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.