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The Hong Kong wine market & the Commanderie de Bordeaux

I lived in Hong Kong for 16 years. For another 10 years after that I went there to sell Bordeaux wine. I love the place. It will always feel like home.

Today, it’s the hub of the Asian wine market. It’s home to a large number of incredibly sophisticated consumers. And these wine lovers can have massive spending power. Yes, Hong Kong has become the capital of the fine wine auction market and the sales results are off the charts. Did I just read that someone spent almost US$480,000 on 12 bottles of DRC? There’s a saying “only in Hong Kong”.

Consumer wealth takes on a whole new meaning in HK because people live to work, they live to make money, and then they spend it lavishly. Expensive cars are the norm on the streets, mega-yachts adorn the marinas, and the ladies that lunch look like they’ve been decorated for Christmas. Sparkle sparkle… and surely a good girl deserves a $16,000 Hermes handbag under the tree, right honey?

I was very fortunate to make an agreement with a fantastic HK importer back in 1994, that still lasts today. But to woo this company we had to put on one of our fancy events, showcasing 40 year verticals of our own chateaux. But when you don’t have a good contact network in the local trade, and you’ve no idea who the movers and shakers are, then you need to find someone to help you. So I contacted the Grand Maître of The Commanderie de Bordeaux, HK Chapter.

The Commanderies have been set-up by the CIVB in Bordeaux (the HQ that oversees everything) with the mission of promoting the regions wines. There are many Commanderies around the world, in a lot of major cities. The people that run these satellite “chapters”, like the one in HK, do it for free, because they love Bordeaux wines. The Grand Maitre is usually a successful businessman who knows the Bordeaux chateaux very well and visits them every year for his personal interest. Its basically his hobby and pleasure.

If you contact the Grand Maitre they will often take the time to explain the market, give you tips and contacts details of the key players, make some calls on your behalf, and possibly help organize an event to assist you to market your wines. And so we did. The Commanderie gave us a guest list of media, importers and influencers and we put on a stunning tasting.

But there was one issue with getting people to come out to our event in this bustling metropolis, which was diplomatically broached during the event planning lunch. The Grand Maitre leaned towards me and said, wincing, “some people simply won’t drink anything unless it is a 1st growth. Lafite is their house wine. Any chance you could bring some of that too?”

And so we did, and people came, and we got our importer, and then a few more importers in the years following that. And it was largely thanks to the Commanderie, which is an excellent organization and a superb model that other wine regions should consider following more seriously.

In the last 20 years, since the import tax on wine was dramatically reduced in landmark legislation, the number of importers has exploded. The range of wines on offer is huge. The wine lists at the top restaurants are as thick as bibles and there is a thirst for the very finest vintages. There are more WSET schools on this small island than in most large countries, and combined with China is does the largest volume of WSET exams in the world after the UK.

There are 2 resident MW’s. My pen pal and superstar Debra Meiburg, who is the most amazing woman that I’ve never met (except for 10 seconds at our MW graduation the same year). And then Jeannie Cho Lee, whose productivity is startling. Singapore Airlines, Decanter, books, etc… you guys make me feel lazy. Take a holiday guys!

So Hong Kong is one of the capitals of the wine world. And it’s all set to continue to get stronger and stronger as time goes on. And that’s why we started a wine industry recruitment site there, just in case you want a job www.WineJobsHongKong.com

Hong Kong & customer service

1988 – After boarding school in England was done and I got home to Hong Kong my parents decided that I had better get a job, fast. Having been suspended from boarding school for imbibing they felt that maybe the wine industry would have a certain appeal. And so they contacted their favorite merchant and offered my services for a pittance, telling the lady in charge I would make tea if it came down to it.

A few days later I reported to the 60th floor of a HK skyscraper to start my first job in the wine trade, age 18. My boss was an Australian lady, very tall, thin, early 30’s, fun and attractive. She usually had a menthol ultra slim fag hanging out of her mouth covered in lipstick and was giggling about the fun she had at the weekend.

I can hear my father saying, “son, it’s always good to start at the bottom and work your way up”. And there was no doubt that I was starting at the bottom. One of my jobs was to be a delivery boy. And I can assure you that in the tropical heat it was not an easy task to deliver wine to the 54th floor of some fancy bank, using the service elevators with the local workmen. Back alleys in HK was not the place to be. Other thrilling jobs included data-entry, creating invoices, and picking and packing orders was the bomb.

