Despite a change in consumption habits taking place, a consistent theme from The 23rd Parallel‘s first few Q&A sessions was that Hong Kong, as a wine-loving city, still has some way to go before it can say it has collectively embraced vinous diversity.
Two things stick in my mind about wine consumption here. Firstly, according to Michael Palij MW, 77% of all wine sold is French red. Then, according to Watson’s Wine (our largest physical store-front retailer), in their stores in Cantonese-heavy areas, the sales contribution of non-French wine can often come in at less than 10%.
So what hope for everyone else? As you’ll see in future articles, there are clear moves by restaurants, hotels and independent retailers to put interesting and exciting wines from non-traditional areas into our glasses. In an attempt to gauge the degree to which this movement is being received, 10 days ago The 23rd Parallel joined forces with boutique Napa producer The Wine Stash to put together a tasting.
Started by two brothers, what could be described as a “garagiste” operation by the French, The Wine Stash now has its wares on offer in the some of the city’s leading eating houses, such as Blue Butcher. The aim of the tasting was to challenge people’s preconceived ideas of quality from traditional wine-growing areas, and whether these modern-looking offerings can offer something new.
Without further ado, the scene at Nights on Peel Street before the crowd arrived…
Getting the notes down early; was a good exercise in rapid-fire tasting!
Time to kick things off. Starting with a rosé and the whites…
(1) 2014 Rosé
- Blend of 90% Pinot Noir from Carneros, 10% Grenache
- Are we in a bar in Hong Kong, or at Wimbledon in the Summer time? A nose of pure fresh strawberries and cream. Very pleasant and appealing. Refreshing acidity delivered dried candied raspberries and cherries, but its body was the most surprising: with the addition of oak, it had genuine weight, without being unbalanced or awkward
(2) 2013 Sauvignon Blanc
- 100% Sauvignon Blanc from Calistoga
- Fairly neutral in character. Some citrus and green apple out of the glass, with a small amount of vanilla from the oak. Refreshing and simple, nothing memorable
(3) 2010 Sauvignon Blanc
- 100% Sauvignon Blanc from Calistoga
- Interesting contrast with the above. Much more about it, and very much in keeping with a Bordeaux-style dry white: not an overly expressive nose but excellent on the palate. Mouthfilling with fresh acidity, to go with a stony seam it had satisfying finish of lemon and pear. Good wine
(4) 2010 White Blend
- Blend of 60% Roussanne, 30% Viognier, 10% Sauvignon Blanc
- An idiosyncratic wine with a construct based heavily on northern Rhone. Funky and aromatic, plenty of citrus, going with a musky/mineral note. Reasonably pleasant to taste, again citrus but also a touch of toffee popcorn courtesy of the new wood. Lack of balance
(5) 2009 White Blend
- Blend of 60% Roussanne, 30% Viognier, 10% Picpoul de Pinet
- Very different to the ’10, with the marginal PdP grape replacing the Sav Blanc. Rich and complex on the nose, first up it was stewed apples and raisins (slightly reminiscent of vintage Champagne), followed by stone fruit and a soil-led funkiness. Really interesting palate; mealy and rich, although fruit not so prevalent, with a long finish
And on to the reds…
(6) 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon
- 100% Cabernet from Rutherford
- Good solid varietal character of blackcurrant, cherry and plum, accompanied by milk chocolate and sweet spice from the oak. Simple but really enjoyable, this fruit-forward offering is versatile enough to be paired with most foods, or fine to be drunk on its own
(7) 2012 Red Blend
- Blend of 75% Syrah, 10% Merlot, 5% each Zinfandel / Viognier / Petit Syrah
- An interesting, rustic style of wine, with its dark fruit (black cherry/plum), savoury notes and earthy minerality. Quite powerful and one which will definitely benefit from further ageing
(8) Wine Stash Mystery Blend
- Blend of 2005 Zinfandel, 2006 Syrah, 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007 Merlot
- The crowd favourite, and markedly different to the other reds on offer. Given the age of grapes in the blend, its garnet tinge was immediately apparent when compared to its ruby-coloured stablemates. Lovely mature nose of ripe plum and blackberry, leafiness (probably from the Cab) and nutmeg/cloves. On the palate it was dry, linear and clean with a long fruit-based finish. Excellent wine
(9) 2013 Reserve Red Blend
- Blend of 85% Merlot from Mt. Veeder, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot
- You could see why Merlot is behind the wheel of this car: plump red fruit, rich and full-bodied with velvety soft tannins. It had excellent balance on the palate although needs time for the tannins, while enjoyable, to fully integrate with the fruit and alcohol. In 3-5 years it should be in fine fettle
(10) 2012 “Summer” Red Blend
- Blend of 95% Syrah, 5% Viognier
- A big ol’ wine at 14.7% abv, it is designed to be given a bit of fridge or ice bucket time, then drunk in the sunshine. Another northern Rhone mimic through the addition of white grape Viognier, first up it had a leathery/savoury nose with only a hint of that trademark Syrah pepperiness. A lack of balance as that alcohol hits you between the eyes, although the black fruit flavour was decent
(Bonus) 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon in Magnum format
- 100% Cabernet from Rutherford
- Useful to compare to its younger (and smaller) brother; almost identical aroma and taste profile to the 2012, this one has plenty of life left in it despite its drink-young appeal. Again very enjoyable, that nice blackcurrant and red cherry was accompanied by a milk chocolate note from the wood
The evening went well, and the crowd enjoyed running through the line-up. But what did everyone think? They loved the Mystery Blend, which to my mind spoke to that hard-wired enjoyment of good vintage Bordeaux. The Rutherford Cab hung on to its coat-tails, with understandable and excellent varietal character: no wonder this is becoming a go-to house pour for a number of restaurants.
The rosé was well received (due to our hot climate?), but what people struggled to accept were the funkier blends on offer: taking the White Blend for example, to put a twist on what is already a not-widely-drunk wine from the Rhône Valley, it could be considered a gamble, not to mention a stretch when it comes to a consumer’s comfort zone.
And the “Summer” red wine, although well constructed, may not be appropriate for our food as well as local palates (remember what José Alba said about Cantonese tolerance to alcohol levels last year).
My conclusions? In their own right, The Wine Stash produces well-made, solid wines, and there is definitely a space for them in the Hong Kong market. But care needs to be taken as to how they are marketed and placed into our bars and restaurants. The diversity movement is in full (albeit slow) swing now, so pricing will be a huge advantage, but an awareness of the current market is vital too. Taking their Sauvignon Blanc for example, could it really compete with the herbaceous Kiwi style, already very well established here, or the more traditional take from France’s Loire Valley? Unlikely to my mind.
Where it could create a point of difference though is a modern fresh look that highlights their geographical origin. For a sommelier at a restaurant to recommend a HK$100-120 [US$13-15] glass of 100% Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that offers superb early drinking can be a strong message; then, further up the price curve, a blend of older fruit that reflects what’s being done in Napa right now, showcases an exciting philosophy of experimentation that Hongkongers could undoubtedly buy in to.
Let’s hope we see more from the likes of The Wine Stash in years to come.
Huge thanks to The Wine Stash team for this collaborative effort. You can find out more about their wines via their website. Special mention also to James and the team at Nights, our gracious host.