Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Argentinian Wine to the Fore

It seems that the further away you go from home, the more exotic the destination becomes. Argentina, located right on the other side of the globe from Singapore, qualifies as one of the lesser visited places, but thanks to gauchos, tango and chimichurri, we know that the country has a rich and unique cultural heritage. During the recent World Cup, Argentina gained further recognition as football fans cheered each goal scored by its star export Lionel Messi. Perhaps Messi himself celebrated his victories with a glass of Leo, a wine born from a joint venture between the Leo Messi Foundation and Bodega Valentin Bianchi.

Celebrity promotion aside, much of the groundwork for the promotion of Argentinian wine in Singapore has been laid by Wines of Argentina (WofA), the umbrella organisation that represents over 200 wineries. For the second year in a row, WofA has held a tasting in Singapore with the aim of showcasing the best the country has to offer. This year saw 22 wineries take part in what was billed as “the largest selection of Argentine wines ever gathered in Singapore”.

While the image of other wine producing countries may be built around affordability (such as Australia), or diversity (such as South Africa), the trump cards for Argentinian wine are its star grape varieties of Malbec and Torrontés. The former, a red grape variety hailing from France, is the most widely planted grape in Argentina. It produces wines that are deeply coloured, with a plush texture and soft, rounded tannins. Alcohol levels tend to be on the higher end of the scale, but this is balanced with a juicy freshness that makes the wines immediately appealing upon release. The vineyards in Argentina tend to be planted at extremely high altitudes that help to maintain the natural acidity of the grapes.

Wines made from Torrontés, a white crossing of Muscat of Alexandria and Criolla Chica, fall into two camps. Some producers, like Alta Vista, chose to make a completely dry style, with aromatic and floral notes reminiscent of Gewurtztraminer. I also tasted a Torrontés from Casa Bianchi that had some residual sugar to it, making it more like an off-dry Moscato. “It is a style that goes well with the grape and is easy to sell,” commented the winery’s representative. Knowing which style you’re getting when you buy a bottle of Torrontés can be tricky as the label often doesn’t provide an indication.

At a mere market share of 0.7%, there is clearly much room for Argentinian wines to grow. If you’re looking to try something different, then these are just the wines for you, chock-full of character and with an interesting story to boot. Several of the producers I spoke to were seeking representation, and I can’t help but feel that we are on the verge of an Argentinian wine revolution here in Singapore. Maria Innocenti of Angulo Innocenti Wines commented “We think that even though Singapore is a small market, it is very good for branding.”

Monday, 28 July 2014

Luxury Redefined

You’re going to hear a lot more of the word plénitude. Meaning “the quality or state of being full”, it is now the name of Dom Pérignon’s late-release wine, previously known as Oenothèque. While Dom Pérignon has always been the result of a single vintage, the plénitude editions are staggered releases of the same vintage which have been aged longer by the company in its chalk cellars in Epernay. According to the house, each plénitude represents a window of opportunity where the wine sings higher and stronger, as determined by Chef de Cave Richard Geoffroy. The first plénitude is reached after at least seven years of maturation on its lees (the spent yeast cells that are responsible for the biscuity notes of mature champagne). This is embodied in the Dom Pérignon Vintage champagne, a perfect plénitude of harmony.

The Second Plénitude of Dom Pérignon Vintage 1998 was recently revealed in Singapore, representing 16 years of aging. Here the wine reveals a burst of energy, with more focused aromas and a penetrating intensity. The packaging has also been refreshed with a brushed aluminium box and a deep matte label that oozes chic sophistication. Prepare to pay slightly more than double the price of the Dom Pérignon Vintage 2004 to obtain this exceptional wine.

With the new plénitude programme, it is likely that the house will reserve more of its stocks to be released later, resulting in less of the Vintage, or P1, champagnes. The first P3s, from the 1970 and 1982 vintages are expected to be released later this year and represent more than 20 years of maturation on the lees.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Real House Wines of FIFA World Cup 2014

Bleary-eyed football fans across Singapore are slowly coming back to reality. Tears of joy have been shed, hopes have been dashed, and the National Council for Problem Gambling found out that betting on an ad campaign can be risky business (that’s the real lesson here, folks). New viewership records were set in several countries, a fact that should please sponsors such as Taittinger and Budweiser.

It got me to thinking, what wines best capture the footballers’ defining moments? And so, like those many “What X are You?” quizzes that have been popping up on Facebook, Éclaircissage presents The Real House Wines of FIFA World Cup 2014.

