Sunday 25 November 2012

Katnook Estate: An Iconic Winery, from an Iconic Wine Region

One of Australia’s most famous wine regions, Coonawarra (pop. 335), is also its most remote. Unlike the Hunter Valley, Adelaide Hills or Yarra Valley, which can be easily accommodated within a day’s itinerary from the nearest capital city, Coonawarra is a five hour drive from either Adelaide or Melbourne. Luckily for us here in Singapore, Coonawarra came to us instead, in the form of Katnook Estate during a dinner at Mag’s Wine Kitchen

Australia is a country shaped by brands such as Penfolds and Jacob’s Creek, yet in recent years a distinct focus on regionality has begun to take shape. As the Barossa Valley is inextricably linked to its rich, heady Shiraz, so too is Coonawarra associated with Cabernet Sauvignon. Coonawarra’s famous terra rossa soils, a reddish brown topsoil of clay and loam over well-drained limestone, is said to be ideally suited to the Cabernet Sauvignon grape variety. Including the word Coonawarra on the label now commands a price premium that was the source of acrimonious debate between winemakers and the courts over the boundaries of this region. 

The area where Katnook Estate now stands was once a fruit farm owned by John Riddoch, an Irish immigrant who founded Coonawarra. Katnook Estate has gone through several changes of ownership, culminating in its purchase by the Spanish conglomerate Freixenet in 2008. Continuity is provided by winemaker Wayne Stehbens who has been at the helm since the first commercial vintage in 1980. Under his watch, Katnook Estate has won two Jimmy Watson trophies and an inclusion in Langton’s Classification of Australian wine. The wines are divided into the following tiers starting with the top range; Katnook Limited Release, Katnook Estate and Katnook Founder’s Block.

The dinner got off to a good beginning with a plump, melt-in-your-mouth scallop carpaccio with pumpkin puree, soya and wasabi pearls. It was paired with the Katnook Estate Riesling 2009, a fruit driven wine with notes of lime, Chinese plum, guava and stone fruit. Pronounce mineral intensity and juicy acidity provide firm structure while the finish reveals a hint of kerosene. Discovering that an area known for Cabernet Sauvignon can also produce noteworthy Rieslings is somewhat of a surprise. Alison Harvey of Wingara Wine Group (an Australian offshoot owned by Freixenet) notes that there are other soils beside terra rossa in Connawarra, saying “The link between grape variety and region is not as straightforward as the Old World would have you believe”.  

The next wine, also white, served to reinforce this notion. The Katnook Estate Chardonnay 2010 displayed intense aromas of yoghurt, vanilla and melted butter overlaying citrus and pear fruit, a delicious expression of modern Australian Chardonnay. This was served with a 63 degree egg with sautéed lobster in chorizo oil and potato ribbons. The creamy texture of the egg yolk contrasted nicely with the salty cubes of chorizo, each bite giving a small explosion of flavour. 

The next two wines were from the Founder’s Block range, a Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz both from the 2010 vintage. Alison states that whereas the Katnook Estate series requires some time in bottle, Founder’s Block wines can be appreciated immediately. Another difference is that grapes for Founder’s Block are bought in while the Estate label is sourced entirely from Katnook’s own vineyards*. The Cabernet had a distinctive nose with notes of black fruits and bell pepper while the Shiraz had softer, riper notes of spice and plums. Accompanying these wines were the two most sinful dishes of the evening, a marbled, umami-rich wagyu tataki with garlic honey soy, and smoked duck breast with onion confit and deliciously chilled flakes of foie gras. 

The final wine of the evening was a real stunner. The first vintage of the Katnook Limited Release Shiraz, made from young vines, managed to win the Jimmy Watson Trophy in 1998 straight off the bat. The early success of this wine led to it being named “Prodigy”. Along with the “Odyssey” Cabernet Sauvignon, both wines are the flagships of Katnook Estate. We sampled the Prodigy Shiraz 2008, which was admittedly far too young to fully appreciate, but already showed marvellous complexity on the nose and palate. Dense and tight at first, it was persuaded to yield intense plum, forest fruits, spice and blueberry flavours when paired with chef Magdelene Tang’s generously portioned lamb rack with root vegetables. 

Thanks to Crystal Wines Pte Ltd, the local distributor of Katnook Estates, you can obtain the wines in Singapore instead of travelling to Coonawarra, but if you decide that nothing beats the authentic experience, you will be welcomed by friendly staff and a newly renovated cellar door that stays true to its 19th century architecture. It’s a fairly long trip, but as the saying goes, getting there is half the fun. The other half is the Odyssey. 

* 27/11/2012 - Alison has informed me that fruit for the Founder's Block range is now 100% sourced from Katnook Estate's own vineyards.

Saturday 17 November 2012

Bordeaux 2009: Three Years On

In 2009, I visited Bordeaux twice, once in September and again in October. There were already murmurings about the quality of the vintage then, with a lot of pleased grins and rubbing of hands. The constant hyping of Bordeaux made this writer cast a cynical eye over the comments, but undoubtedly winemakers were looking very relaxed as they perused the grapes coming into the winery. The weather was also very fine during my stays, misty mornings giving way to bright sunshine during the afternoon. I took advantage of this by jogging around the vineyards in the morning, keeping an eye out for the wild boars that I had been assured were a possibility. Unfortunately none materialised and I was deprived of the opportunity to drag back a carcass for lunch.

