Sunday, 29 December 2013

Towards a Hong Kong wine culture

I believe Hong Kong has great potential. However, although we drink the most wine in Asia (an annual 5 litres per capita), which is double that of the Japanese and five times as much as the Mainland Chinese, we are still trailing far behind other countries—only half of what the Americans drink (and 50% of Americans do not drink alcohol at all for religious and other reasons). Wine consumption in Hong Kong has been increasing ever since our Government abolished wine duties in 2008 but the growth rate is not fast. I, and most of us in the wine industry, drink over 100 litres per year, meaning that each of us is drinking for 20 people! I see two issues in Hong Kong: there are not enough real consumers, and those (I mean real consumers) who drink do not drink enough. The challenge to wine producers, therefore, is how to persuade the average Hong Kong consumers to drink more.

From a marketing perspective, Hong Kong is different from other countries. Whereas in most markets the entry level segment is the biggest, that is not the case in Hong Kong. We have a disproportionately big luxury/investment wine category at 28% by volume. And the biggest market by far is the mid-market, from HK$120 to HK$600 per bottle retail, with 60% (Debra Meiburg MW 2012 Hong Kong Wine Trade Guide). So for consumers who are interested in wine, price seems not to be a major concern. This might be explained by the ‘work hard, play hard’ altitude of most Hong Kong residents. We reward ourselves. Just look at the number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the city, and they are always full.

It seems that, unlike in other cash-strapped cities, Hong Kong people are willing to spend.  So why don’t more people drink? What it boils down to is that people just don’t understand wine. And, we in the industry don’t make it any easier for them. We talk technical stuff like tannin and acidity and we make them feel stupid if they can’t pronounce ‘terroir’ properly. In other words, we put consumers off wine by being too professional.

To make wine truly popular, we need to make it enjoyable. Coke is a highly precise drink with the exact same amount of syrup and pressure in every can, but the company doesn’t bother consumers with this. Consumers enjoy Coke because it is refreshing and they explore the different flavours and brands of soft drink to find their favourite. Starbucks didn’t lecture us about the correct temperature at which to drink coffee when they first came to Hong Kong, and now see how many coffee bars there are here! Wine may be slightly more complicated because of the many grape varieties and producing countries but it’s not impossible to make it simple and accessible. How about light and refreshing, soft and fruity, chewy and spicy, bold and savoury? These are descriptors that any consumer can grasp and imagine.

We don’t have a wine culture but we can develop one. We love food and we understand flavour pairings—look at all the different kinds of chilli sauce we have. So food is the logical key to introduce wine to consumers. But not those stiff, technical pairings that again put people off. Fongyee Walker, a friend and wine consultant based in Beijing, says that the Chinese always describe a meal as being comfortable or uncomfortable. They like enjoying food with friends and without worrying too much about manners. Food and wine pairing gives an excuse for consumers to try wine in a relaxed environment and build their confidence. A Chilean Pinot Noir can be just as good as a Barossa Shiraz to match with stir-fried beef with noodles in black bean sauce. It all depends on the individual consumer’s preference.

We eat Chinese meals most of the time but, sadly, not many mid-market Chinese restaurants offer wine. I hear lots of excuses, but I wish and hope that Chinese restaurateurs will one day soon realise the potential of having wine on the menu. The wine list doesn’t need to be long and winding—six to eight is adequate to start with—but the wine must be of good quality. People may not be able to tell the difference between wine varieties, but they know when a wine is not good. For me, a wine by the glass programme is the ideal way to start. It’s all about quality, not quantity. And in fact a few pioneer outlets have already demonstrated that having wine available not only increases their turnover but also customers’ loyalty.

We didn’t drink cappuccino 20 years ago, yet now the espresso machine is a trendy home appliance. I believe it’s only a matter of time before wine will be a normal item on the dinner table. After all, it’s a much better match for food than lemon tea!

The industry must unite to develop the wine culture. This is the only way to sustain a heathy market, benefiting everyone from producers and importers to restaurateurs and consumers.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

The Spanish flair

The partner country of this year’s Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Fair (HKIWSF) was Spain. Spain has come a long way over the past few years. Although most Spanish wine is still in the entry level segment, there is more and more mid-market wine being exported to Hong Kong thanks to the continual efforts of the Spanish Trade Commission and various regional wine boards. This is reflected in the latest statistics. In the first eight months of this year (Jan-Aug 2013), the value and volume of overall wine imports to Hong Kong were down by 1% and 2% respectively because of the economic slow down (source HKTDC), but Spanish wine imports were strongly up—volume increased by 35% and, still more impressive, value was up by close to 50% (source: Spanish Trade Commission).

This is good news because Spanish wine deserves more attention. Most of us know of Spanish red wines such as Rioja, Priorat and Ribera del Duero, but there are also some very good white wines from the cooler Rias Baixas (Albariño) and Rueda (Verdejo, Viura and Sauvignon Blanc). Like Portugal and Italy, Spain has its fair share of native varieties though most are not available here. If you want to have something different, try Mencía and Juan García , both elegant and fragrant with the former quite similar to Cabernet Franc from northwest Spain. They typically used to be high yield and diluted but the new generation winemakers are making some serious wine from old bush vines.

Of course there is also the underrated sherry. Sherry lacks the obvious fruit aromas but it is very versatile and food friendly. And if you want an affordable good quality sparkler, Cava never fails to deliver.

Being this year's partner country of the HKIWSF, Spain also co-hosted a Spanish theme gala dinner on 7th November with food prepared by The Spanish Chef Association in Asia. The Association was initiated by Alex Fargas, chef de Cuisine at Fofo by el Willy, in 2012 and now has over 20 members in Asia. Its objective is to promote Spanish gastronomy, culture and products, and it aims to be the bridge between authentic Spanish cuisine and local expectations. I believe this is definitely the right direction to take—bundle food, wine and culture together. Asian, especially Chinese, spend more time eating than drinking. Alex says his restaurant is full every day, and perhaps this is one of the reasons why Spanish wine is getting popular as well. According to OpenRice, there are now over 50 Spanish bars and restaurants in Hong Kong. Seems that Hongkongers definitely have a palate for Iberico ham and paella!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The little conspiracy

What a surprise to have tasted Chateau La Connivence, the labour of love of four friends, including two ex-footballers, an engineer and Aléxandre de Malet Roquefort, the gentleman who poured the wine for us at Wellspring's recent Hong Kong trade tasting.

I was tasting some whites with Eddie from Cru Magazine when we were urged to try La Connivence, a red from Pomerol, on the other side of the room first, as it would not be available for long. We duly did so and were thankful for it.

There were four wines, from 2008, the first vintage, to 2011. All were left over (about 1/5 of the bottle) from its launch dinner the previous evening, but despite the condition they were not disappointing at all. I liked their elegance, even though the alcohol level was up around 14%-14.5%. The 2010 was my favourite with good concentration and firm acidity. My comment to Aléxandre was that the wine was not at all Parker-like. He gleamed, obviously enjoying the comment. Although vinification of La Connivence uses all the latest gadgets, including a blower to shoo away bad berries, Aléxandre insists it is the soil that gives the wine its identity and which therefore should be respected.

Aléxandre also runs Chateau La Gaffeliere in St Emilion, a family winery with 17 generations of history. Both St Emilion and Pomerol are Merlot dominated but Pomerol is more delicate, more feminine and more sensitive, according to Aléxandre. This assertion was clearly reflected in the wine as we also tried his La Gaffeliere for comparison.

Aléxandre explained that La Connivence means ‘little secret’, and the wine is the little secret among the four friends. With only one hectare of land, a maximum of 3,000 bottles production, and an allocation of only ten 6-bottle cases plus a few large formats for Hong Kong, wine lovers will certainly want to keep it a little secret. Google translates Connivence more literally as connivance or conspiracy ... which perhaps is more true!

Both La Connivance and La Gaffeliere are available from Wellspring Wines.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

The fifth year of CX HKIWSC

Lunch on day four - after finished judging food/wine pairing
My October started with a judging at the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition (CX HKIWSC). This is the fifth year of the competition and my fourth as a judge. I ran the back room logistics in the first year during my holiday in Hong Kong and afterwards Simon Tam offered me a job at Independent Wine Centre, which ended my years of wandering around the world and brought me back to Hong Kong. Because of this, the competition will always be something special to me.

