Wednesday 24 August 2011

In Celebration of Diversity

There can be few joys in life greater than having a delicious morsel of food brought to new levels by a flavourful sip of wine. The interplay of different tastes is like a marriage where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In Singapore, we are fortunate that there is a vibrant dining scene. We may not have the unparalleled freshness of ingredients that Japan has, nor the mastery of sauces that the French are famous for. Rather, Singapore's strength lies as a confluence of cultures, a melting pot of diversity that lends richness and variety to the food we eat.

Take Keystone Restaurant, a newly opened dining venue in the heart of the Central Business District as an example. It bills itself as offering Modern European fare with a progressive twist. Singaporean chef Mark Richards has tried his hand at Thai, Middle Eastern and French cuisine, and uses various techniques such as spherification and dehydration to coax flavours out of his dishes. The menu, which changes every two to three months, feature seasonal ingredients sourced from Europe, Australia, the United States and regionally.

On the 12th of August Keystone played host to a wine dinner with winemaker Rick Kinzbrunner of Giaconda. Giaconda is located in Beechworth which is a three hour drive north-east from Melbourne. At an altitude of 400 metres, the climate is considered moderately cool with approximately 700 mm of rainfall annually. It has a miniscule production of 2000-3000 cases a year which, coupled with its fine reputation, has led wine critic James Halliday to term these as "super-cult wines".

Giaconda is a study in contradictions. The winemaking style is traditional, using wild yeasts, basket pressing and no filtration. Even the website,, looks as though it was designed in the 1990s. In the business side however, Giaconda is a pioneer. It experimented early with online direct sales, and established an en-primeur system for selling its wines in Australia. Around a third of Giaconda's wines are now sold through its website.

The first course was Sarlat Foie Gras with pistachios, compressed pineapple and white balsamic gastrique. This ignited a discussion at the table on the ethicality of force feeding an animal, although I noticed that all the foie gras was duly finished. It was paired with the 2006 Aeolia Roussanne, a refreshing, citrusy wine with lemon pith notes. A tightly focused wine.

The next wine was surely the star of the evening, the 2006 Estate Vineyard Chardonnay. This wine was rated Exceptional, the highest level, in Langton's Classification of Australian Wine. Elegant and poised, the wine displayed a deft handling of oak that underlined rather than overpowered the fruit character. Rick felt that the wine was not showing as well as it should and would benefit from further ageing. Alongside this we were served Iberian Ham with passionfruit sorbet, mission figs and Tête de Moine (Swiss cheese). This dish showcased what a chef could do with high quality ingredients and a knack for balancing different flavours. The saltiness of the ham was perfectly complemented by the sweetness of the passionfruit sorbet, while the cheese served as a neutral palate cleanser.

Moving on to the red wines, we first tried a 2006 Pinot Noir from the Nantua Vineyard. A brilliant counterpoint to the Chardonnay, the Pinot Noir was expansive, fruity and aromatic. It reminded me almost of a New Zealand Pinot Noir, so ripe was the fruit character. This was paired with deliciously pink slices of Mair Cervena Venison with charred eggplant, black plums, shallot caviar and valrhona textures. The meat was cooked to perfection, and the eggplant exuded a wonderful smoky flavour that was accentuated by the Pinot Noir.

The final wines of the evening were a vertical pair of Shiraz wines from the Warner Vineyard. The 2005 vintage was more savoury and spicy while the 2006 displayed more ripeness, earthy elements and blackcurrant fruit. Rick is proud of making wines that "are not squeaky clean and commercial", and are different from year to year. 2006 was hotter and drier than 2005, accounting for the riper fruit. With these wines we were served Blackmore Wagyu Brisket with porcini & marrow jus, polenta, chinese broccoli and truffle egg fluid.

The let-down in most fine dining venues in Singapore is usually the service, but I was impressed by the attention to detail at Keystone. The staff addressed us by name and water glasses were refilled promptly and discreetly. There was no chaos despite having opened just a few weeks earlier, and the staff seemed to be genuinely enjoying their work. I even saw Chef Richards humming as he prepared the dishes.

It was interesting to see the ideological difference between Giaconda and Keystone. The former holds fast to traditional methods of doing things, believing that their product should be as natural as possible. The latter is akin to a mad scientist, gleefully experimenting with its product and adopting the latest technologies. Yet both are capable of delivering sublime culinary experiences, proving that passion and determination are the true magical ingredients.

