Monday 20 February 2012

A Tasting With Weingut Hermann Dönnhoff

Cornelius at Taberna Wine Bar
German wineries, in general, don't devote a large proportion of their budget to advertising and promotion. Many of them are small, family-run operations that sell the bulk of their wines domestically and thus have no need to court international markets. Which may be why a trade tasting with Dönnhoff, arguable one of the greatest wineries in Germany, slipped under the radar of most people in Singapore. The event was made possible through the energetic efforts of Boon from Wein & Vin, a Riesling fanatic who has been instrumental in bringing in some of the top names of Germany. 

Dönnhoff has a list of awards and medals any Asian parent would be proud of; 2012 Winery of the Year (Eichelmann), 2010 IWSC Jancis Robinson Trophy for Riesling, 2005 Wine Personality of the Year (Robert Parker)... The Dönnhoff Hermannshole Riesling Spatlese 2001 is listed as one of Decanter's 100 Wines to Try Before You Die. The winery is based in Nahe, located between the Rhine and Mosel valleys. Like a middle child, this region often gets neglected while attention is showered on its brothers. Stylistically, Nahe Rieslings sit somewhere between the Rheingau and Mosel, but are often marked with a spicy minerality and starfruit notes. The region accounts for around 4% of Germany's total vineyard area and is made up of various soils (volcanic, clay and slate).

The Dönnhoff family have been making wine since 1750, but 1971 turned out to be a watershed year when Helmut Dönnhoff took over the business and consolidated operations. The vineyards have expanded from an initial 4 ha to 25 ha today, including top vineyards such as Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle, Oberhäuser Brücke and Norheimer Dellchen. Production is around 200,000 bottles a year, 80% of which is from the Riesling varietal. Current winemaker Cornelius Dönnhoff is a believer in traditional winemaking. He analyses acidity and sugar levels only to decide the optimum time for picking, but during the winemaking process he relies on his palate. His goal is "to find the elegance in each wine", making them taste "as pure as spring water". The fruitier (read sweet) style of wines are exported to the USA and United Kingdom, while 80% of the dry wines are consumed domestically. Australia is an important market for Dönnhoff dry Rieslings.

Tasting notes (this particular tasting showcased the dry-style wines):

Dönnhoff Riesling Trocken 2010 - The 2010 vintage was marked by cool summer nights which resulted in grapes with high levels of acidity and ripeness. In some cases, the wines were too high in acidity and had to be de-acidified. Cornelius dealt with this by maturing the wine in large oak barrels, which do not impart any flavour but smoothen out the edges of the wine. A stunning wine even more so considering that this was their basic range! Slight smoke on the nose, with lime, passionfruit and starfruit. Zingy fruit on the palate, with steely acidity. 

Dönnhoff Riesling Trocken 2009 - The 2009 vintage had an abundance of sunshine hours and perfect weather during flowering. High acidity, with citrus and lime characters. Has rather more weight than the 2010 and is very drinkable now. 

Dönnhoff Tonschiefer Riesling Trocken 2010 - Rather confusingly, Tonschiefer refers not to the vineyard but to the blackish-grey slate soils from which the grapes come from. More opulent than the basic Riesling, with an enticing finish of yellow apricot. Floral nose. Wein & Vin's entire stock of this wine has already been snapped up by a single buyer.

Dönnhoff Tonschiefer Riesling Trocken 2009 - Slightly grassy medium intensity nose. Sharp and lean on the palate. Notes of apricot skin and tingling spiciness, with firm acids. 

Dönnhoff Niederhauser Hermannshöhle Riesling GG 2009 - From the highest rated vineyard in Nahe. Complex, elegant and restrained fruit. Very bright, with a mineral steeliness.

Dönnhoff Gewurtztraminer Trocken 2010 - Very delicate floral aromas. Medium body and alcohol, displays varietal characteristics of rose and lychee. Rather dry finish. A limited wine as the Gewurtztraminer vines have been uprooted and replaced by Riesling.