This import company specialized in boutique Australian wine, unfortunately a little ahead of its time for that category in 1988.

However one thing that I did learn was the importance of customer service. My boss would often tell me that it was vitally important that we treat every client like gold, because the issue with the wine business is that they could easily go to another merchant and buy, or simply walk down the street and grab a bottle at the supermarket. So I watched her interact with customers and learnt that in wine, due to the enormous competition, you really do have to go above and beyond with your customer service.

This included hand-written notes of thanks, follow-up calls to ask if they liked the wine (and wanted more), special invites to tastings, invitations to lunch or drinks, invites to her house for dinner with her husband, and basically red carpet treatment. And its true that customer service is critical in the wine trade. It is a business that is heavily based on relationships because frankly, a lot of wines taste just as good as each other.

After 6 months I left my first job, on great terms, before going travelling in South America. My boss had a party for me, and then surprisingly threw in some of her own trademark customer service, as a very special farewell. I was sure I’d get a glowing reference letter.

Korea & the importance of brand names

South Korea is another emerging market in Asia developing a thirst for wine. Red wine, of course. Part of its growing popularity is due to the health benefits that a glass of rouge can give to the imbiber.

As such, in the late 90’s a number of producing regions were coming out with studies proving that their particular grape, or terroir, had special healing powers. I remember Chile going full throttle on this. The studies focused on the amount of resveratrol, which is basically an anti-oxidant, and said that if you had a glass or two every day you would look younger and live longer. Mmmmm….. For my own portfolio of Bordeaux I was convinced that 2 Tylenol could work miracles.

There’s all kinds of smart hotels in Seoul with dozens of restaurants in each, and this is where a large amount of the consumption takes place. It’s quite different from North America, where you would rarely think of going to a hotel for a smart dinner. There are of course retail shops and many of them have the appearance of an art gallery, where wine is displayed as a luxury good. At least these were the types of places that I would go to visit with my importers.

It’s obvious that packaging is vital to the success of any wine. It’s a product that you can’t try until after you buy, and so one of the few things you have to go on is how appealing the label is. But part of the labeling is also the actual brand name, and in Asia, and elsewhere, this has massive importance.

My firm owned 2 lovely chateaux in Lalande-de-Pomerol, the adjoining appellation to Pomerol, and one fortunate enough to share part of the same name as its illustrious neighbor. When clients talked to us about our 2 delicious Pomerols occasionally we may have forgotten to correct them.

One was called Chateau Sergant and the other was named Chateau des Annereaux. Both were priced the same, they were almost neighbours and so they tasted similar in style. But sales of Chateau Sergant outstripped Chateau des Annereaux 4 to 1. Why? Because the name was easier to pronounce – simple as that.

Some brand names can be so difficult to pronounce that consumers shy away from ordering them because they simply have no idea how to say it, and they don’t want to be embarrassed, especially at their formal business dinner or romantic soiree. And when I look at certain German labels, or Italian for that matter I can sympathize. It’s intimidating. That’s why I just point at the wine on the list my dear.

So we would have endless pronunciation lessons with our clients as they were determined to get it right. Sometimes these would take place after a few glasses of wine and for several minutes we’d go over it, so painfully that it usually ended in hysterics. One more time, “Chat oh Des Anne er row”. And again…. No, no, more emphasis on the “row”. And in the end my friend and client aptly named Mr. Kim would throw his hands up in the air and say, “forget it, we will just buy the Sargent – like the man in the army”.

I know that often tricky names belong to a place and they simply cannot be easily changed. Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande must have gone through the same exercises with their clients, and eventually found a shortcut in Pichon Lalande. But when a producer does have a choice and they still come up with a tongue twister, well, people may just decide not to open their mouths at all. And that seems like a great shame, and a missed opportunity for the producer.

Allez La France

There are a number of things that turn the French on. Food, unquestionably in poll position; sex, they are French after all ; wine, and rugby. OK they like Hermes too but that’s for a very special niche market. Rugby is a religion in France. It is every boys dream to play for les bleus, and score the winning try in the dieing seconds of the World Cup, beating the British. Oh, the sweet taste of giving it to the Brits. It’s a national pastime.

