Do you know Vietnamese wine?

Wine in Vietnam ?! Unthinkable, I was told at the time of preparing for the project. And yet, there are no fewer than twenty estates… and a few million bottles produced every year (1). I decided to go there, with the invaluable help of Raymond Ringhoff, CEO of Vietnam Wine Tours – the only company in the country specializing in wine tourism.
Direction Dalat, the biggest region of production, in the north of the country.

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Getting off the plane, I was awaited by Mr Huang The Hung, a lovely local guide, who was going to join me on this journey to help me with translation and winery visits. Indispensable in Vietnam.

Dalat, the headquarters of the Vietnamese production

From the airport, it took us no less than four hours to drive to Dalat, 180km inland. The city is perched at 1700 meters above sea level. Walking along the winding and damaged roads, the succession of wild landscapes through which we passed was breathtaking. Rice fields, forests, rivers, mountains, coffee plantations.

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I was so happy. Even the dampness in the air, which literally sticks ones clothes to ones skin, couldn’t alter the wonder that animated me.

The end of the road was reached by nightfall. Suddenly, thousands of white dots began to shine in the dark, following us along the road. It seemed like we were in a Japanese cartoon. As if a colony of fireflies had taken up residence in the mountain… The moment was magical. Quasi mystical. But what is it, then? These are the heating lamps used to grow flowers in greenhouses in the region, my guide explained. Dalat, with its more temperate climate, is renowned for its floral cultures. I laughed at so much naivety on my part.

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The next day, we visited Dalat Beco, one of the country’s flagship estates, which was set up in 2000. With 670,000 bottles produced each year, Dalat Beco‘s team confided in me that they are part of the medium-sized Vietnamese estates. One grape variety dominates the vineyards here: Cardinal. Its particularity: it is vinified in white as well as in red!

Visiting the bottling site, I was curious about not seeing any vineyards around the estate and questioned my hosts. “There was a vineyard a few miles from here: a failure, because of the altitude. Everything is now produced at the coast, three hours from here. The grapes are transported by truck to Dalat”, they explained.

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Purchases are made exclusively from farmers. Why not relocate the production in this case? Simply because “the altitude of Dalat ensures optimum conditions for the fermentation and the ageing of the wines”.
In this part of the world with an extreme climate, up to three harvests are done per year. Consequently, the vine never rests and its life expectancy does not exceed 8 years (one can grow vines for up to 15 years if grafted onto a rootstock). As in Bali, one can thus make wine all year round, simply by spacing the periods of pruning on different plots. This allows the wineries to have cooler and non-vintage wines.

Ladora Winery, based on the “wine from grapes” initiative

Before 1976 – and the independence of Vietnam – a production of liqueur and fruit wine, managed by the French excisted.

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It was not until 1998, however, that the first grape plantations appeared, under the impetus of Ladora Winery. In 1999, Vietnam’s first “wine from grapes” was born (in a tropical environment, grapes can be harvested from the second year).

The estate is both imposing and impressive, with its immense stainless steel tanks installed indoors and outdoors, and produce more than 2.5 million bottles per year. Upon entering the winery, it is compulsory to wear a white coat, a hygienic hat and protective footwear : Ladora Winery strictly applies the standards of European production. And I felt it in the wines, which are more homogeneous than elsewhere.

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A Skype session was organized with the management of the group, Ladofoods (also a producer of cashew nuts), based in Ho Chi Minh City, the capital. A fun and original situation. Here I was, having a discussion on a big screen with Sir Nguyen Hun Thuy (General Manager) and Nguyen Tran Quang (Senior Advisor of the BOD). I learned that Château Dalat, created in 2013, is the premium brand of the group. It includes international grape varieties such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. A clear commitment to quality. And a step forward towards a more modern viticulture.

A vineyard at sea level

Whether Dalat Beco, Ladora Winery or any other winery of Dalat, the vineyards are all located in the coastal area of Ning Thuan, 130km away, at sea level.

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Only this part of Vietnam seems to give convincing results for vine cultivation. It is also the hottest region in the country. Today, while visiting some vineyards of Ning Thuan, it was “only” 30°C in the air. Temperatures easily reach 36°C at this time of the year.

I learned that Ning Thuan was very busy until the 2000s. The opening of new, more attractive regions, emptied the coast of its tourists. As a result, this partially abandoned region, with deserted beaches has a ghostly atmosphere. Strange. Whatever, the vineyards that faced us were beautiful.

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Ladora Winery has planted 20 hectares of Vitis vinifera for its great cuvées. The rest of the parcels, planted with Cardinal grapes, correspond to contracts with local farmers.

I met with the owners of My Hoa, one of the few family micro-estates in Vietnam, started in 2000. This craft production, made at the back of the house, is unpretentious but of great charm. Here, the wine ferments quietly in small plastic tanks. The family is as discreet as they are lovely. « We are far from the big productions of the country. » They have 2 hectares of vines, mostly planted with Cardinal and with a little NH01-48, an unnamed white local hybrid.

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The vineyard is planted with a pergola system, 1.5 meters from the ground, allowing work to be done at the height of man.

We tasted the white wine, made 100% from the grape variety NH01-48. The beverage was served fresh, with ice cubes. Why not. The mouth was sweet and had a sour taste, but went well with the boiled chicken served during lunch, to my surprise. I tasted the red wine with a little rice alcohol added. A harsh and unusual taste for the taste buds of a Westerner. “That’s how men drink it here”, Miss Hoa explained to me, laughing.

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The estate seems to experience great success: to satisfy the demand, the Hoa family plans to plant another hectare of vines next year, behind the house, in place of the current rice field. Like what, the taste of any wine is the world is always suited to local taste buds. And this must be respected.

We finished the meal – and the journey in Vietnam – with the discovery of Vú sữa (also called Chrysophyllum cainit), a green fruit in the shape of an apple, with a milky appearance inside, and whose pulpit, delicious and juicy, has a taste of almonds and ripe white fruit.

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A delight ! To be discovered exclusively in this country.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Dalat BecoLadora Winery and My Hoa for their warm welcome. Thank you to Raymond Ringhoff, CEO of Vietnam Wine Tours, for having helped, guided and advised me in the organization of this great trip. Finally, thank you to my friend Denis Gastin for introducing me to Raymond.

(1) Although it is complicated to have the exact figures of viticulture in Vietnam, it is estimated that there are about 20 estates, for an annual production exceeding 10 million bottles.

Cambodia, the newcomer on the Asian wine map

Having left Burma early in the morning and after a full day of traveling with three planes (Heho-Mandalay, Mandalay-Bangkok, Bangkok-Siem Reap), I was very excited about landing in Cambodia. I heard that there is a small vineyard lost in the Battambang countryside and I planned to get my hands on it!

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Where is it? What does it look like ? Why having planted vines in Cambodia? So many questions that I looked forward to finding answers to… Onwards for a most incredible exploration off the beaten track.

A well hidden vineyard

Do you believe in good luck? Personally, I do. Whenever I found myself back against the wall during this great adventure, I always had the good fortune of meeting someone who got me back on track. For that, I am grateful every morning.

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My Cambodian star was Visooth Lohitnavy (owner of the GranMonte estate in Thailand whom I met three weeks earlier). He met with Mr. Chan Thaychheoung, the owner of the famous Cambodian estate, a few years ago and offered to put us in touch. What luck!

After a brief exchange in summarized, but effective English, here I was, disembarked in Siem Reap only knowing that I had to take a bus the next day to Battambang. That’s all. I did not know where or what time to take the bus. The staff at the guest house in which I stayed for the night did not speak English. I was sent to the neighboring laundry, where the owner seemed to be in the habit of referring travelers. “It costs $6 to Battambang, with a bus leaving at 10am”.

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The next day, a mini bus picked me up. It was filled with a dozen friendly travelers. I learned that we all paid a different price, between $5 and $7. Anyway… We headed towards the railway station at the exit of the city – because buses are prohibited in Siem Reap. After 200 km, in somewhat chaotic traffic under a lead sun and 4h30 of road travel later, I arrived with an almost 2h delay to a “bus stop”, which was nothing but a small shop literally lost in the middle of nowhere.
I hoped that I was in the right place and that my hosts will have had the patience to wait for me.

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Outside, a dozen Cambodians craned on the side of the road, carrying placards at arm’s length, all promoting their Guest Houses. A little further away, Mr. Chan Thaychheoung and his son Chan Senghong were waiting for me with big smiles. What a welcome ! We did not know one another yet, but I already loved this family. They emited such positive energy.
So the wine adventure finally began. And begins with a memorable dinner.

Chan Thay Chhoeung Winery, the only one

Mr Chan Thaychheoung has such a touching story. Loving wine since the age of 21, he decided at the time to buy twenty vines, which he tried to grow in his garden. Failure. Putting his dream aside, he became a farmer, and like many other producers in the region, he grew oranges. But the competition was tough.

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So he began to think : he wanted to grow different fruit from those of the other Cambodian farmers. He then remembered his unsuccessful attempt to grow grapes in his youth. He decided to go against the current by growing grapes – something unique in this country.

Mr Chan Thaychheoung started out cautiously with 9 plants of the red Black Queen variety. Just to see… He succeeded with his first vintage in 2004, with a few bottles produced for friends and family. This was a revelation. Chan Thay Chhoeung Winery was born. In stride, he planted 3 hectares of Black Queen and a few vines of Shiraz, a grape variety which he particularly likes. A significant cost and a risky bet : he invested all his savings.

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A tireless worker, he gradually enlarged his vineyard, always reinvesting every penny of his limited capital. In 2013, he bought Shiraz plants from Israel and planted 3 additional hectares. Today he has 10 hectares.
At the moment the equipment is modest. The wine is vinified in glass bottles. It doesn’t matter, Rome was not built in one day. They have just invested in 3 stainless steel tanks made in China for next year, with a total production capacity of 7,000L. Step by step.

Fruit juice, education and pedagogy

This year, the rainy season was very intense and the harvest was not good enough.

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As a result no wine was produced and instead organic grape juice made from 100% Syrah, which delights the taste buds and which I enjoyed a lot, was produced.

We also tasted the wine production of last year. An atypical wine, also from the Syrah grape variety and far from European standards. But which within context and accompanied by a few ice cubes (it is a custom here), refreshes the palate and pairs very well with the local dishes made from fermented vegetables.

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Mr Chan Thaychheoung showed me with great pride the educational garden he created in front of his house. A true open-air museum, where the Cambodians come to admire the vine, a plant which was unknown to them before.

“It is important that we educate local people by showing them what a vine looks like and how a grape bunch grows”. A real success, where each of the visiting tourists seemed really enthusiastic, always having a glass of straw syrah juice.

