Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Beautiful Barolos of Giovanni Rosso

 Have the Italians taken over Singapore? Coming on the heels of last November’s Grandi Marchi tour, the Gambero Rosso Top Italian Wines roadshow saw a large turnout this March, especially for its masterclasses. Even Robert Parker’s much hyped stopover in Singapore during his Grand World Tour, also held in March, focused solely on Italian wines. A keen observer of Singapore’s fine dining scene would have noticed how many Italian-themed restaurants have popped up over the past few months - &Sons, Cicheti and Concetto to name a few.

If you can’t beat them, join them, and so it was that I found myself having lunch with Davide Rosso, owner and winemaker of Azienda Agricola Giovanni Rosso. Based in Piedmont in northwest Italy, the winery makes only red wines and is known for its long lived Barolos. Piedmont is somewhat of an anomaly in Italy. The pyramidical Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) system introduced in 1963, meant to denote quality, failed abjectly as producers rejected its rigid rules and chose their own path to quality. An example of this is the emergence of the Super Tuscan category, which used grape varieties that fell outside the system and thus the wines, when first released, were relegated to the common level of Vino da Tavola.

In Piedmont however, there has been a concerted effort to implement a cru system similar to the vineyards of Burgundy. Davide, who worked with Domaine Jean Grivot and Domaine Denis Mortet in Burgundy, is supportive of this system, saying that it works here because Piedmont has a history of crus unlike other parts of Italy. It is significant that Piedmont has never needed to implement the IGT system because its reputation for quality meant that a substantial proportion of its wine was labelled DOC or DOCG. In the village of Serralunga d’Alba where Giovanni Rosso is located, Davide bottles two single-vineyard wines from Ceretta and La Serra. In 2011, when Davide’s uncle Tommaso Canale passed away, part of the Vigna Rionda vineyard was inherited by Davide. This celebrated vineyard, composed of calcareous marlstone, was made famous by Bruno Giacosa’s Collina Rionda, produced until 1993. In his book Grandi Vini: An Opinionated Tour of Italy's 89 Finest Wines, Masterchef judge Joseph Bastianich writes that “when you have the good fortune of owning a cru like Vigna Riona, or even the fortune to be based in Serralunga, the way you view the world changes.”

The grape that reigns above all others in Piedmont is Nebbiolo, which along with Sangiovese is probably the best known and highest quality of the indigenous varieties of Italy. The name is thought to be derived from nebbia, the Italian word for fog that occurs frequently in Piedmont during the harvest period. Deceptively aromatic and floral, nothing can prepare you for the savage kick of tannins that the wine delivers. Like riding a wild stallion, the grape requires a steady hand to tame its ferocity and draw out its thoroughbred character. Davide likes long, slow fermentations for his Barolos, stating that “Long fermentations keep the bouquet and perfume of the wine, one fast fermentation for Nebbiolo doesn’t go well.” As much as possible is handled by nature – no fining or filtering, the use of indigenous yeast, spontaneous fermentations. Instead of installing temperature controlled tanks, he opens the cellar doors and lets in cooling breezes whenever the fermentation gets a little too warm.

Historically, most Barolos were aged in large Slovenian casks called botti, but Davide has decided to utilise French oak from the forests of Fontainebleau instead. “It is important to use the size and type of oak in synergy with the terroir,” explained Davide. “You must see the soil, the type of tannin and the type of grape. Slovenian oak has big and strong tannins that clash with Nebbiolo, which also has strong tannins. The use of Fontainbleau oak introduces oxygen that helps polymerise the tannins, making the wine more sweet and balanced.”

The challenge with Barolo is that in the past its harsh tannins and austerity demanded prolonged ageing, often more than a decade before the wine could be approached. Producers are now shifting towards making their wines more accessible in their youth, without compromising the ability of the wine to age and develop. The revolution is on-going. Davide says, “Our direction is to continue improving the quality every year – it is a task that can never be finished”.

