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Everyone wants it but only a few make it

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Everyone wants to sell their wines in China.  As Damien Wilson, director of the MSC in Wine Business, puts it “The (Chinese) market appears like a commercial oasis in a global wine desert”. Ask any producer about their export wish list and the Chinese market is likely to be somewhere close to if not at the top. Ask them again why and how they plan to target China and the answer is less clear. Many have been seduced by the promise of easy money. However, as the transition from a producer economy to a consumer economy is taking place, the Chinese wine industry is no longer what it used to be and is changing very rapidly.

The Chinese economy is thriving and with it the wine industry is also growing. According to official government statistics, the Chinese economy is the fastest growing in the world (only second to the US) and Chinese middle class household incomes have risen tenfold in the last 30 years. Even though the rate of volume increase has slowed slightly in the last two years, wine exports to China are still rising significantly in comparison to other markets. A 10% rise in volume has been reported from 2011 to 2013 (to round 31 million 9L cases) and imported wine now accounts for 15 – 17% of the market. Furthermore, its value is already worth 1/8 of the biggest global importer, the US, which has been estimated at €4 billion (OIV 2013).

Understanding current and future wine consumption is less clear. According to somewhat questionable figures from the IWSR, current wine consumption has plateaued since 2011 from 156m to 155m 9L cases in 2013. Furthermore, the same source is very optimistic about the future, predicting a 40% rise by 2016 but does not offer much explanation for this forecast. If this were all true, the Chinese would be consuming nearly as much wine as US consumers were in 2013 (297m 9L cases according to Wine Market Council’s annual report on US Wine Consumer Trends).

On the one hand, Chinese government encourages wine drinking as it is healthier than the local baiju spirit. At the same time, however, the government’s on-going anticorruption campaign is cracking down on official wine gift giving and wine spending, following the recent leadership change. Many top luxury brands such as Chateau Lafite and Penfolds Grange are reporting lower demand. Despite the large Chinese appetite for luxury goods (China accounts for 7% of global luxury goods consumption), wealthy Chinese spent 15% less in 2013 than the previous year and 25% less on gifts according to The Hurun Report, the Annual Luxury Consumers 2014 Survey. Fewer people are expected to give expensive gifts and many luxury brands are preparing for a disappointing year of the Horse.  “Overnight, the perfect deal-lubricant became a career-blemishing gaffe” Andrew Jefford reflects. One conclusion is clear – if demand does not match the imported supply – stock will start pilling up in warehouses (if it is not already doing so) making it an even bigger challenge for newcomers to enter this market.

Originally, the majority of consumers got introduced to wine through business dinners and karaoke. However, the growing power and the scope of Chinese blogger groups and social networks are now having an important impact on how stories are spread and shared. The Internet generation is not only mimicking Western drinking habits but also engaging with wine more enthusiastically than consumers in more mature markets. Since Google started to provide uncensored search results from its Hong Kong base, now used by people in mainland China, the use of internet has quadrupled according to Human Rights in China. Despite the government intensifying its control and censorship over social media content since new president took charge in March, audience growth is unstoppable. According to IB Intelligence, two out of the five largest social networks in the world are solely Chinese (Qzone with 712m users and Sina Weibo with 500m users). Despite Facebook being blocked in China, it has 95 m users nearly matching the 100m Facebook users in the US.

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As more people are moving to urban areas as part of government policy, changing demographics are bringing a new type of Chinese consumer interested in all price points and hungry for knowledge and education. Big cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou all have populations greater than 10million. Moreover, the growing number of second and third tier cities is further driving the consumer economy and the growing distribution of luxury goods. McKinsey & Co 2009 estimated that by 2025 “there will be 221 Chinese cities with a population greater than one million compared to only 35 cities in Europe”. Also wine is no longer only consumed by expats, tourists and urban business professionals with high disposable incomes.

Despite the Chinese consuming a mere one litre per person, the nation is ranked as the fifth largest wine-consuming country in the world as there are 1.354 billion people living in China. Traditionally wine in China was not drunk but given. Sometimes a single bottle could pass several hands before the cork was actually popped. Image was very important. In fact, this is still true but now many people are buying wine for themselves and paying with their own money. It is also becoming more of a regular activity as opposed to just a one off treat. Sales used to be driven mainly by men but as more women are claiming their place in the workforce and gaining more confidence and independence, they are also becoming more interested in wine. Yesmywine.com, China’s biggest wine online retailer, reports that males only represent 55% of their customers.

Wine consumption particularly red wine is no longer only associated with health benefits. While this is still the biggest selling point in China according to Jared Liu, co-founder of Yesmywine.com, wine is more increasingly being seen in a social context as it helps you to relax, relieve stress, creates a friendly atmosphere and tastes good (findings of China Wine Barometer and Wine Intelligence research headed up by Dr Justin Cohen).

