Friday, 7 June 2019

Tasmanian wine, less is more

Hong Kong wine trade is overwhelmed with trade tasting and we just cannot go to all of them. I am glad that I made an effort to Tyson Stelzer’s recent Tasmania tasting, which turned out to be one of the enjoyable events.

The walk-around tasting was generous in time with a five hours duration and there were only 32 sparkling wines and Pinot Noirs that Tyson said were the best of Tasmania. This meant we could tasted in a relaxed and focused environment. Less is more.

Tasmania is not your typical Aussie wine. Being the southernmost wine growing region of Australia, it has a cool maritime region capable of producing elegant wine with finesse, very unlike the majority full-bodied jammy Australian wines from the mainland. Tyson explained that Tasmania has two distinctive subregions, the cool dry south and the cool humid north. The cool dry climate gives more tannic wine because the vines are more stressed by low moisture. On the other hand, cool humid climate wine is in general softer and more delicate. This difference is particular evident in Pinot Noir because of its thin skin, and this showed well on the three Pinots from Darlymple where two came from Piper’s River in the north and one from Coal River Valley in the south.

Tyson is a huge fan of Tassie’s sparkling wine, which he believes, together with English sparkling wine, can rival some of the fine champagne. Again, the humidity factor plays a significant role. Sparkling wine from the wetter north is shaped by acidity while those from the dryer south is marked by phenolics with a more grippy texture, similar to champagne made in dry, warm years.

Because of its isolation, wine production in Tasmania is niche and boutique. This island state only represents 0.9% of the total Australia’s wine yet it makes up more with its value. The price of grapes is more than five times its counterpart from the mainland. According to Wine Tasmania, 100% of its wine is sold above A$15, as opposed to only 7% in the mainland. This firmly put Tasmania in the Australian wine map as the leading premium cool climate wine growing region, another demonstration of less is more.

A whopping 2/3 of the vineyard planting is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and nearly 30% of the island’s production is made up of sparkling. Tyson’s tasting showcased pretty much the best of Tasmania. Luckily for us is that most of these wines are available in Hong Kong.

My favourites include Pressing Matters Point Noir 2014 and Norton Sparkling NV, both from Coal River Valley, and Dawson James Pinot Noir 2014 from Upper Derwent Valley, all available from Pinot Shop Hong Kong, a shop dedicated to cool climate New World Pinot Noir. Check out their exciting portfolio.

Another must try is Jansz, a producer of only sparkling wine where the fruits come from Piper’s River, Tamar Valley and Coal River Valley. Their wines are available from Watson’s Wine.

Friday, 17 May 2019

What wine can learn from whisky?

Blended whisky has been losing market share to single malt whisky in the last 10 years. To counteract, Chivas Regal recently held the world’s first whisky blending competition in Hong Kong for both consumers and professionals. I was honoured to be one of the judges and even more impressed with the outcome, perhaps something that even Pernod Ricard, owner of Chivas Regal did not anticipate.

The candidates first attended a 3-hour workshop and then were given five components with distinctive characters - floral, creamy, citrus, fruity and smoky to make up their own blend. At the judging, they had to present their blends and explained to judges the reason behind the blend. The judges are not from whisky or spirits profession, but all are connected to blending, including perfume specialist John Paulo Hui who plays with over 600 perfume raw materials, coffee trainer Chris So (also from the wine trade), lyricist Leung Pak Kin and myself, a winemaker and where blending is absolutely essential in winemaking.

What strike me was not the technical aspect of the blending, but how the candidates connected the blends to the stories, and nearly all were derived from their own experiences - about life in Hong Kong or the places they grew up, about families and about love. Only two professional contestants focused on making a blend that is perfect for the cocktail they had in mind. All judges could feel the stories while tasting their concoctions.

This is the power of emotion and story-telling which sadly is kind of missing in the wine people. Most wineries and winemakers are too fixated on terroir. Soil and climate are no doubt related to the quality of wine but while we in the trade find them fascinating, unfortunately it doesn’t resonate with most consumers. The second most used story after terroir is family history but if seven out of ten wineries are emphasising this, it is not unique anymore. Winemaking maybe technical but wine is a social, lifestyle beverage and it has to be connected to the consumers emotionally. I urge all the winemakers to tell their personal stories - why they want to make wine, their first wine, their dogs, and so on. Terroir and family history can come later once consumers are listening.

