Sunday, 15 February 2015

Chile’s Image Dilemma - A Tasting with GVV Terroirs

What impression does Chilean wine leave on you? This was the thought running through my mind as I attended a presentation on Chilean wines by Stefano Gandolini and Cristian Muñoz of GVV Terroirs. That Chile is a reliable producer of affordable varietal wines is indisputable. From the parched Atacama desert in the north to the icy fjords of Patagonia, Chile offers a diverse viticultural landscape. It is also known for its signature red grape variety, Carmenere, and its phylloxera-free vineyards.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Explaining Classifications and Appellations

One of the most difficult wine topics to delve into is the concept of appellations and classifications. An appellation is a geographically defined area which has legal protection, while a classification is a ranking of wines, most commonly by price or location. Each country has their own appellation system, and there may be multiple classifications even within the same wine region. Because appellations and classifications are man-made structures, they are subject to frequent changes.

Countries in the European Union follow stricter rules on appellations than countries in the New World. In 2009, the EU established two basic designations for wines with geographical indicators – PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication). The difference is that PDO wines must have been traditionally and entirely made in the specified region while PGI wines can be partially made in the region. This applies also to the origin of the grapes. Additional regulations such as permitted grape varieties, yields, winemaking methods and alcohol levels may also be defined. However, since traditional terms can still be used, you will still see familiar words such as Appellation Contrôlée on French wines and DOC on Italian wines. One country that has discarded their traditional labelling terms in favour of PDO and PGI designations is Greece.

The most highly regarded wine classification is the Bordeaux Wine Classification of 1855 which ranked the wines according to price at that time. The classification has not changed much since then, but the prices of the wines have moved substantially. A fundamentally different approach to classification is used in Burgundy, which classifies the vineyards rather than the producer.

The following list gives a short description of the appellation and classification systems in major wine regions. While this information is not set in stone, I hope that it will provide some insight on the different systems and aid you in your wine journey.

France: The three official tiers of French wine quality classification are Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), Vin de Pays (VdP) and Vin de France. AOC is the traditional French labelling term for PDO while VdP is the equivalent term for PGI. Some regions may use Indication Géographique Protégée or IGP instead of VdP.

Bordeaux: The preeminent wine region in the world also has the most number of classifications. Status is important in Bordeaux and any changes are regularly contested by producers on the losing end.

Bordeaux Wine Classification of 1855: The 1855 classification came about as a result of a request by Emperor Napoleon III to rank the best wines of the Bordeaux for display at the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The Bordeaux brokers ranked 60 of the leading châteaux in the Médoc and Graves according to reputation and price. The red wines were organised into a five-tier classification (shown below) while sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac were organised into a two-tier classification. There was no ranking of still white wines as the category was considered less important then. 

Cru Bourgeois: The Cru Bourgeois classification was established in 1932 for those châteaux that were not included in the 1855 classification. There were originally three tiers; Cru Bourgeois, Cru Bourgeois Supérieur and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel. However, a legal challenge mounted by disappointed producers resulted in the entire classification being declared void, only to have been reinstated in 2009 with a single tier. Recently, member châteaux voted to reintroduce additional tiers, so we can expect more changes ahead.

Saint-Émilion: The Saint Émilion Classification System was last updated in 2012 and is divided into Grand Cru Classé, Premier Grand Cru Classé B and Premier Grand Cru Classé A. There is also the Saint-Émilion Grand Cru appellation with stricter yields and higher minimum alcohol levels, but these requirements do not guarantee the quality of the wine. So if you come across a wine from Saint-Émilion, bear in mind that a wine labelled Saint Émilion Grand Cru Classé will be significantly better than a wine labelled Saint Émilion Grand Cru. 

Graves Classification: This classification is for the red and white wines of Graves, which may use the title Grand Cru Classé de Graves. Owing to the fact that it covers only a handful of the estates in the Graves appellation, most consumers use the Pessac-Léognan sub-appellation as an indicator of quality.

Burgundy: Burgundy’s vineyards are classified according to the quality of the terroir. From lowest to highest, they are: Regional (e.g. Bourgogne), Commune/Village (e.g. Meursault), Premier Cru (e.g. Beaune Clos des Mouches) and Grand Cru (e.g. Echézeaux). So a producer may make a Grand Cru, Premier Cru or village wine depending on where its vineyards are located.

Rhône Valley: There are no premier crus or grand crus in the Rhone Valley. The classification is based on the appellation system. From lowest to highest, they are: Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône-Villages (Southern Rhone only) and individual areas called crus such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Cornas. Some villages are permitted to add their name to the Côtes du Rhône-Villages appellation (e.g. Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne). There is no regional appellation; the Côtes du Rhône appellation serves that role. 

