Thursday, 16 October 2014

Austria’s Winning Ways – A Tasting with Loimer and Heinrich

Among the winners at this year’s Business Times Wine Challenge was a wine that stood out in terms of obscurity not just in grape variety but also in country of origin. The Loimer Grüner Veltliner Kamptal DAC 2012 hails from Austria, a country so often confused with Australia that at a previous seminar on cool climate wines the speaker took pains to highlight the differences (no kangaroos in Austria for one). The wines were chosen by a panel of Singapore CEOs and yielded an insight into the palate of top decision makers. Boon Heng, owner of Wein & Vin which distributes wines from Loimer, commented that “This tells people that though they think Austrian wines and Grüner Veltliner are both non-mainstream, yet the CEOs picked it as one of the two dry whites in the top 10.”

Earlier in October Wein & Vin held a lunch featuring new vintages from Loimer and Heinrich at Luke Mangan’s Salt Grill & Sky Bar at ION Orchard. The wines were split into two flights with the whites from Loimer served in the first flight followed by the reds from Heinrich. Adding a slight twist to the usual format of these tastings, all wines were served blind and it was up to the guests to determine which wine was in which glass. It wasn’t too difficult to pick out the two Rieslings from the first flight, as the grape has such a strong personality and flavour profile, but the reds were far more challenging. If Grüner Veltliner is considered obscure, then tasting wines made from black grapes such as Zweigelt, St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch is akin to spotting a unicorn trotting down Orchard Road.

Unicorn sightings may become less rare as Austria sticks to its strategy of focusing on exports and pursuing quality over yield. Export revenues for 2013 were at an all-time high of 139 million euros despite a smaller harvest, according to the Austrian Wine Marketing Board. Loimer has made a name as a high quality, if somewhat irreverent producer. Look closely at the logo (based on a fertility symbol) and you will notice a third leg on the dancing man. Winemaker Fred Loimer and his team espouse the principles of a healthy, biodiverse environment and are members of Respekt, an association of wineries that aims to align biodynamics with contemporary developments. The winery is located in the Kamptal region and the majority of its production is based on Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, the leading varieties of that region.

Weingut Gernot and Heike Heinrich, based in Neusiedlersee, is also a member of the Respekt association, but here the warmer climate lends itself more to the production of bright, fruity red wines. Guest speaker and owner of Taberna Wine Academy Tan Ying Hsien likened Blaufränkisch to Gamay, saying that it displays redcurrant aromas with a lifted note similar to crushed ants. St. Laurent, like Blaufränkisch, is an old Austrian grape variety that resembles Pinot Noir with its red fruit and cherry flavours and fairly soft tannins, although Ying opined that it never hits the heights of Pinot Noir in terms of intensity and texture. Zweigelt, a cross between Blaufränkisch and St-Laurent, is Austria’s most planted red grape variety and is often given some oak treatment. It tends to have soft tannins and notes of morello cherry.

The wines were paired with signature dishes from Salt Grill including the sashimi of kingfish, ginger, eschallot & goats’ feta and NSW Rangers Valley 300 days grain-fed beef with Moroccan spice. These went sublimely with the wines, revealing another facet of Austrian wines – that they are very food friendly.

Tasting notes:

Loimer Spiegel Grüner Veltliner DAC Reserve 2012
– A wine showing great depth of flavour with notes of guava, ripe honeydew and accents of green salad. Medium alcohol and body with a persistent length. Finishes quite dry. Best served chilled as it loses its edge at room temperature.

Loimer Riesling Kamptal DAC 2012 – Very pale lemon appearance. Fine boned structure with sharp definition and rapier acidity. Classic Riesling with limey notes.

Loimer Grüner Veltliner Kamptal DAC 2012 - Herbal and just-mown lawn on the nose with hints of pear. Very delicate, almost amorphous, with citrussy fruit and bright acids on the palate. Long finish.

Loimer Lois Grüner Veltliner 2013 – Floral, honeyed aromas with hints of chrysanthemum petals. Lemon and citrus on the palate expanding to honeydew and papaya on the finish. Medium bodied but with lots of fruit concentration and minerality, complexity and tension. Medium length. A well-made and very good value wine.

