October 23, 2010

Foreign Exchange

As I seem too often to be starting these Lab missives with an apology for delay, I have instead decided to officially memo-rialize that Lab Reports will come a little less frequently than previously. At some point, I'm sure we will return to our pre-Asia pace of experimentation. But right now... frankly, we're just too busy making history to have much time for chronicling it.

In addition to drinking from it, we make an ongoing and continuing effort to hedge the value of the bottles in the Lab's cellars. Foreign currency has long been our favorite hedging vehicle. Lately, roiled markets have meant we've been crazy-busy. Mostly busy selling as many US dollars as we can. As the Fed seems to be long green ink, we've really had to step beyond our usual efforts.

Until today. Today, we have a new strategy.

Instead of trading currencies, we are starting our own.

Now, just like the United States Federal Reserve, we can use quantitative easing as a way of reducing the real value of our significant tabs at bars, restaurants and wineries around the world.

We hatched this audacious plan after tasting our way through a fair few of the gray market Delatite Wines we recently acquired.

And they're as crazy-good as our new Lab Rupees.

The 2008 sparkling Pinot Noir, Demelza, presented great depth and breadth. A faint salmon hue with beautiful aromas of strawberries, pink grapefruit, baking bread and Turkish delight. The palate is a swirling mix and linear stretch of all those same flavors, especially the Ruby pink grapefruit, with some beguiling chalky limestone minerality.

The 2008 sparking Gewurztraminer, Polly, showed lemon and grapefruit zest, spice and toast. This one might be a little imprecise on the attack but spreads out with a rich mid-palate burst of apple fruit with tangerine and grapefruit acidity before a finish of pencil leads. I'm thinking this might benefit from a little cellar time. Although it drinks beautifully now. And did I mention it's Gewurztraminer? Crazy-crazy.

David Ritchie's white and sparkling wines all seem to have a French soul (I have no experience with the reds). The Sauvignon Blanc is more Sancerre than Australia. Same for the Alsatian styled Gewurztraminer (non-sparkling) and the un-wooded Chardonnay (that must in fact see a little oak?). And they are all windows into Ritchie's uniquely located vineyards. I am a fan of the entire range.

But it was the 2009 Riesling, whose own soul lies a little East of France somewhere along the Mosel, that I found most intriguing. Its flavors of lime and grapefruit and whatever lies beneath the Buller soil that drinks like limestony slate, with traces of clover and honey, are simply delicious. And while it's style is decidedly German, this is not a wine that aspires to be from someplace it is not. It is profoundly tethered to its high country Victorian trellises.

Even if it's easy enough to pour a glass, close your eyes, and imagine a vineyard along the banks of some Rhine tributary that you've never heard of and cannot get to.

October 5, 2010

Learning Curve

I'm going to tell you a little story about how wine gets done in Hong Kong.

First some backstory: I was in Australia not long ago where I met biodynamic vigneron David Ritchie. Ritchie's Delatite Winery is nestled at the base of the Mt Buller ski area and is an Australian version of an Alpine Winery. I don't think they're particularly well known beyond their immediate region (so far...) but I was served one of their sparkling Gewürztraminers (yes, Gewürztraminer) at a luncheon a few years ago. It was so precise, so unique and so utterly unexpected that I remember having to leave the table and sit with it in an out of the way corner for a brief spell.

When I met Ritchie, I asked him if he had a distributor in Hong Kong. He said he did, but they only brought in a few of his wines and none of the sparkling ones. I'm sure my expression was crestfallen, but then he said, "Although there is this guy..."

"This guy" turned out to be Alvis Kwan. David introduced me to him via e-mail. It turns out Alvis is a building engineer who specializes in ventilation and air-conditioning systems for commercial and large residential buildings. Alvis is also interested in wine. Alvis spent some time in Australia where he met someone who now manages wine sales for Delatite. So with a view towards an unspecific, future venture in the wine business, Alvis decided upon an experimental import of a pallet of Delatite wines. A pallet is roughly 56 cases.

He figured he'd sell them to his friends and the odd nut like me who showed up at his door. Maybe put them in a storefront he bought with his 401k. Or perhaps even sell them into the Mainland. He figured the only way you can figure out the wine business is by dipping your toe into 672 bottles -- a palate's worth.

