Monday, 29 December 2014

Annual portfolio tastings

The last quarter of the year is always busy on the Hong Kong wine scene. In addition to the mega events like Wine & Dine and the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair, both in November, there are James Suckling’s Great Wines of the World and Great Wines of Italy, Wine HK and more. For a fee, wine lovers can taste hundreds of wines, among them many award-winners, some available in Hong Kong, some not, and some poured by the winemakers or owners themselves.

But amid all these high profile events it's easy to lose sight of local importers’ annual portfolio tastings. In October and November alone there were at least six such tastings: Wellspring, Kerry Wines, Armit Wines, Northeast, Altaya and BB&R's Italian portfolio. Usually the afternoon session is reserved for the media and trade while the evening is open to the public. And yes, for a small fee, wine lovers can taste a wide range of wines, some award-winning and some poured by the winemakers or owners themselves, and all the wines tasted are available, or soon to be available, in Hong Kong.

Mega wine events and high profile wine tastings are fun to go to, but portfolio tastings are often more practical for regular drinkers as they let you identify the strengths of each importer and the wines they carry, so you know where to get what wines for which occasion. And don’t think that most importers carry pretty much the same things; you’ll be surprised by the diversity of some and the specialities of others. Plus of course there are both big and boutique importers who stock very different styles and ranges. Some portfolio tastings also have winery representatives present who are happy to answer any questions related to their wines. Even when there are no wineries representatives, the whole team of importer staff is always on hand to assist. Because portfolio tastings are comparatively less crowded, you will also get more attention from the people behind the counter, a plus if you have a lot of questions.

Actually, not all annual portfolio tastings happen in Q4. There are some in other months, such as VinoVeritas in March, Continental Wines in May and Wine High Club in August. I’m sure there are a lot more that I haven’t mentioned here but keep an eye on the Wine Times HK Event page, or various Facebook pages: Hong Kong Wine Lovers, Hong Kong Wine & Food and HK Wine Fans. Of course the most direct way is to get onto the mailing lists of importers.

Happy New Year and Happy tasting!

Here are my impressions of the various annual portfolio tastings I have attended this year (Apologies if I missed anyone out):

  • Altaya: Probably the biggest such event with some 70 wineries present. Heavily French biased but not short of famous names. Consumers were queuing outside one hour before it started!
  • Armit Wines: A decent collection skewed towards the Old World. There were both big and small names and some from off the beaten track too. 
  • BB&R Italian wine tasting: If you are a fan of small Italian wine producers, you'll love this. All wines were carefully selected by David Berry Green, BBR's Italian wine buyer.  
  • Kerry Wines: Another big event featuring about 50 wineries mostly from the Old World (France, Italy and Spain). 
  • Northeast: The most lively and cosy event with wines mainly from the New World and a range of craft beer and cider. 
  • Red Mill: Mainly Lebanese wine, shown alongside Northeast’s. If you want something different, this is it. Definitely worth trying.
  • VinoVeritas: Italian wine specialist. This tasting was memorable because it was held at Colour Living, a lifestyle store featuring stylish kitchen and bathroom furnishings. 
  • Wellspring: A French dominated portfolio, but don’t be put off as its Bordeaux and Burgundy ranges are really good value. Look our for their Italian and German producers.
  • Wine High Club: A fine wine merchant with a focus on France. Their sparklings and champagnes are definitely worth a try.  

Friday, 12 December 2014

Wine HK, the second running

What a great way for wine lovers to end the year: a wine fair in balmy weather under the new Ferris wheel on the Central Harbourfront.

Compared to Wine & Dine, where visitors were mainly interested in food—long queues at the food counters but not at the wine booths—Wine HK was certainly more wine focused. Yet it managed to avoid the stiffness and time constraints of some wine tasting events. Consumers wandered around the semi-outdoor venue and tasted wine at their own pace, pausing for a bite at one of the eight food booths serving round-the-globe delicacies from yakitori chicken to steak sandwiches, before tasting more wine, all the while listening to festive music—although I have to admit the music bit could have been improved.

Courtesy Wine HK
Over 800 wines were presented by 33 companies. Some importers such as Links Concept, Jebsen, Montrose and Victoria Wines featured a range of wines covering several countries while others, including Chilled Wines, Red Mill, Schmidt Vinothek and wine ‘n’ things, focused only on one country or a couple of brands. Most visitors were clearly wine lovers and keen to know more about the wine they were tasting. There was also a VIP lounge furnished by Timothy Oulton where visitors could relax and enjoy some more exclusive wines.

Wine Times HK and Mumm, the official media and champagne partners respectively, ran a sabrage challenge where visitors learnt the trick of how to open a bottle of champagne with a blade. It attracted a crowd of eager triers, mostly ladies (somewhat surprisingly) including myself, surrounded by male-dominated onlookers. The best part of this challenge was drinking the champagne afterwards—12 bottles on Saturday! In addition, there was a Tasting Championship and Information wine sessions where visitors could do blind tastings and learn more about wine in general. Visitors could also vote for their favourite wines.

What I liked about Wine HK was the atmosphere. It was about lifestyle, fun, interaction and good quality wine without breaking the bank. That is certainly in line with my own ideas about promoting wine culture—letting consumers enjoy and learn about wine without pressure. Even Henry Tang paid a visit on Sunday. Judging by his conversation with Jeremy Oliver, Australian wine writer, Mr Tang seemed to approve of the event.

What’s more, all wines carried about a 20% discount off retail price and most were within the HK$100 to $300 bracket. Even wines in the VIP Lounge were affordable with most between HK$300 and $500 per bottle. I particular liked the concept of consolidated shopping and delivery. Instead of having to buy a minimum amount from one importer (usually about $1,200) in order to enjoy free delivery, visitors could pick as little as one wine from any given importer then pay a $90 delivery charge for a combined delivery of all their purchases. This encouraged purchases without jeopardising the sales of any importer. I bought over 30 wines from 12 importers! The organiser has yet to release the statistics but I could see there was quite a number of keen buyers.

Courtesy Wine HK
Understandably, there were a couple of things that I felt could be improved. The VIP lounge was by invitation only, but no one, including exhibitors, seemed to know how the system worked and who might got invited. I walked straight in unchallenged on the first evening, was refused entry the second day and was invited back in on the third! Actually, I’m not sure if a VIP Lounge is really necessary as the wines featured were mostly not much more expensive than those in the main area. As an alternative, perhaps visitors could pay an extra fee at the door to gain entry so at least serious wine lovers and buyers without invitations would not miss out. The other minor point was the two storey layout. Some visitors, although a minority, thought the whole second storey was for VIPs only and were not aware there were a lot more general tasting booths up there. I myself directed quite a few consumers to go upstairs.

Anyway, despite the flaws, Wine HK is definitely a worthwhile consumer event that I hope will become a signature over time. I’m looking forward to its third running.