More importantly, it is the community spirit that I treasure. Even though we may be tasting some interesting and good wines, we still need support, jokes and laughter to get through over 400 wines in four days! I have had some experience (nowhere near as much as some other judges though) in other international competitions, but the CX HKIWSC certainly has the best vibe.

There are many different formats of judging. In some, the panel of judges sits together around a table, waiting for each other to finish a small flight, then briefly discusses it. This can put pressure on some judges who are slower. In others, judges score individually and there are no discussions in the panels so there may be errors where judges misread a wine. It also doesn’t allow the less experienced judges to learn from others.

What I like about the CX HKIWSC is that each judge scores a flight of about 30-50 wines at his own pace, then the panel gathers to discuss those that have a wide range of scores. Judges debate and re-taste those wines until a consensus is reached. Moreover, judges are rotated everyday for a better learning experience. This method does not have the shortfalls of the others and also fosters a team spirit among the judges.

The most interesting part of this competition is the food/wine pairing judging. It started off with only four Chinese dishes (braised abalone, Peking duck, dim sum and kung pao chicken) and has now extended to cover 10 dishes from four countries (the new dishes are sashimi, shrimp tempura, beef teppanyaki, yakitori grilled chicken, pad Thai and chicken tikka). I think this sends a very important message to consumers that wine can indeed go with Asian food—not only delicacies like abalone and sashimi but also everyday food like dim sum and pad Thai. We Asians don’t drink a lot of wine because we do not yet have the culture and we tend to think that wine only goes with western cuisines or expensive banquets. Pairing wine and everyday food will help us develop our own wine culture and eventually expand the market. Unfortunately, however, this potentially powerful message has yet to be communicated effectively to consumers. I really wish that both the organisers (sorry Debra) and the winners could do more to spread the word.

The most educational part of the competition is 'Test Your Palate'. CX HKISWC is the first competition to open its doors to the public at the end of judging each day so people can taste the diverse styles of wine of various grape varieties from different countries. And what’s more, they can ask judges face-to-face anything they want to know about wine. This is a great learning experience and a wonderful opportunity for wine lovers to compare and contrast — you have to admit that no one in their right mind would open 10 different bottles of wine in one go just to try. At Test Your Palate, there are over 400 wines available every evening! What is even better is that there is a ‘fault’ table carrying wines rejected by judges during that day. Consumers can taste what is really meant by 'reduced', 'oxidised' and 'corked'. Test Your Palate has been running for three years now. In the first two years guests were mostly wine students, but this year it was pleasing to see a more general  range of consumers, showing that the event is becoming better known. I even saw some of my secondary school friends, a few of whom I hadn’t seen since graduation!

But the best of the best has to be the dinners. Sarah, one of the panel chairs, always spoils us with her wines—not the most expensive ones but lesser-known and truly interesting. Of course, there are always a few bottles that our judges bring from their home countries. This year, Chinese wines were a constant fixture on table, thanks to Christian!

Wine competitions are about rating wine for average consumers and giving them guidance in this complex world of wine. CX HKIWSC is doing a good job for the Hong Kong consumer. Next time, pick a bottle of wine with a CX HKIWSC medal, and especially try the food/wine pairing winning wines. Check out the 2013 competition results here.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Outside-the-box wine/food pairing

What a memorable dinner: pairing Chinese food with a whole range of Lustau sherries, from Manzanilla to PX (Pedro Ximénez)!

Sherry, long viewed as an out-of-fashion drink for old ladies, is making a comeback. Trendy sherry bars frequented by equally fashionable young consumers are sprouting in London, and sherry cocktails are gaining in popularity.

But it's not just an aperitif or dessert wine. Sherry is in fact popular with food, especially tapas in Spain, and rightly so. The 'discovery' of how well it pairs with Chinese cuisine is good news for winos and foodies alike. Most Chinese food is robust and its intense flavours can kill even some of the boldest red wines. Pairing wines with dishes perceived to be lighter, like seafood or chicken, can also sometimes be tricky. Sherry, on the other hand, is highly versatile, thanks to its many styles (see below). The fino style is light on the palate but its 15-16% alcohol balances well with deep fried dishes. Its savoury and tangy aromas compliment the food, unlike some very fruity wines whose opulent fruit actually clashes with it. The heavier oloroso style, 18-20% alcohol, is weighty enough to stand up to heavily braised dishes, while its sweeter style is perfect with the generally sweeter Shanghainese cuisine.

This reminded me of the port and food pairing experience. Like sherry, port is a sweet fortified wine but supported by high acidity. It stands up well against the powerful fatty Northern Chinese cuisine. Indeed, a tawny port is a fine complement to hairy crab. Ingnacio López de Carrizosa, the Export Director of Lustau, reckons the Amontillado style sherry, with its oxidised aromas not dissimilar to Chinese yellow wine, is also a perfect pairing with hairy crab, and I couldn’t agree more. Both the port and the sherry have a similar intensity to the crab. It is then up to the diner whether they prefer the sweeter tawny or the drier Amontillado. By the way, there is also a sweeter style Amontillado.

Thanks to Chef Tsang at Ming Court and Zachary the wine guy (Zachary left Langham Place already at the time of writing), the evening meal was creative yet true to its origins (ie. Chinese). My favourite pairings were:

Lustau Puerto Fino Sherry Reserva with deep fried scallops and crab meat. OK, this was slightly westernised as the crab meat was mixed with cheese, but still it was delicious. The wine was dancing on the palate after the food rather than being overpowered by it.

Lustau Dry Amontillado Los Arcos Reserva with crisp baby pigeon. Although I felt sorry for the tiny pigeon, its tender yet powerful flavour was the perfect complement to the nutty and smoky Amontillado.

Lustau VORS 30 year old Palo Cortado with beef fried rice and black truffle. The intense truffle provided a nice contrast against the sweet-bitterness of the wine.

So next time don’t be afraid to experiment with innovative food and wine matching ideas. From champagne to fortified wine, there is always a dish (or more) to match!

Lustau wine is available from ASC Fine Wines.

For those who are not familiar with the different styles of sherry, here is an overview:

Fino: Biological maturation with a layer of yeast on top called 'flor', which prevents the wine from oxidising, results in unique acetaldehyde aromas (tangy, salty, herby) at about 15% alcohol. Pale colour, fresh and does not improve in bottle (so consume as soon as possible).

Manzanilla: Fino sherry matured in the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, close to the Atlantic Ocean. The flor is thicker. It has a more intense tangy seaweed aroma and a more linear and lighter palate.

Oloroso: Oxidation maturation, ie. through contact with air. No flor layer. Brown colour with aromas of toffee, walnuts, prunes and spices. 18-20% alcohol. Can be dry or sweet.

Amontillado: Starts its life as Fino but is deliberately refortified to kill the flor and then continues to mature by oxidation, like Oloroso. Delicate aromas of both fino and oloroso. Can be dry or sweet.

Palo Cortado: Similar to Amontillado but the flor dies naturally rather than being killed deliberately. Similar characteristics to Amontillado but heavier as it is usually aged for a much longer time. A rare wine.

Pedro Ximénez: Opaque brown colour, intensely rich and sweet with 400-500 g/l sugar. Toffee, rancio, raisin, liquorice aromas.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Making the most of ... everything

I always say that learning about wine is never-ending—the more I learn, the less I seem to know because I keep discovering new things in the process. This has just been proved right yet again. I thought I knew quite a bit about South African wine, but I learnt something new at the recent South African masterclass led by Neil Grant, the Founder and Chairman of the South African Sommelier Association. I even received a certificate after the tasting!

I may know the history and the wine regions in South Africa, and I may also know all the wines presented. But it’s always nice to listen to someone with a fresh opinion, especially an expert like Neil. We discussed the future of South African wine and its styles, and this is what Neil had to say:

Although South Africa has some 350 years of winemaking history, the modern wine industry only began in 1994 after apartheid when winemakers sought to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of viticultural practices, new techniques and investment. South African wine has a unique position between Old and New World—Old World style but with the ripe fruit of the New World. South Africa has more sunshine than most Old World wine regions so the fruit will always be riper but the wine always tend to be earthier and drier, more akin to the Old World style rather than the overtly ripe fruit character of the New World. South African winemakers want to learn from others, but they don’t want to copy them.