Dönnhoff Weissburgunder S 2009 - The S refers to the Stückfässer German oak barrels used for maturing the wine. A comforting and familiar nose of toast, vanilla and citrus fruit. Quite Chardonnay-like on the palate, with yoghurt and cream notes from aging on the lees. Medium+ acidity, textural components and fruit very well integrated.

Friday 17 February 2012

Pressing the Winemaker: Q&A with Chris Hatcher from Wolf Blass

Wolf Blass, the Barossa Valley-based winery, may have won an unprecedented four Jimmy Watson Trophies, but chief winemaker Chris Hatcher is not the sort of man to rest on his laurels. “You’re only as good as your next wine” is his maxim. According to Chris, complacency is the single biggest failing no matter what industry you’re in.

I had a chance to interview this extraordinary man (who despite his disdain for history has a pretty good record of making 39 trophy winning wines) after a tasting of Wolf Blass premium wines held at the Tower Club on the 8th of February. The tasting was moderated by well-known local wine writer Ch’ng Poh Tiong.

How big is the Chinese market for Wolf Blass?
It’s growing. China’s got enormous potential, but it’s not going to be easy. For us we want to make sure that we get out there an understanding of the history of Wolf Blass. The Black and Platinum Label wines are already in China, and we’re going to start doing tastings such as this and show them what we do. Counterfeiting is a problem, but so far not with our wines.
What do you want consumers to think of when they see a Wolf Blass wine?
Quality at all price points. Whether it be a Yellow Label or a Black Label, it’s going to deliver the Wolf Blass house style, and compared to the rest of the market it’s going to be a very good wine. I think that we’ve always had that reputation in all countries; that whatever price point we’re at, it’s more affordable and quality-driven.

How would you characterise your winemaking approach?
My goal is vibrancy of fruit. Obviously the wine changes during the winemaking process, but we aim to have as much reflection of what we had from the vineyard through to the finished wine. Also balance on the palate; I think it’s really important to have that nice textural element and not be too big, heavy or extracted. Wines can be flavoursome without being heavy. If I had to describe Wolf Blass, it’s about power with elegance. It’s powerful in fruit but elegant in the structure of the wine.

The Platinum Label series uses only French oak rather than the more traditional combination of American oak and Australian Shiraz. Is this something that is becoming widespread in the Barossa?
Certainly more widespread than it used to be. If you asked me that same question fifteen years ago, I would have said that Shiraz and American oak are the best combination, today I would say it depends on the fruit. If you’re aiming to get vibrancy of fruit you need other things to support the fruit, not dominate them, and American oak tends to dominate. For us, we’re looking for less and better oak [flavour] in the wine.

Wolf Blass is part of a big winemaking corporation. How much influence do the people at Treasury Wine Estates (the parent company of Wolf Blass) have on the operations at Wolf Blass?
I think one of the great advantages is that I’ve been at Wolf Blass for nearly twenty five years so I see myself as the custodian of the brand and the wine style. David Dearie, the CEO of Treasury Wine Estates, loves brands and he loves the story behind the brands. He reorganised the business so the Wolf Blass brand is run like an individual business. It’s quite a different view of a big company being run as small companies within a big company, but it’s great. 

Does it add pressure to deliver results even in poor vintages like 2011?
We didn’t make some of our wines in 2011, including the Platinum Label, so yes there is some pressure, but then again there are ways of finding solutions other than lowering quality. So for 2011 we said, we’re going to stick to our quality parameters and we won’t compromise that. That’s done and dusted. So the challenge then is how can we make the amount of money that we have to make in each year? We can pull some levers like bringing the 2012 [wines] on earlier, we can run 2010, which was a good vintage, a bit longer, so in any one financial year we can make the right amount of money, but it won’t be from just one vintage. The easiest solution is to stretch the quality, but in the long run that’s the worst solution because you’ll actually lose sales.

Something I found interesting is that Wolf Blass is a sponsor of sports groups such as the UK Rugby Football Union and the Ashes Series cricket. Wine isn’t often associated with sports sponsorship.
Well actually, the people who follow these sports are in our target market. The cricket sponsorship was enormously successful for us. For Aussie rules football, the fans are beer drinkers, so we don’t sponsor that. But we’re looking at golf at the moment, tennis is a big one too.

