Can a wine lose its mojo?

Have you ever spent a memorable holiday in a wine-growing area, shipped your favourite wine home in the expectation of future enjoyment, but when you opened that first bottle, at best it didn’t seem quite as good as you originally remembered, or at worst, was a complete let down?

For Christmas dinner this year, we paired our turkey with a Kiwi Pinot Noir. It was good without being spectacular, so it immediately got me thinking – wasn’t this identical wine miles better when we first drank it in New Zealand just five short months go?

boulcott

Our festive red – a 2010 Churton “The Abyss” Pinot Noir – was definitely enjoyable, but there was something missing compared to the previous experience we’d had with it. While in Wellington in July, the three of us had dinner at the renowned Boulcott Street Bistro, above; to go with our lamb racks and slow-braised beef short rib in its intimate Gothic cottage setting, we had the same vintage of the same wine.

Like many wine list decisions, this one was based on some degree of understanding of its provenance: having previously ridden pushbikes through the stunning scenery of the Marlborough wine region (below), where Churton is made, and then met their winemaker Sam Weaver at a tasting here in HK, we were confident it would be a good choice. And, as my notes at the time showed, so it proved: we were enthralled by its “seductive savoury, red fruit and exotic spice perfume” and on the palate, “its medium body was delicate and harmonious, mixing cherry and strawberry with black tea and brooding smoky oak. Lovely long finish”.

P1000561.JPG

So what happened? In search of a more romantic hypothesis, we’ll discount the potentially damaging effects of the wine’s long journey from New Zealand’s South Island to Hong Kong, as opposed to the short hop across the Cook Strait. Also, the wine was bought from a very reliable supplier here, so storage will almost certainly have been sound.

Instead, we can look to the notion of being immersed in a different (read: enjoyable) set of surroundings, and the effect a more relaxed state has on your impression of the sensory inputs you receive. I’ll let someone far more qualified in the projection of imagery than I to demonstrate this point. In his 1958 novel Dr No, Ian Fleming describes the arrival of everyone’s favourite spy in Jamaica as follows:

The Blue Hills was a comfortable old-fashioned hotel with modern trimmings. He was shown to a fine corner room with a balcony looking over the distant sweep of Kingston Harbour.

James Bond ordered a double gin and tonic and one whole green lime; when the drink came he cut the lime in half, dropped the two squeezed halves into the long glass, almost filled the glass with ice cubes and then poured in the tonic. He took the drink out on to the balcony, and sat and looked out across the spectacular view.

He sat for a while, luxuriously, letting the gin relax him: he thought how wonderful it was to be away from headquarters, from London, and, as all his senses told him, that he was on a good tough case again.

That, to me, sounds like the best damn gin and tonic I’ve never had.

In 2004, Meg and I visited the picturesque Greek island of Santorini. There we visited Domaine Sigalas, one of the leading proponents of the distinctive local grape, Assyrtiko. Having completed a tour under the charming guidance of Paris Sigalas himself, we sat outside the winery (below), enjoying tasting flights of his unoaked dry white, as well as their naturally sweet “Vinsanto”, to go with a simple yet delightful lunch spread.

The Assyrtiko in its dry form, with citrus, minerality and razor-sharp acidity, was a perfect foil for the feta cheese, olives and sunny yet barren surroundings of the volcanic island’s eastern plain. The Vinsanto, a result of sun-dried fruit, was balanced, indulgent and complex.

sigalas

Months later, back at home in London, we opened a bottle of each in an attempt to lift our spirits after a long week at work. It was cold and wet outside. No notes exist, but I remember both wines being completely underwhelming: the acidity of the dry Assyrtiko being out of balance with the fruit to the point of sourness, and the sweet wine being cloying and flabby. They could not have been further from the wines we sampled on that lovely Mediterranean island.

If we assume that modern packaging, transportation and storage are sound enough for a wine to be tasted “equally” all over the world (something, I admit, will not always hold true), it is not a stretch to suggest its quality therefore is determined not only by the physical combination of fruit, soil, aspect, climate and vinification – the middle three the French like to call terroir – but also the physiological inputs of human condition and one’s response to our environmental surroundings.

With the Churton and Sigalas, were they genuinely worse when not consumed in their immediate place of origin? Or when drunk locally, were we psychologically duped, the wines somehow getting lifted to a higher level? I suspect the answer is probably somewhere in between: consensus is they are both very good wines (go here and here for tasting notes), so it is a reasonably safe assumption that our perception of their quality was a combination of all the factors noted above, and probably more when you think about elements such as serving temperature, stemware, accompanying food and so on.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said, “our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts”. The nature and origin of a wine’s observed quality is a fascinating subject to consider and, crucially, one which often forms the basis of a given producer’s pitch to us as consumers.

