Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Aisles Have It

Spending a lot of money on wine is difficult for some people. Without knowing the difference between a bad wine, a good wine and a great wine means people can be reluctant to take a leap of faith. I have always resisted the urge to spend a lot of money on wine, and have, for most of my drinking life, enjoyed bottles of wine that cost less than HK$70.

I was convinced that with a little inside knowledge the average Hong Kong supermarket would reveal wines that were at the very least quaffable and at the very most excellent. To put this theory to the test I simply had to persuade a Master of Wine to wander around a supermarket with me.

I meet Charles Curtis at the ParknShop on Gage Street, Central.

“This used to be my local when I first moved to Hong Kong,” says Curtis, who is one of only 312 Masters of Wine in the world (and only one out of 22 in the United States), as certified by the Institute of Masters of Wine. “My company rented me a serviced apartment on Hollywood Road and so this was the closest spot. I came here and I thought 'Oh what am I going to be able find at this supermarket?' Well you know I was really surprised and very happy with everything they had.”

As we survey the wine aisle I ask if there are tricks to quickly identify a potentially good wine from the label alone. The short answer is yes. And no.

Some wines indicate that they are vegan and vegetarian friendly, but Curtis points out that although some winemakers - including the very best - use fish and/or egg products in filtering and fining their wine it is a processing agent not an ingredient.  

“It’s a very natural process. They use isinglass, which comes from fish, and egg whites, and it is usually slightly more expensive wines that are treated that way. I don't think you need to even put it on the label because it comes out of the wine," he says. He likens the use of these ingredients to making consomme. And, he adds, some countries aren't even required to put it on the label. The same goes for sulphites. If a wine doesn't contain sulphites it is “probably going to be disgusting.”

The first thing Curtis suggests is seeing if something jumps out from the shelves. He admits that as a complete beginner nothing may, but with a little knowledge small details make themselves known. For example a Chilean wine that may have otherwise gone unnoticed jumps out as it bears the Chateau Lafite symbol, a sign of quality and recognisable to anyone who has even a passing interest in wine.

The alcohol content too can be a bit misleading. “They have a half per cent leeway in terms of labelling. So it’s not a solid indicator.”

Acquiring the knowledge that will enable you to identify which appellations and producers have good reputations and which vintages have been scorned or revered comes from tasting and reading. Curtis advises making a few simple notes - the only kind you will likely be able to make at this stage - which will give you something go on next time.

As with learning anything, practice makes perfect for fledgling wine connoisseurs. “My motto has always been ‘the more you drink, the more you know’ and so I am a big advocate of never drinking the same thing twice.”

It didn't take long for Curtis, the former head of wine for Christie’s in both Asia and the Americas and a certified member of the Appraiser's Association of America, to spot something.

“The first thing that you come to is this. This is wonderful wine. Gunderloch is a really well known name. This is their least expensive, but it's under HK$90,” he says. “Gunderloch is really well known for their more famous wines, but the entry level is a great place to start.”

And then he is off.

“And then you start to look at the different appellations [a legally defined and protected geographical indication used to identify where the grapes for a wine were grown]. Sancerre is a pretty well known appellation. [Only sauvignon blanc and pinot noir are permitted as AOC classified sancerre wine.] Seems pretty reasonably priced. HK$128 is not out of the realm of possibility [of being a good example],” he says. “On a hot, salty day a cold glass of Sancerre would be a great thing. And you might just have to give that a whirl, especially if you didn't want something a little sweeter, like the riesling is bound to be.”

There were other white wines too but they were all ruled out on this occasion as alfresco dining at this time of the year at a dai pai dong isn't practical. More’s the pity as Curtis says they are “home runs,” in a nod to his homeland.

There are more famous wines on Gage street. “Speaking of the famous producers. HK$168 for two, see that’s pretty cheap too. That is the Chateau Lafite symbol," he says. "This isn’t Chateau Lafite of course, this is Los Vascos. Produced by the the Lafite-Rothschild company but by different winemakers. Produced in Chile in the Colchagua Valley this is a very good option as well.”