Alsace: There are two appellations for the dry wines of Alsace – Alsace AOC and Alsace Grand Cru. Unlike in most of France, the grape variety can and often does appear on the label. 

Germany: In Germany, the sugar level of the grapes at harvest is used to classify the top tier, called Prädikatswein. From lowest to highest sugar level, the six Prädikats are Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese. The grapes for Prädikatswein as well as the next level, Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA), must come from one of Germany’s 13 designated wine regions. The PGI equivalent in Germany is Landwein, which must be made from German grapes but is not a very exciting category.

Italy: Italian wine is divided into four categories as shown in the diagram below. DOC and DOCG are traditional labelling terms for PDO while IGT is the traditional labelling term for PGI. In the 1970s, a group of high-quality wines from Tuscany emerged which were forbidden to use the terms DOC and DOCG because they used international grape varieties. These were called Super-Tuscans and were originally classified as basic Vino da Tavola, although their success promoted the creation of the IGT category. The restrictiveness of the DOCG category along with the expansion of traditional DOC zones, mean that the system is seen less as a guarantor of quality than the French AOC system. Piedmont, Tuscany and Veneto have a reputation for producing the highest quality wines.

Spain: The wine scene in Spain is modern and fast moving. The wines used to be classified according to age but Spain has now adopted the EU system with some modifications. Of particular interest is the Denominación de Pago category, created for outstanding single estates in places outside the DO system. It is similar to the Italian IGT category in that it was created to recognise high quality wines that would otherwise be labelled as table wine. VC wines are considered a step up from VT wines which have not yet achieved DO status. The DO category is comparable to the AOC of France while the VT category is similar to France’s VdP.

The traditional practice of aging wines for an extended period is enshrined in local legislation. From youngest to oldest, the categories are Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva.

Australia: Australia calls its appellations Geographical Indicators (GIs). Each GI must have at least five independently owned wine grape vineyards of at least five hectares each, and usually produce five hundred tonnes of wine grapes in a year. It does not place restrictions on winemaking and is a flat hierarchy. The nearest thing Australia has to a classification is Langton's Classification of Australian Wines, a list of Australia’s finest wines ranked according to a wine’s reputation and track record at auction.


Monday, 29 December 2014

Revving up the Parker Engine

In the world of wine, there is no one more famous, or more controversial, than Robert Parker Jr. The 67-yr old wine critic from Baltimore, Maryland, is regularly in the top 10 of the Decanter Power List, a biennial ranking of the wine industry’s most influential people. His first event in Singapore, a walk-about tasting and book-signing organised by Hermitage Wines, took place in 2010 at the apogee of his career. When he walked into the packed tasting room at The Fullerton Hotel, the crowd temporarily forgot about the wines for a chance to have a few words with the Million-Dollar Nose. It was like witnessing the arrival of a Hollywood celebrity, or a K-Pop star, minus the screaming.

Fast forward four years later, and a lot has changed in the landscape of wine. Robert Parker has sold a majority stake in his publication, the Wine Advocate, to a group of Singapore-based businessmen. The new owners have wasted no time expanding the Parker empire, organising not one but two worldwide tastings that started this year. However, even someone who travels as much as Parker cannot be everywhere at once, so his lieutenants have taken up the slack. While the critic will be present at each stage of Robert Parker’s Grand World Tour, the second series of tastings titled A Matter of Taste will feature masterclasses headed by Wine Advocate’s highly regarded Editor-in-Chief Lisa Perotti-Brown and representatives from top wine estates.

The Singapore chapter of A Matter of Taste provided a preview of further things to come. Included in the gift bag was a new lifestyle magazine titled 100 Points by Robert Parker. Jonathan Lobban, the magazine’s editor, says that the title is “an examination of people, ideas, products and lifestyles that epitomize the world’s best.” I found several articles to be interesting reads, including an interview with Parker himself where he comments on the split with his protégé Antonio Galloni.  The magazine is published quarterly with an annual subscription of USD40 (this was a special price available only during the tasting).