Thanks to the efforts of Ch'ng Poh Tiong, author of the well-researched book 108 Great Chinese Dishes Paired, I had the opportunity to revisit the vintage this month. The thirty wines on show covered the major Bordeaux appellations, the Left Bank being represented by wines from St-Estèphe, Pauillac, St-Julien, Margaux, Graves and Pessac-Léognan while wines from Pomerol and St-Émilion acted as proxies for the Merlot-dominated Right Bank. There were even a couple of sweet wines from Barsac and Sauternes. 

It became obvious fairly quickly that these were wines that you did not have to wait decades further to enjoy. The soft, rounded tannins and sweet fruit made them a joy to be consumed today. Another attractive factor was the lushness of texture, a plush, gentle caress that swathed the tongue while firm acidity lent structure to the wines. This was even more apparent in the dry white wines, brilliant examples of singing fruit and waxy smoothness. Alcohol levels, while being high due to the ripeness of the vintage, were for the most part well-integrated and barely noticeable. 

One of my friends wondered aloud if these were wines that could keep, considering how plush and ripe they are today. It is a valid question - the wines are certainly showing very well now, with only a few (mostly from Pauillac) displaying slower evolution. There is a risk that as they age, the baby fat will overwhelm the acids, leading to overweight, flabby wines. The wines that will age well are the ones with enough structure and freshness to go the distance. 

Tasting notes (all from 2009 vintage): 

Château Chantegrive Rouge (Graves) - Deep ruby, rich and concentrated nose with some menthol, grilled meat, baked clay and blackcurrant. High acidity, ripe medium tannins, medium+ alcohol, medium+ body with a velvety texture and long finish. 

Château Belgrave (Haut-Médoc) - Deep ruby-purple. Ripe and forward nose, medium+ intensity with dark fruit. Medium acidity with well defined black fruit if a bit simple, finishing with crunchy black cherry. Medium length. 

Château Sénéjac (Haut-Médoc) - Medium ruby. Medium+ intensity nose, slightly vegetal. Medium acidity, ripe tannins, black fruit with medium intensity, medium bodied, fruit is a little light. In a classic style.

Château Beaumont (Haut-Médoc) - Medium ruby. Ripe black fruits with some toasty oak influence on the nose. Well-defined blackcurrant on the palate, with medium acidity, ripe medium tannins, medium+ alcohol, and medium+ length. Supple texture and good fruit concentration.

Château Petit-Village (Pomerol) - Deep inky ruby. Restrained and brooding nose with a lot of underlying power. High acidity, medium+ resolved tannins with black plum, licorice and forest fruits. Complex and long lived.

Château Canon (St-Émilion) - Deep purple. Savoury fruit with notes of plum and sandalwood on the nose. Medium acidity, medium tannins with black plum and savoury notes, medium intensity. Shows good balance. 

Château Laroze (St-Émilion) - Medium ruby. Nose is rather closed. Medium+ acidity, medium- ripe tannins, medium body, medium- intensity, with raspberry and black plums. Medium length.

Château Monlot (St-Émilion) - Medium ruby. Black plums and slight hint of menthol on the nose, with medium+ mouthwatering acidity, generous fruit, gentle but persistent tannins and medium+ alcohol showing a slight warmth in the finish.

Domaine de Chevalier Rouge (Graves) - Deep ruby. Medium+ intensity, dense and toasty nose with black fruit and earth. Medium+ acidity, ripe black fruits, very polished. Deft use of oak adding texture and body. Medium+ length. Modern.

Château Haut-Bailly (Pessac-Léognan) - Deep ruby. Medium intensity nose, savoury with tobacco notes. Palate has medium acidity, medium tannins with black cherries and a hint of vanilla. Slightly hollow midway. 

Château Olivier (Pessac-Léognan) - Deep ruby. Rich warm nose, even a bit nutty. Heady. Medium acidity, warm bricks on the palate, shows richness, lush texture and warmth backed with masses of fruit. Medium+ length.

Château Smith Haut Lafitte Le Petit Haut Lafitte (Graves) -
Deep ruby. Rich cassis nose. Medium+ acidity with solid fruit and harmonious structure. Medium length. 

Château Ormes de Pez (St-Estèphe) - Deep cherry ruby. Earthy and funky nose with hints of capsicum and sulphur. Medium acidity and medium+ tannins on the palate with black fruits. 

Château Phélan Ségur (St-Estèphe) - Deep cherry ruby. Noticeable oak on the nose, charred toast and vanilla. Black fruit with deft oak handling on the palate, very modern, rich and concentrated with fully ripe tannins.

Château Brane-Cantenac (Margaux) - Deep ruby. Elegant and perfumed nose with a suggestion of violets. High acidity, generous fruit with dark chocolate. Well structured.

Château du Tertre (Margaux) - Deep ruby. Slight rubber notes on the nose with toasted oak and spice. Palate has medium+ acidity, medium+ body with a soft and velvety texture. Blackcurrant throughout finishing with exotic spices. Medium length.

