The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Raising a Glass to (and from) China

Looking at New World wines from China

The term “New World” is slowly expanding its empire as we watch countries like India, China, Thailand and Indonesia step into the wine limelight. Although these countries may not have the history for producing quality wines that Europe and other countries have, they’ve great potential as the interest and demand for quality rises in these emerging countries. China, the largest of the countries mentioned, is currently leading the pack.

Thursday, Chinese winemakers beat the French at their own game by winning the coveted award for best Bordeaux varietal at the Decanter World Wine Awards at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. After years of producing millions of bottles of cheap “plonk” for supermarket shelves, a few Chinese producers have started invading the high end market. Winery He Lan Qing Xue’s Jia Bei Lan 2009 Cabernet blend was the wine of the night setting the record as the first Chinese wine to win such an international prize.

Jia Bei Lan, from the desert hills of Ningxia (Inner Mongolia) was tasted against other regional trophy winners from France, California, Australia, South Africa and South America and came out on top. Another winner was Domaine Helan Mountain from the western province of Xinjiang,  who took home a silver and bronze medal for its Classic Chardonnay and its Premium Collection Riesling, respectively. Most of the wines found in China are not made from local grape varietals but from French and German grapes owing to their global popularity. Having been fortunate to taste some of these wines, I can attest that there is tremendous talent and great potential in China, and I am so pleased to see these producers recognized at such a large scale.

Understanding China’s position in the wine market and their lack of wine laws makes these international achievements even more impressive.  Without boundaries and regulations, winemakers are left on their own to either look to European traditions or go with their own instincts and standard farming practices. For these few pioneers who have chosen the road of tradition and excellence are truly making a difference in the way the world views China and its wine.

There are many Chinese wines on the local market, and one must be choosy about which bottle to take for dinner. Aside from the wineries mentioned above, here are a few other gems  – Grace Vineyard’s Moscato Symphony, the Bordeaux blends Chairman’s Reserve and Deep Blue from Shanxi province and Silver Height’s Cabernet blend “the Summit” from Ningxia (Inner Mongolia).

For the Sake of Saké

An exploration of rice wine

Working in the beverage industry, I appreciate alcoholic beverages of all sorts — natural, fermented, brewed, distilled and infused. Although wine is my primary focus, I am very keen on other delicious beverages, Saké being one of them. As is the case with Marsala, Vermouth, Sherry and Madeira, I feel that Saké is widely misunderstood. It is not just a hot alcoholic beverage served at Japanese restaurants with California rolls and tempura; it is a unique beverage that can rival some of the world’s greatest wines (and spirits in certain instances).

Saké is a 7,000 year old beverage that is made from four key ingredients: rice, water, yeast and koji (an enzyme that converts starch into sugar, and imparts a distinct and unique flavor). Saké is essentially brewed like beer but the end product is served like wine, with tasting characteristics and alcohol content very similar to wine. I notice more and more drinkers are viewing Saké as another white wine, different from Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, or Riesling, but also having notable similarities and complementing a variety of foods and flavors.

There are over 12,000 different Sakés produced by 2,000 different Sakéries worldwide. While it was actually first created in China, it was later dramatically improved in Japan. Interestingly, Saké is now made in many countries around the world – the US (California & Oregon), Brazil, Australia, Vietnam, China, Korea and of course Japan. To fully understand Saké, you must be familiar with the main ingredients and production methods. Just as the best wine is made from excellent grapes, the finest Saké also starts with the finest premium ingredients – the purest water, high quality Saké rice, special yeast, and koji.

There are thousands of kinds of rice, but only about two hundred are suitable for premium Saké. Table rice does not make great Saké, just as table grapes make one-dimensional wines. Saké rice (Yamada Nashiki being the most popular) is brown short grain, almost round in appearance. The starches in rice, which provide the best flavors, are concentrated in the center of the rice grain, in what often looks like a white pearl. For premium Sakés, the outside of the grain, containing undesirable fat and proteins, which can deliver unpleasant flavors and aromas, is polished or milled away. This exposes the heart of the rice that contains the starch that will be converted to fermentable sugars, thus creating a creamier, sweeter wine.

Below is a simple list of vocabulary that decipher the grades and naming of Saké:

  • Futsu-shu — is basically “normal Saké,” or Saké that does not qualify for one of the levels of classifications, similar to the “table wine” category.
  • Junmai-shu – this term means that no distilled alcohol has been added. Only four ingredients are used; rice, water, koji and yeast. Until recently, at least 30% of the rice used for Junmai sake had to be milled away. However, Junmai no longer requires a specified milling rate. Nevertheless, the amount milled away must, by law, be listed somewhere on the label.
  • Honjozo-shu –consider this a “fortified” Saké in wine-speak, the rice has been milled leaving 60-70% of the grain.
  • Ginjo-shu – for this category of Saké at least 40% of rice polished away; with or without alcohol added; if bottle is labeled Ginjo, it means distilled alcohol was added; if labeled ‘Junmai’ Ginjo, it means no additional alcohol has been added.
  • Daiginjo-shu The pinnacle of the brewers craft (and usually the most expensive), at least 50% of rice polished away; again with or without added alcohol; if bottle is labeled Daiginjo, it means distilled alcohol was added; if labeled ‘Junmai’ Daiginjo, it means no additional alcohol has  been added.