Note: According to the organiser's Facebook post on 23rd December, there were 3,500 customers who together bought 24,000 bottles from 89 booths, an increase of 300% from the previous year. There were delivery hiccups (I experienced it myself) but nevertheless an encouraging result.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Canada, more than just ice wine

During my first trip to Canada in 2009 we visited Niagara Falls and naturally stopped by some wineries around the area. I was delighted to find that, apart from ice wine, they also make still red wine. I was excited to be able to taste some of the best Cabernet Franc in the world and was overjoyed when one winemaker allowed me to try his 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon from the barrel. Ontario may be cold in winter but its warm summer allows cool climate red grapes to ripen gracefully. And if there is ample sunshine, as there was in 2008, it can even ripen Cabernet Sauvignon. After this discovery, I have begged my sister to bring me back a case of Canadian Cabernet Franc and Syrah every time she visits Canada.

In the past year, the Consulate General of Canada has been promoting Canadian still wine in the market here in HK, with the assistance of my fellow educator friend Rebecca Leung. I finally made it to a tasting on 3rd November and found a few nice surprises.

The black and red clay loam at Coyote's Run
I was most impressed by Coyote’s Run, located in Ontario. Their barrel fermented Chardonnay, Red Paw Chardonnay 2012, was balanced and elegant, while the two Pinot Noirs, Red Paw and Black Paw, both 2012 and named after the colour of the clay loam the grapes are grown on, won praise from many media and educator friends. Even their entry level white, off-dry Five Mile White 2012, probably dismissed by many critics even before tasting because of the blend—Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer—was surprisingly refreshing and pleasant.

Canadian wine regions are all classified as cool climate but each is different. Climatically similar to Burgundy, Ontario in the east is the largest region, with vineyards spread east-west close to the shores of Lakes Ontario and Erie to benefit from the moderating effect of those large bodies of water. Ontario is followed by British Columbia in the west where vineyards mostly cluster along a north-south line in Okanagan Valley. This is a very dry area with summer daytime temperatures frequently reaching 35ºC to ripen the grapes and cool nights to retain the acidity. It is therefore not surprising to find red wines with close to 15% alcohol yet good balance with fresh acidity and elegant fruits. The two that stood out were Perseus Winery Invictus 2012 and Laughing Stock Vineyards Portfolio 2010, both Bordeaux style blends.

Another interesting find was Omerto tomato wine. Yes, it is fermented from tomatoes and there are two styles: Omerto Sec and Omerto Moelleux, both with 16% alcohol. They don’t taste like wine made from grapes but the Sec is particularly vibrant with citrus aroma, while the Moelleux has additional honey and marmalade  scents. Apparently, Ormeto Moelleux won two food/wine pairing Bronze Awards at the latest Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition, one with sashimi and the other with yakitori chicken. Check them out if you are curious. Omerto is also listed in the Spanish Restaurant, Fofo by el Willy via importer Nice Things.

The only disappointment in this tasting was the paucity of Cabernet Franc, the grape that I believe Canada does best. There were only 2½ of them—two 100% Cabernet Francs and one blend from four varieties featured. Asked for the reason, a few exhibitors actually said they were not sure about the wine. They thought consumers wouldn’t like it, that Syrah and Chardonnay were easier to sell, and so on ... but they themselves love it! Well, I say one should trust one’s own judgement. I think it’s time for Canadians to introduce to wine lovers some of the greatest Cabernet Francs in the world.

Many importers carry Canadian ice wines but I’m not aware of any Canadian still wine importers here apart from Cuvées, which has at least five Canadian wineries in its portfolio including Laughing Stock Vineyards. I’m trying to persuade Joseph Luk, the managing director, to bring some Cabernet Franc to us.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Mt Etna, the Burgundy of the Mediterranean

Bocca Nouva, the youngest of the four craters at the summit of Mt Etna
Finally I had a chance to see Mt Etna, the biggest active volcano in Europe. It was a private volcano hiking holiday but, being a wine addict, I managed to fit in three winery visits around Randazzo, a small town that makes a good base for exploring the northern side of Etna. The wines turned out to be as impressive as the mountain on which the grapes are grown.

The Etna DOC, like other Sicilian wine regions, focused only on entry level and bulk wine in the early days. But luckily the region and its potential to make quality wine were rediscovered—not by Sicilians themselves but by outsiders. One of the pioneers was Marco de Grazia, renowned as the first person to export Barolo. In 2002 he founded Tenuta delle Terre Nere on the slopes of Etna, and it has been making outstanding wine ever since.

In addition to Tenuta delle Terre Nere, I also visited Tenuta di Fessina and Passopisciaro, both also owned by outsiders. Tenuta di Fessina is owned by Tuscan winemaker Silvia Maestrelli and Federico Curtaz, while the owner of Passopisciaro is Andrea Franchetti from Rome (though his wife is from Sicily). I thought Sicilians might resent the invasion from the north so I was surprised when Letizia Patane, a native and the marketing person at Passopisciaro, assured me otherwise. She said Sicilians are actually grateful of the know-how, discipline and vision that these northerners brought with them. Judging by the quality of the wine, I agree; but I would also like to credit the Sicilians for being open and readily embracing the change, rather than being stubborn and parochial.... it takes two to tango!

Yet outsider vision alone cannot make Etna’s wines outstanding. This DOC region is blessed with unique soil and an exceptional climate. The mineral rich black volcanic lava soil combines with the continental microclimate of the mountain–high diurnal temperature and low rainfall in summer—to give the wine freshness and elegance. There are also some very old vines, some even from the pre-phylloxera era, that contribute to the complexity. No wonder the wine is known as the Burgundy of the Mediterranean.

The lava soil, afternoon mist, pre-phylloxera vines - all contribute to the uniqueness of Etna wines.
Then, last but not least, there are the indigenous grape varieties. Wine lovers may know Nero d’Avola and Grillo from Sicily, but Etna has its own grapes: the elegant Nerello Mascalese and the fleshier Nerello Cappuccio for reds, and the crisp Carricante for whites. I love indigenous grapes because it is they that make a region unique. It is heartening to see that outsiders respect them rather than following the herd and making wines from international grapes.

One point to note is that the Etna region is closely defined. It is on the slopes of the volcano so vines are grown at an altitude of 450m and upwards. However, the DOC region only includes vines grown to a maximum altitude of 900m. So wines made from vines grown above 900m can only be classified as IGT, rather than DOC. Asked about the reason, all wineries just shrugged and said it is the regulation. But please don’t dismiss Etna's IGT wines—they may well be from some very elegant Nerello Mascalese grown above 1,000m.

What better way to end my Etna visit than a wine festival in the village of Passopisciaro? Compared to those in Chianti, it was very small scale with less than 20 wineries represented, but the atmosphere was fantastic. There was a mountain guides marching band and stalls selling ultra delicious barbecue sausages brushed with olive oil, the brush being a bunch of fresh herbs!

Yummy sausage and marching band at Etna wine festival
Having climbed to the summit of Etna twice, literally eaten the volcanic soil (yes, I took a tumble down the slope and got a mouthful of lava), and tasted the mineral-rich wines, I would love to see more of them here in Hong Kong.

