Wednesday 28 August 2013

A Star Showing from Astrolabe

In the 1980s, New Zealand made a style of Sauvignon Blanc that won consumers over with its vivacious gooseberry and freshly cut grass flavours. Some even found the aromatic descriptor of “cat’s pee” to be an accurate, if unattractive, label for the wines. The best examples of NZ Sauvignon Blanc come from Marlborough, with Cloudy Bay being the most well-known producer there. In fact, many of the people who worked at Cloudy Bay went on to establish wineries of their own, such as Kevin Judd of Greywacke and Ivan Sutherland and James Healy at Dog Point Vineyards.

Astrolabe CEO Jason Yank
Astrolabe, another Marlborough winery, may not be as famous as Cloudy Bay, but CEO Jason Yank is on a mission to change that. The winery is targeting top-end restaurants and bars, which form around 80% of its market. Jason lists KU DÉ TA, Boomerang and Level 33 as some of the places where Astrolabe can be found. The wine is also sold in independent fine wine retailers such as Drinks & Co., which was the venue for an Astrolabe wine tasting on the 15th of August.

Astrolabe was started in 1996 by winemaker Simon Waghorn together with his wife and a couple of close friends. The winery was named after a navigational device used to determine latitude based on the position of the stars, and even the winery’s logo is based on a motif of the instrument. The name also appealed to Simon for its connotations of exploration and discovery. 

Jason explains that Astrolabe strives to focus on sub-regionality, which is reflected in the “Valleys” range. These wines show the characteristics of individual sites, and when blended together form the base for the “Province” wines, Astrolabe’s classic range which exemplify typical Marlborough flavours. Offbeat wines are to be found in the “Vineyards” range, which serve as a creative outlet for Simon’s winemaking skills. The range of wines is an example of how the local wine market has developed, and just having one plain Sauvignon Blanc won’t cut it anymore. “Compared to other countries, Singapore has matured much faster due in part to the large expatriate community,” says Jason. “There was high demand for our other wines such as the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling.” Jason credits Singapore for making Astrolabe a hugely successful brand, although he notes that competition here is high.

If the wines of Astrolabe are anything to go by, they indicate a continuing evolution of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Less vegetal, riper fruit characters and more complex flavours herald a new level of quality. This is especially crucial as the success of this category has led to the inevitable supermarket discounting to push sales. Jason is adamant on protecting Astrolabe’s image as a premium label. “I’m not looking for a big box chain discounter,” he says. “Brand equity is the most important thing for us.” 

Tasting notes:

Astrolabe Province Marlborough Pinot Gris 2012 – Intense and floral nose with notes of rose petals, pear and longans, dry and light bodied with medium acidity and length. Jason describes this as “a good food wine, and a good quaffing wine as well.” 

Astrolabe Kekerengu Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2010 – Astrolabe is the only winery to source grapes from the Kekerengu Coast sub-region of Marlborough, which has limestone soils and a longer growing season due to cooling ocean breezes. A pungent and vegetal nose of ripe guava, mushy peas and butterhead lettuce, with the palate displaying further gooseberry notes. Considering that Sauvignon Blanc is usually released and drunk quickly this wine, having had three years to develop, represents an oddity. Might not be for all but is quite pleasantly exotic.

Astrolabe Awatare Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2012 – Primary aromas of blackcurrant pastilles, fresh curry leaf and passionfruit. Clean and well-defined on the palate with cleansing acidity and a long, juicy finish showing herbal notes. Very vibrant and graceful. 

Astrolabe Province Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012 – This wine is the biggest seller for Astrolabe. Bell pepper on the nose, given lift by blackcurrant leaf and lime notes. Well balanced acidity with a taut, focused fruitiness. A solid and eminently enjoyable wine.

Astrolabe Taihoa Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011 – It’s always dicey when winemakers take an aromatic variety such as Sauvignon Blanc and introduce it to oak. This wine though, rewards those who seek the intrigue of something not quite mainstream. It is still first and foremost a Sauvignon Blanc, with intense blackcurrant pastille and passionfruit on the nose with a slight vanilla richness. Lees stirring has added some flesh to the bony structure of the wine along with a silky texture.

Astrolabe Province Marlborough Pinot Noir 2010 – A pale ruby-red hue with light notes of cherry and rosemary. Nicely integrated oak with soft tannins and medium length. Drinking well now.

Astrolabe is currently distributed in Singapore by Brand Connect Pte Ltd.

Thursday 8 August 2013

Wine and Food Pairing at Coriander Leaf

“Hawker food is in danger of dying”, warns Chef Samia Ahad of Coriander Leaf Restaurant. “You probably won’t see it in 20 years time because the new generation is not willing to take it up.” Should that dire prediction prove true, we should all be thankful then that we are living in a time when nasi lemak, char kway teow and murtabak are plentiful and affordable. 

In conjunction with the Singapore Food Festival last month, the team at Coriander Leaf took several iconic Singapore dishes and paired them with wines supplied by local wine distributor Grand Vin. The catalyst for the dinner came from Coriander Leaf’s Director of Operations Sidi Fikri, who worked with Grand Vin’s Sales Manager Chester Koh to pair the wines. “We wanted something simple and not too elaborate,” said Chester about the rationale behind the pairing. 

The Coriander Leaf Restaurant, set in the heart of bustling Clarke Quay, offers pleasing views of the river and plenty of natural light. As attractive as the view is, diners would probably be more interested in the open kitchen where Chef Samia and her team efficiently put the finishing touches on each dish. This concept allows Chef Samia to mingle easily with the crowd, sharing her culinary experiences in New York, London and Singapore.

Chilli Crab, Singapore’s most famous version of the crustacean, was the first dish to be served, paired with a Schlossgut Diel Riesling Kabinett Goldloch 2011. Chef Samia commented that the secret to this dish was as simple as chilli and Maggi tomato ketchup (no brand substitutions please!). Succulent morsels of crab meat were washed down by the off-dry Riesling, which had enough character to stand up to the intense flavours of the dish. Sidi and Chester had wisely chosen a wine that was relatively low in alcohol at around 8.5%, as alcohol tends to fan the flames of spicy food.

It was Singapore’s national dish, Hainanese Chicken Rice, which showed brilliant inspiration with the wine pairing. Conventional wisdom would have suggested white wine to go with white meat, so we were rather intrigued to see it paired with a Château du Moulin-à-Vent Champ de Cour 2010 from Beaujolais. Sidi explained that the dish, while looking deceptively simple, actually consisted of many different components like chilli, dark soya sauce, coriander leaf, rice and steamed chicken. He recommended that we mix the chilli and dark soya sauce together with the rice and chicken before tasting it with the wine. True enough, the dark soya sauce lent a sweet depth to the flavours of the chicken rice that matched perfectly with the weight of the Beaujolais.

An equally delicious match was the Glutinous Black Rice Pudding with the Pio Cesare Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2011. Chef Samia toned down the sweetness of the pudding, allowing the grapey flavours of the wine to take centre stage and blend harmoniously with the coconut cream of the dessert. The perfect end to a memorable journey of food and wine discovery! I couldn’t help but feel that if it had been Chef Samia that had been pitted against local hawkers in the recent food challenge, instead of Gordon Ramsay, a stiffer competition might have ensued.

If you missed out on this dinner, fret not as Coriander Leaf will be organising unique wine experiences on a monthly basis. In August, look forward to a fusion of entertainment, food and wine with a themed showing of Wong Kar Wai’s masterpiece In The Mood For Love at The Screening Room, and an Aromatic Wine Dinner featuring exotic wines and dishes created to appeal to the sense of smell. Click here for more details!