How do you feel about the future of the Australian wine industry?
We’ve done quite a bit of market research, and the consumer globally still loves Australian wine. Probably because of its success, the story has become a little bit boring and so to generate interest is the most important thing for us now. That’s where David is keen on, the real stories of the background of the brand, the real stories behind a person like Wolf Blass, the real stories about the quality of the wine. I think the challenge for our whole industry is to talk about our quality, talk about our regions. Most people don’t have a clue about Australia and how diverse it is. The climate is very diverse, the wine styles are very diverse, so there are a lot of really good things happening in Australia that the world doesn’t know about.

The biggest challenge for us is the Aussie dollar. I think against the pound it’s at a 27-year high, it’s an all-time high against the euro, and between 1.05 to 1.07 against the US dollar.  That makes it more difficult to compete with some of the other countries. But there’s always doom and gloom in agriculture, I think actually things are pretty good. Most countries would love to be in Australia’s position.

How much does Wolf Blass (the person) involve himself in the day-to-day winemaking now?
He has an ambassadorial role and does some work overseas for us. About seven years ago, he was offered a board position by one of our competitors, and even though he’s not held to the business (of Wolf Blass), he was insulted. He said, “My name’s on the label, and I’m sticking with that. I’m not taking money from another board position.” If we develop a new label or change a label, we always show him because he has an inherent feel for what works.

Looking forward, where do you want to take Wolf Blass?
As a business, there’s a question of do you play chase the volume card, or do you chase the quality aspects? Our view is that you need a bit of both, but we want to focus, particularly in pushing to China, to build around our history and our credibility in the premium end of the market. We could sell significantly more volume than we do now, but as far as business goes you’re not necessarily making more money by doing that, and also you’re becoming a rogue brand in the long run and doing yourself a disservice. My long term goal is to be seen as the premium iconic brand of Australia.

Many thanks to Sarah Mayo of The Local Nose for arranging this interview. 

Sunday 12 February 2012

Exploring a To-Thai-Ly New Wine Region

Earlier this month, a group of wine lovers (myself included) found ourselves in unfamiliar territory, navigating bumpy roads past motels with dodgy names like Cabbages and Condoms. Our destination was the secluded Asoke Valley located 160 km from the capital of Thailand. Forget about the New vs. Old World debate, we were after New Latitude wines. The term, coined by Thailand-based wine writer Frank Norel refers to wine made in tropical climates outside the 30- 50˚ latitude bands. Thailand, Brazil, Indonesia and Vietnam are just some of the countries now making wine. But are they any good? I must admit to a tingle of trepidation before setting off on this trip. Would we find evidence of massive winemaking manipulation? With the zeal of a U.S. inspector searching for weapons of mass destruction, I ventured forth into terra incognita.

One of the problems with planting grapes in tropical climates is that the vines bear fruit more than once a year, depleting their energy reserves and shortening their lifespan. Winemakers in Thailand deal with this by pruning the vines back, creating a harvest that takes place only once during the cool season from January to March. During the rainy season from April to October, the vines undergo a vegetative cycle, picking up nutrients from the soil for the next crop. Winemaking is aided by use of technology such as refrigeration tanks (to cool the grapes after harvesting), controlled irrigation, and weather sensors that can detect the approach of storms. Trial and research have discovered that the vitis vinifera varietals that grow well in this climate are Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon (for the reds), and Chenin Blanc and Viognier (for the whites).

The Lohitnavy Family (from left to right):
Sakuna, Mimi, Nikki and Visooth Lohitnavy
We lodged at a guest house within GranMonte, a family-owned winery that focuses on producing top-quality wines. Owner Mr. Visooth Lohitnavy traded in his high-octane car racing days for the quiet life of showing visitors around the vineyard. He is assisted by his eldest daughter, 24-yr old Nikki who completed her oenological studies at the University of Adelaide and his wife Sakuna who runs the winery restaurant Vincotto. Nearly half the production is sold through the cellar door while the rest goes to key export markets like Japan, Hong Kong, Germany and the Maldives.

