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?