Friday 30 December 2011

The Year that Was

It's been a watershed year for wine in many ways. On this final day of 2011, I'll run through some of the major events that have happened in the wine world over the past 52 weeks.

Another vintage of the century for Bordeaux

After convincing everyone that 2009 was THE vintage to buy, Bordeaux winemakers had an uphill task when 2010 turned out to be just as good, if not better. Wine critics and journalists went to great lengths to explain the difference between the two vintages, citing higher acidity levels in 2010 and greater potential for longevity. It was the most drawn-out en primeur campaigns in recent years, and the longer it dragged on the more bad press it received and the less interest there was. In the end though, wine merchants hailed it as a success (Farr Vintners said it was their second biggest en primeur campaign ever next to 2009) but it left consumers with a bad taste in the mouth and growing skepticism toward the en primeur process. More damagingly, it cemented the perception in many people's minds that Bordeaux is a wine you buy for investment, not for drinking.

The Rise and Rise of Asia

Since Hong Kong abolished taxes on wine it has become the world's largest market for fine wine auctions. According to The Financial Times, the top four auction houses (Sotheby's, Acker Merrall & Condit, Zachys and Christie’s) derive 60-71% of their revenue from the city. As yet untouched by the economic plague ravaging Europe and the rest of the developed world, Asia is enjoying its fame like a newly discovered Hollywood star. For the moment, China has its eyes fixed on Bordeaux and Burgundy, buying not only wine but vineyards as well. French newspaper Sud-Ouest estimates that around 15 Bordeaux wineries are now owned by the Chinese, with the most recent purchase by Chinese actress Zhao Wei who acquired Château Monlot in St-Emillon. Perhaps the Chinese have found a way to circumvent the en primeur process? Why go through middlemen when you can control the source?

Wine as Nature intended?

If there was one event that ignited the current buzz around natural wines, it would have been the Natural Wine Fair held in London's Borough Market in May this year. Although there are no strict guidelines, natural wines are made with as little human intervention as possible. That means no insecticides, fertilisers, weedkillers, and as little sulphur as possible. This makes them more prone to bacterial spoilage, and less stable than normal wines. I've talked with some winemakers that argue that with proper sanitation and care in the winery, these are issues that can be overcome. The (admittedly few) natural wines I have tasted were rustic and wild, a far cry from the clean, polished notes of regular wine. Somewhat like an opera singer with a sore throat. With further experimentation and refinement, this philosophy may catch fire, and 2011 will be remembered as the year the spark was first lit.

Happy New Year to you all, and wishing you many exciting wine discoveries in 2012!

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Wine Dinner with Rippon Vineyard and Pyramid Valley Vineyards

From left to right: Curtis Marsh, Mike Weersing and Nick Mills
I’ve talked briefly about the benefits of biodynamic winemaking before, and was thus delighted when Curtis Marsh from The Wandering Palate organised a dinner with two of New Zealand’s best-known and eloquent biodynamic winemakers, Nick Mills (Rippon Vineyard) and Mike Weersing (Pyramid Valley Vineyards). Among those present were some of Singapore’s most fanatical wine lovers, including Lisa Perotti-Brown MW (Wine Critic, Wine Advocate), Henry Hariyono (General Manager, Artisan Cellars), Mohamad Fazil (Operations Manager, Vintry), Ryan Gan (Sommelier, Resorts World) and Zachary Tay (Chef Sommelier, Les Amis).

Coincidentally, earlier this month there was a debate on the merits of biodynamics, with renowned viticulturist Richard Smart calling it “emotional black magic” while proponent Monty Waldin praised the model for being “uniquely self-sustaining”. The arguments for and against biodynamics are particular vocal because of its unusual sounding practices (such as the role of cosmic energy and lunar gravity in viticulture) and also because the father of biodynamics, Rudolf Steiner, was a bit of a quack who also believed that the human race is descended from Atlanteans.

Biodynamics is often confused with organic production, and for good reason. Both methods stress the importance of conservation and eschew the use of synthetic chemical fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides. A key difference is the use of special “preparations” in biodynamics, made from cow manure or various plants such as nettle, camomile and yarrow. The regulations for biodynamics are not set in stone and there is a fair bit of diversity in how winemakers apply their preparations in the vineyard. In the Rippon vineyards for example, seaweed is used as compost to supplement nutrients to the schist-based soils.

Nick and Mike stress that the reason they practice biodynamics stems from a respect for the earth and the life within. Says Nick, “If consumers buy the wine [because of the biodynamic label], then it’s a happy bonus, but the whole idea is that it enhances my land in a way that my family and I can look after it. So to have a badge on the back of the label, I don’t need that.” It’s an illuminating statement because most people in the wine trade have focused on what biodynamics can do for the wines rather than for the vineyard. Biodynamic wines are promoted as having more expression of origin (due to less intervention at the winery) and being healthier for consumption (as less agrochemicals are used). “It’s a new world now,” says Mike. “When we began, being biodynamic wasn’t a marketing advantage; it was a qualitative advantage you could say. It’s really changed, and the way that it’s changed is that it has more credibility now.”

About Rippon Vineyard
Located in Wanaka, Central Otago, the first vines were planted in 1974 by Lois and Rolfe Mills. The total area under vines is 15 ha with the majority planted with Pinot Noir and Riesling. As a pioneer winery of the region, Rippon has had a deep influence on other winemakers, particularly in its contribution to the understanding of Pinot Noir. It is also famous for its spectacular views of the Southern Alps. The wines are distributed in Singapore by Wine Exquisites.

