Friday, 13 October 2017

Penfolds recorking clinic

My previous encounters with Peter Gago, the Chief winemaker and the face of Penfolds, always involved tastings and comparing various Penfolds wines and vintages. Our latest meeting was surrounded by even more Penfolds, some were rare and limited release wines, but we didn’t taste a single drop. Peter was explaining the recorking service that Penfolds has been providing to its customers around the world since 1991.

Penfolds Recorking Clinic was inspired by Chateau Lafite-Rothschild who recorked old bottles for customers. While the French did this subtlety, the Aussie took the concept to a new height by flying a team of winemakers and a manual corking machine to provide this ultimate after-sales service to customers who own   any Penfolds red wine older than 15 years old free of charge.

The Hong Kong Clinic returned after its inauguration in 2001. This time, more than 400 back vintage wines were registered including the first vintage releases of Magill Estate Shiraz and RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz tracing back to 1983 and 1997 respectively, not to mention Penfolds Grange and St. Henri Shiraz spanning decades. Among the customers are movie star Jackie Chan, who sent in a few cases of Penfolds, and a gentleman who took half a day off and brought over 30 bottles from his father’s collection.


The fill level of the wine is the first thing to be inspected at the Clinic. The level of wine decreases over year due to evaporation so it is natural that the older the wine, the lower the fill level. The second step is to open the wine and assess the condition. Around 15ml of wine will be poured for tasting and winemakers will then advise on cellaring and drinking windows, after which bottle is then topped up with the later vintage of the same wine. In between stage, inert gas is bumped into the wine to display oxygen in the bottle. If the wine condition is satisfactory, it will be certified, recorked with a new dated cork, capsuled and finally beautifully wrapped in tissue paper before returning to the customers. Although the process will not extend the life of the wine, it nevertheless stops the wine from further deterioration.


However, if the fill level of the wine is way lower that the vintage indicated, or it is at the low shoulder already, or if the wine passes the peak, Penfolds will still service the wine but only put a blank cork without any capsule. Customers are therefore able to enjoy the wine but the wine will have no resale value.

Health check was the reason when Penfolds opened the Recorking Clinic 26 years ago but as Peter elaborated, the Clinic has also become an ‘Authenticity Clinic’ as customers can trace the bottle using the unique certification number. It also takes the bad wine out of the secondary market. Sometimes the Penfolds team might come across rare and old bottles in good conditions, and they would offer to buy back from customers. But above all, it is the engagement with customers first hand that keeps the Clinic running. Peter said 20 years, Australia customers went to the Clinic with the wines and kids. Now, these kids grow up and will take the wines to Clinic with their own children. The sentiment as well as quality is the secret to build customer loyalty.

Friday, 15 September 2017

China’s hidden secret

Those following the China wine industry for a while probably agree that it is going in the right direction.The outstanding wineries that are on everyone lips are Silver Heights, Helan Qingxue, Skyline, Chateau Nine Peaks, to name a few. And I’m glad to add another one on the list: Canaan Wine (迦南酒業) in Hebei. The only issue is that the wine is not commercially available ... yet.

Founded in 2009, Canaan Wine is a new project of Domaine Franco-Chinois, a Sino-French joint venture winery more focus on scientific research. It has 300 ha under vines on different altitudes: 500m for red varieties, 600m for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and 900m for aromatic white such as Sauvignon Blanc.

I was lucky to have visited the vineyard and winery with winemaker Zhao Desheng. The vineyard is meticulous and they have their own nursery. I was even more impressed with the winery. It is clean and well maintained but more importantly, there are small stainless steel tanks, the first time I saw in China wineries! Not only do small tanks allow experimentation, they also provide more flexibility so there won’t be half empty (or half full) tanks where wine is more prone to oxidation and spoilage. The barrel rooms are temperature control and there are a full bottling line and laboratory.

Desheng spoilt me with the tasting. The first was a 2016 Chardonnay barrel sample (100% new). It has intense spices and yellow fruits on the nose but the palate is fresh with good acidity and lingering length. It was a nice surprise and set the pace for the tasting. Next to follow were bottled Cabernet Sauvignon (2012, 2013, 2014), a 2012 Syrah Reserve and a 2012 Domaine Franco-Chino Reserve. The wines are of different styles but they are all integrated and exhibit a certain elegance.

I persuaded Desheng to give me some Pinot Noir. We tasted the 2015 tank sample which was vibrant, full of cherries and balanced. The 2013 in bottle was more restrained with developed bouquet of spices and pepper.

I thought this was a perfect end of the tasting and I was shown a botrytis Sauvignon Blanc. It has dried fruits and nuts aromas, a little volatile acidity and good acidity. I suddenly very envied Desheng’s job. He said the owner said the wine is not good enough to be released so he has to keep trying and has all the freedom to experiment. I didn’t visit too many wineries in China and Canaan Wine is one of the most un-Chinese winery I visited.

Canaan Wine certainly has ambition. They are developing a tasting room/visitor centre with catering facilities so they have all the intention to make the wine commercially available. Let’s hope we don’t need to wait for too long.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Burgundy undiscovered appellations

It was the annual Bourgogne Week in Hong Kong and this year the spokesperson was Anne Moreau, owner of Domaine Louis Moreau in Chablis. Anne shared a few insights at the tasting.