Loimer Lenz Riesling 2013 – Sharp, tangy acidity with notes of Chinese pear finishing with lemon sherbet. Long and focused with a feather-light body. Refreshing.

Loimer Terrassen Grüner Veltliner Kamptal DAC Reserve 2012 – Pleasantly round body with a fat texture and notes of melon. Approachable, easy drinking.

Heinrich Blaufränkisch Leithaberg 2011 – Deep inky purple. Dense and meaty with juicy blackberry and dark cherry notes. Savoury and long.

Heinrich Gabarinza 2011
– A blend of Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and Merlot, aged in 500 litre oak vats for 20 months before release. Deep ruby colour, with flavours of blackcurrant gummies and black tea. Mid-weight, fresh and fruity. Hint of milk chocolate on the finish, which is a tad short. Broadly appealing.

Heinrich Pannobile 2011 – Heinrich is part of the Pannobile association, each member of which produces a single red and white wine from indigenous grapes annually. This wine is a blend of 70% Zweigelt and 30% Blaufränkisch. Gentle and light with barely perceptible tannins, soft redcurrant fruit and a silky texture.

Heinrich Blaufränkisch 2012 – Mid ruby appearance, a little stemmy on the palate with stalky notes.

Heinrich Zweigelt 2011 – A convincing testament to the popularity of Zweigelt. Fine and balanced with a soft and supple texture. Palate shows red fruits with a hint of oak and clay earth. Very accessible.

Heinrich St. Laurent 2011 – Marred by brett, which contributed a barnyard aroma. Unfortunate, as the wine showed potential with earthy black fruit and soft tannins.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

A Different Side of Sauvignon

Sauvignon Blanc often suffers from “Middle Child Syndrome”. While Chardonnay gets all the expensive oak treatment, and Riesling is fawned upon by winemakers and journalists, Sauvignon Blanc tends to be pretty overlooked. It is a hardy and vigorous vine, adaptable to many soils and prone to producing abundant foliage and fruit. Yet just like a child whose growth has not been nurtured, a vine that is ignored will fail to develop its full potential. Overcropped Sauvignon Blanc is bland and watery, lacking focus and complexity. Ong YiXin, founder of KOT Selections, states that even Sancerre, the spiritual home of Sauvignon Blanc, is a “sea of mediocrity”. “Badly farmed, made for the Parisian market,” he tut-tuts.

YiXin should know. KOT Selections is Singapore’s foremost importer of Loire wines, ranging from texturally rich Chenin Blancs from Anjou to the herbal examples of Touraine Sauvignon Blancs. YiXin works with around 30 vignerons from the Loire, and in the past three years has only managed to find one grower from Sancerre who meets his expectations. “What makes Sancerre special is minerality,” says YiXin, “and you need proper terroir to get that.” On their selection criteria, YiXin explains that “Quality is our benchmark, then we look at the price. Very few producers meet our standards of quality, and unfortunately even fewer are able to offer the wines at reasonable prices.”

KOT Selections holds a monthly wine tasting on the last weekend of each month. Dubbed the Weekend Wine Bar, each session has a different theme. These tend to be lively, well-attended affairs, but YiXin wanted to add another offering in the form of tutored masterclasses for sommeliers and trade professionals.  KOT’s Marketing and Sales Executive Fernanda Koprowski says, “It is important that people working in the trade know about the wine so that they can sell it.” The support of this group is especially important for KOT Selections because 80% of their business is with restaurants.

Their second masterclass was held in September and focused on the Sauvignon Blanc grape. My last visit to the Loire revealed some toothsome, well-priced wines, and I jumped at the chance to reacquaint myself with this region. Yet YiXin still managed to surprise by pulling out some wines which showed the diversity of Sauvignon Blanc. We had oaked, and even aged examples, with the flavour spectrum running the whole gamut from fruity to minerally, and even vegetal. Some of the wines were extremely pungent and my guess is that consumers will either love or hate them (durian lovers may tend towards the former).

