As a fellow educator it is always an enjoyable experience to see a true professional at work. Last week Debra Meiburg was in Taipei to help promote the 2011 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino so I was always going to find room in my diary for a date that dovetailed California’s finest with the apogee of Sangiovese.
As a Master of Wine, many will have assumed or expected Debra to be on point but all of us who have ever attended a formal lesson or seminar whether at school, college or through work, will know that knowledge per se does not a great teacher make. The ability to engage is the most fundamental skill as learning is then elevated to what it should be; a positive experience rather than a chore. Debra’s methods are neither revolutionary or unique but by talking to those present (rather than at them), inviting contributions and gently fishing individuals from the audience to help her illustrate certain essential facts, ensured that the two hour class felt refreshingly concise.
As an admirer of Brunello, the four samples from 2011 did not disappoint. Fans of 2010, with its opulence and generosity might find the crisp acidity of 2011 too brusque but I enjoyed the elegance and nervosité of these wines. One must also never forget that these are Italian wines. Italian red wine devoid of acid is like an Italian man who doesn’t look good in knitwear; it’s just not meant to happen. Debra signed off with a quiz that was designed to whittle those assembled down to a number where she could award prizes. Unfortunately her abilities as a teacher coupled with the Taiwanese trait of attentive academic application meant that this proved impossible, everyone had been too engaged to fail. Hopefully Brunello di Montalcino 2011 has a similar effect on the wine-drinking public.
Listed below are the two wines that I would happily buy and if you’ve never been convinced by Brunello then one of these should be sufficient to make you see sense.
Col d’Orcia, ‘Nastagio’, Brunello di Montalcino 2011, 14.5%
This is a little too reticent (on the nose) at the moment to warrant more than the score I have given but on the palate the wine springs to life delivering dried herbs and cherry flavours wrapped in firm but fine tannins and a bite of acidity. It also has a silkiness, weight and persistence that suggests this is worthy of a few more years in your wine fridge to allow it the opportunity to blossom. Elegant and fine.
Currently seeking an importer in Taiwan
Le Macioche 2011, 14.5%
This was the first time that I had tasted wines from this small estate and this has the perfumed purity and prettiness, that will really appeal to Taiwan’s ever growing band of ‘Pinotphiles’. Refreshing and with less obvious grunt than the Col d’Orcia, Le Macioche is a wine I would be very pleased to serve this evening. No ageing required but this has enough concentration to warrant further cellaring if you can resist its already ample charms.
Currently seeking an importer in Taiwan
The Two Giants of Provence
It was most likely on being told the story of Jack and the Beanstalk as a three or four year old that I was first introduced to the concept of something or someone being a ‘Giant’. Forty years later, the impression that those children’s stories made on my developing brain have ensured that this word remains associated with the pejorative. Giants are not nice; they are ugly, warty, carbuncular and curmudgeonly as well as being physically massive and intimidating.
Last week presented me with two opportunities to face up to any deep-seated giant related negativity. The first when I met with Emmanuel Reynaud, the notoriously reticent owner of Château Rayas in Châteauneuf du Pape. The second when I cycled up the Mistral whipped Ventoux, a mountain that French philosopher Roland Barthes once rather floridly described as “A god of evil, to which sacrifices must be made.”
I would not wish to offend Mr Reynaud by describing him as a pussycat but it was a pleasure to spend a couple of hours in his company. There was no cantankerousness on display here, rather a generosity that led to an extensive tour of the Estate followed by a tasting from tank and barrel that on one occasion caused an unconscious genuflection in the direction of Emmanuel so scented, so altogether perfect was the young Grenache in my slightly grubby tasting glass.
The chance to cycle up Ventoux the day after the Tour de France had been thwarted from reaching the summit due to 100km/h winds filled me with excitement rather than trepidation. Although the climb extends for some 22km from the beautiful town of Bedoin it is the unrelentingly steep ‘middle’ section of 9.5km from St Esteve to Chalet Reynard that causes many cyclists to be dry-mouthed even before they have clipped themselves into the pedals. For me, with the morning sun leaking through the trees, the air still cool and with the painted names of cycling’s elite disappearing under my wheels, my own feeling was of an intense and concentrated satisfaction. Nearing the top an enthusiastic woman with a klaxon yelled at me to keep going and asked whether it had been difficult? “Pas facile mais pas mal” was my response, her frown indicated a slight disappointment that I had not been brought to my knees.