Tasting notes:

Giovanni Rosso Barolo DOCG Cerretta 2008 – The Cerretta vineyard has a thicket of trees at its base, which acts as a windbreak. It is located 360m above sea level, with calcareous clay or marl soils, producing wines that Davide describes as feminine. Aged in 25 hl Fontainebleau oak for 36 months. The 08 has a medium ruby robe with an orange rim (characteristic of Nebbiolo), showing notes of balsamic and violets on the nose. The palate has small red berries with dense, sinewy tannins. Alcohol is noticeable but integrated. An extraordinary length. Feminine perhaps, but more G.I. Jane than Anne Hathaway.

Giovanni Rosso Barolo DOCG Cerretta 2009 – More subtle on the nose than the 08, but palate displays broader definition and fruit, with red cherry and mandarin orange showing through. Delightful drinking now, but shows freshness and structure indicative of prolonged ageability.

Giovanni Rosso Barolo DOCG La Serra 2009 – La Serra is located at an elevation of 378m above sea level, where the soil is most calcareous. A pronounced nose, floral with intense notes of violets, cotton blossom, and red plums. Impressively fresh and pure, with chewy tannins and light vanilla spice on the palate.  Finishes clean and long.

Giovanni Rosso Barolo DOCG Vigna Rionda “Ester Canale” Rosso 2012 – A barrel sample of a production that runs only to 150 cases a year (less than DRC, jokes Davide). 2012 was described as a vintage of balance between acidity, fruit and colour. Intensely floral and perfumed on the nose, but brooding and closed on the palate, shielded behind a thick wall of tannins. Still very early in its development, showing lots of dark fruit and a savoury, umami character. Prepare to wait at least a decade for this flower to blossom.

Note: Berry Bros & Rudd are the worldwide distributors for Giovanni Rosso.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Have Wine, Will Travel

Some time ago, a friend recently back from London called me sounding distraught. Her visit to a wine merchant, where she had picked up several bottles of rare wines, ended in disaster when just a few steps away from the shop her bags broke and the precious cargo ended up in pieces on the unforgiving pavement. A similar story was shared by another friend, who discovered that a trail of liquid at the baggage carousel led to a broken bottle of red wine leaking from his luggage. 

Travelling with wine has never been more fraught with peril, especially since aviation regulations have changed so that there are numerous restrictions on what can be brought on-board. It used to be that if you had a particularly treasured bottle you could hand-carry it to your destination, but no longer. Now it goes into the cargo hold while you keep your fingers crossed that it survives the journey. Of course, you could purchase wine at duty-free shops, but bear in mind that if you are transiting through another airport before your final stop, you may be subject to security screening when boarding your next flight and your bottles confiscated. Australia, India, Japan and Indonesia are countries in particular which enforce this rule. To be safe, if you want to buy duty-free, do so either at your final destination or at the airport immediately prior to that.

Fortunately, there are several ways to help your wines survive the journey in your checked-in luggage. The most convenient method is to wrap the bottle tightly in newspaper, and cover that with a layer of clothing (preferably dark coloured clothes that you wouldn’t mind getting stained). As an extra step, place the bottle in a plastic bag so that even if it does break, hopefully its contents will not leak out. The laundry plastic bags commonly supplied in hotels work well for this purpose.

A more secure way is to use custom-purposed packaging that is designed to prevent breakage. For single bottles, the Air-Paq, distributed by Extra Space, works a treat. Its series of adjoining air tubes have one-way valves, so that even if one tube is punctured, the rest of the tubes stay inflated. It costs only SGD1.80 and can be reused multiple times. A disadvantage of the Air-Paq is that it does take up a lot of space in your luggage. Also, the Air-Paq is not a sealed container, so in the event that the bottle breaks it is possible that its contents will leak out. In my experience this would be highly unlikely as the Air-Paq feels quite durable.

An alternative is the WineSkin, available from Fantastic Find (2 for SGD9.50) or Amazon (2 for USD9.99). Although more expensive than the Air-Paq, its advantages are that it is flat and it also comes with dual seals to prevent leakage. The seals are one-time use only; however you can easily use duct tape for subsequent uses or place the whole thing in a plastic bag. It does feel a little bit more fragile than the Air-Paq, but I haven’t had any bottles break while using either. Both the Air-Paq and WineSkin are designed for standard 750ml bottles only. 