Tasting notes:

Francois Cazin Cheverny Blanc “Le Petit Chambord” 2013 - The Cheverny AOC is a relatively new one, having been created in 1993. To gain the AOC designation the wines must be a blend, and this example is made primarily of Sauvignon Blanc with a minor proportion of Chardonnay. The nose is rather faint with hints of lime and passionfruit. The palate shows more concentration, with tangy freshness and smoky notes leading to a grassy finish. 

Domaine du Clos de L'Elu “Terre!” 2013 – Fermented using wild yeasts. Doesn’t really taste like a Sauvignon. Toffee and earthy notes, hints of apple cider and a bit savage.

Clos Roche Blanche Touraine 2011 – The nose is pungent, grassy and a little earthy. Palate shows green salad and hints of nuttiness. Rather short on the finish.

Clos Roche Blanche Touraine 2010 – A step up from the 2011, this was a little richer in fruit concentration, but still had those pungent and earthy notes with mushy peas. Light bodied and could be a bit fresher.

Domaine Vincent Gaudry Sancerre Blanc “Melodie de Vielles Vignes” 2013 – Biodynamic producer.  The vineyards for this wine are planted on chalk soils. Light nose, more fruity than herbal. High extract and rich in texture, showing complex notes of chalk, honey, yoghurt, and lemon fruit with a mineral tension. Vibrant and fresh. A wine that, like its name, truly sings.

Domaine Vincent Gaudry Sancerre Blanc “Constellation du Scorpion” 2013 – An interesting side-by-side comparison against the Melodie, with the only difference being that this wine came from vineyards planted on silex soils. Delicate aromas of lime, straw and honey. Prickly acidity with delightful purity of fruit and a zesty, lime-filled finish. A tad lighter than the Melodie but no less complex.

Clos Roche Blanche Touraine Sauvignon “No. 5” 2010 – Aged in large oak fuders and bottled after a year and a half. A selection of the best grapes from the Clos Roche Blanche vineyards. Pronounced aromas of herbs, sweet pea, ginseng and pine. Supercharged intensity and incredible depth, but not an easily understood wine; more of an intellectual challenge. Slight warmth on the finish.

Domaine Vincent Gaudry “Pour Vous” 2010 – Limited production of only 600 bottles annually. Intense aromas recalling smoke, baked/stewed apples, cashew nuts and overripe lemons. Medium+ acidity with vanilla, smoke and cinnamon spice on the full-bodied palate. There is a lot going on here but it will take a few years for the components to integrate.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Cape Mentelle’s Aristocratic Cabernets


What do Cloudy Bay, Dom Pérignon and Belvedere vodka have in common? They’re all owned by French conglomerate LVMH, maker of monogrammed luxury goods and accessories. With a bank account rivalling the GDP of smaller countries, LVMH can afford to be picky with its investments. The company’s strategy for its Wines and Spirits business group is to focus on the high-end range, maintain a strict pricing policy and foster a strong dynamic of innovation. 

Fittingly then, that when it came to expanding their portfolio Down Under, LVMH acquired Cape Mentelle, one of Margaret River’s oldest wineries with a stellar reputation for its Cabernet Sauvignon.
It is often boasted that although Margaret River only contributes about 3.5% of Australia’s total wine by volume, nearly a quarter of the country’s premium wine comes from here. The acquisition was made through LVMH's champagne subsidiary Veuve Clicquot which included sister winery Cloudy Bay, both founded by David Hohnen. The benefit for Cape Mentelle is access to the LVMH distribution network, which accounts for its presence in many international markets and duty-free outlets.

Estate Director Cameron Murphy highlighted some recent changes at the winery during a lunch celebrating the launch of the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon. The most significant investment was the introduction of an optical grape sorter, a AUD$400,000 machine that takes 200 photos per second of the fruit passing through on a conveyor belt and rejects any grapes that do not meet pre-programmed size and colour requirements. “In a nutshell, the machine allows the selection of the finest grapes from our oldest vineyards,” said Cameron. The winery has also implemented a number of sustainable practices, such as bringing in guinea fowl to get rid of snails and insects, and using sheep as organic lawnmowers. This move to becoming more environmentally friendly has been a learning process for the winery. For example, the guinea fowl had the unforeseen effect of attracting eagles so the winery had to build shelters in the vineyard, but the predators also kept away starlings which are a major pest as they damage the grapes during harvest. 

