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.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Shaw + Smith = Delicious Wine!

Michael Hill Smith wears many hats in the wine industry, among them as an international wine judge, wine writer and wine consultant. But perhaps his proudest achievement is the Shaw + Smith winery, jointly set up in 1989 with his cousin Martin Shaw. His annual luncheons in Singapore to celebrate the winery’s latest release are packed affairs attended by the cognoscenti of the wine trade. This year's luncheon, held at the Jade Palace Restaurant, featured four Shaw + Smith wines paired with a selection of dim sum.

Shaw + Smith is located in Adelaide Hills, a cool-climate region located thirty minutes away from Adelaide by car. I first visited the winery in January 2009 and was impressed by the quality and fruit character of the wines. Tasting the wines again reinforced my perception, despite the fact that 2011 was a challenging vintage. In particular, the 2011 Sauvignon Blanc was memorable for its pure varietal character and zingy acidity. Imagine a bowl of tangy passion fruit with fresh lime squeezed all over and you'll get an idea of how it tastes like.

During the past twenty years that Michael has been visiting Singapore, he’s noticed that there has been an “explosion in the interest, understanding and appreciation of wine in Singapore.” He commented that “In Australia, we are struggling somewhat because the younger generation is all drinking spirits, because they drink what their parents didn’t. Whereas in Singapore, you have the opposite; the parents are drinking spirits and beer, and the younger generation is embracing wine in a really exciting way.”

The increasing competition in the wine trade in Singapore means that producers have to find ways of differentiating themselves from the rest of the crowd, or risk disappearing amidst the multitude of labels on retail shelves. In particular, the big Australian wine companies are struggling to differentiate between the brands that they have. "In the old days," says Michael, "they used to pick a winemaker, and the focus of the brand was the winemaker. So if you tasted Seppelts, it was always Ian Mckenzie, if it was Penfolds it was John Duval.. so there was always a very likeable, very skilled winemaker who you liked and therefore you reacted well to whereas now, it's just a sea of wine."

Having a winemaker such as Michael, who is also Australia's first Master of Wine, at the helm certainly helps Shaw + Smith. In many ways, Michael is the public face of Shaw + Smith, and people come to the tastings not only for the quality of the wines, but also to hear Michael's opinion on all thing vinous. It really illustrates the two factors that come into play when choosing wine; the reputation and skill of the winemaker, versus the sometimes abstract notion of terroir. A discussion for another day perhaps.

Tasting notes:
Shaw + Smith Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2011 - A pale, silvery lemon robe with notes of lime and passion fruit on the nose. A fresh and lively palate with mineral notes and intense fruitiness. Long and juicy finish. 2011 was an unusually wet and cool vintage, with above average rain in February and March. Winemakers had to contend with botrytis and downy mildew. Shaw + Smith was able to maintain quality by hand picking grapes which were not affected by disease.

Shaw + Smith Adelaide Hills M3 Chardonnay 2009 - The wine takes its name from the M3 vineyard which represents the owners Martin Shaw, Michael and Matthew Hill Smith. Pale straw colour. Lovely aromas of cashew, butter and citrus fruit. Medium bodied, silky texture with a lasting finish. The Adelaide Hills style of Chardonnay is a departure from the oaky, heavy flavours that dominate Australian Chardonnay. Clonal selection, whole bunch pressing and hand harvesting is done to produce wines of complexity and restraint.   

Shaw + Smith Adelaide Hills Shiraz 2009 - Deep ruby with aromas of dark chocolate and black fruit. A punchy palate with notes of blackcurrant, dark chocolate, graphite and a dash of white pepper. There will be no Shaw + Smith Shiraz for the 2011 vintage as the fruit was not judged to be up to quality standards.

Shaw + Smith Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir 2009 - Pinot Noir is often known as the heartbreak varietal because of its fussy growing requirements. This wine had varietal characters of raspberry and red cherry. Ripe, but with sufficient acidity to prevent it from being soupy. Shaw + Smith recently purchased the Tolpuddle vineyard in Tasmania, and will start bottling single vineyard Pinot Noirs from there in 2013.

Many thanks to Christine Wee of Monopole Pte Ltd for extending an invitation to this event.