Jack had to slay his giant but Provence conclusively proved that confrontation is not the only policy, show some respect and Giants can be humble, approachable and life-affirming.
Sitting, looking up and across the tree-edged Dentelles of the Vaucluse, with the mistral bullying its way across the vineyards, I feel an almost guilty level of contentment. I came here to taste Grenache, not any old Grenache but great Grenache and that is what I have done. Whether at Vieux Donjon and Chateau Rayas in Chateauneuf du Pape or at Saint Cosme in Gigondas, I wanted to taste Grenache that was three dimensional, Grenache that had guts and grace in equal measure, Grenache that could sing rather than merely mumble, I wanted to be impressed.
Yet as a molly-coddled middle-ager, whilst I appreciated the Clos de Beze like reek of Rayas and the sandy drag of tannin across my palate of Saint-Cosme’s ‘Hominis Fides’, I also wanted some pleasure that I could afford to consume more regularly than a couple of times a year. When one has the good fortune to bump into one of the aforementioned wines, any emotion experienced other than wonder can leaver the drinker feeling hard done to. These are wines that are supposed to be eye-widening in quality. Ideally an even greater sense of satisfaction can be achieved by bottles with less lofty provenance or from those ‘estates’ still suffering from nappy rash, such is their youth.
The last couple of days has seen an array of Grenache based ‘easy drinkers’ pass my lips and the best have been Mas de Libian’s ‘Vin de Petanque’, a sappy and thirst slaking paean to freshness that for the English amongst you (does anyone still admit to being English in this post Brexit world?) was akin to drinking alcoholic Vimto; high praise indeed. This estate, based in the Ardeche produces this Vin de France at a price that sees it retailing in France at less than 8 , a definitive bargain that is best enjoyed chilled.
The second wine to impress with just a little more structure, finesse and finish than the first, was Mick O’Connell’s debut wine ‘Garnacha not Guerra’ from the island of Sardegna. At 12.9% and with a cranberry and raspberry like pithiness this was much more than a creditable first attempt, this was more a statement of intent and with O’Connell looking to almost double production this year to six hundred bottles, I for one will be seeking an allocation to ensure that my contentment quotient remains not only replete but guilt-free as well.
With MW exam week in full flow I was asked by a fellow student how much I had spent since I was accepted onto the course in October 2012. Whilst I have not documented every pound, dollar or euro allocated to my studies, estimating my financial investment was certainly easier than quantifying the opportunity cost of the time and effort that I have expended over the last forty-four months.
Some commentators, as I mentioned in a previous post http://sniff.com.tw/?p=1127, are insistent that the MW is an elitist institution and part of that reasoning is derived from the belief that it is frighteningly expensive. Well my approximate but still fairly accurate summation is that I have spent between $45 & 50,000 US dollars. Seeing it in print in one lump sum my first reaction is to agree with the Institute’s detractors but if this is the figure of an Institution that prices people out of the opportunity to participate, then so does every University in the UK. Education is not cheap and whilst my expenditure may make some blanche, the fixed costs of undertaking the MW are significantly less than the total figure I have outlined.
Course fees and exam fees are mandatory and the easiest way to keep these to a minimum is to pass everything first time, meaning that from acceptance to becoming a member of the Institute is achieved in three years. Do this and the costs at today’s prices are less than $18,000 USD. My fixed costs have totalled $25,000 USD because I needed two attempts to pass the practical element of the exam. Most of my other costs have been incurred through the need to travel and living in Taiwan means that this has cost me significantly more than for those students who live near the examination centres and vineyards of Europe, the Western United States and Australasia.
Expenditure on wine for tasting is a fascination for many as they assume the expense to be gargantuan. Luckily, I really didn’t spend that much. One of my roles is as a wine educator and this enabled me to tailor tastings that suited both student and my own needs equally. I was also a member of a brilliant tasting group that helped both share the cost whilst boosting my learning. My studies have also corresponded with the emergence of the Coravin wine preservation system that allowed me to taste the same wine over and over without ever pulling the cork. Lastly I think that many people over taste, seeking solace in the notion that spending small fortunes must be making them better tasters. Unfortunately volume tasted does not necessarily correlate with a similar or equal increase in learning.