Lafite-Rothschild is a Bordeaux, arguably the most famous Bordeaux, and almost certainly the most consistently expensive. "Speaking of Bordeaux, you've got a big section of Bordeaux here. It’s very popular in Asia. These are mostly what are known as Petit Chateau, so that means usually you won't recognize the name, but there are still some great buys."

Interestingly red Bordeaux is generally made from a blend of up to six grapes, meaning, in theory, that two wines that taste completely different could both be Bordeaux, compounding perhaps problems for beginners. Cabernet sauvignon tends to dominates the blend in red wines produced in the Médoc region and the rest of the left bank. Merlot tends to dominate in Saint-Émilion, Pomerol and the other right bank appellations. White Bordeaux is predominantly, and exclusively in the case of the sweet Sauternes, made from Sémillon, Sauvignon blanc and Muscadelle. As with the reds, white Bordeaux wines are usually blends, most commonly of Sémillon and a smaller proportion of Sauvignon blanc. Other permitted grapes are sauvignon gris, ugni blanc, colombard, merlot blanc, ondenc and mauzac.

“If you are being very price conscious there is a trio of them here. You would look at this one, a Michel Lynch because you know the name Lynch maybe from [Château] Lynch-Bages. In fact this is there negociant [a merchant who assembles the produce of smaller growers and winemakers and sells the result under its own name] wine. Solidly under HK$100,” he says.

Curtis, who is well versed in what is or is not popular in China as he writes a regular column for the Chinese version of French wine magazine La Revue du Vin de France, gets a touch excited when he sees a 2010 Bordeaux Supérieur Château Marjosse, particularly as the winemaker, Pierre Lurton, one of the most famous winemakers in all of Bordeaux “even put his name on the bottle.” Curtis calls this a real find, which ensures we will be drinking it later.

Curtis admits to having classic taste and so New World wines are not always at the forefront of his mind. “I would totally roll the dice on [the drinkable HK$59 Bergerac we looked at]. I would be a little more cautious about doing that with something from the New World. And the reason why is because Bergerac is a very particular place and the wines adhere to a relatively circumscribed description,” he explains. “In other words there are only so many things it can taste like. Whereas if something says South East Australia; that’s a gigantic region. That’s like a whole continent’s worth of vineyards and you have no idea what it is going to taste like unless you know the producer. Just like if it said California on the label. That could be anything; there are so many styles. Whereas Bergerac, is not going to vary that much.”

For high-end wines, Curtis says the New World wineries have started to scale down the regions, but at the price points we are talking about it is still difficult.

“Even if I hadn’t had a particular vintage of Ridge, I know Monte Bello is always good and I wouldn't really worry about buying it. I would buy it with the same confidence I have in Latour or Mouton.” At the lower end of the price point, however, Curtis would be a bit more sceptical.

However, this time we do roll the dice as Curtis does know one of the producers. “The series Y Yalumba was calling out to me,” he says of the South Australian wine, so that goes in the bag too. To complete the three wines that we will try Curtis chooses a 2011 tempranillo from Spanish producer Bodegas Chivite. At just HK$88 for two this was perhaps the best bargain of the entire shop.

Having originally trained as a chef, receiving the Grand Diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Curtis is also the perfect person to suggest suitable food to go with our purchases. In keeping with the ethos of this article, I was excited when he suggested we take our plastic carrier bag of wine to a nearby dai pai dong. Curtis explains his seemingly unorthodox venue choice.

“I think Cantonese food is one of the most versatile cuisines on the planet and there are very few wines that don’t go with it. Cantonese cuisine is a type of cooking that has a lot of variety. You can find a Cantonese dish to match almost any wine out there I would think”

To hit home that he has the courage of his convictions, Curtis tells me has no reservations about drinking the best wines with Cantonese food, going so far as to recount a time when he found that Champagne and pig brain hotpot go quite well together.

Photo: D3N
The bottles barely had time to dimple with condensation before they were on the rickety plastic dai pai dong table at Sing Kee on Stanley Street.