Nikki holds the distinction of being the first female winemaker in Thailand. Her approach to winemaking is adaptable; she uses techniques that allow the grapes to best express their character. She doesn’t like to adjust the wine artificially and as a result the wines are a reflection of the quality of the vintage. Being a pioneer means that she is not shackled by tradition and can experiment with what works best in this climate; on the flip side, it also means that a lot of effort goes into research and development. GranMonte dedicates an area of the vineyard for this purpose, in which around 30 different varietals are planted. Nikki sees potential in making wines from Verdelho, Grenache and Muscat next.

The wines of GranMonte are made for the modern palate, emphasising freshness and primary fruit. The whites were impressive, showing crisp acidity and varietal fruit character. Recently, the labels went through a redesign and the result is a sleeker, more professional look. Ageability is undoubtedly a question for these wines, having no track record, but fortunately the wines are delicious to drink now. Most excitingly, the wines display unique regionality. That is to say, if one were to taste the wine, it may well be possible to identify the varietal, but spotting the place of origin would be a struggle unless one had tasted Thai wines before. They are quite distinct from the technically correct, pure style of New World wines and the complex, austere style of Old World wines (although I am generalising a bit here). 

It would be a mistake to assume that GranMonte represents the bulk of Thai wine. The effort that the Lohitnavy family puts into their product is commendable, reflecting their ethos of producing the best wine possible, but many other Thai wineries either do not have the will or the equipment necessary to raise their quality. At another winery we visited, we found out that they had taken shortcuts with the winemaking, adding oak chips, tannin and tartaric acid. As a result, the wine had harsh, biting acidity and grainy tannins that were not well-integrated.  High government taxes on imported wine and an undemanding local market provide little impetus to improve.

Recognising the image problem of Thai wines in general, Mr. Lohitnavy co-founded the
Thai Wine Association (TWA) in 2004 to set quality standards in the production of Thai wines. Membership is approved only after a winery has passed laboratory tests on its wine and undergone site inspections. There are currently six wineries in the association, namely Siam Winery, PB Valley, Silverlake, GranMonte, Village Farm Winery and Alcidini. In face of government inertia to address issues facing the wine industry, the TWA has their work cut out for them.

Tasting notes:

GranMonte Spring Chenin Blanc 2009 – Pale lemon with fruity aromas of packham pear, apple and starfruit. A light body with medium+ acidity and average length.

GranMonte Sole Chenin Blanc  Viognier 2010 – Made from grapes angled towards the sun to achieve higher ripeness. Pretty intense on the nose with smoky, pear, peach and stone fruit notes. Slightly lacking in acidity with a watery finish.

GranMonte Sole Chenin Blanc Viognier 2011 – Medium+ intensity nose with notes of apricot, pear and an attractive floral note. Well-integrated flavours and supported by fresh acidity. Fruit carries through the long finish.
GranMonte Viognier 2011 – Only 1000 bottles made. Notes of tropical fruit, pear, papaya and a hint of smoke. Palate displays fresh citrusy notes with a lush texture.

GranMonte Sakuna Rose Syrah 2011 – Named after the winemaker’s mother and bottled in 50cl formats. A brilliant pink hue. Rose, red fruits, and raspberry on the nose. The palate shows high acidity, barely noticeable tannins, good fruit concentration and medium+ length. This wine was very popular with our group and a good match with Thai food.
GranMonte Heritage Syrah Viognier 2010 – Black cherry, spice, and a soft, round texture were the hallmarks of this wine. A well-made wine for drinking young.

GranMonte Asoke Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah 2009 – Capsicum and leafy aromas with blackcurrant beneath. A firm structure with a touch of heat. A framework of acidity supports the fruit. Long finish.

GranMonte Asoke Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah 2010 – A serious wine with ripe, concentrated fruit. The proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon was increased compared to the 2009 vintage, as a result this wine has more structure and intensity.