Take Sauvignon Blanc for example. Neil reckons South African Sauvignon Blanc tends more towards citrus and lime characters rather than the tropical fruit and guava fingerprint of New Zealand’s. It is closer to Sancerre but without the prominent grassy aroma.

Pinotage is an example of good learning. It is a South African grape but nevertheless there are small plantings in Australia, New Zealand and the US. South African winemakers learnt from the Kiwis to plant Pinotage in cooler areas and to pick the grapes earlier. The result is a more elegant style with more traces of Pinot Noir, one of the parents of Pinotage. We tasted the pleasant Warwick Estate ‘Old Bush Vines’ Pinotage 2010 but Neil reckoned the 2011 vintage is an even better illustration of the lighter style.

Some consumers associate South African wine with a burnt rubber smell. The University of Stellenbosch did some research on this a few years ago but there were no conclusive findings as to what might be the cause—the varieties, disease, winemaking or hygiene. I also had a discussion with a few South African winemakers some time ago and each had a different opinion. Neil thinks we should take ‘burnt rubber’ as a positive term; it may well be the South African terroir. I fully agree with this. For some reason we have put a negative mark on ‘burnt rubber’ even though some people actually like it. In fact, guests at the tasting agreed that the ‘burnt rubber’ is less obvious now in today’s wines, and even when they do have it it is more pleasant than before. I think it is time for us to throw this negative stigma away.

The South African wine industry has tried hard in the last 20 years to improve and today all that effort is showing great results. I think WOSA’s latest message sums it up well:

We make wine better,
We make the most of our history
We make the most of nature
We are making the most of our future
Making the most of variety
Make the most of the Cape Winelands.

Keep it up, South African fellas!

Wine we tasted at the Masterclass:

Anthonij Rupert Cape of Good Hope Serruria Chardonnay 2013, available from Telford
Bellingham The Bernard Series Old Chenin Blanc 2012, available from Northeast
Ken Forrester Renegade 2007, available from Kerry Wines
Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2007, available from ASC
Newton Johnson Pinot Noir 2011, available from Vincisive

The following are available from East Meets West:
Vilafonte Series M 2009
Warwick Estate Professor Black Sauvignon Blanc 2012
• Warwick Estate The First Lady Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
• Warwick Estate ‘Old Bush Vines’ Pinotage 2010
• Warwick Estate Three Cape Ladies 2000

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Aged Australian Cabernet Sauvignon

The new and old label
I recently had the pleasure to meet Wayne Stehbens who became Katnook Estate’s first winemaker in 1980 and remains so today. He guided us in a vertical tasting of the estate’s Cabernet Sauvignons. This year saw the release of the 2011 vintage, and the tasting was about the celebration of 30 years of Cabernets.

We tasted the 2011, 2010, 2002, 2000, 1999 and 1997. OK, not exactly ‘old’ by Europe standards, but when was the last time you tasted a 15 year-old Australian wine?

Katnook is situated in Coonawarra, the wine region famous for its terra rossa soil. Wayne believes Cabernet Sauvignon benefits from this red sandy clay loam on limestone and the surprisingly cool temperatures (highest 27ºC and average 19ºC in summer), resulting in a freshness and structure that Cabernet Sauvignon from warmer regions lacks.

The younger Cabs have the unmistakable mint and eucalyptus of Coonawarra, with fine tannins. I like the 2000 and 1999. The former has a good balance between ripe fruits and aged cedar notes, while the latter is of an elegant savoury character. The wine is nowhere near as complex as a fine Bordeaux but, at just over HK$200/bottle at Watson’s, I don’t think there is anything to complain about.

The same evening I was judging at The Sovereign Art Foundation French vs Australian blind tasting charity event, where both judges and guests scored 12 pairs of French and Australian wines of similar class and quality. While the judges gave more high scores to the French wines, the guests much preferred the Australian counterparts. An honest reflection of consumers’ palates?

Katnook is available from Watson’s Wine Cellar.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Pursuing the Italian dream

What would you make of a successful American financier owning a winery in Tuscany? A rich man’s hobby? Well, that was what I expected until I talked to Tim Grace, an American from Ohio and owner of Il Molino di Grace.

Il Molino di Grace is a family vineyard located in Panzano, a village in the Chianti Classico region. There is quite a story behind it. Tim’s parents, never having travelled outside the US before, moved to the UK in the late 60s and then went for their first European holiday in Panzano. The Tuscan landscape was a complete contrast with Ohio’s;  they loved it and kept going back for holidays. Eventually, they took the plunge and moved to Chianti—but it had to be Panzano. It took them eight years of hunting until they finally discovered Il Molino di Grace in 1996.

The property was only a vineyard and the grapes were sold to other wineries. Tim’s parents, jumping through all the hoops of Italian building regulations, finally built a winery, uprooted the ‘foreign’ vines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, and began to focus on making what makes Tuscany wine famous: Sangiovese. Tim explained, "Sangiovese is a food wine so should not be overpowering. Blending with even a little Cabernet or Syrah will make the wine too dominating on the dinner table." Il Molino di Grace has five wines and all are 100% Sangiovese except the entry level Il Volano, which has 25% Merlot that Tim believes softens the Sangiovese making the wine more accessible. Even the IGT Super Tuscan Gratius, the top wine and obviously named with the American market in mind, is 100% Sangiovese.

With a production of 350,000 bottles a year, Tim assured me that he is not a hobby winemaker. The money generated by the winery is less than what he used to earn in his previous career and has to be reinvested in the winery. However, he is much happier and derives more satisfaction from the new challenges. His wife is from a family that has run a high end cooking chocolate factory for generations since 1868. Tim hopes to build a family business that will mean something to future generations. For this reason, the vineyard is 100% organic and managed in a sustainable manner.

One of the many challenges Tim faces is to persuade potential customers to try Italian wine. He compares drinking Italian wine to bungy jumping. You stand at the edge of the cliff and are scared to jump, but once you’ve done it, you want to do it again. Italian wine can be confusing because of the names and native varieties but it is great value for the quality and you’ll keep coming back for more. Hmm, I’m not sure about the analogy with bungy jumping (I haven’t tried it and definitely won’t in my life time!), but I totally agree with the price/quality point.

I admire Tim and his parents for their spirit in pursuing their dream, even more so because Il Molino di Grace is making a wine that is true to its history and place rather than chasing the market. I wish him all the best.

We tasted six Grace wines, and I was particularly impressed by the Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2006—dried leaves, leather and spices on the palate supported by a fresh acidity—and the Chianti Classico Riserva Il Margone 2005, an elegant wine with a savoury palate and well-integrated structure.

Il Molino di Grace is available from Altaya Wines.

Monday, 16 September 2013

The New generation of German winemakers

It was a pleasure to chat with Cornelius Dönnhoff and Nik Weis, owners of Weingut Dönnhoff in Nahe and Weingut St. Urbans-Hof in Mosel at a recent tasting organised by Kerry Wines.

There are commonalities between these two wineries. Both are family owned and highly regarded in their own right. Cornelius and Nik are the latest generation to be in charge of the estates, with Cornelius only taking over in 2000 and Nik back in 1997. Both respect the traditions and are committed to producing top quality wines, just like their fathers and grandfathers.

But their wines, though all Rieslings, are different. Dönnhoff is in Nahe, between Mosel and Rheinhessen. As in Mosel, the vineyards are on
steep south-facing slopes on the banks of the Nahe river. It is warmer, so the wine has riper fruit characters than Mosel’s but still retains the acidity. Cornelius, like his father, likes clean, straightforward wines. He may use cultured yeasts but only the neutral kind whose sole job is to ferment the grape juice rather than enhancing flavours, thus allowing the wine to express itself. Dönnhoff has nine Grand Cru vineyards, and according to Cornelius they have different soil types, ranging from slate at Hermannshöhle and Kreuznacher to volcanic at Felsenberg and loam at Krötenpfuhl. All grapes are vinified the same way but the wines from each site taste different. Before joining the family business, Cornelius had worked in Australia and New Zealand but he realised that because of the differences in climate he couldn’t blindly apply New World techniques at Dönnhoff. He believes his father’s way of working with the vines and grapes is still the best way to express the Nahe terroir. I asked if he would blend the different crus together to make a superblend. His answer was a definite no. The wines have been made as single vineyard wines since his father’s day and they are as good as they can be. By the way, his father is Helmut Dönnhoff, named German Winemaker of the Year in 1999 by the Gault Millau Guide to German Wines.