Château Giscours (Margaux) - Deep ruby. Sous bois nose, medium+ intensity, dense. Medium acidity, medium resolved tannins, bell pepper and crushed black fruit on the palate with medium length. 

Château Kirwan (Margaux) - Deep ruby. Ethereal, complex nose with notes of lead pencil, violets and black fruit. Full bodied and quite grippy on the palate with medium tannins and a long finish. Brawny and powerful. 

Château Rauzan-Ségla (Margaux) - Deep ruby. Toasty nose with loamy earth. Medium acidity, concentrated fruit, juicy and almost jammy. Underscored by oak. Medium length. Beautifully balanced.

Amiral de Beychevelle (St-Julien) - Deep ruby. Typical Bordeaux nose with slight dustiness and ripe black fruit. Ripe and rounded on the palate with a hint of blackcurrant gummies. Medium+ length.

Château Beychevelle (St-Julien) - Deep ruby. Steely, iron like nose. Medium+ tannins, rich black fruit with spicy notes and hints of cinnamon. Long and warming finish.

Château Langoa-Barton (St-Julien) - Deep ruby. Oak on the nose with some floral undertones. Plum and black fruit with hints of game fill the palate. Supple texture. Medium length.

Château Léoville Barton (St-Julien) - Deep purple. Youthful nose with primary black fruit. Sweet and ripe tannins. Long finish.

Château Talbot (St-Julien) - Deep ruby. Medium- intensity nose, restrained. Inky black fruit on the palate with milk chocolate, ripe tannins, well structured and youthful. 

Château Lynch-Bages (Pauillac) - Deep ruby. Rich and perfumed nose with notes of forest floor and licorice. Medium acidity, ripe medium+ tannins, and medium alcohol. 

Château Pichon-Longueville (Pauillac) - Deep ruby. Rich cassis and black fruit aromas. Ripe and concentrated palate with steely mineral notes. Medium tannins and fresh acidity. Medium+ length.

Château Chantegrive Blanc "Cuvee Caroline" (Graves) - Pale lemon. Pronounced nose of toast and hazelnut. Crisp acidity and oak frame a lemon and waxy palate. Long and elegant finish.

Château Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc (Graves) - Pale lemon. Restrained nose with a hint of grass. Mango and tropical fruits lead the palate. Full bodied with a lush texture, backed by medium acidity.

Château Doisy-Védrines (Barsac) - Pale lemon. Pronounced pineapple and waxy aromas, intense richness and depth on the palate with concentrated notes of tropical fruit and citrus framed by lively acidity. Nice and fleshy with a long finish. 

Château Suduiraut (Sauternes) - Pale lemon gold, tropical and stone fruits on the nose. Medium intensity, full bodied with citrus and tropical fruits, refreshing acidity, medium- alcohol. Long finish.

Sunday 11 November 2012

The Great Bordeaux 2009 Tasting

This Saturday offers a rare opportunity to taste the Bordeaux 2009 vintage. At three years old, has it lived up to its hype? Details as follows:

What: The Great Bordeaux 2009 Tasting
When: Saturday 17th November 2012, 2 to 5 pm
Where: Salon by the Pool, Level 4, Conrad Centennial Singapore
Who to contact: Ms Ruby Manansala or Ms Sharon Teo  (65) 6432 7489 / 87 (during office hours)
How much are the tickets: SGD33++ per person

The list of wineries and their appellation within Bordeaux are:
  • Château Beaumont (Haut-Médoc)
  • Château Belgrave (Haut-Médoc)
  • Château Beychevelle (St-Julien)
  • Château Brane-Cantenac (Margaux)
  • Château Canon (St-Émilion)
  • Château Chantegrive (Graves)
  • Château Doisy-Védrines (Barsac)
  • Château Giscours (Margaux)
  • Château Haut-Bailly (Pessac-Léognan)
  • Château Kirwan (Margaux)
  • Château Langoa-Barton (St-Julien)
  • Château Laroze (St-Émilion)
  • Château Léoville Barton (St-Julien)
  • Château Lynch-Bages (Pauillac)
  • Château Monlot (St-Émilion)
  • Château Olivier (Pessac-Léognan)
  • Château Ormes de Pez (St-Estèphe)
  • Château Petit-Village (Pomerol)
  • Château Phélan Ségur (St-Estèphe)
  • Château Pichon-Longueville (Pauillac)
  • Château Rauzan-Ségla (Margaux)
  • Château Sénéjac (Haut-Medoc)
  • Château Smith Haut Lafitte (Graves)
  • Château Suduiraut (Sauternes)
  • Château Talbot (St-Julien)
  • Château du Tertre (Margaux)
  • Domaine de Chevalier (Graves)

Sunday 4 November 2012

Experiencing the lightness of Koshu

If you are establishing a winery in a region heretofore not known for producing quality wine, you could perhaps benefit from including the word “grace” somewhere in its name. One of the definitions of that word is a manifestation of favour, and it seems true that eponymous wineries have found a measure of fame and success. Grace Vineyards, in the Shanxi province of China, rocked the wine world by producing credible Bordeaux-style blends and is continuing its medal winning streak in international wine competitions. Even further east, Grace Winery in Katsunuma, Japan, has been pushing into international markets and trumpeting the merits of Japanese grape varieties such as Koshu. 