There are wine blending workshops but again they are focus on creating a technically correct blend. Perhaps we should copy Chivas Regal and organise a ‘blend from your heart’ workshop. Does it matter if it is a Bordeaux blend or a whacky tempranillo-pinotage blend as long as it tastes good and has a moving story behind?

Back to the Chivas blending competition, the winner of the consumer session is ‘Dram of a Day’ created by Gigi Wong. The story is about a typical Hongkonger who wakes up cheerful but has to juggle tasks during the long working hours until finally has a moment of relaxation at night. The fresh citrus note denotes the start of the day which then moves onto the heavier aromas corresponding to the daily tasks and finally the smoky flavour then ends the day.

The winner of the professional session is Ronald Ho from Safe Bubbles and Malt. His blend is called Chivas Regal Turadh, a firm but smooth whisky that Ronald said will rejuvenate the drinker from the hectic schedule, just like the blast of sunshine between two raining days in typical Scottish weather.

I’m sure my opinion is not agreed by most in the industry but perhaps food for thought?

Monday, 29 April 2019

Spätburgunder, not quite the hidden gem of Germany anymore

Sure Riesling is Germany’s most well known wine but Spätburgunder (aka Pinot Noir) is quietly catching up. Joel Payne, nicknamed Mr German Wine by Karl Bachmair from Bachmair Wines, guided a full house of sommeliers and media to taste nine such fine wines from five German wine regions recently.

Spätburgunder is nothing new in Germany. Like most grapes in Europe, it was brought from Burgundy and planted by monks at least in the 4th century although it was only first documented in 14th century. However, because of poor ripening, the wine was a hit and miss and the majority was rosé rather than red wine. But things have changed in the past couple of decades. Climate change, clonal selection, improved viticultural practice and experience in winemaking technique all propel Spätburgunder to today’s height.

Germany offers different styles of Spätburgunder. Its climate is similar to Burgundy and there is no shortage of Burgundian style Spätburgunder. The 2015 Malterdinger from Weingut Bernhard Huber in Baden we tasted is one of them. Bernhard Huber began estate bottling in 1987 after he took control of the family’s vineyards and slowly increased planting to around 26ha. His son Julian inherited the estate after he passed away and continued Bernhard’s legacy. According to Joel, his wine is often mistaken by professionals, including respected French wine critic Michel Bettane, as Burgundy Pinot in blind tastings. Julian believes in small is beautiful and less is more. His goal is to only make Grand Cru Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. 

On the other end is the more international New World style Pinot Noir. Contemporary winemakers age the wine in new oak barriques (225 litres) resulting in fuller-bodied wine with more depth and structure. Philipp Kuhn 2015 Kirschgarten Grosses Gewächs is an outstanding wine of this stye.

Spätburgunder also makes its way into sekt, German’s sparkling wine. The Raumland 2010 Pinot Prestige Brut Blanc de Noir from Rheinhessen, spent a whopping 88 months on lees, is multi-dimensional with layers of fruits, hints of brioche and smokiness supported by crisp acidity. It was voted the Best German Sekt in Gault Millau Guide 2018.

Baden and Pfalz, the two Southernmost wine regions in Germany, have the most plantings of Pinot Noir but the variety is also grown in Württemberg and Rheinhessen, as well as the warm pockets in Ahr and Nahe. Its planting area, at 11, 784 ha, ranked the third in the world after France and the USA; and is more than New Zealand and Australia combined.

So next time when you need a red wine to compliment your German Riesling, look no further. Spätburgunder is not a hidden gem anymore. You can find them at Bachmair Wines
.

Friday, 19 April 2019

Natural wine? Is there artificial wine then?

The latest buzzword in the wine circle is natural wine. Natural wine bars frequented by young hipsters are popping up around the world. What’s the fuss?

First of all, look at this. There are many yeast strains in our environment. When grapes, or any fruits, are left unattended, yeasts ferment sugar in grapes and turn it into alcohol. The process of fermentation, therefore, is natural. However, depending on the yeast strains that react with sugar, the resulting wine can be very different, some palatable and some funky or even undesirable. Whatever the quality, the final product is often cloudy with sediments, and eventually turns into vinegar because of oxidisation or bacteria spoilage.

