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.