Monday 4 August 2014

Wine Culture Portfolio Tasting

How do you set yourself apart in a country where the wine scene is as competitive as Singapore’s? For fine wine merchant Wine Culture, the answer was to establish a presence in the restaurant industry as an avenue to showcase their offerings. This allows consumers to experience the wines before committing to a retail purchase. Wine Culture’s Executive Director Renny Heng has already opened two restaurants, Verre Wine Bar at Robertson Quay, and Shelter in the Woods at Bukit Timah. His next project is the newly opened 3,400 sq ft restaurant named Corner House, located within the Singapore Botanic Gardens and helmed by chef Jason Tan, formerly of Sky on 57 at Marina Bay Sands. One of the things I’ve liked about Wine Culture is the care that they take with their bottles, wrapping each one in plastic so that the labels don’t get damaged.

Wine Culture has a strong focus on Bordeaux and Burgundy labels, including notable producers such as Domaine Sylvain Cathiard, Domaine Emmanuel Rouget and Domaine Hudelot Noëllat for which they are exclusive distributors. Renny started visiting Burgundy back in 2000, a shrewd move considering how much in vogue the wines are currently. “Most of these wines have been with us for a very long time,” commented Vincent Tan, Restaurant Manager at Shelter in the Woods. Burgundy is a complex maze of tiny vineyards and numerous producers, and my hat goes off to anyone who can navigate the minute differences between a Puligny-Montrachet versus a Chassagne-Montrachet. By contrast, the grape varieties used are easy to remember – all whites are made from Chardonnay and all reds from Pinot Noir.

The notes in this article are from a tasting held in June and attended by several sommeliers from various restaurants in Singapore. It was a good opportunity to catch up with them, and one in particular was beaming about a SGD167k dinner bill achieved the night before from a single table, which goes to show that having a sommelier in the house really does pay for itself.

Tasting notes:

Domaine Jean- Noël Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru Blanchot Dessus 2006 – The estate has been run by Caroline l’Estimé since 1989. She is known for moving the winery towards organics and increasing the number of white wines by vinifying each premier cru vineyard separately. This wine has a pale lemon colour with medium intensity aromatics of honey, acacia and vanilla. The palate reveals lovely citrus fruit and orange pith, with refreshing acidity and a very long finish.

Lucien le Moine Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru Terre Blanche 2009 – Set up in 1999 by Mounir Saouma, who hails from Lebanon, and his Israeli wife Rotem Brakin. As pure négociants, they buy in ready-made wines and age them in Jupilles oak without racking, pumping, fining or filtering. The wines spend a long time on their lees (dead yeast) which accounts for their rich, yoghurt-like flavours. There was no lees stirring for the 2009 Nuits-Saint-Georges, and the wine shows a fine, seductive perfume with cashew and hazelnuts coming to the fore. It maintains a high level of acidity, with a broad frame and punchy flavours. The finish is bright and long.

Château de la Maltroye, Santenay Premier Cru la Comme 2009 – Quite a rarity to find a white wine from Santenay. This example was fresh and light, with delicate honeysuckle aromas and a persistent finish. Refined and an utter joy to drink.

Domaine Buisson-Charles Meursault 2010 – Michel Buisson has since handed over the reins of the winery to his daughter and son-in-law Catherine and Patrick Essa. The wine is textbook Meursault, showing rich honeyed aromas and a broad texture with hints of nougat and custard mixed with musk melon notes.

Domaine du Nozay Sancerre 2012 – This Sauvignon Blanc-based wine shows varietal notes of passionfruit, lemongrass and herbs. The emphasis here is more on the fruit than aggressive vegetal notes.

Lake’s Folly Chardonnay 2002 – Made by unassuming winemaker Rod Kempe, Lake’s Folly is one of the few producers making Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines in the Hunter Valley. Credited as the first boutique winery in Australia, demand is such that each year’s release is sold out within a few months. The 2002 shows a pronounced toast and vanilla bouquet, wrapped in smoky gauze. The palate displays notes of peach, pineapple and a weighty intensity. At 12 years old it is really starting to hit its stride.

Domaine Paul Pillot Chassagne-Montrachet Vieilles Vignes 2011 – Produced from Pinot Noir vines with an average age of 35 years. Exuberant red cherry and raspberry fruit, underpinned by oak and hints of tobacco and game. Overheard a sommelier describing this wine as a “macho Montrachet”.