1. Luis Suárez & Chateau Diana Zombie Zin

The World Cup uncovered many talents, but Suárez's talent for post-apocalyptic survival was one of the highlights. This is a guy who knows what he wants and goes for it with teeth bared. This guy is out for blood, and if that's not readily available, then a glass of Zombie Zin will do in a pinch. According to the producer, the flavours of this wine are complex and rich, sporting succulent blackberries, powdered cinnamon, cola and cherry jam. Pairs well with Italian footballers. His transfer to FC Barcelona should help give that team some bite, although critics may find his €94 million fee a bit hard to swallow.

2. Mario Götze & Strut Well-Heeled White

Mario Götze must be feeling on top of the world after scoring the goal that won Germany the World Cup, but even non-football fans would have noticed the stunning blonde locking lips with him immediately after the win. Lingerie model Ann-Kathrin Brömmel bears more than a passing resemblance to Canadian winemaker Strut's Well-Heeled White, made from Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Schönberger. They're both fresh, stylish, and have stunning legs.

3. Luiz Felipe Scolari and Giant Mistake 

After the drubbing Brazil received at the hands of Germany, where they lost 1-7 on home soil, it was clear that someone had to take the blame. Scolari and his coaching team were the fall guys, even though he leaves with a record of 19 wins, six draws and four defeats. Lets hope that he will be remembered for more than his Giant Mistake.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Angulo Innocenti – Vineyards in the Sky

After tasting through a dozen wines at a recent Wines of Argentina event, I wondered why it had taken me so long to discover the delights of this wine region. Bursting with sumptuous fruit and refreshing acidity, there was a lot to like about these wines. Singapore benefits from a wide selection of wines from countries that can be seen as comfort zones – Bordeaux, Burgundy and Australian; this tasting was a reminder not to ignore wines from other countries lest we miss out on some truly delicious alternatives.

A producer that stood out at the tasting was Angulo Innocenti wines. At the start, the table was pretty much deserted, as this is a small winery and does not yet have distribution in Singapore. The crowd around the table grew rapidly larger as word of mouth spread. Representing the winery was Maria Luz Innocenti, a fourth generation member of the Angulo Innocenti family. The trip to Singapore was one of her longest flights, a 36 hour journey that required multiple transfers between cities. 

Angulo Innocenti is a joint venture between Mariano Innocenti and his uncle Alejandro Angulo. Both families have winemaking roots, the Angulos hailing from the Basque country and the Innocentis from Tuscany. The winery is located in the Uco Valley south of the city of Mendoza, known for producing some of Argentina’s best Malbecs. The vineyards are planted at high altitudes of 1,200 m with the majestic Andes a constant presence in the background. These vineyards in the sky benefit from strong sunlight during the day and cool temperatures at night, a combination that yields richly concentrated fruit and a crisp acidity to the wines. 

This is a very new project – the first wines were bottled as recently as 2010, but they show lots of exuberance and brilliant structure. According to Maria, the fruit is picked and fermented in several batches. The first picking aims to select fruit for its aromatic qualities, while the second and third pickings aim to add structure to the blend. A check on www.wine-searcher.com shows that the wines are distributed only in the United States currently, but if there is any update on local distribution I will mention it here. 

Tasting notes:

Angulo Innocenti Nonni 2013 – A blend of 60% Malbec and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, un-oaked. Deep purple in appearance, with youthful primary fruit aromas. The palate shows a soft and supple texture, with generous fruit and soft, rounded tannins. 

Angulo Innocenti Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – Fermented in a combination of stainless steel tanks and concrete vats using indigenous yeasts. Oak aged for 7 months. Deep ruby with sweet black fruit, lively acidity and high but balanced alcohol. Soft, rounded edges and ready to drink. 

Angulo Innocenti Malbec 2012 – Same winemaking as the Cabernet Sauvignon, but here the wine shows more aromatic notes of violets and rosemary. Very fresh with a generous dollop of cassis fruit and a full body.

Angulo Innocenti Unisono 2011 – A big wine at 15.8% alcohol, but it carries its weight well. The addition of 7% Syrah contributes some spicy notes to the blend, which is mostly made up of Malbec (67%) and Cabernet Franc (26%). Blackberry jam, pepper and a hint of dark chocolate on the palate. Long, warm finish.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

What’s Old is New Again – The Wines of Van Volxem

The most memorable moment of Roman Niewodniczanski’s talk came when he flashed a picture of a room of people at a wine auction in Germany. The photo was taken just before World War II and depicted a group of middle-aged Jewish men, a gathering of the movers and shakers in the wine trade. This was possibly the last photo of many of them, as a few months later the Nazis would roll in with their tanks.