Turning to Nik Weis, the third generation owner. Technically he is not a member of ‘Generation Riesling’, a term used to refer to the young generation of German winemakers under 35 years old (sorry Nik), but he is no doubt their inspiration. Weingut St. Urbans-Hof, because of Nik’s consistently high standards, was admitted as a member of the prestigious VDP (Association of German Prädikat Estates) in 2000. The 32ha of vineyards are located in Mosel and Saar where the soil has several colours of slate—blue, grey and red—that contribute to the distinctive minerality of Mosel Riesling. He only makes Riesling as he firmly believes the terroir of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region—cool nights, marginal sunlight, steep slopes, the heat-absorbing slate and the river—is ideally suited to expressing the elegance and finesse of Riesling. I also like his philosophy: "Sweetness belongs to Mosel wine like bubbles belong to Champagne". The combination of residual sugar, crisp acidity and minerality create a harmoniously fruity sensation, and the natural sweetness also extends the ageing potential. He explained to us that natural residual sugar in wine is mainly fructose, which is light and fruity, in contrast to the grape concentrate or süssreserve that is added to dry wine to make lesser sweet wines. Grape concentrate is glucose; it makes wine cloying and heavy rather than light and elegant.

Having said that, Nik reckons climate change has allowed German winemakers to start making less-sweet wines. Sugar is necessary to balance the high level of harsh malic acid in a traditional Riesling, but, as the climate warms, the concentration of malic acid decreases so less sugar is needed to balance the wine. We tasted two Spätleses from Leiwener Laurentiuslay vineyard. The 2001 vintage has 50g/l of residual sugar but the 2011 vintage, which was much warmer, has only half as much (25g/l). Both tasted delicious and balanced. With consumers moving towards drier wines, both Nik and Cornelius agreed that climate change is to their advantage as they are now able to make good quality dry Rieslings. The Dönnhoff Hermannshöhle Grosses Gewächs dry Riesling 2012 was a fine example.

We tried four Spätleses at the tasting, two each from Nik and Cornelius (vintage 2001 and 2011). They were just fantastic: rich, with a depth of flavour supported by a crisp acidity, resulting in concentrated yet elegant wines. I didn’t like sweet Riesling when I first started tasting wine, but I have come to realise that it was the badly made sweet Rieslings that I didn’t like. Clearly, fructose and glucose really do taste different!

Both Dönnhoff and St. Urbans-Hof are available from Kerry Wines.

Monday, 2 September 2013

A hike around Barolo villages

We had been waiting for this trip for 15 years, after that first bottle of Barolo at our anniversary when we were wine dunces and had no idea what to expect. I won’t say that bottle of Barolo changed my life but it certainly opened my eyes to the world of wine.

Our recent holiday in Barolo was an indulgent five days of wine, food and all things good about Italy. The best thing was that this was not a business trip. It was a holiday with my husband only, so no visiting wineries every hour. For me, it was the ideal way to appreciate Barolo and its wine, much better than being shown from winery to winery. We stayed in a small B&B, La Giolitta, in the village of Barolo which only has an 800+ population. The hostess was knowledgeable and arranged for us to visit three great wineries—without anyone knowing that I am from the trade. They were Mascarello Bartolo (fantastic wine, available from BBR in Hong Kong; I had met the owner, Maria Teresa, before, so it was like meeting an old friend), Giuseppe Rinaldi (family owned traditional Barolo, not easy to get hold of), and Gianni Gagliardo (decent wine with a good restaurant, but I would have loved a chat with the winemaker himself). We also dropped by to see Chiara Boschis (Azienda Agricola E. Pira e Figli), a modern Barolo winemaker with vision (wine available from Heritage Wines).

And we made a last minute visit to Marchesi di Gresy in Barbaresco, thanks to arrangements kindly made by its distributor, Roddy from Wellspring Wines. The chief winemaker is Kiwi Jeffrey Chilcott. We had an intensive tasting and lively discussion for over two hours—and it could easily have been a lot longer if not for the football match that he had to watch!

On our first day, we hiked a loop from Barolo to Novello then Monchiero, Monforte and back to Barolo—18km in total, walking through both cru and lesser vineyard areas, as well as the hazelnut plantations and small remaining patches of indigenous woodland. The soil is so different from plot to plot, and by observing the conditions of the vines I could see why one was a cru vineyard and another not (or at least not suitable for Nebbiolo). The sophisticated thing about this hike was that we didn’t need any packed lunch or energy bars. We could take a break at every village for a snack, gelati and ... of course... vino, and we even saw a parade of old motor bikes on their Sunday outing at Montforte. Better still, we felt guilt-free after the long walk and tucked into an absolutely delicious dinner of brasato al Barolo (beef braised in Barolo) with a bottle of ... uuh ... Barolo and more... for dinner that night.

We were there at the end of June, just before the summer crowds, so it was remarkably quiet and everyone was very relaxed. The light at that time of the year is fantastic. We drove around the hilltop villages in the late afternoon from 4:30 to 7pm, capturing the best lighting for photography.

Now, back in Hong Kong with all those fond memories of Barolo and two dozen of its wines not available in Hong Kong. It may be a selfish thought but I do hope these Piemonte villages will not become swamped by ‘wine tourists’. We would love to go back to its tranquility.

More photos here.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

A 160 year old Mourvèdre

It is not easy to find a 100% Mourvèdre as it is invariably part of a blend. So when Dean Hewitson decided to conduct a vertical tasting of his Old Garden Mourvèdre, it certainly attracted the attention of sommeliers and wine writers.

What is even more unique is that Old Garden Mourvèdre is made from the oldest Mourvèdre in the world. Planted in 1853, the vines are 160 years old this year. Dean decided to celebrate this with a vertical tasting around the world: Australia, London, New York, Shanghai and Hong Kong. He started making this wine in 1988. 2010 is the latest release but he brought along barrel samples of the 2011 and 2012 vintages. A line up of fifteen 100% Mourvèdres was an impressive sight.

The older vintages are mellow with a lingering length and backed by fresh acidity, somewhere between a Gran Reserva Rioja and an aged Barolo, while the younger ones are concentrated, spicy, and surprisingly elegant at over 14% alcohol. The finesse comes from a combination of factors: the age of the vines, the soil and the climate.

Mourvèdre is a late ripener and therefore ideal in hot climates as it only ripens by the beginning of autumn rather than in the heat of summer, thereby retaining acidity with a perfect balance of both sugar and phenolic ripeness. The vineyard is dry farmed, with roots penetrating some ten metres deep into the ground, which is sand over limestone for water and nutrients that help provide evenness in the wine. Being 160 years old, the vines bear few but highly concentrated fruits. There are only eight rows of plantings so you can imagine that production is limited. And it will keep reducing gradually as the vines get older and bear even less fruit.

Dean doesn’t own the vineyard, and he is smart enough to allow the owner, the sixth generation of the Koch family, to tend the grapes for him. After all, the family has been looking after these vines spanning three centuries since 1853 so they should know what is best for them. Dean is also pretty much hands off at the winery. He experimented with different percentages of new French oak in the past few years to strike a perfect balance with the fruit but has never done anything radical, preferring to let the wine express itself. The one arguably radical thing he did was to switch from cork to screwcaps in 2002, but he believes this is for the better.

This was truly a unique tasting. One can easily find vertical tastings of Bordeaux or Burgundy covering two decades, but one of 100% Mourvèdre? You don’t come across that too often.

Hewitson Old Garden Mourvèdre is available from Kedington Wines.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Muscadet, a treat with seafood on Lamma

Not sure if it's just me, but this summer somehow seems hotter than usual. It’s not only the temperature but also the brightness of the sun and the humidity, so that even when I walk into an air conditioned room I still feel the heat dragging me down. No wonder I didn’t taste any red wine at all at the Sopexa French Wines Trade Show.

I might have missed some fine reds but I did make a superb discovery: Muscadet from the Loire. Made from 100% Melon de Bourgogne (or Melon), the wine is neutral and light bodied. Yet its crisp, marine freshness makes it a perfect summer drink—who wants a heavily perfumed wine at 30ºC? Even chic ladies sometimes trade their makeup and designer shoes for an afternoon on the beach!