Some of the highlights were:

Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Guardiola Etna Rosso DOC from barrel: Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio from between 800 and 1,000m elevation. It has a tight tannin structure and concentrated black fruit and spice aromas, with definite ageing potential. Tenuta delle Terre Nere is available from Wine Culture Ltd (Tel: +852 2810 1186).

Passopisciaro: Letizia was very passionate and drove us around their various vineyard sites, called ‘contrada’, at different altitudes. We tasted the 2012 of Passopisciaro, Contrada Rampante and Contrada Chiappemacine. All are 100% Nerello Mascalese. Passopisciaro is blended while the other two are single vineyard. Believe me, they are all quite different.  Chiappemacine is from 80 year old vines at 550m altitude and the wine is softer and more rounded with black fruit aromas, whereas Rampante, made from 100 years old vines at 1,000m, has more herbal notes and an elegant structure.

Passopisciaro also makes Guardiola, a white from 100% Chardonnay. It is only a 4ha plot but there were more than 20 pickings to ensure optimum ripeness. Planted at 1,000m, it reminded me of the minerality and elegance of a Chablis. Passopisciaro is available from Corney & Barrow.

Tenuta di Fessina, Il Musmeci Etna Bianco Superiore DOC 2012: Made from 100% Carricante grapes, the wine has vibrant acidity with citrus, stone fruit and herbal notes. Nine months ageing in old barrels further adds complexity. Only 3,000 bottles were made.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Tahbilk: Something out of the ordinary

Not too many wine lovers are overly excited about tasting Australian wine (including myself), but how wrong this attitude can be! I had the opportunity to taste some very fine wine from Tahbilk, one of the members of Australia’s First Families of Wine, and it was just mind-blowing.

Alister Purbrick, the fourth generation and chief winemaker of Tahbilk was in town and shared some of these very rare wines with members of the Hong Kong Wine Society. They were:

Tahbilk Marsanne: 2013, 2011, 2007, 2002, and 1999
Tahbilk 1927 Vines Marsanne: 2005, 2003 and 2000
Tahbilk 1860 Vines Shiraz: 2008, 2003 and 1999

Most people regard Marsanne as the lesser partner of Roussane. I had tried a few 100% Marsannes before and didn’t really think much of them. I had heard of Tahbilk, and that it has the largest planting of Marsanne in the world, but had never tried the wine, so I was really looking forward to the tasting.

By the way, Tahbilk also has some of the oldest vines in the world. The 1927 in Tahbilk 1927 Vines Marsanne is the year when the vines were planted (87 years ago). The vines for the Tahbilk 1860 Vines Shiraz are 154 years old.

As usual with Hong Kong Wine Society tastings we didn’t know the order of the wines, and Alister wanted us not only to identify which three Marsannes were made from the older vines, but also the vintage of all of them. His hint to us: the entry level one was made at low temperature in stainless steel tanks to retain the flavour, while the 1927 Vines was picked early to retain the acidity, fermented with no temperature control and relied on bottle age to develop into a complex, textural and mineral-rich wine somewhat similar to a Hunter Valley semillon.

Both Tahbilk’s Marsannes were indeed full of surprises. Instead of being alcoholic, fat and bland, they were light, refreshing and delicious. The younger ones were more on the floral and citrus part of the spectrum, gradually evolving into a spices, honeysuckle and dried fruits bouquet as the wine aged. The 1927 Vines Marsannes were crisp, mineral and delicate. If I have to use one word to describe them, it would be 'elegant'.

The 1860 Vines Shiraz is even rarer. Tahbilk used to produce about 200 dozen back in 2007 but the vines never really recovered from a frost attack and now the production is only about 100 dozen. After maturing in oak for 18 months, the wine is further aged for four yeas in bottle before release. Again, it is elegant and complex. The 2008 is too young to drink and the 2003 still has a long life ahead.

Apart from the wine, Alister is equally proud of his conservation efforts. Through re-vegetation and investing in carbon reduction schemes, Tahbilk first achieved carbon neutral status in 2012. Alister’s aim is for the operation to be naturally carbon neutral (ie, no offsetting of carbon emissions) by 2020.

Tahbilk is located in the Nagambike Lakes wine region about 90 minutes drive from Melbourne. It is the only wine region in Australia (and one of only six in the world) where the meso-climate is influenced by an inland water mass. The soil is also unique because of its high iron oxide content. Wine is an expression of place, and Tahbilk wine certainly reflects its terroir—an interaction between climate, soil, vines and the dedication of the people.

Tahbilk is available from Armit Wines, limited stock only.

Thanks to Chris Robinson for introducing Tahbilk.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

New Kids on the Block

Another opportunity to taste South African wine, this time a masterclass at IFT Macau (Macau Institute of Tourism Studies) led by Richard Kershaw MW, an Englishman who is now making his own wine in Elgin, South Africa.

Richard called this masterclass 'South Africa New Kids on the Block' because the winemakers are based not in the classic wine regions of Stellenbosch or Franschhoek but in cutting edge areas such as the cool Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde and the Mediterranean Swartland. Moreover, these winemakers don’t own vineyards and some not even wineries (they share wineries). They work with growers and source grapes from the best, mostly smaller and older, plots. These winemakers are also small scale operators, only make a few wines, most of them only two. Richard summed it up by saying that not owning land or wineries lowers the barrier of entry and therefore presents an opportunity for new winemakers to make something unique. These new kids, most in their mid 30s, focus on offering the best wines made from the best grapes.

The wines were divided into three flights. The first was white blends. Richard explained that a wine called a white blend tends to be lower quality, easy drinking and mostly box wine, but these winemakers try to make a point that white blends can in fact be decent. The blends are not Bordeaux SSB (Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc) but from a myriad of grapes with no dominant variety. While some are field blends form old vines, other winemakers source grapes from five or more vineyards to make a few barrels of wine.

Courtesy of David Wong
David Aristargos 2013: Only six barrels were made. This is a blend of Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Rousanne and Clairette sourced from seven vineyards. The wine is fresh, laden with fruit purity and has a concentrated mid-palate adding complexity. Winemaker David Sadie (no relation to Eben Sadie) is a member of the Swartland Independent and one of my favourite winemakers. He started with only 713 bottles of Aristargos in 2010 and now makes four wines of about 4,000 bottles. Available from Vincisive.

Rall White 2013: A Chenin Blanc, Verdelho, Chardonnay and Viognier blend. Chenin’s refreshing acidity gives the wine the backbone and minerality to support the floral notes and spices of the other varieties. Donovan Rall is another member of the Swartland Independent but some of the grapes of this wine were actually sourced from Stellenbosch. He makes only two wines (a white and a red), each only a few barrels.

Thorne and Daughters Rocking Horse Cape Wine Blend 2013: A blend of Rousanne, Chardonnay, Semillon and Chenin Blanc, this is another complex wine with a herb garden spicy aroma and a creamy palate. The wine takes its name from the rocking horse that John and Tasha Seccombe made for their eldest daughters using old oak barrel staves. John studied winemaking at Plumpton in the UK (where I also received my winemaking training) so I’m particularly proud of him. And yes, you guessed right, only 3-4 barrels were made.