The biggest selling wine is still red Bordeaux (rather tannic, earthy, bone dry red with subtle fruit flavours) although tasting experiments by AWRI (2008) indicated that what Chinese drinkers enjoy are fruit-driven, soft, slightly off-dry reds, unsurprisingly, like many consumers elsewhere. Sparkling wines are now starting to be in demand with imports increasing from 300,000 9L cases in 2010 to 700,000 9L cases in 2012.  However, they share similar limitations with white wines. Lacking the cachet that red wine has, issues with temperature (a preference for hot water and room-temperature beer) and taste (the bubbles, flavour and high acidity can be viewed as unusual and sometimes unpleasant) and tradition (no health benefit link as with red wine).

French wines still dominate the market with nearly 50% share of volume, Bordeaux being number one with 6 million cases imported since 2000. Chinese consumers buy French wines because they believe they should do so but they are also becoming more price conscious, less brand loyal and generally harder to please. With growing availability of wine information online, drinkers are expected to become more confident about the wines they choose.  The new trend is already turning towards exploration of new wines and countries such as Burgundy, Italy, Australia (13% share), Spain (10%), Chile (8%), Italy (7%) and the US (5%) according to the International Wine and Spirit Research The Wall Street Journal.

The most common mistake that people make is treating the whole of China with the same brush. As Damien Wilson says ‘China is misunderstood by European wine producers”. The wine trade structure is very complicated and increasingly fragmented. According to Rabobank, it is estimated that there are anything from 4,000 to 25,000 importers while only 50 odd bring a sizeable volume. Tastes, traditions and regulations vary widely between regions and cities. According to Canadian International Markets Bureau research into Chinese Consumer Trends (2010), spirits are very popular in Southwestern China as the largest domestic producers are situated here. Northwestern Chinese consumers are more concerned about their health and well-being with Beijing’s biggest trend being fruit wines and low-alcohol beers.

Both Guangzhou and Shanghai attracts the most sophisticated drinkers but if you want to import your wines here you should be ready for a lengthy procedure going through Chinese customs, sometimes requiring things that are either impossible or very difficult. For example, each wine requires a health certificate. It takes up to six week to receive it and many samples are needed. Sending samples however is officially forbidden in Shanghai and therefore producers have to send them to Hong Kong (with simpler wine regulations and taxes) and then have someone carry them into mainland China or try sending them as a gift.

Indeed, China has its dark side too. Smuggling, bribery, trademark hijacking and widespread wine counterfeiting clouds the reputation of the market. Hong Kong is still perceived as the most trusted place with a good reputation for buying wines by collectors. But many still believe that any wine below $25 might be fake and nobody really knows how much counterfeit wine stock is circulating globally. The global fine wine market is now estimated to be worth £2.5 billion. In order to solve this issue, the government is increasing pressure on the wine industry and consumers to work together as there is fear of people dying from fake wine. Since the death sentence has been handed out to forgers of the most expensive bottles, fake bottles are in decline (reported by Decanter 2014). However, counterfeiting is not only for premium luxury products as pretty much anything and everything can be counterfeited in China.

Another issue is that if you want to build your brand in China you had better register your trademark now as you may find that someone has already registered it. Claiming your origins can be timely and costly due to local bureaucracy.  To tackle this issue, China is re-enforcing a crackdown against trademark hijacking through the new Chinese Trademark Law that should enter into effect from May 1, 2014.

Regardless what you may have heard or think, the Chinese wine market is taken much more seriously now than 20 years ago with a growing number of Trade Fairs (Vinexpo in Hong Kong where close to 20,000 visitors are expected and ProWine in Shanghai). And the Chinese can also start to be proud of their own wines.  Both the volume and quality of their domestic production is rising (quality less so), creating tough competition for imported wines. Probably the most famous awarded wine was He Lan Qing Xue’s Jia Bei Lan 2009 Cabernet blend winning the Red Bordeaux Varietal Over £10 International Trophy at Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) chosen out of 12,000 wine entered. When the results of DWWA 2013 were released, 20 out of 49 Chinese entries received an award including Domaine Helan Mountain, Great Wall or Chateau SunGod.

China produced 14.8m hectoliters of wine in 2012. In comparison, France and Italy each turned out 40 million hl. The high demand for local wines in order to battle against alcoholism (as wine offers a lower-alcohol alternative to the domestic white spirit baiju) and the push for economic growth of poor regions explain the rapid increase of newly planted vineyards. France’s National Centre for Scientific Research projects that China will be the world’s biggest wine producer within five years.