Domaine Denis Bachelet Gevrey-Chambertin 2008 – A small producer known for making wines with incredible finesse. The 2008 has a bright crimson robe with an elegant nose of talc, spice and red fruit. Very fresh, with dry powdery tannins and fine acidity. Excellent depth and purity of fruit.

Domaine Hudelot-Noëllat Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru Les Murgers 2009 – From one of the top producers in Burgundy. Medium ruby appearance with a smudgy rim. Intense Pinot character with spice and perfume aromas. Bright, polished fruit on the palate, light-bodied with sweet anise notes. Majestic pedigree.

Le Pauillac de Château Latour 2006 – The third wine of Château Latour, produced since 1973. There is a nice definition to this wine, which ticks off all the boxes for a classic Bordeaux. Blackcurrant, cedar box and well-integrated oak flavours combine to form a wine that offers pleasurable drinking but is just a tad linear.

Domaine Alain Voge, Cornas Les Chailles 2011 – A chewy, meaty wine with savoury tannins and hints of game and leather. Firm, concentrated and well-structured.

Saturday 2 August 2014

Sold on Sake

A short holiday was spent exploring the city of Nagoya, and probably eating too much food than would be considered healthy. My host for the day expressed amazement when just an hour and a half after a multi-course lunch I pronounced my readiness for the next gustatory adventure. Could you blame me though? This was Japan, known for its rich culinary heritage and devotion to perfection, where a single wrongly placed fern in a delicately arranged dish could cause serious consternation.

No one should go to Nagoya without trying its famous Hitsu-mabushi, or grilled eel with rice. Served with a variety of seasonings including seaweed, green onions and wasabi, the simple dish can be eaten in one of three ways; as is, with a mixture of all three seasonings, or with a mixture of all three seasonings and clear fish stock. There are two convenient locations in the city to try this dish which are both in department stores, Atsuta Horai-ken on the 10th floor of Matsuzakaya (South Wing) and Bincho on the 8th floor of LACHIC. The latter has a window through which you can see the chefs preparing the eel.

Japan is also famous for sake, commonly called rice wine. This is a misnomer, as the production of sake bears more similarity to beer than wine. The main ingredient of sake is rice, of which the variety Yamadanishiki is the most popular. The rice has an internal starchy core called shinpaku that must be converted into sugar before the yeast can work on it. Before the fourth century this was achieved through a method known as kuchikami-sake, where rice or other cereals were chewed and then spat into a container. The amylase enzymes present in saliva converted the starch into sugar. Wild yeast present in the environment then fed on the sugar and turned it into alcohol.

Fortunately, modern production methods are more efficient and hygienic. The conversion of starch to sugar is now achieved through koji-kin, a black mold that is sprinkled onto steamed rice to make komekoji. Steamed rice, water and yeast are then added to make shubo, or yeast starter. The next step is the fermentation itself, or danjimoki, a three-step process of mixing the shubo with steamed rice, komekoji and water over four days. The mash is called moromi, which is then pressed, filtered, pasteurised and bottled.

There are two broad categories of sake which are futsu-shu and tokutei meisho-shu. Futsu-shu is ordinary table sake and accounts for the majority of sake in the market while tokutei meisho-shu refers to premium sake with special designations determined by the National Tax Agency. The specifications for tokutei meisho are shown below (with thanks to the National Research Institute of Brewing).

Seimai-buai refers to the degree of polishing the rice has received. For example, a seimai-buai of 40% has had 60% of the husk polished away. The outer husk contains proteins and oils that are not desirable to the production of delicate sake thus the more polished the rice, the more refined the taste. Beyond a certain amount (around 35%) however the taste of the sake does not improve and the cost rises significantly. The picture below shows the various degrees of polishing.

(photo credit: Hakushika Sake)

The Japanese take their sake seriously, so much so that each season brings about a different type of sake. In autumn hiyaoroshi is drunk, a sake that has been pasteurised once and aged from the preceding winter. From winter to early spring shiboritate, or fresh sake, is consumed. This is sake that has just been pressed and bottled, often without pasteurisation. In hot summers, a chilled glass of namazake (unpasteurised sake) is most welcome. There are also unfiltered (nigorisake) and sparkling sakes available. The former has a milky texture while the latter tends to be sweet and low in alcohol, though not always.

Being light, smooth and delicate, sake is an ideal companion for many Japanese dishes. Its flavour dissipates rapidly (unlike wine, a long finish is not a positive trait in fine sake), making it a great drink to reset the palate between courses. In combination with fish dishes in particular, sake has the effect of mellowing the fishy taste to create a more balanced flavour.