Although sounding like a noise you would make when suffering a cold, Koshu is certainly nothing to sneeze at. The grape is large and thick skinned, which helps it resist the wet and humid climate whereas other varieties would succumb to mildew and rot. The vine is extremely vigorous, and to manage the foliage producers often use an overhead vine-training system, a method known locally as tanazukuri. The Yamanashi prefecture (within which the town of Katsunuma is located), is home to almost all plantings of Koshu in Japan.  

I had originally intended to visit Grace Winery, but my timing clashed with their 10th anniversary celebrations for the Akeno vineyard and the facilities were closed. My contact, the ever-efficient Yuka Ogasawara from the promotional body Koshu of Japan, arranged a visit with two other wineries, Haramo and Rubaiyat. The train ride to Katsunuma from Shinjuku, via the JR Chuo line, took one and a half hours. Timetables can be accessed here (look under the heading “Limited Express trains on the Chuo line” and be sure to take note of whether your travel is on a weekday or weekend). Upon reaching Katsunuma, I was faced with a long queue of people waiting for taxis. Apparently I was not the only one who was interested in Japanese wine.

A meeting with Shintaro Furuya, winemaker and President of Haramo Wine, shed some light on the organisation of the wine industry in Japan. The Yamanashi prefecture is known for producing quality grapes, which can command higher prices when sold for eating rather than making wine, so growers are understandably reluctant to reduce yields. Large companies dominate wine production, although smaller growers such have a better reputation for quality wine. Due to the small size of vineyard holdings, producers rely heavily on bought-in grapes. For the smaller wineries, business continuation is an issue, as the younger generation is reluctant to get into the physically demanding work of winemaking.

Through decades of experience, Japanese winemakers have learnt how to extract the best qualities out of the Koshu grape. Maturation on the lees (the spent yeast added during winemaking) is common to add flavour and texture to the wine. At Rubaiyat, owner Haruo Omura explains that he uses hyperoxidation for the white wines to reduce the phenolic content and bitterness that result from the thick skin of the grape.  Fermentations are kept at low temperatures using a heat exchanger. Oak treatment is the exception rather than the norm for this variety. 

Koshu is a versatile variety. It is most commonly found as a dry white wine, although I have tasted (less impressive) sparkling and rose versions. The wines are light bodied with exotic perfumed notes reminiscent of Muscat, and a lean mineral streak on the palate. Shintaro-san recommends drinking within two years, five if the wine has been aged in barrel. There is something quintessentially Japanese about these wines. Perhaps it is the touch of refinement, so often found in Japanese cuisine, or the delicacy of the wines, with flavours that tease rather than stand out. 

By happy coincidence, I was able to taste wines from Grace Winery back in Singapore during the Wine Fiesta organised by The Straits Wine Company. By the time I reached the booth though, the Koshu wines had finished and only the reds remained. A sign of its popularity?

Winery profiles and tasting notes:

Haramo Wine
A small winery established in 1924 as a cooperative and then converted to a family-owned business in 1973. Annual production is around 70,000 bottles, with Koshu accounting for half the total. International varieties include Chardonnay and Merlot. 

Haramo Koshu 2010 - Very pale water white. Floral aromas with hints of grapefruit. The palate is dry and light bodied with notes of green apple and a slight bitterness. Unoaked. 

Haramo Chardonnay 2008 - Stewed vegetables aromas. Fruit salad on the palate with crisp acidity and a hint of oak. Medium+ length. 

Haramo Merlot 2009 - Medium ruby appearance. Red cherries and some vanilla on the nose. Palate is slightly restrained, with medium+ acidity and a medium body. An international and recognisable style with clear varietal characteristics.  

Rubaiyat Wine
Medium-sized operation with annual production of 160,000 bottles. Grapes are sorted by hand and fermentation is done in cement tanks. An impressive cellar, with old cement tanks (still with tartrate deposits on the walls) used to store wine in bottles. Look out for owner Haruo Omura’s eclectic collection of corkscrews. The winery name is taken from a set of ancient Persian poems that celebrate the pleasures of wine. 

Rubaiyat Koshu ‘Sur Lie’ 2011 - Pale water white with grape and lime aromas. Medium bodied with a mineral streak and lively acidity. 

Rubaiyat Muscat Bailey A 2010 - Muscat Bailey A is a local hybrid variety. Sweet, confected nose of red fruits and maraschino cherries. Off dry on the palate, light bodied with a profile of crushed berries. Decidedly an acquired taste. 

Rubaiyat Petit Domaine 2007 - A Bordeaux-blend of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon from locally-grown grapes. Nose exhibits a perfumed lift with slight stalkiness. Medium+ intensity with a good depth of flavour on the palate. An approachable, medium bodied wine with soft tannins. 

Saturday 22 September 2012

The Wines of Errazuriz

Executive Winemaker Francisco Baettig
The people of Viña Errazuriz have an impressive list of credentials. Its founder, Don Maximiano Errazuriz, was an accomplished businessman and diplomat in addition to being a winemaker. His descendant, Eduardo Chadwick has been guiding the winery since 1983 and was responsible for introducing Syrah to Chile in the 1990s, while Executive Winemaker Francisco Baettig was voted 2011 Winemaker of the Year by the Chilean Circle of Food and Wine Writers. 

