Friday, 31 March 2017

Another look at New Zealand Pinot Noir

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is a crowd pleaser but doesn’t really excite. To me, most Central Otago Pinot Noirs fall in the same category. They are pleasant, well-made but predictable. In contrast, Pinot Noir from Marlborough and Martinborough are more interesting.

I was proofed wrong at the New Zealand Pinot Noir SPIT Workshop, presented by Liam Steevenson MW and organised by Meiburg Wine Media. We tasted 12 wines from six different regions in New Zealand and those from Central Otago were among the best in the flight. According to Liam, Central Otago winemakers are moving away from the typical bold and heavy Pinot Noir and opting for more gentle extraction and using less new oak.

Liam commented, ‘A lot of winemakers and wine lovers alike have soft spots for Pinot Noir. It is a grape with more soul and substances than other grape varieties, with a huge reflection of the place. Its delicate skin also makes it tricky to handle at the cellar. Winemakers have to extract the maximum colour and flavours but not too strong to extract the bitter tannin from the pips and stems.’

Partly because of its thin skin, Pinot Noir is temperamental and prone to climatic influence, therefore quality fluctuates a lot (just look at Burgundy!). However, it is the most consistent in New Zealand with more than 10 consecutive good vintages. Grown only in relative small areas, New Zealand Pinot Noirs bear the hallmark of purity, but they also display very different regional expression that Liam summed up as:

Marlborough: Limestone and volcanic soil, wine is bright, glossy, round with sweet fruit;
Martinborough: Heavy clay soil, wine is savoury and spicy with more width, a food wine (wineries also attributed this to the Dijon clone);
Central Otago: Continental climate, wine has more weight and structure with concentrated dark red fruits.

To be fair, I think New Zealand winemakers are getting out of the typical New Zealand mould. The flight of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc I judged at 2016 CX HKIWSC was not the ‘McDonald’s’ Sauvignon Blanc I tasted a few years ago. I hope more winemakers are exploring and respecting the diversity of their terroir.


Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2014, Martinborough: Earthy, spicy with firm tannin. A good example of Pinot from the region. Available from Altaya Wines.

Muddy Water Pinot Noir 2012, Waipara: Fresh with charming red fruits and a hint of spicy notes, silky tannin. Corney & Barrow.

Apparently, it is a true wild fermentation as the grapes were fermented in the vineyard with only gentle hand plunging down. Available from

Felton Road Calvert Pinot Noir 2014, Central Otago: Biodynamic wine, it is fresh and elegant with that lifted end palate that I always associate with biodynamic wine. Available from Watson’s Wine.

Prophet’s Rock Pinot Nori 2012, Central Otago: Red fruits and spices with a nice and round mid palate. Available from Ponti.

Kumeu River Hunting Hill Pinot Noir 2014, Auckland: Nice balance of fruits and spices. An elegant wine that rivals a lot of Burgundies. Available from wine’n’things.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Anteprima Amarone 2013, bottle and barrel samples tasting

Wine lovers may argue the best Italian wines are ABC, ABB or ABBC. Whatever it is, the ‘A’, stands for Amarone, is universally agreed that it is one of the top Italian wines.

Surprisingly, Amarone has a relatively short history. It was made accidentally in 1936 when a barrel of Recioto, then the apogee of every Valpolicella producer, was left over-fermented, resulting in a pleasing dry red wine that was slightly bitter, hence the name Amarone (a great bitter). The wine was eventually bottled in 1939 but it was always called ‘Recioto Amarone della Valpolicella’ — the dried version of Recioto until 1990 when it was granted the DOC status and the name Amarone della Valpolicella was adopted. 

The period of appassimento (drying process) of Amarone is less than that of Recioto and only around 35-40% of water is lost. Minimum ageing requirement is 24 months. It is a rich, big and structured wine with a minimum of 14% alcohol. Dried fruits, spices and chocolate dominate the nose. 

The style of Amarone has been evolving over years. The traditional style is earthy, complex with no noticeable oak influence but firm tannin. The modern style is bolder, more upfront with riper fruits, more extract and noticeable oak aromas, higher alcohol (can be up to 17%) and more residual sugar. Recently, the style is swinging back from the modern to traditional style and winemakers are making all kinds of Amarones in between. The trick, according to winemakers, is to find the balance so the wine is expressive and reflects the philosophy of the maker. Nevertheless, today’s winemakers are focusing on making more refined wine that reflects the land, the tradition and that can age gracefully. Elegant and drinkabilty are on nearly every winemaker’s lips!