What does this have to do with German wine? According to Roman, owner of the Van Volxem winery, the backbone of the German wine trade lay with the Jewish community. Their demise led to the decline of German wine, and in an effort to make their wines more appealing to the masses, producers started to increase the sugar content in their wines, which until then were bone dry. Although sweet German wines can be absolutely thrilling, there are far too many cheap, sugary examples that still flood the supermarkets.

Roman has a vast resource of historical material to draw upon. His father was Tomasz Niewodniczanski, a collector of rare maps and manuscripts. This archive would be invaluable when a young Roman decided to pursue the path of a winemaker. Poring through old viticultural maps, he discerned the top vineyards from pre-war days and made it his goal to obtain them. It helped that his family had considerable wealth – his family has a stake in the German brewery Bitburger, but Roman says that timing was also important. Over a decade ago when he bought the Van Volxem winery, land was still relatively affordable. A deal that would be impossible to replicate today.

Van Volxem is located in the Saar Valley, in the village of Wiltingen. The vineyards, bearing distinguished names such as Braunfels, Klosterberg and Scharzhofberger, are planted with Riesling and a tiny proportion of Pinot Blanc. On a previous visit to Germany, I marvelled at the steepness of the vineyards, which require great dexterity and footballer calves to navigate. Roman says that “when you climb the vineyards, you can eat a lot, drink a lot, and stay in good shape”. The average age of the vines is approximately 40-years old, with the top growth Wiltinger Gottesfuss possessing a rare cache of 130-year old ungrafted vines.

These are some stunning wines; much like the owner they are sharp, precise and energetic. In winemaking, it’s what you don’t do that takes hard work. No fining, filtration, or herbicides, using spontaneous fermentation instead of cultured yeast, lower yields, and hand harvesting instead of using machines. Wine critics have lavished praise on the wines, but Roman himself has doubts about the wine rating system, commenting that they simplify the wines too much and place undue pressure on the producer. His own articulation of how great Riesling should be takes cues from Burgundy (of which Roman is a great fan and collector), and the dry style of wines that existed in pre-war Germany. In trying to raise the reputation of Saar wines back to where they were a hundred years ago, it seems that history has found a champion.

Tasting notes:

Van Volxem Saar Riesling 2011 – Light and crystalline with riveting freshness and notes of white pepper, lime and rain-kissed leaves. A long finish – I was surprised to detect a hint of macadamia nut, perhaps due to lees contact?

Van Volxem Alte Reben Riesling 2012 – From old vines of 50 to 100 years age. Slight spritz. Smoke with pineapple, nectarine and white peach aromas. Lots of extract on the palate, marvellous complexity with each sip revealing new flavours.

Van Volxem Scharzhofberger Riesling 2009 – Lemon, honey and straw on the nose, almost like a great Burgundy before the Riesling character reasserts itself. Medium weight, a lot more texture than other Mosel Rieslings. Delicious nonetheless.

Wein & Vin is the Singapore distributor for Van Volxem. For a complete list of available Van Volxem wines and prices, email sales@weinvin.com.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Urban winemaking with Vinteloper Wines

If you ever find yourself in Adelaide during the month of March, a visit to David Bowley’s Vinteloper Urban Winery Project (VUWP) is well-worth a visit. First launched in 2012, the project is David’s attempt to introduce winemaking to urban folk and demystify the process. A fully functional micro-winery is set up in the Central Business District for the month, with grapes being trucked in from nearby wine regions such as McLaren Vale and Clare Valley. “I didn’t have a traditional cellar door so it was really difficult to connect with people and to get them to understand the wine,” says David. “So I thought, instead of getting people to come to the vineyard, why not do something that people would never consider and go to them?”

This year, my visit coincided with the tail end of the project, held at the historic and vibrant Adelaide Central Market. By that time the wine had been transported to another location for aging in wooden barrels, but the stall where the project had been set up still bore signs of recent use, such as a diagram on the wall tracking alcohol levels in the fermenting must. A new addition to the VUWP is the Reverse BYO (Bring Your Own) concept. It is common for restaurants in Australia to have a BYO sign outside, indicating that you can bring your own wine in. At the VUWP, the wine is provided and you bring your own food from the nearby market stalls. A creative little twist!