I caught up with Francisco as he passed through Singapore earlier this month. He was calm and focused despite the airline having lost his luggage on the trip from Chile. With the foresight of a well-seasoned traveller, he had kept what he needed close to him and was well prepared for the trade tasting organised by Beam Global Asia. 

Errazuriz is recognised as a top quality producer based in the middle of the Aconcagua region. Nestled in a valley between a low coastal range and the Andes mountains, the climate is Mediterranean, with warm summers moderated by cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean. The wines are divided into four categories; Icons, Max Reserva, Specialties and Estate.  In the 1990s Eduardo and Robert Mondavi from California embarked on a series of joint ventures, these were then acquired by Errazuriz when Constellation Brands bought the Robert Mondavi Winery. Of these joint ventures, the most significant is Seña, billed as Chile’s first “icon” wine.

With the goal of establishing Chilean wine as capable of going toe to toe with the world’s best, in January 2004 Eduardo organised a blind tasting pitting Errazuriz Cabernets against those from Italy and France. In what has come to be known as the “Berlin Tasting” (after the city in which the tasting was held), the 2000 Viñedo Chadwick and 2001 Seña came in first and second respectively, beating wines such as Château Lafite and Sassicaia. These tastings have since been held regularly (in different countries) to demonstrate the quality of Chilean wine to a worldwide audience. 

Asked what he thinks is the most significant development in Chilean wine today, Francisco replies that there has been great improvement in cool climate winemaking, especially with Chardonnay in the coastal areas. While Cabernet Sauvignon still dominates plantings, wines made from varietals such as Viognier and Carignan are becoming increasingly visible. “It’s very diverse now, very interesting,” says Francisco. 

Tasting notes:

Errazuriz Max Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2011 – Pale lemon with a youthful nose of gooseberry, nettle and passionfruit. Very fresh and vibrant on the palate, with lychee and gooseberry notes. 

Errazuriz Chardonnay Wild Ferment 2010 – Fermented using native yeasts to add complexity to the wine. Medium lemon appearance, toasty and nutty notes on the nose with green apple. Well integrated oak lending a subtle buttery note to the wine. Medium+ length.

Errazuriz Carmenere Single Vineyard 2008 – Deep ruby.  Takes a little time to open, but then exhibits intense mocha and dark chocolate notes. Very soft and ripe tannins, slightly stalky with notes of plum and spice. 

Errazuriz La Cumbre Shiraz 2006 – Part of the Icons range, the fruit for this wine was sourced from three vineyards in the Aconcagua Valley. Deep ruby robe. Youthful nose of rich, ripe fruit, with an aromatic lift that I would guess comes from the 3% Petit Verdot blended into this wine. Very plush tannins, with ripe forest fruits and great concentration. Well defined and structured. 

Errazuriz Don Maximiano Founder’s Reserve 2006
– Bordeaux blend. Errazuriz’s flagship wine, named after its founder. Deep ruby with a garnet edge. Developing aromas of dark chocolate, blackcurrant and plum. Ripe tannins, approachable and harmonic, an intense palate with a long, flavourful finish.  

Errazuriz Don Maximiano Founder’s Reserve 2007 – Developing slower than the 2006. Still quite impenetrable, with firm tannins and black fruit overlayed with fresh acidity. 

Errazuriz Viñedo Chadwick 2007 – 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. The Viñedo Chadwick vineyards are located in the Maipo Valley, known for its high quality reds. This wine exhibited black fruits and cigar box aromas, with a generous palate of cassis, cedar and spice. Lush tannins, with medium acidity and a persistent finish. 

Errazuriz is distributed in Singapore by Beam Global Asia.

Chile Grows Up

Photo courtesy of Errazuriz

Chile, as a wine producing country, reminds me of a kindergarten kid who is perfectly happy playing alone in one corner. It is a country noted for its extreme isolation, due in large part to the surrounding geographical features that act as natural boundaries. To the north is the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world, while to the south lies the cold emptiness of Antarctica. The majestic Andes loom in the east while the blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean dominates the west. 

This isolation means that even though the history of wine in Chile spans several hundred years, starting when Spanish settlers arrived with the vine in the 16th century, in a very real way the modern story of Chilean wine only started around the 1980s. Faced with falling domestic consumption and the removal of protectionist policies, winemakers were forced for the first time to consider exporting to international markets. Initially, the world did not pay much attention to this newcomer. What could a nation with outdated winemaking equipment, unexceptional varietals and cheap, rustic wine possibly offer? 

But there was more to Chile than anyone suspected. By not mixing around with the other kids, Chile was spared much of the nasty viruses and diseases that spread like a contagion in the 19th century. In particular, Chile had never contracted the HFMD of the wine world - the scourge known as phylloxera. Warm, dry summers and plentiful water for irrigation ensure a healthy, reliably ripening crop. Within a decade, more than 10,000 ha of vineyards were planted with international varieties and substantial investments had gone into modernising vineyards and wineries. Chilean wine soon became synonymous with good value and varietal expressiveness. 