Whichever method you use to protect your wine, it is a good idea to ensure that your luggage is full so that there is less space for the wine to roll around. Sandwiching the bottle between layers of clothes will help minimise the bumps as it goes through the maze of baggage handling systems. With some careful packing, you’ll never again need to worry about wine breaking in your luggage.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Getting High in Amsterdam


As a frequent traveller, the monotony of visiting city after city can become dreary after some time. Identical skyscrapers, ever-present Starbucks and the same high street brands have robbed many cities of a unique identity. Which is why a visit to Amsterdam, capital of the Netherlands, is always a breath of fresh air. Its bisecting canals, lined with stately, compact houses, are a splendid way to while away some hours. Beyond the next corner, you may find a shop selling curious antiques, local cheeses, or even a cellar stocking ancient wines. 

A recent trip yielded another unique Dutch concept – getting high. High Wine that is, a variation on the high tea concept. The brainchild of chef Dennis Kuipers, High Wine is a tasting of four amuse-style dishes paired with four different wines served from 3 – 6 p.m. Michelin-starred Kuipers is the executive chef of The Dylan Amsterdam, a boutique hotel that is part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. The hotel’s history stretches back to 1618, when it was a wooden theatre called the “Duytsche Academie”. In an era when church authorities considered the practice of theatrical arts to be immoral, most of the academy’s profits were donated to orphanages in an attempt to mollify their affronted sensibilities. I wonder what those authorities would make of Amsterdam’s famed Red Light District now.

The High Wine menu changes around six times a year based on the seasonal availability of ingredients, so it’s likely that you will find something new each time you visit. There are also menus for special occasions such as Valentine’s Day last month which featured six wines (instead of the usual four) and a heart-shaped cheese paired with a Vereinigte Hospitien Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Auslese Riesling from the 2012 vintage. Wines are selected by in-house sommelier Gosse Hollander, and after that chef Kuipers creates the menu around the flavours of the wines. I have spoken to several food and wine experts and there seems to be a common agreement that wine pairings work best when the chef tailors the menu to match the wines rather than the other way around. An oft-quoted reason is that there are many ways to vary the flavours of a dish, while wine is fairly immutable once bottled.

Chef Kuipers specialises in modern French cuisine with an emphasis on light vinaigrettes and fish instead of heavy sauces. This was apparent in the first dish, a lightly smoked halibut with grapefruit, cucumber and Vadouvan mayonnaise. Paired with a similarly ethereal Domaine Octavie Sauvignon Blanc 2012 from Touraine, it was a combination that whetted one’s appetite for subsequent dishes. There seemed to be a carefully planned flow to the sequence of dishes; the next course also featured fish – sautéed gurnard with zucchini, fennel and piperade sauce – but here the firmness of the fish and its sweet taste produced bolder flavours that stood up well to an oak-influenced Milton Park Eden Valley Chardonnay 2012.

The bite sized portions meant that I still had plenty of room for the meat course, a veal sirloin with mushroom risotto, green asparagus and tomato, and sauce of Savora mustard. This was a real symphony of flavours; tender, milky veal, a hint of earthiness from the mushroom risotto, and nutty, vegetal accents from the asparagus. The wine selection was an exuberant Vignerons du Sommiérois “Les Romanes” Coteaux du Languedoc 2012 made from a blend of Syrah and Grenache. Rustic and uncomplicated, this pairing was comfort food for Amsterdam’s cold winter months. A dessert of banana-nut cake with black pepper ice cream, served alongside a glass of René Favre & Fils Sauvignon Blanc Moelleux 2010 from Switzerland, ended the meal with a flourish. The wine added notes of stewed pineapple and sugar cane to the already delicious dessert.