I previously met David in Singapore at one of the gatherings organised by the #SGWine group. Most visiting winemakers elect to dine at air-conditioned restaurants, so it was somewhat surprising to learn that David had spent his day trying local delicacies from various hawker centres in the sweltering heat. As the owner of Vinteloper, David is in charge of everything from winemaking to logistics to marketing, so meeting challenges and thinking creatively is very much in his DNA. His novel approach to winemaking was a decision brought about as a result of circumstances as much as the desire to try something new – lacking the time to manage both a vineyard and a winery full-time, David opted to buy in fruit and lease winemaking equipment only when he needed to. However there are other considerations associated with setting up a winery in an urban environment. Transportation and handling are the key challenges – ensuring that the grapes reach the winery in optimal condition, which may mean picking early or refrigerating the grapes. Then there are the issues of waste management and hours of operation, which are subject to strict city council laws, as well as picking the right location. Venues with higher foot traffic bring better visibility and sales for urban wineries, but also higher rent. Due to space constraints, the urban winery model is not suitable for wines produced in bulk.

When David explained his minimal set-up and basic, almost primitive winemaking methods, I was at first sceptical. Would an urban winery be able to produce wine able to excite the taste buds of demanding drinkers? My fears were soon laid to rest by a comprehensive tasting of David’s wines – two Clare Valley Rieslings made in diametrically different styles, a McLaren Vale Shiraz and a red blend of Touriga Nacional, Pinot Noir and Shiraz. The quality of the fruit is still the most important consideration, and David spends a lot of time with the growers to ensure that he is getting the best raw material he can. “We can have a great amount of influence [in the winery] but to put it in the simplest way, you can’t polish a turd,” says David.

Will we see more urban wineries in the future, perhaps even one in Singapore? Hong Kong and London, thriving hubs of commerce with active local wine scenes, have both seen urban wineries open in the city. David mentions the satisfaction he gets from seeing people come back every day to see how the wine evolves during the process, and the increased engagement with Adelaide’s community as a result of the VUWP. Says David, “The mantra is participation, education and appreciation.”

Saturday, 17 May 2014

A Retrospective Look at Bordeaux 2011


The 2011 vintage in Bordeaux is not destined to go down in the history books as a particularly memorable one. Following the extraordinary 2009 and 2010 harvests, nature proved to be fickle and delivered a year that will be remembered for its topsy-turvy weather. The spring months of April and May were abnormally warm, while the end of summer was marked by wet weather and hail in some areas. Producers were given a difficult choice – harvest early, risking grapes that had not achieved phenolic ripeness, or wait and hope that the wet weather did not spread rot through the vineyards. The phrases uneven, early maturing, light and difficult have all been used to describe the 2011 vintage.

A tasting organised by Crystal Wines provided a chance to sample the wines in bottle and see how they fared three years on. There was a lack of white wines to taste, which was unfortunate as the whites were rated much higher than the reds that year. Consistency was a key issue, as the variation between good and simply acceptable was much wider than what would have been the case in a better vintage. This is perhaps unsurprising and reflects how producers who have either had the financial resources, made better winemaking decisions or were located in favoured terroirs have crafted wines with greater appeal. While mostly lacking power and concentration, this is not entirely bad, as the wines are a return to a more food friendly and easy drinking style. The lack of hype also means that the 2011 vintage is priced more affordably.

My top picks from this tasting are Durfort-Vivens, Domaine de Chevalier, Clerc Milon and Haut-Bages Libéral for early to medium-term drinking, and Brane-Cantenac, Lafon-Rochet and Calon Segur for long-term pleasure. The only two sweet wines on show were superb, although quite different in style.


Tasting notes:

Château Brane-Cantenac 2011 – A classically Bordeaux and structured style with savoury fruit and crunchy blackcurrant. Very poised. Brigette Lurton, the château’s representative, attributes the quality of the wine to the use of a high-tech optical sorting machine which made it possible to discard dried berries. The 2011 vintage was the first time that the Carmenere grape was included in the grand vin, at a miniscule 0.5% of the blend.

Château Malartic-Lagravière 2011 – The château is one of only six classified growths for both its red and white wines. The 2011 displayed a vibrant ruby robe, with an approachable palate that was soft and ripe with medium tannins.

Domaine de Chevalier 2011 – This is an outstanding producer that seems to be able to produce consistently good wines in any year. The 2011 is a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot. A forward and aromatic nose with subtle oak nuances and a hint of bell pepper, but very rich fruit.