The Chinese may lack the skills and expertise of well-established vine growing regions but they are keen to learn and they are investing a lot in winemaking and viticulture. The top wineries to watch are Great Wall, Changyu, Weilong and Dynasty. Ningxia is one of the rising vine production regions with 26,000 ha of vines.  Due to relatively moderate winters, a long growing season and available irrigation from the Yellow River, this dessert-like region can grow grape crops with success. Despite many challenges, genuine international interest and investment in local wineries and regions is growing. Similarly, wine giants such as Pernod Ricard and Moet Hennessy are starting to invest in Ningxia.

China’s biggest challenges with domestic production range from lack of water and labour, disease (leaf-roll) and extreme climate pressure (severe summer monsoons and freezing winter temperatures) to quality pressure from imported wines. For example, due to the increasing difficulty finding seasonal labour in winegrowing regions, producers are forced to resort to a combination of manual labour and mechanisation according to Li Demei, consultant of Wang Zhong winery based in a remote part of Northern China. He calculates that protecting vines from severe winters by covering them with soil and then uncovering them in spring every year represents up to 30% of their total expenses and requires 200 to 300 workers. Specifically designed machines are available as an alternative but despite their efficiency the cost is high (equivalent of £26 per row) and smaller producers cannot afford them.

China is an exciting yet daunting market opportunity and if you plan to invest in the wine market here it is worth investigating thoroughly as easy sales and high margins are things of the past. What ever you do and what ever product you have to sell, understanding Chinese social media is one of the most effective ways to engage with your target audience here. Global oasis or not, Chinese consumption and production is changing the equilibrium of the world’s wine industry.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Getting in touch with reality

Have you seen the new Virgin America flight safety video? No? Well 6 million people did through YouTube, 430,000 shared it on Facebook and 17,000 on Twitter, in less than two weeks. All this without even stepping on a plane!

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In-flight safety demonstrations are desperately boring. Few of us pay attention and even fewer find them entertaining. They have loads in common with wine talks and presentations. Finding ways to connect with people and the achieving the right tone (whether humorous or aspirational) that will resonate with them is not an easy task.

The wine trade is failing constantly while being routinely blamed for not communicating with their consumers. Frankly, this issue is not new. It has been talked about for years and not much has changed. In fact, it is as bad as ever despite all the communication tools we have available now.

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Inside the trade bubble, we all seem to be quite comfortable, boasting of lavish dinners with winemakers, drooling over old vintages and eagerly discussing terroir and minerality. Just mention TCA and twitter will go ballistic. I think we have sucked the marrow out of natural wines, from both viewpoints. What’s next? I can see trunk disease or methoxypyrazines spurring animated conversations for days to come.  But as soon as we are asked to engage with punters we get wobbly knees.

The biggest challenge is to see both perspective and there aren’t many so blessed. Let’s hope that John Atkinson MW is wrong in tweeting that “The geek is always a geek. He can never be transformed.”

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So why is it that we have not been able to capture the audience as many other industries have done so successfully? Look at spirits for example. With their rapidly growing global consumption  – by close to 9% in the last two years – they are literally changing our drinking behaviour.

This success is primarily driven by innovation, creative advertising, digital marketing and celebrity endorsement in spite of the weak global economy. The problem, as I see it, is that many wine professionals focus on changing and educating those new to wine. In fact, what we should be doing is interacting and connecting with them.

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In the UK, the highest portion of wine is sold at £4-5 price bracket, the average price of bottle of wine is at £5.15 per bottle, nine in ten will be sourced from the major supermarkets and 60% will be on some type of promotion.  If you want to inspire people to drink better wines, this is what you are up against, people not wanting to spend much and discounts offering the strongest incentive.

Talking to consumers at the recent London-based wine fair organised by Spirited Wines/Nicolas, it became very clear that people are just not that interested in wine. Something that Robert Joseph, the ever-controversial wine critic, has been warning us about for a while now.

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So there was me equipped (optimistically) with a large-format map of Burgundy and ready with details of soil and oak management for each wine. After all, I was presenting prestigious Albert Bichot wines including Grand Cru Moutonne. As an MW student I was ready for any wine-related questions coming my way.

Well, guess how many people asked me about the Burgundy? How the wines were made? Who made them? Count the fingers on both hands and you would not be far off.

Instead, people were eager to find out about me. Now I am not a particularly exciting or interesting person but many were keen to know why I study wine and what I do.  What wines I like and what wines should they buy. We talked about everything and anything  – sharing our holiday experiences, comparing our top dining encounters and gossiping about the latest TV shows.

What I learned that people like to talk to wine experts but only if they make them feel comfortable and communicate on the same level in a fun and engaging way. Not trying to blow my own trumpet too much, and mainly based on the punters’ feedback and enthusiasm around my stand, I think I did ok. I guess there was that gorgeous Grand Cru that probably had something to do with it too.

