Tuesday 18 February 2014

The Rebirth of Bulgarian Wine

Photo credit: Publicist PR
What can we learn from the history of Bulgarian wine? Don’t put all your eggs in one basket? That the only constant is change? From being a major supplier to the Soviet Union from the 1970s until the mid 1980s, Bulgaria experienced a rapid descent into viticultural obscurity after Mikhail Gorbachev introduced anti-alcohol measures, followed shortly after by the collapse of the USSR itself. For a time, the UK showed interest in Bulgaria’s affordable exports of international varietals, but soon countries such as Australia and Chile showed similar competence at producing wines aimed at the lower end of the market. 

The Bulgarian Regional Vine and Wine Chamber held a dinner in Singapore on the 27th of January with the express aim of “securing a better position and reputation of European regional wines from Bulgaria”. Besides Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam were also included in this year’s Asian tour, which was funded by the European Union. I saw several familiar faces in the crowd, among them local sommeliers, wine writers and distributors. Wines for the evening were supplied by the Trakia Wine Consortium and Villa Yustina, both located in the Thracian Lowlands although there was also a Chardonnay from Yamantievs and a red blend from Kamenki. Petya Angelova, Trade Director of Villa Yustina, had an upbeat view on the future of Bulgarian wine, commenting that “Just like Bordeaux, we want everyone to know about Bulgarian wines.” 

Bulgaria is bordered by Romania to the north, Serbia and Macedonia to the west, Greece and Turkey to the south, and the Black Sea in the east. For most of Bulgaria the climate is continental, with hot summers and very cold winters. Increased privatisation has led to the growth of smaller wineries, some established with the expertise of foreign winemaking. Local grape varieties include Dimyat, Rkatsiteli and Misket for the whites, and Mavrud, Pamid, Melnik, Rubin and Gamza for the reds. Although the wines for the evening were pretty much a mixed bag, I did enjoy the two reds from Villa Yustina. The basic Villa Yustina Dry Red Cuvee 2012 was a kitchen sink blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah, which showed vinous character with red fruits and a solid backbone. Even more interesting was the Villa Yustina Monogram 2010, a full-bodied blend of Mavrud and Rubin with savoury black fruit notes and just a touch of vanillin. I found out later that the wine was aged for 14 months in 100% Bulgarian oak barrels. 

Does Bulgaria have a seat in the global amphitheatre of wine? Judging from the wines poured that evening, the industry is still in its infancy, with many steps to take before it can develop an identity and compete with countries that have had decades, and sometimes centuries, of continuous winemaking history. The most important market for Bulgaria is Russia, where the average price of a bottle is €3, but this clearly does not encourage the pursuit of higher quality wines. Inroads are being made into places such as Vietnam, China, and the United States, and it will take a few years to see if these efforts bear fruit. In any case welcome back, Bulgaria.

Monday 17 February 2014

Lunar New Year #SgWine gathering

A sommelier, blogger and winemaker walk into a bar. Sounds like the setup for a punchline, but we were really at Praelum Wine Bistro for a #SgWine gathering. It seems that every get-together has a guest star, and that evening we were joined by Tai-Ran Niew, a former investment banker who has traded in his spreadsheets for pruning shears. His evolution to winemaker has been swift – after taking part in harvests in Sonoma and the Barossa Valley, he decided to make his own wine in Bordeaux through VINIV (you may remember it by its previous incarnation Crushpad). Did I mention that Tai-Ran is also a WSET Diploma student and a contributor to Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages wine website? 

The lure of putting your own identity and label on a bottle of wine is sure to tempt many wine lovers, but it does involve significant decision-making along the way. While VINIV allows you to make wine without buying land and investing in winemaking equipment, the vineyard sources, fermentation techniques, blending and label design are entirely up to you. Tai-Ran was extremely hands-on with this project, flying to Bordeaux several times to survey the vineyards and oversee the harvest. 

This being Bordeaux, it would be foolish to make a wine in the Californian or Australian style, but there are significant variations to how you want the wine to express itself. Tai-Ran comments that “If there is ever proof that it is the fruit that matters (in winemaking), this is it, because I have no idea what I’m doing.” I think that he is being a little too modest, because as I tasted the wine, it seemed to be to be having the structure of a Pauillac with the roundness of a right-bank Bordeaux, and I was elated when he said that fruit for the wine came from Pauillac and Saint-Émilion. A lucky guess, or terroir showing through? In any case, the result was very much in line with what Tai-Ran was aiming for. 

VINIV warns that winemaking can be “addictive” and it must be true, because Tai-Ran is already setting his sights on producing another wine, this time from his own vineyard in Oregon. The vines have just been planted and he plans to farm biodynamically, to “make the plant as healthy as possible so that it will deal with diseases by itself”. It will be a few years before the vine reaches sufficient maturity to produce grapes that can make wine, but if Tai-Ran’s Vigne de Niew is any indicator of his talent as a winemaker, then I am serenely confident that it will be worth the wait.

Tasting notes of the #SgWine gathering are as follows.

William Fèvre Chablis Grand Cru “Les Clos” 2005 - Lean and incisive acidity with a satiny texture. Notes of pomelo, light vanilla spice, and honey lead to a long finish. Possesses elegance in spades. 