We ordered first. Shrimp with cashews, salt and pepper squid, spareribs with black bean sauce and chicken liver and gizzard (which turned out to be more gizzard than liver) with spicy pepper.

“The standard wines, the Bordeaux that we have or the Sancerre that I was eyeing among the white wines. Those would be very, very versatile. The sweeter wines, like the riesling we were looking at, would be for spicier dishes,” Curtis says by way of further explanation of just how the wines he has chosen go with what we have ordered.

We wasted no time in cracking open the bottles and pouring into the tea-rinshed dai pai dong tumblers. The first, the Spanish tempranillo, was, like one of the others, a screw cap. “You don't always have to be scared off by the screw cap,” he says, debunking the myth that a screw cap means lower quality. He says the same of boxed wine. “There is nothing about the packaging itself that innately makes it lower quality than bottled wine. It is meant for current consumption,” he says. “As long as it’s drinkable, that’s all that matters.”  

Curtis offers his expert opinion on the cheapest wine of the three. “Young vine tempranillo produced in Navarra by one of the oldest producers in Spain, this wine is an absurd value at this price. It shows a pure, clean expression of fresh red berry fruit on the nose, while on the palate the wine is light and clean with admirable balance and equilibrium. Not a heavyweight wine, it is still thoroughly well made with a very pleasant fruit character.”

We crunched our way through the gizzard as we opened the second bottle, a South Australian shiraz-viognier “Y Series” 2011 from Yalumba. "The wine’s aromas jump from the glass with notes of fresh raspberry and an exotic floral note on the nose. On the palate there is a bit more punch than the tempranillo, with more weight and alcohol in evidence. A great example of what makes South Australia so popular with consumers."

The advice from Curtis was to start with the cheapest and end with what would hopefully be the best, the Bordeaux Supérieur 2010 from Château Marjosse. "This must be among the best wine values anywhere on the market today. The wine is produced by Pierre Lurton, general manager of Bordeaux power châteaux Château Cheval Blanc and Château d’Yquem from his home estate in the Entre-Deux-Mers region. Here he uses his expertise to produce a wine that definitely punches above its weight class, with concentrated aromas of blackcurrant and spice on the nose with just a hint of smoke and earth. On the palate the wine has genuine density and concentration, with firm tannins, a rich, velvety texture and admirable length. Went down quite a treat – definitely a wine to buy by the case."

The rest of the wine manages to disappear as we chat and finish the food, and I come away with a new found confidence in buying wine from the supermarket. In fact I went back and tried the Los Vascos from Lafite and while I am not ready, and I am not sure I will ever be, to comment with such authority, it was very nice indeed. So much so in fact that even though it was beyond what I would normally pay for a bottle of wine I was happy to buy it and even happier to drink it.

Top Tips for getting the most from the supermarket

Curtis says you should be suspicious if the shelves are full of wines you have never heard of. This leads him to suspect the motivations of the buyer and whether they are simply good value for the employer or wines he or she has fallen in love with. He mentions that the ParknShop selection are well priced and well chosen.

Wine is a personal thing and what is right for someone else maybe not be right for you, however, advice from others can be invaluable. Curtis explains that there are other ways to help you along with your oenological ambitions.

Reading. There are lots of books at the library, lots of magazines and plenty of sound advice on blogs. Just reading a little will help you make an informed decision.

Going to wine clubs. Tasting wine with people who know what they're talking about, or even just people who have more knowledge than you, will help you along. Try

Events. Whether it be wine fairs or having people over to your house, or any event where wine is available for tasting, will help develop your ability to differentiate between tastes and open you up to more and more varieties.

Apps. There are lots, both paid and free, that offer advice. Many allow you to scan wine bottle labels in the shop and get advice and notes from other users and experts.

Twitter. A great mass communication tool that allows you to contact producers and experts directly.

WeChat. Curtis' own WeChat app is abuzz with people talking about wine, he says. Download and talk to people, mainly in the mainland and Hong Kong, from all experience levels.

This article originally appeared in the print edition of the South China Morning Post on Friday November 8th, 2013. An online version of the article on can be found here.

Charles Curtis' website is here.

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