To get that perfect balance between being down-to-earth yet at the same time delivering an aspirational message is a tough nut to crack.  A great recent example is the Berry Bro & Rudd ad at the Telegraph. It manages to connect to the reader in a down to earth way and yet be aspirational.

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“As well as the odd wine for £9,000 and quite a few wines for £90, we also sell Good Ordinary Claret for £9. It is not the greatest wine ever made, but it is a great wine for £9. For us, wine is not about the price tag, but about passing one simple test: Is it good to drink”

So clever on many different levels. It pricks the pomposity of wine with the £9 price tag but also subtly it says that BBR sell wines that are far more exclusive.  It simultaneously appeals to people with a sense for value but also those who aspire to finer wine.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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This is why we don’t have to panic about running out of wine!

Screen Shot 2013-11-01 at 23.02.39 Plenty of articles have been written in the last couple of days reflecting on and mainly disputing the original and rather naive Morgan Stanley piece warning us that the world is facing a wine shortage. Here is a summary of some of the more eloquent responses:

BBC – World faces global wine shortage by Morgan Stanley’s analysts Tom Kierath and Crystal Wang

Time Business & Money – How China Became the Wine World’s Most Unlikely Superpower by Kharunya Paramaguru

Reuters – There’s no global wine shortage by Felix Salmon

Wine Industry Insight – Wine shortage is bull: Here’s why by Lewis Perdue

SFGate – Experts dismiss prediction of global wine shortage by Stacy Finz

Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin (OIV) – World wine production has increased significantly in 2013 while consumption is stabilising

The Telegraph – Have no fears about a world wine shortage – the glass is still half full by Victoria Moore

Wineanorak – My take on the global wine shortage story by Jamie Goode

Jancis Robinson – The phantom global wine shortage

Decanter – Global wine shortage fears exaggerated, say analysts by Chris Mercer and Ivana Lalovic

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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The Myth Behind Minerality in Wine

id_2013_by_myth_dragon-d5vyn6p “Elegant palate with good minerality and the potential to develop. Nicely understated with firm, fresh fruit and good acidity. Well crafted.” Domaine Jean Bilaud-Simon Chablis Grand Cru Vaudesir £35, Decanter

“Firm, stony mineral nose. Tight-knit palate with a mineral backbone. Powerful and understated.” Domaine Wiliam Fevre Bougros Cote Bouguerots Chablis Grand Cru £40, Decanter

“Accesible, fresh quaffer with bountiful amounts of fruity appeal. It’s elegant, also, with delicate peach aromas and quite a long, mineral-tinged finish.” Sainsbury’s Taste Difference Gavi, Piedmont £7.99, Decanter

“This is classic, zesty Sancerre with a deliciously refreshing structure supporting vibrant, grassy aromas and textbook minerality.” Waitrose In Partnership with Joseph Mello Sancerre, Loire Valley £10.99, Decanter

“Well balanced Douro red at an attractive price, with subtle, spicy oak, good minerality and acidity and tarry, brambly fruit.” Tanners Douro Red, £7.95, Tim Atkin MW

“Subtle, flinty, yet ripe, with good almostGraves-like concentration and notes of gooseberry and minerals.” Reuilly Les Coignons, Denis Jamain, Loire Valley £14.25, Tim Atkin MW

“Lively, bracing, pure mineral nose. The Palate is dry with lovely mineral, citrus, pear and baked apple character. Very precise with a spicy, mineral core. Generous and ripe but with good acidity and a dry finish. Weighty but precise, showing beautiful poise.” Van Volxem Saar Riesling Mosel £15.95, Jamie Goode

“Very bright and fresh, this is a lean, lemony, mineral style of Chardonnay with keen acidity and some subtle toasty notes… There’s a little bit of matchstick minerality here. Tight, fresh and precise with some waxy, pithy complexity. Quite Chablis-like.” Tolpuddle Vineyard Chardonnay Tasmania, Jamie Goode

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Minerality is a romantic tasting descriptor. Its popularity is driven by our obsession with terroir. Its puzzlement follows the same mystique of making wine, or as many marketers would have us believe. It is a magical word that describes a sacred quality and makes the wine taste better whenever anyone mentions it. It is more than just a tingle on the tongue.

With ever-changing trends, we also change how we talk about wines. Look at tasting reviews and you will find that chalky Chablis, gravelly Sancerre and slatey Mosel Riesling are being replaced by the minerality phenomenon. With huge success appearing even in some ‘lucky’ New World regions.  Its noticeable overuse in the last couple of years, for any style, any price, any wine has spurred the flood of prose trying to unravel the mystery behind it.

Despite its mystique, minerality is a very unique concept universally understood to be good, indicating a specific provenance. Yet casual wine drinkers still have no idea what we are on about. In fact even wine experts cannot seem to agree on a simple definition or explanation. Tasting notes of wines with restrained aromas are glittered with it. More upfront and fruit driven wines less so. Marketing catchphrase or not, we seem to be obsessed with it. I am as guilty as anyone.