The second flight was Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, and again we tasted three wines:

Kershaw Elgin Chardonnay Clonal Selection 2012: From the coolest region of Elgin in South Africa, this wine is restrained and elegant and the oak fermentation and ageing (40% new oak) adds complexity. Richard is very precise and aims to create clonally selected, site-specific, cool climate wine from noble grapes. This Chardonnay is made from Clones CY97, CY95 and CY76. You will be able to buy it from Vincisive soon.

Alheit Cartology 2013: 88% Chenin Blanc sourced from four vineyards and blended with12% Semillon from old vines, this is a fine wine with good concentration and ageing potential. Owners Chris and Suzaan Alheit work with Rosa Kruger, a highly respected viticulturist in South Africa who is a pioneer in discovering forgotten old plots. This wine, Cartology, meaning the study of maps, is a tribute to Rosa’s work. The good news is that the wine will be soon be available in Hong Kong from Vincisive.

Testalonga El Bandito 2013: Love it or hate it, this is made from 100% Chenin Blanc with prolonged skin contact (I mean weeks!). It is two shades deeper in colour, structured with a bit of tannin, nutty yet floral and fresh, reminding me of Georgian qvevri wine. Someone in the audience said "cider" which was certainly not wrong. Testalonga is the own label of Craig Hawkins, winemaker at Lammershoek in Swartland.

The last flight was Pinot Noir and Syrah from the cool regions next to the Atlantic coast.

JH Meyer Signature Pinot Noir 2013: A charming, fruit driven wine with a good balance. Winemaker Johan only makes two wines, about 1,000 bottles each.

Crystallum Cuvee Cinema Pinot Noir 2012: Red fruits, hint of floral and spices, certainly a wine with depth and ageing potential. The father of this team of brothers, Peter Finlayson who put Walker Bay Pinot Noir on the world wine map, would be proud of sons Andrew and Peter-Allan.

Kershaw Elgin Syrah Clonal Selection 2012: Another precise, clonally selected wine from Richard using Clones SH9c and SH22. A subtle wine with black fruits, white pepper, spices and a hint of vanilla from the 50% new French oak. Soon available from Vincisive.

These wines are all good quality. But what I really like and appreciate is the commitment of the winemakers (often supported by their wives). They are not making crowd-pleasing wines but rather wines that respect and reflect their origins. These 'kids' are pursuing their dreams and making wines with their hearts, and we should applaud them.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Ningxia, the next big thing in China’s wine world?

It may be one year since I was in Ningxia but I think my observations still hold true....

I’d heard so many things about Ningxia so I was delighted when I finally got the chance to see it for myself. In my 12 day visit in late September last year, not only was I able to visit a few wineries, but I also attended the 2013 OIV (International Organisation of Vine and Wine) Academic Conference, judged at the Ningxia Wine Competition, tasted grapes at several vineyards, and crushed two tanks of Merlot at Silver Heights.

So what do I think of Ningxia? In short, good potential for making outstanding wine but owners need to work on vineyard management and cellar hygiene.

The geography, climate and soil
Ningxia is adjacent to Inner Mongolia with Helan Mountain forming the border. The eastern slope of Helan Mountain lies within Ningxia and the western slope in Inner Mongolia. Most vineyards (at least the quality ones) are located on the slopes of Helan Mountain, about one to two hours drive from Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia. Some vineyards are as high as 1,000m altitude.

Yinchuan, about 800km west of Beijing, has a continental climate with summer temperatures reaching over 32ºC and winter temperatures falling as low as -20ºC. It is dry with annual rainfall of only about 200mm, but luckily there is plenty of water for irrigation from the Yellow River. The advantage of the continental climate is the high diurnal temperature range during the growing season. In Yinchuan the average high in July is 30ºC and the average low 18ºC, while average sunshine hours are 3,000 per year. Grapes ripen at a nice pace while still retaining their acidity, a prerequisite for making good quality wine. Dry weather also results in low disease risk, especially from mildew which is a big problem on the eastern coast of China.

Soils are predominately free-draining gravels with various clay and schist components around the region, again ideal for vine growing.

Big wineries like Great Wall, Changyu and Grace were buying grapes from Ningxia to make elsewhere long before they established their bases here.

The main downside is the bitter cold and dry winter conditions that force growers to bury their vines under soil in winter to protect them. However, this is not foolproof. The vines have to be bent down every year, which shortens their life, and up to 10% may die every year during the process. Brett Richardson, viticulturist of Pernod Ricard Helan Mountain, said vines buried under soil are also prone to infection through pruning wounds. Having said that, Dr Tony Jordan, who has tramped all over China to identify the ideal area for setting up a sparkling wine vineyard for Moet Hennessy, reckons that if the vines can produce outstanding grapes their relatively short life is a fair price to pay. He established Domaine Chandon for Moet Hennessy in Ningxia. It opened early this year, with a great view of Helan Mountain.

With the advances in vineyard management, surely there must be a better way of protecting vines from the harsh winter? In fact, I was wondering about going back to the basics of planting low bush vines like in Spain or Southern France. Instead of bending the trunks of vines so as to be able to bury them under soil, the soil could instead be pushed up to cover the crown. OK, this may have other consequences, such as spring frost risk, but at least the vines would be stronger and more resilient. Not only that, it is labour intensive to bury the vines in winter and dig them up again in spring so vineyard operation cost is high. Pushing up the soil would be cheaper. I was surprised to find that the average price of grapes is more than double that in South Africa (HK$7,000/ton vs HK$3,000/ton) and, according to Debra Meiburg MW, certainly more expensive than in Sonoma. At the OIV Conference, Mr Li Hua, Vice President of Northwest A&F University suggested training the cordons at ground level, adopting a similar thought to mine that soil could then be pushed up to cover the cordons instead of bending the vines.

I would love to see some proper research done on this issue in Ningxia. I wonder if viticulturist guru Dr Richard Smart might be interested?

Grape varieties
The mostly planted varieties in Ningxia are red Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Gernischt (aka Carmenère) because of the preference of Chinese consumers towards Bordeaux wine. I wonder if these are really the best choices. Both Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère are late ripeners so perhaps not the best in areas with a short ripening season.

There is some Syrah in Ningxia but the the vineyards I visited were badly managed. The big bunches were hidden among leaves and the vines looked sad. At end of September, the grapes still tasted fairly green with perhaps 11% potential alcohol. However, I do believe Syrah, with proper vineyard management, could thrive in Ningxia. I can imagine it being similar to the Syrah from Elqui in Chile. Dr Qiu Wenping from Missouri State University reckoned Malbec would also be a good candidate.

White grape varieties, especially the aromatic ones, would also be suitable. Some of the best white wine I tasted in Ningxia was Welschriesling (貴人香), light and refreshing. I think Muscat could be interesting, and  so could Verdelho. Sadly, white wine has not yet taken off in China so most growers still concentrate on the red varieties, especially Bordeaux ones.