In Elin McCoy’s unauthorised biography on Parker, the critic responded to detractors by proclaiming, “People say I like these bombastic, oaky, fruit-driven wines, it’s the uncivilised American taste, and I’m leading everyone to it – and it’s such a myth. I’m a Francophile, and French wines by their very nature are elegant wines.” If he hoped to change that perception with the Singapore tasting it would be a hard sell as the lineup featured Bordeaux, Barossa, and the Piedmontese regions of Barolo and Barbaresco. These were serious, full-throttled, high-alcohol wines that were challenging to taste. The favourable turnout proved that this selection was the right choice though, and I noticed that the masterclasses were also well-attended. The wines were all rated 90+ by Parker and his team and as such the standard was immensely high. Looking at the wines on show, you would have received your money’s worth (SGD128) after tasting a fraction of them, not even including the Wine Advocate annual subscription that comes with the ticket. A selection of tasting notes is included at the end of this article. 

If you missed the previous two editions of Matter of Taste in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, the next one will be held in London on the 28th of February. This promises to be a glitzy event with a star lineup of masterclasses featuring Penfolds, Louis Roederer Cristal, Château Ausone and Dominus Estate. If an air ticket to London is out of the budget however, there is no need to fret. With the Wine Advocate headquarters now based locally, it looks as though the Parkerisation of Singapore is well on its way. 

Tasting notes:

Chris Ringland Dimchurch Barossa Shiraz 2009 – This wine is in fact part of the North Barossa Vintners project, with Chris Ringland adopting the winemaker role and veteran Barossa grower Adrian Hoffman supplying the grapes. Dimchurch is the name of Adrian’s farm. Annual production of only 6000 bottles, each individually numbered. Deep, impenetrable purple with intense aromatics of crème de cassis and licorice. A commanding presence on the palate, with ripe tannins, bold flavours and layers of creamy fruit.

Chris Ringland Hoffman Vineyard Barossa Shiraz 2007 – Operations Manager Nathan Burley describes this as being the “best of the best” selection of grapes from Adrian Hoffman. Production is limited to 2400 bottles a year. Heady and decadent with ebullient flavours of mocha, blackcurrant and dark chocolate. Over 16% alcohol, but juxtaposed so brilliantly against vibrant acidity and concentrated fruit as to achieve precise balance. A show-stopper of a wine.

Chris Ringland Hoffman Vineyard Barossa Shiraz 2008 – A special magnum bottling that was aged in French oak barrels for 6 years. Not commercially available. Massively structured and stylish with a deep core of plush fruit wrapped in long, savoury tannins. Full bodied with incredible length.

Penfolds RWT Barossa Shiraz 2011 – RWT stands for Red Winemaking Trial, an experiment in aging Barossa Shiraz in French rather than American oak. The first vintage was in 1997. The wine exudes an enchantingly sweet bouquet even as it is being poured. The palate displays rich, polished fruit with a savoury edge and fine tannins.

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2011 – Known also as ‘baby Grange’, this is a multi-district blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz from South Australia fermented for 18 months in American oak. Voluptuous and full-bodied, it displays upfront fruit characters of black plums, melted dark chocolate and seasoned oak. Finishes smooth and long.

(n.b. this was a sponsored invite to A Matter of Taste Singapore)

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Talking Biodynamics with Olivier Humbrecht

If a viticultural map of Alsace were to be drawn, a large X would be placed over Domaine Zind-Humbrecht with the words, “Here be Giants”. Well, one giant - Olivier Humbrecht, who in real life looms as large as his reputation. Being the first Frenchman to attain the coveted MW initials and renowned as a savant of biodynamics, Olivier is already assured a place in the history books. Yet there is no brash swagger as he speaks – his words, while full of conviction are carefully chosen and his brow constantly furrowed as though grappling with the deeper mysteries of wine. The quality of his wines is such that Olivier is highly sought after for his opinions on winemaking, Alsatian wine and biodynamics.

Like a tug-of-war, the region of Alsace has at various times formed the eastern border of France or the western border of Germany. This duality has left its mark on the wine industry, seen in the mishmash of French and German grape varieties which include Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Noir, Muscat, Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir. Alsace’s inland location gives it a subcontinental climate with harsh, cold winters and hot summers. Sheltered by the Vosges mountain range, Alsace also has very low rainfall making it the driest region in France. At 16,000 ha, Alsace is slightly over half the size of Champagne, and a fraction of Bordeaux, but geologically it is complicated region. Olivier states that broadly speaking there are three types of soil here. On the Vosges itself the soil is acidic, well-drained and poor in nutrients, ideal conditions for making quality wine. The second type of soil is on the foothills of the mountain which has a calcareous base, and the third type of soil can be found on the valley floor, comprising alluvial sediments and pebbles. “When you combine these different soils and aspect which can be north or south facing, you then understand why there are so many different grape varieties,” says Olivier. 

