine bar-cum-Tony Bish cellar in the historic National Tobacco Company Art Deco building in Napier. Tony is a big fan of egg. He designs, produces and markets his own version of concrete egg in New Zealand, and is also the first and sole owner of the 2,000l Taransaud wooden egg in New Zealand where he makes his Skeetfield Chardonnay from 14 rows of dry-farmed vines. This wooden egg was enshrined in the cellar and I had the privilege to touch it when I was visiting. Skeetfield is definitely one of the outstanding Chardonnays from Hawkes Bay but the Golden Egg, fermented in Tony’s concrete egg, is also exceptionally.

Last but not least is Jenny Dobson, former winemaker at Te Awa Winery and now consulting to a number of wineries at Hawkes Bay including Unison. She is also one of the few winemakers who made Pinotage and I was lucky to try her 2006 Pinotage three years ago and this time the 1999 vintage (Apparently there were quite a few South African in NZ wine industry in early days hence the plantings of Pinotage and Chenin Blanc). Anyway, Jenny is finally starting her own label and I was really excited about it. I stayed with her three years ago and again this time. She and her husband Charles are so knowledgeable that I more than double my learning during my stay in New Zealand. Jenny’s first wine is Fiano and the label has an erupting volcano in the background to emphasise the origin of Fiano. We had a couple of bottles and my conclusion was 4Fs: Fiano-Fruity-Flinty-Finesse. Jenny also has a red wine in barrel but has yet to decide on the final blend.

Because Hawkes Bay is not dominated by one grape variety, winemakers are flexible to play with less common ingredients. Jenny, Rod the two Tonys and Warren, talented and experienced, are handcrafting wines from different varieties in small quantities under their own labels; and this is exactly what makes Hawkes Bay interesting. I hope they can join force, perhaps something like The Douro Boys, to shout out to wine consumers that New Zealand is not as homogenous as we think and certainly there is a lot more tjhan Sauvignon Blanc.

Philip from Unison complained that because there is no direct international flight to Napier, the region is often overlooked. View Hawkes Bay as a hidden gem and make an effort to spend a few days there during your next visit to New Zealand. You won’t be disappointed.

Monday 18 June 2018

Maxwell Wines: MaxWell-made wine

I planned my harvest gap year back in 2017 and asked for vintage work in my 2017 January newsletter. Mark from Maxwell Wines in McLaren Vale was the first to reply so there I was, for a month from mid March 2018. I only stopped at McLaren Vale for lunch a long time ago when I was visiting Australia as a tourist so it was a nice opportunity to get acquainted with this region which is only one hour drive from Adelaide.

Like most wine regions, 2017/2018 was an expected year. Most places started harvest earlier than usual, or even if they started later than usual, they still finished picking earlier as most grapes came in a shorter period of time. This happened in McLaren Vale as well. Mark told me that vintage usually starts around mid March but this year was a good two weeks earlier. By the time I joined the team, the whites (Chardonnay and Verdelho) have been picked so my work was mainly processing red grapes, mostly Shiraz but also Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Mourvedre. One of my duties were looking after the ferment including plunging-down where the side benefit was building my ABD muscles :)

Although moderated by sea breeze, McLaren Vale is still relatively warm and red grape planting is the norm.  Maxwell’s vineyard is planted with Shiraz, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon but there is also a small amount of Verdelho on poor soil. Luckily wineries are free to source grapes from other regions. Maxwell’s Chardonnay grapes come from Adelaide Hills next door and he also experiments with Kangaroo Island Shiraz. Its Silver Hammer Shiraz is generous, typical from McLaren Vale and is the best seller while the flagship Minotaur Shiraz is intense and deep. I particularly like the cooler climate wines including the Adelaide Hills Chardonnay and Kangaroo Island Shiraz. The barrel-fermented Verdelho goes particularly well with Asian fragrant herbs.

Probably because of culture but more likely because of labour issue, Australian wineries are highly efficient. Maxwell processes about 350 tons of grapes and there were only 4 people including me working in the cellar during vintage. Everyone worked individually, independently and often multi-tasked. Mark proudly explained that the grape receival flow including tipping grapes to the hopper, destemming, crushing and sending the juice either to the press or tank, was designed in such a way that only one person is needed to handle the entire process.

The family has been growing grapes for two generations but it was Mark who built the present winery some 20 years ago. He is still pretty hands-on in daily operation. Apart from being that single person responsible for grape receival (and he loves it), he tastes the fermenting juice every day and works closely with head winemaker Andrew Jericho to create the final blends.