The improvements in winemaking at Cape Mentelle recently led to its Cabernet Sauvignon moving up from the “Excellent” to “Outstanding” category in Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine, now in its sixth edition. It is described as “a modern legend inspiring a whole generation of winemakers to succeed in their craft.” Cape Mentelle burnished its credentials early on by being the only Western Australia winery to win the Jimmy Watson trophy in consecutively in 1983 and 1984, both for its Cabernet. Fruit for this wine comes from the original Wallcliffe Vineyard, which has deep gravelly soils and ample water. A minor kerfuffle was caused recently when Cape Mentelle sought to trademark the use of name Wallcliffe, which was being used by other wineries as well. 

The wines we tasted were, as one might expect, incredibly polished and suave. After a period where high alcohol dominated many Australian wines, there has been a return to balanced (not low) alcohol levels that, combined with more precise winemaking, have resulted in bright, ripe fruit that enliven rather than dull the palate. Cape Mentelle has a rich history and an enviable track record, but its future speaks of even greater promise and excitement.

Tasting notes:

Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – A scintillating ruby robe hinting at its youth. Pronounced aromas with warm, dark chocolate and loamy earth. The palate shows poise and vivacity with full, ripe tannins, notes of fruitcake and an amazing length that finishes with hints of spice and anise.

Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 – A warm and dry vintage that led to an earlier than normal harvest. Tasted after the 2012, this 2011 was comparatively more reserved, yet still showing a firm structure, sturdy tannins and expertly applied oak. Contains 6% Cabernet Franc.

Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 – A blend of 96% Cabernet and 4% Merlot. Intense dark berry aromatics with hints of spice and anise. Full bodied and opulent yet still fresh and structured with mouth-watering acidity. A slightly savoury note, backed with intense blackcurrant character. A worthy addition to any cellar.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Pegasus Bay Thumbs its Nose at Sauvignon Blanc

Pegasus Bay is located an hour’s drive north from Christchurch in the South Island of New Zealand. It’s well-worth a visit, not only because it is Waipara’s star winery, but also because a trip here will end up changing many of your conceptions about wine. Firstly that winemakers are only about wine. Pegasus Bay is staunchly a family-owned winery, but there is a surfeit of talent in the Donaldson clan that manifests itself around the business. The well-manicured gardens are the result of careful tending by the matriarch of the family, Christine Donaldson. Her stamp can also be seen in the naming of Pegasus Bay’s Reserve wines, which bear names such as Aria, Bel Canto and Encore – operatic terms that reflect Christine’s love of the arts. As a passionate singer herself, Christine used to belt out tunes in the family car on drives to the winery with her children. “It used to drive us a little bit crazy,” laughs Edward Donaldson, Pegasus Bay’s Marketing Manager, “although we’re fans of opera ourselves now.” His eldest brother Matthew is the winemaker, while youngest brother Paul works as the General Manager. Matthew also designed the logo (shown left) for Pegasus Bay’s first vintage in 1991.

Waipara (not to be confused with Wairarapa in the North Island), is a cool-climate wine region with low rainfall. There are two main types of soil here, clay-limestone and free-draining river gravels, the latter of which Pegasus Bay is planted on. The Pegasus Bay vineyards also benefit from being sheltered from the Pacific Ocean’s cool easterly breezes by the Teviotdale hills. A lack of rainfall during harvest allows for longer hang time, meaning that even late-ripening varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon can be planted here. Sauvignon Blanc forms the majority of plantings in Waipara, mostly as contract fruit sold to Villa Maria and Nobilo, but it is Riesling and Pinot Noir which this region is famous for. Many of the wineries here are small-scale producers focused on quality, a better fit for Riesling and Pinot Noir rather than mass-market Sauvignon Blanc. Professor Ivan Donaldson, who established Pegasus Bay, was convinced that Riesling could succeed in Waipara after tasting the Robard & Butler Amberley Riesling produced by Corbans in the late 1970s, a legendary wine made from locally sourced fruit. Two thirds of Pegasus Bay is now planted with Riesling and Pinot Noir.