So the only thing that could interrupt the work in the cellar during harvest was to play rugby. And that took care of most of Sunday. But what I didn’t realize was the unusual way that a French team prepares for a match, and during that process I also had the revelation that your average Frenchman doesn’t have a clue about wine. It is a myth that everyone in France is somehow related to Michel Rolland. No, whilst a nationality of great taste and sophistication in many ways, most people just knock back the red like its water, and make a few comments that you can’t go wrong with – ah, c’est bon ca. This was certainly the favorite expression of the players at the pre-game lunch.

Here’s the way it shakes down in small village French club rugby played by adult men between 20-55, all on the same team. You show up at
the clubhouse at 12 noon for the aperitif of pastis, then there’s a 4 course lunch with carafes of red everywhere, and then after a quick coffee it’s time to amble down to the pitch, get changed, and play a match with kick-off at 3.30 pm. So you tailgate for 3 ½ hours as a player.

If they had breathalyzed the entire team they would have impounded every car. And yet as the game unfolded I finally understood how the most dynamic and beautiful rugby team anywhere in the world gets its magic flair from, its ability to pull a rabbit out of hat, to bring a nation of supporters to its feet chanting allez la France. Well, there’s the individual nature of the people, a knack, a brilliance, but it’s also partly because of the wine pre-game. And if you follow rugby it will now make perfect sense why they are the most penalized team in the world.

Sadly, domestic consumption of wine is going down, dramatically. In fact over the last 30 years it has plummeted. Why? It’s not cool to drink what your parents used to slosh back, there are drinking and driving laws now, and there are strict government anti-alcohol stances especially with regards to advertising. And frankly the previous numbers of the 1970’s were spiked by clearly excessive consumption. Case in point. I would be the only person drinking coffee at 8 am in the local café. Everyone else, driving tractors and working in the fields, was drinking wine or beer. And some people would drink 2 liters of low alcohol red per day, every day. Wow.

It’s really been the perfect storm for many French producers. A local market that is trending down, export markets full of strange people from places like Chile and Australia with kangaroos on the label, that somehow sell like hotcakes. And generally they now have competitors outsmarting them in marketing and offering better value. It has either forced French producers to improve, or leave. This struggle in the French wine sector is a matter of national pride. Because whilst every Frenchman might not know about Brett and odd sounding tests like 4EG, they sure know that France produces the best wines in the world. And on that point, they are not wrong.

Le Bureau in Bordeaux, 1993

After two months in the cellars during harvest, doing all the heavy duty work, it was a relief when one day the owner, clad in his tailored suit and looking most aristocratic, instructed me to come to work at the office.

It’s hard work in the cellars. It’s certainly not a bunch of artsy winemakers wondering around gazing at ferments, except at some very small production wineries. No, your hands are totally messed up with deep cuts and scrapes and you are filthy and tired. Basically you are in survival mode. Up at 6.30 am to start at 7 and home around 9 pm, occasionally later.

So it was with great pleasure that I put on a suit and tie and went to the office, because everyone knows that office jobs are a doss by comparison. Send a fax, wow, peruse a competitor’s brochure and slam it, wonder around and seem intelligent, organize a “winemaker” dinner for yourself, a tough life.

I was fortunate to be the assistant to the owner, and basically did anything he needed. Pick up the kids, organize a tasting for a client, write faxes for him in English, and go to Singapore when he couldn’t be bothered.

The owner was the only person in the company who could speak English. So when it came to dealing with international clients it was either him, or nobody. And with a 350,000 case operation trading the classic Grands Crus Classes worldwide, producing wine at their own 6 chateaux, and churning out negociant wines under at least 150 different labels, well this was no small affair. So it was impossible for him to cover all the global markets and see all our clients on a twice yearly basis. So one day, at the last minute, I was dispatched to Singapore in his place. I had been working there 6 weeks and was 23. I did my last trip 11 years later.

It never ceases to amaze me how the sales and marketing operations of some European producers works in terms of human resources. In our case there were over 100 people that worked in production, and there were 2 in sales and marketing, which included the owner, so really there was only 1 guy who did sales… Alors!