In Hong Kong -- Tom Wark, are you listening? You'll like this part -- there is no 3-tier system. No divide between importer, distributor and retailer. And, as of 2008, no customs duty. If you're an HVAC engineer and you want to import a large quantity of wine, then you just do it.

How about that?

So I arranged to buy a case of sparkling wine and a case of white wines for the Lab, as well as a couple of cases of whites for a friend who grew up in view of Mt Buller.

I drove out myself to meet Alvis at his office in San Po Kong, an industrial section of Kowloon perhaps best known as the site of deadly riots that grew, with help from the Cultural Revolution, out of a non-violent workers' protest at an artificial flower factory in 1967.

I paid less for the wine than I might have paid had I bought them at the winery's cellar door because my only middle-man is a building engineer with an office in San Po Kong.

September 28, 2010

Standing Corrected

Okay, when I wrote yesterday that "None had a cork," what I meant to say...

I don't actually know what I meant to say. As usual, I wasn't paying very close attention. At the Lab, "not paying close attention" is often a euphemism for "drunk." And what I missed was a fairly obvious "cork" in the bottle of the Ocean Eight Chardonnay on my desk. But it's actually not really a cork, in the traditional sense of the term. It's a polymer-mash of neutered and neutralized cork bits and urethane manufactured and marketed by DIAM. A "French company" that makes "cork".

As a side note, anyone who has ever worked in France knows exactly why I put "French company" in quotes.

So it's not really cork, and if you believe Diam's marketing materials, then the Section Eight Chardonnay still holds true within my category of Aussie Chardonnays that are sensational and not sealed with corks (no quotes).

And as long as I'm improving on yesterday's post, let me add this note on tasting notes.

Champagne-ologist extraordinaire, Peter Liem, has recently penned a piece for the World of Fine Wine's new blog. His point, if I may be crassly reductionist, is a paraphrase of what William Hurt's character in the Big Chill says about a late night TV classic: "Sometimes you just have to let art... flow... over you."

As another side note, the proliferation of wine blogs is truly astonishing. I'm thinking that perhaps it's time the Lab finally got one...

Liem's point is a concise and learned expression of a thought I've been kicking around since this post. And I guess it boils down to this for me: I really only want to drink wines that cannot be reduced to their constituent parts. I want to drink great wines (and no, dear Chinese readers, that does not mean expensive ones). And I want to let them... flow... over me.

Like Mike Aylward's Section Eight Verve Chardonnay which has such great cut and precision. And beguiling aromatics. It's like --

Sshhh. Just drink it.

September 27, 2010

Down Under on the Other Side of the World

Little did I know that when I began my first "dig for China" as a small child on a sandy, California beach, that I would make it here, almost 40 years later.

Cute, huh?

But I hate that sort of sentimental crap. For much the same reason, I hate corks. Nostalgia for corks is like all other forms of nostalgia... borderline proto-facism. Think I'm wrong? Read Mussolini's early writings (with Gentile). But you don't have to be Antonio Gramsci or suffer through a Tea Party rally to understand that warm feelings for idealized history are the first step on a road to labor camps.

I don't want to get into the cork debate. Because there is no debate. The baseline science is there. This is like global warming. You either get it. Or you're wrong.

But I will posit my disdain for cork as a reason why I've had so many astonishingly good Australian Chardonnays since I arrived in Hong Kong. Australia has all but given up on corks and so I'm favorably disposed towards the wines when I see them here.

Of course, it might also have something to do with the multi-million dollar marketing campaign the Australian wine industry has recently launched in China.

Anyway, here's a short list of great Aussie Chardonnays I've had recently in Hong Kong:

Leeuwin, Art Series, Margaret River, 2006
Yabby Lakes, Mornington Peninsula, 2007
Mas Serrat, Yarra Valley, 2006
Ocean Eight, Verve, Mornington Peninsula, 2008
Punch, Lance's Vineyard, Yarra Valley, 2008

Two of these, the Mas Serrat and the Yabby Lakes, were made by the same guy, and made quite elegantly. The Leeuwin was so good I was convinced it was Burgundy (thanks Roger; both times). I'd actually been avoiding these wines for the past few years, thinking they were too expensive. The 2006 (and 2007) are well worth the money. I can't say enough about the whole range from Ocean Eight; but it's the Pinot that's the killer. And the Punch Chardonnay is consistently unique and site-specific. It's a vineyard I'm sure I will recognize on sight.