Edward attributes part of the success of Pegasus Bay to the fact that it is run by a single family. “You’re working for yourself and so you put in more commitment and effort into it,” he says. “It can be a recipe for disaster when it goes bad but thankfully that’s never happened for us. We get on really well and there’s no animosity between us.” Each family member’s role is clearly defined so there is no overlap of responsibilities. The winery is also part of a larger “family”, the Family of Twelve association which is a grouping of family-owned estates that aim to share information and best practices. 

Within the grounds can also be found an award-winning restaurant run by Edward’s wife Belinda, which serves up local delights such as a wild hare and shiitake terrine and Canterbury lamb cutlet with puy lentils, walnut and pecorino romano. The restaurant saw an uptick in business after the Christchurch earthquakes, as many of the city’s restaurants were closed and there was a lack of dining options. On the flip side, it became much harder for the restaurant to attract skilled hospitality workers because many young locals packed up and moved to Auckland or Australia in search of jobs.

The focus on quality at Pegasus Bay led to the decision around 10 years ago to start holding back wines to let them age in bottle for a longer period. All of the wines are aged for a minimum of 12 months in bottle, some for longer. Initially, this led to a situation where they were out of stock for a long while, but the benefit is that the wines are now allowed enough time to integrate and develop complexity.

Tasting notes:

Pegasus Bay Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2012 – Based on this wine an argument could be made for more Bordeaux-style blends in New Zealand. The Sauvignon Blanc component dominates with crisp passionfruit aromatics, but the Semillon adds some textural weight and lemon notes.

Pegasus Bay Chardonnay 2011 – Made from the Mendoza clone planted on own roots. Indigenous yeast fermentation. Refined and fresh with citrus fruit character. The oak is well-handled, just a subtle hint of vanilla on the finish, and serves to highlight the quality of the fruit. Very good.

Pegasus Bay Bel Canto 2011 – The top dry Riesling of Pegasus Bay, this wine contains partially botrytised grapes to provide stone fruit flavours and add another dimension of complexity. There is certainly a lot of fruit extract here, with a nose of petrol reminiscent of some young Clare Valley Rieslings. Very slightly off dry, balanced by fresh acidity. 

Pegasus Bay Riesling 2011 – Picked slightly earlier than the Bel Canto with more residual sugar. Fruit forward and clean flavours with an attractive stone fruit and grapefruit profile.

Pegasus Bay Aria Late Harvest Riesling 2012 – I have always found the Aria Riesling to be outstanding, and this is no exception. Intense and concentrated with rich tropical fruit, orange marmalade, citrus peels and limey acidity with some botrytis weight, this wine delivers wave after wave of drinking pleasure.

Pegasus Bay Merlot Cabernet 2011 – Generous ripe fruit with Merlot dominating and lending flavours of black plum skin, spice and vanilla. Smooth tannins with a medium to full body, this wine is immediately approachable.

Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2011 – Destemmed grapes whole bunch fermented in small vats. Shows a forward and aromatic with a mix of juicy strawberries and black cherry. Fine concentration on the palate, with a finish that is long and intense.

Pegasus Bay Prima Donna 2011 – A different beast entirely from the estate Pinot Noir. This shows great depth and firmness, with the fruit profile leaning towards the darker spectrum of blackberries and black cherry. Fine, youthful tannins. Spice-filled finish with notes of chocolate malt. Outstanding. Give this prima donna the respect she deserves and let her sing only when ready.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Wine Culture Portfolio Tasting

How do you set yourself apart in a country where the wine scene is as competitive as Singapore’s? For fine wine merchant Wine Culture, the answer was to establish a presence in the restaurant industry as an avenue to showcase their offerings. This allows consumers to experience the wines before committing to a retail purchase. Wine Culture’s Executive Director Renny Heng has already opened two restaurants, Verre Wine Bar at Robertson Quay, and Shelter in the Woods at Bukit Timah. His next project is the newly opened 3,400 sq ft restaurant named Corner House, located within the Singapore Botanic Gardens and helmed by chef Jason Tan, formerly of Sky on 57 at Marina Bay Sands. One of the things I’ve liked about Wine Culture is the care that they take with their bottles, wrapping each one in plastic so that the labels don’t get damaged.