When man commercialised wine, they planted vineyards in manageable manner to control quality and quantity. In the wineries, they used cultured yeasts – selected strains of natural yeast – to make sure pleasant wine is produced. Natural fining agents such as egg white and gelatine derived from fish bladders were used to combine with the suspended particles in wine to form bigger precipitates that can be filtered from wine, thereby making the wine bright, clear and visually pleasing. To make sure the wine has a longer life, winemakers added sulphites to protect the wine from oxygen and microbial spoilage. The entire fermentation is still natural and the products used to ensure the quality standard are also natural.

As the demand of wine increases, producers use chemicals in vineyard to increase yield and protect the vines from disease, just like all other agricultural products. Synthetically produced fining agents replace real egg whites and fish bladders. Winemakers may use yeast nutrients (ammonia products) to ensure a smooth and thorough fermentation, and control factors such as fermentation temperature and extraction. They may also ferment or age wine in different materials containers such as stainless steel tanks or wood barrels to make fruitier or more complex wine. The fermentation process is still natural but man exerts more control in the process to maintain quality.

Today, the term natural wine has no official definition. It is an approach to vine growing and winemaking that vines are farmed organically, biodynamically or sustainably; and wine is made hands-off without the aid of cultured yeasts, fining agents and filtration. Sulphites may or may not be added to final wine. The quality of wine ranges from pleasant, fresh and pure, to gamey, sour and foul. A few things for sure are that natural wine has no vanilla or cinnamon aromas as they are not aged in new barrels, and they cannot be stored for a long time because of no or minimal preservatives.

To me, all wines, whether using inorganic or biodynamic farming, wild or cultured yeasts, synthetic fining agents or without fining, with our without sulphites, are all naturally made. The rise of natural wine is like an anti-establishment movement. Consumers are fed up with mainstream, industrial products and embrace alternatives. It is like hippies lifestyle in the 70s and to a certain extent, the election of non-mainstream government all over the world.

There are both good and bad conventional and ‘natural’ wine. Drinking ‘natural wine’ is a lifestyle choice but consumers must know how to identify bad ‘natural wine’ rather than blindly accept it as ‘natural’. Producers who label their wine ‘natural’ to disguise fault are cheating consumers outright.


I am not against natural wine and in fact I love the well-made natural wine. But thinking out loud, I wonder if ‘natural wine’ will still be cool if its quality becomes more predictable, more consumers accept it and it eventually becomes mainstream. Maybe another style of wine will takeover?

Friday, 29 March 2019

Underdog grapes

Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB) organises regular masterclasses in town but most of them are focused on their famed grape varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Therefore, the fact that the first BIVB masterclass this year was ‘An in-depth analysis of the Aligoté grape’ came as a surprise - in fact, a very nice surprise.

I’m pretty sure that not all Burgundy fans heard of Aligoté. The grape has been grown in the region since 17th century and was granted its own AOC, Bourgogne Aligoté, in 1937. In 1997, Bouzeron was recognised as its village appellation. Despite its large growing area in Burgundy from Chablis in the north to Mâconnais in the south, it only has 6% of the planting. It used to have equal footing with Chardonnay but sadly after phylloxera, vinegrowers ditched Aligoté for the more accessible Chardonnay.

Aligoté is subtle with lively acidity and a mineral note, a wine in the background that supports food rather than taking the centre stage. Its texture and subtlety reminded me of Semillon from Hunter Valley. Most people may dismiss them at first sip because they are not as pretty as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, but you will be rewarded especially if you have the patience to wait. Ivy was very kind to share an18 years old  Aligoté which has layers of exotic spices and a savoury yet light palate.

A lot of grapes, especially those neutral ones, suffer from poor reputation not because they don’t shine like their more glamorous siblings but because vinegrowers and winemakers treat them like work horse grapes, maximising their yield for distillation or making characterless wine. However, given proper management in the vineyards, the lack the attractive aromas of these varieties is often more than compensated by its texture and flexibility to match with food. Take Aligoté for example, mainly used for Kir and Cremant de Bourgogne, spoke out in this masterclass. The wines presented were made by the few dedicated winemakers who take the variety seriously.

There are still many underdogs in the wine world, notably Airén, Pinot Bianco (or Pinot Blanc) and Müller Thurgau. Airén is the most widely planted grapes in Spain mainly destined for distillation or mediocre wine, but I did try a couple including Más Que Vinos in La Mancha that defy the norm.  Pinot Bianco is pretty much an inoffensive house wine but Germany is leading the way to revive it under the name of Wiessburgunder (Pinot Blanc in German). Weingut Stigler in Baden, amongst others, produces a Weissburgunder Trocken, Ihringen Winklerberg ‘'GG'' from its oldest Weissburgunder plot. The wine was wonderful with a wide spectrum of Cantonese dishes from shrimp dumpling to roasted suckling pig.

