Saturday 2 May 2020

Burgundy meets Oregon

Burgundy and Oregon maybe a world apart but thanks to Jean-Nicolas Méo, owner of Domaine Méo-Camuzet in Burgundy and partner of Nicolas-Jay in Oregon, we were able to compare the Pinot Noirs from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean during his recent visit in town.

The family owned Domaine Méo-Camuzet is in Vosne-Romanée. In 1989, Jean-Nicolas joined his father after studying winemaking in Burgundy and a stint in the USA . With his father Jean Méo and well-respected Henri Jayer as his mentors, Jean-Nicolas experimented with different winemaking techniques and eventually developed his own style. He prefers de-stemming as opposed to whole bunch fermentation although he may include around 10% of stems during fermentation. Grapes are cold-soaked at around 15ºC for a few days prior to fermentation in cement or stainless-steel tanks at up to 30ºC, then warm-soak for a couple of days before pressing for more extraction. Depending on the fruit structure, each wine is aged with different wood regime. Today , the domaine produces 25 wines, including Grands Crus and Premiers Crus form the region.

We tasted four Pinots, all 2016 vintages from different villages in Cote de Nuits. True to Burgundy distinctive terroir, the wines show different characters. I like the delicate aromas and velvety structure of Fixin, a lesser-known small appellation with only 80ha under vines. In comparison, its neighbour Marsannay, the latest, bigger and more well-known appellation, produces wine with bright red fruits. Vosne-Romanée, with multi-layered aromas and freshness, is my favourite. The two plots of vineyard, next to the family house, are located at a higher altitude. In contrast, the wine from Morey Saint-Denis is sturdy with a darker fruits profile and a firm tannin. This is why Burgundy is unique - every appellation, no matter how close they are, has its own interpretation of Pinot Noir.

Jean-Nicolas met music producer Jay Boberg 30 years ago when he was in the US. Sharing the same philosophies about life, wine and music and especially the passion for Pinot Noir from Oregon, the pair eventually founded Nicolas-Jay in 2013. Jean-Nicolas was excited to take what he learnt from Burgundy to a new region with different climate and soil.

Unlike Burgundy, Oregon has a wet spring but dry summer. There are also differences in the soil, clones and working attitude. Burgundian is more intuitive whereas Oregonian is more technical. Jean-Nicolas was humble to admit that he also has to learn from his US colleagues.

At the moment, Nicolas-Jay only produces Pinot Noir. They source grapes from three vineyards sites in Willamette Valley in Oregon, make three single-vineyard wines and two blends using grapes from across the valley. Comparing to Burgundy, the Oregon wine is riper and more fruit-forward but there are still variations in different sites. The 2017 wine from the organic, dry farmed Nysa vineyard is generous with a softer tannin while the same vintage wine from the cooler, biodynamically farmed Momtazi vineyard is more focused, uplifted and structured. The 2017 Own-Rooted Pinot Noir was made from vines at least 30 years old and planted on their own roots. The wine has a more savoury note and it will be interesting to see how it develops. Jean-Nicolas also showed us three vintages of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, 2017, 2016 and 2015 to compare the different vintage conditions and evolvement.

The only white wine we tried was Hautes-Côtes de Nuits ‘Clos Saint-Philibert’ 2016 from Domaine Méo-Camuzet, a very pleasant wine that Jean-Nicolas described as a cross between Chablis and Meursault. It possesses the freshness and mineral character of Chablis and at the same time, the ripe stone fruits aromas and richness of Meursault. Cotes de Nuits is a red wine region but this particular vineyard is at an altitude of 1,200ft with stony soil. Jean-Nicolas explained that Pinot Noir grown there will lack richness and volume, but the terroir is just perfect for a remarkable Chardonnay.

Running two wine estates thousands of kilometres apart and with harvests pretty much at the same time is not easy. Jean-Nicolas said he is lucky that he can rely on resident winemaker Tracy Kendall. He goes to Oregon around four times a year and definitely at harvest. Burgundy harvest is compact and shorter so he is able to catch the end of Oregon harvest, which spreads over a longer period of time.

Both Domaine Méo-Camuzet and Nicolas-Jay are available from Watson’s Wine.

Friday 13 March 2020

China’s low-latitude high-altitude wines

Yunnan province maybe too warm for vine growing but it is more than compensated by the high altitude. The vineyards in Shangri-la, the Tibetan highland in the northwest of Yunnan adjacent to Sichuan and Tibet, are planted above 2,000, and up to 2,900m.