I tasted the full range of Muscadet from Domaine Ménard-Gaborit. The wine, with its saltiness, kept reminding me of the sea breezes and salty air of the outlying islands like Lamma and Lantau. What a wine to go with the al fresco seafood at those places! Muscadet is an outdoor wine, great with fresh seafood and good company. There is also an oak-aged Méganome Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie that has a rounder and slightly nutty palate. In fact, Muscadet is the favoured pairing with oysters back in Nantais where the wine comes from.

This again illustrates the point I keep making: wine doesn't need to be expensive and exclusive. An average Muscadet is less than HK$150 a bottle, and I can promise you that this wine will give you more pleasure with Lamma or Sai Kung seafood than a Bordeaux that may be ten times the price. I told Monsieur Maxime Lavolé, owner of the winery who is seeking an importer here in Hong Kong, to ask his eventual distributor to focus on these outdoor seafood enclaves. They would make a fortune!

Sadly, wine from the Loire, let alone Muscadet, is not yet popular in Hong Kong. I reckon this is more to do with fame and price than quality. A hot and sweaty Hong Kong summer definitely needs more Muscadet to tone down the heat and accentuate the freshness of the seafood.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Celebrate the summer with Joiy

At last, an extremely user-friendly wine of decent quality that doesn’t scare off new drinkers!

Joiy is a sparkling wine made from 100% Riesling from the Waipara region in the South Island of New Zealand. Its refreshing and fruity style (think floral, citrus and honey, aromas of a Riesling!) with only 9.5% alcohol is perfect for an aperitif in summertime or alfresco dining. It reminded me of spritzer (white wine soda from Austria), vinho verde (the petillant white wine from Portugal with about 10-11% alcohol), tinto de verano  (red wine with water or soda in ice from Spain) and even Fanschop (draft beer with Fanta orange from Chile).

What is great about this wine is its packaging. It is fun, unpretentious and easy-to-understand. Inexperienced drinkers who are unfamiliar with wine labels are often confused and many simply give up and have beer or soft drinks (God forbid!) instead. In a way, we wine people have ourselves to blame as we often, rightly or wrongly, heap all the technical terms and jargon we know on these poor souls. Wine is for enjoyment; we should not put pressure on newcomers who want to share our passion.

Joly's 250ml size and screw cap makes it a very convenient drink. Winemaker Chris Archer even showed me photos of consumers drinking it with a straw. And why not? I can see this as a gateway to the world of wine. Didn't we all drink Babycham before we moved on to Champagne?

But Joiy isn't just for the entry level consumer. OK, it is not a complex wine that requires the ritual of breathing, decanting and using an appropriate glass, but its quality is definitely better than a lot of wine in the market. I would have no hesitation to grab some for a boat trip or beach outing rather than resorting to gassy beer or cloying soft drinks. Ali Nicol summed it up quite nicely in his article, ‘It’s girly; but I like it!’

Let’s let our hair down and enjoy wine in a casual and cheerful way once in a while. Wine doesn’t need to be serious all the time.

Joiy is available from The Crush.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Symington’s perfect Vintage - 2011 Port

It’s official. The Port Wine Brotherhood has declared 2011 a Port Vintage year. I can’t say how fortunate I was to be one of the first in Asia to taste Symington's range of 2011 vintage ports back in mid April, even before they were bottled. I still remember the taste and the different styles now as I write this!

The Symington team was very excited about the 2011 vintage. The last time they declared a vintage was 2007, a four year gap. Unlike 2007, which was more about finesse and elegance, the 2011 vintage was a classic, old school style with opulent fruit concentration and marked minerality from the terroir, not dissimilar to the 1994 vintage, according to Euan Mackay, Symington’s Sales Director.

The prime factor that contributed to the perfect 2011 vintage was the weather. The Douro had been very harsh and dry in the past few years with minimal rainfall. The 2010 winter final saw above average rainfall that replenished the water table. Flowering, though, was difficult because of high humidity, resulting in lower yield. Summer was hot and dry and saw the grapes ripening a little too fast but heavy rain in the third week of August followed by an Indian summer delayed picking until the third week of September. The result? A small harvest—about 30% lower than average—but ripe grapes with good concentration and balanced acidity, with Touriga Franca, a late ripener, particularly shining.

Port houses only decide whether to declare a vintage after the wine has spent two winters in barrel in order to assess the quality properly. However, there are always tell tale signs of a potential vintage as early as harvest time. Jorge Nunes, winemaker at Symington, said the first sign was the unusually deep colour of the wine, a prerequisite of perfect phenolic ripeness. In fact, the entire Douro community had a feel good factor back at harvest in 2011, so it was clearly something exceptional.

Like Bordeaux, port has en primeur purchase. But unlike Bordeaux, where en primeur wines are sold in the spring following the vintage and when still ageing in barrels, en primeur vintage port is already bottled and ready to be delivered once sold. In other words, en primeur is more like an announcement of the release of a vintage rather than a cash flow management tool as it is in most Bordeaux chateaux. Once the en primeur offer is finished, the price of the vintage port will go up. This is logical since vintage port is rare. A vintage is declared only when quality is outstanding—about three times every 10 years—and vintage port averages less than 1% of total production. Graham’s only made 8,000 cases of its 2011 vintage out of a total production of 88,850 cases.

Symington is the biggest vineyard owner in the Douro and has been making port since 1882. It accounts for over a third of all premium port production. All its vintage ports come from its 100% owned and  managed vineyards, guaranteeing provenance. The five vintage ports it released this year are all of superb quality, yet each has a distinctive style:

Warre’s: Made from some of the oldest vines, yielding only 600g of grapes per vine, the wines shows a depth of fruit yet have great finesse with a lifted palate and minty nose. 3,000 cases made.

Cockburn’s: The family is particularly proud of this because 2011 was the first declared Cockburn’s vintage since the brand became fully owned and managed by Symington. Black fruits and coffee aromas, elegant and a lingering length. 3,000 cases made.

Graham’s: Violet, smoky with rich tannin and a firm structure: a classic Graham’s. 8,000 cases made.

Dow’s: Bright fruits and blackcurrant aroma with a chocolate finish. Tight and austere in structure with a long life ahead of it. 5,000 cases made.

Quinta do Vesuvio: With the highest percentage (45%) of Touriga Franca in the blend, this wine has pronounced violet and blueberry aromas with smooth tannin. 1,250 cases made.

Port fans are definitely going to love the 2011 vintage!

Saturday, 15 June 2013

The Swiss gem

What a treat to be invited to a Swiss wine tasting lunch a few months ago. It was an intimate gathering of just eight of us, including couple Damien Fleury and Cissy Li, owners of The Swiss Wine Store. Damien, from the French speaking part of Switzerland, is keen to bring the artisan wines of his home country to this market.

We all have our Swiss indulgences: cheese, chocolate, watches and, for some, even bankers; but Swiss wine? Well, it’s not surprising that not many are available in Hong Kong. The total vineyard area in Switzerland is 15,000 ha. To give you some perspective, that is only half the size of Burgundy, or 1/8 of Bordeaux, and equivalent to a mere 15% of Hong Kong's total land area. Its production—0.4% of the world total—is mainly consumed within the country, and we outsiders have to share just 2% of its production, about 3 million bottles for the whole world outside Switzerland.

As in other European countries, wine making history in Switzerland can be traced back to Roman times. There are about 50 varieties planted nowadays, including around ten indigenous varieties which have very small planted areas. As I have mentioned before, I always have a soft spot for native varieties as they reflect the culture and soul of the place, and I was not let down by the Swiss ones at all.

We had four whites, two made from Fendant (Chasselas), the symbol of Swiss white wine representing nearly a third of the total area under vine. It is a neutral variety and so can be expressive of the ‘terroir’. In Valais the wine has a herbal and spicy nose and a smoky finish; it made a great accompaniment to our Swiss cheese and air dried beef aperitif.

I was particularly impressed by the Petite Arvine from the Collection Chandra Kurt, a powerful wine with citrus and ginger notes supported by lively acidity. There is a story behind this collection. It is a collaboration between Madeleine Gay, Swiss winemaker of the year 2008, and Chandra Kurt, a swiss wine writer who first visited Valais, the country's biggest wine region, some 20 years ago. The Collection has six wines made with indigenous grapes and aims to showcase the traditions and history of Valais. Well, I always love wine with a story behind it!

