Wine lover chases the obscure grape
Jean-Charles Viens is on a lifelong search for obscure varieties and unknown vineyards, writes Mischa Moselle
Next week, Jean-Charles Viens is taking his final master of wine exam in Sydney. Then he's planning a holiday in Bali. Nothing remarkable about the latter until you discover the aim of the break is to visit another winery.
While some of us may be willing to venture across Hong Kong to find a new wine, Viens has been as far as an oasis in the Namibian desert.
Originally from Montreal, Canada, Viens is a wine teacher, founder of wine school Grande Passione, head of the Hong Kong Wine Century Club and has a day job heading a company trading bicycles. The wine club is open to anyone who has tasted 100 or more different grape varieties. In its seven years of existence in Hong Kong it has recruited 25 members, two have tasted 300 or more grapes varieties and four have tasted more than 200 (including Viens himself and co-founder, sommelier and wine writer Nellie Ming Lee).
Drinkers hoping to join the Century Club are allowed to drink blends as well as single variety wines. Viens' motivation lies in finding well-made wines as much as name dropping obscure grape varieties - that Namibian vineyard Neuras, irrigated by three underground springs and cooled by breezes from the Atlantic, turns out to produce a perfectly respectable cabernet sauvignon and merlot blend.
Viens, who is 45 and has been in Hong Kong for 20 years, also says he has noticed increased curiosity from students.
In a recent class on Italian sparkling wine he found the students were familiar with franciacorta and prosecco but had not heard of lambrusco. As with other previously unknown grape varieties, this created a stir in his classroom, provoking questions about origins and availability. Student demand has led him to expand his original four unit class to 27 units.
The 50 or so wine lovers who turn out to Century Club events - also open to those yet to hit the magic 100 - seem equally eager to try something new. Luckily for them this desire coincides with some other wine trends. In France, growers are making wine from obscure grape varieties, sometimes as a hobby but sometimes to promote what they feel to be neglected grapes.
French wine growers and makers are also increasingly turning to natural winemaking, which often involves rejecting modern farming methods or machinery such as tractors and using horses instead. This conservatism can also lead to cultivating grape types that have long been out of fashion.
Adrien May Para of natural wine shop La Cabane lacabane.hk explains that consumer wine preferences have also changed. Fruitiness used to be a hallmark of quality, but drinkers now prefer drier wines. One victim of that change in fashion is the pineau d'aunis grape that used to be widely planted along France's Loire valley. The variety, which may date back to the ninth century, is now only grown at a third of the level of its heyday in the 1950s.
The grape produces very fruity red wines that are quite light in alcohol - the Domaine de Montrieux Coteaux du Vendomois is an excellent summer afternoon quaffer and retails at HK$220. The rustic wine from Domaine de Montrieux, Verre des Poetes, comes from 120 year old vines and sells for HK$250. The wine has strong acidity but is balanced with fruit. "It's super pure, that's what I like," says May Para.
Winemaker Christophe Reynouard, owner of Domaine du Grangeon, makes a wide range of wines in his Ardeche vineyards in the Rhone valley. These include wines from chardonnay, viognier, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and gamay. Both gamay and viognier are dried in the Vin de Paille style - on straw - to intensify their flavours and aromas.
A self-confessed wine geek, Reynouard makes a sweet red wine to please his wife, who he met when she was playing volleyball and he was coaching the opposing team.
Reynouard's most unusual wine is made from a grape called chatus. He is one of three makers of the wine, which is believed to have been first grown in France more than 2,000 years ago. His vines are up to 127 years old and the wines have a great ageing potential. They are powerful - they can be opened for three days before drinking says Reynouard, adding that they become "fruitier and more intense with the oxygen".
The grape is unusual in producing a very large leaf. The resulting shade given to the fruit as it ripens explains the wine's tannins. Reynouard recommends drinking the wine with bitter foods such as red Thai Penang curried lamb, rabbit, eggplant and oxtail. The bitterness makes the tannic wine sweeter The 2010 vintage is available from Cottage Vineyards (cottagevineyards. com) at HK$338 a bottle.
"It is powerful in the mouth and likes to compete with food."
Arbane is one of seven legally allowed grape varieties used to make champagne and makes a rich, gastronomic wine, but you are unlikely to have spotted it on a label as only a handful of growers farm the grape and only one house, Moutard Pere et Fils, makes a 100 per cent arbane champagne.
Of the mere two hectares of land devoted to the grape, 0.26 of a hectare belongs to Moutard, split between vines planted in 1952 and in 1990. The grape was very popular in the 19th century, and is used to give Blanc de Blanc chardonnay champagnes freshness and a more delicate bubble. Winery owner Francois Moutard began making the single variety Cepage Arbane Vieilles Vignes Blanc de Blancs in 1990 as "an homage to my ancestors". One Red Dot Wines onereddot.com is the Hong Kong distributor but be patient if you want some. Total production is between 1,000 and 1,500 bottles a year and the city is allocated 20 per cent of that. The company had only three bottles of the 2007 left at the time of writing, priced at HK$780 a bottle, so next year's allocation may be a more realistic bet.
While grape variety and terroir form part of the legal definition of a sparkling wine such as champagne, Viens also warns not to forget the role of the winemaker.
"I see wine very much as a work of craftsmanship, made by an artisan. He or she can make something beautiful from all this raw material."
The next Hong Kong Century Club event will be in September, at a date to be confirmed. Viens and co-organiser Nellie Ming Lee hope to organise an evening of 100 grapes. More details will be posted as available at winecentury.com or contact the club on hkwinecenturyclub@ grandepassione.com
Some off-the-beaten-track recommendations for HK$200 or less
Domaine Wardy Sauvignon Blanc 2012 HK$200
Pale straw colour with plenty of tropical fruit on the nose. Refreshing with prominent acidity - there's a hint of lime but melon is predominant. Makes a great aperitif.
Rosé du Printemps 2012 HK$200
This blend of syrah and grenache is salmon pink. It's quite earthy for a rosé and also develops some complexity in the glass. Available from Vino Esotico and City'super from June 21. vino-esotico.com
Benedek Cserszegi Fuszeres 2011 HK$118
A very pale yellow with hints of gold, this was initially very citric on the nose and had a strong lemon flavour. Sampling the same bottle a day later and a little warmer, the wine was more complex and very refreshing. Available from veritas-wine.com