Saturday 30 April 2011

Champagne Veuve Clicquot, Reims

While attending a Veuve Clicquot tasting in London in March, I had no idea that a month later I would be touring its vast underground cellars and having a tasting tutorial conducted by the esteemed winemaker himself, Dominique Demarville. Dominique created waves when he became, in 1998, the youngest ever chef de cave in Champagne at the age of 31. He joined Veuve Clicquot in 2006 as Deputy Cellar Master, and in 2009 was promoted to Cellar Master, responsible for the winemaking and blending of all Veuve Clicquot wines. 

Champagne (the very word is protected under European Union regulations) is a mix of three grape varietals; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. A still wine is made from each of these varietals, which are then blended together and fermented again to produce the distinctively fine sparkle. To start our tasting, Dominique had prepared samples of still base wine from the 2010 vintage. These are not wines which you would normally find on supermarket shelves. They were distinct for their low alcohol and high acidity (though the Chardonnay was most striking in its sharpness). Through tasting the base wines individually, it was possible to understand why it is said that Chardonnay provides freshness, Pinot Noir contributes body and Pinot Meunier gives fruit and aromatics.

The Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut is the bread and butter house blend. Made from a high proportion of Pinot Noir (50% or more depending on the year) and reserve wines, it displayed toasty aromas and a lovely depth of flavour on the palate. Veuve Clicquot also produces a vintage champagne in the finest years, and I was fortunate to be able to sample the 2002. This bottle should come with a warning label to prepare people for the shock of absolute purity and concentration of flavour that will hit them when tasting this wine. Rich and buttery on the palate, with a lip smacking, lasting finish. It is definitely a wine for a very special occasion. Although it is drinking wonderfully now, I recall tasting a 1953 Vintage Veuve Clicquot in London, and it makes me wonder how long these wines can age. Eternally, I suspect.

I was gratified when Dominique brought out the final wine for tasting, the 1998 La Grande Dame. The top line of Veuve Clicquot champagnes, this wine is bottled in magnificient, jet-black glass that hints at the precious liquid within. Over 13 years old, but still young! It has not yet developed the rich, honeyed notes that come with age. The style is different from the Vintage Veuve Clicquot, I would say that the La Grande Dame is more austere and less approachable in youth.  

The story of Veuve Clicquot is long and fascinating, guided by the strong hand of Mme Barbe-Nicole Clicqout Ponsardin, widow of the man who started the company. Her keen eye for business and innovations in the disgorgement process allowed the winery to outpace its competitors and come back from the brink of ruin several times. "Only one quality, the finest", became her motto, and it is clear that the latest generation of winemakers follow that principle with utmost dedication.

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Perfect Picnic Wines

Every Sunday, the Singapore Botanic Gardens puts on a concert at the Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage. I attended one such event two weeks ago, under a glorious spell of warm, sunny weather. We had a picnic in front of the open air stage, and brought KFC, pasta and wines. There was a pretty large crowd made up of locals and expatriates living around the area.

With the numerous kids (and quite a few friendly dogs) running around, it is a good thing that Jasmine brought wine glass holders, a metal holder that could be staked into the soil to hold our wine glasses. She obtained them from Margaret River, but I notice that Amazon also sells them (USD12.50 for a set of two). A perfect solution for where to put our wines without worrying about them spilling. We still had to keep an eye on them to prevent curious kids from trying them out though (those budding alcoholics!).
We started the picnic with a Vinho Verde Alianca from Portugal. Made from the indigenous Pederna and Azal varietals, it was light and fruity with a slight spritz caused by the injection of carbon dioxide. I had brought a bottle of M&S 2009 Beaujolais, a forward, fruity red with lively notes of cherries and bananas. Neither of these two wines were terribly complicated, and should be drunk sooner rather than later, but they were accessible and refreshing. In fact I was pleasantly surprised by the range of wines offered by Marks and Spencer, there were some easy drinking wines at very reasonable prices (around SGD25-30). Alcohol was a definite consideration when selecting wines for the picnic, I chose those that were on the lower side to account for the warm weather.

As the full moon ascended we moved on to a more contemplative wine, the 2009 Ata Rangi Martinborough Pinot Noir. To me Pinot Noir is a wine for night time drinking, its seductive, layered nuances beg for laid back conversations and the companionship of close friends.

I can't recall the last time Singapore had such fine weather (it's been afternoon thunderstorms for the past few weeks), but I am grateful that nature was in a generous mood that day. Looking forward to the next picnic session!

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Singapore Wine Market

These are exciting times to be in Singapore. The country weathered the financial crisis better than most, and rebounded strongly in 2010 with double digit GDP growth. Sales of still wine took a hit, falling 7.5% in 2009 to SGD285.5 million, but rose to SGD304.6 million in 2010. The opening of the two integrated resorts has attracted scores of well-heeled tourists eager to spend on wining and dining.