About Pyramid Valley Vineyards
Pyramid Valley is located in Waikari, North Canterbury, roughly 85 km north of Christchurch. Winemakers Mike and Claudia Weersing purchased the property in 2000. It’s divided into four vineyards, named after the predominant weed species in each block. The wines are distributed in Singapore by Artisan Cellars.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Wine Education in Singapore

"It’s like the desert winds flowing through Egyptian ruins on a mid-summer’s night with a beautiful princess waiting open armed for me. My mind fills with poetry tasting the wine from barrel." With tasting notes such as these (and from a reputable critic, no less), it's no wonder that the wine drinking fraternity has attracted an unsavoury reputation for high-handedness and arrogance. There's even a term for it, "wine snob", a person who believes that his or her knowledge is superior to everyone else's because they drink far more expensive wine.

Counterintuitively, the more a person knows, the more modest the person becomes. Not because education improves character, but realising the scope of a subject is often a humbling experience. This is particularly so in the incredibly diverse field of wine studies. A knowledge of chemistry, plant biology, geology, microbiology, engineering, and sensory assessment is necessary in wine production, while economics, marketing and public policy studies assist in the understanding of wine as a consumer product. And of course, no study of wine would be complete without thorough coverage of its history and geography.


Interest in wine education in Asia has seen a manifold increase, perhaps unsurprisingly seeing how seriously education is regarded in this region. The Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) saw a 200% jump in its Hong Kong and China business over the past year, with enrolment numbers matching those in the UK. Closer to home, the top three examination bodies are the WSET, the Society of Wine Educators and the Court of Master Sommeliers. The WSET courses provide a solid introduction to wine, and become progressively more complex at the higher levels where a deep understanding of the wine trade is required, as well as a keen tasting aptitude. The Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) course offered by the Society of Wine Educators provides a global coverage of wine styles with additional focus on US winemaking regions. Lastly the Certified Sommelier course from the Court of Master Sommeliers focuses on the sales and service of wine.

I recently visited Verre Wine Bar, a new hangout at Robertson Quay specialising in Bordeaux and Burgundy wines. The owner, Melvin Tan, is an opera singer as well as a wine lover (if you're lucky, you'll be able to catch him singing at the restaurant on weekends). When I was there for dinner on a slow weekday night, one of his staff was poring over a stack of wine books in preparation for a wine exam the next day. It's a situation mirrored in many restaurants in Singapore as managers realise the need for the specialised skills of a sommelier.

There are numerous local wine appreciation classes as well as some courses developed by WSQ. I have not included them here as they are not internationally recognised. I hear rumours that WSET may be opening up an office in Asia within the next two years, and of the Diploma course being offered locally, but at this point nothing is confirmed. It would be difficult to find people with the requisite academic credentials to tutor the Diploma classes. In the meantime, the following two institutes are your best bet if you are interested in taking up a wine course.  

Shatec Institutes
Offers WSET Intermediate and Advanced courses

Winecraft Marketing & Services
Offers the Certified Specialist of Wine course

Friday 2 December 2011

Party Wines

Scientists at CERN, the world’s largest physics lab, have clocked particles apparently travelling faster than the speed of light. If verified, this discovery would fundamentally change our knowledge of the way the universe works, even opening up the possibility of time travel.

I could have told them that time travel already exists. How else to explain why it is already near the end of the year, when it seems just yesterday that the wine world was abuzz discussing the launch of the en primeur campaign in Bordeaux? Somewhere in between the months of July and October, I must have inadvertently travelled into the future, and am now staring at a plethora of things to do before 2012 kicks his older brother into the dustbin of history.

One of those things on my list is to attend as many end-of-the-year parties as possible. I don’t mean those raucous, thump-thumping mass events where you drink too much cheap alcohol and wake up with a splitting headache, but rather smaller gatherings with friends and family. Granted, they still tend to be noisy, and I will once again wake up with a splitting headache, but there will be at least a guarantee of some really good drinks and heart-warming home cooked food.

Occasionally, people ask me what wines would be good to serve at a party. There are certain guidelines that will ensure that the wines go down well with the majority of the guests. Unless the crowd is open to experimentation, I would steer away from heavily perfumed varietals such as Gewurtztraminer or those that have niche appeal (such as Riesling). Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are popular choices for whites, while Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz are readily recognisable names for reds.

Young, fruity wines stand up better to a mix of dishes, and it is important to have an assortment of wines as some people will only drink red wines while others will only drink white. I am always delighted when the organiser has the foresight to use wine charms to identify the glasses, as it is only too easy to lose track of your glass when mingling around.

A sparkling wine is the best way to welcome your guests and whet their appetites. Try the Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut ($34.80, Carrefour), a bubbly from Penedès that is made using the traditional méthode champenoise. It comes in a classy and distinctively packaged black bottle. The nose expresses apple and pear notes, while the palate is fresh and rounded with a fine, creamy mousse. Alternatively, you could try the Two Hands Brilliant Disguise Barossa Valley Moscato 2010 ($36.00, The Straits Wine Company) which is off dry and has a slight spritz. The nose is reminiscent of fresh green grapes with floral accents. Sweetness on the palate is balanced by lively acidity, with notes of Granny Smith apples and Turkish Delight. At a mere 8% alcohol, your guests won’t find themselves tipsy before the food arrives.

During the party, the TerraVin Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($35.00, Goddess Wines) from Marlborough works wonders with oily appetisers such as crispy spring rolls and deep fried prawn balls. Gooseberry and citrus notes dominate, with some mid palate weight due to a portion of the wine being aged in seasoned French oak. Displays zesty acidity and upfront fruit character. Red wine lovers can enjoy the St Hallett Gamekeeper’s Shiraz Grenache 2008 ($37.50, Culina), a big, bold wine from the Barossa region. The Shiraz contributes spicy aromas and body, while the Grenache gives savoury red berry fruit. There is a teasing, floral hint on the nose due to a small proportion of Touriga Nacional in the blend. A concentrated wine, with ripe tannins that can pair well with beef hor fun, chorizo or barbequed meats.