I was privileged to have attended the press session of the Anteprima Amarone 2013 tasting - the release of the vintage, with other international wine writers. Served by sommeliers bringing the wine to us at the table, we could choose to taste bottle sample, barrel sample (some Amaroness are aged for 5 or 6 years before being released), or both. I chose to taste all 83 of them, first bottle sample followed by barrel samples.

Nearly all the wine were too young to drink but they all showed complexity and depth in various degrees. I focused on the style and agree that more winemakers are moving away from the bold and jammy style, which for me is a positive direction. Amarone is a big wine already and most winemakers I talked to describe Amarone as a ‘meditation’ wine. The modern style may be pleasing at first impression but it is too heavy to have more than a couple of sips. To me, a meditation wine is about longevity and gracefulness. Therefore, a perfect Amarone should be powerful yet subtle, flavourful but with the freshness to support it. 

Quite some wines stood out at the tasting, including:



During the trip, we also visited a few wineries and here are the few that were particularly impressive:

Accordini Stefano, Fumane, Valpolicella Classica
Founded in the 70s with vineyards at 550m altitude, this family owned winery came a full circle by first having  vineyards in pergola system and wines aged in tonneau (900 l barrel), then changing to guyot system and ageing in barrique (225l barrel) sone 20 years ago and now back to pergola system and ageing in tonneau. The philosophy of Tiziano, the second generation now in charge, is to observe tradition but also ready to change. 

Accordini Stefano Valpolicella Classico 2015 DOC: a refreshing wine with fresh cherry and violet.

Accordini Stefano Acinatico Ripasso 2008 DOC: a beautiful wine with dried fruit nose and a savoury palate. We compared this with the just released, concentrated, 2014 vintage, to show the ageing potential.

Damoli, Negrar, Valpolicella Classica
Probably one of the smallest wineries in the region with less than 3 ha of vineyard, it is a brother-sister-father venture with brother Daniele being the winemaker and father Bruno looking after the vineyard while sister Lara does the talking. They do a lot of experiment including a white Corvina (Biahcheté), a simple but pleasant wine. 

Damoli Checo Amarone Classico DOCG 2009: Black fruits, spices and chocolate mixed with a slight savoury notes. Its first vintage was 2005 and the wine only released after at least 5 years of ageing. They were generous to share a 2001 vintage, which was an experimental vintage and only 35 bottles left.

Secondo Marco: Fumane, Valpolicella Classica
Translated as ‘According to Marco’, owner and winemaker Marco Speri comes from one of the historical winemaking families but decided to started his own winery in 2008 to show wine lovers his way of interpreting the grapes by combining tradition and technology, by making wine the way his father did but with modern temperature control. It is hard to create your own identity under the shadow of a prominent family but Marco succeeded. His biggest compliment is that the old men in Valpolicella appreciate his wine. Well, I certainly do, not only the wine but also the labels.

Secondo Marco Valpolicella Classico 2015 DOC: lively, fresh cherries and good length. The label is a ballet  dancer to denote the lightness of the wine.

Secondo Marco Valpolicella Amarone 2010 DOCG: still very fresh, the wine is well-integrated with depth and structure. The weight-lifter on the label implies a powerful wine.

Monte del Frá Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Lena di Mezzo 2010: We had a vertical tasting of 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2009 vintages. The 2010 is a blend of black fruits, dried prune and spices with a soft, integrated palate. 

Monte del Frá Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Scarnocchio 2009: Scarnocchio is the ‘Grand Cru’ site, a very old terraced vineyard that lies within the 17.8 ha Lena di Mezzo. This is a complex wine with multiple bouquets, powerful yet austere. 

La Dama Recioto della Valpolicella Classico 2012 DOCG: Zesty with ginger and cinnamon and candied fruits. The grapes were from the parcel where the grapes reach a high sugar level yet maintain a high acidity, no wonder the liveliness. 

Aldegheri Lugana Cà Perlar 2015 DOC: Made with 100% Trebbiano di Lugana grapes and fermented after three weeks of drying then aged briefed in large old oak, the wine is fresh with yellow fruits, and a rich, mineral finish. One of the fine examples how a neutral grape could be made into an outstanding wine.

I Campi Soave Classico Campo Vulcano 2011 DOC: Soave is next to Valpolicella and some producers have vineyards in both regions. This Soave has intense aromas of citrus and yellow fruits, fresh acidity and persistent length.

For more information on Valpolicella region and its wines, check out the Consorzio’s website.

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.