What put a nice touch on dining at The Dylan was its great team of service professionals, who could describe each course and wine down to its smallest detail and were friendly without being intrusive. The selection of wines was food-friendly and complemented rather than competed with each dish (no high-alcohol fruit bombs here!). High Wine is a simple concept, yet the ambience, level of service and quality of cooking elevate it to a unique treat for the senses. My fingers are crossed that restaurants in Singapore will take note of this idea and bring it to our shores. Could there be a better way of spending a relaxing afternoon?

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Rebirth of Bulgarian Wine

Photo credit: Publicist PR
What can we learn from the history of Bulgarian wine? Don’t put all your eggs in one basket? That the only constant is change? From being a major supplier to the Soviet Union from the 1970s until the mid 1980s, Bulgaria experienced a rapid descent into viticultural obscurity after Mikhail Gorbachev introduced anti-alcohol measures, followed shortly after by the collapse of the USSR itself. For a time, the UK showed interest in Bulgaria’s affordable exports of international varietals, but soon countries such as Australia and Chile showed similar competence at producing wines aimed at the lower end of the market. 

The Bulgarian Regional Vine and Wine Chamber held a dinner in Singapore on the 27th of January with the express aim of “securing a better position and reputation of European regional wines from Bulgaria”. Besides Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam were also included in this year’s Asian tour, which was funded by the European Union. I saw several familiar faces in the crowd, among them local sommeliers, wine writers and distributors. Wines for the evening were supplied by the Trakia Wine Consortium and Villa Yustina, both located in the Thracian Lowlands although there was also a Chardonnay from Yamantievs and a red blend from Kamenki. Petya Angelova, Trade Director of Villa Yustina, had an upbeat view on the future of Bulgarian wine, commenting that “Just like Bordeaux, we want everyone to know about Bulgarian wines.” 

Bulgaria is bordered by Romania to the north, Serbia and Macedonia to the west, Greece and Turkey to the south, and the Black Sea in the east. For most of Bulgaria the climate is continental, with hot summers and very cold winters. Increased privatisation has led to the growth of smaller wineries, some established with the expertise of foreign winemaking. Local grape varieties include Dimyat, Rkatsiteli and Misket for the whites, and Mavrud, Pamid, Melnik, Rubin and Gamza for the reds. Although the wines for the evening were pretty much a mixed bag, I did enjoy the two reds from Villa Yustina. The basic Villa Yustina Dry Red Cuvee 2012 was a kitchen sink blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah, which showed vinous character with red fruits and a solid backbone. Even more interesting was the Villa Yustina Monogram 2010, a full-bodied blend of Mavrud and Rubin with savoury black fruit notes and just a touch of vanillin. I found out later that the wine was aged for 14 months in 100% Bulgarian oak barrels. 

Does Bulgaria have a seat in the global amphitheatre of wine? Judging from the wines poured that evening, the industry is still in its infancy, with many steps to take before it can develop an identity and compete with countries that have had decades, and sometimes centuries, of continuous winemaking history. The most important market for Bulgaria is Russia, where the average price of a bottle is €3, but this clearly does not encourage the pursuit of higher quality wines. Inroads are being made into places such as Vietnam, China, and the United States, and it will take a few years to see if these efforts bear fruit. In any case welcome back, Bulgaria.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Lunar New Year #SgWine gathering

A sommelier, blogger and winemaker walk into a bar. Sounds like the setup for a punchline, but we were really at Praelum Wine Bistro for a #SgWine gathering. It seems that every get-together has a guest star, and that evening we were joined by Tai-Ran Niew, a former investment banker who has traded in his spreadsheets for pruning shears. His evolution to winemaker has been swift – after taking part in harvests in Sonoma and the Barossa Valley, he decided to make his own wine in Bordeaux through VINIV (you may remember it by its previous incarnation Crushpad). Did I mention that Tai-Ran is also a WSET Diploma student and a contributor to Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages wine website? 

The lure of putting your own identity and label on a bottle of wine is sure to tempt many wine lovers, but it does involve significant decision-making along the way. While VINIV allows you to make wine without buying land and investing in winemaking equipment, the vineyard sources, fermentation techniques, blending and label design are entirely up to you. Tai-Ran was extremely hands-on with this project, flying to Bordeaux several times to survey the vineyards and oversee the harvest. 