After the party is over, leaving you with a stack of dirty dishes and empty bottles, reward those who have stayed back to clean up with a bottle of Smith Woodhouse 10 Year Old Tawny Port ($78.00, Booze Wine Shop). Made from traditional Port varietals, this sweet, full-bodied fortified wine has notes of caramel, nuts and dried fruits that linger on the finish. An ideal wine for reminiscing with friends about the events of the past year.

The above article was first published in Appetite magazine in November 2011. 

Saturday 26 November 2011

Canada, More than Just Icewine

“Well integrated oak and expressive fruit”, commented my dining companion. “I could have mistaken this for a Burgundy.” In fact, it was a Canadian table wine brought in by Randy Dufour for a dinner featuring Inniskillin wines. Randy is the Export Director of Vincor, the parent company that owns Inniskillin, and the dinner was held at Santi on the 10th of November. The event offered two rare tasting opportunities; icewines made from different grape varietals, and table wines from Canada.
Inniskillin is undoubtedly the winery that put “icewine” on everyone’s lips, both figuratively and literally. The grapes are picked in the cold winter months of December and January when the temperature drops to -8˚C and freezes the fruit. Leaving the grapes so long on the vine increases the risk of them being eaten by birds, infected by disease, or pelted by sudden hailstorms. When the winemaker decides that the weather is optimal for picking (generally around 2 or 3 am in the morning), the workers will receive a call and rush to don their waterproof gloves, rubber boots and every bit of clothing they have. Leaving the comfort of their warm beds for the chill and dampness of the vineyards is “not a lot of fun”, says Randy.
Speed is essential when making ice wine. The grapes must be pressed before they start to thaw. Pressing frozen grapes is akin to squeezing marbles, and the concentrated nectar that oozes out is very high in acidity and grape sugars. Randy notes that “Even though our icewines typically have twice the residual sugar of some of the great Sauternes, it has more than twice the acidity. It is that freshness and that vibrancy that makes icewine unique.” There is also no trace of botrytis (the beneficial fungus that concentrates sugars in the grape) in the production of icewine. Purity of fruit flavour is the essence of icewine.
Inniskillin makes single varietal icewine from three types of grapes. The thick skinned Vidal, practically unknown outside of Canada, is prized here for its winter hardiness and late ripening. Icewines made from this grape have ripe stone/tropical fruit characters (think yellow peaches, mango and apricots), high acidity and a full body. Riesling, a more familiar varietal, has a rich tradition of making sweet wines, especially in its native Germany. Riesling icewines are intensely floral, with notes of citrus fruit and lychee. Both Riesling and Vidal are white grapes, but Cabernet Franc, the final varietal, is a black grape and thus the flavour profile leans towards red berries and candy floss. It has a tangy sweetness unlike the full bodied, honeyed sweetness of the other two icewines.
Having a dinner with only dessert wines could quickly lead to a sugar coma, but fortunately the icewines were interspersed with some fine examples of dry Canadian table wines. Particularly enjoyable was the ‘Le Grand Clos’ Chardonnay 2008 from Le Clos Jordanne, another winery under the Vincor portfolio. Showing judicious use of oak, the cashew and vanilla undertones lifted and enhanced the fruit flavours of the wine. We also tasted a Pinot Noir from the same winery, and while it displayed varietal characteristics of raspberry and cherry, the alcohol was a bit too pronounced. Still, a laudable effort for a varietal that is notoriously difficult to handle. The table wines were specially brought in for this dinner as they are not distributed in Singapore.
Many thanks to Culina Pte Ltd for arranging the dinner at Santi.

Saturday 15 October 2011

German Wine Trip: Ahr and Jean Stodden

In 2009, wine writer Ch’ng Poh Tiong held a talk titled “Pinot Noir Wine Styles: The Traditional and the Generation NEXT” in conjunction with Wine for Asia. The forum showcased Pinot Noir from Old and New World, including examples from Burgundy, New Zealand and Italy among others. The wine that captured my attention was a Pinot Noir from Ahr, Germany. From the first sip, I marvelled at how delicate, perfumed and elegant the wine was.
Fast forward two years later, and I find myself outside Jean Stodden, producer of the wine I tasted at the forum that inspired me to seek out this little known part of Germany. Winemaker Alexander Stodden has become much busier since we last met, juggling between the demands of being a father and travelling to promote his wines. It’s a hectic schedule, but he is unperturbed as he shows us around the winery facilities. 
The vineyards of Jean Stodden cover around 6½ hectares planted mostly with Pinot Noir with some Riesling and Frühburgunder (an earlier ripening mutation of Pinot Noir). Alexandar is careful to select only clean and healthy fruit, employing up to six people to sort the grapes manually. He leaves the juice in contact with the skins for up to 24 days, so any rotten fruit would contaminate the whole batch and result in off-flavours. The must is micro-oxygenated during fermentation. This is a technique that involves running tiny bubbles of oxygen through the tank to encourage yeast activity and soften tannins. “I love working with air”, declares Alexander. “Wine needs oxygen for development”. The top line of wines are neither fined nor filtered. Alexander believes in letting the wines evolve naturally, stating that “everytime you work with a wine you slice away a little bit of the quality.”
Evolution and experimentation are key concepts for Alexander. "Don't let tradition limit you," he says. Since I last tasted them, the wines have added depth, tannin and body. In my opinion, it would be a shame to drink them young, as they are capable of developing much more interesting flavours and aromas with age. Alexander states that his aim is not to make wines that compete with Burgundy, as they are a different style of Pinot Noir, but simply to make the best expression of Pinot Noir in the world. His efforts have paid off; Gault Millau rates Jean Stodden as one of the top three producers of Pinot Noir in Germany. Most of the wine is consumed domestically, with the main export markets being the US and Japan. In Singapore, the wines are available from Magma.