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And there’s something for everyone here. We even met a group of curious monks who came to discover this new attraction, which is as playful as it is essential. Congratulations!

Bambou Train & Angkor: two must-sees

A bit of fun this weekend before leaving for Vietnam, aboard the “bamboo train”, a must-see attraction in the Battambang area which I was pleased to discover with the Chan family. It is a kind of motorized railway made up of a bamboo platform, which in the ’70s made it possible for the personnel responsible for maintaining the railway lines to get around, and then in the 80s to bring soldiers and their allies to the front.

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What gives it its charm and undeniable attractiveness to tourists from around the world, is it being a single rail for two directions of traffic. Suddenly, when meeting another train arriving from the opposite direction, the train stops and is dismounted to let the other train pass. And at a maximum speed of 50km/h, it jolts a lot. Best to keep a hand on ones hat.

Another unmistakable and most spectacular place is Angkor, in Siem Reap, with its temples, classified as a world heritage by UNESCO. Rise at dawn (the purchase counters open at 5am and are taken by assault), for an unforgettable and magical experience.

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Seeing the sun rising over the temple of Angkor Wat – the largest temple in the complex – is a unique moment. The gigantic columns of this edifice sculpted on all sides is a mystic sight to behold. The world is so beautiful when viewed from this angle…

Cambodia (still) presents many difficulties for wine making : extreme temperatures, a rainy season in summer accompanied by high and constant humidity. Not to mention a lack of access to advanced equipment. Whatever. The Chan family has the guts to make wine here, and everything is sold on the spot, and in addition to this, people come back. Every wine can find a shoe that fits.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Mr Chan Thaychheoung and his family for their extraordinary hospitality and for opening their house to me with such kindness. Thank you to his son, Chan Senghong, for being such a good guide and the great opportunity to discover the magic of Battambang. Finally, thanks to Visooth Lohitnavy (owner of the GranMonte estate in Thailand), for his valuable con

Burma, the two vineyards on the other side of the world

We continued our Asian trip by visiting the inescapable and fascinating Burma, a wonderful country of picturesque beauty. Nestled in the mountains, on the shores of Inle Lake, the only two Burmese wineries are hidden – as discreet as it is intriguing.

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En route to a colourful journey, accompanied by my friend and oenologist Amélie Mornex, who has true passion for Asian viticulture.

Mandalay and its positive energy

We arrived in Mandalay, the capital, under a crushing sun, a lot of dust and among omnipresent poverty : I had the impression of having taken a 50 years leap back in time. Only 30% of the households here are connected to electricity (2). Despite this, the people that we met all had a big smile on their lips and a palpable joie de vivre in their eyes. It was heartwarming.

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We paced the streets of the city astride a bike with two seats back to back and driven by a local guide. Amelie in front, facing the direction of the road, and I in the back, facing the traffic. A very convenient way to admire the landscape.

Nothing could be more agreeable than dining along the river Irrawaddy, where boats, canoes and other makeshift boats unload thousands of canvas bags filled with food, in an unceasing and steady flow, in a fashion as organized as an ant-hill. We met a couple of German tourists who arrived from Munich and we decided to share a dinner together at sunset. The place was beautiful, devoid of anything artificial. Many families live here in precarious wooden shelters, barefoot in the sand, dust and rubbish.

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Facing us, the laundry dried on bamboo palisades. Children were playing in the sand. The younger ones had their bottocks in the air,a few pigs grazing among them, looking for something to eat in the trash. Some inhabitants were soaping up in the river, it was time for us to take a shower too.

The next day at dawn, we departed by plane to Hého, 230km to the south: it was the easiest way to reach the two vineyards, considering the condition of the roads (it would take a day by bus to get there). We left at 6am. It was still dark outside and the spectacle in the streets of the city was something to behold, it had an almost mystical element to it: dozens of bare feet monks, draped in violet tunics, were in search of food offerings for their one and only meal of the day(3). A highly respected ancestral ritual in Burma.

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Aythaya, the Burmese pioneer

It was cool outside when we got off the plane. Quite nice. We were 1200 meters above sea level on the slopes of the Taunggyi Mountains.
It is here that Berth Morsbach, a German who specializes in tropical crops, created Aythaya (Myanmar Estate) in 1998, the first winery of Burma. A major challenge, he remembers, in a country with no wine culture and hostile weather conditions… The place is beautiful!

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With its ecological bungalows facing a vineyard as flowery as it is impeccable and its restaurant mixing delicious traditional dishes and world class cuisine, Myanmar Estate is a privileged place of the high Burmese bureaucracy.

Hans Leiendecker, the director and oenologist of the estate – also German and a graduate of the prestigious University of Geisenheim – gave an exciting explanation of the different production sites.

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In total, 10 hectares are owned by Aythaya and the equivalent under contract, spread all over the country, up to 800km of the winery:
-some in the north, at 1200 meters above sea level, along the Kyan Hnyat River, a favorable area for red grape varieties;
– some in Loikaw, to the east, at 850 meters above sea level, where Bert had established the first basmati rice plantation in the country in 1986;
-some in Mektila and Yamethin, in the center of the country, where the largest production of table grapes from Burma is also to be found;
-and some at Mount Popa, 300 meters above sea level, an ancient volcano in the center of the country which exploded about 400 years BC with very fertile soils.

On this February morning, Sauvignon Blanc arrived at the estate in small boxes.

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The grapes were beautifu and destined to be used for the Shan Panya Brut cuvée, a refreshing and very aromatic sparkling wine ; perfect for an aperitif.

A most complex tropical viticulture

At Aythaya, Hans is well aware of the difficulties in producing Vitis vinifera in a tropical climate. This is why the grass is cut very flat here: to protect the vines from moisture. There is always a minimum of 20% humidity during the day and usually around 90% humidity at night. Result: in Burma you can have vine diseases – like powdery mildew – without even having rain! This year, for the first time, they even saw botrytis. “We’d better grow mushrooms”, Hans said laughing.

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For him, tropical countries will never be real wine-producing countries. Growing conditions are too complex and the cost of production is twice as high. “It is impossible to make organic wine for example, with twenty to twenty-two sprays per year needed, compared with seven to eight on average in Europe“. This is the other side of the coin. “If there are only two wineries in Myanmar, it is maybe because there is reason”, he added.
As for the local fauna, it is better to be vigilant. It is not uncommon to encounter black-necked spitting cobras, white-lipped pit vipers (green snakes that look like branches in the grass), or pythons, lost between the rows of vines.

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I suddenly realized that I was wearing flip-flops walking in the vineyard… Not very smart.

Red Mountain Estate

A very pretty estate at the top of a small hill overlooking Inle Lake and facing the Paung Paing mountain range, Red Mountain was created in 2003, under the expertise of the French oenologist François-Xavier Raynal – who established the vineyard and managed it until 2015.
Divided into two sites, the vineyard of 75 hectares has been the laboratory of many experiments. International varieties such as Petit Verdot, Macabeu, Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and even Merlot were quickly abandoned due to the lack of mature grapes.

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Red Mountain is now focusing on Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat à petits grains, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay in white ; Shiraz, Carignan, Pinot Noir and Tempranillo in red.

“We are focusing on one harvest per year, for a production of about 160,000 bottles”, according to the young and very sympathetic oenologist Naw Naw Aye, who took over the winemaking this year. An important challenge for her, because after a few years spent doing marketing at Red Moutain, Naw Naw is starting from scratch on the wine side. She has just returned from a one-year apprenticeship at the Suze la Rousse University (France), where she learned a few basics.

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Her teacher, Marie-Josée Richaud, came to Red Mountain for a month especially to encourage her pupil, whose first harvest was about to start a few days later. We wish her all the best in this great adventure!

Discovering Inle Lake

Since the two Burmese vineyards are located only a few minutes away from the famous Inle Lake, we took the opportunity to discover it, on board of a canoe.
Sailing the banks of the lake at sunset, we admired the fishing villages on stilts. On small, long, narrow boats, the fishermen have an acrobatic and a most original style: one leg wrapped around a paddle to advance with circular movements, the other leg on the prow to keep balance.

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A boat approached us. Two fishermen literally posed for us. In the end, they asked us for some money… I refused politely. The fishermen turned around without resentment, immediately heading to another tourist boat.

We concluded our wonderful stay in Burma at the beautiful ViewPoint Lodge & Fine Cuisines hotel, where we were welcomed by our friend Arno Di Biase. The place was idyllic: wooden bungalows on stilts, a spa, welcome cocktails on the terrace… here every little detail counts and makes the stay unforgettable.

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We enjoyed a last moment of relaxation at the SPA of the hotel, with an application of thanaka on the face, a cream obtained from bark of trees. It hydrates the skin and protects it from the sun. It was very pleasant and refreshing. Children, women and the elderly put thanaka on their faces every morning. You should try it too.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Aythaya (Myanmar Estate) and Red Moutain estate for their warm welcome. Thank you to Hans Leiendecker for having helped us on our travels in the country. Thank you to my friend Amélie Mornex for having accompanied me so well in this country that she knows like her pocket. And finally, thanks to Arno Di Biase, director of the ViewPoint Lodge & Fine Cuisines, for having hosted us in his beautiful establishment and for his valuable role as a guide in the streets of Nyaungshwe.

(1) There are apparently two to three new vineyard projects in the country, according to local sources, but no one is sure that this will succeed.
(2) To make some money, Burma sells some of its electricity to China and Thailand.
(3) Monks have until 11am to eat. Then they have to wait until the next day before taking their next meal.

The Thai vineyards: unforgettable and unclassifiable

As beautiful as it is fragile, as wild as it is welcoming, it exceeded all my expectations. Defying the laws of classical viticulture. Off the beaten track and reserving some wine treasures… The Thai vineyards are a really nice discovery!

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Thailand has a dozen wine estates, mainly in the Khao Yai region (in the north), which cover less than 4,000 hectares(1). Lets discover a fascinating wine world, consisting of a handful of passionate (and positively crazy) people.

Enthusiasm displayed despite major challenges

Having landed at dawn at Bangkok airport (4:30 am), I was pleasantly surprise by the professionalism of the Thai taxis: clearly posted prices, a unique queue and impeccable service. As soon as I arrived in the capital, a special atmosphere got hold of me.

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The joyful bazaar of the electric wires in the streets, the delicious smell of food in the air, the morning song of the birds and the still sleeping city gave me the impression of absolute plenitude.