Wine Culture has a strong focus on Bordeaux and Burgundy labels, including notable producers such as Domaine Sylvain Cathiard, Domaine Emmanuel Rouget and Domaine Hudelot Noëllat for which they are exclusive distributors. Renny started visiting Burgundy back in 2000, a shrewd move considering how much in vogue the wines are currently. “Most of these wines have been with us for a very long time,” commented Vincent Tan, Restaurant Manager at Shelter in the Woods. Burgundy is a complex maze of tiny vineyards and numerous producers, and my hat goes off to anyone who can navigate the minute differences between a Puligny-Montrachet versus a Chassagne-Montrachet. By contrast, the grape varieties used are easy to remember – all whites are made from Chardonnay and all reds from Pinot Noir.

The notes in this article are from a tasting held in June and attended by several sommeliers from various restaurants in Singapore. It was a good opportunity to catch up with them, and one in particular was beaming about a SGD167k dinner bill achieved the night before from a single table, which goes to show that having a sommelier in the house really does pay for itself.

Tasting notes:

Domaine Jean- Noël Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru Blanchot Dessus 2006 – The estate has been run by Caroline l’Estimé since 1989. She is known for moving the winery towards organics and increasing the number of white wines by vinifying each premier cru vineyard separately. This wine has a pale lemon colour with medium intensity aromatics of honey, acacia and vanilla. The palate reveals lovely citrus fruit and orange pith, with refreshing acidity and a very long finish.

Lucien le Moine Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru Terre Blanche 2009 – Set up in 1999 by Mounir Saouma, who hails from Lebanon, and his Israeli wife Rotem Brakin. As pure négociants, they buy in ready-made wines and age them in Jupilles oak without racking, pumping, fining or filtering. The wines spend a long time on their lees (dead yeast) which accounts for their rich, yoghurt-like flavours. There was no lees stirring for the 2009 Nuits-Saint-Georges, and the wine shows a fine, seductive perfume with cashew and hazelnuts coming to the fore. It maintains a high level of acidity, with a broad frame and punchy flavours. The finish is bright and long.

Château de la Maltroye, Santenay Premier Cru la Comme 2009 – Quite a rarity to find a white wine from Santenay. This example was fresh and light, with delicate honeysuckle aromas and a persistent finish. Refined and an utter joy to drink.

Domaine Buisson-Charles Meursault 2010 – Michel Buisson has since handed over the reins of the winery to his daughter and son-in-law Catherine and Patrick Essa. The wine is textbook Meursault, showing rich honeyed aromas and a broad texture with hints of nougat and custard mixed with musk melon notes.

Domaine du Nozay Sancerre 2012 – This Sauvignon Blanc-based wine shows varietal notes of passionfruit, lemongrass and herbs. The emphasis here is more on the fruit than aggressive vegetal notes.

Lake’s Folly Chardonnay 2002 – Made by unassuming winemaker Rod Kempe, Lake’s Folly is one of the few producers making Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines in the Hunter Valley. Credited as the first boutique winery in Australia, demand is such that each year’s release is sold out within a few months. The 2002 shows a pronounced toast and vanilla bouquet, wrapped in smoky gauze. The palate displays notes of peach, pineapple and a weighty intensity. At 12 years old it is really starting to hit its stride.

Domaine Paul Pillot Chassagne-Montrachet Vieilles Vignes 2011 – Produced from Pinot Noir vines with an average age of 35 years. Exuberant red cherry and raspberry fruit, underpinned by oak and hints of tobacco and game. Overheard a sommelier describing this wine as a “macho Montrachet”.

Domaine Denis Bachelet Gevrey-Chambertin 2008 – A small producer known for making wines with incredible finesse. The 2008 has a bright crimson robe with an elegant nose of talc, spice and red fruit. Very fresh, with dry powdery tannins and fine acidity. Excellent depth and purity of fruit.

Domaine Hudelot-Noëllat Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru Les Murgers 2009 – From one of the top producers in Burgundy. Medium ruby appearance with a smudgy rim. Intense Pinot character with spice and perfume aromas. Bright, polished fruit on the palate, light-bodied with sweet anise notes. Majestic pedigree.