Friday 14 October 2011

German Wine Trip: Ahr and Meyer-Näkel

Deciding on our last destination for this wine trip took some time. Both Lady J and I were keen on visiting a region known for its red wines, but while she wanted to go to Baden, I was set on Ahr. Baden is by far the more well-known region with around 16,000 ha of vineyards. Its warm and sunny climate due to its location as the southernmost of Germany's vineyards make it ideal for the production of red wine.

The Ahr Valley in its sunny glory
Ahr on the other hand is virtually unknown outside of Germany. It is one of the smallest (around 550 ha of vineyards) and most northerly (50-51 degrees latitude) regions in the country. The majority of wines are red, with Pinot Noir, known locally as Spätburgunder, accounting for nearly two thirds of all plantings. One would think that the grapes would face difficulty in ripening being so far north, but the process is assisted by a combination of steep, south-facing slopes (angled towards the sun) and heat reflecting soils.

In the end, my carefully thought-out arguments and persuasive skills managed to convince Lady J to settle on Ahr (in truth, I just drove there while she was asleep in the car). Our first stop was Weingut Meyer-Näkel, founded in 1870 by the Meyer family. Its modern name was established through the marriage of Paula Meyer and Willibald Näkel in 1950. Current owner Werner Näkel is assisted in the winery by daughters Meike & Dörte Näkel while his wife Claudia helps out in the selling of wine.

I did not know much about Meyer-Näkel before visiting the winery, other than it was one of the famous names of Ahr. The wines of Ahr are notoriously difficult to obtain due to their limited production, which also ensures high prices. Werner tells us that last year his Grosses Gewächs wines were sold out the week that they were released.

We hopped into Werner's truck to take a drive around the vineyards. Imagine driving around on narrow terraces, just inches from the precipice with nothing to prevent the vehicle from tumbling down except rows and rows of vines. Werner has established a reputation as a great winemaker, but it should also be noted that he is a very skilled driver as well! The top sites of Meyer-Näkel are Pfarrwingert in Dernau, Sonnenberg in Neuenahr and Kräuterberg in Walporzheim. As Werner brings us through the vineyards, something nags at the back of my mind. After a few minutes I realise what it is; the fruiting zone, which is the area where the grapes grow, is immaculately clean. There are no leaves that may shade the fruit, preventing ripening and causing the wine to taste "green". This neatness is a distinct contrast to some of the vineyards of other winemakers we drive past, where the vines grow haphazardly and the plant's energy is wasted on foliage rather than producing fruit. Werner treats his vineyards as if he were coaching Olympic athletes, demanding the best performance and monitoring every aspect of their growth.

Meike Näkel shows us how it's done in the winery

This attention to detail carries over into the winery as well. Much of the work is done by hand, for example the process of "punching down" the must to extract colour and flavour. This is an extremely labour intensive operation, and a testament to the dedication and discipline of his team. You can almost taste the love in his wines, which are a dizzying swirl of aromas and lush, extravagant fruit. Ever the pioneer, Werner also produces wine in South Africa and Portugal.

Tasting notes:

Meyer-Näkel Spätburgunder Neuenahrer Sonnenberg Grosses Gewächs 2009 - The Sonnenberg (Sun hill) vineyard is the warmest spot in the Ahr valley. The wine displays varietal characteristics of raspberry and strawberry. A balanced wine with ripe fruit and fresh acidity. Lingering finish.

Meyer-Näkel Spätburgunder Dernauer Pfarrwingert Grosses Gewächs 2009 - The "priest" vineyard, named after the Catholic Church which still owns the land. Savoury red fruit, vibrant cherry character with chocolatey notes. A touch warming on the palate. A delight to drink now but this is a wine for keeping.

Meyer-Näkel Spätburgunder Walporzheimer Kräuterberg Grosses Gewächs 2009 - A floral, almost musky nose, very enticing. I feel as though Werner could bottle this and sell it as perfume. A delicate mélange of red fruits, herbs, forest floor and milk chocolate on the palate. Fine structure, with juicy acids and lush tannins forming a solid backbone.  Lady J commented that the wine was so fine it "brought a tear to her eyes".

Quinta da Carvalhosa Campo Ardosa - A joint venture between three German winemakers (Bernd Philippi, Berhard Breuer and Werner Näkel), this winery is located in the heart of the Douro region in Portugal and produces dry table wines. I forgot to notate down the vintage of this particular bottle. An exotic wine with rich black fruit, nuances of konbu (Japanese kelp) and an undercurrent of herbal notes. Pronounced tannins, but very well-integrated, giving structure and fleshing out the wine.

I did some research later on and found a company in Singapore that distributes Meyer-Näkel wines (hurrah!). They are available from Wein & Vin.

Thursday 13 October 2011

German Wine Trip: Mosel & Weingut Dr. Loosen

It's a bright sunny morning as we head off to the Mosel today, a distance of 90 km from Rheingau. I'm getting tired of the preset female voice on the GPS system and switch it to a male one. Lady J insinuates that it's because I refuse to take instructions from a woman.

The Mosel is Germany's fourth largest wine-growing region with around 9000 ha of vines predominantly planted with the Riesling grape. The extreme steepness of the slopes on which the vines are planted means that the traditional system of planting is on poles. This makes it easier for workers to navigate through the vineyard since they can move across rather than up and down. The soil tends to have a higher slate content than Rheingau. Saskia Prüm, winemaker at S.A. Prüm joked to us that German winemakers have as many words for slate as the Eskimos do for snow. Thus there is blue slate, red slate, grey slate, etc... all of which have a subtle influence on the style of the wine.

