Friday, 24 February 2017

Japan study trip - wine and sake

It was the annual HKIWSC wine judges study trip again and this time we went to Japan for both wineries and sake breweries visit.

After a stressful start of missing the train by five minutes that delayed the trip by one hour in the first day, we eventually arrived Yamanashi, the oldest wine region in Japan where we visited two wineries, Grace Winery (available from wine’n’things) and Chateau Mercian.

The two wineries are at the extreme opposite but both share the same commitment to quality. Grace is a small family owned estate managed by father and daughter while Chateau Mercian is one of the largest wineries in Japan run by a team of winemakers and corporate staff.

Koshu is the native Japanese grape variety that has been cultivated in Yamanashi for more than one thousand years. It is traditionally trained in pergola system but the quality was usually substandard because of high yield. To improve the quality, Grace Wine decided to plant Koshu in VPS (vertical positioning system) to maximise sunshine thereby concentrating the flavour. In contrast, Chateau Mercian continues with the pergola training but  experimented with ‘Ichi-monji’ spur pruning that resulted in lower yield and better quality fruits, instead of using the traditional ‘X shape’ cane pruning. It is interesting to learn that two very different approaches could achieve the same objective.

We tasted four Koshu from each winery. From Grace, the Koshu were all vinified the same way in stainless tank but with the fruits from different regions and vineyards. All the wines shared the same delicacy and purity but with different expressions. The Private Reserve 2015, made from grapes from Katsunuma village, has more pronounced white fruits notes probably because of the clay soil where vines are grown; while the Cuvée Misawa Akeno Koshu, a single vineyard wine, is precise with intense minearality and steeliness. This horizontal tasting was a perfect showcase of how a neutral grape could shine given the right management at vineyards and cellars.

At Chateau Mercian, two of the Koshu were fermented in stainless steel tank while the two Koshu Gris de Gris (2015 and 2005 vintages), had skin contact. The 2015 Gris de Gris was fermented and aged in oak, giving a more structured, slightly tannic, smoky wine with more yellow fruits aromas. Koshu, because of its delicate flavour, is great with sashimi but this Gris de Gris would be good with more flavourful dishes such as yakitori.

The other highlights were:
Grace Extra Burt 2011: a very small production of Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine with 36 months on lees, was made from 100% Chardonnay grown at Misawa Estate in Akeno that has the longest sunshine hour in Japan. Its vividness and   purity are not dissimilar to English sparkling wine.

Grace Cuvée Misawa Rouge Ridge System 2009, a 100% Cabernet Franc again from the Misawa
vineyard in Akeno, was the most impressed in the line up with ripe fruits, integrated palate and elegance. It was only made in limited volume in the best year and is not for sale. We were very privileged to have tasted one of the  547 bottles made.

Chateau Mercian Syrah 2013 from the 620m altitude Mariko Vineyard in Nagano Prefecture, a typical cool climate Syrah with lovely white pepper nose and fine tannin. Only 1,700 bottles were made.

Apart from wineries, we also visited two sake breweries, Izumi Bashi (available from city;‘super) in Ebina and Nechi Otokoyama in Niigata. I don’t know a lot about sake but definitely want to learn more after this trip.

At Izumi Bashi, owner Yuichi Hasahiba gave us an intense course on sake brewing and a practical session on sake making - mixing steamed rice and kouji rice, as well as kimoto (mashing the rice mixture). This was followed by a 8-course Japanese fusion dinner paired with 10 sake from sparkling to sweet at his own restaurant to showcase the versatility of his sake.

At Nechi Otokoyama, sake was made like wine with vintages as owner Yoshiki Watanabe believes wine and sake share the same principles. We were shown the rice fields along the banks of Nechi River before having a very informative tasting of  three vintages of sake made with Gohyakumangoku and Koshi-Tanrei respectively.

The trip was educational as well as super fun, with lots of delicious food and the snow was added bonus. Thanks again Kenichi, Micky and Sarah for organising another  memorable HKIWSC judge trip! Looking forward to the next one.

Friday, 13 January 2017

The baron of Barossa

Peter Lehmann founded one of the biggest wineries in Barossa but it is not because of the size that he is called the baron of Barossa, but because of how he founded the winery.

Back in late 1970, Peter Lehmann was working at Saltram where they bought grapes from some 150 independent grapegrowers. When Saltram decided not to do so anymore because of surplus, Peter realised that most of these growers’ livelihood was at stake. Therefore, instead of breaking the bad news to them, he resigned from Saltram, bought the grapes from the growers and made the wine with the breakaway team. In doing so, he saved the vineyards which would have otherwise been bulldozed. After 30 years, Peter Lehmann Wines is still working with these growers, most now in their third generations, and making everyday drinking to premium wine using their grapes. Peter, therefore, is highly regarded in Barossa and Australia for being the saviour of the Barossa vineyards.

