china daily wine column #64
Wednesday February 29th 2012, 9:52 am
Filed under: China
Some of the world’s oldest wine-growing regions are receiving fresh recognition after many decades when the wine world knew little of them. One of the most beautiful is the Taman Peninsula in southern Russia.
The peninsula was originally a collection of islands. The Greeks colonised the islands and made wine there about 2,600 years ago. But viticulture died soon after they left and was not resurrected until the nineteenth century.
The best-known winery on the peninsula is Fanagoria Estate, named after the original Greek colony of Phanagoria.
The vineyard is surrounded by the Black Sea to the west and south and the Sea of Azov to the north, and has fertile black soils. The Crimea is a mere five kilometres away, across the water to the south.
Fanagoria has 2,260 hectares of vineyards and the winery produces 26 million bottles a year, making it Russia’s biggest producer of estate-bottled wine. Export manager Mike Lelyuk said all wines were made on the estate.
Many of the vines are relatively young, and new plantings mostly consist of traditional varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and riesling.
In 1985 president Mikhail Gorbachev launched a campaign to fight alcohol abuse by uprooting vineyards in the then Soviet Union. The result meant a significant fall in the amount of wine available. Russian vineyards have been trying to recover since.
Wine in the region is traditionally fermented in qvevri, or clay amphoras, before being aged in oak and then bottled. The qvevri are lined with beeswax.
Australian consultant John Worontschak, based in London, has worked extensively with Fanagoria to improve winemaking methods and viticulture.
His work has paid off. Four Fanagoria wines won medals in the inaugural China wine awards last year. These were available for tasting at the 2012 awards in Hong Kong in late February.
One of the nicest of Fanagoria’s output was the 2009 reserve cabernet rosé. It has good acid and lovely strawberry flavours in the mouth and on the nose, and would be an ideal drink with dumplings. Some analysts suggest it has been targeted at Russian women, but it is a wine that could appeal to both genders. The wine also won a bronze medal at the Hong Kong wine and spirits show last November.
The Riesling-based 2009 icewine is lovely. Only two companies make icewine in Russia. Grapes typically ripen on the vine in October but icewines are left untouched until full winter some months later. Winter sucks water from the grapes and concentrates flavors.
Mike Lelyuk said some years the grapes freeze solid and when harvested produce small yields because most of the water is left behind as crystals during the pressing.
Icewine has intense flavors. This one had a lovely balance of zingy lemon acid and lingering tastes of honey and apricots. It sells for about $60 a half bottle but is worth it, especially when one compares the price with famous dessert wines such as sauternes from Bordeaux and tokaji (tokay) from Hungary.
Fanagoria also makes an icewine from a local red grape called saperavi, also grown on the Taman peninsula. It is not as intense of the riesling-based wine but still worth trying.
Unlike many vineyards around the world, Fanagoria makes its own oak barrels. The company owns oak forests about 300 kilometres from the vineyard and exports barrels. Given the high price of French oak, this seems a smart investment.
About 90 judges tasted almost 500 wines at this year’s China wine awards in Hong Kong. The judges were wine buyers, distributors, sommeliers, and food and beverage directors based in Greater China. This year’s event focused on best value for money, with awards created “to give lower price point wines the opportunity to shine and to be further exposed to the rapidly growing market,” the awards press release said.
That might explain the unusually high number of gold medals (155), which meant about one in three wines received a top award. At many wine shows, only about 3 to 5 per cent of wines receive a gold medal.
* Published in China Daily on 9 March 2012, under the headline “Old vineyards earn brand new recognition”. Find a link here.
china daily wine column #63
Saturday February 18th 2012, 12:08 pm
Filed under: wine
A friend gave me a mixed dozen for Chinese new year, mostly from the mid to late 1990s, and in recent days we tasted half of them to see how they were faring. It was an education.
We began with a 1997 Carneros Creek pinot noir. This estate was a pinot pioneer in California. The Carneros region is in the south of the Napa valley, about 90 minutes by car north of San Francisco, and in summer it receives cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean and San Pablo Bay.