Besides its stunning wines, the Mosel is also home to Ernst Loosen, Germany's most dedicated wine ambassador and Decanter's chosen Man of the Year in 2005. When we met him, he had just returned from a trip to Malaysia where he visited the cabin crew of Malaysia Airlines and conducted a food and wine pairing of satay and Riesling. The man has restless energy, even during our sit-down tasting, where he alternated between getting the wines from his cellar, chatting with us and playing with his beautiful black dog, Diana.

Although his family had a tradition of winemaking, Erni almost chose archaeology as his vocation. The turning point came in 1986 when his father fell seriously ill and none of his brothers or sisters wanted to or were able to take over the reins. Erni had to choose between continuing his archaeology studies or manage the estate. Having made his fateful decision, history lost a dedicated researcher even as the world of wine gained a passionate advocate.

Dr. Loosen's top vineyards, of which there are six, are designated as Erste Lage according to a 1868 Prussian classification of Mosel vineyards. Unlike in Rheingau, this is an unofficial rating that is not recognised by German wine law. Erni throws up his hands when I ask him about the ongoing changes to the classification system, saying that "It should be simplified... it is already so difficult to explain it in the foreign market".

The Rieslings of Dr. Loosen, and of the Mosel in general, are very different from Rheingau Rieslings. The Mosel Rieslings have riper fruits like yellow peach and nectarine compared to the white peach and citrus notes of the latter. Conventional wisdom states that Rheingau produces Rieslings that have more body and richness, but I'm going to go out on a limb and take the opposite view. Certainly the cooler climate of the Mosel extends the growing season, meaning that the grapes have more time to slowly ripen on the vine and develop those exotic summer fruit characters.

I was completely blown away by the 2010 Dr. Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Grosses Gewächs Riesling. The vineyard gets its name (Sonnenuhr means sundial in German) from a large sundial in the middle of the vineyard. The sundial is missing the number 7 because as Ernie puts it, "At that time, the shadow is in the shade so you wouldn't be able to see it anyway!" The soil consists of pure blue slate with a very thin, rocky topsoil. The wine was astoundingly complex, with layers of stone fruit, white flowers and honeydew notes surrounding an electrifying stony minerality. And gosh, the finish! So intense that it made it difficult to tell whether I had swallowed the wine or not. 

The 2010 Dr. Loosen Ürziger Würzgarten Grosses Gewächs "Alte Reben" Riesling is made a parcel of land containing the oldest vines of Dr. Loosen. The vineyard is comprised red volcanic and slate soils, which lends a slight note of earthiness to the wine. Alte Reben, which means old vines, has no common definition, but since the vineyards of Dr. Loosen are already very old to begin with, Erni reserves this term only for the very oldest vineyards which average over a hundred years.

For the 2.2 ha Erdener Prälat vineyard, the story goes that in 1066 the Bishop of Trier was kidnapped by robbers and held for ransom at a castle overlooking the Mosel vineyards. Unfortunately, the bishop didn't have too many friends, and no one was willing to fork out the cash to get him freed. Frustrated by the cost of feeding the bishop, the robbers threw him out of the castle, and he landed on the spot which is now known as the Prälat (bishop). Erni cheekily refers to this story as the reason why the vineyard makes "bloody good wine". The 2010 Erdener Prälat Grosses Gewächs "Alte Reben" Riesling has an enticingly aromatic, elegant nose of wet stone and a touch of spiciness. The palate was clean and precise with notes of melon and tropical fruit salad. This really is a wine that you'd want to lay down and track its evolution.

The 2006 Dr. Loosen Riesling Beerenauslese reveals Erni's marketing acumen. Faced with a large crop of botrytis-affected grapes and a market unwilling to pay premium prices for sweet wines, he decided to bottle the wine in 187.5ml sizes (quarter bottles). So instead of buying a full bottle of this rich, sweet wine, which would be near impossible to finish in one sitting, the smaller size allowed it to be comfortable savoured without any wastage. It turned out to be a hit, and sells especially well in airport duty free areas. The wine has intense aromas of honey, botrytis and freshly kneaded dough. Rich and concentrated fruit on the palate, but with feathery lightness due to the low 7% alcohol. It's a wine that can be opened and consumed at any time without risk of leaving a hangover.

Dr. Loosen wines are exported to 65 countries around the world, and in Singapore they are distributed by Hock Tong Bee Pte Ltd.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

German Wine Trip: Rheingau Day 3

We received a pleasant surprise in the form of a phone call from Stefan Ress inviting us to visit his winery. We had made an enquiry to visit earlier but somehow the reply was lost, so we are extremely grateful that Stefan followed up on it. Balthasar Ress is one of the top estates of Rheingau, now in its fifth generation of family ownership with Christian Ress. The winery owns 45 ha of vineyards and produces around 350,000 bottles a year. It exports to various markets including North America, Scandanavia, Singapore, Japan and Malaysia. Stefan calls it "a small little globalised company".

We started off with a wine tasting, and quickly developed a headache trying to understand the complicated German wine classification system. In the Rheingau, producers are moving away from the 1971 Prädikat system and back to the traditional terroir-oriented grading. Officially, the system is only recognised in Rheingau, but other producers use similar terminology. In summary, if the wine is dry, and made from a vineyard that has been classified as a Erste Lage (Grand Cru), they can label it as a Erstes Gewächs (Rheingau only) or a Grosses Gewächs (rest of Germany). If the wine is made with residual sugar, then it will have the designation QmP, which stands for Qualitätswein mit Pradikät, and has six levels of ripeness from Kabinett to Trockenbeerenauslese. Many wine books will say that Kabinett wines are dry and that the QmP system is representative of ripeness at time of picking, not the sweetness of the wine. In practice, most of the wines that have the words Pradikätwein will be sweet, even at the Kabinett level. A good rule of thumb is to look at the alcohol level. If the alcohol is around 9% to 11%, that means that there is some residual sugar in it and it will taste sweet.