You would be doing your cellar a favor to buy any of the five.

None had a cork (well... correction forthcoming...).

September 16, 2010

A Little Help with Tasting

Sorry for the long delay between reports. I'm adjusting to the local culture, and nobody really does jack in Hong Kong during the summer. In fact, most of the expat crowd bails the island. But Fall is here. I know this, not because the temperature has changed. It hasn't. It's still basically a rice cooker beyond the air-conditioned confines of the Lab. But I know the season has turned because there's a line at my favorite coffee shop in the morning and all the tables are filled with women who don't play tennis but wear diamond tennis bracelets anyway.

Another aspects of Hong Kong culture I've been adjusting to is the abundance of skilled domestic labor from the Philippines. The market is heavily regulated by the regional authorities. But if you can maneuver through the forms and bureaucracy, you can get what' s known in the local parlance as a "helper."

I decided to get two.

Because I think the helper is a fantastic concept. Now that my responsibilities are reduced at home, I have a lot more time to drink. The Philippines should probably be making a better effort to export this thing globally.

At the Lab, we've been cataloguing and organizing the wines shipped to our new Guangzhou cellars. We've run a few tests on overseas shipping as well which we'll report on soon. But I grabbed an orphan bottle and brought it home last night, to see whether we can further reduce labor costs at the Lab.

I'm growing weary of writing tasting notes. So I poured a glass of a recent vintage Burgundy from bio-dynamic stalwart Hubert Lamy for one of the helpers and asked her what she thinks.

"This is very good, sir," was her reply.

I think she had it about right.

August 31, 2010

An Interesting Approach to the HK Wine Scene

Asiaexpat.com is essentially a local Craig's List for the expat community in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region. As much advice is shared as stuff gets sold on the site.

I couldn't make this stuff up if I wanted to.


Viognier: any restaurant serving reasonably good food without charging corkage (or below $100 (approx US$15) corkage)?

Ada Kok: Me and my husband (Dick) have found the perfect solution in regard to those ridiculously high wine prices in HK restaurants: we buy a nice bottle. Before we go out for dinner we both drink a glass of wine. We pour another 1-2 glasses in a samll (sic) bottle: halfway through our dinner I go the ladies and take a few good swigs. Upon my return, Dick goes to the gents and drinks the rest. We get home we have another glass to finish off the bottle. This was we have a nice wine and save a lot of money.

August 18, 2010

The Stuff of Real Legend

Vestiges of the former British Empire still exist in Hong Kong. And like a gene for ear-wiggling, they are receding quickly, but if you hunt carefully you can still find them.

And sometimes they find you, as was the case last Tuesday when I was duly notified that I am being considered for membership in the the prestigious Royal Society of Oenological Studies, Hong Kong Chapter.

As part of my application (pro forma, to be sure), I have been asked to present a paper to the Society based on my current research. I will be offering, "The Oriental Practice of Mixing Bordeaux and Coke: Myth or Fiction?" to that illustrious body in the coming weeks.

From the moment, I arrived in the region I've heard whispered rumors of this strange custom, but I have yet to confirm the truth of the practice. From my new bespoke tailor in Shenzen, I've ordered some khaki shirts, a wide-brimmed fedora hat and a bullwhip. When that stuff arrives, I'll be off to the provincial Chinese countryside in search of documentary evidence.

According to legend, the tradition dates back to the first trendy alcohol imported into China and flogged to the emerging capitalist classes as a mark of economic distinction: Cognac.

Nothing like getting hopped up on French brandy to say, I've arrived! And Cognac of the caliber affordable in a country where the average monthly wage is three hundred bucks was generally cut with coke and served on the rocks - when ice was available -- or used to power rocket engines. When wine from Bordeaux came to replace Cognac as the beverage to best demonstrate your rising status in the new middle class, many continued to mix coke into their drinks.

I've little doubt that Coke would vastly improve some of the imported table wine I've seen on offer in China. You could make a case that adding a little residual sugar and caramel flavoring at home is no worse than stirring wood chips into industrial vats at the wine factory. I wouldn't argue with you if you did.

Whether the Chinese are actually mixing Coke and Bordeaux, or this is yet another example of a bigoted Western denigration of these kind and simple peasants, I cannot yet say.

But an adventure awaits.