The two reds we tried were Humagne Rouge—yes, another indigenous variety. It is lively with cherry, violet aromas and smooth tannin and reminded me of Dolcetto. It went pretty well with the duck leg confit.

With such a small production, Swiss wines are not cheap (from HK$380 up). But luckily, like all pricey Swiss products, they are backed by quality. They would be perfect for a celebration or just to savour with some like-minded friends. With only 65ha under vine each (0.4% of total Swiss wine production), Petite Arvine and Humagne Rouge might well be more exclusive than a Bordeaux First Growth!

Wines we tried, available from The Swiss Wine Store:

These six wines are from Jean-René Germanier
1. Fendant Balavaud Grand Cru AOC Valais 2011
2. Arvine Réserve AOC Valais Reserve 2008
3. Humagne Rouge AOC Valais 2011
4. Humagne Réserve AOC Valais 2009
5. Amigne de Vétroz 2 Bees AOC Valais 2011
6. Mitis, Amigne de Vétroz AOC Valais Reserve 2008

7. Luc Massy Dézaley Chemin de Fer Garnd Cru AOC Lavaux 2011
8. Provins Valais ‘Collection Chandra Kurt’ Petite Arvine du Valais 2011 (The entire collection is available in Hong Kong)

Also a big thanks to Fishful Season Restaurant (Reservation: +852 2590 0690) in Tai Hang. If you are looking for a cosy private party for 10-12 people, this is the place.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Celebrating the Rainbow Nation of Wine

April was a busy month for South African wine in Hong Kong. To celebrate the country’s Freedom Day on 27th April, the South African Cosulate-General and Wines of South Africa lent their full support to various organisations in Hong Kong, including the South China Morning Post (SCMP) and the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC), hosting a series of South African wine activities.

The SCMP South African wine evening saw 15 of Hong Kong’s South African wine distributors present over 130 wines from 36 wineries. Wines included both internationally acclaimed brands and less well known boutique names. Most were rated Platter’s 4 stars or above (for those who are not familiar with South African wine, Platter’s is the most comprehensive and authoritative annual South African wine guide. 5 stars is the maximum Platter’s rating). The HKJC, on the other hand, selected 10 South African wines of different styles, half available from Hong Kong and the rest directly from South Africa, to be served at its five venues, including country club, clubhouses and racecourses.

Being a fan of South African wine, I went to most of these events and talked to guests and consumers. I found that about half had never tried South African wine. Some didn’t even realise that South Africa was a wine producing country. But they were all curious and were generally positive about the wines after trying them. In fact, the country itself drew a lot of interest and we ended up having lively discussions on South African themes, from landscape and nature to culture and people. It seems that South Africa is, rightly, on the ‘countries to be visited’ list of quite a number of people.

Some people, though— and this includes people in the trade and even some South African winemakers—wrongly and unfairly dismiss South African wine for various reasons, one of which is Pinotage,. Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, and is a unique South African variety. It is true that early Pinotage was often green and bitter, but with improved winemaking techniques and better understanding of the variety, today’s Pinotages should be a pride of of the South African wine industry. Its easy drinking style with moderate tannin appeals to inexperienced consumers. A few enthusiastic drinkers were comparing Pinotages from different wineries at the SCMP evening and happily declared that they liked the variety. Those who like rich wine were equally impressed by the more serious style of Pinotage that shows depth and ageing capability. The Rijk’s Pinotage Reserve 2008 at the HKJC was one of the most popular wines among Bordeaux drinkers.

Chenin Blanc is another variety that attracted attention. It has crisp acidity and can be made into different styles from sparkling and refreshing summer white wine to complex barrel fermented food-friendly wine and sweet wine. The Ken Forester Reserve Chenin Blanc (available from Kerry Wines) and Bellingham Old Vine Chenin Blanc (available from Northeast) were particular popular at the SCMP evening. Chenin Blanc is in fact a Loire variety although not many consumers are aware of this thanks to the ‘non-disclosure’ of grape varieties on most French labels, but it is in South Africa where the variety shows its true self. 1/5 of the vineyard planting in South Africa in Chenin Blanc, far more than what it is planted in Loire.

South Africa is also reputed for its international varieties: Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc from the cooler regions of Elgin and Hermanus, full bodied Chardonnay and Bordeaux blends from Stellenbosch, Syrah and Rhone style wines particularly from Swartland. Its wine is as diverse as its landscape and culture. The wines showcased in the SCMP and HKJC events truly did impress some of the most discerning drinkers.

Hong Kong wine lovers deserve to taste more South African wine.

South Africa Freedom Day commemorates the country’s first democratic post-Apartheid elections in 1994. It unites South Africans of all colours and backgrounds to celebrate democracy and freedom. Next year will be its 20th anniversary. It would be a perfect moment to introduce more of these wonderfully diverse wines to Hong Kong wine lovers. We are all looking forward to celebrating the Rainbow Nation and its wine.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Hungarian wine treasure

Most of us know Tokaji for its famous sweet wine, but fewer of us know about its dry wines. So when Helga Gál, Hungary's first female sommelier and Official Sommelier of the Hungarian Presidency of the Council of Ministers of the European Union, conducted a Hungarian wine workshop with the support of The Food and Wine Academy of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University recently, I gladly attended.

A little history: Hungary has been making wine since Roman times, and Tokaji was the first wine region ever to be classified. That was in 1730, 120 years before the famous Bordeaux 1855 classification. Hungary, together with France and Germany, were the top three wine producing countries in Europe then. However, the wine quality went downhill during the communist era and only revived in the mid 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet empire and the associated increase in foreign investment.

Today, Hungary grows international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay alongside its native varieties, which include the white Furmint and Hárslevelü (both used in Tokaji sweet wine) and the black Kékfrankos (equivalent to Blaufränkisch in Austria). I always have a soft spot for indigenous varieties. They are unique to their regions and reflect the culture and sense of place better than international varieties. It is just like eating local food when you visit a country—it represents the tradition and soul of the people.

Having said that, I have to say Cabernet Franc does shine in the warmer South Pannonia region in the south of the country. It is the hottest region in Hungary with mild winters and long, dry, sunny summers, allowing Cabernet Franc to express itself fully with a depth and complexity quite unlike its Loire’s counterpart. Of the local varieties, Furmint is my favourite. It is fairly full bodied but its vibrant acidity and minerality lend finesse. Its styles range from young and fruity to aged and complex.

Helga is enthusiastic, not only because she is the travelling ambassador of Hungarian wine but also because her family has been making wine for generations. During the workshop, she encouraged attendees to ask questions and talked in depth about the wine. The one and a half hour workshop was finished in no time.

And I must mention that this tasting would not have been possible if not for the equally enthusiastic Csilla Maróti, another Hungarian lady relatively new to Hong Kong on a mission to introduce quality Hungarian wine to the market here via her company, Veritas Wine. Wine may be a commercial product but it is not a commodity. It needs the passions of people like Helga and Csilla to excite the consumer. I wish Csilla every success in pursuing her dream.

The two wines that I liked most at the workshop were:

Malantinszky Kúria Organic Cabernet Franc (unfiltered) 2007: Cabernet Franc showing its great potential in Villány in the Pannonia region. Intense and complex, balanced by lively acidity and a lingering finish. Available from Veritas Wine.

Szepsy Tokaji Furmint 2009: concentrated fruit with a mineral palate. An elegant wine with ageing potential. Available from Wiseville International.

Other Hungarian wine entry: Holdvölgy

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Wine from a philosopher

I had another chance recently to meet Serge and Marc Hochar, the father and son team that runs Chateau Musar high up in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, this time tasting their whites.

Anyone who has spoken with Serge would agree that he is a charismatic gentleman. He has been making Chateau Musar since 1959, and although his son recently took over day-to-day operations, Serge still retains responsibility for overall direction in winemaking and continues to present the wines around the world, a role that he clearly enjoys.

Serge is a competent winemaker, but forget about asking him any technical details—I tried and failed. He prefers to talk about philosophy, and likens wine with the brain: we all have different ways of thinking and sensing, and so does wine. Every wine evolves differently. His 180ha vineyard is organic and the wine is made with minimal human interference and sulphur. Serge believes wines make themselves.

