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.