As for Müller Thurgau (also known as Rivaner in Germany) mainly grown in cooler regions such as Germany, England and Northern Italy, is a cross between Riesling and Gutedel created in 1882 to produce earlier ripening and bigger crop than Riesling. As you can imagine, the wine is often light and unassuming. But I have faith that this ugly duckling will one day be transformed. The first wine I made was Müller Thurgau fermented in four different yeasts for my final project at Plumpton. I still have two bottles with me and am waiting for a suitable occasion to open them.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Château Mercian, in harmony with nature

Listening to Kenichi Ohashi MW is always a joy because he is passionate. At the recent Château Mercian masterclass, he gave a quick rundown on the relatively unknown history of the estate that showed its quest for making the best possible wine in Japan.

Dai-Nihon Yamanashi Budoushu-Gaisha (大日本山梨葡萄酒會社) was the forerunner of Château Mercian established more than 140 years ago in 1877. At that time, they had the vision to send two young Japanese to France to learn everything about grapegrowing and winemaking. When they returned, they started producing wine using the native Koshu grapes. The journey was not a smooth sailing but the endurance eventually paid off and the brand Mercian was born in 1949. The company introduced Merlot in 1976 and subsequently planted Chard
onnay in the high altitude cool climate region of Hokushin using vertical shoot positioning training in 1985. Château Mercian took a leap forward by engaging the late Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux as advisor to refine the wine in 1988.

Japanese wine could be either wine made from 100% grapes grown in Japan or bulk wine bottled in Japan. Luckily the law changed in October 2018 and now only the former can be called Japanese wine. One of the reasons for the change is because the quality of Japanese wine is gaining international recognition and it is time to champion the nation’s own produce. Château Mercian, currently the biggest producer with annual production of 500,000 bottles, plans to double the volume in 10 years amid increasing export growth. Hong Kong is one of the key markets which is not surprising judging by our love for Japanese cuisine and culture.

Led by chief winemaker Mitsuhiro Anzo, the estate focuses on Yamanashi (山梨縣) and Nagano (長野縣) Prefectures, together accounts for 88% of wine production. The vineyards in Yamanashi are mostly planted with Koshu and the hybrid Muscat Bailey A, while the drier Nagano vineyards are home for European varieties such as Cabernets, Merlot and Chardonnay. Mercian has two working wineries. A third one located in Nagano, called Mariko Winery, will be in operation later this year.

Château Mercian was in Hong Kong to launch its range of Icon wines. The two Chardonnays from Nagano on the opposite banks of Hokushin river, Hokushin Right Bank Chardonnay Rivalis 2017 and Hokushin Left Bank Chardonnay Rivalis 2017, have totally different expressions. The sandy and iron-rich gravelly right bank results in a powerful yet retrained wine while the clayey left back produces a more mellow and expressive wine. The Mariko Omnis 2015 Bordeaux blend has a fine structure with pleasant floral, herbal,  black fruits characters with a hint of earthiness.

In addition to the icon range, Kenichi and Jeannie Cho Lee MW also showed us the Terroir series. I love both Koshus. The Iwade Koshu Kiiroka Cuvée Ueno 2017 was light and pristine while the Fuefuki Koshu Gris de Gris 2017 with 28 days maceration and 2% new oak is more textural. Mariko Syrah 2015 is a typical cool climate Syrah that reminded me of Gimblett Gravels.

Last but not least is the Muscat Bailey A 2015. This hybrid grape variety has a foxy character that I have to say, at best, is acquired taste. Anzo-san tamed it by maturing it in American oak for 24 months. The wine expresses fine raspberry notes with fresh acidity and mild tannin, a far cry from the Muscat Bailey A that I tend to stay away.

While I agree with Château Mercian that its winemaking style is ‘finesse and elegance’, I think ‘Zen’ maybe more appropriate. The wines are subtle yet expressive, poised but not plush. They are the reflection of Japanese harmonious relationship with nature.

Château Mercian is available from Hing Lung Food Place Ltd.