Château Dassault 2011 – A blend of 80% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Franc and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. Graphite and cedar on the nose, an intense wine with massive structure and dense, tight tannins.

Château Corbin 2011 – A Grand Cru Classé from St. Emilion. Rather angular and lacking in fruit.

Château Ferrière 2011 – A third growth from the Margaux appellation, Château Ferrière vanished from 1952 to 1992 when it was sold as the second wine of Château Lascombes. The Villars family then bought over the property and sold it under the original name. The 2011 effort was rather closed, not showing the aromatic richness one would expected of Margaux. The palate showed savoury fruit with decent length but without much complexity.

Château Durfort-Vivens 2011 – A second growth from Margaux, owned by Gonzague Lurton. Fragrant and pleasantly floral on the palate, with ripe fruit and notes of small red berries on the palate. Medium-weight and charming, for short-term cellaring.

Château Giscours 2011 – One of the largest Margaux properties with 90 hectares under vine. This wine was not very expressive on the nose, with a slightly disjointed palate and oak that did not seem very well integrated.

Château du Tertre 2011 – The property was bought over by the owner of Château Giscours, Eric Albada Jelgersma, in 1997. Pronounced, seductive aromas of black fruit, cinnamon spice and licorice. Well balanced on the palate with a lasting finish.

Château Calon Segur 2011 – A popular Valentine’s Day wine because of the distinctive heart on the label. The story goes that in the 18th century the Marquis de Ségur, who also owned several other first growths, once said “I make wine at Lafite and Latour but my heart is in Calon”. Perhaps a bit austere but classic in style with earthy notes and savoury black fruit. Very fresh, with fine tannins. Could benefit from further aging – love takes time, yes?

Château Lafon-Rochet 2011 – The wines of Lafon-Rochet have a reputation for being tannic and hard, although the proportion of Merlot in the blend has been increasing in recent years. The 2011 is made of 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot. It shows quite a powerful nose for the vintage. Lots of structure here, along with sticky tannins, but balanced with a solid core of dark fruit.

Château Clerc Milon 2011 – The château is part of the Rothschild stable, and the label which depicts a pair of dancers is based on one of the pieces at the Mouton Rothschild art museum. Well delineated and intense on the nose, showing ripe black fruit, incense and a hint of violets. Freshness evident on the palate, with good fruit concentration and weight. Showing well.

Château d’Armailhac 2011 – The sister property to Clerc Milon has many similarities – both are fifth growths based in Pauillac, owned by the Rothschild family, and the artwork for the label of d’Armailhac also comes from the same source as Clerc Milon. The wine showed a keen resemblance in style to Clerc Milon, forward with inky black fruit and a savoury undertone, but the finish was a bit dry and short.

Château Haut-Bages Libéral 2011 – The name of the château refers to its location on the Bages plateau in Pauillac and its original owners, the Libéral family. Run by Claire Villars Lurton, who also owns Château Ferrière. The wine is on the lighter side, with black cherry and raspberry notes. Not especially dense, the palate is cheerful and approachable with refined tannins and a long finish.

Château Beychevelle 2011 – Aromatic, spicy, elegant and refined, with slight warmth on the palate. Beychevelle has become quite popular in China due to its label, which resembles a Chinese dragon boat.

Château Lagrange 2011 – Acquired by the Suntory group in 2011, which invested the necessary funds to renovate the property and raise the wines to a level befitting its status as a classed growth. This wine was not particularly expressive however. The nose was introverted with faint nuances of incense and oak. Medium tannins with blueberry notes, although with fresh acidity.

Château Cantamerle 2011 – A blend of 47% Cabernet Sauvignon, 43% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot. Rather lacking in concentration, acidity and tannins are there but not enough fruit to balance it out.

Château Guiraud 2011 – The 2011 vintage was a milestone for Guiraud, as it was the first time the château could label their wines as organically farmed. Since 2000 the direction for the wine has been towards a fresher and lighter style while avoiding botrytis notes. This was a stunning example, humming with vibrancy and piquant notes of pineapple and starfruit. Zesty freshness, with a brilliant concentration that sings right to the end.

Château Coutet 2011 – A blend of 75% Semillon, 23% Sauvignon Blanc and 2% Muscadelle. Aged in new oak barrels for 18 months. The nose was a bit dull, although I will put that down to the wine being too chilled, as the palate was definitely rich and expressive, oily and layered with pineapple, white forest cake, and honey. Sumptuously textured, but with sufficient acidity to prevent fatigue.