Does anyone else have an experience of a wine disappointing, or worse still falling flat on its face, as soon as you got it back home?

Advertisements

Old Empire Long Lunch

It is 5:58pm as we walk back out into Causeway Bay’s crowded streets. Feeling bleary-eyed in the cool December air, at first it takes us a moment to re-establish our bearings amid the chaos of Tang Lung Street. People are everywhere; buses and taxis shoot past. One of the group should have been on his way to the airport 30 minutes ago: “I really need to get going, otherwise I am a dead man”. And with that, like Keyser Söze, he’s gone.

wooloomooloo_2

Five-and-a-half hours earlier, the four of us had taken our seats at Wooloomooloo Prime on the 27th floor of the Soundwill Plaza building (above), for what would be an epic journey through eight terrific wines from around the world. The lunch would be a Christmas social, a recap of the year, as well as an eccentric celebration of our common backgrounds. All being British, the lunch would serve as a nostalgic – but perhaps more relevantly, comedic – backdrop to a conversation about The Old Empire.

In keeping with the spirit of the event, we start with arguably the greatest Brit of all time: Sir Winston Churchill. The Prime Minister had drunk Pol Roger Champagne since the 1920s, but it was not until he attended a dinner at theWinston-Churchill-Odette-Pol-Roger British Embassy in Paris at the end of the Second World War, where he was seated next to the beguiling Odette Pol-Roger, his predilection for the famous Épernay house was sealed. Their close friendship (right) lasted until Churchill’s death in 1965, and in 1984 Odette decided to name their prestige blend in his honour, launching it at Blenheim Palace, the place of his birth.

We drink the 2000 Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill. A shimmering golden colour with only minimal bubbles, its nose was beautifully layered: first toast and vanilla, it moved on to stewed apple before taking on somewhat of a mineral note, typical of a younger wine. Still very fresh. On the palate it was enormously rich and full-bodied, less fruit but delivering biscuity autolytic cues as well as more of that oak influence. A long finish confirmed its undoubted quality – what a start.

We then moved through some awesome food to go with our chosen bottles: Fines de Claire oysters and Iberico ham while we considered the menu (and drank the SWC); scallops and crab cakes as starters, before a selection of meats from the butcher’s block including a superb bone-in ribeye Tomahawk.

This was how we found the wines:

2013 Greywacke Pinot Gris

  • Cloudy Bay founder and photographer Kevin Judd set up his own label in 2009, and this past couple of years has seen the fruits of his labour rewarded with real quality. This one was pale lime-green in colour; a quirky aromatic wine with a complex nose of white flowers, stone fruit (esp. peach) and a slight candied note. Very enjoyable, and a perfect way to kick things off post-fizz, this off-dry wine had a full-ish body with refreshing acidity and a nice green fruit finish

2010 Domaine J-M Boillot Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru

  • A deep gold colour, this Premier League chardonnay from one of Puligny-Montrachet’s Grand Cru sites was mineral, rich and toasty. Surprisingly, not much fruit there but a Chablis-like steeliness instead. A perfect accompaniment, as well as a stylistic contrast to the Greywacke, for our starters

2008 Dry River Pinot Noir

  • Following the recent tasting, we decanted for well over an hour and it made a big difference: more primary fruit on the nose, especially strawberry and raspberry, as well as sweet spice and a touch of white pepper, it was pleasant but still somewhat closed. All the elements of tannin, fruit, acidity and alcohol were balanced enough though, to suggest this should be long-lived (damn: only two bottles left)

2000 Domaine Leroy Pommard “Les Vignots”

  • What, hopefully, the Dry River will taste like in 8 years’ time. Beautifully perfumed, it has trademark Pinot red fruit, but now perfectly integrated with a savoury character, best described as “meaty”. On the palate it was delicate and balanced, medium-bodied with nothing out of place. A pleasure to drink, and an outstanding example of premium aged red Burgundy

2001 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva

  • For a 14-year-old, this Spanish favourite seemed remarkably young on the nose. A Tempranillo fruit bomb of blackcurrant and black cherry jumped out of the glass, and it was only when tasted that some of the more secondary (winemaking) character – oak, vanilla – started to come through. Fruit forward with plenty of soft tannin, it was perfect with the Tomahawk