In Bordeaux such salesman are viewed with tremendous suspicion by the production teams, as if they come from the dark side. Yet these 2 people are expected to cover France (one of them), and the rest of the world for the other – keep it simple. Of course this is not always the case at all companies, many of whom are well staffed. But it is in fact quite common.

These people spend 4-6 months of the year travelling to see clients, attend wine trade fairs, speak at conferences and events, and guzzle wine till the wee hours in the depths of Japan with their importer, with conversation through an interpreter. It can be a very long night. When theses salesmen get back home to the office, there are visitors to receive, labels to create, offers to make, samples to send, and trips to be planned. I’d much rather be a tour guide.

What always struck me as bizarre in France was that the commercial structure was so light compared to places like the USA or Chile where companies often have Directors of Marketing, PR, Hospitality, Clubs, and even in some cases a “Communications” guy, let’s make that Senior Vice President. Marketing in the New World is much more dynamic with people trained in this skill at top wine business schools and then running highly organized corporate sales machines. Of course the statistic is something like 90% of California wine is made by 10 companies and so you’d expect this at that size, but even a 350,000 case winery in the New World would have more than 2 people in sales and marketing…

But this lean commercial structure was my good fortune. It was decided that perhaps it would be useful to have another person in the company who could speak English. For the next 8 years I was lucky to be the Global Export Director for one of the best family owned producer/negociants on the Right Bank. The fun was about to begin.

Exporting Bordeaux wines to Asia – 1994

My training in export sales involved going to the owner’s chateau, having a 3 hour dinner with some staggering old crus classes, and not speaking a word about business. As I left his house he told me to be nice to our client and see if they wanted to order more wine. And that was it. It was not the Gallo school of sales training… it was much more aristocratic. So very Bordelais darling.

So off I went to Singapore, with a price list and a sack of samples. And as it turned out it was a bit like a holiday. The importer picks you up at say 11 am, like it, and swings by your swishy hotel, that suits your swishy wines’ brand image. Then a meeting ,which can take all of 25 minutes, and guess what, it’s lunch. Selling wine at export is a lot about relationships, which are best forged over meals with a healthy amount of wine, as you know.

Of course you talk about what wines they buy and how they are selling, you suffer through their tales of market difficulties and wretched F&B Directors (who are over-solicited so they are tough to crack), and all the while you sing the praises of your latest vintages. But you become friends, which is one of the beautiful things about exporting wines. It’s got to be the most hospitable business in the world.

I seemed to be well suited for this job. A few months later I was dispatched on our companies first ever export mission to Japan, a new market.

The way that we used to open a new market was to pay the French Chamber of Commerce a small fee and they would set-up about 5 days of non-stop meetings with potentially interested importers. You go to the Chamber’s office on day 1, get your itinerary and off you go. Except in Japan it’s like being in your own version of SURVIVOR.

Go into a metro and sometimes there are no English names for the stops. So you don’t know where you are, or where to get off. Approach someone on the platform to ask for help and the ranks clear. People are generally very shy, and very few speak English. Get in a taxi and you better have a map of the place in Japanese, which then tends to be studied at great length by a driver using a magnifying glass. Take your potential client for a nice dinner, including eating a live lobster that twitches in front of your chopsticks, and you’re in the hole for $750.

Don’t get me wrong. Japan has some very special people, places and culture, but it’s like no where else. I would end up spending 4 weeks a year in the country because it is was the major market in Asia for Bordeaux. And one of the keys to success at export was to try and learn the culture.

There was a serious amount of bowing. Like serious. You were still bowing as you back-peddled into the elevator of their office building, bid farewell by the 6 people who came to the meeting with you. Often only one of the people at the meeting is the designated speaker on their behalf. It’s not like Stateside, ya feel me…   Business cards are presented with great ceremony and offered using both hands, soft handshakes with ladies, don’t touch your nose, don’t say “no” (a tricky one I must admit…), and always show the greatest respect.