The cork was in perfect condition and the wine, while it had peaked some years ago and was declining, was still pleasant. It was dark cherry in color with an appealing bitumen aroma. The tannins had softened and while the wine had almost no length it was still drinkable.
This pinot produced a lot of sediment, which is common for aged reds. Tasted the next day it was dead: oxidized and flat. The rest of the bottle went down the sink. The lesson here is to drink aged wines soon after opening, and remember they are delicate creatures.
The next wine was a 1995 Bourgueil from the Lame Delisle Boucard estate in the Loire region, labeled Cuvee Lucian Lame. This was their entry-level wine and not the grand vin that has won gold medals. The cork crumbled and the wine smelled sour. It should have been consumed a decade earlier. Instead, it followed the pinot down the sink – a pity because these cabernet franc-based wines can be lovely when young.
The key issues here are longevity and storage. Some wines are not meant to be cellared and should be consumed young. This raises the question: If stelvin caps had been available back in 1995 would this wine have been drinkable now? It is impossible to know.
Some vineyards in Australia’s premier cabernet sauvignon region, the Coonawarra, are doing tests: comparing stelvin caps with cork and artificial cork to see which are best for allowing wine to mature. The same vintage has been sealed with all three closures, and left for at least a decade. The tests started in 2005. It will probably be another decade before we will know the results.
Meanwhile, I prefer to buy wines with stelvin screwcaps. These may lack the romance of cork but they ensure the wine is free of cork taint, a problem for the Australian wine industry some years ago.
The third wine tasted was a 1998 dornfelder from the St Antony vineyard in Germany. This was my first encounter with the dornfelder grape so I needed to research it. Wikipedia tells me August Herold created the variety in 1955 at Germany’s grape-breeding institute in Weinsberg.
Wikipedia also says dornfelder has good acidity and the ability to benefit from barrel ageing. It is also easier to grow than spatburgunder, the German version of pinot noir.
The cork for this 1998 dornfelder was in pretty good condition. The wine was almost black and tasted of slightly sour plums. All the tannin had been integrated. While the wine had peaked some years ago, it was still drinking well the next day.
After a break another friend and I opened a 1995 Beringer private reserve chardonnay from Napa in California. Beringer has pedigree. It is the oldest operating wine in Napa, having opened in 1876. The Beringer bothers chose the Napa region because it looked like the terroir they knew from home, Germany’s Rhine region.
The brothers wanted to create tunnels in the hills on their property to store wine. The task of digging the tunnels went to Chinese workers who had returned to the area after helping build the railroad across America. The tunnels took many years to complete but are the perfect place to store wine.
The cork in this chardonnay broke as it came out of the bottle so I had to push the remainder into the wine, meaning I needed a sieve to remove crumbs of cork.
This wine received at least a year in French oak, which may explain why it was so well preserved. It tasted of dried coconut, with aromas of dried apricot. The color was dark gold and it still retained a touch of acid. It was drinking well the next day, and matched well with an over-ripe French brie.
In December, Parker’s Wine Spectator rated the 2009 Beringer private reserve chardonnay number 40 in its list of the top 100 wines for the year. The Beringer pedigree means I will seek their wines in the future.
Sadly I cannot report positive things about the 2001 Nepenthe pinot gris from the Adelaide Hills of South Australia. The cork looked all right but it crumbled like ash from a cigar as soon as the corkscrew entered. The wine tasted of nothing and went down the sink.
The 1994 Pendarves verdelho from the Hunter Valley of Australia also had a dodgy cork. But the wine somehow survived. It was dark gold, tangy yet dry, with a range of subtle flavors. Verdelho was once used to make fortified wines like madeira, and these last for years. Table wines made from the same grape are not so long-lived.
Pendarves Estate was started in 1986 by Dr Philip Norrie, a winemaker and doctor famous for his research into the relationship between wine and health. He published a booklet called Wine and Health.
So we come full circle, if you have read earlier wine columns about wine and health. What is the lesson here? Old wines can be wonderful but only if they have pedigree and have been stored well. Otherwise they should be drunk young.
* “Well, not all wines get better with age” in China Daily, 25 February 2012, page 12. Find a link here.