The state farm group Ningxia Nongken (農墾) has developed a nursery, with nearly every variety under the sun being cultivated. They have ambitious plans (who doesn’t in China!) to produce three to five million young vines per year. Let’s hope some growers will take up some interesting varieties.

Knowhow and technique
After visiting vineyards and wineries and tasting some wine, I concluded that Ningxia still has a long way to go before realising its full potential.

Starting with vineyards, management needs to be improved vastly to produce quality grapes. Apart from the training concerns discussed earlier, the immediate issue is virus infection. Over half of the Cabernet Gernischt is infected with leafroll virus but it appeared that growers were not aware of it. The vines have red leaves, an indication of the virus, but growers seemed to believe this was a characteristic of Cabernet Gernischt. Dr Qiu conducted research back in 2008 and confirmed that over 60% of the vines were infected. No wonder the wine tasted green and musty.

At Chateau Changyu Moser XV, with its grand castles, a poster in front of the Cabernet Sauvignon plot described the wine as having “a pleasant pale green grass aroma” (悅人的淡青草味). Well, it should be blackcurrant, if ripened properly. Green grass aroma is unripe Cabernet Sauvignon, I’m afraid, and not something you want to advertise.

As with most vine growing regions in China, Ningxia has its share of conflict between growers and winemakers about yield versus quality. This problem will not go away if contracted farmers continue to be paid by tonnage. Obviously they want to maximise yield. Just look at the size of their table grapes, they can be as big as strawberries! I witnessed how Emma Gao and her father from Silver Heights charmingly liaised with growers on yield, but at the end of the day there is little they can do. Helan Mountain, owned by Pernod Ricard is more farsighted. After splitting with their joint venture partner they are now managing the vineyards in a different way, with farmers being paid for following instructions rather than on tonnage. This is certainly the way to go.

Good quality may be a prerequisite of good quality wine but winemakers can still ruin the fruits through poor cellar hygiene and careless handling. At the Ningxia wine competition I dare say 30% of the wine we tasted was faulty and another 30% showed bad winemaking, from reduced and oxidised to brett and corked. The 12-person judging panel consisted of experienced writers and professionals from the UK, France, Australia, China and myself. We were all making faces and noises during the tasting.

One of the comments I made to winemakers was that most of their wines were over-oaked. Delicate fruit aromas were overpowered. This is probably because of the current preference of local consumers, who rightly or wrongly believe that any wine aged in wood must be expensive and therefore must taste good. Balance is the key to all good wine so I hope both winemakers and consumers in China will come to appreciate this soon.

Ms Zhang Jing (張靜), winemaker at He Lan Qing Xue (賀蘭晴雪) asked if we could taste the terroir in the wine. My answer? Terroir is a combination of climate, soil, grape varieties and man’s efforts. Ningxia is still at the experimental stage, trying to find the right varieties and clones that can grow in the dry and continental climate and match the soil. Too much oak also doesn’t help: it masks the expression of the fruit, which is the heart of terroir. I think terroir will only come through after all these building blocks are in place. Rome was not built in a day ... and France has been making wine since Roman times. There is only one vintage per year and I think my fellow Ningxia winemakers have to be patient about laying claim to an identifiable ‘terroir’.

But I’m heartened to see that winemakers are willing to learn. At first, most of the judges were reluctant to criticise the wine but after I made the first critical comment, everyone chipped in. To their credit, winemakers listened and asked even more questions. At the end of the ‘grilling session’, we urged them to try different wines from other countries (not only China  and France). Learning wine comes from tasting and seeing more.

Government support, tourism, competition
The Ningxia Government is very supportive of the wine industry. They have ambitious plans to develop Ningxia into a ‘million mu (66,000 ha) vineyard corridor’ and are giving incentives to wineries and even non-wine related companies to develop vineyards and wine tourism businesses. Ningxia was also the first region in China to be accepted as an official observer at the OIV in 2012 (the other was Yantai but that is at the municipal level). Hopefully, with both government and OIV support, Ningxia will have better access to vineyard and winery management in order to improve its wine quality.

Site plan of Changyu Moser XV
Wine tourism is logical given that most consumers are not wine geeks like us and will probably get bored after visiting a couple of wineries and looking at the same old stainless steel tanks and oak barrels. Some wineries, notably Changyu Moser XV, have built their wineries like theme parks. It has two big castles, a welcome fountain (which is turned on when visitors arrive) and an impressive barrel hall. Fongyee Walker, a Beijing based w
ine educator and writer, joked that a tour of Changyu is like walking into Ikea —it’s one-way, big and never-ending. Great Wall is building another massive establishment with 3,000ha land and Rmb310 million of investment (yes, most wineries like to boast about how much money they have spent or will spend). St Louis-Ding, though a relatively small outfit, still has a Disney-like castle with a sad looking fountain in front that makes it look more like a movie set where there’s only a facade.
St Louis-Ding

This is all good but my point is that wine should be at the core of wine tourism. If the region builds a reputation for good quality wine, wine lovers and friends will like to see it, and tourism will then naturally develop. All these big investments in Ningxia, from my point of view, are like a child trying to run without first learning how to walk. Projects that are built on expectation rather than competency are often short-lived. Various wine routes in South Africa, most notably Stellenbosch, and California (eg. Napa and Sonoma) are successful wine tourism case studies that Ningxia should learn from.

To illustrate, the government was keen to show judges the latest wine tourism attraction: a defunct mine turned into a wine cellar in the middle of the mountain. We were bused there in the afternoon to walk a 1km tunnel at below 10ºC (we were all given jackets) where boxes of wine from various wineries in the region are stored. At the end of the tunnel is a small table and some shelves, presumably where wine tastings could be conducted. But who wants to taste wine at 5ºC? Anyway, the joke was that the entourage of some 30 people including staff, cameramen and guests walked all the way to the end of the tunnel, expecting a speech or some introduction, but the only words the chief said were ‘let’s go back’!

We were secretly thankful that we didn’t need to judge the wine in that freezing cold and dark tunnel, but the actual judging conditions were not much better. The room we were in, just outside the tunnel, was about 12-15ºC to start with but getting colder as time went by. The wines we judged were apparently stored in the tunnel and were at 2-3ºC at most, muting the delicate aromas of some potentially good wines. The organiser rolled out a portable heater but the room was too big for it to be effective. And it was not only we judges who had to endure the cold room (and at least we had a job to do); there were about 10 others who were not judges but had to sit there waiting for us to finish our work. They weren’t even given any wine to taste! We had no idea, and I’m sure they themselves hadn’t either, why they were there.

International interests
It is not only local wine giants such as Changyu and Dynasty that have made significant investments in Ningxia; foreign wineries have also noted the region’s potential. Pernod Ricard is now the 100% owner of Domain Helan Mountain, while Moet Hennessy has a joint venture with Nongken, the local state farm group, to produce sparkling wine and Austrian Lenz Moser has partnered with Changyu.