That image, while beneficial to producers of low to mid-priced wine, presents a difficulty to those who now want to position Chile as a producer of high quality, premium wine. One of the greatest challenges for Chile is to move away from the image as a producer of cheap and good wines. In the September issue of The Drinks Business, editor Patrick Schmitt stated that Chile “needed to focus on higher-priced grape varietals allied to high-quality regions.”

Francisco Baettig, winemaker at Errazuriz, is aware of the hurdles Chilean wine must face. “It takes time to achieve recognition,” he admits. “Once people know the country, they really love it. That’s why we travel.” The country’s generic body, Wines of Chile, has also been active in promoting Chilean wine regions and organising tastings around the world. And of course, there is Chile’s star varietal, Carmenere. Rarely found in its native France today, Chilean Carmenere produces deeply crimson wine with lusciously rich fruit. At a tasting of Chilean wines at the Decanter Asia Wine Awards, it was the flight of Carmenere wines that most impressed me with their consistent quality. 

Certainly, Chile lost many opportunities in the course of its turbulent political and economic history. But with energetic advocates and exciting new wine regions, the future of Chilean wine looks bright. 

Next up: The Wines of Errazuriz

Sunday 9 September 2012

Taste Martinborough - Redefining Wine Royalty

In many winemaking countries, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are seen as the King and Queen of grapes. They are possessed of certain noble traits, such as the ability to relate easily to people and are quite adapt in acclimatising themselves to different environments. Like all royalty they have an air of sombre dignity, producing wines of superlative quality and ageability. 

However, there are some in the royal family who do not fit the typical mould. Feisty and strong-charactered, Sauvignon Blanc tired of the rigid trappings of her native France and established her own court in New Zealand back in the 1970s. The winemakers in New Zealand allowed her to express herself fully, and soon the world was falling in love with her forward style. Youthfulness and intense varietal character are the hallmarks of a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, and even those unfamiliar with the wine regions of New Zealand would be able to pick out the snow pea, grass and gooseberry flavours of this wine. 

For some time now, the search has been ongoing to find a suitable consort for Sauvignon Blanc, a red varietal to complete the vinous offerings of New Zealand. Winemakers believe they may have found an answer in Pinot Noir. Unlike the hardy and popular Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir is a dreamy poet. He can be selective and temperamental, and if the climate and soil are not to his exact liking, the result can be a disastrous harvest.  Fortunately, he took a shine to the Martinborough region, and it is from here that New Zealand Pinot Noir has earned the highest international acclaim. 

I had an opportunity to sample these wines at the Taste Martinborough Food and Wine Evening organised by The Local Nose. The tasting was held at Buyan and accompanied with a selection of appetisers such as Pirozhki (Russian Pastry with Meat and Cheese Filling) and Stchi (Russian Cabbage Soup). The list of participating wineries reads like a Who’s Who of top Martinborough producers, with names such as Ata Rangi, Craggy Range, Martiborough Vineyards and Schubert. The wineries differ vastly in size, with Ata Rangi and Cambridge Road representing the small but established players alongside larger producers such as Te Kairanga, Martinborough Vineyards and Craggy Range. Rounding off the list is a new crop of boutique wineries which include Haythornthwaite, Brodie Estates, Schubert and Vynfields. 

Martinborough Pinot Noir tends to be light to medium bodied, well-structured and with more fruity than floral notes. Alcohol levels range from 13-14%, but are well integrated so that they add flesh and body without detracting from the balance of the wine. A pleasant discovery was the range of other varietals at the tasting such as Syrah, Chardonnay and Gewurtztraminer, highlighting the diverse offerings of the region. 

The growth of Pinot Noir in New Zealand over the past few years has been nothing short of remarkable. It is now the second most planted varietal in New Zealand after Sauvignon Blanc, covering around 4800 ha. With its expressive varietal character and silky texture, it is easy to see why the local populace has seen fit to elevate Pinot Noir to the throne. As wine writer Jancis Robinson commented, “The best (NZ Pinot Noir) are nowhere near as good as the best red burgundy, but the worst are so, so much more delicious than the worst burgundy.”

Winery profiles and tasting notes:

Established by Mark and Susan Haythornthwaite in the early 1990s. The first plantings were in 1992 with Pinot Noir, followed by Pinot Gris and Gewurtztraminer. Each wine is named after a family member or friend. 

Haythornthwaite Susan Gewurtztraminer 2008 – Enticing nose of starfruit and ginger. Off dry, with notes of honey, lime, pineapple and lychee that linger through to the long finish. 

Haythornthwaite Pamela Gewurtztraminer 2011 – Varietal character of rosewater, spice and lychee. Medium dry, with some heft on the palate although it doesn’t cross the line into cloying. 

Haythornthwaite Catherine Petit Pinor 2006 – The name Petit indicates that it comes from younger vines. Perfumed aroma, with notes of earth and forest floor. Light bodied with ripe medium- tannins, red fruits, beef extract and black cherry. 

Te Kairanga
Established in 1984, Te Kairanga was the largest vineyard operator in Martinborough when it was bought by American billionaire Bill Foley in 2011. 

Te Kairanga Sauvignon Blanc 2010 – Typical Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. Gooseberry and grass notes with an interesting squeeze of starfruit on the palate. Bright and lively.

Te Kairanga Chardonnay 2010
– Primary fruit characters of melon and apricot. Slightly muted on the nose. Vanilla and oak dominate on the palate. Creamy texture. 