Le Pauillac de Château Latour 2006 – The third wine of Château Latour, produced since 1973. There is a nice definition to this wine, which ticks off all the boxes for a classic Bordeaux. Blackcurrant, cedar box and well-integrated oak flavours combine to form a wine that offers pleasurable drinking but is just a tad linear.

Domaine Alain Voge, Cornas Les Chailles 2011 – A chewy, meaty wine with savoury tannins and hints of game and leather. Firm, concentrated and well-structured.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Sold on Sake

A short holiday was spent exploring the city of Nagoya, and probably eating too much food than would be considered healthy. My host for the day expressed amazement when just an hour and a half after a multi-course lunch I pronounced my readiness for the next gustatory adventure. Could you blame me though? This was Japan, known for its rich culinary heritage and devotion to perfection, where a single wrongly placed fern in a delicately arranged dish could cause serious consternation.

No one should go to Nagoya without trying its famous Hitsu-mabushi, or grilled eel with rice. Served with a variety of seasonings including seaweed, green onions and wasabi, the simple dish can be eaten in one of three ways; as is, with a mixture of all three seasonings, or with a mixture of all three seasonings and clear fish stock. There are two convenient locations in the city to try this dish which are both in department stores, Atsuta Horai-ken on the 10th floor of Matsuzakaya (South Wing) and Bincho on the 8th floor of LACHIC. The latter has a window through which you can see the chefs preparing the eel.

Japan is also famous for sake, commonly called rice wine. This is a misnomer, as the production of sake bears more similarity to beer than wine. The main ingredient of sake is rice, of which the variety Yamadanishiki is the most popular. The rice has an internal starchy core called shinpaku that must be converted into sugar before the yeast can work on it. Before the fourth century this was achieved through a method known as kuchikami-sake, where rice or other cereals were chewed and then spat into a container. The amylase enzymes present in saliva converted the starch into sugar. Wild yeast present in the environment then fed on the sugar and turned it into alcohol.

Fortunately, modern production methods are more efficient and hygienic. The conversion of starch to sugar is now achieved through koji-kin, a black mold that is sprinkled onto steamed rice to make komekoji. Steamed rice, water and yeast are then added to make shubo, or yeast starter. The next step is the fermentation itself, or danjimoki, a three-step process of mixing the shubo with steamed rice, komekoji and water over four days. The mash is called moromi, which is then pressed, filtered, pasteurised and bottled.

There are two broad categories of sake which are futsu-shu and tokutei meisho-shu. Futsu-shu is ordinary table sake and accounts for the majority of sake in the market while tokutei meisho-shu refers to premium sake with special designations determined by the National Tax Agency. The specifications for tokutei meisho are shown below (with thanks to the National Research Institute of Brewing).

Seimai-buai refers to the degree of polishing the rice has received. For example, a seimai-buai of 40% has had 60% of the husk polished away. The outer husk contains proteins and oils that are not desirable to the production of delicate sake thus the more polished the rice, the more refined the taste. Beyond a certain amount (around 35%) however the taste of the sake does not improve and the cost rises significantly. The picture below shows the various degrees of polishing.

(photo credit: Hakushika Sake)

The Japanese take their sake seriously, so much so that each season brings about a different type of sake. In autumn hiyaoroshi is drunk, a sake that has been pasteurised once and aged from the preceding winter. From winter to early spring shiboritate, or fresh sake, is consumed. This is sake that has just been pressed and bottled, often without pasteurisation. In hot summers, a chilled glass of namazake (unpasteurised sake) is most welcome. There are also unfiltered (nigorisake) and sparkling sakes available. The former has a milky texture while the latter tends to be sweet and low in alcohol, though not always.

Being light, smooth and delicate, sake is an ideal companion for many Japanese dishes. Its flavour dissipates rapidly (unlike wine, a long finish is not a positive trait in fine sake), making it a great drink to reset the palate between courses. In combination with fish dishes in particular, sake has the effect of mellowing the fishy taste to create a more balanced flavour.