Balthasar Ress is one of the first wineries in the region to start picking grapes this year, but the last to finish. Accompanied by the friendly and energetic Stefan, we were able to taste grapes on the vine and observe how the pickers harvested. Each worker had two baskets, and healthy grapes were being sorted into one basket for the dry wines while bunches with botrytis (destined to become sweeter style wines) were placed into another basket. The vineyards looked very healthy. In recent times, producers in Germany have moved away from using chemicals in the vineyard to more environmentally friendly techniques. For example, Stefan pointed to a small brown capsule clipped every few rows. These capsules emit pheromones that confuse vineyard pests, preventing them from breeding and laying eggs.

Balthasar Ress stands as a model of innovation. They have a significant presence in the social media, and are constantly trying out new ideas such as their wineBANK, a personal wine storage facility that also doubles as a private tasting room.

Our next stop, the wine estate of Robert Weil, was undergoing extensive renovations to accommodate increased production. New winemaking facilities were being built as the current one had exceeded capacity. Robert Weil is one of the larger producers in Rheingau, with 80 ha under vine and an annual production of 600,000 bottles. Their top vineyards (Klosterberg, Gräfenberg and Turmberg) are located around the village of Kiederich. The picture below shows the soil difference in the three vineyards.

The design of the wine labels clearly indicates the style, varietal and vintage of the wine. Just like the wood panelled exteriors of the estate manor, the bottles have a beautiful aesthetic that make them visually appealing. This seems to be reflected in the quality of the wines, I feel that there is a clear precision and elegance in them. Wines from each vineyard have their own character; I found the Klosterberg quite fruity while the Turmberg had nervy acidity and a taut minerality, perhaps reflecting the higher percentage of slate in the soil. My favourite was the Gräfenberg wine, which had an abundance of white peach and floral notes with just the slightest hint of vanilla and richness.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

German Wine Trip: Rheingau Day 2

Lady J - Wine critic, photographer and light sleeper
One of the most frustrating things that can happen to a blogger is probably losing a post. After typing out a summary of Day 1 of our German wine trip, Blogger threw up a technical error and I lost an hour of writing. I've since switched back to the old interface, so hopefully I won't lose any more posts. I'm thankful that the in-room WiFi is finally up and running so I don't have to keep running downstairs to use the lobby computer. The first day was so tiring that I knocked out the minute my body hit the bed. Lady J warns me that if I continue snoring tonight, she will have to use physical force to stop me. Apparently I'm louder than the church bells next door.

Our hotel, the Rüdesheimer Schloss, is in the heart of the Rheingau region, so it is easy to visit the wineries. Having a GPS system is a godsend as well, as it means that I only need to focus on driving (Germany uses right hand drive as opposed to Singapore where drivers are on the left side of the road). Thus when we mistook our appointment time for Schloss Johannisberg (it was supposed to be 1000 instead of 1030), we managed to get there speedily and were only slightly behind schedule.

I am pretty sure that the winery takes the breath away from anyone who visits it for the first time. Upon entering, you are greeted with neatly manicured gardens and stunning views of the vineyard. It is the first and oldest Riesling wine estate in the world. The cavernous cellar (lit by candles), houses row upon row of barrels made from forests owned by the winery itself. That they even control the source of the oak used for their barrels gives you an idea of how much attention they pay to every part of the production process.

The wines of Schloss Johannisberg show great finesse and complexity. Lady J calls them "elegant, with layers of fruit that gradually reveal themselves." The winery only produces Riesling, which according to director Christian Witte is a wine lover's dream but a marketing disaster due to the different styles that can be made from that single variety. Schloss Johannisberg uses a unique colour coding system to indicate the style of each wine. The top dry Rieslings are have a silver capsule with the words Silberlack printed on them. In Singapore the wines are distributed by Cool Climate Wines.

A distinct contrast from the lavish castle of Schloss Johannisberg is the house of August Eser, which was so small that we drove by several times without noticing it. Désirée Eser is the 10th generation winemaker there and the first female winemaker. She has been instrumental in modernising the labelling and packaging of the wine. The winery's 10 ha of vineyards are spread across 8 villages and 17 plots, most of which are classified at the Grosses Gewächs (Grand Cru) level. 

Interestingly, the Grosses Gewächs symbol does not appear on most of her bottles. Désirée states that this is because if she were to price all her wines at the Grosses Gewächs level, it would put it out of reach of most people. Another distinction of the wines is that they make extensive use of the Vino-Lok closure, a glass based stopper that has the consistency and reliability of screwcaps. Plus it looks good and makes a satisfying "click" sound when being opened.

August Eser is about as traditional a winery as they come. Careful hand harvesting and slow, controlled fermentations yield wines with great finesse, and a lively acidity that makes the wines almost dance in your mouth. Eschewing foreign markets, most of the wine is sold domestically where they have a reputation for tremendous value for quality.

German Wine Trip: Rheingau Day 1

My German wine trip has begun! Lady J and I will be touring the top wineries of Rheingau, Mosel and Ahr over a period of one week. The arrangements were made by German wine expert Frank Kämmer, who has more wine qualifications than you can shake a stick at.