We all know that Burgundy is a very tiny region with a big name, but I was nevertheless surprised when Anne put it in figures: Burgundy produces only 0.5% of the word’s production but commands 3% of the trade. Even with that tiny volume, Burgundy is available in 177 countries out of 196 in the world, Albeit a lot is by allocation and in small volume, still it is impressive.

While China is a big potential market, it is a challenge for the Burgundians. Most consumers are still buying wine by labels and they generally prefer oaky red wine. For now, Anne said they are happy to let Bordeaux, with the quantity, marketing power and resources, to open up China and other new markets because consumers, once they start drinking, always move from Bordeaux to Burgundy, which is the destination. This echoed another Burgundy producer, Marco Caschera from Vincent Girardin, who we had lunch a couple of weeks ago. Judging by the fact that Hong Kong, a traditional Bordeaux stronghold and is now Burgundy’s fifth biggest market in terms of value, the statement certainly rings true.

Burgundy produces around 2/3 white and 1/3 red. But in Hong Kong, red Burgundy accounted for 76% of value, mostly from the village and above appellations of Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits. The relatively small share of white wine is also mainly from the better known and iconic AOC’s. Probably this is the reason why the theme of this year’s Bourgogne Week is ‘Bourgogne AOSs Undiscovered Treasures’ that focused on the lesser known regions such as Petit Chablis, Givry, Mercurey and Montagny in Côte Chalonnaise;  as well as Mâcon Davayé and Saint-Véran in Mâcon, not to mention the simple but refreshing Bourgogne Aligoté.

I think it is a positive sign that BIVB (Bourgogne Wine Board) is pushing these smaller names. The wines may not be as complex and long lasting as their big brothers but they are accessible, affordable and enjoyable. We cannot just merely focus on the top wines and shun the rest as this will only reinforce the ‘snobbish’ image of wine, misleading average consumers that wine must be expensive.

Back to the vintage, Anne said 2015 was good for both white and red with balanced fruits and freshness. There were a few 2015 white wines at the tasting but in general, I enjoyed the 2014 whites more, especially Chablis. I’m looking forward to tasting some 2015 red maybe next year.

Here are some of the ‘undiscovered treasures’ that I will be happily sharing:

White:
Domaine Barraud Pouilly-Fuissé Alliance Vergisson 2015, from Syba (China) Ltd
Domaine Denoît Ente Bourgogne Aligoté 2014, from Burgundy Wine Co Ltd
Domaine Fabien Coche Bourgogne 2015, from The Juicy Grape
Domaine Patrick Hudelot Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits, Les Plançons 2011, from Natural Food & Beverages
Domaine Piguet Chouet Monthélie Cuvée Clara 2014, from Vins & Vignerons
Domaine Vrignaud Chablis 1er Cru, Fourchaume 2015, from Montrose Fine Wines
Louis Moreau Chablis 2015, from Continental Wines
Olivier Leflaive Montagny 1er Cru, Les Bonneveaux 2015, from Corney & Barrow

Red:
Bruno Clair Masannay Les Vaudenelles 2013, from Altaya Wines
Domaine Fabien Coche Mersault 2014, from The Juicy Grape

Friday, 16 June 2017

Lunch with Maison Vincent Girardin

Marco Caschera, the Commercial Director of Maison Vincent Girardin, is quite a character. Probably because of his Italian origin (he was born in France but his parents are Italians), he talked non-stop during the very entertaining media lunch where he presented his still in barrel 2015 white Burgundy. He also made a few daring comments that made us laugh, probably upset some people but certainly have the ring of truth.

Marco called his white wine ‘no makeup’ Chardonnay because it is fine, elegant and precise. He admitted that in the beginning of 2000, Vincent Girardin wines were about strong extraction and new oak but had since backtracked. He said it is important that wine first has to show fruits and then terroir. New oak masks the soul of wine and they certainly do not want to make American wine in Burgundy!

Because of this philosophy, Marco compared wines from 2003, an exceptionally hot year in Burgundy, to dead babies, that the wine was good when young but ageing potential was limited, except for the very few wine with great terroir.

We also had a geology lesson from Marco on how hills were formed in Burgundy and soil eroded resulting in stony slopes with thin top soil and deep clay soil at the bottom of the hill. He said wines from stony parcels, like south Meursault, are more tense and elegant with pronounced minerality/saltiness, whereas wines from heavily clay soil, as in north Meursault, are round and supple. To emphasise his point, he further commented  that if a winemaker made a round and soft wine from a stony vineyard, it would be a failure in winemaking technique!

Back to his wines, 2015 was blessed with a farvourable growing season, having no disease and a cool harvest. All the six wines we tasted were certainly elegant with no makeup and terroir expressive. The outstanding ones are:

Meursault 1er Cru Les Perrières 2015: Perrières means stones and the site is considered as the Grand Cru of Merusault.

Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru 2015: Elegant and tense with minerality jumping out of the glass. According to Marco, the site has the poorest soil with only chalk hence the tight structure of the wine.

I asked Marco about what he thinks about New World wine, which is taking market share from the Old World. He was very relaxed and welcome the fact that New World wine in expanding the wine market. He said consumers drinking New World wine today will drink Burgundy one day. It is just like people drinking Bordeaux and now all drink Burgundy. Burgundy is the final destination that once wine lovers are there, they will not turn back. Well, I kind of agree but I will also certainly sneak out the back door of the Burgundian world and enjoy all the great New World wines! 😉

Vincent Girardin is available from Altaya Wines.