A huge mistake I made for the first few years was to not shut up. You say your spiel about your wines, taste them with the potential clients, and wrap up by asking if they are interested. Often your question is met with dead silence. So, perturbed, you say that you can throw in 3% in free samples on an order. Silence again. “What the hell guys, let’s make it 5%. How about that?” But all the while the Japanese culture thinks nothing of just digesting your comments for what seems like minutes before they have a conflab in Japanese, and someone replies, hopefully, “yes, we are interested to place order”. And then there are smiles. And with those few words you just locked into some major multinational chemical company that just happens to be one of the largest wine importers in Tokyo. They could be your client for the next 30+ years.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the language barrier. To get around this you hire an interpreter, through the Chamber of Commerce. Of course this makes life easier, and occasionally much more amusing. I would discourage anyone from offering the interpreter to join the tasting because spitting is rude, so you swallow. And sometimes people can be quite sensitive to alcohol and pass out at the meeting and require an evacuation back to the Chamber of Commerce. Day done. One of the greatest attributes of the best translators was when they totally changed what you were saying so you sounded better, and started negotiating on your behalf whilst you sipped yet more green tea.

In 1994 the Asian markets were starting to boom for French wine. Start in Japan, go over to Korea, across to Taiwan, down to Hong Kong, and a late night flight to Singapore. Five countries in 12 days was not unusual for the Bordeaux exporter. It’s enough to make you dream of never going anywhere again….

Le Japon

Japan is a massive market for wine. Red wine that is. It’s always been a nation of pretty serious drinkers. They love their Sake, and they make some pretty good beer too. And when it comes to imported wine its mainly French, then Italian, and a splash of others. You see France is a cultural icon in Japan, and all things French are coveted.

Sometimes I’d ask a potential distributor if they imported wine from New World countries like Australia. This would often turn into a huge joke, as they broke up laughing to be asked such a dumb question. It was 1994. “Australia has kangaroos but definitely not wine,” the client would say, motioning to hop. For most importers, which were often divisions of Japanese Trading Companies, the mantra was simple : “French wine number 1”.

The market itself has quite a few discount shops that sell wine very cheaply, and this appeals to the average young office worker on their way home. And then there are fine wine shops where old vintages of Petrus are showcased like the crown jewels. There’s supermarkets, and thousands of restaurants, both ultra fine dining and casual. There is also a very strong Sommelier Association in Japan, some major wine magazines, and some key personalities.

The actual consumer is often slightly younger than in some markets. They see wine as very hip. In a bar the cool cats sip red wine from Riedel glasses. Plus people think it is good for your health and this fuels sales. After all, the medical proof of the health benefits is overwhelming. You wake up in the morning raring to go, bounding out of bed fresh as a daisy… So in Asia Japan is one of the more mature and sophisticated markets with hundreds of importers doing a very professional job.

The main cities we targeted for exporting were Tokyo and Osaka. Tokyo has 13 million people. Many importers just focus on Tokyo. But after an exporter has found clients in certain geographical regions like Tokyo, and given exclusivity to those importers, then the salesman has to go further afield, in search of a new client to generate more fun coupons for his boss.

And so one day, at 5 am at the downtown Tokyo airport, I found myself sitting on a 747 bound for Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido, about one hour north. This was getting off the beaten track. There was at least 400 Japanese onboard, plus myself. When the JAL flight attendant came round to offer tea or coffee you could see in her eyes that she felt pity, and was desperately wondering WTF are you doing on this aircraft sir.

Armed with an address and a map in Japanese you hail a taxi in the snow and start driving to an unknown location. As you watch the meter tick away furiously into the thousands of Yen you stop outside an alleyway. There is an unmarked door to what looks like a warehouse. You’re in the middle of nowhere. You bang on the door, and when miraculously it opens you find yourself standing in a warehouse surrounded by hundreds of palettes of fine wine. Stacks of Latour, 3 palettes high with Mouton, a swimming pool of Yquem, and so on. Gazillions of cases worth millions of dollars.

And within the warehouse there is a very large office, where the owner sits. He has a putting green set-up by his desk, and after a discussion about your company and your products he cracks open a bottle of Chateau Margaux, hands you a glass and a golf club and the putting game is on.

The way it usually goes is that you leave with some mutual interest in working together, and then once home you send love letters back and forth, and then you have to get your sorry ass back to the airport at 5 am and go all the way back to this Japanese island for a 2nd visit, at which time you may be close to making a deal, or maybe not. In Japan they value long term business partnerships, and they want to see if you’re a fly-by-night winery, or if, in fact, you’re a keeper.