Friday, 18 January 2019

The Noble Family from Barolo

The noble family Cordero di Montezemolo has managed the Monfalletto property at the heart of Barolo in La Morra village for 19 generations since 1340. Alberto Cordero di Montezemolo, who was in Hong Kong recently, explained that the estate was a multi-agricultural farm until his orphan grandfather Paolo focused on wine production, and the family was blessed with a historical single vineyard plot of 28ha on the hill, a rarity in Barolo. Including purchased and leased vineyards, the estate has 56 ha of vines under production.

Arneis is a native white grape variety in Piedmont but has given way to red grape varieties in the 20th century to the point of extinction. Cordero di Montezemolo was one of the pioneers to revitalise this grape variety. We tasted Cordero di Montezemolo Arneis 2017, fresh with yellow fruits and a hint of herbal notes that was great as aperitif or with snacks.

Barolo is the jewel of the estate. Alberto said they use a mixture of French barriques and Slovenian casks for ageing depending on the vineyards. This makes the wine approachable when young but not overpowering. Monfalletto Barolo is a blend of the estate’s vineyards where the vines are between 15 and 50 years old. The 1996 is elegant with prominent floral notes and a sense of lightness on palate, a delightful pairing with the ossobuco. Enrico VI Barolo is from a single vineyard of only 2.2 ha in the Villero cru with a more powerful and austere expression that is quite different from the Monfalletto’s.

The family also produces Barolo Riserva ‘Gorette’ only in the best years. Paolo always had a special Barolo for friends visiting him at the cellar and this wine is made with this moment in mind. The wine, bottled in magnum, is only offered to visitors of the winery. So next time when you are in Barolo, make sure to visit Cordero di Montezemolo.

Cordero di Montezemolo is available from Cuvées.

Friday, 4 January 2019

Tokaj, the King of wines


When I was working in Holdvölgy during my gap year, I didn’t have time to visit too many wineries, therefore I jumped at the chance when I was invited to the Szepsy media luncheon, the winery located in the village of Mád in Tokaj and the neighbour of Holdvölgy.

Szepsy is a family own estate that has been making wine in Tokaj for more than 500 years. It was this family  who developed the Aszú technique in 1631 thus creating the king of wines. Unlike Sauternes that ferments both healthy and botrytis grapes together, Tokaji Aszú wine is made by adding aszú berries (heavily botrytis raisiny grapes with over 500g/l sugar) to healthy grape juice, fermenting wine or finished wine from a few hours to a few days before pressing and continue fermentation. The botrytis process dehydrates the grapes therefore concentrates the acidity and minerals, resulting in extremely rich and complex wine with a fresh finish. István Szepsy Jr, the 16th generation of the family, explained that using juice as base gives a fruitier wine but with a shorter finish, while Aszú wine using finished wine as base has a more complexity and oxidised character. He prefers to use fermenting wine as it captures the best of both worlds. The 2008 vintage we tasted, with150g/l sugar (equivalent to 6 puttonyos), was a joy. It was burst with flavours and every time I smelt, I sensed different aromas from floral and tropical fruits to honey and caramel. The acidity was just incredible.
 
Szamorodni, translated as ‘as it is’, is made using whole bunch of grapes that consisted of both healthy and botrytis grapes like Sauternes. The sweetness of the final wine depends on the degree or botrytis and therefore every vintage is different. We had the 2013 vintage, a lighter wine comparing to other vintages and it was great with the roasted pork, suckling pig and chilli prawns.

We also tried Szepsy’s dry Furmint from two different vineyards. The Szt. Tamas 2016 has a good structure with layers of aromas. I like Furmint for its acidity and freshness that make it particularly food-friendly.
At the end of the delicious lunch at Ying Jee Club, we were treated Szepsy Tokaji Esszencia 2007. Arguably the rarest wine in the world, Tokaji Eszencia is made from the free run juice of aszú berries that seeps out from the vats under the grapes‘ own weight. The juice has ultra high sugar content and takes years to ferment. The 2007 was rich and complex, and at the same time vibrant and fresh. Szepsy only makes Esszencia in good years. The last one was 1999 with 311 bottles, 2007 had only 200 bottles and 2018 will be the next vintage. The wine comes with a high price tag (HK$18,000 for a 500ml bottle) but in my view, it is a bargain comparing to first growth Bordeaux.

Szepsy is available from Wine Peers.