Olivier has been following biodynamic principles since 1997 at Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, a viticultural approach that harnesses cosmic energy and utilises herbal preparations. It is a topic he is clearly passionate about, going far more into detail than any winemaker I’ve met. Olivier reminisced how in the early days of conversion to biodynamics he had difficulty finding the right compost because even the organic material he purchased from nearby suppliers were full of antibiotics and did not provide a supportive environment for microbial life in the soil. “When you remove life from the soil, the compost goes through anaerobic fermentation, transforming the earth around the wood and making it hard, like desertification,” explains Olivier. Now with his own biodynamically prepared compost, Olivier says that he can see life coming back into the vineyards. Meanwhile preparations made out of herbs and other plants help anchor the vine to the ground and connect it to the cosmos. “Plants have memories of cosmic influences,” says Olivier. “By bringing these memories to the vine we help the vine to function better. For example if I want the vine to flower better I use a plant with a strong Venus influence. I take the plant and make it into an herbal tea and spray it onto the vine. This takes the energy of the plant and puts it in contact with the vine through the element of water – it is like trying to teach the vine the lesson of the plant.”

Olivier throws out many of the axioms of winemaking. Fermentation for white wines at most wineries take two to four weeks, at Zind-Humbrecht it can last for up to a year. Does he ever have problems with stuck fermentations, where the yeast dies off before it can complete the process? “I never stop the fermentation because if I do everything right then the fermentation naturally stops when the wine has reached proper balance,” explains Olivier. “Wine being alive understands where to go better than I do. If you kill the wine with additives then it doesn’t know what to do.” The must is handled with the utmost care, from a gentle pressing to gravity flow systems for the tanks. Eschewing the use of stainless steel, Olivier prefers to use old oak foudres for the majority of his wines. “Only Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois can take new oak – Riesling, Gewurtztraminer and Muscat cannot. Like jam and caviar, they don’t go well.” Olivier also finds that the clarification process is easier with oak, and that the fermentations start faster due to the microorganisms present in the wood.

Never one to let convention dictate his methods, Olivier also extends his pragmatism to the way his wines are marketed. For example, when Olivier realised that consumers had difficulty telling whether his wines were dry or sweet, he introduced a sweetness index on the label ranging from 1 (driest) to 5 (sweetest).  “My wife found a Riesling in the cellar and didn’t know whether it was dry, medium or sweet. I thought that if my wife doesn’t know what this wine tastes like then my customers won’t either,” said Olivier. 

Tasting notes:

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Terroir d’Alsace 2011 – From young vines planted mostly on granitic soils. Sweetness index 1. Slightly spritzy with notes of lime, white grape and honey. Medium bodied and very fresh. Sharp and precise flavours with penetrating intensity. Long lime-filled finish. Superb.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Brand Grand Cru Riesling 2011 – Legends tell of a dragon hiding under the vineyard that spits fire resulting in a warm microclimate (the word brand means fiery). The vines here are very old – Olivier explains that the soil is composed of pink granite with decomposed black mica which requires very deep roots to extract minerals. A high-acid, full bodied style with cracked white pepper and lime notes. Extraordinary length with a hint of tropical fruit on the finish. Long lived potential, barely out of its infant stages.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris Calcaire 2012 – Off-dry (sweetness index 2), with intense pear, red apple, guava and nutty flavours. Gorgeously balanced with fresh acidity and ripe fruit extract.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Rangen de Thann Clos St. Urbain Grand Cru 2012 – If you’ve ever wondered what heights Pinot Gris can reach given the right combination of outstanding terroir and careful winemaking, this is it. Steep slopes, volcanic soils and old vines have imbued this wine with a concentrated palate of sweet pear, honey and bitter lemon, extending to a finish that seems to go on forever. Sweetness index 4.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Clos Windsbuhl Gewurtztraminer 2011 – Sweetness index 5. Gewurtztraminer can be a difficult grape because its acidity drops alarmingly even as sugars rapidly accumulate. In this wine the variety has been precisely handled to yield perfectly ripe fruit with refreshing acidity. Notes of exotic spice, lychee syrup an
d Asian pear dominate the palate, with a long, fruit-filled finish.

Domaine Zind-Humbrect is distributed in Singapore by Wein & Vin.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Madeira, the Immortal Wine

It’s almost a given that at any wine appreciation class the question of how long a wine can keep for will be raised. It’s a simple question with a complicated answer as much depends on factors such as grape variety, vintage conditions, and style and quality of the wine. It comes as a surprise to most that the majority of wine is not designed for long aging. In the case of Madeira however, it is safe to assume that the wine will be able to last easily for several years, if not decades in the bottle. Even after being opened, it can be enjoyed over several weeks. At a masterclass on Madeira held at the Portugese Embassy in London, expert Rui Falcao declared that “The wine is immortal - it goes on and on and on.”