For those taking their exams this week I have no doubt that the cost of the MW will be a long way from their collective minds as they wrestle their way through twenty-one hours of essay writing and tasting. The MW is the sort of pursuit that just gnaws at certain people’s psyches until they feel that they must give it a go. As somebody so afflicted I have found it to be money well spent.
In between grazing my way through a well-judged collection of plates at ‘Beata te’, one of Taipei’s most believable Italian restaurants, I listened to and chatted with Luisa Rocca, daughter of Bruno, owner of the small, eponymously named estate in Barbaresco. Rocca’s wines are easy to like. Their Chardonnay has an edge that both cuts through and remains keen in the presence of food. Their Dolcetto, unlike the too often rustically bruising examples from other producers provides pleasing refreshment and their Barbera, high on acid yet silkily structured, rendered foie gras stuffed meatballs elegant and light, tempering their richness but not their impact.
The wines that I was most keen to try were of course those based on Nebbiolo, grape supreme here in the hills south of Alba, and they did not disappoint. The best, the single vineyard Rabajà, was all powder and perfume, scenting both the air and mouth with a graceful intensity expected from this region but particularly apparent in the wines that emanate from the vineyards and cellar of Bruno Rocca.
The evening ended with a traditional Piemontese dessert called ‘Bonnet al cioccolato, amaretti e oro’. This unfathomably fine pud (the best I have had since we arrived in this East Asian idyll) did what chocolate so often fails to do which was to be intense without being psychotically so, leaving me deeply satisfied.
Luisa was in Taipei for just one night. Recently arrived from Seoul (and only one stop removed from Sao Paulo) next on her itinerary was Singapore. The constant toing and froing has left Luisa’s ebullience undimmed a result she explained of promoting something that she loves. I can’t help think that the work of her brother and father in the vineyards and cellar must be an easier task than that faced by Luisa but she disagreed. Luisa took a quick selfie of the two of us framed by long tables decorated with fine wine, food and lots of happy guests. ‘I think my job’s pretty good’ she smiled. I think perhaps she’s right.
With the arrival of May the hum of air conditioning units in the streets of Taipei signals the beginning of summer. It is a much discussed point of bemusement to many wine professionals and enthusiasts alike, that during these sultry middle months of the year, Taiwan continues to exist on a vinous diet that remains obdurately red in hue.
Whilst I have become tired of the clichéd assertions of producers from cool climate areas insisting on the suitability of their region’s wines to East Asian cuisine, tasting some fine German Rieslings at the weekend was a delicious reminder of their ability to both slake a thirst and enliven a tired mouth in a manner not possible with reds. Telling people that they should try something new, especially when it is a white wine that isn’t made from Chardonnay, is not an easy sell in this part of Asia but then again, I don’t like being told what to do either. The relative dearth of pavement restaurants that leaves people with little choice but to venture indoors is not conducive to increased consumption of white wine. Once inside and away from the oppressive sub-tropical sun, those hoping for a glass of something white and refreshing are too often confronted with the effects of seriously efficient cooling systems ensuring that this desire is quick to dissipate replaced instead by the more prosaic needs for survival, such as a hot toddy and a blanket.
But if you do stumble across a restaurant that doesn’t consider a dining experience to be ruined by temperatures above that found in your average igloo, then think about drinking something white. Below are three Germans that deserve a place in anyone’s fridge.
All of these wines are made with Riesling and all come from exceptional/superior vineyards.
Schloss Lieser, Brauneberger Juffer, Kabinett, Mosel, 2014, 7.5%
Note: On first pouring, due to its relative youth, there is a slightly sulphurous air to the aroma. However after ten minutes, the struck match character is replaced by a hay-fever inducing pungency of summer flowers that is remarkable in its intensity. Medium-sweet but with a high-line of supporting acidity makes this both an easy and engaging glass. A textbook Kabinett that will happily sit in your wine fridge for another decade.
Price: 1499NT (or £15 in UK from winedirect.co.uk)
Available from: Vinoza in Taiwan
Joh. Jos. Prüm, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Spatlese, Mosel, 2010, 8.5%
Note: Sweet with enamel-stripping acidity, the ebullience of this wine left me wide-eyed and laughing. Intense and pure this needs no accompanying food just a sunny day or disposition. A classic Spatlese that will only improve over the next ten years.