I met with Mr. Pairach Intaput, the President of the Sommeliers’ Association of Thailand, at Bo Lan Restaurant – the ultimate Thai food refinement. Here I had the opportunity to learn that the wine history of the country – which started in 1995 with Château de Loei (now abandoned) and then with GranMonte in 1999 – is just beginning to emerge. “Since the promotion of wine is forbidden in Thailand, it is for the moment impossible to write a book on the subject. Moreover, the sommelier association has only officially been recognized since 2015: before, wine was assimilated to other strong beverages and responsible of alcoholism”, Mr. Intaput explained.

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Here, as in many humid and tropical climate countries, it is possible to do up to two harvests per year : with a dry season – where temperatures can easily exceed 40°C, and a rainy season – during which the vegetative cycle of the vine is severely tested.

For most conscientious winemakers, only the grapes produced during the dry season are harvested. Then, thanks to a product called Dormex – a plant growth regulator that is generally applied within 48 hours after harvest – uniform budbreak is promoted ; so that the plant can rest.

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“It’s not difficult to grow vines in Thailand. However, taking into consideration the atmospheric pressure and permanent humidity, it is (almost) impossible to make organic wines, as treatment against diseases such as mildew or gray rot is inevitable”, according to Mr. Intaput.

GranMonte, a beautiful family success story

After having met up with my friend Amélie Mornex – a French oenologist who loves making wine in Asia and who has been spending most of her time there for years – we headed to GranMonte, a two and a half hour drive north of Bangkok.

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The first impression upon arriving in front of this 15-hectare estate, at 350 meters above sea level, left me speechless. This vineyard was planted in 1999 on soils of clay, loess and limestone, rigorously cut into twenty blocks and have no less than twenty grape varieties coexisting… Among them, some international varieties such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Grenache and Viognier. As well as other more surprising varieties, such as Semillon, Verdelho and Durif(2)!

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We met with the adorable Lohitnavy family. Visooth, the dad – a former racing driver and editor of an automotive magazine – wanted to make a change in his life to make wine. Sakuna, the mom, runs the restaurants and cafe of the estate. Mimi, the younger daughter, is taking care of marketing and public relations. And Nikki, the eldest of the two sisters, is responsible for viticulture and winemaking.

It was with excitement that we rose the next day at dawn for a harvest session of Chenin Blanc! Scissors in hand (not easy but quite fun), we cut the bunches in good humor under beautiful sunshine. 

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The sanitary aspect of the grapes is superb, promising a beautiful vintage.

Nikki Lohitnavy, the revelation in terms of tropical viticulture

I say it without detour : who says never having drunk a “great wine” from a tropical viticulture has not yet drunk one of GranMonte’s wines…
I already see from here people rising to the niche on the notion of great wines, crying out for heresy. Not at all ! Firstly, what is a great wine? This is a very personal question… A question of emotion, joy, deep feeling, plenitude, gluttony, which I like to describe as a moment as intense and comforting as a night by the fire in the arms of a loved one.

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Meeting with Nikki Lohitnavy. “At the age of 10, I wanted to be a botanist”. Graduated in oenology from the prestigious university of Adelaide, Nikki first traveled the world to train perfecting her technique, especially in northern Brazil, where she learned how to tame vines in an extremely humid environment. In 2009, she did her first vintage at GranMonte. A real qualitative shift for the estate, according to the press. This is a revelation.

From the straw on the vine trunks (to reduce the number of herbicidal sprays and to add organic matter to the soil), to the banana fibers used to tie the vines (for their eco-friendly aspect), Nikki is constantly experimenting. “I am currently experimenting with four new grape varieties: Sangiovese, Barbera, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca. My dream would be to have more room to test many other grape varieties, but land is very expensive here”.

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The technology and equipment used on the estate are not bad either. “We operate our vineyard with a precision agricultural system called ‘Smart Vineyard‘, which incorporates microclimatic monitoring to help us to achieve the best grape quality potential in this unconventional viticulture climate”.

Nikki literally opened my eyes, by showing me that with passion, a lot of know-how, hard work on vines and state-of-the-art equipment, it is possible to make fantastic wines in tropical viticulture.

Oenotourism, the key to success

Despite its recent wine history, Thailand is already very advanced in wine tourism. Bravo !
As in Silverlake (Pattaya), where around 800,000 visitors annually visit the estate (!). People are fond of visiting the different parts of the estate by minibus. A real “amusement park” experience, extended at lunchtime in the restaurant and in the evening in one of the very nice Hollywood style rooms of the resort.

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In a more “zen” style, at Village Farm & Winery, in the Khao Yai area, you can meditate in the middle of the vineyards for a weekend, enjoying the calmness of the rooms without television or internet.

On the “nature” side, Alcidini Winery, the smallest Thai vineyard with 8 hectares, welcomes visitors in its pedagogical field conducted with an organic philosophy. A real challenge in a such humid part of the world : no pesticides, the use of sheep to eat the grass between the rows of vines and buying cow manure from the neighboring farmer.

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Finally, on the “music” side, the annual Jazz & Wine festival organized at GranMonte, which we had the chance to attend and enjoy, is a must-see cultural event.

Beautiful and fragile nature to preserve

On the way back, we had the good fortune of making two epic nature stops. The perfect opportunity for me to narrate the beauty of the Thai biodiversity to you and, I hope to make you want to (re)visit it!
Elephant Stay : a site dedicated to the protection and preservation of elephants. They are trained for parades and military demonstrations (in memory of their use as strike force during wartime). We enjoyed watching the daily shower of these impressive mammals, who are as comfortable as fish in the water.

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Khao Yai National Park, highlight of the stay. With 80km of coastline from east to west, this UNESCO World Heritage site is the country’s second largest park and is one of the largest forests in Asia. You can even pitch a tent there for the night… for a most exotic nature revival experience.

WineExplorers’ cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to GranMonte, Alcidini, Village Farm Winery, Silverlake and PB Valley for their warm welcome.
Thank you to the organisation of the Khao Yai National Park, and especially to our lovely guide, Ms. Issaya Siriwachanawong, for having taken us off the beaten path. Finally, thanks to the team of Elephant Stay for having allowed us to admire the bath of the elephants: an unforgettable moment. And to my friend Amélie Mornex, who helped me a lot with pictures during this trip. 

(1) Thai vineyards are found in three regions ranging from 110 to 530 meters above sea level: Prachuap Khiri Khan (Hua Hin) and Pattaya in the center of the country and Khao Yai in the north.
(2) Durif is a French variety originating from the Dauphiné, a spontaneous crossing of Poutin and Syrah. Named petite syrah or petite sirah in California, it is also known by this name in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. Finally, it is also known under the names of bas plant, dure, duret, dureza, duriff, dyurif, gros noir, Kek Durif, nérin, pareux noir, petit duret, petite serine, petite sirah, petite syrah, pinot de l’Ermitage, pinot de Romans, plant durif, plant fourchu, serine, serine des Mauves, sirane fourchue, sirane de Tain and syrah forchue.

India, between challenges and (beautiful) discoveries

Arriving from Paris with Saudia – an airline that I highly recommend by the way for the unmatched comfort of its economy class – I looked forward to stepping on Indian soil for the first time to discover its vineyards!

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As soon as I landed in Bombay, the atmosphere of the city electrified me. The smell of spices in the air, the overpowering heat, the incessant ballet of cars in the streets and the horn concerts, make the most populous city of India a unique place.
On the way to a colorful visit, in a country where viticulture only really started in the 1970s, and which today counts 90 wineries for about 20 million liters produced last year.

A booming viticulture, leaded by Sula Vineyards

It was with some members of the Asian Wines Producers Association (AWPA) – Denis Gastin (Founder, wine writer), Sumedh Mandla (President) and Visooth Lohitnavy (CEO of GranMonte, Thailand), as well as with Sumit Jaiswal (Marketing Manager, Grover Zampa, India) and Professor Charoen Charoenchai of Thailand, that I had the pleasure of traveling in India. A very nice team!

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After a 3-hours drive, we arrived in Nashik, in the northeast of Bombay, the country’s main wine-producing region with 40 estates. A plateau perched at 680 meters above sea level, known above all for its production of fruit and vegetables (n °1 in the cultivation of onions, for example).

Wine production in India is mainly divided between three wine-growing regions(1): Nasik and Pune on the west coast, two regions in Maharashtra State (80% of Indian vineyards) and Bangalore , in the south, in Karnataka State (10% of the vineyards).

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With 120,000 hectares of vines in 2015 and an area that has doubled in fifteen years, the Indian vineyard is booming.

We were expected at Sula, India’s leading wine producer, with 60% of the market share. Perhaps you have had the opportunity to taste one of their wines? You know, these labels with a logo so characteristic with the shape of a sun with a mustache! Although difficult to access (Indian roads are sometimes in poor condition and lack road signs), the success story of Sula forces admiration. With no fewer than 250,000 visitors a year, this precursor in oenotourism has understood everything. Its annual music festival – the Sulafest – with an international program (more than 120 artists performing over a period of three days), is a model of the genre. Not to mention the nice restaurant and the 35 rooms of the domain.

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On the wine side, however, I wondered. A large part of the Sula grapes (as with the majority of the Indian estates, as we shall see below) is bought from the farmers of the region. How, then, to ensure quality grapes? Especially with such an important production.
“The policy of Sula is strict,” we were told. “If the farmers do not bring the grapes on the right date, they have penalties: this prevents clusters from being harvested too early”. A necessary initiative for a good final result : the wines are well made.

Making wine in India is a challenge

Let us not forget that the cultivation of vines in India remains above all a challenge. The tropical climate of the country, with a dry season – where temperatures can easily exceed 40°C, and a rainy season – during which the vegetative cycle of the vine is severely tested, make it an extreme production site. There are two harvests per year (the most qualitative being in April, during the dry period).

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Two prunings are also required. The first just before the rain in May and the second, more precise, after the summer monsoons, for vine growth programmed from October to March.

In addition, wine taxation systems vary from one state of the country to another. A real paradox, illustrated by the Grover Zampa estate, wich have two production sites (Nashik and Bangalore) – each one with its own vineyards. In 2012, a merger took place between Grover (in Bangalore) and a wine company from Nashik, to avoid taxes on the price of bottles between the two states (more than 1/3 of the final sale price).
Moreover, protectionism on agricultural land forces producers to sublet land to neighboring farmers to expand and supply themselves with grapes. However, in order to control the quality of viticulture, estates take long-term leases on land belonging to local farmers (20 years, with a 15-year renewal option).

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Add to this the fact that India is not a country of wine tradition : its inhabitants consuming 9 milliliters per person per year (compared to 42 liters(2) in France). And to top it off, not only is alcohol prohibited in many states ; but in addition, advertising of wine is prohibited in India. All these factors could be discouraging.