2000 Chateau Haut-Bailly

  • A classic Claret from a brilliant vintage. Sweet spice, oak, blackcurrant and graphite on the nose, followed by mellow tannins and lovely red fruit on the palate. We were starting to flag after the previous six wines, but still lucid enough to appreciate the quality of this excellent wine

2007 Klein Constantia Vin de Constance

  • Worth reading the history of this famous wine. A terrific way to end our vinous odyssey, this sweet wine from South Africa was a deep, coppery-gold colour. Rich, full-bodied and unctuous (but not cloyingly so), it had cinnamon and clove, orange marmalade and tropical fruit attacking the senses…fantastically matching our apple crumble and cheesecake desserts

wooloomooloo

It is fair to say that by the time we had worked through the above, with darkness starting to fall, we had long since moved away from discussing the virtues – or lack thereof – of Britain’s rich and varied history. Instead, our long lunch turned into what the best social events always do: outstanding food and wine serving as a canvas for friends to share hour after hour of great conversation.

Roll on Christmas!

A healthy week in Hong Kong

Sunday, and our livers are just about intact.

At the denouement of what has been a brilliant week of fun, food and wine, the final act is one where we step into a culinary Alice In Wonderland moment. Or perhaps it is Willy Wonka: in an edible forest-floor scene, below, a white and dark chocolate death cap draws you in, before bouncing between milk chocolate Piedmontese truffle, hazelnut “brothers” and dark chocolate and raspberry barrels. Goodness.

IMG_1216

As we reflect on the past seven days, it is fair to say there has been fun, sadness, great conversation, scenery, awesome food and, without doubt, some terrific wine along the way. So, to go with the What We’ve Been Drinking Recently section – where you can find full tasting notes of all the stuff we’ve tasted – here’s the run-down on where we have been, and what we have eaten, since last weekend…

Kicking things off last Saturday: dinner was had at Moonshine & The Po’Boys in the Star Street neighbourhood (below). In spite of the depressingly predictable need-to-get-you-out-in-two-hours Hong Kong service, the food here is genuinely worth putting up with the pushy waiting staff for.

Chargrilled calamari, dirty rice jambalaya, catfish tacos and, for the main event, a half chicken and a bone-in mini tomahawk were made with skill and love – a million miles away from the chain group dining scene here, and fully reflective of Southern food at its best.

Processed with VSCOcam with se3 preset

Sunday: at home in Stanley, doing the Port and mince pies road test. Truth was, the only thing that tasting an above-average amount of fortified wine gave us, when drunk with those rich and delicious sweet festive treats, was a suppressed appetite. Home-made soup was all we needed for dinner that night.

Monday: in the China Resources Building in Wanchai, doing a Christmas wine tasting with Berry Bros & Rudd. Tactical eating needed to take place beforehand, so a portion of mexican rice with chicken and okra from healthy new kid on the block Nutrition Kitchen did the trick.

Tuesday: the only place I went to of any note was the gym at The American Club. Meg made a dinner of pesto and breadcrumb-coated salmon, with couscous and vine-roasted tomatoes. But seeing as it is silly season, the already-opened Port from two days earlier looked at us like a neglected child, so we had to just check in with a couple of small glasses. Both the Otima 10 and 2008 LBV were still in fine fettle.

IMG_1549

Wednesday: G7 Private Dining on Glenealy Street in Soho. The team, along with our better halves (above), assembled for a cracking Italian-inspired dinner. The double magnum of Ornellaia was a real treat as it held court over the latter half of the following menu:

  • Antipasti of burrito di bufala, sturia cold-smoked sturgeon, grilled polenta and gorgonzola, and cotechino with green lentils
  • Chestnut soup
  • Casarecce pasta with wild boar ragu and porcini mushrooms
  • Clams steamed in white wine and chorizo
  • Wild red venison saddle
  • Cheese selection with jam and crackers
  • Panettone with pistachio creme fraiche

Thursday: an emotional farewell to friends in Stanley after a run from HKCC to home. Our host’s amazing spread contained a honey-glazed ham, a manuka-smoked salmon, broccoli cakes, home-made cheese pies and an incredible array of dips, sticks and other finger food miscellany. A grazer’s paradise.

Friday: a long lunch on the terrace at ON Dining in Central (below). Wine was definitely the focus here (that ’85 Leoville…holy moly), but we took in some lovely gnocchi with serrano ham, roasted Chalans duck, as well as an atlantic cod with artichoke macaroni. The scenery and conversation, the perfect accompaniment to the wine, made the afternoon fly by.

ondining

And so to our final chapter, last night: The Mandarin Grill + Bar. Family will soon be arriving in Hong Kong for Christmas, so this was mine and Meg’s Christmas date night. Our first time there and it was, simply, mind-blowing.