The flight from Singapore to Frankfurt was smooth and uneventful aside from some turbulence. We rented a car from Hertz at the airport and were soon on our way to the touristy town of Rüdesheim, a quick 45 minute drive away. I am the designated chauffeur for this trip, so Lady J can enjoy the wines while I only get to sip and spit. 

The first winery on our list was Josef Leitz. The winery has grown exponentially over the past ten years, from 6 ha to the current 40 ha. It has an annual production of 400,000 bottles. Historical documents trace the establishment of the winery all the way back to 1744, but it was only in 1985 when current owner and winemaker Johannes Leitz took over that quality started to rise. He says, "I dream about terroir, I want to show where the wines come from." 

The steep slopes of Rüdesheim
The majority of Josef Leitz's vineyards are located on the Rüdesheim hill at different elevations and on different soils. They have names like Roseneck, Kaisersteinfels and Drachenstein (Dragonstone in English). The highest elevations are the most prized as they receive warmth and sunlight during the day, and at night cold winds blow from the forests up north and create the large temperature difference that is responsible for the development of fruity characters in Riesling. Anyone interested in learning about the soils and layout of the Rüdesheim vineyards should visit the website. It is incredibly detailed and easy to read. 

Winemaker Johannes Leitz
It's not just the website that is well designed, the wine labels are also done up in a very modern style. None of that old-fashioned Gothic script here, instead there is the name of the producer, vineyard, vintage and perhaps an indicator of sweetness. Easy to understand and market. Johannes is a very savvy winemaker who is not only a master of his craft but also shows an understanding of the consumer. In Singapore, you can find the wines through Beautiful Wine

Thursday 6 October 2011

From a Sommelier's Viewpoint

Wine lovers (myself included) very often get preoccupied with the analysis and discussion of wine and pay less attention to the network of people that support this industry. Without wine writers, wine educators and sommeliers in Singapore, our appreciation of wine would be severely hampered. To gain an insight into what motivates those in the wine trade, I had a chat with Mohamad Fazil, Operations Manager/Sommelier of Vintry Singapore.  

Fazil represents a new generation of sommeliers in Singapore who are young, energetic and passionate about wine. He has a long list of achievements to his name, including winning the 2010 World Gourmet Summit Cantino Marabino Wine Scholarship and being one out of two Singapore-based sommeliers sponsored for the E'Sensual Pinot Central 2011 event. He is also highly active in the Singapore wine scene organising wine talks and promoting wine education. 
What set you on the path to becoming a sommelier?
Ten years ago when I joined the industry managing the wine cellar for Oceana Restaurant, I looked at the markups and prices of wine and wondered why people would pay for something so expensive. This curiosity inspired me to learn more about wine, but back then it was all on the job training; reading books, inventory management and talking to customers. In 2008 as the Operations Manager for Brasserie Wolf, I had the opportunity to take up formal wine qualifications such as the WSET and CMS. These programs are good for anyone looking to be a sommelier, because firstly, your qualifications are internationally recognised, and secondly, your education becomes more structured. Learning about wine really is a never ending process, and we have to enjoy the journey rather the focusing on the destination.
You've visited many wine regions around the world, such as New Zealand, Portugal, Italy... which has captivated you the most?
Each of them has their own specialty; they produce different wines. I first went to Margaret River, which was very Bordeaux-style with its maritime climate and choice of varietals. At that time, I didn't ask many questions as I was still very new to the world of wine. When I went to Sicily and Portugal, I had completed the wine certifications, so I was very keen to see what I had learnt applied in real life, such as the pruning methods, the different soils, and why they planted Chardonnay here and Nero d'Avola there.
I would say that Central Otago was an eye opener, because being such a young wine industry they have already achieved so much. The potential of wines from that site is amazing, in terms of quality and ageability. If you tasted a Pinot Noir from Wanaka, you'd think that it is at least the standard of a Burgundy Premier Cru. But they are not competing with Burgundy, they know that they are different and are striving for an identity of their own. The people are wonderful too; they are extremely warm and kind.
Do you have a favourite wine?
That's a very tough question for any sommelier! Our palates change with time, and what I liked five years ago is not what I like now. I used to like wines that were sweet, soft and low in alcohol, then I changed to wines that were crisp, acidic and refreshing. Right now I'm into Barolos and Touriga Nacional... big, bold reds. I would say that I am a still fan of Spanish and Italian red wines, and for whites I love Gruner Veltliners and oaked Sauvignon Blancs.
What do you think about the wine scene in Singapore?
The wine scene has changed tremendously in the past five years. Consumers now have access to Google and Wikipedia and are much more knowledgeable. They are taking pictures of wines they have tried and coming here and asking "Do you have this wine?" They want to know the difference between a wine from 2007 and 2009, and why the prices are different. It's something that is very exciting, because now you have a conversation going on. In the past, people were intimidated by the wine list and worried about mispronouncing the name of the wine in case they embarrassed themselves in front of their guests. But now the consumers are much more open, especially the younger ones. They start with easy drinking stuff like Moscato and Riesling, and as they come back week after week you can start opening the door for them to try other wines. It's a new challenge for the sommelier, because the sommelier has to be able to read their palate and recommend wines that match their preference.
Are there certain styles of wine which are more popular in Singapore?
Australian red wines are still the number one selling wines, because they are approachable and at a good price point. However there are a lot more wines coming into Singapore now, and I'm seeing a greater balance of demand rather than just a focus on one particular country. The shift that I would like to see is consumers trying out wines from the Middle East like Lebanon and Israel. These are places which have been producing wines for thousands of years, and their wines offer great fruit concentration and quality. There are also a lot of European wineries going to countries like China and India and investing like what they did in Chile and Napa. It's still at a very early stage, but you've got to start from somewhere.
What skills does a sommelier need to have?
There are three things that I think a sommelier needs to have. A sommelier must be knowledgeable and approachable. A sommelier may know a lot, but if he is unable to share it then I think it is quite sad. The most important thing a sommelier should have is humility. There's no point in bragging about one's skills or saying that I am better than you.
How do you select the wines for the restaurant?
There are a few steps in the process. We begin by identifying the number of wines we want to carry, because there is a limit of how many wines can be stored in the cellar. Then we look at the food menu, and determine the types of wine that will suit it. After that we look at price lists from wine suppliers and agents in Singapore, and start selecting the wines based on region and price point. Usually when we design the wine list we will separate it into categories such as style (sparkling, white and red), then according to the varietal. It's important to have a variety in the wine list so that if a customer wants to have, for example a sparkling wine from Brazil, you have it or can suggest something similar to it.
Creating a wine list is not as difficult as maintaining it. Maintaining the list is an everyday process, because the vintage may change, or a wine may be out of stock. When guests open a wine list, they expect that whatever is listed there is available.
Lastly, do you have any advice for people who are looking to enter the wine trade?
This trade is a continual learning process. Whether you are talking to someone, or opening cartons, or looking at a label, you are always learning and it makes you stronger. You have to take pleasure in this learning process, and the enjoyment of the learning is the reward itself. As they say, if you enjoy your job you don't have to work a day.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Alta Vista - French Winemaking in Mendoza, Argentina