What do we actually mean by it? Ask any wine expert and you will receive a different answer.  It is impossible to define. And this is one of the reasons why there is so much debate about it. Some describe it as a zingy & acidic sensation or wet pebbles & chalky flavours, some speak of a smoky or salty taste, and a small few associate it with complex sulphur compounds and reduction. It is almost as controversial as biodynamic or natural wines and similarly difficult to explain (scientifically at least). In fact it is a very misleading concept because it is so subjective.

My experience tells me that it is the acidity that reinforces minerality in our minds. Both Bevan Johnson from Newton Johnson and Manfred Ing from Querciabella describe it as a perception of liveliness and freshness that is not just acidity. If you look at the type of grape varieties and the type of cool climate that minerality is associated with (Mosel Riesling, Loire Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir etc.) then this seems a very plausible explanation. Too often have I found myself hedging between high acidity and minerality and in my opinion they both are very closely knit.

UK wine writer Andrew Jefford is more sceptical. He argues that low acidic wine can express more minerality than high acidic wine. US wine critic Chris Kissack also believes that acidity and minerality feel very different on the palate.

Randall Grahm, winemaker and founder of Bonny Doon introduced an idea that minerality may be confused with reduction or mercaptans/thiols. Flavours such as that well-known appealing scent of cat’s pee and passion fruit, or less favourable characteristics of a struck match or flintiness. Sam Harrop MW points out that yes you can get a flinty smell from two rocks rubbing together but you can’t rub this smell into the final wine. His view is that sulphides produced during fermentation are responsible for this aroma.

How many times have you heard wine critics describing the smell of wet stones as minerality in wines? There is actually such a smell. What happens is that rocks covered with organic matter and plants release a volatile compound petrichor after rain, which is responsible for this unique kind of earthy smell. In fact, it is not the smell of the rock but the organic matter that we associate with minerality. But none of that is relevant to the sensation on our palates.

So how is minerality produced? Despite digging deep, there is no scientific explanation and therefore no solid answer on offer. However, let’s be absolutely clear about one aspect. Minerality in wine and whatever this represents to us, is irrelevant to the geological minerals in the soil despite its literal suggestion. As Alex Maltmam, geology professor confirms “ Whatever minerality is, it cannot literally be the taste of minerals derived from the vineyard geology.”

Vines do absorb minerals but only in the form of dissolved ions (not the actual geological rocks) together with essential water and nutrients through their roots. It is then unlikely that any amount of rocky minerals (feldspar, quartz, gypsum, graphite) or nutrient minerals (ions of calcium, sodium, potassium, aluminium, silicon, manganese) is transferred to the grapes. No matter how rocky or nutritious the soil is. After all, almost all mineral nutrients are flavourless and odourless. Their concentration is so low we just aren’t able to taste them.

This is not to say that soil does not influence the flavour of wine. For example, alkaline soils such as limestone and chalk predispose high acidity and low ph in wines. It is also essential to have mycorrhizal fungi and humus present in the soil in order for the roots to transfer nutrients to the plant. It is logical to conclude that a fertile soil is the pre-condition for minerality sensation as well as having an influence on wine taste, balance and quality, even if indirectly. However, in practise it is the poor rocky soil with deep roots that we associate with minerality.

Anyway going back to our search for the source or cause of minerality. Neither can we claim that it is produced during fermentation despite some minerals such as aluminium, calcium and iron being present during this conversion. While it is true that some minerals influence the metabolism of yeast and therefore the outcome of fermentation flavours.  Two Czech scientists observed that minerality “was more to do with the relationship between the nutritional stress of yeasts and succinic acid production, which can result in a final difference in the taste of wine. The more succinic acid the greater the perceived minerality there was in the wine”. (Dyson & McShane) Succinic acid is produced during fermentation and we perceive it as a salty or bitter taste in the final wine. But this is very rare.  Similarly it is very rare to have traces of sodium chloride which gives the sensation of saltiness.

Fining with bentonite, that can leach earth elements to the must, doesn’t present sufficient grounds to be the source. The amounts are miniscule, cannot be tasted and not all wines that are described as having minerality have been fined by this method. Neither does it develop during ageing. In fact, both potassium and calcium are transformed to potassium bitartrate crystals during ageing and therefore reduced even further.

As minerality comes in so many guises and with no convincing pattern, we are unable to define or explain it. The only answer is the fact that minerality sensation has several pre-dispositions. Whether it is cool climate, grape variety, high acidity, level of pH, composition of soil, production of mercaptans or succinic acids during the fermentation or something totally different and as yet undiscovered. The question is, should we search further for the most credible answer? Or alternatively we can just continue using it metaphorically in the same way as we describe lemony notes of Riesling or pencil shaving flavours in Claret.

