Vinexpo, the Asian Rendition

by Cynthia Sin-Yi Cheng
June 30, 2008

You wouldn’t usually find me willingly attending a big wine trade fair. Everyone absorbs information and learns differently, and I learn better in smaller gatherings. I like the focus of meeting a specific winemaker and tasting wines in an unrushed manner. I like the stories; I want time to ask questions and talk to the winemakers. So what was I doing at a wine fair in Hong Kong, eight thousand plus miles from New York, on the other side of the continent?

Why don’t I tell you some of the highlights and my impressions of my three days (May 27 – 29) at Vinexpo Asia-Pacific and you’ll see I kept my focus and got a great overview of both what is happening in Champagne and China.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

I started the day checking out the champagne producers:

Champagne Mandois — A small house with a production of 300,000 bottles from Pierry in a scenic premier cru village in the western part of the Côte des Blancs. At this fair, you would expect to see big conglomerates and producers that: a) produce enough wine to export to the hungry Asian market; and b) are ready to set up or expand their presence in the Far East. So I was surprised to see Mandois there. I hadn’t heard of this house before, but I learned a few things from them regarding the brut nature champagne style: few people make a vintage wine in this style; it’s usually non-vintage. Also, the house of Mandois started making a brut nature in response to requests from restaurants (several other producers told me the same later). This made me wish to see more brut nature for pairings at restaurants in New York. I’ve been advocating this style for years now, and at this show, almost all of the champagne producers that I visited now have a brut nature in their line-up. And, I know we will see more to come.

Champagne Billecart-Salmon — I was surprised to see this well-known house there. Then Antoine Roland-Billecart gave away that they were looking for a new importer for the China market. We chatted about his New York distributor and the lack of press communication and access to his wines. He seemed to be well aware of this and equally frustrated. I could only say that Danny Meyer’s restaurants have done a great job by pouring Billecart wines by the glass. I’m seeing that the choice of importer/distributor and PR firm is key. A lot of good wines are so badly represented. Sigh.

By the way, Billecart-Salmon has an ingenious logo. So modern and timeless. The curves incorporate both the “B” and “S” of the name and suggest the airiness of fizz. Click here and then on “The Brand” to see an animated clips on the logo.

Sauternes and Barsac Seminar — In the afternoon, I attended a sweet wine tasting by accident. I had signed up for the Saint-Emilion Grands Crus Classés Tasting of the 2003, 2004, and 2005 vintages. It just happened to be next door to a Sauternes and Barsac tasting. Well, I walked right into the wrong tasting, immediately saw my fellow Shanghai Wine Society member, François, and plopped down right next to him. To François’ right was the publisher and editor of Sommelier India, Reva Singh. I think Reva was the most serious taster there; every time I took a peek, her notes on each of the wines flooded the pages. Moderating this seminar was Andreas Larsson, Best Sommelier of the World in 2007. What an opportunity to taste some of the best growth Sauternes (Filhot, Doisy Daëne, Guiraud, Suduiraut, Clos Haut-Peyraguey to name just a few) and lots of older ones all in one sitting with most of the owners present to talk about their wines.

I especially enjoyed the 1999 Château La Tour Blanche, which contained licorice and spice with a balanced acidity from mid-palate onward. The texture was just right, not too cloying yet conveying the nose and unctuousness of honey. Another beauty was the 2000 Château Climens. Owner of this premier cru Barsac, Bérénice Lurton was convinced that the limestone soil on her property, which only yields Sémillon grapes (no Sauvignon Blanc or Muscadelle in their blends), imparts an intense personality to the wine. The truffle on the nose stood out for me. This wine was the most distinctive of all the wines we tasted that afternoon.

Wednesday, June 28, 2008

I stuck to my focus on champagne producers I was not familiar with:

Champagne Thienot — Stanislas, director of export and son of owner Alain Thienot, walked me through a tasting of Thienot’s entire portfolio. I must say, the saddest thing was learning that they are not presently on the U.S. market and that they don’t have plans to reenter this market this year. In 2009? I hope. It’s true that the last time I tasted a Thienot was in a bistro in Rheims. Actually 80% of their total production is sold to restaurants.

Now here is a champagne with fantastic label designs. I found the “La Vigne aux Gamins” label especially intriguing (photo above). The design is minimal: white type on a black label on a black bottle. The typeface used here is the one used on all the plaques (indicating grape variety, vintage and village) down in the champagne caves where batches of still wines are stored. I have never seen anything like it. I’m liking this…seeing new things coming out of champagne. The art of champagne-making might be an old tradition, but there are tons of innovations that we only notice when we have time to focus on one house at a time. I’m loving my time at Vinexpo.