However, this is not the case at all! The enthusiasm of the wineries visited is palpable and pleasing to see. And although it seems that globally the climate is more suitable for white wines, the quality is there and some Indian cuvées frankly deserve to be highlighted in all colors, sparkling wines included.

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Five delicious Indian wines discovered and which I highly recommend :
Insignia 2015, from Grover Zampa (“Coup de cœur Wine Explorers“ – 100% Syrah – Bangalore)
Sparkling Cuvée NM, from York (100% Chenin Blanc – Nasik)
Réserve Collection Viognier 2015, from Grover Zampa (Bangalore)
Sauvignon Blanc 2016, from York (Nasik)
Dindori Réserve Viognier 2016, from Sula

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Bangalore, a region of predilection for white wines

After waking up at dawn and 1h30 on a plane, direction Bangalore, to the south, we encountered a drastic change upon our exit from the plane! No more urban pollution and the hubbub of the city. We even heared the birds singing. The traffic was calm. Bitumen roads, wide and flat. And a lush vegetation.

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Welcome to the “silicone valley” of India, a region with dazzling economic prosperity. There, we visited Grover Zampa, the country’s second biggest winery and a great example of fine Indian wines. The first vines were planted in the mid-1980s (Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Chenin Blanc). And the estate is consulted by the French oenologist Michel Roland.

Some parcels of Grover Zampa 180-hectares vineyard reach over 1,000 meters above sea level. As a result : temperated days (26 to 28°C) and cooler nights.

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The day before, we visited their vineyards in the region of Nasik (40 hectares). Since the wine range is identical in the two regions, it was possible to immediately and indisputably realize the difference in profile between the wines. The altitude of Bangalore – combined with clay-silty soils – offer tense wines, more aromatic and more complex, particularly noticeable in the whites.

It was the end of January and a plot of Sauvignon Blanc had just been harvested that morning. 70% of the harvesting was done by women. Hand sorting of the grapes followed – demanding control that benefits the production, with elegant wines on the whole.

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York Winery, a family story

On the other hand, more and more small family structures, such as York Winery, are emerging. York is a project initiated by the Indian Lilo Gurnani in 2003, at a time when he developed a passion for wine and began to read a lot on the subject. Born in Nasik, he wanted to follow the growing wine movement in his region. He named his domain YORK, taking the initials of his three children, Yogita, Ravi & Kailash. A whole symbol.

Today, two of them have taken over the reins. We met with Kailash Gurnani, one of the sons and director and chief oenologist of the estate (having studied at the University of Adelaide).

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“If our brand is recognized today, it is because we are a family business. This is our story and we are the faces behind it. That’s our marketing strategy”, he explained. Adding : “with a family management, we also ensure a better control over our wines”.

The Indian wine industry is therefore beautiful and well expanding. But also at the heart of many debates. What does the future hold for this young sector with so many constraints?

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“The wine industry is growing steadily at a rate of 10-15%, and this growth could be much greater if other states in India become accessible to sell wine”, according to Kailash. Out of 1.2 billion people, less then 100 million people in India can be tapped. Having said that, the current increase in wine tourism is very encouraging and men & women of all ages are enjoying wine.

In conclusion of this most rewarding journey, Denis Gastin and I visited the mountains of Nandi Hills, 30 km from Bangalore, to meditate a bit on the discoveries of the week. Some intrepid monkeys eventually came to keep us company.

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India intrigues me now more than ever and I wonder. In a country five times bigger than France, whose cultural diversity, landscapes, gastronomy, climate and language change on average every 100km, I know I will have to come back to discover and enjoy more of it, visiting other regions and other wineries. I am already delighted.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Sula Vineyards, Grover Zampa et York Winery for their warm welcome and this first unforgettable visit to India.
Thanks to my friend Denis Gastin and the AWPA (Asian Wine Producers Association), for their kind help in organizing this trip.

(1) Production is also emerging in Hyderabad (central Telangana State), as well as in the states of Andra Pradesh (south), and Himachal Pradesh (in the north). (Source : http://www.suddefrance-developpement.com)
(2) Vin & Société estimation

A Grand Annual Tasting 2016 full of surprises!

Back from a second year of exploration of the wine planet, suitcases full of bottles –  one more intriguing than the other – we were impatient to share our discoveries with 120 fine wine connoisseurs!

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It was a difficult choice for the selection, with a final list of 35 wines from 14 countries (1). True heart strokes for some wines, nice curiosities coming from climates both extreme and diverse, each wine tasted on June 13, deserves special attention for its quality and unique personality.
To follow is the summary of a tasting far away from the beaten tracks, organized on the beautiful terrace of Duclot-La Vinicole.

(Northern) Europe seduces with the freshness of its wines

A Swedish white wine on top of the ranking, followed by a Belgian wine, was the first highlight of the tasting!
Made from interspecific varieties (cf. PIWI) – 100% Solaris for Hällåkra Vingard in Sweden and 100% Mossiat for the Belgium Château de Bioul – these wines have “seduced with their freshness and surprised with their aromatic potential”. And although these new varieties (still unknown to the general public), can sometimes lack complexity, they could – thanks to their high resistance to cold – rapidly become the future solution for “Northern” climates, where harsh winters and a lack of sunshine make the production of Vitis vinifera wines (very) complicated.

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Speaking about red wines, Slovakia and Austria are two European nations to follow closely. The Slovak “Cuvée 2012” from Mrva & Stanko (made of 4 indigenous varietals: Hron/Vah/Rimava/Rudava) & 100% Blaufraenkisch “Alte Reben 2011” from J. Heinrich have been described as “providing immediate pleasure with a lot of finesse and an elegant and complex tannic structure”.

TOP 5 – WHITE WINES
1 – Sweden : “Solaris 2014“, from Hällåkra Vingård
2 – Hungary (Tokaj) : “Muskotály Réserve 2003“, from Château Dereszla
3 – Indonesia (Bali) : “Aga White 2016“, from Hatten Wines
4 – Belgium (Côtes de Sambre et Meuse) : “Mossiat 2014“, from Château de Bioul
5 – Hungary (Tokaj) : “Tokaj Szamorodni Sec 2007“, from Samuel Tinon

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Exotic destinations in front of the scene

Who would have believed it?… Two Balinese wines on the podium: undoubtedly the biggest surprise of the tasting!
Imagine Bali (the only wine region of Indonesia): a tropical country where one can harvest up to 3 times a year, where the vineyard has no dormancy period, where it is never less than 23 ° C in winter and where the vines do not live more than 12 years, because of incessant labor…
Yet the wines “made in Bali” have astonished many guests. Described as “very aromatic, pleasant on the palate and with a certain freshness”, these wines showed that with suitable grape varieties (here Belgia and Muscat St Vallier), advanced technology and specific expertise, it is technically possible to make good wines here.

The top 50 studios pics of the tasting !

The top 50 studios pics of the tasting !


As for Brazil, an increasingly recognized destination, with varied climates (equatorial in the north, continental-temperate in the south), it is a country where great “terroirs“ are emerging. As in the Valle dos Vinhedos in the south, where the “Quorum 2006” from Lidio Carraro (40% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Tannat, 15% Cabernet Franc) was unanimously recognized as incredibely elegante.

The production of sparkling wines of high quality is booming worldwide

Germany, England, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Hungary… all these countries have something in common: they play in the big leagues in terms of production of sparkling wines.
Blind tasted around a game that consisted of finding the country of origin (not that easy…), seven sparkling wines, all from different countries, have literally amazed our guests!

JBA with John Leroy, winemaker @ Ruffus Estate (Belgium)

JBA with John Leroy, winemaker @ Ruffus Estate (Belgium)


In fact, more and more wineries, located in regions of the world with suitable terroirs – predominantly calcareous/chalky soils and cool/temperate climates – prove that with suitable varieties, grapes harvested with good maturity, using the traditional method (2) and with long and rigorous ageing, it is possible to produce fantastic bubbles around the world – able to compete with the French production, for example.
Even Bali moved up on the podium with it’s Moscato d’Bali from Sababay, an aromatic and slightly sweet sparkling wine.

TOP 3 – SPARKLING WINES
1-Belgium (Wallonie) : “Cuvée Franco Dragone 2011“, from Ruffus
2 – Brazil (Serra Gaucha) : “Terroir Nature – SAFRA 2009“, from Cave Geisse
3 – Indonesia (Bali) : “Moscato d’Bali 2015“, from Sababay
Special mention : England (Kent) : “Blanc de Blancs 2010“, from Gusbourne

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[NB : congratulations to Paul Dunleavy, from Te Motu (NZ), the only guest at the blind tasting who identified the origins of the 7 sparkling wines!]

Hungary honored and present in all categories

Hungary was in all conversations on 13 June. First with the famous Tokaj region and its sweet wines : 260g of residual sugar for the delicious “Muskotály Réserve 2003“ from Château Dereszla of which remained not a single drop!
But also with dry white wine, like the amazing “Szamorodni Sec 2007” from Samuel Tinon : a wine made from botrytis grapes, fermented in open tanks without residual sugar (unique in the world)… a wine of meditation.

THE TEAM !!

THE TEAM !!


Lesser known than other Hungarian wine regions, Etyek-Buda (25 minutes west of Budapest), with its mild continental climate, turned towards the production of juicy Pinot Noir wines in recent years. A nice example : the “Pinot Noir 2013“ from Etyeki Kuria – n°1 red wine of the tasting. Again, a nice surprise!

TOP 5 – RED WINES
1 – Hungary (Etyek-Buda) : “Pinot Noir 2013“, from Etyeki Kuria
2 – New Zealand (Waiheke Island) : “Bordeaux Blend 1999“, from Te Motu
3 – Australia (Tasmania) : “Cab. Sauvignon/Merlot 2000“, from Freycinet
4 – Brazil (Serra Gaucha) : “Quorum 2006“, from Lidio Carraro
5 – Austria (Burgenland) : “Alte Reben 2011“, from J. Heinrich
Special mention : 
 “Cuvée 2012“, from Mrva & Stanko – Slovakia

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Oceania never ceases to surprise

We all agree, Australia and New Zealand don’t have to gain one’s spurs.
However, two regions particularly intrigued us by their cool climate, particularly suitable for the production of long ageing “Bordeaux style“ wines:
-Tasmania (South of Australia), with the “Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2000“, from Freycinet Winery, a model of elegance and freshness ;
-and Waiheke Island, in New Zealand (near Auckland), where the “Bordeaux Blend 1999” from Te Motu (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc), 2nd on the podium and WINE EXPLORERS’ Heart Stroke, impressed with its vitality and youthfulness.
Finally, our guests said they tasted some of the most finest Syrah from Hawke’s Bay (north of New Zealand), home of real Syrah gems like the great “Jewelstone Syrah 2013” from Mission Estate, as well as from Australia, with  “Syrahmi Dreams… 2012“ from Adam Foster and “Basket Press Shiraz 2011“ from Rockford Wines, without forgetting a legendary Grenache, with “The Tri-Centenary 2008“ from Yalumba.