SOURCE & USEFUL READS

Alex Maltman (2013) –

http://cadair.aber.ac.uk/dspace/bitstream/handle/2160/10840/minerality_in_wine.pdf?sequence=1

Andrew Jeffford (2013) –

http://www.decanter.com/news/blogs/expert/529708/jefford-on-monday-a-fashion-for-stones

Chris Kissack (2013) – http://thewinedoctor.com/blog/2013/09/minerality-is-confusing/

Jordan Ross (2012) – http://www.enologyinternational.com/articles/Minerality_reprint.pdf

Sally Easton MW (2013) – http://www.winewisdom.com/articles/describing-minerality/

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane (2013) –

http://www.livingwines.com.au/Articles/Minerality-in-wine-Part-2.pdf

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Could these be the most expensive wines from New Zealand?

Sherwyn Veldhuizen & Marcel Giesen

Sherwyn Veldhuizen & Marcel Giesen

BELL HILL VINEYARD TASTING AT POLLEN STREET SOCIAL

LONDON – 17th SEPTEMBER 2013

It is always a great pleasure to taste exclusive wines of older vintages. It gives you a foresight into how the current releases may develop and age. But it’s also heart-breaking to know that none of us will be able to buy and enjoy these wines again. Aged wines from New Zealand are just not available. Bell Hill wines from North Canterbury are no different. The industry is relatively young, producers sell out of any age-worthy wines upon release due to the minimal production, holding back stock for producers is financially unreasonable and for consumers very rare.

Marcel Giesen (one of the famous three Giesen brothers) and Sherwyn Veldhuizen are the owners of Bell Hill vineyard. They were thought to be crazy when they bought 2.5 hectares of old lime quarry in the Weka Pass in North Canterbury back in 1997 with the aim of planting vines there. However, no-one is laughing now. Their wines have become some of the best and the most exclusive in New Zealand. The price tag follows the success. A bottle of current release Chardonnay 2010 will set you back round £80 and Pinot Noir 2010 close to £100 (retail price).

Production is minimal and I really mean minimal. Only 1,400 bottles were made in total of the 2010 vintage which will be snapped up before you can sneeze. If you want to get hold of any for your wine stash, you had better talk to Armit – the UK agent. There are one or two bottles of Bell Hill Chardonnay 2009 left on Providores wine list, so I am told, but Tim Atkin MW has his beady eyes on them so hurry!

So what is so special about these wines? Growing vines on limestone soil is no walk in the park. The high pH & high risk of chlorosis demands a specific French rootstock 161-49 which is tolerant to active limestone. However, Marcel and Sherwyn have chosen this vineyard particularly because of this. The high pH helps to preserve a vital acidity and freshness that makes these wines unrecognisable from Cote d’Or. What is amazing is that the focussed and long acidity is consistent across all the wines we tasted from 2003 to 2011.

Another challenge is the annual frost. This is not uncommon in the South Island and temperature programmed wind machines seem to take care of the worst. However, Marcel and Sherwyn told us that it is actually getting the right staff with commitment and passion that is the hardest job for them. They manage their vineyard with great attention to detail, hard work and just a hint of unorthodox thinking. No use of irrigation once the young vines are established, high density planting 11,363 vines per hectare to reduce yield, and limiting soil access forcing the roots to grow deeper.

But their work is not done yet. They are only just starting to realise the fruits of their hard labour and as they are working towards biodynamic certification, there is still much they have to learn about their babies, as they call their vines.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2013 in New Zealand, Uncategorized

 

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My 10 Best Australian Wines from Liberty

LIBERTY WINES PREMIUM AUSTRALIAN TASTING

LONDON – 4TH SEPTEMBER 2013

There is no doubt that the strong Australian dollar is a double-edged sword on all producers’ minds. Rarely have export margins been squeezed so much due to exchange rates. Talking to several winemakers, it appears that having a strong bond and trust in your importer is crucial in times like this. In fact, having a good importer can be the key reason for sticking with a mature market rather than shifting focus to emerging markets. Investing & making the time for such tastings and talking about their wines directly to their customers is exactly what needs to happen if they want to prosper.  Those winemakers in the room – seem to get this.