In pairing challenging food flavors with wine, Saké is always a safe bet as it is extremely adaptable to a variety of flavors and textures. So for those humble evenings where dinner consists of a hot dog or hamburger loaded with onions, pickles, relish, mustard and ketchup, leave the beer in the fridge and grab a glass of Saké!

Here are some of my favorite producers:  Kozaemon (Gifu prefecture), Hatsukame (Shizuoka prefecture), Kasumi Tsuru (Hyogo prefecture), Aiyu (Ibaraki prefecture), Tateyama (Toyama prefecture)

Kampai!

The Secrets of the Lazy Susan

Notes on Chinese etiquette for the uninitiated

If you’re a Westerner living in Chinese society, you have to become familiar with the customs, traditions and social behavior in order to fully understand the culture and be welcomed into it. As a foreigner, you need to grasp the important concept of “guanxi,” or relationships between people, giving face and showing respect. It is the fundamental glue that has held Chinese society together, and it continues to play a huge roll in both business and daily family matters. Formed by Confucius, this system of ethics, morals, hierarchy and behavior has set the rules that establish each person’s proper place in society.

It is fair to say that the number one pastime in China is eating, and one of the best ways to show respect and build “guanxi” is the breaking of bread around the lazy susan. Back during the dynastic periods, dining etiquette was enacted according to a four-tier social strata, the most important being the imperial court; second, the local authorities; then trade associations; and lastly farmers and workers. Today, etiquette is simplified but still organized according to social rank. The most important or high ranking guests should sit on the right side of the host as it is considered the “superior” side; others will sit on the left or “inferior” side. Guests may not choose their own place at the table and are considered very rude if they take a seat before instruction. Instead, the host welcomes his or her guests and escorts each to their “assigned” seats.  If it is a business meeting, guests address themselves as Mr, Master or Doctor, according to their occupational titles. First names are rarely used as it is considered impolite.  Once introductions are completed, the guests are invited to sit.

Chinese banquets range anywhere from 10-12 courses, which include a series of cold cuts and appetizers, hot appetizers – usually some sort of signature dish, soup, poultry (usually pigeon or duck), an assortment of meat dishes, fish and other seafood, vegetables, fried rice or noodles and finally dessert. Diners must pace themselves over the dinner, for it is considered very rude to stop eating in the middle of the meal. As you may imagine, no one ever leaves a banquet hungry or with a plate empty. An empty dish in some cultures signifies that the dish was delicious and well received. In Chinese culture it means that there was not enough food. Warning, if you empty a serving plate thinking to be polite, another serving just may appear!

Drinking or toasting is an indispensible component of any Chinese banquet and it’s considered a social lubricant. Usually guests will have between 2-4 beverages at once – Wine and spirits as well as tea, soda and beer (used as chasers). Toasting is mandatory, and it’s always initiated by the host. When the host says the words “ganbei,” which means bottoms up (literally empty glass), all present should drain their glasses. Once the initial toast has been made, the remaining guests can toast the group or individuals as they choose (usually 15-20 more toasts take place over the dinner). Safe topics for toasts are friendship, health, pledges for cooperation, the desire to reciprocate the hospitality, and mutual benefit (avoid global politics). Interestingly, it is considered a courtesy for the host to get his guests drunk, which is not very difficult considering the strength of the spirits and number of toasts. And the only way to eliminate this drinking pressure is to inform the host before the dinner of an allergy to alcohol or a severe medical condition; otherwise this teetotaling could cause the host to become upset and be considered disrespectful. In order to create the best impression, go with the flow and follow the lead of the host.

Once the last dish is finished, the dinner has officially come to a close. The host will usually ask if every guest has had enough to eat, which is quite a silly question, to which they confirm with compliments. Depending on the success of the dinner, post-dinner activities may be suggested.  One must not underestimate the importance of participating in dining and after-dinner entertainment. Karaoke being one of the main forms of entertainment, it is an excellent way to build “guanxi” and work off a few of the calories that were consumed over feast. I will say from personal experience that these social gatherings can be quite intense and exhausting, but they’re also very rewarding when considering the friendships and business relationships that are built over such feasts.

Hong Kong Gets a Kick from Champagne

Exploring the thrilling world of Grower Champagne

 “Champagne is only from Champagne” was chanted before each course during last week’s Grower Champagne dinner at Lagham Place’s Michelin two-star Cantonese restaurant, Ming Court. This event was put on by the Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne, one of the growing wine organizations in Hong Kong. Given the rate of growth in the Asian wine market, it is exciting to see smaller “boutique” producers now being pushed into the limelight – one example being the Grower Champagne movement. (Yesterday, the New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov wrote an excellent article and a blog post about the movement in Aube; read them for more background information.)