The wine planet (still) remains to be discovered…

WineExplorers’cheers,
Amandine Fabre & Jean-Baptiste Ancelot

 

Thank you to Jean-Luc Lavatine and the team of Duclot-La Vinicole for having made available this beautiful place for our Annual Tasting.
Thank you to all producers for having participated in this event by offering us the wines. We were also very touched by the presence in Paris, on June 13, of some wineries which came to support the event : Hatten Wines (Bali), Ruffus (Belgium), Sababay (Bali), J. Heinrich (Austria), Te Motu (New Zealand) and the Château de Bioul.
Finally, a huge thank you to everyone who participated in the success of this beautiful evening : Catherine Ancelot-Savignac (who also prepared a wonderful buffet!), Prune Meunier, Ode Coyac, Alexandra Schneider, Clara Laurent, Victory Dauviau ; as well as Amandine Fabre, Ludovic Pollet and Stephane Diné from the WINE Explorers’ team.
 

(1) Complete list of the 35 wines presented on June 13 for the Grand Annual Tasting :
1 – Indonesia (Bali) : “Aga White 2016“, from Hatten Wines – Bali
2 – Belgium (Côtes de Sambre et Meuse) : “Mossiat 2014“, from Château de Bioul
3 – Sweden (Skåne) : “Solaris 2014“, from Hällåkra Vingård
4 – Belgium (Heuvelland) : “Pinot 2015“, from Entre Deux Monts
5 – Switzerland (Mont-sur-Rolle) : “Clos du Couvent 2009“, from Domaine de Maison Blanche
6 – Austria (Wachau) : “Smaragd Singerriedel 2014“, from Domäne Wachau
7 – Czech Republic (Moravia) : “Sonberk Riesling V.O.C. 2013“, from SONBERK
8 – Australia (Eden Valley) : “Heggies Vineyard Riesling 2005“, from Heggies Vineyard (Yalumba)
9 – Germany (Rheingau) : “Riesling Alte Reben QBA trocken 2005“, from SCHLOSS VOLLRADS
10 – Australia (Tasmania) : “Freycinet Riesling 2003“, from Freycinet Vineyard
11 – Hungary (Tokaj) : “Furmint Sparkling Wine 2011“, from Gróf Degenfeld
12 – England (Kent) : “Blanc de Blancs 2010“, from Gusbourne
13 – Brazil (Serra Gaucha) : “Terroir Nature – cuvée SAFRA 2009“, from Cave Geisse
14 – Belgium (Wallonie) : “Cuvée Franco Dragone Prestige 2011“, from Ruffus
15 – Germany (Rheingau) : “Riesling Sekt Extra Brut 2003“, from SCHLOSS VOLLRADS
16 – Indonesia (Bali) : “Moscato d’Bali 2015“, from Sababay Winery
17 – Australia (Barossa) : “Sparkling Black Shiraz NV“, from Rockford Wines
18 – Hungary (Tokaj) : “Kabar 2013“, from Chateau Dereszla
19 – Hungary (Tokaj) : “Tokaj Szamorodni Sec 2007“, from Samuel Tinon
20 – Hungary (Tokaj) : “Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008“, from Gróf Degenfeld
21 – Hungary (Tokaj) : “Muskotály Réserve 2003“, from Vinotéka Dereszla
22 – Denmark : “Utopia Rondo 2006“, from Kelleris Vin
23 – Austria (Burgenland) : “Alte Reben 2011“, from Weingut Heinrich
24 – Hungary (Sopron) : “Kékfrankos 2013“, from Etyeki Kúria Winery
25 – Austria (Burgenland) : “St. Laurent Schafleiten 2013“, from Judith Beck
26 – Slovakia : “Cuvée 2012 (Hron/Váh/Rimava/Rudava)“, from Víno Mrva & Stanko
27 – Brazil (Serra Gaucha) : “Quorum 2006“, from Lidio Carraro
28 – New Zealand (Waiheke Island) : “Bordeaux Blend 1999“, from Te Motu
29 : Australia (Tasmania) : “Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2000“, from Freycinet Winery
30 – Slovakia : “Pinot Noir 2013“, from Víno Tajna
31 – Hungary (Etyek-Buda) : “Pinot Noir 2013“, from Etyeki Kuria Winery
32 – Australia (Barossa) : “Tricentenary Grenache 2008“, from Yalumba
33 – New Zealand (Hawke’s Bay) : “Jewelstone Syrah 2013“, from Mission Estate Winery
34 – Australia (Heathcote) : “Dreams…2012“, from Syrahmi Estate (Adam Foster)
35 – Australia (Barossa) : “Basket Press Shiraz 2011“, from Rockford Wines 

(2) The so-called classic way (though not the oldest) to produce sparkling wine is popularly known as the Champagne method or méthode classique which is the official EU designation. The wine is fermented once in the barrel and then undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle.

Bali, escape warranty

During my studies in Bordeaux, I remember having heard at a tasting that wine is produced in Bali. « Impossible! », I said at the time, the location is too wet. However…

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The “Island of the Gods” as it is nicknamed, is not only a fantastic world known tourist destination. It can also reveal very nice wine surprises. So we were off for a week of unprecedented exploration with some holiday tunes… to our delight!

A vineyard of extreme weather conditions

Imagine : a tropical country where one can harvest up to 3 times a year, where the vineyard has no dormancy period, where it is never less than 23 ° C in winter and where the vines do not live more than 12 years, because of incessant labor… Welcome to Bali, the only wine region of Indonesia!

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And although its history is young, since it began in 1994 with Hatten Wines ; the wine “made in Bali” really exist!
But then the question arrises, why would one make wine in such conditions? « Firstly, because importing wine is complex in Indonesia. And above all because tourists want to taste local wines when they are in Bali », James Kalleske (1), the oenologist of Hatten Wines explained.

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And one has to admit that the quality of Balinese wines is undeniable. « Quality is no longer a question in 2015 ; the wines are technically well made. It is rather a matter of acceptance of the taste of our wines because the grape varieties are different, as Belgia », added Maryse LaRocque (2), in charge of Hatten’s development.

Some nice Balinese wines to discover during your holidays :
Moscato d’Bali from Sababay Winery (100% Muscat de Saint Vallier (3))
Aga White NM (100% Belgia) from Hatten Wines
White Velvet from Sababay Winery (100% Muscat de Saint Vallier)
Pino de Bali from Hatten Wines (60% Belgia, 40% Alphonse Lavallé ; aged 5 years in Solera (4))

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Sababay Winery, the new Balinese estate

Started only five years ago, Sababay Winery is both a childhood dream and a citizens’ initiative for Evy Gozali. « We chose to work with local farmers by purchasing their grapes, in order to allow them to have a better living », Evy said.
How? By buying their production at 5,000 rupees per kilogram (against 500 rupees in the past) and by setting up aids so that the children can attend school.

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In the interests of organic development, farmers are also required to have at least one cow per vineyard for the production of compost.
A nice philosophy when bearing the fragility of the Balinese ecosystem in mind. Because even though Bali evokes primarily images of landscapes worthy of the most beautiful postcards – white sanded beaches, volcanic reliefs covered by forests or hillside rice fields – let’s not forget that many Balinese are still living in precarious conditions.

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Anecdotally, some farmers with whom Sababay Winery works are Muslims (5) who cultivate the vines without knowing the final product, since they do not drink wine! It is therefore difficult for them to understand that the grapes should not be grown to optimize quantity, as with table grapes. « The trick: make them taste the grape juice samples », Evy said. And it works !

Being part of Nyepi

Nyepi, a beautiful and moving celebration which we will not forget any time soon. Also called “Hindu Day of Silence”, Nyepi is the Balinese New Year.

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Once a year, people have to chase the evil spirits away. And fortunately, we had the opportunity to be part of the celebrations. Huge statues were adorned with monstrous deities (ogoh-ogoh), one more decadent and terrifying than the other, paraded in the streets of Bali at night to the sound of traditional drums. This was followed by a long procession on the beach, where the ogoh-ogoh were decapitated and burned in huge bonfires.

Then came Nyepi. A recollection day where everyone was invited to stay at home. Quietly, in silence and in darkness ; for 24 hours from daybreak. The demons should not be tempted by the return of humans…

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As for us, we took the opportunity to take a break for one day, enjoying the ouside pool at Brown Feather Hotel.

Morning visit of the vineyards

The next day, a driver picked us up before sunrise. We went to visit one of Hatten’s vineyards. Bali was still asleep. It was dark night and the atmosphere slightly mystical. Not a soul in the streets, with the exception of a few tribes of macaques crabbers (6).

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The moment was surreal in comparison to the incessant traffic density that prevails here the other 364 days of the year.
It was 7am when we got there. The sun was just rising. Yet it was already 28 ° C and 100% humidity in the air! The vineyards were beautiful and so green. Here vines don’t lose their leaves… After harvest, a small green cut is done and the vines grow again immediately (7)! Enough to make your head spin.

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We ended the trip with a superb tour of the Bali Safari & Marine Park, it was time to make friends with an orangutan and to admire the spectacular “Bali Agung show”, a life-size show explaining the history of the island…breathtaking.

 

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Sababay Winery and Hatten Wines for their warm welcome, as well as Brown Feather Hotel and Plataran Ubud for the great accommodation that was offered to us. Thank you especially to Evy Gozali from Sababay Winery and to Maryse LaRocque from Hatten Wines, for their assistance in organizing our stay. Finally, thank you to Ibu Yoke for letting us visit the Bali Safari & Marine Park from the sidelines.
 

(1) James Kalleske, oenologist of Hatten Wines, is the nephew of our friend David Kalleske (domain Rockford Wines, Barossa). The world of wine is decidedly microscopic!
(2) Maryse LaRocque is also the secretary of the Asian Wine Producers Association ; association in partnership with Denis Gastin.
 (3) Muscat de Saint Vallier : interspecific crossing obtained by Seyve-Villard, between « 12 129 Seyve-Villard » and « panse précoce de Provence ».
(4) The solera is a wine aging system used in Spain.
(5) There would be 5% Muslims in Bali
(6) The macaque crabier is a catarhinien monkey native to Southeast Asia and very prevalent on the island of Bali…
(7) A lot of foliage is kept for better photosynthesis, resulting in more tannins and better concentration.