Ever since He Lan Qing Xue’s Jia Bei Lan 2009 Cabernet blend won Decanter’s ‘Red Bordeaux varietal over £10’ International Trophy in 2011, Ningxia has been drawing international media attention with high profile visits from the likes of Jancis Robinson, who has four Ningxia wines out of six in her most favourite Chinese wine list (Ch. Changyu Moser XV, He Lan Qing Xue, Helan Mountan, Silver Heights).

Judging at this Ningxia wine competition were several international experts including Jeremy Oliver and Nikki Palun from Australia, Anthony Ross from the UK and Xavier Mihade, Denis Saverot and his colleague from France. They all agreed that Ningxia (or Helan Mountain Eastern Slope as the government calls it), has potential although there is a lot of catching up to do.

China is the fifth largest wine producing country in the world, and one of the fastest growing wine consumers. In my view, Ningxia and the west are certainly more suitable for vine growing than the east. No doubt the region will continue to attract attention and investment, both from abroad and within China. It is up to Ningxia to keep up with the expectations it has generated.


I have faith in Ningxia. The soil and geography are right and the climate issues can be tackled. What the industry needs to do is to focus on finding the right grape varieties, improving vineyard and winery management, gaining experience from abroad, and widening consumers’ tasting palates. I’m sure Ningxia wine will shine one day, and I would love to be part of the process of seeing and making it happen.

Most great wineries are built and improved over generations. Ningxia, you are only a toddler, so be patient if you want to grow up to become a serious player in the world of wine—but what potential you have!

Wineries visited:

Chateau Changyu Moser XV 張裕摩塞爾十五世酒莊
Fairytale-like castles with a Hollywood movie-set cellar tour to match. After tons of charming and bullying, we were finally allowed to taste one wine—I was there with five other judges from the Ningxia Wine Competition and all of us had VIP badges from the organiser. We tasted this wine with its label in Chinese that said ‘exclusively for group buying’ (團購渠道專供). Selling price Rmb1,480 and the wine was faulty.

COFCO Great Wall 中糧長城
Another ambitious enterprise with 126 massive stainless steel tanks. Restaurants and all kinds of tourist entertainment are planned. Chief winemaker Jiang Tao (江濤) gave us two wines for blind tasting, a white Welschriesling and a red blend of 75% Cabernet Franc and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. Both were very well-made. I was particularly impressed by the white.

Moet Hennessy Domaine Chandon (Ningxia) 酩悅軒尼詩夏桐
A modern European design, understated but no doubt expensive, with a panoramic view of Helan Mountain when the weather permits. Its first vintage will only be released in 2014 so we could only taste its sister wine, Chandon Australia, at the visitor centre. Anyway, with vines planted at 1,100m altitude, the full support of Moet Hennessy and the guidance Dr Tony Jordan (winemaking consultant), watch out. It might well be the first Chinese-made quality sparkling wine!

Pernod Ricard Helan Mountain 保樂力加賀蘭山葡萄酒廠
Run by Aussie duo Craig Grafton, the chief winemaker, and Brett Richardson, the viticulturist, this now 100% Pernod Ricard owned operation was the only winery that showed us the vineyard and explained to us the challenges of vine growing in Ningxia. A clean and well-maintained winery and well-made wine across the board. The barrel-fermented Chardonnay 2011, reasonably priced by China standards at Rmb270, won the trophy at the Ningxia Wine Competition.

Saint Louis-Ding 聖路易.丁
The property is a straight copy of a Disney castle. The wine is spicy with very generous use of oak and a price tag to match. The 2011 is still in barrel and the estimated selling price is Rmb200,000 per barrel (about Rmb650/bottle). Its 2009 vintage sold at Rmb3,999. By the way, the Ding after Saint Louis is the last name of the owner.

Silver Heights 銀色高地
The most down-to-earth and real winery I visited in Ningxia. Exactly like being in a small family-run winery in France or New Zealand. Emma Gao (Gao Yuan, 高源), the winemaker and her father Gao Lin (高林) conducted wine tasting for vistors on the patio next to the tanks, and you can pick dates and table grapes fresh from the trees/vines. My favourite wine is The Summit 2011. It’s too early to drink now but there is concentration and structure with the right amount of oak giving it elegance.

Xi Xia King 西夏王葡萄酒業集團
Impressive entrance with vines planted along the road leading to the property. We were shown the bottling line through a glass partition but not the winery (車間) because they were processing (health and safety issue?). There are one processing plants in operation and another two under construction, each with a capacity of 10,000 tons. At the end of the tour we were shown the display room but got no wine tasting. We bought a Cabernet Gernischt NV at 12% for Rmb400 for lunch. It tasted green.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Does size matter? Comparing Tuscany Ruffino and Champagne Jacques Picard

Two tastings in a row: a guided tasting by Gabriele Tacconi, chief winemaker of Ruffino, a 130 year old family owned estate now under Constellation Wines, followed by a casual tasting with José Lievens, winemaker of third generation family-owned Grower Champagne Jacques Picard. After the tastings, I could’t help but ponder the conversations I had with these two winemakers.

Gabriele Tacconi, Ruffino
Ruffino is one of the biggest wineries in Tuscany, owning seven estates comprising over 1,000 ha of land (of which 600 ha are under vine), and makes 18 wines in Tuscany and 6 outside Tuscany. It is the winery that received the first 10 Chianti DOCG seals (numbers 1-10). In 1927 it launched Riserva Ducale inspired by the Duke of Aosta, who became a prominent customer in 1890. Riserva Ducale is the only Italian wine that can legally use the word ‘Riserva’ in its name.

Jacques Picard, by contrast, owns 17 ha of land in three villages in Champagne and makes 8 wines with a total production of just 12,000 cases. The two sisters and their husbands (José is one of them) are hands on with the running of the business and they also look after some vines for Pol Roger.

Both Gabriele and José are amiable, of a similar age (I would guess mid 50s), have worked in their companies for about 15 years and were in Hong Kong for the first time. At first glance the similarities stop there as, after all, they make very different wines in two different countries and the operations differ massively in size. Yet in fact, their philosophies are fairly similar. Gabriele respects the style developed at Ruffino over the past 130 years, which emphasises elegance, traditional and drinkability. He is particularly passionate about Sangiovese and prefers using cement tanks and old casks, rather than new barriques, to preserve its characteristics. Ruffino does make a Super Tuscan (Modus Toscana IGT), because consumers are asking for it, but Gabriele makes sure the wine still bears the structural hallmarks of Sangiovese and that the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot only enhance the richness rather than overpowering the distinct Tuscan character.

José Lievens, Champagne Jacques Picard
José is also an aficionado of terroir. While most champagne houses only make vintage champagne in good years, José makes it, named Art de Vigne, every year as he reckons vintage champagne records the characteristics of each vintage, thereby serving as a picture of that vintage in years to come. We tasted three vintages—2002, 2003 and 2005—and they were indeed very different.