Established in 1998 by Kai Schubert and Marion Deimling, both graduates of the famed Geisenheim University in Germany. Having tasted the wines several times over the years, I would venture to say that they are consistently impressive. 

Schubert Marion’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 – Intense aromatics of red fruits, with charred oak. A crunchy character to the fruit, backed with refreshing acids. Medium+ alcohol but with masses of ripe fruit to balance it out. Long finish. 

Schubert Block B Pinot Noir 2010 – Made from plantings of newer Dijon clones. Raspberry nose, with a mineral undercurrent. Nervy and taut on the palate with earthy notes. Long and complex. 

Cambridge Road
The first organically managed vineyard in Martinborough, established in 1986. Proprietor Lance Redgwell now farms the vineyard biodynamically. 

Cambridge Road Pinot Noir 2009 – Earthy nose, reminiscent of clay, with raspberry. Some spice on the palate, with crunchy red berries. Light bodied with ripe medium- tannins. Elegant with great purity. 

Cambridge Road Syrah 2010 – An unusual blend of 91% Syrah and 9% Pinot Noir. Cool climate Syrah character was evident in this wine, with notes of blackcurrant, pepper and game. Slightly medicinal. 

Owners John Bell and Kaye McAulay embarked on a renovation of the vineyards in 1998, uprooting existing vines and replanting them with Pinot Noir. They did keep some of the Riesling as well as an unidentified varietal. Kai Schubert and Marion Deimling double up as winemakers for Vynfields. 

Vynfields Riesling 2010 – Minerally nose with lemon sherbet and lime. Slight bitterness on the palate with sharp acidity. 

Vynfields Mad Rooster 2010 – Made from an unknown grape that was present in the vineyards when John and Kaye took over. An earthy, almost sweaty nose with sour cherry fruit. Fresh acidity lending structure to the wine. Intriguing. 

Vynfields Pinot Noir 2009 – Pronounced intensity nose of boiled sweets, perfume and violet notes. Ripe, bright cherry fruit on the palate with a silky texture and a lasting finish. 

Ata Rangi
Justifiably Martinborough’s most acclaimed producer. “You can’t go wrong with Ata Rangi,” was a comment I overheard at the tasting. Their reputation is hard-earned, being one of the first wineries to set up in the region back in the 1980s. Founder Clive Paton along with wife Phyll and sister Alison laid much of the ground rules for growing Pinot Noir in New Zealand. 

Ata Rangi Crimson Pinot Noir 2010 – The name of the wine refers to Project Crimson, a conservation trust set up to preserve New Zealand’s pohutukawa and rata trees. Vibrant and approachable, the wine has an alluring aroma of fresh red cherries and woodsmoke. The palate is framed by lively acidity, supple tannins and concentrated fruit.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Wine Tasting with Louis Vialard

Visiting Bordeaux is an unforgettable experience. The luxury of the châteaux accommodations, the excellent food (coupled with rich sauces) and the attention to winemaking detail speak to the importance of this region that is the largest producer of AOC (appellation contrôlée) wines in France. But ask to purchase a bottle of the wine, and more often than not you would be politely referred to the nearest retailer. In contrast to many other wine regions, cellar door sales are a rarity in Bordeaux.

The reason for this is the stratified business model of selling wine in Bordeaux. The producers make the wine, but it is the négociants (wine merchants) who sell it, sometimes taking over the responsibility for bottling and ageing the wine as well. Courtiers (brokers) act as intermediaries between the producer and the négociant, helping to source stocks of wine and advising the producers on what price the market will bear. For this they typically get a commission of 2%. 

One of the players in this marketplace is the company of Louis Vialard S.A.S., a négociant that was set up in 1969. Its current chairman, Eric Hosteins, is a supporter of the Bordeaux trade structure. He explains that the négociants, with their extensive distribution network, play an irreplaceable role in getting the wine to the consumer. “We can deliver to a person in the middle of the jungle,” he states confidently. 

Besides acting as a distributor, Louis Vialard also owns wineries in Bordeaux and the Languedoc region. Eric was in Singapore earlier this August to conduct a tasting featuring wines from their own portfolio. Asia is a key region for Louis Vialard, accounting for nearly 70% of sales, with China alone responsible for a third of the company’s turnover. Eric attributes the company’s success to two reasons. “We produce rather good wines. And we remain affordable.”

Château Cissac, a Cru Bourgeois from the Haut-Médoc is undoubtedly the company’s most prized asset. The vineyards are planted on sandy gravel over clay and limestone with a composition of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot. The average age of the vines is 30 years. Maturation of the wine is in French oak casks (30-40% new) for 18-20 months. The 2008 poured at the tasting was in typical Bordeaux style, firm with notes of black fruit and toasted oak. Initially quite reticent, it opened up nicely after half an hour. 

Also featured at the tasting were wines from Domaine de Saint Dominique, a winery located in the Hérault department of the Languedoc region. Eric jokingly refers to this as his “toy winery” but some of the wines are nonetheless worthy of serious consideration. I was particularly impressed by the 2007 vintage, a blend of 50% Syrah, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot and 10% Merlot. Although classified as a mere Vin de Pays due to the use of non-traditional varietals, the wine showed complex notes of leather, tea leaf, chocolate and well-defined black fruits backed with grippy tannins and a harmonious structure. Domaine de Saint Dominique also produces a range of varietal wines under the La Chapelle label which are meant for everyday drinking. The latter is sold mostly in restaurants in the Southeast Asia region.