Grower Champagne, also known as “farmer fiz,” can be identified by the letters R.M on the back label (R.M = Récoltant-Manipulant) noting that these farmers grow and produce Champagne from grapes grown only on their own estate. Many of the most famed Champagne houses (Moët, Mumm, and Bollinger to name but a few) purchase the majority of their grapes from farmers throughout the region and do not express a specific sense of place within Champagne. Although the bubbly wines are what make these farmers famous, it is the still wines that I find to be the most intriguing and mysterious. These bottles can be rather difficult to find, so when you do stumble across a good bottle, you can bet your sweet bippy that it will be a special experience.

For me, the highlights of the evening were the 1996 Andre Beaufort Ambonnay Grand Cru and the 2008 Egly Ouriet Ambonnay Rouge “Cuvée des Grands Cotes” (yes, they do make red wine in Champagne). As expected, the 1996 Beaufort was marvelous, but it was the young red Grand Cru that especially sparked my interest. Located in the small village of Ambonnay, Francis Egly owns approximately a mere 8 hectares of vineyards, the majority of which are in Ambonnay.  All of the vineyards are classified as Grand Cru and have the reputation for producing some of the best Pinot Noir based Champagnes, and in this case incredible stand-alone Pinot!  Most of the vines average between 30-50 years of age, which gives the wines gorgeous concentration and depth. Tasted blind, this Champagne had a nose that would have taken me to Grand Cru Burgundy; aromas of wild strawberry, sweet smoke, black cherry and earth rose from the glass, teasing my senses. Without getting too mushy, I will just tell you that it was a beautiful wine that came close to out-shining fellow Champagne superstars.

The menu was creatively paired showcasing traditional Cantonese preparations and a handful of exotic ingredients. Chilled abalone and sea blubber (otherwise known as jellyfish) were paired with Chartogne Taillet’s Blanc de Noirs, deep fried prawn coated with salted egg yolk with Ulysse Collin Extra Brut NV (a Jacques Selosse disciple), roasted goose webs Chiu–Chow style with the 2008 Egly Ouriet Ambonnay Rouge and finally “shark’s fin crystal extravagance” with the 1996 Andre Beaufort Ambonnay for dessert. I cannot properly describe this dessert, so I will let the picture speak for itself.

Hong Kong is full of constant surprises that make eating and drinking in this city always thrilling. It is inspiring how the community in Hong Kong embraces the celebration of wine and food no matter the form or flavor. It is an exciting time to be a part of the wine movement in Hong Kong, and I look forward to seeing further progression and expansion in the wine market. Grower Champagne wines have only recently made their entrance in Hong Kong and I am excited to see that will be next.

Notes from Hong Kong

a chat and some wine with expat Danilo Nicoletti

Editor’s note: We’ll be featuring conversations with the wine wheelers, dealers, movers, makers and shakers both here in the US and abroad. Today, we’re lucky to have Josh Rubenstein from IWM HK sit in conversation with one of Hong Kong dining’s most influential Italians, Danilo Nicoletti.

Danilo Nicoletti, General Manager of 8 1/2 (Otto e Mezzo) photo courtesy of: otto-e-mezzo.com

Danilo Nicoletti is General Manager of 8 1/2 (Otto e Mezzo, one of Hong Kong’s premier Italian restaurants.  Originally from Ventimiglia in Liguria, Italy, Danilo’s prior engagements at Domani and Ritz Carlton’s Toscana have made him an institution in Hong Kong fine dining. Moreover, Danilo has been instrumental in bringing wines from iconic Italian producers like Radikon, Gravner and Bea to his wine list. Danilo is without a doubt a leader in the HK Italian wine community.

What turned you on to a career in food and wine?

My father and uncle ran a small family restaurant in Ventimiglia, so it has always been a part of my life.  I attended school for maitre d’ training and service management, which also helped me to learn English and French.

What do you love about your job?

I love the opportunity to “change the weather.”  We can always manipulate our space and offerings so that every experience at 8 1/2 is a new and memorable experience.  It can be a new dish, artisan wine or serve—or we may add new art to the décor.  I love being on the scene every day

What to your thinking makes a wine program great?

It’s like making a great salad.  You always need your greens and can add interesting varieties of tomatoes and unique surprises like papaya.  Having the right selection in the best price points—for me it’s $600 – $1500 HKD ($75 – $200 USD)—will make the program most attractive.

How would you describe the Hong Kong wine scene to readers abroad?

Hong Kong is the door of Asia and it has taught me to have an open mind.  We have food and wine choices without constraint.  When I began in HK, my vision as a GM had to change from selling only food and wine.  I see how we have to find other sources, like ambiance, service, furnishings and artwork to wow our guests.  In HK it’s very important particularly, for many guests prefer to bring their own wines to restaurants.

What’s your ultimate food and wine pairing?

I have a French culinary background, so simple fresh bread, beef Bourgogne and Burgundy is best for me.  I recently have been enjoying Domaine de la Vougeraie.  If I go white, I will favor something Italian, like a Ribolla from Friuli’s Collio region.  Radikon is a personal favorite.

What advice would you offer for someone considering a career similar to yours?

Do it with heart and common sense.  You cannot learn passion.  Be friendly to everyone, and on Sundays be sure you’re wearing tee shirt, shorts and sandals to relax

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