Tenutae Lageder “Porer” Pinot Grigio 2012 - Sourced from the biodynamically farmed “Porer” vineyard in Alto Adige at an elevation of 230-240m. Shows good fruit concentration with distinct pear notes and some floral hints. Medium length. 

Napa Cellars Carneros Dyer Vineyard Syrah 2004 - Served blind, this wine had us all guessing. I had the grape variety right, but went with Barossa Valley rather than USA. Showing some age in the garnet rim, the wine displayed a barbequed, toasty nose, with whiffs of caramel. Lots of black fruit on the palate, with medium acidity and a dense, chewy body. High alcohol and very warm, but with balancing acidity. 

Vigne de Niew 2010 - Very deep purple. An intense and aromatic nose, showing evolving notes of violet, incense and blackcurrant. Exceptional power and sleekness on the palate, with sticky tannins and a core of rich black fruit and cigar box. Tai-Ran states that he wanted to make a wine that needed more time before it was ready to drink; a leaner style with a longer finish. 

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2010 - Also served blind, and this time it was Lady J who correctly spotted the Shiraz element in the wine. A structured wine with black fruit and savoury, meaty notes, this full-bodied wine delivers exhilarating pleasure and is definitely one for aging. 

Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 - Intense blackcurrant pastille mixed with an odd burnt rubber note. Lacking in complexity and rather artificial.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

A Peek Inside Burgundy with Jasper Morris MW

Those who have been following the wine news would have realised that it is not Bordeaux that has been hogging the headlines of late but it’s distinctively different cousin Burgundy. While the Liv-ex Fine Wine 50 Index (which tracks the prices of the five Bordeaux first growths) has been steadily falling since its peak in mid-2011, prices of grand cru Burgundy have been shattering auction highs. At the Hospices de Beaune auction last year, a record 6.3 million euros was raised. Interest has been particularly keen from Asia, and Romanée-Conti is now seen as the top wine brand in China.

So it was with great interest that I joined in a lunch with Jasper Morris MW, a specialist on Burgundian wines who spends the majority of his time shuttling between the UK and Burgundy. Jasper is the Burgundy buyer for Berry Bros & Rudd, Britain’s oldest wine and spirits merchant, to whom he sold his wine import business to in 2003. He also wrote the Burgundian entries for the Oxford Companion to Wine and has published his own book on the region, Inside Burgundy (available both in print and digital editions). Nicholas Pegna, who manages the Singapore office of BBR and is also the Director for South-East Asia, said that Jasper’s contribution to BBR has been “absolutely transformational”, allowing BBR to buy not only the great names of Burgundy but also to identify those on the ground who will be the next superstar.

Yet this Master of Wine, who has successfully navigated the morass of appellations and vineyards that is Burgundy, is exceedingly humble and engaging conversationally. In his spare time, he tends to his garden and four cats (one of which is an exceptionally well-mannered stray). Perhaps this is why he gravitates more towards the hardworking and fame-eschewing region of Burgundy rather than the mercantile court of Bordeaux. Jasper himself says, “I love Burgundy because the people there are totally committed to what they are doing. They are much more interested in talking about their product because they made it themselves.”

In terms of grape varieties, Burgundy is easy to understand. Pinot Noir for red wines, and Chardonnay for the whites (Gamay, while used in Beaujolais in Southern Burgundy, is planted on such different soils that the region is considered more akin to the Rhone Valley). In terms of producers, vineyards and appellations, the situation could not be more complex. Most vineyards in Burgundy are divided between several growers, and thanks to the Napoleonic Code which mandated equal inheritance, the size of individual holdings has shrunk over the years. All this means that the highest rated wines from top producers are available only in miniscule amounts.

In a twist of irony, just as Asia has developed a thirst for Burgundy, supply has dwindled even further due to a series of poor vintages in which the vines were battered by hail and disease. This has caused prices to rise to stratospheric levels, a situation which may please merchants, but according to Jasper the people who make the wine are much less enthused. “The average Burgundy grower has not subscribed to the accumulation of wealth program,” he says. With a wry smile, Jasper adds that “after spending twenty five years persuading people to like Burgundy, I’m now asking them to slow down.”

Recent cases of fraudulent Burgundies which left a stain on the reputation of some wine auction houses have spurred BBR to take steps to ensure the authenticity of their wine. Not only are the bottles equipped with smart tags, BBR staff are also sent for fraud training to identify signs that point to a fake wine. Nicholas says, “People understand the value of well-stored older bottles and wine with impeccable provenance. We take on the accusation that sometimes we are comparatively more expensive with the reply that we are fanatical to ensure provenance. No bottle is worth more than our reputation.”

Nicholas also notes that it is difficult to base the price of fine Burgundies on historical data due to the scarcity of it. Limited quantities mean that a single enthusiastic collector may distort the price of a wine by bidding extravagantly on it. However, Jasper is quick to point out that bargains do remain in Burgundy, such as the Domaine Joliet Fixin Premier Cru “Clos de la Perrière” 2009 which retails for SGD80. Displaying a clean, precise nose with heady floral, spice and raspberry notes, the wine has been receiving much interest after sixth-generation winemaker Bénigne Joliet took over with the express intention of having it recognised as a grand cru.