Eric was upbeat about the future of the wine business, but it is undoubtedly a business that is changing rapidly. The shift from traditional wine markets to the Far East, coupled with fluctuations in the price of fine wine means that companies cannot adopt a “business as usual” approach. As Eric states succinctly, “The risks are higher now”.

Thursday 16 August 2012

A Cross-Cultural Marriage

In my youth, whenever we gathered for dinner at my uncle’s place there would often be a small plate of achar (pickled vegetables) prepared by his mother. The latter was a proud Peranakan matriarch who wore the traditional sarong kebaya until her passing. I sometimes wonder if her achar was a subtle way of imprinting on us the culinary richness of her heritage. Although a mere condiment, the crunchy snap of preserved cucumber and carrots is forever embedded in my taste memory. Its sweet, spicy and sour flavours perfectly summarise the character of Peranakan cuisine.

Those dinner memories stayed with me as I grew up, and it was perhaps inevitable that I would grow more curious about the Peranakan way of life, in particular its treasure trove of recipes. The fusion of Chinese and Malay cultures through the marriage of Chinese immigrants with local women gave birth to a cuisine blessed with a bountiful list of ingredients. Herbs and spices such as coconut milk, chilli, shrimp paste and lemongrass were introduced to a wide variety of meats and vegetables such as chicken, pork, water spinach and sweet potato. The menu in a Peranakan restaurant typically consists of thirty to forty items, but this is merely scratching the surface of a diverse cuisine.

When looking to satisfy my craving for Peranakan food, I turn to one of my friends who makes a particularly good version of itek tim. This heady, spicy broth of tender duck meat and salted vegetables is a bowl of gustatory delight, enough to get me salivating at the thought. Said friend also happens to be gifted with a liver apparently made of cement, thus we often enjoy pairing our meals with alcoholic beverages. It was his suggestion to try a glass of Hennessy VSOP to go with the itek tim and to my delight I found that the alcohol served to heighten the aromas of the dish profoundly, directing them right through the olfactory senses.

Emboldened by this success, I embarked on a quest to find the ideal wine pairing for Peranakan food. There was a twofold challenge to this; firstly, Peranakan dishes emphasise communal dining with many dishes served together and secondly, because of its rich assortment of aromas, flavours and textures. Discovering the right match for this cuisine is akin to selecting a new instrument for an orchestral ensemble. The candidate must be able to contribute a distinct melody that enriches the music, but at the same time not so dominating as to disrupt the harmony that is already there. Delicate Burgundies and aged Bordeaux would struggle to be heard. On the other hand, high alcohol fruit bombs would clash with the Peranakan spices and leave the tongue numb. The right balance is to be found in young, fruity wines.

A white wine such as the Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2010 from Margaret River ($39.85, from Cold Storage) goes well with many of the dishes in Peranakan cuisine. The wine’s tangy passionfruit and saline notes are a good match with sour-salty dishes such as hee peow (fish maw) soup and itek tim. It also pairs well with the ubiquitous ayam buah keluak (stewed chicken with candlenut seed) which is sour and mildly spicy. The high acidity of the wine helps to wash down the oily sauce and refreshes the palate for the next bite.

When faced with denser, spicier dishes we need to turn to a red wine. Dishes such as babi pongteh (braised pork with salted bean paste) and beef rendang (simmered beef cubes in coconut milk and curry) call for a fruity Merlot like the single-varietal Anakena Merlot 2009 from Chile ($36.00, from Top Wines). Soft and juicy with rounded tannins, the wine has enough character to hold its own against the flavours of the dish. Merlots from the Vins de Pays d'Oc region, which are similarly fruit-forward, also work well.

Peranakan desserts tend to be very sweet and often contain coconut milk. Chendol (pandan-flavoured strands with shaved ice, coconut milk and palm sugar) and sago gula Melaka (sago pearl pudding with coconut cream and palm sugar) have their origins in Malaysia and have subsequently become a common sight in Singapore food courts. Pair these with a Sauternes like the Chateau Filhot 2005 ($42.00 for a 37.5 cl bottle, from 1855 The Bottle Shop) and luxuriate in the creamy textures of coconut, honey and burnt sugar.

Experimenting with different combinations sometimes yields surprising and pleasant results. One of my favourite matches is udang masak nanas (prawns cooked in pineapple gravy) with the Trimbach Gewurtztraminer 2007 from Alsace ($41.00, from Cold Storage). The wine enhanced the sweetness of the pineapple gravy, providing a burst of flavour that lingered seductively on the palate.

Peranakan cuisine truly is a labour of love, with recipes being handed down from one generation to the next. However, the long and laborious preparation for these dishes means that fewer and fewer people are picking up the tricks of the trade. It is a great loss as this cuisine, unique to the region, offers so much variety of flavour. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to get one hooked onto Peranakan food. Maybe just a humble plate of achar during dinner. 

The above article was first published in Appetite magazine in August 2012.