We start with half a dozen oysters – Kumamoto from the US, and Whitstable Bay from the UK – to go with the Ruinart fizz. But before we get going though, placed on the table are two mini girolle mushroom soups in a bird’s nest, a pair of breadsticks dressed as branches with edible flowers and what is described as “exploding liquid olives” (below).

After the fun and games, we take in the below over the following three  hours (the below descriptions for which, while matching the actual menu, do not even begin to come close to expertly describing the experience…I’ll leave that to the foodies):

  • M: Lobster bisque / D: scallops with watercress and nori salad
  • M: Beef, braised short rib and prime cutlet / D: lamb shoulder
  • M: Cheesecake / D: bread and butter pudding

IMG_1207

A truly memorable meal; the small details – as well as skill of execution – made each step of the journey a pleasure. The accuracy of taste, and total immersion as a dining experience was a fitting, not to mention calorie-busting, end to an excessive seven days.

As we finish up our chocolate fungi, our stomachs are well and truly on the canvas. What a week though. The only thing that could possibly help us now is a large cup of peppermint tea…as well as no food for the rest of the year. Somehow, I have a feeling it won’t happen.

Three special bottles for two special people

Hong Kong has always been a place for transients. People flit in and out of the place, leading to a somewhat shallow, disconnected culture among the expatriate community. When we first landed in 2009, this view was consensus, but now it could not be further from the truth: our children are growing up here, we decorate our homes as if we owned them (some hope!) and, most importantly, the true bonds of friendship have been formed.

Because of this, saying goodbye to two of our closest friends last night seemed particularly poignant. This weekend they are heading back to their native New Zealand with their two children, having spent the last 13 years here.

As we walk through the village, the big temperature board at Stanley Main Beach reads 23 degrees. Under this cool and clear Hong Kong evening, we assemble at the home of their immediate neighbours, gracious and accommodating. Next door, now that the packers have been through, only empty rooms and years of memories remain.

IMG_1171

The pretty little garden – beautifully lit with fairy lights and candles – plays host to our small gathering, filled with its generous spread (above) and conversation about what everyone’s plans are for Christmas. The kids fly in and out, adding energy to what is an otherwise reflective atmosphere.

To mark their send-off, we agree it was only appropriate we open some true Kiwi vinous heavyweights, as well as a ringer in the form of a French bottle we gifted them 3 or 4 years ago…here goes.

2008 Dry River Pinot Noir: this Martinborough-made wine has always been a serious Pinot, made in Burgundian style and built to last. Seven years in, it is more savoury than fruit on the nose now, with a noticeable savoury farmyard character. A touch closed, it could have done with some time in a jug first, but a pleasure to drink

1997 Chateau Montrose: rocky minerality and graphite jumped out the glass, and, in keeping with the 1996 vintage tried recently, the fruit made a late appearance once we were actually drinking it. This one seemed more approachable though. Lovely balanced and classy Claret from the St Estephe AOC of Bordeaux’s Left Bank.

2009 Te Mata Coleraine: probably NZ’s finest example of a Cabernet Sauvignon-led blend, made with fruit from the picturesque vineyard with the eponymous house. Leather was the first thing that hit me, then red fruit from the 43% Merlot. Grainy tannins on the palate indicated the longevity this wine will enjoy away from our bottle, then rich dark fruit and mocha on the finish. Brilliant wine

IMG_1192

As the evening draws to close, speeches and thanks are given, and the emotion of the moment becomes clear. Our friends have, in this mini community of ours, been central to a lot of people’s lives for many years now, and their presence will be genuinely missed.

We will, of course, see them again, not that we ever needed an excuse to head down to the fantastic part of the world that is New Zealand. As the notion of where – and what – home is becomes increasingly hard to fathom, we consider the life we enjoy here in Hong Kong, and how our own family’s future may indeed pan out.

Here’s to you, Marcus and Katrina.

Deck The Halls…with Port and mince pies

Not even a week into December and the pressure has, already, become too much to bear. Having a six-year-old in the house with no visible yuletide adornments means only one thing: it’s time to get the tree, dust off the stand and decorations, find the Christmas tunes playlist, and, of course, enjoy that first mince pie.

IMG_1120

Meg and Saffy have made our traditional festive treats this year (above): soft crumbly pastry, filled with rich and spicy fruit, they sate our sweet teeth. But what to drink with them? Mulled wine is in keeping with the season, dark ales or tea also work…but we’re going to try Port.