I read a recent report from Euromonitor that had a few interesting insights into the current state of the Singapore wine market.
  • Australian wines have seen the fastest growth in the past five years, and New Zealand wines are gaining in popularity.
  • The average unit price of wine continues to decline in 2010 due to consumers being more price conscious, and intense competition in the wine market leading to discounting.
  • Off-trade sales (wine sold in places other than restaurants and bars, e.g. retail shops) accounted for 71% of wine sales in terms of volume.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon is the top red wine seller in 2010 (30%), followed by Syrah (24%) and Merlot (15%). Chardonnay dominates for the white wines (35.5%), followed by Sauvignon Blanc (22.5%) and Riesling (12%).
  • Sale of rosé wines remain minimal, accounting for just SGD3.5 million.
  • Sales of Champange increased even through the recession, from SGD52.4 million in 2008, to SGD54.8 million in 2009 and SGD56.8 million in 2010. Nicolas Feuillatte champagne is expected to perform well this year due to extensive marketing. (I recently attended a tasting by Appetite magazine where this champagne was selling for less than SGD 60. What an opportunity!)
A lot has been said about how Singapore missed an opportunity to position itself as a wine hub by reducing taxes on alcoholic beverages. Hong Kong abolished the wine tax in 2008, and has now become the world's most important centre for wine auctions. However, considering that Singapore accounts for only 1.1% of Asia Pacific wine market value, I doubt that abolishing the tax would make much of a difference in sales (although as a consumer I would definitely welcome it). Singapore's importance in the wine world is as a place to hold events and launch products. It is well positioned to do this, having excellent facilities and a large number of distributors. There have been several high profile events held in Singapore over the past few years, such as Parker in Asia in 2010, and the Union des Grand Crus tasting in 2011. I am also seeing an increasing number of winemakers coming to Singapore to host wine dinners and promote their wines. In fact, actor and winemaker Sam Neill will be appearing on Channel News Asia tomorrow morning to talk about his wines.

Thursday 7 April 2011

Bordeaux 2010 En Primeur

April is the busiest month in a wine critic's calendar. This is when the en primeur tasting is held in Bordeaux, with scores of people flying in from all over the world to assess the previous year's vintage. After the stellar year that was 2009, winemakers in Bordeaux are touting 2010 as another vintage not to be missed. Looking through Robert Parker's Vintage Chart, three years out of the past decade have scored highly (2000, 2005 and 2009) compared with just two in the 1990s (1990 and 1998). Furthermore the 1998 vintage displayed inconsistencies between the Left and Right Bank of Bordeaux, with Pomerol and St-Emilion garnering higher scores.

If this trend continues to hold true, it would indicate that there is no need to rush and buy the latest, hyped-up vintage as undoubtedly another one would be right around the corner. Famed oenologist Denis Dubourdieu sums up 2010 Bordeaux as "certainly a great and even very great year for both red and white wines". Former Wine Spectator editor James Suckling awards near perfect scores to four out of the five First Growths (the exception being Chateau Haut Brion which received a score of 97-98). Similar things were said for the 2009 vintage, like Robert Parker stating that it "may turn out to be the finest vintage I have tasted in 32 years of covering Bordeaux."

With such high scores being awarded even before the wines have started maturing, what meaningful comparison can be made should a vintage that is even better come along (probably 2011)? Would Robert Parker then have to change his 100 point scale to a 1000 point scale? Would the English language have to come up with words that are more superlative than superlative?

In one respect, the consumer benefits from the en primeur process, as there is overwhelming coverage of Bordeaux wines and the influx of cash from buying en primeur has allowed the Bordelais to introduce innovative new winemaking methods such as laser sorting, leading to wines of ever improving quality. The downside is of course the increasing wads of hard earned dollars that one has to fork out for the privilege of tasting these rarified wines. A bottle of 2009 Cheval Blanc ex-château would have set you back by 900 euros. It will be interesting to see the prices for 2010, and if consumers bite or balk.

Sunday 3 April 2011

Can You Feel The (Biodynamic) Rhythm?

A friend, Whee Teck, is an absolute genius with the camera. He has the knack of knowing exactly when to take a shot, and the correct angle to maximise the amount of light available. Today he told me his secret, which is.... listening to music. "Many things in life are related," he tells me. "Just like Leonardo da Vinci translated mathematics into art, music and photography have a common theme. They are about finding the rhythm, the right time to shoot or the right beat." 

It's much the same when it comes to wine. Wine is art, science, human psychology, cultural history, a source of relaxation and a product of hard work. It encompasses myriad fields, and is enjoyed by people of various backgrounds. Biodynamic winemaking is perhaps the ultimate combination of art and science, whose proponents believe that wine is influenced not only by soil and man, but also the spiritual power of the cosmos. The timing of vineyard activities are dictated by the movements of the moon and other celestial bodies, and all preparations must be "energised" by stirring them first one way and then the other. The goal of biodynamic winemaking is to make wine in harmony with nature, so that the vine is more resistant to disease and produces better quality fruit.

Many people do not believe that this philosophy works, and even some who are practicing it would prefer not to label their wines as such. Yet proof is in the tasting, and the biodynamic wines I tried have displayed a clear purity of fruit and concentration of flavour. A case in point is the 2009 LA 50/50 Vin de Table Domaine Anne Gros et Jean-Paul Tollot, a joint venture between Anne Gros (who practices organic/biodynamic farming) and her husband. Made from a blend of Carignan, Cinsault and Grenache, the wine was fresh, beautifully balanced and possessed of a vibrant energy that had my friends and I competing for the singular bottle.

There is still much that we do not know about winemaking, and what we scoff at today may eventually become the norm in the future. In the meantime, we can all enjoy the fruits of different winemaking philosophies and methods. Now that's music to my ears.