A competent winemaker though Mark is, he is more of a marketing man and I think this is his secret of success. He conducts cellar tour and works at cellar door, talking to visitors enthusiastically and charming them to buy the wine. The wine quality is there but Mark’s extra nudge often converts visitors to customers and Maxwell has a loyal following.

While I was there, Mark was rebranding the logo from Maxwell to MaxWell-, a complete makeover from the more traditional visual to a contemporary one that plays on words (MaxWell-made, MaxWell-played, MaxWell-fed, and so on). Visit its revamped website,  it’s clever. Mark reckoned a young company without the long history and heritage needs to freshen the image regularly to attract new consumers - a marketing man talking!

The Maxwell family was in fact the pioneer of mead, wine made from honey. Mark’s father studied this ancient beverage and after numerous experimentation with different honey and yeasts, he finally released the first Australian commercial mead in 1961. As the saying goes, the rest is history. Maxwell is the largest producer of mead in Australia and success inspired others to follow suit. Currently there are four meads on offer: Honey, Sparkling, Spiced and Liqueur. They can be enjoyed straight, in cocktail or cooking. The diversification of the mead portfolio from the original honey mead is yet another evidence of the marketing thinking of Mark.

Maxwell Wines and honey mead are available in Hong Kong from wine’n’things.

McLaren Vale at a glance
My four weeks in McLaren Vale not only allowed me to visit other wineries, but also to explore the region.

The rolling hills are gentle enough for not-too-strenuous cycling, ideal for those who want to experience the region up close and at the same time, burn off a few calories. Hikers can wander around the numerous tracks in Onkaparinga River National Park and the pristine coast only 15 minutes from McLaren Vale is just perfect for beach lovers. No wonder both residents and visitors of Adelaide flock to this playground.

There are around 70 wineries in the region and they are surprisingly close together. Most offer cellar door tastings and a few, including Maxwell, have on-site restaurants that are extremely popular. The outstanding wineries I visited were:

Bekkers Wine: A boutique winery making only 1,000 cases of fine Grenache, Syrah Grenache and Syrah by husband and wife team, Toby Bekkers the viticulturist and French Emmanuelle the winemaker. They prove that wine at 15% alcohol can be elegant and with finese. Emma also makes a Chablis Premier Cru to complement the Bekkers range. They are looking for like-minded importer in Hong Kong.

Coriole Vineyards: Bound by no rules of the Old World, New World winemakers can experiment different varieties and style of wine. Coriole takes full advantage of this freedom by planting Italian varieties alongside the mainstream Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Grenache. When they released its Sangiovese in mid 1980s, hardly anyone could pronounced the name. Since then, the winery has introduced Fiano, Vermentino, Nero d’Avola, Sagrantino and Negroamaro to McLaren Vale. Owner Mark plans to experiment with a new variety every year. Their Fiano and Barbera are outstanding, and so is the Lloyd Reserve Shiraz. Their wines are available from East Meets West in Hong Kong and China.

Oliver’s Taranga Vineyards: Fifth generation family-run estate that is equally enthusiastic with non mainstream grape varieties. In addition to Italian varieties, the family also produces a Mencia Rosé (Spain), as well as thumbs-up Tempranillo and Sagrantino. Their importer in Hong Kong is

Waywood Wine: It’s always nice to meet someone in a far-away land and found out we are connected. Andrew Wood, owner of Waywood Wine is one such person as we both learned winemaking at Plumpton College. What attracted Andrew to settle down in McLaren Vale was his fondness of big Australian wine but what he actually made is not the typical jammy wine, but more refined and textural. The Grenache, Montepulciano and Tempranillo were impressive. Andrew’s wife runs the charming Luscious Red Kitchen, a relaxed café on site.

Yangarra Estate Vineyard: Part of the Jackson Family, Yangarra practises biodynamic viticulture and specialises in Southern Rhone varieties mainly in bush vines including Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Rousanne and Viognier. Their Roux Beaurte, a 100% Rousanne partly fermented in cement egg for 160 days has beautiful texture and minerality. The Ironheart Shiraz and High Sands Grenache are restrained with depth.

It is convenient to use Adelaide as a base to visit McLaren Vale and the nearby Adelaide Hills wine region. And when you are in Adelaide, Penfolds Magill Estate, the original home of Penfolds, is just 20 minutes from city centre. Drop by to taste their icon wine Grange, and even better, enjoy the wine at their Kitchen, a modern eatery that serves delicious food. I managed to catch up with chief winemaker Peter Gago an
d had a glimpse of their new but sold out creation g3. Unfortunately there was not tasting but Peter made it up by disclosing his future plan that I have to keep secret - watch this space!

If you have more than a few days to spare, make sure to drive up to Clare Valley, about 3 hours from Adelaide, for some of the best Australian Rieslings.