We tasted his white, the 1999 and the 1989. It is a blend of Chardonnay and Viognier, pale brown in colour. The 1999 had an intense marmite savouriness with a round mouthfeel and lingering length, while the ten years older 1989 was, surprisingly, much fresher on the palate with still a hint of the floral. Why? I asked. Was it because of the vintage, the winemaking, the ageing? He shrugged and said this is just how it developed. Just like himself: he felt he was younger now than yesterday — 27 years old, apparently. Well, I suppose we can’t be too technical all the time. After all, wine is for the enjoyment, especially with company.

Chateau Musar is not everyone’s glass of wine. ‘It is faulty, oxidised, bretty....’, said some, but then it has its loyal followers. Life wouldn’t be fun if every winemaker made the same "McDonald’s" wine.

Having said that, his new range, Musar Jeune, first produced in 2007, is unoaked, vibrant and approachable. With its modern label, it appeals to the young consumer who prefers an easy drinking style. It is apparently a big seller in Europe. The white is a blend of Viognier, Vermentino and Chardonnay. It is refreshing yet has a good concentration of fruit. Musar Jeune Red is a blend of Cinsault, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon with ripe tannins and a fruity palate. Despite his philosophical approach, Serge is still a businessman, sensing that a new style of wine is needed for today’s consumers.

When I left, I was still pondering some of Serge’s words: "My doctor is wine", "My whites are my reds"... Well, let’s have a glass of wine.

Chateau Musar is available from Fico International

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Another grape variety for the list

Jancis Robinson’s latest book, 'Wine Grapes', lists 1,368 varieties. You may also have heard of ‘The Wine Century Club’: to qualify, you must have tasted at least 100 different grape varieties. Most of us would struggle to reach 50, so if you are going to set your mind on joining The Wine Century Club, or even on tasting all the varieties in Jancis’s book, here’s one you should try.

Christophe Reynouard, owner of Domaine du Grangeon in Cote du Rhone, proudly presented his hidden secret, the ancient grape Chatus. According to Jancis, Chatus used to be widespread from the Alps to the the Massif Central before the arrival of phylloxera, but it has largely disappeared except in the Ardèche, the western bank of the Rhone. Christophe said that after phylloxera most growers planted the higher yielding Carignan. Chatus, on its own rootstock, has only survived in areas where there is no clay, since phylloxera doesn’t like clay. Today, Chatus is being revived, with about 54 ha in the Ardèche shared by some 35 growers.

Chatus has small berries and produces wine with a deep colour. The wine's high tannin and acid structure and its aroma profile give it a resemblance to Barolo, which is not a big surprise as DNA profiling has linked Chatus to Nebbiolo. Christophe first started making it in 1998 using carbonic maceration because of the high tannin structure. Now, with better vineyard management and knowledge of the grapes, he makes it with 100% destemmed grapes, three to four weeks skin contact and 23 months ageing in new barrels. The high tannin is supported by the good fruit concentration and firm acidity, and it certainly has ageing potential.

Christophe is a prolific winemaker. He makes 15 wines from 17 ha of vineyard planted with some ten varieties. His philosophy? He has only 40 years as a winemaker before he has to hand the cellar key to the next generation. He could just make three wines a year, but he believes that the more he makes the more opportunities he will have to learn from his mistakes. Over a 40 year career he might make 600 wines, a much bigger satisfaction than making only 120.

Christophe's Viognier is a very pleasant wine with a chewy palate and an intense aroma of spices, ginger, and honey. No wonder, since he once worked as a cellar master at Georges Vernay, a famous producer in Condrieu. As well as the Chatus, another unusual wine is his Gamay Vin de Paille, made from dried Gamay grapes. A powerful sweet wine of red fruits and chocolate notes, it would make a good dessert on its own.

Christophe, rightly, is concerned about climate change. His Gamay is being harvested about seven days earlier now than in 1998 when he took over the domaine from his father. Growers in warm regions everywhere are searching for later-ripening grapes. Chatus, a mid to late ripener with high acidity, could well be the answer for growers in the Rhone.

Domaine du Grangeon is available from Cottage Vineyards.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Wine Detective?

At a recent Domaine Ponsot tasting, it was interesting enough tasting the wines and listening to Laurent Ponsot, the fourth generation in the winemaking family, talking about them. But, like a great detective novel, it was the twist at the end that made it especially memorable.

Let’s focus on the wine first. Like most Burgundian producers, Laurent respects the land. He insists that it is the overall geology of Burgundy, not merely the soil, that results in so many appellations—1,250 in total. Wines from two adjacent rows of vines can be totally different if the rows are on different sides of the fault line, because the minerals underground are not the same. Hence his remark, "We don’t produce Pinot Noir, we produce appellations."

To preserve integrity, Laurent has no fixed rules for making a wine. He does only what is necessary to help it express itself. The vineyards are organic and the work is natural. Also, he does not use new oak barrels, first because of the overpowering wood flavour imparted and second because of the fast ingress of oxygen—a new barrel transmits too much oxygen, resulting in premature oxidation. He compares this with the tragedy of a child destined to be a sumo wrestler: the child was overfed so much that he died young. Laurent's newest barrel is five years old.

We tasted the 2009 and 2010 vintages. Laurent reckoned 2010 was 100% a 'terroir wine'. The weather was not great so the sun did not have a great influence on the grapes. Yield was down across the board, but for those who made it the wine was a true expression of terroir. In contrast, 2009 was an easy vintage with perfect weather. Even the lesser vineyards produced better and riper grapes than normal. It was a '35% vintage' wine, according to Laurent. For me, both vintages were good, though the younger wines were too closed.

We were surprised to see that the wines were sealed with a synthetic closure, the Ardea Seal AS-Elite to be exact. Laurent was excited about this. He had spent 20 years searching for the perfect closure and eventually found this in Italy. It has a polymer section in contact with the wine that allows oxygen to go in but not wine to go out, like a Goretex layer. Compared to cork, this gives the dual advantages of avoiding TCA taint and enabling more precise control of maturation.

But on top of this the Ardea closure, being difficult to copy, offers the additional benefit of making it easier to spot counterfeit wine. The topic of counterfeiting makes Laurent animated. He proudly points out that all his bottles have the domain name inscribed in the bottom, and the label is made of a paper like that used in bank notes that can be verified using special machines. Even more impressively, each bottle also carries a hologram for authentication. Clearly Laurent is out to make sure his wines will not easily be counterfeited.

I smiled, perhaps questioning whether all this was a little excessive. It was then that Laurent dropped his bombshell. He earnestly told me that he works in collaboration with the FBI, and that it was his investigation that led to the arrest of the infamous Rudy Kurniawan in 2012! I had followed this story closely last year but during the tasting it didn't cross my mind that the gentleman next to me was the man that had sent shockwaves through the auction market. Shame on me, I should have done more research beforehand.

To Laurent, the winemaker is only one element in the process, and wine is mostly made by itself. He reckons he is the laziest winemaker out there, often preferring to travel the world getting closer to customers. Well, I reckon being a counterfeit detective should also be taken into consideration!

Domaine Ponsot is available from Altaya.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Identifying wine of the World

Most of us are impressed by people who can get the wine correct at a blind tasting, and secretly wish that we could do the same. Considering there are more than a dozen major wine producing countries and over 20 popular grape varieties, not to mention the hundreds of smaller wine producing regions and the even greater number of indigenous grape varieties and wine blends, it is daunting if not impossible to win in a blind tasting game. How do people do it then?

Most tasters normally start by eliminating half of the world, by going down the Old World / New World route. Because of tradition and winemaking technique, Old World wine (such as France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria) tends to be more restrained. Reds usually have a savoury characters while whites may have a hint of saltiness (some say minerality). New World wine (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the USA, Argentina, Chile) is usually more fruit focused and forward. This is true even for aromatic grapes like Riesling. A German Riesling is more subdued than a Clare Valley one. So if the wine smells of abundant fruit, chances are it is likely to be from the New World.