Here is my shopping basket from the tasting:

Plantagenet Museum Riesling 2005, Great Southern, Western Australia – £18.99 (Cath Oates, winemaker since 2012)

Dawson & James Chardonnay 2010, Tasmania – £46.99 (Tim James, winemaker)

Dawson & James Pinot Noir 2010, Tasmania – £54.99

Mount Horrocks Watervale Riesling 2012, Clare Valley – £17.99 (Stephanie Toole, winemaker)

Grosset Alea Off-dry Riesling 2012, Clare Valley – £19.99 (Jeffrey Grosset, winemaker)

Innocent Bystander Moscato 2013, Yarra Valley – £7.49/375ml (Steve Flamsteed, winemaker)

William Downie Pinot Noir 2010, Gippsland – £48.99

By Farr Chardonnay 2011, Geelong – £46.99 (Nick Farr, winemaker)

By Farr ‘Farrside’ Pinot Noir 2011, Geelong – £52.99

Greenstone Vineyard Shiraz 2010, Heathcote – £23.99 (Mark Walpole, viticulturalist)

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2013 in Australia, Uncategorized

 

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Work experience with a difference?

ImageWork experience with a difference? Who wouldn’t be tempted!

Now I always thought it would be fun to become an apprentice. Watching multi-millionaire tycoon Lord Sugar mercilessly grilling his flock of pompous and cocky candidates and then crushing their hopes by delivering his trademark verdict “You’re fired”! Indulgent entertainment when observed from a comfy sofa but would I cut the mustard so to speak, I always wondered.

I thought that this competitive yet entertaining challenge might work well in the wine industry. When you work in the wine trade you have pretty limited options. You are either involved in production, in selling or in marketing wine. Only very few entrepreneurs are able to cut across the professions successfully. And even fewer are lucky to be involved in rewarding and varied opportunities.  

When Robert Joseph (a widely recognised opinionated wine thinker and original public speaker) announced that he is looking for an apprentice I just could not resist. Offering challenge, innovation, off-the-wall ideas and originality. Just tell me where to sign! If you know Robert you will probably not be surprised that in his search for the right apprentice he has thrown in a couple of curve balls. Selling Bordeaux at Glastonbury? Launching chocolate-flavoured wine in Britain? Persuading Frenchwomen to drink Australian Riesling? Whatever theme was chosen, the apprentices-to-be were asked to flaunt their imagination and to show what they are made off.

Luck has it I got the job! Sorry Lord Sugar but it wouldn’t work with us…

So if you are ready to share new ideas and feel that the still inaccessible wine world needs shaking up with a good dose of enthusiasm and fun – please feel free to follow me on twitter @danigongoozler. I follow back.

 

 

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

In 27 days I will get my life back…

panic-attack-symptomsI can just see it – holding a chilled well-earned pint of English pale ale with sunshine warming my back as a light wind breezes through my hair. No worries no stresses. No more blind wine tests and thank God no more essays.

In 27 days, I will have finished my first attempt at the notoriously difficult Master of Wine exam. I am not expecting success but just could not resist giving this challenge a go.

In the last 2 years and in particular in the last 2 months, I have tested my knowledge, patience and courage to the limits. My confidence was crushed so many times I wonder how I am still able to get on the right bus these days.

I feel I have not even touched the surface on some of the key trade issues I am supposed to be an expert in and am desperately and foolishly avoiding some topics in hope they do not ‘come up’ in the exam. I should know better. The rule of life will come and bite me in the butt for this.

I am dog-tired. My head is spinning with tons of information, yet I cannot seem to recall anything anymore. I guess this is how it feels before a battle where you are not sure what to expect but you know it will be hard as hell.

I guess only pure human stubbornness and competitiveness keeps me going. I still have time – people keep telling me. Maybe for filling the occasional knowledge gap – maybe. But definitely not the craters! Panic is taking over.

I guess I could give in. Stuff my face with chocolate and stare hypnotised at a blank screen. But that is not my style. I am a fighter and bloody determined to crack this challenge.

I owe so many people pints – it must be a full keg now – for their unconditional help and friendly words. I promise whatever happens there will be loads of beer!

Deep down I already know it was worth it and in September when the results appear in my inbox we will find out whether memorising clone names and residual sugars for countless of wines has really paid off.

See you on the other side in 27 days. I will be holding a pint and smiling again.

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

My thoughts on our short visit to Sri Lanka

Image

Never been to Sri Lanka but thinking of coming? Then this personal snapshot may tempt you.

Sri Lanka is a 10-hour direct flight from London. Despite the 5.5-hour time difference, the jetlag is not a problem especially if you are going to take it as easy as we did. Flicking our toes in the sand, roasting our bods in the sunshine and an occasional swim when the heat (32C) and sweltering humidity became unbearable, was the highlight of our relaxed days – far from the hustle and bustle of London.

In March, the heat is just perfect (32C day and 29C night), the rainy season has not hit full swing yet despite a couple of short showers now and then, but the big shock to the system when you arrive is the humidity. As soon as you step off the Sri Lankan aircraft you feel like being in a hot sauna and this feeling will remain whatever you do, day and night. Say hello to frizzy hair but also a very good shaves – I am told by my other half, Ben.