Argentina’s wine industry is booming. In the first quarter of 2011, exports rose by 8% to 62.9 million litres, helped by resurgent demand in the United States and an undervalued peso. Although exports to Asia represent a small fraction of this, it is a segment that is rapidly growing, especially in China, which overtook Japan last year to become the biggest consumer of Argentinian wine in Asia.
Patrick d’Aulan, owner of Alta Vista, recognised the potential of Argentina early on. In 1998, Patrick along with the late winemaker Jean-Michel Arcaute set up Alta Vista in Mendoza, located on the far west side of the country. Bordered by the magnificent Andes mountain range and surrounded by a scorching desert, viticulture is made possible only through the use of an advanced irrigation system, which supplies crystal clear, pure water from snowmelt in the mountains.   
Alta Vista owns 205 ha of vineyards in Mendoza, planted primarily with red varietals, while their 1200 ha holdings in Cafayete are planted with the local Torrontés. Patrick describes the uniqueness of Alta Vista as being a combination of “the respect for the tradition and soils of Argentina with the winemaking of France.” The workforce composition seems to reflect this belief, as both winemakers Philippe Rolet and Matthieu Grassin are from France while the vineyard manager is from Argentina.
Export Manager Philippe Meurant (left) with Patrick d'Aulan
Patrick has leveraged his considerable financial resources to ensure that only the finest grapes go into the premium Alta Vista wines. In the vineyard, sophisticated satellite imaging (photos are taken every two days) show which plots are ripe enough for picking. As in the best vineyards of France, manual harvesting and table sorting is done to select only healthy fruit. An interesting point in the winemaking is that Alta Vista makes extensive use of small cement tanks rather than stainless steel tanks to ferment their top red wines. Also used by Château Pétrus, cement tanks are said to help maximise the fruit character while providing better aeration than stainless steel tanks.  
I was impressed with the quality of the reds, which were rich and concentrated without being jammy, and balanced with nervy acidity. Especially at the top tiers, these wines showed a stunning degree of complexity. The Torrontés was interesting, with clear varietal notes that make it quite different from other wines. People looking for an alternative to Gewurtztraminer or Sauvignon Blanc should try this wine. 
Alta Vista Classic Torrontés 2009 – A crossing between Muscat of Alexandria and Criolla Chica, Torrontés is known for making Argentina’s top white wines. This example was enticingly aromatic, with notes of rose, white pear and talc. Suggestively sweet, but on the palate it is bone dry. A fresh, medium bodied palate with slight bitterness and steely notes. Ready to drink.
Alta Vista Premium Chardonnay 2009 – Fermented in stainless steel tanks with temperature control. 30% of the wine was aged in oak barrels for 6 months with bâtonnage (lees stirring) to add body to the wine. Clear pale lemon appearance with vanilla and lemon aromas. Pineapple, lemon and vanilla notes on the palate, with rather disjointed acidity although Patrick mentions that the 2010 is showing better.
Alta Vista Classic Malbec 2008 – Deep purple. A youthful, spry nose with notes of pencil shavings, black fruit, spice and plums. Full bodied with upfront fruit character.
Alta Vista Premium Malbec 2009 – A complex aroma of subtle red fruits with a hint of mint and floral notes, developing into mocha after about half an hour. Medium+ acidity, fine grained and soft tannins with savoury fruit, plum and toast. A structured and balanced wine.
Alta Vista Terroir Selection 2007 – Made from a blend of fruit from four vineyards, although the majority (75%) is from the Albaneve Vineyard in Campo de los Andes located 1100m above sea level. The grapes were hand-picked and fermented in small 110 hl cement tanks. A deep purple colour with aromas of black fruit, black plums and a touch of dusty oak. A rich, rounded palate, displaying black plums and chocolate notes, backed with fresh acids.  
Alta Vista Single Vineyard “Serenade” 2007 – Deep ruby robe. Pronounced intensity nose of black plums, ripe black cherries and fruitcake. Rich and concentrated fruit with chewy tannins. A wine for aging.
Alta Vista Alto 2006 – The Alto is Alta Vista’s top wine, made from a blend of 70% Malbec and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. Deep purple with a fine layer of sediment. Developing, broody nose with notes of earth and black fruit. A structured, elegant wine with resolved tannins, high acidity and a medium+ finish.
Alta Vista is distributed in Singapore by Beam Global Asia Pte Ltd.