It was only through sheer luck that I was able to attend the masterclass at all as by the time I registered all available slots had been taken up. I persisted though, hanging around the embassy until the organisers informed me that due to a no-show a vacancy had opened. The rewards of stubbornness! Madeira is a wine seldom seen in Singapore and I’d be damned if I was going to pass up a chance to taste some examples.

Madeira is both the name of the wine and the island that it originates from. Part of Portugal, it lies in the Atlantic Ocean and has a markedly hot Mediterranean climate with a mean temperature of 19°C. Rainfall is variable, with around 3000mm at high altitudes and 500mm along the south coast near sea level. Irrigation, provided through a series of canals called “levadas”, supplements the water requirements of the vine.

Grapes are planted on terraces called “poios”, buffered by walls of basaltic stone. Land is scarce on this island of 732 km2 so vineyards utilise the “latada” system, which suspends the vines off the ground on stakes. This allows growers to plant other crops under the vines, and also reduces the risk of fungal diseases by improving air flow. The soil is volcanic and rich in organic matter, which is an important factor in maintaining the acidity of the wine. There are around 1200 growers on the island, a large number with some growers only having 4-5 vines. According to Falcao, this is a challenge for the winemakers because for each grower they need to vinify the grapes separately.

The demand for Madeira was helped by the island’s strategic location along major trading routes. In the 17th and 18th centuries Madeira served as an important port of call between the Americas, Europe and the West Indies. To preserve the wine during these long sea voyages, grape spirit would be added to it. It was discovered that the heat from these journeys (no refrigeration back then!) would transform the wine into a completely different elixir that was more stable and had a complex, oxidised character. These wines came to be known as “Vinho da Roda” or round-trip wines. Due to the expense of these voyages, modern Madeira is made by simulating the process either through direct heating or tanks installed with hot water coils.

Unlike the majority of Portuguese table wines which are a blend of different grapes, Madeira is a single-variety wine. The grape variety also indicates the style of the wine, thus Sercial is dry or extra dry, Verdelho is medium dry, Boal is medium rich and Malvasia is the sweetest style. There is an additional grape variety, Tinta Negra, which accounts for around 82% of plantings and is by far the most important variety in terms of quantity. This versatile grape can be made into any of the four styles, so the way to distinguish a wine that has been made from the four noble grapes is to look for its name on the label. Legislation is currently being considered that will also allow Tinta Negra to appear on the label.

The most important, and surprising, takeaway from the masterclass was that Madeiras with an indication of age simply means that the wine had attained the expected quality and characteristics expected of a wine with that age. This is unlike, say, whisky where the age statement refers to the youngest whisky in that blend. For Madeira, the decision whether or not to award a wine with a designation of age is up to a tasting panel. An exception is Frasqueira or vintage Madeira which must by law be aged for at least 20 years before bottling. 


Tasting notes: 

Blandy’s Madeira Colheita Verdelho 1998 – Pale tawny colour. Nutty nose with aromas of dried figs. Medium dry with high acidity. Palate shows burnt caramel and a saline note. Long and persistent finish. Quite light bodied for a fortified wine. Refreshing with well defined flavours. Very good.

Pereira D’Oliveira Verdelho 1994 – Medium tawny appearance with a slight greenish rim. A yeasty, almost doughy bouquet. Concentrated mandarin peel and a slight chalkiness on the palate with a salty finish. A bitter note, similar to molasses, persists throughout. Medium dry. Complex and exotic.

Justino’s Madeira 10 Years Old Malvasia – Medium tawny appearance. Sweet and rich on the palate with notes of apple cider, overripe lemon and dates. Easy and not as persistent as the other wines in the tasting.

H.M. Borges Malvasia 15 Years Old – Clean and expressive nose with aromas of nuts, figs and raisins. Balanced, fresh and appealing. Ticks off all the boxes. Very good.

Henriques & Henriques Malvasia 20 Years Old – Deep brown. Intensely rich on the nose. Full and powerful with a bittersweet finish. Wide spectrum of flavours including soy sauce, bak kwa (sweet barbequed meat), cafe latte, caramel and raisins. Delicious!

Vinhos Barbeito Ribeiro Real Boal 20 Years Old – A blend of Boal and Tinta Negra. Easily the most pungent wine of the tasting. Sharp, smoky, burnt and even a tad sulphuric. Sweet raisins, saltwater salinity and bitter orange tanginess – this wine is complex and multidimensional.