Price: 2000NT (or in the UK, £25 as part of a case of 12 from justerinis.com)
Available from: Pro Wine in Taiwan
Reichstrat Von Buhl, Forster Pechstein, Grosses Gewächs, Pfalz, 2010, 12.5%
Note: Salty and biting, this dry Pechstein nips at your tongue as it bullies its way across your palate. Too forceful for a mere aperitif, it requires food to help tame its exuberance. Magnificent now but even better in another five years.
Price: 1950NT (or in the UK, £35 from theonlinechateau.co.uk)\
Available from: Schmidt Vinothek in Taiwan
In the UK being 6ft 3inches tall (190 cms) is not particularly unusual. However in Taiwan, the use of undivided carriages on the MRT (subway) trains, allows me to peer down their full length and rarely are there any heads nearer to the ceiling than mine. It is not surprising therefore that on arriving in this East Asian idyll in 2012, my Chinese teacher decided to name me ‘Tall Mark’ or Gao Make in pinyin. This name has stuck and I’m just thankful that no one so far has questioned whether ‘Pang Make’ or ‘Fat Mark’ might be more suitable, especially after recently returning from two weeks of elegant European debauchery.
Whatever my name the key point here is the appending of the term ‘Laoshi’ or teacher. Wherever I go in Taiwan I am referred to as ‘Teacher Mark’, which confers a certain status long since forgotten both by students and governments alike in my country of birth. At first I was uncomfortable with this moniker and was always keen to stress that my credentials went beyond that of being a ‘mere’ teacher. But I’ve grown to love teaching in Taiwan (something I had only practiced informally back in the UK), and have come to be thankful of my status. Teaching badly is not easy and teaching well is really difficult, luckily I am blessed with some outstanding translators and my Chinese, though disgracefully poor, is good enough to hear them occasionally inserting snippets of information that tend to make me look better than I really am.
It took me a while to realise that the relative silence that pervades any new class of students was a mark of respect rather than complete disinterest. Strangely, although reverence is nice, discussion is better and after a session or two most students appreciate that I expect to be questioned and want their input. Having to write their wine exams (WSET L3) in Engish, puts some of my students at a distinct disadvantage. Yet the majority have tasting skills honed both by enthusiasm and the necessity of having a lexicon of descriptors that includes the aroma and flavour characteristics common to Europe with another filled with the scents of the East, that helps cuts across any language barrier.
Teaching therefore is a learning experience for both student and teacher alike and with a busy schedule ahead I’m looking forward to spending more time in the classroom, something I would never have said when I was at school.
At Sniff we are often asked ‘So what is Taiwan really like?’ Having had the opportunity to help Debra Meiburg MW with her ‘Guide to the Taiwan Wine Trade 2016’, what follows is the introductory ‘essay’ to the guide in the hope that it helps answer the aforementioned question and perhaps whets your appetite for more. A big ‘thank you’ to Debra for allowing us to reproduce this piece of work on Sniff.
With the slowing down of the Chinese economy and as we write, (August/September 2015) a tumbling stock market, the promise of untold riches for wine producers selling their wares into China looks to have been broken. Of course for the majority, i.e. those operating outside of the best that Bordeaux and Burgundy has to offer, selling wine into China has never been without its problems. But will these latest economic developments cause more people to look even further eastward to the almond shaped idyll that is Taiwan? Possibly, and that’s why you need to read this book.
The relatively small size of Taiwan with a population of 23 million is equivalent to greater Shanghai or if you prefer, Australia. This ensures that it will never offer the same volume potential that saw winery accountants drooling over their spreadsheets as they envisioned the possibility of 1.2 billion people each holding a bottle of their wine…Yet Taiwan offers a different proposition. It is a country less tied up in red tape than its estranged big brother on the opposite side of the Taiwan Strait, making the importation of wine much less fraught. It also feels more mature. The wine trade may only be twenty-five years old but there is a palpable sense of adventure amongst the younger generation of wine drinkers, importers and retailers, that suggests the dominance of both Bordeaux and Burgundy (more on that later) will be challenged over the next decade. Wines bought here are much less likely to be given away as a gift than they are in China; it is increasingly the case that people are buying wine because they want to drink it not because it affords the drinker a certain status. It may be safer to think of the Taiwan market as being more akin to a pubescent Japanese market rather than the nascent Chinese equivalent.
