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”.