To get closer to the origin, one needs to know the geography. Wines made in cool or mild climates are likely to have lower alcohol and higher acidity than those from warmer regions. This is because in warmer conditions, grapes ripen faster, accumulate more sugar and lose acidity faster. Sugar is converted to alcohol during fermentation, so wine from hot areas like Southern France will have higher alcohol than the cooler Burgundy. However, there are exceptions. Grapes grown in a continental climate—hot days but cool nights—have both high sugar and high acidity. And don’t forget that water and altitude play a part as well. The ocean has a cooling effect on coastal vineyard areas in Chile, California and Stellenbosch, but brings a milder climate to Bordeaux, while every 100m increase in altitude will see the temperature drop by 0.6ºC.

Combining the above factors, you can narrow the probabilities down quite a bit. Say you are presented a delicate wine with fresh acidity and moderate alcohol; it is likely to be from a cool climate region in the Old World. A wine with pronounced fruit characters but only moderate alcohol is likely to be from a not too hot New World region, possibly Margaret River, or some high altitude vineyards in Chile.

Getting excited? It’s time to study now. You don’t need to be a brilliant taster but you must have the knowledge if you want to get the wine correct. The wine’s structure is what’s most important. Some grapes, such as Nebbiolo, Touriga Nacional and Cabernet Sauvignon always have high tannins, but the first two will also have higher acidity. Merlot, Malbec, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel have both medium tannin and acidity. Grenache, Gamay and Barbera have low tannin but the latter two have much higher acidity than Grenache. Colour also gives some hints. For example, what is a red with pale colour and high acidity? It could be Nebbiolo, Sangiovese or Pinot Noir, but if the tannin is high then it can’t be Pinot Noir. Now, look at the alcohol. If it is over 14%, it is highly likely to be Nebbiolo because Piedmont (where Nebbiolo is grown) has a more continental climate than Tuscany.

Take another example. A near opaque wine with moderate acidity and lush black fruits is probably a New World Shiraz, Merlot or Malbec. If the tannins are obvious but round, and there are jammy and spicy notes, I would put it as a Shiraz above the others. And if the alcohol is 14-14.5%? Very likely a Shiraz from the Barossa.

White wine is similar. It doesn’t have tannin, so acidity and alcohol level are the key factors. White grapes can also be categorised into aromatic ones such as Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Viognier, Gewurztraminer, Muscat; or neutral ones like Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Semillon. Semi-aromatic grapes include Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris and Albarino. So an aromatic wine with crisp acidity could be a Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc, but if it has a purity of fruit and alcohol of 13 or 13.5%, it is possibly a New World Sauvignon Blanc. Alsace Riesling could have 13% alcohol but it would be more mineral rather than fruit focused.

Unfortunately—but this is exactly what makes it so interesting—wine is not that black and white. With climate change, flying winemakers and the exchange of winemaking techniques, we are now seeing Old World wine styles made in the New World and vice versa. Some Bordeaux reds, especially those from riper vintages, are more fruit-forward with rounder tannins than the classic ones. The Kumeu River Hunting Hill Chardonnay from New Zealand (available from Northeast) is made in a Burgundian style which, in blind tastings, has fooled many a wine professional into believing it is a premier cru Burgundy.

My belief is that guessing the exact wine is not a very good reason for learning and enjoying wine. What matters is that we understand its quality, its style, its sense of place, and appreciate the effort that the winemaker has put into making it. As long as we follow the logic and know the theory, we won’t be far off in identifying the wine. And so what if we mistake a good quality South African Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon for a Chilean from the Aconcagua Valley?

Abridged version published in the South China Morning Post on 07 February 2013

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Wine Competitions

Hong Kong's wine scene is getting busier with international competitions heading east. First to arrive was the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition (CXHK IWSC), which had its inaugural competition in 2009. Led by Debra Meiburg MW, it is held annually just before the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Fair (HKIWSF), and the trophy winners are revealed during the Fair.

The Decanter Asia Wine Awards (DAWA) is the latest on the scene. Chaired my Jeannie Cho-Lee MW and Steven Spurrier, it was launched in 2012 and the top prizes have just been announced recently.

At competitions—they can also be called wine shows or challenges—wines are tasted blind and rated according to their quality and typicity. Medals, usually gold, silver and bronze, are given to the best in show in various categories (Best Chardonnay, Best Bordeaux blend...). The best of the best are typically awarded trophies. Results are arrived at either by consensus among the judges or by their average scores, depending on the competition.

CXHK IWSC and DAWA have a lot of similarities. Both have their roots in England and are long established and reputable. What’s more, both are geared towards Asian judges, especially the former where, apart from Debra and one international guest judge, only Asian judges are chosen. DAWA features both local Asian and Asian-based expat judges. Both recognise the benefits this brings in being closer to the market and highlighting the Asian palate. CXHK IWSC also has an Asian food and wine pairing category.

So, do these competitions really add any value?

Some sneer as they think only mass produced wines will be entered and judges may be unqualified or biased. True, a competition can only be as good as the wines entered and the standard of the judges. We have to realise that the big Bordeaux brothers or equivalent will never enter in case they don’t win, and nor will cult wine producers as they don’t have big volumes to sell. The standard of judging is directly related to the reputation of the competition. It is in the interests of the organisers that only competent judges are invited. They may have different stylistic preferences but judges of all nationalities should be able to rate a wine purely based on its quality.

I do believe competitions can be of great value in the developing markets. The results serve as guidelines for the inexperienced consumer, helping him select wine from the myriad available in the marketplace. He may not like the style of a wine but at least he knows its quality has been independently assessed. After accumulating some experience he can then move on with confidence to try other non-competition wines and be able to differentiate their quality levels for himself. Wine competitions can thus bring wine closer to consumers, helping to expand the market and so benefiting all wines whether they are entered in competitions or not.

With so many competitions around—big and small, international and local—their reputations and degree of recognition are all-important. Proactive consumer marketing of a competition is as essential as attracting entries. The more that consumers recognise a competition and its credibility the more confidence they will have in buying the winning wines. And these purchases will generate a positive feedback, attracting more and better entries next year.

And whatever the status of a competition, producers and distributors should be proud of their trophies and medals and utilise them as marketing tools. It should never be an embarrassment to tell your customers that your wines are among the best!

Click for the latest results of CXHK IWSC and DAWA.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Wine Gangs

Call them alliances, cooperations, partnerships or .... gangs, there seem to be more and more of them in the wine world.

The Rhone Gang
The most well known in Hong Kong and Macau is probably The Douro Boys, a syndicate of five independent family estates from the Douro. Created 10 years ago, it has successfully brought Douro wines to the table and raised the overall profile of the region's still wines.

Recently, I met another syndicate: the Rhône Gang from Southern Rhône. They are Louis from Chateau de Saint Cosme, Frederic from Chateau Pesquie, Rodolphe from Chateau de Montfaucon, and Arnaud, the guy in the shadows (aka marketing and PR man). Like the Douro Boys, they each represent independent boutique family estates, and they have now been working together for 13 years. They describe themselves as ‘serious in business but funny in life’. Sharing a belief in respecting the terroir and making the best wine from their land, their collaboration means they can offer a wide range of Rhône wines that complement but do not compete with each other. Having successfully established a bridgehead in Japan they are now marching on China. Try their wines from Sinolink.

The latest gang, or rather, more like a football team, is PIWOSA (Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa)—not a particularly imaginative name, perhaps, but the intention is good. As the name suggests, it is an association of some of South Africa's best wine producers. Unhappy with the under-representation of premium South African wine in international markets, 15 of the largely family owned producers from across the Western Cape formed this alliance last month (January 2013) with a clear objective of raising international perceptions of the top end of the South African wine spectrum. Like other gangs, they plan to tramp the globe spreading the word. I have tried most of the wines and there is no doubting their quality. Some, but not yet all, are available in Hong Kong.

With most well-known wine brands owned by big corporations with global marketing muscle, alliances like these among smaller players make sense. By collaborating they create a bigger noise, yet each member still retains his individuality and style. A well-chosen name (Douro Boys, The Rhône Gang) helps lend a human face. With today’s consumers increasingly seeing wine as a lifestyle product, this personal touch certainly brings life to wine, and helps us differentiate them in a crowded marketplace.

I would love to see more of these gangs from other countries. Pedro Parra, a terroir consultant from Chile, is considering something similar with like-minded winemakers there. Perhaps we could organise friendly inter-gang matches one day?