Comforting and enjoyable, this fortified wine from Portugal has never really enjoyed mainstream popularity. Its production dates back to the 18th Century, when British merchants created a way of preserving the local red wine as it sailed slowly to the dinner tables of northern Europe. Over the years it has endured a stuffy, traditional image (below); the after-dinner preserve of the gentlemen’s club, usually associated with Stilton and cigars, not to mention the occasional dose of gout. It definitely deserves better.

VIENNA - GENTLEMEN'S CLUB
Vienna Archaeology Society ‘Thursday Association’, by J M Kupfer

What exactly is Port though? Using grapes such as Tinta Roriz from the hot, inland climate of the Douro Valley, it is a sweet, usually red wine, made by halting fermentation through the addition of a high alcohol, neutral grape spirit. Production is centred in the town of Vila Nova de Gaia (below), across the river from the capital Porto.

villanovadegaia

Unlike other red wine, the juice of the grapes is not given the usual long period of contact with the skins (in order to extract flavour, colour and tannin), so instead teams of people used to tread over the grapes in large troughs called lagares to speed up the process (below); nowadays though, lagaresaway from the tourist throng, this process is done in robotic form, with automated feet mimicking human action.

Once the required maceration has taken place and the alcohol level has reached 6-9%, the grape spirit (at 77% abv) is added. This kills the remaining yeast in the fermentation process, so a sweet wine remains, at around 20% abv, ready for maturation.

The red version of the wine is made in three broad styles:

  • Ruby: deeply coloured and fruity, these range from the young and inexpensive basic and Reserve types – briefly matured in steel tanks and oak respectively – to the Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) style where the wine is developed for 4-6 years in cask before release
  • Tawny: made with paler fruit, these are matured in a similar way to Ruby Port but often have a more complex flavour due to the oxidative ageing process. Upon release they are ready to drink. Outside the basic type, Reserve has at least 7 years in oak; Tawny with an Indication of Age is a blend of wines with an average age of either 10, 20, 30 or over 40 years old; a Colheita meanwhile is from a specific vintage
  • Vintage: this is single-year Port primarily matured in the bottle after an initial short period in oak. They are among the longest lived. Due to a lack of filtration, they throw a heavy sediment so need decanting before drinking. The premium variety is Single Quinta, which comes from a specific vineyard of a producer

To go with the mince pies, we taste one from each of the first two categories: Graham’s 2008 LBV and Warre’s 10-year-old Tawny, brandedotima10 “Otima 10”. The latter’s packaging (right) and website show how the producer is trying to move away from that previous image, suggesting a more modern, flexible drink. It’s refreshing to see.

Starting with the LBV (below, served at room temperature), it was a deep ruby colour with heaps of black fruit and liquorice on the nose. To drink, its pronounced body was smooth, soft and rich, delivering a long finish of blackberry and black cherries. The Otima 10 (served slightly chilled) was an entirely different proposition though. A reddish tawny brown colour, its nose carried a notable raisin character (often referred to as rancio in Spain and France) and on the palate, that oak ageing made any trace of fruit almost non-existent, instead delivering coffee, caramel and a slight nuttiness.

grahamslbvBoth very interesting wines, and certainly different to each other, but which was the best match for the mince pies? The Tawny almost seemed more appropriate as a stand-alone drink given its unique flavour characteristics (which I did like), but the Ruby, with its black fruit and fuller body, acted in a more complimentary fashion. The two in tandem provided such a rich treat though, I was beaten after just two pies!

Worth nothing that Port doesn’t just provide an accompaniment to festive snacks; most versions will go well with hard/nutty cheeses, as well as hearty desserts like apple crumble, as the sweetness and body of the wine will match the dish. Also, it can elevate the flavour of gamey red-meat dishes like lamb and venison (more on food and wine matching in future posts).

So everything is done, and the countdown to the 25th can officially start. The Christmas tree is up and dressed, the decorations are set, the Sun has gone down and Saffy is tucked up in bed. The air is filled with the smell of spruce, as well as sweet spice from a Christmas candle. There’s only one thing to do now: it’s time for another glass of Port.

IMG_1167

————————————————————-

Keen to give some a try? The best place I could find in town to browse by the bottle was Oliver’s in the Prince’s Building. They carry an impressive selection of Rubies and Tawnies, as well as a handful of rarer Vintage bottles. Give them a go.

————————————————————-

You can also find our latest tasting adventures here. Silly season officially starts this week, so expect plenty of updates from now until Christmas!