At present, there are less than ten wineries in Yunnan of which three are only making ice wine. Thanks to friend and winemaker Ian Dai, we visited four of them in the cold month of January, experiencing first hand the challenges of making wine in such a remote place.

Shangri-la Winery (香格里拉酒業) is state-owned and the biggest in Yunnan. The company was set up 20 years ago with the intention to make Barley wine (青稞酒) but came across some healthy old vines in the region. It then pioneered grape growing and is now sourcing grapes from over 800 ha of vineyards spread among 168 villages and 320 blocks. Manager Li Da (李达) showed us a few vineyard sites. The slightly lower vineyards at around 2,200m are planted with red grape varieties dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon but the company also started planting Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot about 5 years ago. Chardonnay was planted at higher vineyard site between 2,800 and 2,900m. We tasted only three wines, Chardonnay, Syrah and Marsan (Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon) and they were good with fresh acidity and lively fruit characters. I was pleasantly surprised by the Cabernet Sauvignon which I half-expected might be too oak dominate but it was not the case at all.

We continued down the Mekong River on a winding road to CiZhong (茨中), where winemaking was introduced by the French missionaries around 150 years ago and there are still old vines of Rose Honey (a Vitis Vinifera x Vitis Labrusca hybrid) grown within the church walls of CiZhong. Bertrand Cristau, a Frenchman based in Shanghai, had a calling to revive the missionaries’ winegrowing activity after his first visit to the region in early 2010. He eventually set up Xiaoling Estate (霄嶺) in 2013, a small outfit with only 3 ha of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenere and Chardonnay scattered in four villages nearby. The winemaker for the first two vintages were a Swiss winemaker but since 2017, he engaged a Chinese winemaker Mu Chao (牟超) with experience in Burgundy and Sonoma. The barrel samples we tasted, 2018 Merlot, 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2017 Cabernet/Merlot blend, were well-integrated with discreet oak and showed good potential. They only made 15,000 bottles in 2019 but Bertrand is planning to experiment with more grape varieties such as Pinot Noir and Syrah.

The next day we ventured to the village Adong (阿東) at 2,600m above-sea-level, home to the most internationally-known Yunnan wine Ao Yun (敖雲). We were greeted by the stunning snow-covered vineyard view against steep slopes and vineyard manager Rémi Vincent, who thoroughly explained the set up of Ao Yun and its terroir. Apparently, it is not common at all to have that much snow on the vineyard and we considered ourselves lucky to be treated with such an impressive view! Ao Yun was the result of a painstaking 4-year search for the perfect wine-growing site in China by the late winemaker Tony Jordan of Moët-Hennessy. The estate sources grapes from 28ha of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Petit-Verdot between 2,200 and 2,600m altitude tended by 120 families under the strict supervision of Ao Yun viticulture team. Retailed at around HK$2,500 (USD300) per bottle, it is the most expensive wine from China and for a reason. Average yield is only 20-25hl/ha and all wine is aged in barrel (50% new and 50% one year old) for around 15 months. Since wine is less expressive at high altitude, blending is done in the lower altitude of Hong Kong. Only 20,000 bottles of wine are made. The 2018 and 2019 barrel samples we tested were from different villages and they were all dense, pretty and polished.

Just down the road of Ao Yun is the mini-winery of my friend Ian, who makes wine under the label Xiao Pu (小圃酿造). The Chardonnay was sourced from vineyards close by, fermented with wild yeast and skin contact then aged in old barrels. The wine is the complete opposite style of Ao Yun’s – fresh, pure and  exciting. I couldn’t help but wonder the human terroir factor. When the grapes are picked and how the wine is made certainly have a major impact of the final style. 2018 is Ian’s first vintage in Yunnan (Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon) and he also makes 6 wines with grapes sourced from Ningxia.

Li Da, Bertrand, Rémi and Ian all believe Shangri-la presents a more favourable terroir for growing vines. The Meili Snow Mountain (梅里雪山) at 6,740m above sea level north of Shangri-la blocks the humid air from Indian Ocean therefore the area enjoys a dry growing season with between 300 and 600mm annual rainfall. The mountain terroir and high altitude result in high diurnal temperature difference and cool summer with average temperature around 23ºC that allows grapes to ripen slowly and retains acidity. Rémi further elaborated that comparing to Bordeaux, the vineyards receive 2 hours less sunshine because of the shade created by the mountains. However, the intense UV light at such high altitude enables riper tannin. The veraison period is also 15-25 days longer than in Bordeaux and harvest can be up to 10 weeks from the first week of September until the second week of November. Li Da said winter temperature can be -8 to -10ºC but it is not over a prolong period therefore vines do need to be buried under soil for protection.