Ian Hongell is the third generation chief winemaker at Peter Lehmann Wines, who has been with the winery since 1998 and was under the mentorship of Andrew Wigan, then second generation chief winemaker and one of the breakaway team members back in the 70s. Prior to joining Peter Lehmann, Ian has worked at Penfolds, California and France. During his first visit to Hong Kong recently, we discussed his winemaking philosophy and tasted a few of his gems over a delicious lunch.

Ian’s biggest frustration is generalisation. A lot of people think all Barossa wines are heavy, jammy and rounded but there are in fact many different styles depending on the winemakers and where the fruits come from. For him, he believes oak gives structure to wine but it should only be in the background, not in the wine as it will mask the sense of place. Therefore, he has cut down the use of new oak and oak ageing time. This is certainly reflected in the wine we tasted. 

Portrait Eden Valley Dry Riesling 2015:
A fresh, crisp wine with intense lime and apple aromas, the wine was made in tank with no malolactic fermentation to highlight its freshness. Ian called this his cocktail wine they he enjoys in any hot afternoon. Portrait is Peter Lehmann mid-price range that showcases the true characters of the Barossa.

Masters Wigan Eden Valley Riesling 2011:
One of the Masters Collection series named after Andrew Wigan, the wine was made from grapes at the best and cool sites at Eden Valley, and only released after five years of bottle ageing. It is multi-layered with a hint of honey but none of the petrol note that is too often found in young Riesling from warm climate.

Masters Mentor Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon 2012:
Another wine from the Masters Collection with structure and finesse; The cool 2012 allowed the wine to develop elegant blackcurrant fragrance with a savoury notes on palate. Apparently, Barossa is actually considered as a relatively cool climate region in Australia. Hard to believe but then everything is relative.

Stonewell Shiraz 2012 and 1988:
This is the best Shiraz of the vintage and the best possible expression of the Barossa. Ian presented two vintages, 24 years apart, to show the longevity of the wine. The 2012 was still tight but has a great depth while the 1988 was generous and opulent.

Ian is proud of the evolution of the wines over the years even under the challenge of climate change. By tackling the issue through vineyard management, picking grapes earlier and adjusting winemaking techniques, he is able to make wines with bright fruits and freshness rather than heavy jammy monsters.

Peter Lehmann Wines is available from ASC Fine Wines.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Food and wine - mix and match

There are a lot of wine competitions in the world but only a handful judge with food. The Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Wine & Spirit Competition (CX HKIWSC) is one of the few and in my opinion, probably has the most comprehensive food/wine matching category.

Entries of CX HKIWSC come from all over the world but the target is primarily Asian markets, hence judges, except one of the directors Debra Meiburg MW, and an international VIP guest judge, are all Asian wine professionals. Realising that Asian wine markets are still developing, the competition incorporated the food/wine matching category since it inaugurated in 2009. Instead of pairing all the entries with one or a few dishes, wineries can choose which dishes they think their wines would match best and then enter accordingly. The competition started with four Chinese dishes and now has expanded to 12 Asian dishes from five countries. I am lucky to be part of this oldest competition in Asia since the beginning and witness the evolution of the wine/food matching category.

Judges assess the quality and typicity when judging wine. However, when judging food/wine matching, we have to focus on the interaction between food and wine. A wine might not be outstanding on its own but could do wonder when combine with food. While there are guidelines of wine/food matching, such as matching according to flavour intensity, cultural background and personal preferences also play a role. A judge who loves spicy food would prefer a red wine to accentuate the spiciness while another judge may want an equally intense fruity/off-dry wine to tone down the spiciness. Both wines fit the guideline of matching wine and food based on flavour intensity but the which matching is better is subjective depending on the individual’s palate.

Therefore, the CX HKIWSC food/wine matching session is always the most fun and exciting as judges with different nationalities and background will debate on each pairing. Last year, the organiser also invited food and lifestyle journalists to assess a few pairings alongside judges, and it was interesting to realise that we have different priorities. Wine judges usually have a taste of wine, then the food followed by the wine again to see if the wine tastes better or worse, while most media judges would have the food first, then wine and food again to see if how the food fares. Although we had different opinions in some cases, we in fact agreed on over 75% of the pairings.