Keystone Restaurant
11 Stanley Street
Singapore 068730
Tel: +65 62210046
Lunch: 1200h to 1500h
Dinner: 1800h to 2230h
Corkage policy: SGD42 per bottle

Monopole Pte Ltd is the exclusive distributor of Giaconda wines in Singapore.

Many thanks to Natasha Beh of Ate Consulting for extending an invitation to this event.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Having some free time in Shanghai recently, I decided to check out the local wine scene and see what changes had occured in the past few years. In particular, I was interested to taste a Chinese wine (made from grapes, not rice) and see if there had been any improvements. I still recall the first time I tried a "Made in China" wine in 2006. It was a Dynasty Cabernet Sauvignon, costing around RMB40, or SGD8. Drinkable, but it lacked ripeness and had some distinctly un-winey notes. The palate reminded me of soya sauce and dried watermelon seeds.

Admittedly, Dynasty is on the lower end of the quality scale. Along with Great Wall and Changyu and Tonghua, these four producers are the giants of China's wine industry, accounting for 60% of market share. The wines are priced from  RMB30 to RMB50, although Changyu does sell a Selected Cabernet Dry Red for RMB73. In comparison, a Yellow Tail Cabernet Sauvignon, Australia's mass market wine, retails for RMB125.

There are some Chinese producers who have achieved fame outside of China. Grace Vineyards (from Shanxi) and Silver Heights (from Ningxia) were favourably reviewed by Lisa Perrotti-Brown, MW in September 2010 for Robert Parker's wine website. It is difficult to get these wines from the local supermarket though, so I headed to Ferguson Lane, a small cluster of shops converted from goverment buildings in the former French Concession.

There are two wine specialists here, Globus wine and Pudao Wines (formerly named Wine Way). The latter is equipped with an Enomatic machine which allows tasting of wines by the glass. Normally, one would need to purchase a membership card (RMB300 with RMB200 credit), but you can also ask for the "store card" which will allow you to pay for just the wines you taste. There are 8 whites and 8 reds available for tasting and the selection is changed every week. They also have a "wine of the week" which retails at just RMB1 for a tasting portion. The day I was there this was the 2006 d'Arenberg Stump Jump White blended from Riesling, Marsanne and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. They stock two labels from Silver Heights, the Family Reserve and The Summit. Both are Bordeaux blends with a small proportion of Cabernet Gernischt, a varietal with murky origins unique to China. Unfortunately, both the wines had sold out due to extremely limited quantities, and so I went over to Globus wine.

Compared to Pudao Wines, Globus is more of a wine bar, with seating space and a food menu. The store manager, Leo, proved to be extremely knowledgable about wines and the wine industry in China. He explained to me that wine consumption in China is being encouraged by the government, because "the move towards drinking alcohol made from grapes rather than rice puts less pressure on rice crops, which are an important staple in China." While this has spurred production of wine locally (China is now the world's 6th largest producer of wine), much of this is poor quality and lacking in flavour. Imported wines attract a tariff of 14% on top of 17% value-added tax and 10% consumption tax. Says Leo, "The high taxes on foreign wines create little incentive for local wine producers to improve quality since they have a pricing advantage."

I asked Leo if he had any Chinese wine in his portfolio, and he recommended to me Sunshine Valley from Gansu province in northwest China. They make two red wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Pinot Noir. This was the first time that I had heard of Pinot Noir being planted in China, as it is a notoriously fickle grape, requiring careful handling in the vineyard and the winery. Most of China's wine production is red, and dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition to being an auspicious colour (white is associated with death in Chinese custom), red wines have a premium image and are able to command higher prices. "In China's market," says Leo, "you must have a Cabernet wine."

I thanked Leo for his time and paid for the Sunshine Valley Pinot Noir. Back at the hotel, I tried it with some roast duck, which turned out to be quite a pleasant match. The wine still lacked ripeness (in fact Leo had mentioned the herbaceous note) but managed to display some varietal character. At RMB200, there are better value wines to be found elsewhere.