The key, whether you are an individual producer or generic body, is not to shoot your self in the foot before you have even started. Whatever the official status of Taiwan (it is not recognised by the United Nations as an independent state), it is autonomous; it is democratic, it has its own currency and understandably therefore bridles when described simply as a ‘Province of China’, as is the case in one too many power-point presentations we have been party to (are you listening Wine Australia?). The links with China are undoubtedly real but although the common language of Mandarin is the same, the script used here is traditional Chinese rather than the simplified version used in the People’s Republic. So what? Well, like so many successful business relationships, recognising your potential customer’s uniqueness will obviously endear you to him or her. No one expects full cultural awareness but as the erudite HP Chu, writer and blogger told us, ‘show some respect’ in other words learn at least how to say ‘thank you’ and ‘hello’.
You should also be very careful about which bits of your marketing copy you hope to recycle. Expecting the marketing material you so carefully crafted for China (or any other part of Asia for that matter) to suffice here will likely paint you as an amateur; so don’t do it. Not only is the script different, there is also different terminology, even for those most prosaic of terms: the grape varieties themselves. Much better to present in English and get it right than to fudge the Chinese and not only get it wrong but possibly cause offence.
As a producer you need to take advantage of the genuine warmth and generosity you will be shown if you manage to make it this far. Whilst other Asian markets may be so spoilt by winemaker visits (Hong Kong springs to mind) that unless one is exceedingly famous or ravishingly gorgeous, drumming up the requisite interest for your Tuesday night visit may prove disappointingly difficult, Taiwan is altogether more welcoming. This is also a more liberal and more open-minded country than some we could mention. When it comes to selling your wine the fact that Taiwan’s own production is so small means that there is not the strait-jacket of perceived superiority that can afflict major producer countries such as France, Italy or Spain, when considering foreign equivalents. This equates to a greater willingness to try the unusual and although the famous regions of the Old World still dominate there are spikes of interest being shown for wines as varied and esoteric as Savagnin from the Jura through to the increasingly ubiquitous Prosecco. As Yusen Lin, Taiwan’s pre-eminent wine writer put it, the less codified, less strict social mores governing society here means that ‘people are more likely to drink what they want.’ We should all be thankful for that.
The last piece of significant advice we can give before we start to look at the machinations of the market in more detail is not to look at Taiwan as simply an opportunity to make a quick quid or fast buck, such an approach is unlikely to deliver. Instead, inspire. Consumers want to feel confident about what they are buying and likewise importers with the wines they are selling. We asked every person we interviewed what advice they would give to a prospective entrant into the market and a common response was simply ‘good wine’. In other words, Taiwan does not want the rubbish you can’t sell anywhere else, it wants your best. Deliver this and there will be takers.
There is something about the drinking of Sherry in the midst of a Madrilenian spring that just works. Late March sees the watery sunshine of winter give way to the beginnings of a more persistent warmth but if any chill remains, the extra shot of alcohol in Spain’s most famous fortified assists in its removal from those whose mercury is yet to rise.
At the airy, glass-fronted, Mercado de San Miguel, a breakfast of umami rich iberico ham, octopus spiked with hot smoked paprika, and half a dozen oysters seasoned with a squeeze of lemon, was perfectly accompanied by the still yeasty tang of an aged and old-gold tinged fino. For some, a breakfast of such substance more than satisfies, pushing any thoughts about what might be for lunch to the back of one’s mind. For me the opposite is true. With a thirst for more, I left the Mercado in search of Madrid’s gastronomic heart. A slow traverse across the restrained grandeur of Plaza Major led to the gentle incline of the much smaller Plaza Santa Ana. It is here, in the narrow streets to the north, that the tiled, dark-lit bars and restaurants, peculiar to Madrid, are concentrated.
I made my way to the most famous, La Venecia. Serving only Sherry (and tap water) with a sign at the door forbidding the taking of photographs, it possesses an anachronistic air that is both cosseting and calming. The sherry taken from dark bottles filled from small butts that line one wall, provides the entertainment. I had a glass of fino followed by one of Palo Cortado, the latter nutty and savoury and consumed with translucent slices of rose-hued mojama and a bowl of salted almonds. The temptation to stay, in this paean to Spain’s greatest wine, for the rest of the afternoon was hugely tempting but instead I settled my tab that was scribbled in chalk on the bar top, left, and began to think about the one remaining significant event of the day: dinner.