The Winemaker Dinner

One of the traditional ways to market and sell your wine was, and always will be, to organize a Winemaker Dinner. Essentially you try to attract a number of key customers to come and break bread with you. They taste and enjoy your wines, and you strengthen your relationship because you just fed them delectable food and poured copious quantities of expensive wines. It often ends with everyone getting inebriated and, at the end of the night, expressing their love for one-another. My company employed this tactic ALOT.

But this term “Winemaker Dinner” can be a tad misleading. Because more often than not there is no winemaker within 8,000 miles of the fancy private room at the 5 star hotel. No, YOU are playing “Winemaker” for the evening, because the real one doesn’t speak English and frankly his personality might put buyers off.

In our case we would bring vintages of all our own chateaux dating back to 1952. There would be a 20 year vertical of most estates available for tasting pre-dinner, along with a handful of the 1st growths that we brought along for prestige, and to get the most stubborn buyers to come out. And then, at dinner, we would serve 2 wines with each course, and aim for 5 courses. The wines were spectacular. Yes, we did it up real grande baby. No expense spared. My boss knew how to do it right, and when he and his gorgeous wife came on a trip it was like royalty had arrived.

The results were staggering. We created a brand image that was second to none. Buyers were impressed. One morning back in the office in Bordeaux we woke up to an 18,000 case order from our main Japanese importer, for immediate collection. So the moral of the Winemaker Dinner story is that if you are going to do it then GO BIG and make a splash, otherwise it could even work against you if Buyers are not wowed.

But no two Winemaker Dinners are ever quite alike. In London they expect someone to speak with insight and intellect, humor and quick wit, and the guests are always politely silent during the speeches. In Detroit you better make it short and sweet before the crowd starts chattering, and you can blatantly request that people fill out the order form NOW. And in Tokyo, well, you get ready for the toasts. About every 15 minutes, and with increasing frequency, someone in Japan proposes a toast. Yes darling, sometimes it’s Bottoms Up. This requires a lightening fast evaluation of the terroir expression in your glass, filled to the brim for the toast.

To call this work for some people would seem like a joke. But in fact there is a skill in the organization of a Winemaker dinner. You need to ensure the food and wine are paired well by speaking to the chef in advance and ideally sampling him on the wines and making menu suggestions. Seating arrangements must be carefully done so the biggest Buyers are made to feel important and not seated with competitors. Speeches need to be mentally prepared so they look off-the-cuff, and should be tailored to the audience and their level of knowledge, as well as the occasion. Every guest should be welcomed personally and an effort made to talk to each of them, even if it is much more tempting to stay slumped in a chair guzzling Cheval Blanc with your chatty neighbor. And inevitably you meet a dozen people so you need to scribble down what you promised them on their business card otherwise in the morning the follow-up is a disaster. Ok it wasn’t quite as elaborate as Chanel launching their Spring Collection, but a lot of work went into a successful event.

Finally, after the dinner is officially over, you must invite the stragglers to the closest bar for more wine, and more toasts. But you yourself must never totally lose the plot because you might end up having to carry your Japanese importer home. And yes, it was him with the 18,000 case order.

Temperature Control – Chateau Recougne, Bordeaux Superieur, 1993 harvest

Once the cellar was safe to enter we went in and got ready for the day ahead. The first job was to take the temperature of each tank, which was a good way to start the day as it required zero intelligence or physical effort. In most cellars these days it would be as simple as looking at the gleaming computer panels that display the precise temperature of each tank, but no, in my cellar there were no computers. The vats were cooled by wrapping a hose around the neck of the tank, and then puncturing the hose so that cold water trickled out. Very sophisticated…

That said, temperature control during fermentation is still done in remarkable ways in some parts of the world. In the Alentejo in Portugal there are still producers that use huge clay pots which they burry underground to keep the wine cool. In Canada some producers put tanks or bins on forklifts and move them outside at night to cool ferments down. And I’ve seen producers add large blocks of ice into a tank too – no names mentioned.

Of course temperature control has become such a critical metric in managing fermentations.