My favorite wine from Thienot was the brut rosé from old vines in Aÿ. The base wine is from the 2004 vintage blended with about 7% red wine from the 2003 harvest. This is the type of rosé I’ve been searching for: subtle and elegant. I wish more producers would tone down their rosés in both color and taste. It would be easier to have with food, especially raw seafood.

Pere Ventura — I pretty much skipped all the sparkling wine producers, but I did end up finding a cava maker that got me excited. Maybe it’s my penchant for low dosage wines, but I found the Cupatge d’Honor from Pere Ventura, a brut nature blend of 70% Xarello and 30% Chardonnay, exquisite. It had complexity, layers of ripe citrus fruits, apricot, yellow plum and great mouthfeel. My friend Billy tried, to no avail, to get them to sell us a few bottles. They also produce a vintage bottling and a blend of Xarello (25% blended with 15% barrel fermented), Macabeo, Parellada and Chardonnay.

Château d’Esclans — Judy Leissner, the president of her family’s Grace Vineyard winery in China told me at lunch that the best thing she had tasted that day at Vinexpo was a rosé. I thought, okay, I’m a rosé advocate but I didn’t want to stray from my focus on champagne. Turns out, she dropped me off at Sacha Lichine’s Château d’Esclans booth. I took a bar seat and started chatting with Sacha, having no idea what the fuss was over his rosé and knowing even less who he was. Turns out his four rosés have been getting press everywhere and his name gives away that he is the son of well-respected wine figure Alexis Lechine. From Provence, all from the 2007 vintage, Château d’Esclans’ entry-level Whispering Angel ($20) is a simple sipping rosé representative of the Provence rosé style; Château d’Esclans ($40) is a mid-range option from 80-year-old Grenache and Rolle; then the next step up is a Les Clans ($75) for which the Grenache and Rolle are selected from 50 to 70 year old vines. These are topped by the price-shocker, Garrus at a whopping $100 from the best sites in the d’Esclans vineyard with old vines, 27% from 80-year-old Grenache. I enjoyed them all and have always had an affinity for rosé — and not just in the summer or just for sipping — but I’m not sure how to justify the pricing. Perhaps the older vines, vineyard site, and production method? I think we still have an expectation of how much a rosé should cost, whether this is a misconception that should be challenged or not. Well, that wasn’t my problem. Sacha seemed to have no problem with placement and sales of his wines. In fact, on the flight back, in the Financial Times supplement “How to Spend It,” John Stimpfig had a big feature on the new trend of expensive rosés. And just this weekend, Jancis Robinson’s rosé report had a solid paragraph on Lechine’s rosés. Robinson’s favorite, especially in terms of price-quality ratio, was the Château d’Esclans. I’ve also seen Sacha’s wines on restaurant lists more than once in the City since I my return from Asia. I asked him three weeks ago whether his rosés have ageablity thinking that might be a justification for the price. He told me, “I guess time will tell.” So, let’s wait and see. Meanwhile, I can always pick up a bottle of Whispering Angel for $20.

Day 3
Thursday, June 29, 2008

More tastings with champagne houses, and I slipped into a Chinese food and wine pairing lunch to see how Simon Tam, the speaker, was going to pull this off:

Chinese food and wine pairing seminar lunch — Simon Tam, the director of the International Wine Center in China, is quite a character. Outspoken, he thrives on public speaking and audiences. Besides learning a few pairing philosophies regarding Chinese food and wine, it was fun to see Simon in action. The things that stuck with me the most were his vision of pairing the intensity of flavors. So, for example with many Chinese dishes the flavors are complex and heavy, so those could only be paired with heavy wines. In the same way, we started the tasting with champagne paired with shrimp dumplings. He also advocates matching the color of the food to the color of the wine. So, if you were having white fish, you’d have a white wine. Tested over lunch, that all made a lot of sense. There seemed to be a lot of hospitality professionals from the Asian region in attendance. They kept testing him with difficult foods to pair. Simon did confess that some things just don’t go with wine at all. For example, vinegar kills wine, so have tea instead. Another tip I really took to heart was that lots of Chinese food pairs well with Sauternes: Spring roll, crispy pork, cha xiu meat. The key is to serve the dishes and sweet wine in small portions so the taste is just right and one is not overwhelmed by the sweetness in Sauternes. I tried it and was sold.

This was the perfect finale to my Vinexpo experience in Hong Kong. As the wine world starts to court the Chinese market, we’re seeing more ways to complement local cuisine with the flavors of wine. For wine to move beyond the role of afterthought, gift item, or luxury, it has to merge into the day-to-day lifestyle of the local culture. I’m thrilled to see that so much thought is already going into this, and I hope to see that in the next few years when I walk into a Chinese restaurant in Shanghai, the wine list is more comparable to what I see on a daily basis here in New York. I know it will come, and based on what I’ve seen already, it’ll happen quicker than I once expected.

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