1st Wine Explorers’ world wine tasting…

“Exceptional guests for a unique journey around the world of wine“

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On June 16, seven professionals from the wine industry did us the honor of joining the WINE Explorers’ team, in order to share the discoveries of the first part of the trip, which began in January 2014. A unique tasting, where 12 countries were represented, as that we are very happy to share with you today!
A complicated choice because after a year and a half of peregrinations and 180,000 kilometers traveled, over 2,250 wines had been tasted and listed.
 Some wines were tasted conventionally while others were served blind, to give some surprises to a public of connoisseurs.
The idea was not to judge these wines, but to assess the potential of each of the selected wine regions and discuss the notion of terroir.

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They attended the tasting  : Patrick Schmitt MW, editor in chief of The Drinks Business (UK), Debra Meiburg MW, consultant (Hong Kong), Jean-Claude BerrouetSandrine Garbay, cellar master of Château d’Yquem, Thomas Duroux, CEO of Château Palmer, Stéphane Derenoncourt and Rachid Drissi, purchasing manager of the prestigious negotiant Duclot.

24 wines from 12 countries were tasted

DRY WHITE WINES
Kristall Kellerei, 2013, Rüppel’s Parrot Colombard, NAMIBIA
Aruga Branca Pipa, 2009, Katsunuma Jozo Winery, JAPAN
Virtude Chardonnay, 2013, Salton, BRAZIL
Skyline of Gobi Chardonnay Reserve, 2013, Tiansai Winery, CHINA
Tasya’s Chardonnay, 2011, Grace Vineyard, CHINA

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RED WINES
Pinto Bandeira Pinot Noir, 2014, Vinícola Aurora, BRAZIL
Nouveau, 2013, Château Mani, SOUTH KOREA
Cuvée prestige, 2014, Castel, ETHIOPIA
Grande Vindima Merlot, 2008, Lidio Carraro, BRAZIL
Don Manuel Petit Verdot, 2013, Tacama, PERU
RPF Tannat, 2011, Pisano, URUGUAY
Don Manuel Tannat, 2012, Tacama, PERU
Juan Cruz Tannat, 2012, Aranjuez, BOLIVIA
Cuvée Ameena Syrah, 2010, D’Orrance Wines, SOUTH AFRICA
Cuvée Violette, 2012, Le Vieux Pin, CANADA
Emma’s Reserve, 2012, Silver Heights, CHINA
Kerubiel, 2005, Adobe Guadalupe, MEXICO
5 Estrellas, 2009, Casa de Piedra, MEXICO
Le Grand Vin, 2012, Osoyoos Larose, CANADA
Ensemble Arenal, 2010, Casa de Piedra, MEXICO
Raizes Corte, 2010, Casa Valduga, BRAZIL

SWEET WHITE WINES
Vendange Tardive, 2012, Vignoble du Marathonien, CANADA
Vin de Glace, 2011, Vignoble de l’Orpailleur, CANADA
Tomi Noble d’Or, 1997, Suntory Tomi no Oka Winery, JAPAN

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TOP 3 OF THE JURY – WHITE

1Aruga Branca Pipa, 2009, Katsunuma Jozo Winery, JAPAN
(100% Koshu, 6 months in French oak, then 2 years in bottle)
” Bright wine, slightly gold. Nose of vanilla and acacia ; even more complex after opening, slightly smoky. Mouth with a round, smooth and fresh attack. Very delicate and subtle ”
Food & wine pairing : fish and beurre-blanc sauce

2Virtude Chardonnay, 2013, Salton, BRAZIL
(100% Chardonnay, 6 months in French and American barrels)
” Beautiful clarity, light yellow color. Fresh nose with some floral notes. On the palate a pleasant acidity and an interesting balance. The volume comes from the grape. A wine that displays some personality ”
Food & wine pairing : fresh tagliatelle with salmon

3Vendange Tardive, 2012, Vignoble du Marathonien, CANADA
(100% Vidal, noble rot, slow cold pressing)
” Intense gold color. Pretty nose, deep, notes of pineapple, apricot and mango. Smooth in mouth, with candied peach and apricot. Beautiful wine, dense, rich and sweet but still harmonious ”
Food & wine pairing : vanilla ice cream and hazelnut feuillantine

Two other wines also got the attention of our jury…
Rüppel’s Parrot Colombard, 2013, Kristall Kellerei, NAMIBIA
(95 % Colombard, 5% Sauvignon Blanc/Chenin)
A very aromatic wine, light and pleasant… that seduced by its “drinkability “.
Tomi Noble d’Or, 1997, Suntory Tomi no Oka Winery, JAPAN
(100% Riesling, noble rot)
Undoubtedly an unusual wine…

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TOP 5 OF THE JURY – RED

1Cuvée Violette, 2012, Le Vieux Pin, CANADA
(100% Syrah, 14 months in barrels with 19% new)
” Intense deep red color. Green pepper notes on the nose with herbs, olives and blackcurrant. Beautiful mouth, slightly herbaceous with a tapenade and red berries profile. Nice tannins, light oak and very good length. A wine full of elegance and finesse ”
Food & wine pairing : veal chop

25 Estrellas, 2009, Casa de Piedra, MEXICO
(Blend of Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Cinsault, aged for 12 months in French and American barrels)
” Complex and earthy nose. Black olive, plum. Mouth well structured, balanced and harmonious. Good length with an aromatic finish. A wine with lot of finesse ”
Food & wine pairing : chili con carne

3Kerubiel, 2005, Adobe Guadalupe, MEXICO
(38% Syrah, 16% Cinsault, 16% Grenache, 6% Tempranillo, 3% Viognier)
” Garnet color, early evolution. Intense nose of jammy fruit (plum, strawberry, gooseberry). Very nice, evokes childhood. Mouth also on black and ripe fruit. Beautiful and dense structure in mouth. Seductive and very well made ”
Food & wine pairing : sautéed veal and wild rice

4Le Grand Vin, 2012, Osoyoos Larose, CANADA
(50% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Petit Verdot, 9% Cabernet Franc and 4% Malbec, 20 months in French oak barrels with 60% new and 40% of one wine)
” Nose of spices and wild herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme), combined with ripe black fruits. Round mouth, full, balanced. Elegant and harmonious tannins. Remarkable density and length ”
Food & wine pairing : lamb

5Pinto Bandeira, 2014, Vinícola Aurora, BRAZIL
(100% Pinot Noir, 6 months in French oak barrels)
” Light color, quite dense. Nose of modern Pinot noir, woody, ripe and fruity with notes of blackcurrant. Quite fine. Nice texture on the palate. Precise extraction, long length. Beautiful final ”
Food & wine pairing : white meat or marinated red tuna.

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A few words about the countries presented

ASIA

China : a giant which is just beginning
World’s 5th biggest producer and current largest consumer of red wines, China remains primarily a country of extreme conditions of production, with temperatures ranging up to +40°C in summer to -40°C in winter in many central regions, forcing the vines to be buried each winter. The vines are quickly damaged and it is impossible to keep old vines in many regions. Quite an important problem for the elaboration of super premium wines. However, the size of the country offers many different mosaics of climates and soils, allowing hope for a nice future for a production which is so recent. Some top winemakers, as Emma GAO in Ningxia, have already shown us that it is possible to make some very fine and elegant wines.

South Korea : too much moisture for Vitis vinifera
A unique Korean wine presented during the tasting has helped us to highlight the fact that in very wet cultivated areas (90 to 100 %) – as here in South Korea or in Taiwan, for example – wine production requires the planting of hybrids vines other than Vitis vinifera. This seems to suggest that quality wine production is compromised in regions relatively close to the equator, where the humidity is constant and the cycle of the vine is continuous.

Japan : great elegance in the land of the Rising Sun
Japan is a country with generally difficult weather conditions, with a wet climate. The meticulous care of the vine still allows them to produce some very nice wines, especially from the Koshu, Riesling or Pinot Noir grapes. The tasting has shown that Japan can produce very elegant and aromatic wines, both dry, like the delicious « Aruga Branca Koshu » from Katsunuma, or sweet like the cuvée « Tomi Noble d’Or » from Suntory, a surprising botrytis Riesling (moisture combined with an altitude of over 700 meters here becomes an asset).

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AFRICA

Special mention for South Africa
A terroir already well known by connoisseurs for decades now, this tasting was the confirmation that South Africa can produce magnificent and elegant wines, especially from the Syrah grape variety, as here in the Robertson region with the cuvée « Ameena Syrah » from Dorrance Wines which was unanimously appreciated.

Ethiopia : a country as beautiful and endearing as atypical and confusing
11 million bottles produced per year, including 1 million by the CASTEL winery. Real potential in this wine region located 100 kilometers South of Addis Ababa, the capital. You can find here beautiful poor soils perched at 2,000 meters above sea level, with cool nights that allow the grapes to gently reach nice maturity, especially for red wines. Rainfall, often low, but offset by drip and controlled irrigation (as in Chile or California), allows the plant to receive just enough water. The global impression of the wine tasted is positive, even if it is strongly marked by its aging in new oak barrels. We guess a real potential for this young wine country… to be remembered.

Namibia : a confidential production
This country has only four wineries, less than four hectares each! Located North of South Africa, viticulture remains anecdotal there.

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AMERICAS

Brazil : a real potential
The country opened its borders only 25 years ago and is just beginning to reveal its potential. The region of Serra Gaucha, situated around the 29° parallel South, is already promising, both for sparkling and still wines. A topography which reminds us of Tuscany, a rather temperate climate, plenty of sunshine, a moderate but good altitude (700 meters on average), combined with expertise thanks to the Italian immigration and strong technical investments, promise a bright future for the Brazilian wine industry.

Bolivia, a land full of promises
Wine production exclusively in altitude (1,600 to 2,800 m) is probably the main secret of Bolivia’s success with quality wine production; mainly for red wines. Because despite the semi-tropical location of the country around the 21° and 22° parallel South, the region of Tarija (the country’s main producing region), benefits from drier conditions at over 1,600 meters and has a remarkable terroir, mainly composed of well drained sandy loam soils and schist dating from the Jurassic period.
In many Bolivian wines we found freshness, elegance and some complexity, like during the tasting with the cuvée « Juan Cruz Tannat » from Bodega Arranjuez.