In this respect, Shangri-la has advantages over Yantai (煙台) in the eastern coast of China where rainfall is abundant, and Ningxia (寧夏) in the west where the short growing season often results in unripe tannin especially in Cabernet Sauvignon. However, Shangri-la is not without challenges. The region is not easily accessible and electricity not reliable. The winery of Shangri-la Winery is closer to Lijiang, some 300km from the vineyards and grapes have to be trucked over 5 hours for processing at harvest. When we were there, the main road over the mountain pass and airport were closed because of bad weather, and it took us 10 hours for a 400km bus ride from Lijiang to Deqin (德欽), , the town closest to the vineyard sites! The other issue is labour as the wineries have to compete with the mushroom industry for labour during mushroom picking season in summer. On top of this is the cost, only viticultural expense including leasing of vineyard and labour is a whopping Rmb5,500/mu (over HK$90,000/ha).

Unless the infrastructure and transportation are vastly improved, wine from Shangri-la will remain niche and premium. Perhaps we just have to accept the fact that the wine indeed comes from a lost paradise.

Both Xiaoling and Ao Yun are available from Watson’s Wine.

Friday 14 February 2020

Domaine Franco-Chinois re-visit

When I visited Canaan Wine (迦南酒業) and its sister winery Domaine Franco-Chinois (中法莊園), located in Huailai (懷來) in Hebei province back in mid 2017, the wines were not commercially available despite the fact that wine has been made since 2003. The selection of wine I tasted then was much better than some of the more famous Chinese brands but the owner thought that it was still not good to be released.

Therefore I was glad to finally have seen and tasted Canaan Wine, under the name 詩百篇, at Shanghai Pudao retail shop cum wine bar in November 2019, and even more excited to visit the winery again in the beginning of 2020.

Canaan Wine was launched in 2018 but they decided to use the brand name 詩百篇 to avoid confusion with another winery in Ningxia called Kanaan Winery (迦南美地酒莊). The name 詩百篇 suits well because the Taiwanese owner is a Christian and the name implies hymn and also has a poetic connotation in Chinese.

Most wineries in China only focus on Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux blend and Chardonnay regardless if the soil and climate are suitable for these varieties. Cannan is creative and has also planted Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo and Syrah at different attitude between 500 and 900m, spread over 300ha. Winemaker Zhao Desheng likes to experiment with clones. He has 10 clones of Cabernet Sauvignon and 7 clones of Pinot Noir. He explained that different clones have different expressions even fermented with the same yeasts and aged in same barrels therefore blending them together with give more complexity to the final wine.

The Riesling 2017 is refreshing with abundant lime aroma not dissimilar to Clare Valley’s while the 2017 Syrah has a pleasant peppery nose and integrated tannin. I like the lively 2017 Pinot Noir which has potential to develop further in bottle. The 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Grand Reserve shows depth and is well balanced.

Another impressive wine was the Domaine Franco-Chinois 2013 Marselan (we tasted this alongside 2014 vintage). Marselan is a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache developed in the 1960s in France. It was planted at Domaine Franco-Chinois in early 2000, then a Sino-French joint venture before being acquired by Canaan in 2010. It was the first planting of Marselan in China and it prove to adapt well. It is easier to manage than Cabernet Sauvignon and is gaining popularity in China. Although Deshang said it is not easy to make an outstanding Marselan, this 7 years old Marselan is still bursted with red fruit aromas supported by great acidity and I’m pretty convinced that this is one of the outstanding Marselan in China.

Apparently, when the owner of Canaan decided to make wine in China, they spent three years between 2006 and 2009 researching 16 regions in China and decided Huailai in Hebei is the most suitable in terms of soil  and climate. The region has been growing table grapes for 1,000 years and China’s first bottle of dry white wine was made here in 1979.

The wine is not available in Hong Kong yet but if you are visiting Beijing, drop by the winery where the beautiful tasting room has just been built. It is just 90 minutes from the centre of Beijing.