You can use cooling to cold soak must on arrival at the winery. You can keep ferments moving at a nice pace by preventing them from taking off and spiking in reds over 35 C which would likely result in a stuck fermentation. Of course in white wines it is even more important, especially for aromatic whites like Sauvignon Blanc done unoaked in tank. Cold temperatures can help preserve the vibrant youthful aromatics.

RIESLING – the best white grape in the world?

Riesling produces some of the most spectacular white wines in the world. If you want to see a wine lover get really excited then open up an old vintage Grand Cru Riesling from Alsace or a fine Mosel from Germany. In my opinion, drinking a top quality Riesling is one of the greatest experiences in wine. It’s heavenly.

Outstanding quality Riesling is a model of purity. The taste reflects the nature of vineyard where the grapes were grown. The fact that they are not aged in new oak enables the character of the grapes to shine, and in a fine Mosel you can taste some of the minerally nuances that come from the blue slate soils.

Very few other grapes show the complexity that you can find in Riesling and the depth and layers can be astonishing as they unfold on the nose and in your mouth. I’ve constantly got my nose hovering over the glass because there are so many lovely nuances to enjoy with each sniff.

Riesling also produces wines with incredible longevity, more than almost every other grape. In some of the cellars in Germany you’ll find stocks of wines going back over 100 years.

It’s with age that the wines really start to shine because it takes time for the complex nuances to evolve. With a few decades of maturity you can find a combination of elegance and power, delicacy and intensity, and a vast spectrum of flavors and nuances. And to cap it all off, Riesling refreshes the parts that other wines don’t reach.

So, where are the classic regions and what should you buy? If you like dry white wines then Alsace is the classic area for outstanding Riesling. It’s situated in north eastern France, just across the Rhine River from Germany. I love it here because there are so many small family-owned wineries that have been making stunning wines for hundreds of years. In fact, it’s my favorite region in the world for white wines, which include the fabulous Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminers.

The towns and villages can resemble something out of Hansel and Gretel. Think thatched roofs, cobblestone streets, small cozy restaurants, and everyone seems to know each other so there’s much kissing and a constant exchange of “bonjour” as the locals go about their business.

Alsace produces wines that are much fuller in body and higher in alcohol compared to the Mosel in Germany. This is largely thanks to the dry and sunny climate that is the result of the rain shadow effect of the Vosges Mountains, which are high enough to ski on. So most of the Rieslings are in the 12-14% alcohol range, are typically medium in body, dry, and have crisp acidity. The aromas and flavors can include a beautiful citrus and green apple note, with a hint of ripe peach, and a touch of the classic petrol aroma that develops with age. The top wines inevitably have a streak of minerality that’s to die for, and the length that can last for hours.

My favorite producers are Domaine Weinbach, Trimbach, Zind Humbrecht and Ostertag. But there are so many other excellent producers like the reasonably priced wines from the co-op Pfaffenheim. One of the tricks to buying good Riesling is to buy Grand Cru, which can retail for around $30 per bottle all the way up to $100+. And if you’re keen on specific recommendations then you can’t do much better than the Trimbach Cuvee Frederic Emile, the Weinbach Grand Cru Schlossberg, and if you are looking for rich, fat and powerful wines then Olivier Humbrecht is your man.

Alsace also produces a late-harvest style of Riesling called Vendange Tardive and, in exceptional years, a sweet botrytis effected wine called SGN, standing for Selection de Grains Nobles. One of the greatest bottles I ever had was from Domaine Ostertag, whose sweet wine showed sublime flavors of honey, pineapple and apricot with just the perfect amount of acidity to counter-balance the sweetness. That’s the art of achieving balance in sweet wines.    

Another classic Riesling producer is, of course, Germany, albeit in a totally different style. Most of the wines are sweeter, to one degree or another, and have less body, lower alcohol and more delicacy. That said, there is a strong movement towards dry wines, called Trocken, and so the old adage that German wines are sweet is no longer true. Regardless, they can age for decades, and once upon a time they were the most expensive white wines in the world.

My favorite region is the Mosel where the wines can be as low as 7.5% in alcohol, which means you get to enjoy more of them whilst still remaining coherent. What never ceases to amaze me is the steepness of the slopes in the Mosel, which are not far off being precipitous cliffs. The angle and aspect of the slopes is all important because you are so far north that ripening grapes can be a challenge. Exposure to the sun is critical here.