Sri Lankan food is very similar to Indian – all sorts of spice infused curries accompanied by mouth-watering condiments. Think Biryani, Tikka Masala, Tandoori but more spicy, succulent, intense and so much better than your usual European equivalent. I am a big fan of this food, full of exotic ingredients such as lemon grass, pomegranate, chilli, lime, coconut, banana and mango alongside of tasty fresh seafood temptations. My dish of the week must be the simply grilled lobster with ripe pineapple chutney/jam and fresh lime. Ben was very partial to spicy mutton curry – slow cooked meat with pineapple curry and coconut sambol. Are you salivating yet?

When it comes to booze, the story is not so positive unless you can live on cocktails, which we tried our best until we read the Drinks Business article on the top most calorific drinks. Real killer of joy that is. Wine selection is poor (as you may imagine, demand and distribution and all that) and even our 5 star resort wine list was sadly disappointing.  Call me a snob but Black Tower, Nederburg, Bellingham, Jacob’s Creek, Turning Leaf, Trivento and KWV are best suited to supermarket shelves and certainly not fine dining. Luckily I was prepared for the worst and brought some essentials with me (a bottle of port and champagne) but after being told that we would be charged £50 for the privilege to enjoy these with our evening meal, we decided to glug the lot on the beach. Local beer branded as Lion Lager and 3 Coins is well how shall I put it…ok when you have just arrived to your resort after almost 3-hour sweltering journey but shortly you realise that it is just another distant cousin of watery and dull Budweiser Bud (no the Czech one obviously).

But what I loved the most is the lovely scent that follows you throughout the day. Sweetly infused maple syrup pancakes and refreshing & hot Ceylon tea for breakfast. Aromas of roasted brioche sandwiches with honey French dressing and minty mocktails being slurped in the late afternoon sunshine. Sunset strolls spiced by salty, seaweed and mineral smells of the waves crushing into the rocks. Cinnamon scented dinners with the subtle surf of the sea and exotic fragrances of places far far away.

There are tonnes of activities and sites you can visit but the place has this strange power over you to make you do as little as possible.  The locals are friendly natured with a gentle, peaceful air and generally with a smile on their face. Maybe the religion (mostly Buddhist) has something to do with it. The smiles are infectious, I will really need to watch myself when I get back to London not to smile too much.  But even if you become as lazy as us there are things you must experience.

Find your local cricket ground and go and watch cricket match. We climbed up the Fort at Galle and watched Sri Lanka against Bangladesh and despite my ignorance of the sport I can see how well it is suited to this climate and culture here. Try yoga or massage – both very empowering and relaxing at the same time and one of those ‘nice things’ that we never have time for at home. Be a little kid again and play in the sea, pretend you are surfing the waves and let them crash against you and spit you out on the sandy smooth beach. Take a ride in Tuk Tuk to feel the soft wind in your hair and watch the world pass you by.

You must experience it yourself.

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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What happens at MW bootcamp?

MW students at Chateau Margaux

MW students at Chateau Margaux

What happens at Master of Wine bootcamp seminar…

Despite our pact that “what happens in Bordeaux stays in Bordeaux” I wanted to give you a little feel on what goes on at the annual MW bootcamp. Just in case you are wondering whether to join this crazy MW challenge I hope this will encourage you to give it a go.

As a first year student you may be invited to join the one-week seminar held in Rust, Austria where you get to try Gruner Vetliners and Rieslings to your hearts content. This is also where you are going to make friends for life, realise that you will have to become a superhero to pass this wretched exam and consume plentiful amounts of beer to get you though it.

If you manage to proceed to the second year, you are up for a real MW bootcamp. For one week your knowledge and beliefs will be challenged to the limits. Every morning (8am!) you start with a blind tasting of 12 wines under exam conditions with detailed feedback afterwards. Shortly you will release that it is not enough to be a talented taster and display good logic in your answer but also you need to be able to write legibly yet fast and become a master of time management. Talents that I am miles away from mastering.

After a brief lunch, you are treated to one or two seminars. We were lucky to have some topical and interesting talks this year – on wine faults, barrel choice, climate change and a 3-hour masterclass on sherry – which we all loved.

There is also a little thing called the practical and theory exam in the middle of week which is something that many get a bit nervous about (well I was petrified) but the feedback that you are given at the end of the week can be very empowering (Thanks Phil!).

And of course there are the evenings. MW students can work hard but they play much harder. After an intensive day, to be able to relax and have fun is crucial as far as I am concerned. From my photos on Facebook you may get a misleading message that we just play table football, pool and ping pong all night. That is so wrong as we have done surprisingly extensive research into Heineken, ate our bodies in foie gras and drunk anything from Chateau Margaux through Bollinger to Blue Nun.

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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