This being Bordeaux, it would be foolish to make a wine in the Californian or Australian style, but there are significant variations to how you want the wine to express itself. Tai-Ran comments that “If there is ever proof that it is the fruit that matters (in winemaking), this is it, because I have no idea what I’m doing.” I think that he is being a little too modest, because as I tasted the wine, it seemed to be to be having the structure of a Pauillac with the roundness of a right-bank Bordeaux, and I was elated when he said that fruit for the wine came from Pauillac and Saint-Émilion. A lucky guess, or terroir showing through? In any case, the result was very much in line with what Tai-Ran was aiming for. 

VINIV warns that winemaking can be “addictive” and it must be true, because Tai-Ran is already setting his sights on producing another wine, this time from his own vineyard in Oregon. The vines have just been planted and he plans to farm biodynamically, to “make the plant as healthy as possible so that it will deal with diseases by itself”. It will be a few years before the vine reaches sufficient maturity to produce grapes that can make wine, but if Tai-Ran’s Vigne de Niew is any indicator of his talent as a winemaker, then I am serenely confident that it will be worth the wait.

Tasting notes of the #SgWine gathering are as follows.

William Fèvre Chablis Grand Cru “Les Clos” 2005 - Lean and incisive acidity with a satiny texture. Notes of pomelo, light vanilla spice, and honey lead to a long finish. Possesses elegance in spades. 

Tenutae Lageder “Porer” Pinot Grigio 2012 - Sourced from the biodynamically farmed “Porer” vineyard in Alto Adige at an elevation of 230-240m. Shows good fruit concentration with distinct pear notes and some floral hints. Medium length. 

Napa Cellars Carneros Dyer Vineyard Syrah 2004 - Served blind, this wine had us all guessing. I had the grape variety right, but went with Barossa Valley rather than USA. Showing some age in the garnet rim, the wine displayed a barbequed, toasty nose, with whiffs of caramel. Lots of black fruit on the palate, with medium acidity and a dense, chewy body. High alcohol and very warm, but with balancing acidity. 

Vigne de Niew 2010 - Very deep purple. An intense and aromatic nose, showing evolving notes of violet, incense and blackcurrant. Exceptional power and sleekness on the palate, with sticky tannins and a core of rich black fruit and cigar box. Tai-Ran states that he wanted to make a wine that needed more time before it was ready to drink; a leaner style with a longer finish. 

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2010 - Also served blind, and this time it was Lady J who correctly spotted the Shiraz element in the wine. A structured wine with black fruit and savoury, meaty notes, this full-bodied wine delivers exhilarating pleasure and is definitely one for aging. 

Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 - Intense blackcurrant pastille mixed with an odd burnt rubber note. Lacking in complexity and rather artificial.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

A Peek Inside Burgundy with Jasper Morris MW

Those who have been following the wine news would have realised that it is not Bordeaux that has been hogging the headlines of late but it’s distinctively different cousin Burgundy. While the Liv-ex Fine Wine 50 Index (which tracks the prices of the five Bordeaux first growths) has been steadily falling since its peak in mid-2011, prices of grand cru Burgundy have been shattering auction highs. At the Hospices de Beaune auction last year, a record 6.3 million euros was raised. Interest has been particularly keen from Asia, and Romanée-Conti is now seen as the top wine brand in China.

So it was with great interest that I joined in a lunch with Jasper Morris MW, a specialist on Burgundian wines who spends the majority of his time shuttling between the UK and Burgundy. Jasper is the Burgundy buyer for Berry Bros & Rudd, Britain’s oldest wine and spirits merchant, to whom he sold his wine import business to in 2003. He also wrote the Burgundian entries for the Oxford Companion to Wine and has published his own book on the region, Inside Burgundy (available both in print and digital editions). Nicholas Pegna, who manages the Singapore office of BBR and is also the Director for South-East Asia, said that Jasper’s contribution to BBR has been “absolutely transformational”, allowing BBR to buy not only the great names of Burgundy but also to identify those on the ground who will be the next superstar.