“Coup de Coeur” for Canada
The classification of this first WINE Explorers’ tasting is telling: the Okanagan Valley, in British Columbia, is full of treasures. Near the 49° parallel North, the climate is governed by a coastal mountain range that protects the region from cold and wet depressions swept by the Pacific Ocean, 400 km to the west. The result : a warm and dry climate with annual rainfall of 200 mm and an average temperature of 22°C during spring and summer time. The region produces fantastic red wines, fresh, with beautiful elegance and finesse. Another great discovery – at the other end of the country, some 4,400 km to the East : the sweet white wines of Quebec, from hybrid varieties such as Vidal or Seyval. A very small production offering very nice wines with concentrated aromas, thanks to a cool climate and grapes harvested (very) late by a few irreducible passionate winemakers.

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Mexico : the beautiful surprise
The region of Baja California, South of California, was one of the best surprises of the first WINE Explorers’ tasting. Located on the 31,5° parallel north, this semi-desert region lacks of water (less than 200 mm of rain per year in good years) and does not forgive any approximation. It results in solar wines, powerful and balanced, meticulously blended, combining up to six grape varieties in the same cuvée and show how important it is to consider Mexico as one of the next stars of tomorrow’s new-world red wines.  A nice recognition for a country that was, in 1554, the pioneer of the Americas in terms of viticulture…

Peru, a great terroir
The Ica Valley is the main region of production of the country. The climate is dry and hot. “A bit like Chile“, some said. And even if we are here on the 17° parallel South, this region is suitable for producing wines in exceptional conditions, ” thanks to the characteristics of its unique climate and its alluvial soils”, loved to emphasize great wine figures like Max Rives and Emile Peynaud. At the foothills of the Andes, red wines made from Petit Verdot and Tannat grapes can give very good results.

Uruguay, to follow very closely
Despite a fairly dense and rather concentrated annual rainfall, very conscientious wineries know how to produce very nice wines, especially red, with rather early varieties such as merlot, or other less early as tannat. It is the case of the Pisano winery for example, which benefits from clay and limestone soils with very high pH (7.5 to 8), giving mineral and complex wines. In the land of meat lovers (52 kg consumed per year per capita !), wine knows how to find its place with style.

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THE FINAL WORD

All regions of the world are not conducive to viticulture. Yet, many factors such as soils, altitude, climate, grape variety or climat can create special conditions for the production of very nice wines. A protective mountain barrier, a South-facing hillside… are sometimes the ingredients for an elegant and complex wine. However, what can make each of these wines some ‘great’ wines is above all the skill of the winemaker and his meticulous knowledge of its terroir.
Understanding a terroir is adapting its cultivating system, choosing the appropriate plant material, making the right choices in the vineyard and in the winery. Jean-Claude Berrouet reminded us during this first tasting of this wise definition of terroir, given by Olivier De Serres in the 17th century and which aptly illustrates this final word : ” Air, land and complant are the foundation of the vineyard“. Let us not forget that.

The conclusions of this first WINE Explorers’ tasting still remain relative because unfortunately we do not have the chance to visit all wineries of the countries we explored (it would take although 10 generations of explorers to try to visit them all!). And as we all have a different palate, it is possible that we sometimes lacked objectivity. That is why it was very important for us to be surrounded by leading experts in the world of wine, with various backgrounds and experiences, to balance the impressions that we had when tasting these wines the first time.

This experience remains primarily a humbling lesson and of open-mindedness, for wines sometimes “outside of the usual standards” but with an undeniable potential and personality. We will renew it with joy next year!

The world of wine is far from having revealed all its secrets…

WineExplorers’cheers,
Amandine Fabre & Jean-Baptiste Ancelot


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS :
We thank our partners to believe and follow this project : the VIDELOT Group, DB Schenker, Château Lafon Rochet, Château Calon Ségur, Château La Conseillante.
Thank you to Elisabeth Jaubert, Ariane Khaida and Jean Moueix for having made this tasting possible.
And thank you to all the people close to the project and who encourage us every day.

Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan – do they really make wine there?

About a year ago (late July 2013), Ludo and I were preparing the route for the WINE Explorers’ project. We were gently tearing our hair out trying to fit 92 countries into a 3-year schedule in which we couldn’t see the end. Imagine for a moment having to schedule your trips until June 2017… It felt weird!
I remember it like it was yesterday. Ludo asked me with astonishment: ” Is there is wine in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan? “. “Yes,” I replied hesitantly. According to the research done on these countries – on the Internet and in some old books – traces of  wine production there seemed to be present.

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It only remained for us to go there and see for ourselves.
But first it was still necessary to locate these -stan(1) countries on a world map. Because these destinations don’t spring to mind as holiday destinations. (Wrongly! But let’s talk about this later).

Kyrgyzstan and the anti-alcohol policy of Gorbachev

Upon exiting the plane, we found ourselves in the countryside. The sunshine was dazzling, with a pastel blue sky. It was 41 ° C under a blazing sun.  We were surrounded by fields of freshly cut corn and the mountains with their tops still covered by snow, provided a beautiful backdrop.  One unique road – littered with carts full of fruit and vegetables, hawkers and traditional pottery –  connects the airport to Bishkek, the capital. This scenic beauty reminded me with nostalgia of the countryside of my childhood in Picardy, in northern France.

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We were seeking information. A former Minister of Agriculture agreed to meet us in one of the few wine bars of Almaty. The place was cold and deserted. The decor was virtually  non-existent. “This is normal, he explained, since the importation of wine is very new in the country and most Kyrgyz have neither the means nor the education to drink wine”. Wine was produced here in the twentieth century: 13 cooperatives produced mainly sweet wines and sweet effervescents (230,000 liters of bubbles per year anyway). “But everything was snatched in 1985, in the name of the anti-alcohol policy of Gorbachev’s government, with the aim to eradicate alcoholism in the USSR”. A turning point in the Kyrgyz wine industry…

The revival of Kyrgyz wine is not (yet) for tomorrow

There are a few factors which make investment in the wine industry in Kyrgyzstan unlikely.  First off wine consumption is close to zero,  secondly new vines need several years to produce fruit – it takes a long time before a return on investment can be seen – and lastly the unfortunate instability of the economic situation in Kyrgyzstan – in reference to the two recent revolutions of 2005 and 2010 – which might very well have a detrimental effect on investor confidence.  It seems that the actions of the former Soviet Union still casts a shadow on the wine industry in this country.

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Grain is now exclusively grown for the production of vodka and other brandy. Paradoxically, legislation on certain types of alcohol became very soft and it is not uncommon to find  “homemade” beverages such as bozo (a grain alcohol reaching 30 °C) or kymyz (fermented milk with neutral alcohol) in the mountains. How frustrating… We would have  liked to meet some Kyrgyz winemakers in order to understand their history and their wines. We just arrived 29 years too late…
So as a consolation prize – and on the road to Kazakhstan – we decided to visit the mountains of Karakol and the northern Issyk-Kul lake, traveling by minibus.  As well as a two-day trek in the wilderness. And to top it all, we slept at night in a yurt in the mountains, making friends with some livestock on horseback along the way. Change of scenery guaranteed!

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1500-hectares wineries in Kazakhstan… it’s possible

It was while looking at a map that I realized how big Kazakhstan is! 4,5 times bigger than France. Luckily for us, the vineyards lie in the south of the country, halfway between Almaty and the Kyrgyz border. We didn’t not have to go too far.
One feels immediately upon arriving in Almaty that the country is economically doing better than his Kyrgyz neighbour: the roads are (good), bars and trendy restaurants abound and it is not unusual to see 4×4 and other luxury cars in the city center. Oil helps, doesn’t it?

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From the vineyard side we can not say that Kazakhstan is doing well though. In 1991, Gorbachev, still with the same determination as in the rest of the Soviet Union to stop popular alcoholism, had most of the vineyards in the country removed. Today there are only three formal wineries: Bacchus, Issyk and Turguen. However, it is possible to find some small private estates, between 2 and 3 hectares in size, better maintained and belonging to wealthy Kazakhs who produce wine for their own consumption. Some of these micro private estates even have French consultants  managing their wine.

We were expected at Turguen Winery, a young estate rehabilitated in 2009 and where almost all of the 1,500 hectares of vines are not yet trellised, due to a lack of manpower. Here they produce 11 millions bottles per year with half the grapes coming from the vineyard. The other half is sold as table grapes to supermarkets in the country.

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Both Turguen wines will be bottled within a few weeks. So they are served to us in large carafes. Original! A very shy white aligoté, with hints of almond and quince, followed by a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Saperavi(2) with notes of blackcurrant and dirt, a little bit diluted. Both wines are sold €9 a bottle.

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We got a bit of a fright when we left the estate: the vineyard is located near a military zone where the daily shooting exercises are done with real bullets! But in order to leave the estate to continue our journey we had to go pass through a 2 km stretch of road right in the exercise area. A militant in position asked us to wait 20 minutes until the lunch break, at which time the exercises stop. We followed his advice to the letter, just to avoid a stray bullet …

Extreme temperatures for the vines

Fortunately Globalink(3), our main contact in Kazakhstan, kindly provided a chauffeured car for our travels in the vineyards of the region. Driving on country roads is not a luxury and can quickly become a national sport, as people drive fast and dangerously. As for finding the vineyards (which are not indicated, that would be too easy) it is a real full – scale hunting game – which reminded us of our beautiful troubles in Kenya!

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After a 2-hour drive – due to a stop every 2km to ask our way – we arrived at Issyk Winery, 40 km (only) from Almaty. The estate, which dates back to 1932, produces 700 tonnes/year with its 200 hectares of vineyard. The winery is old and the equipment, dating back to the interwar period, have not been changed, which adds  a certain charm to the place.

We visited the vineyard in 45 °C… It was stunning. Many grapes, still green, were already roasted by the sun.

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This year is particularly dry and drip irrigation is not enough. Therefore the vines are flooded every two weeks. It is extreme but necessary, we were told, otherwise there is a risk of loosing many vines. Despite this soils remain poor and dry and generate an incredible dust in the air. Low temperatures during the winter, it can get to as low as -35 °C in this part of the world, necessitates burrowing  the vines for several months, as in China.

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This gives fresh, rustic, light and very refreshing wines; which are well suited to this type of climate. As their “Riesling Dry 2009“ (about €3.50), the highly aromatic “Muscat Dry 2009“  (about €3.10), the “Sweet White 2011“  (a blend of Chardonnay and Muscat sold at €3.10) or the “Gold of Issyk 2010“, the iconic estate wine (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot aged two years in old oak barrels and sold €6.20).

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It is true that communism  hit Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan hard and we can still find well palpable traces of it. The vine has suffered greatly – where it has managed to survive.