Most consumers may not know the characteristics of the wine but they know the flavour intensity of typical Asian dishes. The result of the food/wine matching give consumers indications on the wine styles and thus help them select wine from the myriad available in the marketplace. Once they are more familiar with different wine styles, they will be more confidence to try new wine styles and experiment with more food/wine  matching.

Here are the trophy wines for the competition dishes, see if you agree.


The Kings Bastard Chardonnay 2015, Marisco Vineyards, New Zealand

Monsoon Valley Blended Rosé 2014 Siam Winery, Thailand

Asia de Cuba 2015, Hiestand Weingut & Hofbrennerei, Germany


Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 Yealands Estate Wines, New Zealand

Mulderbosch Faithful Hound Red 2014 Mulderbosch Vineyards, South Africa (available from Altaya)

Nest Egg Shiraz 2013, Bird in Hand Winery, Australia (available from wine'n'things)

Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Achleiten 2015, Domäne Wachau, Austria


Eden Hall Shiraz 2015, Eden Hall, Australia

Tamanohikari Junmai Ginjo Shukon 2015 TAMANOHIKARI Sake Brewing Co, Japan

Porão Velho 2014, Encosta da Vila, Portugal

Val du Charron Black Countess 2013

FIOL Prosecco DOC

Friday, 16 December 2016

My favourite wine places in Hong Kong

Hong Kong real estates is one of the most expensive in the world and this naturally creates a vicious cycle that pushes up rent, salary and cost. To survive, restaurants and bars have to mark up significantly, often much more than double; and this makes consumers think twice before opening a decent bottle of wine.

Luckily, there are a few places in this expensive city that wine lovers can enjoy a bottle of two of wine at very reasonable prices in relaxed atmosphere. If needed, friendly sommeliers are on hand to make recommendation. What I like about these places are the non-intimidating environment and the availability of non mainstream wines. In fact, when I’m there, I often just ask them to recommend interesting wine that suits  the budget.

Le Bistro Winebeast is a retail shop cum restaurant. The focus is France and Spain but charming sommelier Cristina is slowly expanding the wine list and I’m glad to say that the first country she is working on is South Africa! The big selling point of Winebeast is that guests can buy the wine at retail price and take away, or even better, drink at the restaurant with delicious menu prepared by Chef Johan that changes regularly. In case you don’t want a full meal, just browse the shelves and pick the bottle you fancy, then enjoy it at the high tables with a few plates of tapas. I was there a few times for Sunday afternoon drink and dinners with friends, all occasions have been lovely. Cristina also hosts winemakers events so make sure you are on her mailing list if you want to talk to winemakers up close in a cosy surrounding.

Winebeast address: G/F & 1/F Tai Yip Building, 141 Thomson Road, Wanchai

Beta Wine Studio, a wine lounge, is the new kid in town. It is basically a retail shop but if you are a member, you can drink the wine while relaxing on the sofa. Although not a restaurant, cheese and ham are readily available. Laid back sommelier Ali said the studio serves semi-niche wine that excites the palate, and he is proud that he has the biggest selection of premium South African wine (24 in total) and Lebanese wine. Forget about the wine list, ask Ali to recommend based on your preference and spending. He changes the list every few days and is happy to share his cellar in case you prefer older vintages. Located in SOHO, most customers have a bottle of wine at the lounge before getting another bottle for dinner. By the way, the studio is the first in Asia (and third in the world) where you can order wine from Deliveroo.

Beta Wine Studio is located at Basement, 46 Elgin Street. SOHO, Central

Le Quinze Vins (LQV) is a wine bar that only serves French wine where the wine comes directly from its mother shop in Paris. The wine list is a good 30 minutes read for anyone who wants to know about wines from all French appellations. It has a big selection of Bordeaux and Burgundy wines but for me, th
e most interesting are the wines from the less well-known regions such as Jura and Loire. I read the wine list every time but always at the end ask recommendation from the friendly staff under the leadership of knowledgeable Chyson. I have to say this is the most relaxing French wine bar in the city. Cheese and ham platters are served but customers can also takeaway any wine for an extra $100 per bottle to enjoy with their dinners elsewhere.

Le Quinze Vins has two outlets:
G/F., 9 Swatow Street, Wanchai
G/F, 32 Gage Street, Central

These are the few of my favourite wine places. Although with different operations and wine selection, they have the same philosophy which is to share their passions of wine with customers in a comfortable environment without intimidating them and at a reasonably price (a very good bottle can be as little as $200). I just hope we can have more Cristina, Ali and Chyson around.

Left to right: Cristina, Winebeast; Ali, Beta Wine Studio; Chyson, Le Quinze Vins