Yet this Master of Wine, who has successfully navigated the morass of appellations and vineyards that is Burgundy, is exceedingly humble and engaging conversationally. In his spare time, he tends to his garden and four cats (one of which is an exceptionally well-mannered stray). Perhaps this is why he gravitates more towards the hardworking and fame-eschewing region of Burgundy rather than the mercantile court of Bordeaux. Jasper himself says, “I love Burgundy because the people there are totally committed to what they are doing. They are much more interested in talking about their product because they made it themselves.”

In terms of grape varieties, Burgundy is easy to understand. Pinot Noir for red wines, and Chardonnay for the whites (Gamay, while used in Beaujolais in Southern Burgundy, is planted on such different soils that the region is considered more akin to the Rhone Valley). In terms of producers, vineyards and appellations, the situation could not be more complex. Most vineyards in Burgundy are divided between several growers, and thanks to the Napoleonic Code which mandated equal inheritance, the size of individual holdings has shrunk over the years. All this means that the highest rated wines from top producers are available only in miniscule amounts.

In a twist of irony, just as Asia has developed a thirst for Burgundy, supply has dwindled even further due to a series of poor vintages in which the vines were battered by hail and disease. This has caused prices to rise to stratospheric levels, a situation which may please merchants, but according to Jasper the people who make the wine are much less enthused. “The average Burgundy grower has not subscribed to the accumulation of wealth program,” he says. With a wry smile, Jasper adds that “after spending twenty five years persuading people to like Burgundy, I’m now asking them to slow down.”

Recent cases of fraudulent Burgundies which left a stain on the reputation of some wine auction houses have spurred BBR to take steps to ensure the authenticity of their wine. Not only are the bottles equipped with smart tags, BBR staff are also sent for fraud training to identify signs that point to a fake wine. Nicholas says, “People understand the value of well-stored older bottles and wine with impeccable provenance. We take on the accusation that sometimes we are comparatively more expensive with the reply that we are fanatical to ensure provenance. No bottle is worth more than our reputation.”

Nicholas also notes that it is difficult to base the price of fine Burgundies on historical data due to the scarcity of it. Limited quantities mean that a single enthusiastic collector may distort the price of a wine by bidding extravagantly on it. However, Jasper is quick to point out that bargains do remain in Burgundy, such as the Domaine Joliet Fixin Premier Cru “Clos de la Perrière” 2009 which retails for SGD80. Displaying a clean, precise nose with heady floral, spice and raspberry notes, the wine has been receiving much interest after sixth-generation winemaker Bénigne Joliet took over with the express intention of having it recognised as a grand cru.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Art and Wine Mix at Art Stage Singapore

20140116 Art Stage Singapore 1A trip to Art Stage Singapore 2014 to view the limited edition champagne box designed by Dutchman Piet Hein Eek for Ruinart turned into an exciting evening exploring the works of international and local artists. The preview was well attended, yet due to the spacious layout of the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre there was plenty of elbow room. Art from eight different countries and regions in Asia Pacific are laid out in a museum-like exhibition format. The fair boasts around 158 galleries featuring the works of over 600 artists.

Ruinart is the official champagne for Art Stage Singapore, and patrons of the arts had the opportunity to sip on Ruinart Blanc de Blancs as they viewed the installation designed by Piet Hein Eek. Composed of two wooden, trapezoidal modules arranged in the form of an ‘hourglass’ and filled with Ruinart Blanc de Blancs bottles, the structure utilises the same recycled wood that has become the designer’s hallmark. The design was inspired by Maison Ruinart’s ground-breaking decision to move from using baskets to wooden boxes to ship its Champagne in the late 18th century.

The installation can be viewed in the Art Stage VIP Lounge during the duration of the fair which runs from 16-19 January and is located at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre, 10 Bayfront Ave, Singapore 018956. Bottles of the limited edition Ruinart Blanc de Blancs by Piet Hein Eek will be available for S$188 (750ml) and and S$388 (1500ml). Prices exclude GST. More details about Art Stage Singapore are available at the following website.