What I really like about these two gentlemen is their approach to wine. Though not the same, they ring the same bell. Gabriele believes wine is about experience and lifestyle and that one drinks wine to enjoy food and life. José? He says wine is about sharing—it is for friends, not collectors. Well, I couldn’t agree with them more. I hope consumers will be inspired by them and will drink wine for pleasure—with food and to share with friends—rather than for the labels.

So back to the question: does size matter? Some wine lovers dismiss big producers believing they only make ‘factory’ wine. Ruffino proves this is not necessarily the case. And Jacques Ricard demonstrates that small producers can be creative and resourceful. Gabriele and José are evidence that it is the people and their passion behind the wine that matter.

Some of the wines tasted were:

Ruffino, available from ASC Fine Wines:
• Riserva Ducale Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2010: a fine example of Chianti Classico
• Greppone Mazzi Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2007: elegant and classic, my favourite
• Romitorio di Santedame Toscana IGT 2004 and 2001: 60% Colorino, a dark-skinned, tannic native variety and 40% Merlot. Only made in the best years.

Jacques Picard, available from Sarment:
• Brut Nature NV: 70% reserve Chardonnay wine from 1998 to 2008 aged using the solera system, complex yet elegant
• Art de Vigne Millésime 2003: Biscuity and Marmite, a powerful wine. 2003 was a hot year.
• Art de Vigne Millésime 2002: Citrus, fresh and elegant, livelier than 2002 but unfortunately sold out
• Art de Vigne Millésime 2005: More buttery and vanilla, a rounder mouthfeel than 2003. This will be available in Hong Kong soon.

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Drops of God 神之水滴 - Respect for tradition and nature

I used to follow the Japanese wine comic ‘The Drops of God’ but gave up after the fourth wine because I was sure it would be a never-ending series. So I was very curious when I was invited to the Chateau Le Puy (Saint Cibard, between St Emilion and Pomerol, Bordeaux) tasting recently, this being the last of the '12 apostles' (and finally the end of the story).

The tasting was led by Sophie Luu, the Brand Manager of Chateau Le Puy based in Shenzhen, and Esther Lee from Amber Wines, its Hong Kong importer. Sophie was very enthusiastic and kept emphasising that the vineyard was biodynamic and that no chemicals had been used on the land for over 400 years—this is amazing as most organic and biodynamic vineyards nowadays are converted from conventional farming. 400 years without the use of chemicals is indeed very rare. Jean-Pierre Amoreau, the owner, listens to the land, observes the environment, studies the ecosystem and relates to animal life. He believes that great wine can only be produced by listening to the energy around the vineyards.

We tasted two wines. Emilien made from 85% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Carménère with minimum sulphites (60ppm, whereas the limit for red wine in the EU is 160ppm), and Barthélemy, a single plot 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon with no sulphites at all. All are aged in old barrels.

The verdict? Emilien (we tasted 2007, 2008 and 2009) is understated and elegant, a more classic style of Bordeaux and a breath of fresh air compared to the sometimes over-fruity and over-oaked modern styles. I liked the 2008 for its structure, balance and mix of dried and red fruit aromas. The 2009 was quite closed while the 2007 was surprisingly good given the difficult weather conditions that year (spring frost and a rainy summer).

The Barthélemy, with no sulphites added at any stage of winemaking, and the first bottle of 2008 we opened being oxidised, generated a lively discussion on the philosophy of winemaking. As a winemaker, I understand that great wine is made in the vineyard and I support organic and biodynamic farming. However, I also understand that winemakers can be making vinegar, not wine, if they are not careful. People shun sulphites because they are chemicals and allegedly give headaches. These arguments are ill-informed because there is literally no sulphite-free wine in the world: sulphites are by-products of fermentation and all wine contains a certain amount. Besides, there are regulations governing the total amount of sulphites permitted in wine (160ppm in red, 210ppm in white and 2/3 of these amounts in organic wine), which is much less than the amounts permitted in other food products (500ppm in dried nuts and 2,000ppm in dried prunes and apricots). Sulphites' anti-microbial and antioxidant capability are essential to protect the wine from premature oxidation and spoilage. That first bottle of Barthélemy 2008 was the typical example where, through no fault of the winemaker, the wine has spoiled because of a duff cork, improper storage conditions ... who knows!

Sophie’s argument was that sulphites mask the terroir. Well, not unless a bucket load is used and the fruits are diseased. I respect the philosophy and decision of the winemakers not to add them, but the flip side is that they have to be ready to face the possible consequence that a consumer who tried that bottle of Barthélemy 2008 might dismiss the wine altogether and never buy it again. More importantly, consumers who purchase sulphite-free wine should be prepared to accept that the wine may not deliver every time, and they should be willing to give them another try.

So, does Chateau Le Puy deserve to be the last apostle? I think so. It is about respect for tradition, coexistence with nature and preservation of the environment. We human beings have been too selfish for too long and it is time for us to embrace biodiversity and sustainability.

Chateau Le Puy is available from Amber Wines. Don’t be afraid to try a second bottle of Barthélemy if you don’t like the first one.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

The many faces of Pinot Noir

Altaya has been running Passion for Pinot for five years. This year's seminar, entitled’ Unmasking the Grape: Diversity and Identity’, presented by speakers from five wineries on both sides of the equator and moderated by Debra Meiburg MW, was definitely one of the best seminars I have attended this year.

The speaker line-up included:
• Erwan Faiveley, seventh generation of Domaine Faiveley owning some 120 ha of vineyards in Burgundy,
• Cédric Oillaux, brand ambassador of Godmé, a five generation grower champagne in Montagne de Reims,
• Jo Mills, owner of family owned Rippon in Central Otago, now run by
the fourth generation,
• Brian Bicknell, owner and winemaker of Mahi in Marlborough,
• Steve Flamsteed, chief winemaker of Giant Steps and Innocent Bystander in Yarra Valley,
• A representative of Walter Hansel Winery from Russian River Valley was not present but his wines were featured

Ask any winegrower and they will all agree Pinot Noir is a temperamental, fussy grape. This seminar focused on four areas: climatology, geology, topography and techniques. Each speaker shared their experience on how they tame Pinot Noir in their vineyards, and more importantly, spoke of their passion for this variety. All the speakers love their dirt, which they believe is the key component of shaping the wine, but each of them also had some unique insights.

Steve from Giant Steps said the many different soil types in Yarra influence the way vines find water and minerals, subsequently influencing the fruit. Therefore soil really dictates the personality of the wine.

Jo from Rippon echoed that tasting wine is about tasting its form and shape, which comes from the soil. Rippon’s vineyard is mainly schist from glaciers, which is highly reflective, and when it comes into contact with water remains how it was rather than crumbling like clay, giving her Pinot its dense structure.

Cédric from Godmé illustrated the relationship between the top soil, the sediments and clay with their water retaining capability and the underlying chalk (limestone) in Champagne. Pinot Noir needs more water than Chardonnay to ripen properly so prefers a deeper top soil, but it cannot be so deep as to obstruct the roots reaching down to the underlying limestone for minerals. There are 84 plots at Godmé each producing a different style of Pinot Noir. Grapes for making the Blanc de Noirs are grown on plots with 25-30cm of top soil.