And although these two countries will not be the great wine countries of tomorrow, it is with great pleasure and desire that we invite you to get there, for a week (or a month for the more adventurous explorers) : the hiking trails are breathtaking and numerous. The people are friendly, the food is delicious… and the ticket is not expensive at all! For the fans.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

(1) The suffix -stan means a place or a people in Persian. Kazakhstan thus means the “land of the Kazakhs”, like Kyrgyzstan means the “land of the Kyrgyz”.
(2) The Saperavi is a Georgian grape variety native from the Alazani valley in the mountains of the Greater Caucasus.
(3) Globalink is DB Schenker’s transportation and logistics partner in Central Asia.

China, wine super power and new Eldorado – Part 2

Part 2/2 : Tianjin, Hebei, Beijing & Shandong

We mentioned in our previous article that China became the biggest consumer of red wine in the world in January.
Why such enthusiasm for wine? Mainly due to the opening of China to the world. And while during these last few years there has been a decline in the consumption of spirits such as baijiu, wine, however, is booming.

Château Junding (Shandong)

Château Junding (Shandong)


Drinking red wine is considered to be good for one’s health, but that is not the only reason for the increase in consumption! New generations travel and study abroad and westernize their consumption. They see wine as a fashionable product, generating social ties. And Chinese investors understood this very well: new vineyards born and grow super fast.
We have focussed on four major  recognized Chinese wine regions, all concentrated around Beijing: Tianjin, Hebei, Beijing (itself) & Shandong.

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Tianjin, pioneer region in Sino-foreign joint ventures

We were heading southeast from Beijing to visit Dynasty, a Sino-French joint venture between Tianjin City Grape Garden and Remy Martin, established in 1980.

We went there by train, departing from the Beijing Railway Station about to experience the joys of Chinese public transport. Whatever…
We spent hours waiting in the heat and the noise to get our tickets at a counter crowded with people. Around us people were sleeping on the floor, their bundles under their heads for pillows; others played cards barefoot, probably waiting for a late train. This became a real obstacle course which ended with us traveling with our 70kg-bags between our legs. We laughed out loud in the face of such anarchy.

Dynasty

Dynasty


Upon arriving at Dynasty, a big surprise awaited us.  We found ourselves face to face with a real castle. There was even a miniature replica of the Louvre Pyramid (the Pyramid designed in 1983 by the Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming Pei…rather fun) built in front of it.  The interior decorations and ceiling heights were overwelming too.

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The 77-acres vineyard of Italian Riesling and Hamburg Muscat are surrounded by industrial buildings. The city literally circles the property. So I wondered where the grapes for the 40 million bottles produced annually by Dynasty comes from? The answer is simple (and common to many major wineries in the world), the rest of the vineyards – 3,700 acres of vines – is about 750 miles away, in the Ningxia region! Difficult to approach the notion of terroir in such conditions.

Hebei, the booming coastal region

First observation on arrival: hoists have invaded the landscape. The ambitions of the region are clearly displayed.
Illustrated by Bodegas Langues, a vineyard designed by the Austrian billionaire Gernot Langes-Swarovski (grand son of jewelry designer Daniel Swarovski) and which is nothing but a nice gift from the owner to himself.

Bodegas Langues

Bodegas Langues


Imagine: an investment of $300 million for 500 acres of vines planted on the mountainside (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc); a fully automated gravity cellar with a capacity of 1,600 tons; two elevators designed especially to move the 600 HL stainless steel tanks, and best of all… a Chinese cooperage producing its own oak barrels, 100% “Made in China”! The wines are sold for €150 on average and can reach a couple thousand euros for a double magnum of the top cuvée, set with gemstones.

A neighbour, Château Huaxia Greatwall, which marked the beginning of the Greatwall in China (COFCO), owns 3,200 acres of vines – planted in the Province along the Yanschan mountain, on rich sandy-loam soils – for a production of 46,000 tonnes and a cellar with 23,000 barrels! Enough to make your head spin.

Château Huaxia Greatwall

Château Huaxia Greatwall


Beijing, or when the vines caught up with urbanism

After an one hour ride on the Beijing underground, we arrived in the Fangshan district. Far from the big productions of the country, the new region only represents twenty wineries for now, between 25 to 100 acres in size. To stand out from other regions, the local government has implemented a strict policy for winemaking: an interdiction to buy grapes from elswhere (everything has to come from the estate). An organic certification for viticulture and winemaking is also under consideration.
The Fangshan region first prospered through its production of marble. But the marble has been depleted and now they must find new ways to keep the 260,000 jobs at stake. The development of the wine industry is the new workhorse of Fangshan.

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We visited Château Bolongbao, an experimental winery of 100 acres planted with Roussanne, Viognier and Petit Manseng, alongside with more traditional varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The challenges in the vineyard are massive: high humidity, summer rains and winter frosts which neccesitates protection of the vines during this four month period.  But this does not prevent the production of quality wine throughout – souple, easy to drink and fruit driven.

At Château Lion, an hour’s drive away, they also had to adapt to additional and unexpected constraints. 4 years ago the château has been “cut in half” by an aerial railway linking Beijing’s suburbs to the center.

Château Lion

Château Lion


A blow that did not diminish the overwhelming optimism of its owner, who is very proud of his vineyard trellised in double Guyot. He even played with blind-tasting by letting us taste a delicious white wine out of the tank, with aromas of mint, peach and citrus which turned out to be a 100% Vidal, a white grape that is normally found in Canada for the production of ice wine. Hats off.

Shandong, a region with significant potential

Here is an interesting region from a climatic point of view.
There is no need to bury the vines for protection during winter (unlike all the other wine regions we passed by in China), since the climate is warmer. The Shandong vineyards are on the same latitude as Greece or Turkey.

Future Lafite Estate (Shandong)

Future Lafite Estate (Shandong)


We had a few meetings in the Penglai distrcit, where 2/3 of Shandong’ grapes are produced. And if today Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) is having a foothold in the region*, there is a reason for that. The potential is there: beautiful sunny summers, moderate rainfall, poor soil compounds – for the most beautiful vineyards – with granite, limestone and minerals; a sea breeze drying the vines in summer thereby protecting it from many diseases; the possibility of planting a wide variety of vitis vinifera grapes and the ability of having older grapevines than elsewhere in China.

Here the properties compete in originality, like the Treaty Port Vineyards castle, Scottish-inspired, which sits just across the future Lafite estate. It even produces a whiskey with imported Scottish malt.

Treaty Port Vineyards (Shandong)

Treaty Port Vineyards (Shandong)


Another nice local (French) success is the Château Reifeng-Auzias, born in 2003 as a joint venture between Dominique Auzias (Château Auzias), Michel Behar (financial), and Wu Feng and Mei Ling (a couple in the Chinese oil business). The château would even be “one of the best planted vineyards in China and even elsewhere in the world“, according to Bernard Burtschy.

And what do the wines taste like?

The Hebei Province particularly impressed us for the quality of its wines.

15-Tasting session 3
-“Grand Reserve 2009“, from Bodegas Langues (Changli district): a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Complex nose of red fruit, leather and violets. Mouth with soft black fruit (blackcurrant dominant) and cocoa. Cellar price: €220.
-“Cabernet Sauvignon Spécial Reserve 2005“, from Château Huxia Greatwall (Changli district): a nose of ripe black fruit (black cherry and plum) and liquorice. A beautiful mouth, fresh, with pleasant, supple and elegant tannins. Cellar price: €78.
-“Reserve 2009“, from Château Nubes (Huailai district): a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon with notes of jammy black fruit, leather and spices. Cooked fruit in mouth with fine and silky tannins. Nice length. Cellar price: €130.
-“Danbian Marselan 2011“, from Domaine Amethys Manor, (Huailai district): a red wine 100% Marselan matured half in American and half in Hungarian oak barrels. Very spicy nose (black pepper, clove), with black fruit and a slightly herbaceous finish. Fresh mouth with a crunchy finish. Delicious.
-“Petit Manseng Late Harvest 2010“, from Domaine Franco-Chinois (Huailai district): a wine we open for our anniversary of the Great Wall of China. Candied nose, with complex and lovely dry fruits. Lively palate with a good acidity and a final on dried apricot. Superb.

3 other interesting red wines tasted in the other wine regions.
15-Tasting session 4
-“Bolongbao Red 2010“, from Château Bolongbao (BEIJING, Fangshan District): blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. After one year in French barriques, develops notes of blackberry, cocoa and leather. Fresh, supple and well structured. Cellar price: €60.
-“Private Reserve 2005“, from Château Gooding (SHANDONG): the iconic wine of the estate, a Cabernet Sauvignon produced exclusively in magnum. Nose of black fruit, spices and undergrowth. Fine tannins. Powerful on the palate, with notes of  liquorice and cassis.
-“The Commissioner 2009“, from Treaty Port Vineyards (SHANDONG): blend of Marselan and Merlot. Delicate nose of blackberry, blueberry and red cherry. Soft palate with balanced fruit and crispiness ; touch of black pepper on the finish. Short but fresh mouth. Cellar price: €40.
– and a nice curiosity : a 15 years old XO from Dynasty (TIANJIN), that can compete without blushing with some French Cognacs. Cellar price: €78.

Conclusion: when it comes to premium wines (above €50), the quality is often there.

The Chinese wine barrel exists!

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In the mountains of north eastern China, at the foot of Mongolia, is an oak forest of only a few hectares. Just enough trees for the two happy Chinese coopers based east of Beijing. So the oak barrel “Made ​​in China” does exist. And after tasting, it seems that the tannins and aromas of these wines are ​​thinner and more discreet compared to Hungarian or French oak.
However the Chinese oak barrel is just a sweet and ephemeral dream. It takes between 70-80 years for an oak tree to reach its mature height and it is impossible to replant trees in the mountains, it would be too expensive. “Therefore within 3-4 years the Chinese will be obliged to import oak from abroad if they wish to continue producing barrels“, the director of a cooperage explained to us.

Nowadays China is a major player in the wine world, both from a production (5th largest producer), as well as from a consumption (world n°1 for red wine) point of view. It must therefore be taken very seriously.
However, as Chinese wine exports does not exceed 2% of total production, and regarding the fact that the number of potential consumers in the country is growing every day, this trend is not about to reverse. Therefore Chinese wine will not be (not yet anyway) on all our tables tomorrow.

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Let’s close this article with a magical moment experienced on July 16, the birthday of both explorers Ludo & JB: a walk on a neglected part of the Great Wall of China. A moment of absolute stillness and where the vastness of the world reminded us politely that we are only small drops of water in the ocean. 

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA
 

*Les Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) have joined the Chinese group CITIC in 2012 to build a winery in the wine region of Penglai. The vineyard is already fully planted ; the facilities are still in construction.

Thank you to Nancy Pan and Brian Yao for their kind assistance and the numerous translations from Chinese to English.
For any other information related to the Chinese market : 
http://www.wines-info.com