There is tremendous potential for the wine industry in China, but development is uneven. Made in China wines still struggle with poor quality grapes and lack of winemaking expertise. Wine consumption in China is also at a fledgling stage. While many Chinese have the money and access to high-end wines, few understand how to appreciate it, instead mixing it with ice or soft drinks. I am heartened though by the expertise of trade people such as Leo, who have formal qualifications in addition to tasting experience. As most people find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings when entering a wine shop, it is helpful to have someone who knows the wines intimately and can make helpful suggestions. 


Pudao Wines
House 102, Ferguson Lane
376 Wukang Road
Xuhui District, Shanghai 200031
Tel: +86 21 6090 7075

Globus Wine
376 Wukang Road

Xuhui District, Shanghai 200031
Tel: +86 21 6466 8969

Friday 5 August 2011

US$117,000 for a bottle of wine? Sweet!

These days, Christian Vanneque is looking like the cat that swallowed the canary. The sommelier and restaurateur entered the Guinness Book of World Records on 26th July this year when he became the owner of the world’s most expensive bottle of white wine, an 1811 vintage of Chateau d’Yquem that sold for US$117,000. Made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes infected by noble rot, Chateau d’Yquem ranks as the greatest sweet white wine in the world. Wine critic Robert Parker has the following tasting note on the 1811 vintage: “……The d’Yquem, with its dark gold color, awesomely intense, sweet nose, unctuous, thick, fabulous flavor extraction, pinpoint precision, and a finish that lasted a minute or more, is the kind of wine on which Yquem’s reputation is based. It was liquified crème brûlée – an astonishing wine…” Adding to its value is a Record of Inspection from Chateau d’Yquem that authenticates the design of the bottle as consistent with production methods used at that time.

Christian was transiting in Singapore last week en route from London to Bali, where the precious bottle will be displayed at his new restaurant, the SIP Sunset Grill in Seminyak.  At the grand opening on 1st August 2011, members of the public will be able to view the record-breaking bottle, albeit through a custom made bullet-proof, temperature and humidity controlled showcase. Even when displayed at a press conference in Singapore, the bottle was assiduously attended to by security personnel. This careful handling displays the reverence he has for the wine. Perhaps he also remembers the lesson of wine merchant William Sokolin, notoriously remembered as having broken the world’s most expensive bottle of wine, a 1787 Chateau Margaux valued at US$225,000.

What possesses people to pay such stratospheric figures for a bottle of wine? For Christian, the bottle represents a piece of history. He says, “1811 is a date that Napoleon was in power in France, James Madison was the President of the United States, Beethoven was writing the 7th, and Franz Liszt and Napoleon II were born. I always knew that I had Napoleon’s height, but now I know that I have something from his reign also.” 1811 also marks the year a brilliant comet appeared in the night skies; wine lovers claim that the astronomical entity bestowed wines from that vintage with extraordinary finesse and longevity.

The bottle was sold to Christian by the Antique Wine Company, a London-based rare wine specialist that was also responsible for the sale of the previous record holder, a 1787 Chateau d’Yquem. Its track record of selling fine wines since 1982 gave Christian the confidence to purchase the bottle. At the handing over ceremony in London, Stephen Williams (Managing Director of the Antique Wine Company) said that “Most days, we handle extraordinary transactions, but today is very, very special because this is such a unique, rare and valuable bottle of wine.”

Christian plans to open the bottle in August 2017 at the three Michelin-star La Tour d’Argent restaurant in Paris to commemorate the 50th anniversary since he started his career there as the Head Sommelier. It was at that very establishment that his love of Yquem came about, having purchased numerous bottles for the restaurant’s wine cellar. The guest list and menu for the dinner have already been planned out. He says, “A sommelier is not a collector, a sommelier is a wine drinker. This bottle was never purchased with the idea of investment in mind.”

That being said, Christian is already reaping rewards from his purchase. Newswires around the world have been buzzing about the transaction, and this has helped generate tremendous publicity for his new restaurant. There will no doubt be a long queue of people craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the famous bottle at the SIP Sunset Grill, and people who do not usually associate Bali as a place to drink fine wine will have to rethink their position. In fact, the SIP Sunset Grill will boast the largest and most comprehensive wine cellar in Indonesia when it opens. From a marketing perspective, the purchase has been a complete success.

As a judge in the 1976 Paris Wine Tasting, Christian witnessed a landmark event in which the superiority of French wines was challenged. However, his latest gambit shows that when it comes to prestige and resale value, Bordeaux still sets the standard. A thought that will surely make the wine taste all the sweeter.