Buying wine from Germany can be a challenge because the labels have so much complex terminology on them. The key words that I always look for relate to the level of sweetness you will likely find in the wine, and that is determined by the so called Pradikat level. You see, German wines are classified according to the amount of sugar in the grape at harvest time.

If a producer picks some grapes earlier in the season, at lower sugar levels, the wine could be classed as a Kabinett, which is typically the driest of the Pradikat levels. If you leave the grapes on the vine for longer and pick later, when there is more sugar, the wine could be classified as a Spatlese which are usually a touch sweeter. Then comes Auslese which is generally a pretty sweet wine.

But there is a trend in Germany to produce drier wines and so you need to watch out for the word “trocken” on the label, which means dry. You see it is feasible to find some Auslese trocken wines, which means that the winemaker has picked the grapes at Auslese sweetness but then fermented it into a dry style. German wine labeling can be so complicated that you’ll need a glass or two just to recover from the brain strain.

And yes, there are other categories too, including an even sweeter Beerenauslese and then Trockenbeerenauslese, which are botrytis effected sweet wines. Icewine is also made in vintages when it gets colder than -8 degrees Celsius.

My favorite wineries are Dr. Loosen, Fritz Haag, JJ Prum, Dr Thanisch, Selbach Oster and Egon Muller. For a life altering experience try to get your hands on a Spatlese or Auslese with a few decades of age and feel the acidity dance across your tongue as the ripe stone fruit and honey flavors seduce you.

You can’t talk about Germany without mentioning the Rheingau, which is the other classic region for Riesling, and lies just outside Frankfurt. The Rheingau is home to some of the oldest and most famous wine growing estates in the world. Because it is a little warmer here the wines tend to have a touch more body and alcohol compared to the Mosel. One of my favorite places to visit is Schloss Johannisberg. They have a lovely restaurant where you can sit on the terrace and feast on asparagus, a specialty in Germany, and drink copious amounts of divine low alcohol Riesling.

Australia is another major player on the Riesling scene. The Clare and Eden valleys are the classic areas for high quality Rieslings. They are certainly in a very different style to the German wines in that they are very dry and often so sharply acidic that they can taste austere. But they can be excellent quality, with flavors of lime juice, a petrolly character, and a piercing acidity that certainly refreshes under the hot sun. Grosset, Yalumba, and Heggies all produce good wines.

Speaking of Canada, we do make some fantastic Riesling, especially in Ontario. Although it’s the preferred grape for icewine production, there are many versions in a dry to off dry style. I have always admired Cave Spring winery because they have this beautiful delicacy in their wines, and are often leaning closer to a Germanic style.  

Closer to home, I’m a huge fan of Tantalus winery out in the Okanagan. The vineyard is on the outskirts of Kelowna and was planted back in 1978. The only problem is that it seems to evaporate in the glass. I love the almost dry style, the racy acidity, and the combination of lime juice and stone fruit flavors. The label design is perfect for British Columbia, with depictions of the masks worn by the original native settlers.

So when it comes to Riesling I would buy the dry wines from Alsace and the sweeter wines from Germany. I would definitely try to find some older vintages and be on the look-out for Grand Cru designations on the labels. As an alternative, I might venture off to Australia or stay closer to home in Canada, just for a change of scene.

In terms of food and wine pairing the dry or off-dry wines can be delicious all by themselves, but usually pair well with seafood like scallops, prawns, crab cakes and white fish. When you find wines with a touch more sweetness then start thinking about spicy dishes such as many Asian foods, especially Thai dishes, because you need intensely flavored wines to stand up to the strong flavors of the food. All this is making me very hungry and thirsty.

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SUGGESTED FOOD AND WINE PAIRING

Style — Winery — Pairing

Dry Riesling — Tantalus Old Vines, Okanagan — Prawns, scallops, goat’s cheese

Off-dry Riesling — Selbach Oster Kabinett — Sushi, German sausages

Medium sweet — Dr Loosen Spatlese — Spicy Thai chicken curry

Sweet — Fritz Haag Auslese — Fresh fruit plate

Dry Riesling — Domaine Weinbach, Alsace — Munster cheese