Erwan from Faiveley further elaborated that while terroir dictates the wine style it is climatology that defines vintage, and this is especially important in Burgundy given the ever changing weather. Vineyards in Burgundy are about the matching of soils of different water retaining capability with the right topography.

Brian from Mahi agreed that soil is about structure and its water holding capacity. He also explained the importance of rainfall, which is not replaceable by irrigation. The function of the leaves is photosynthesis. Irrigation may provide water to vines in dry weather but cannot provide moisture to leaves. Leaves may be too dry, causing the stomata to close and preventing them from functioning properly.

We tasted two different wines from each winery to understand the interactions among these four factors and how they affect the final wine style. 10 Pinot Noirs from five wineries and they were all different. The pairs from Faiveley, Rippon, Giant Steps and Walter Hansel were from different sites but the same vintage so we were tasting the effect of soil and topography on wine, while Mahi’s pair was from different sites and also different vintages so we had more elements to consider. Godmé’s pair was all about climatology—the difference 500 extra sunshine hours during growing season can make.

• Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru Brut NV: Perfect balance between ripe fruit and minerality
• Millésimé grand Cru Brut 2003: A very rare vintage Blanc de Noirs, the first and only one from Godmé thanks to the exceptional heat wave that year that gave the region 2,100 sunshine hours instead of the normal 1,600 (most vintage champagne has a high proportion of Chardonnay for the acidity). Partial oak ageing and 10 years of yeast autolysis further added complexity to the wine.

• Marlborough Pinot Noir 2012 from five different vineyards in the cooler region of Marlborough
• Pinot Noir Rive Vineyard 2010 from a biodynamic vineyard

• Tinker’s Field Pinot Noir 2011 from 30 year old vines on their own roots and unirrigated, grown on a light clay soil
• Emma’s Block Pinot Noir 2011 mainly on schist soil, definitely more dense on palate

Giant Steps:
• Sexton Pinot Noir 2012 from a north facing warmer site with thin topsoil
• Gladysdale Pinot Noir 2012 from a cooler site at 350m with volcanic soil.

Domane Faiveley:
• Nuit St Georges 1er Cru Les Damodes 2011
• Nuit St Georges 1er Cru Les Porets Saint-Georges 2011, more floral with a herbal touch when compared with the first wine.

Walter Hansel:
• Pinot Noir South Slope 2011, warmer site displaying plush sweet fruits
• Pinot Noir North Slope 2011

Try this kind of pairing for yourself and you will see how mother nature plays its part in wine. Hopefully this will help you understand and appreciate more different styles of wine.

All wines are available from Altaya Wines.

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Lurton Family, from Bordeaux to Chile

I had come across a few Lurtons in the past few years but had never really linked them together until I received an invitation to the Lurton Family Tasting prior to Vinexpo.

The Lurton family has its root in Bordeaux. The Recapet family started planting vines back in 1650 and great grandfather, Léonce Recapet, started buying estates in 1897, nurturing them back to health after the devastating phylloxera epidemic of 1890 that destroyed so many vineyards. He was even a joint owner of Chateau Margaux at one stage. His daughter married François Lurton who continued to manage the family estates. They had four children, André, Lucien, Simone and Domnique, who each inherited a domaine and carried on to expand the businesses. There are 24 children in the fourth generation.

With 13 of them involve in winemaking, Lurton is the largest family group in the wine industry. Together they own 27 estates with some 1,300 ha of vineyards all over the world. While each member has his own individual business and vineyards, some of them considerable successes in their own right, the name Lurton nonetheless still unites them. In 2009, the Lurton cousins decided to join force and set up the Lurton Wine Group, aiming to promote all the Lurton wines—a brilliant marketing idea in my opinion.

Eight of the 13 members were at the tasting, and we tasted 44 wines from 22 estates, stretching from Spain and Southern France to Australia, Chile and Argentina, with the majority (30) coming from Bordeaux. While the wines all have different styles, they have one thing in common: a respect for the terroir, doubtless a trait inherited from their great grandfather.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the family members and their wines:

Bérénice Lurton, Château Climens, 1st Grand Cru Classé 1855:
I first met Bérénice in 2012 at her estate and I was impressed by her passion. The market share of sweet wine is in decline because of consumers’ preference for less sweet wines. In response to the market, Bérénice developed a second label, Cyprès de Climens, a lighter and more playful style targeting the younger generation that can be served as an aperitif. She recently converted the vineyards to biodynamic farming to make a more elegant wine.

Jacques Lurton, The Islander Estate, Kangaroo Island, Australia:
Jacques was the first Lurton to venture outside Bordeaux, which he did in 1985. After trotting the globe as a flying winemaker for some ten years, he established The Islander Estate in Kangaroo Island in 2000, a maritime-climate site with air from the Antarctic cooling the vines in summer. He is particularly proud of The Investigator, made with 100% Cabernet Franc—a wine that combines the ripeness of Australia and the elegance of France, and I agree. It’s a shame that my one visit to Kangaroo Island happened a few years before Jacques founded the estate.

François Lurton, Domaines François Lurton, from Spain and Southern France to Argentina and Chile:
François is the most international Lurton member, with vineyards in four countries. He actually started off in South America before returning to set up vineyards in Spain then finally France. His philosophy is to preserve the freshness and purity of the fruit, producing wine as natural as possible (biodynamic in South America and minimum chemicals in Europe). I particularly like his Argentinian wine, the Gran Lurton Blanc 2012 from Tokay and Chardonnay grapes with an intense yet elegant palate, and the Piedra Negra Gran Malbec 2009—one of the few Malbecs with such elegance.

Pierre Lurton, Château Marjosse:
Most of us know Pierre because of his role in Château Cheval Blanc and Château d’Yquem, but it is Château Marjosse where he feels at home. This is his back garden where he shares wine with friends and family. Pierre has no intention to make a Cheval Blanc here, but rather an unpretentious, good quality wine to be enjoyed with friends. I love his Entre-Deux-Mers white 2012 with its fresh citrus and minerality (it is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris), and I can imagine enjoying the wine with friends on a lazy afternoon. This again proves my point that good quality wine doesn’t need to break the bank! By the way, Pierre is also consulting to Morgenster in South Africa, another outstanding wine from a beautiful terrior.

Other Lurton members present at the tasting:
Thierry Lurton, Château de Camarsac
Christine Lurton, Vignobles André Lurton
Henri Lurton, Château Brane Cantenac, 2nd Grand Cru Classé 1855
Denis Lurton, Château Desmirail, 3rd Grand Cru Calssé 1855
Sophie Lurton, Château Bouscaut, Cru Classés des Graves

Other wines presented at the tasting:
Marc Lurton, Château Reynier
Marie-Laure Lurton, Vignobles Marie-Laure Lurton
Gonzague Lurton, Château Durfort Vivens, 2nd Grand Cru Classé 1855

I hope the next generation of the Lurton family, now coming of winemaking age, will continue the fine traditions of their parents and expand the Lurton family horizons to yet more parts of the world.