The New Wine Philosophy During Lockdown
There’s a cardboard crate of wine sitting near my desk that feels, in the context of our Covid-19-fixated world, like a relic from a bygone era. “Don’t get off the couch,” it urges in a large, friendly voice. “It’s wine o’clock.” It seems to harken back to a time when a spell on the couch with a glass sounded like a tempting indulgence, rather than the only option after yet another set of plans got Covid-cancelled.
Indeed, who among us has not logged more couch time than we ever thought possible? In this work-from-home, learn-from-home, play-from-home era, it’s certainly understandable to seek a little escapism through wine, which, with its inextricable link to its place of origin, can transport us to remote places and eras, at least in our minds.
However, there’s a fine line between an escape hatch and a black hole. I’m often reminded of a joke from the beloved series Modern Family when the frazzled mother, Claire Dunphy, reminisces fondly about trips to “wine country”, which, it emerges, is code for lying on the trampoline drinking chardonnay. These days, we’re all like Claire, and it doesn’t always feel particularly funny.
The sneaky problem is that the pandemic has changed the complexion of enjoying responsibly. Overindulgence is easy without the sticker shock of restaurant mark-ups, no friends to judge you or even the need to remain sober enough to drive home. Virtual cocktail hours across different time zones have eroded our sense of what is an appropriate hour for a drink and, with the boom in e-commerce, wine can be summoned home with less effort than ever before.
You might think the industry would be delighted by these developments, but many of us are a bit disturbed by the nature of this consumption boom. The sad truth is that the wine world has seen the rich get richer and the marginalised fade further into the margins: wines with established brand identities and acknowledged appeal have flourished, while small producers from lesser-known regions with lesser-known varieties have been decimated.
Many prominent wine industry voices have come out in support of the motto “less but better.
The movement was under way pre-pandemic, but has since become more urgent. I would add it’s well overdue from environmental, health and economic sustainability standpoints as well. Really good wine is not cheap to produce and we should be thinking twice before shipping anything less than that around the planet in heavy glass bottles.
To be clear, I am not suggesting everyone drink Domaine de la Romanée-Conti every night or that consumption should be an exclusively elitist pursuit. This is not about choosing wines that are arbitrarily more expensive for packaging or marketing reasons, but wines made with a greater degree of care. In fact, my recommendations in this pursuit include not only some moderately high-end bottles, but also many that are as accessibly priced as those you might find in any grocery store (just not as good as these). The hope is that the carrot of a more fulfilling, even transporting experience combined with the stick of a higher price will encourage us to treat wine as one of life’s little moments of grace: a means to connect with the world around us rather than blur it out. So, if you’d like to support businesses that make wine with a higher purpose, here are some ideas:
Better Basic: Bisol Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze DOCG
Bisol is specifically linked to the steep, relatively cool area of Valdobbiadene that is associated with Prosecco Superiore, where the style is fresher, more refined and less tutti-frutti. Cartizze, the area’s “grand cru” site, is ultra-steep and sun-kissed, giving a rich, golden-fruited expression.
Branching Out: Quartz Reef Blanc de Blancs 2013
Although the stylistic gulf between Prosecco and “traditional method” sparkling wine is vast (the former is re-fermented in large, cool tanks for a clean, fruity effect; the latter in bottles so it can pick up toasty flavours from the dead yeast), the added gloss of fruit in many new world traditional method wines helps them straddle categories. This biodynamic Central Otago sparkler is piercingly fresh and bright but with gregarious citrus fruit to pad out its toast and iodine.
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Better Basic: Domaines Ott By Ott Côtes de Provence Rosé 2019
Because so much rosé is drunk by the bucketful in beautiful places, the temptation for many producers is to turn out insipid bottles that mightn’t sell but for their alluring pinkness. Though always subtle, Provençal rosé at its best is lightly perfumed, with alcohol kept in check by purifying acidity. Ott’s rosé is more than just a pretty face, with a pleasing slipperiness, wafting peach, fennel and pink grapefruit and star-bright acidity.
Branching Out: Chateau Musar Rosé 2016
For a characteristically idiosyncratic spin on pink, Lebanon’s Musar produces a rosé inspired not by Provence but by Champagne, a favourite of the larger-than-life and much-missed late proprietor Serge Hochar. Native grapes obeidah and merwah provide a pillowy base, with cinsault for colour and oak for invigorating spice and texture. You’ll find notes of lemon peel, toasted almonds, stewed pears and dried peaches.
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3/9 Sauvignon Blanc
Better Basic: Churton Marlborough Best End Sauvignon Blanc 2018
Though harvesting by hand doesn’t always make a discernible difference, research suggests Marlborough sauvignon’s most pungent tropical notes arise from machine harvesting, while Churton’s hand-picked wines have always struck me as especially restrained and polished. This one is made, logically enough, from the best end of Churton’s sauvignon block and delivers grassy olive oil with a green plum mid-palate and bracing brushstrokes of acidity.
Branching Out: Accendo Cellars Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2017
Though Napa is typically considered red wine country, its single most expensive offering happens to be a sauvignon blanc—Screaming Eagle, at about HK$35,000 a bottle. If you want to learn what the fuss is about for far less, try the Accendo from the Araujo family. A luxuriant creature indeed, it has a beeswax, starfruit and acacia honey nose, and slips into the mouth like a bite of yellow-plum pâte de fruits.
4/9 Pinot Grigio
Better Basic: Eisacktaler Kellerei Aristos Pinot Grigio 2018
In Italy, two regions known for their pinot grigio ambitions are Alto Adige and Friuli Venezia Giulia. The former also has rock-star co-operatives, and the Eisacktaler Kellerei, also known as Cantina Valle Isarco, makes a very smart pinot grigio, Aristos, at an almost indecently affordable price—about HK$250 a bottle. Halfway to an Alsatian pinot gris, but without detectable sweetness (no point swapping alcohol for sugar), this has a rather austere pear and road-gravel nose, and a commanding weight in the mouth.
Branching Out: Domaine Sigalas Santorini Assyrtiko 2019
Pinot grigio’s trade is in subtlety, and Mediterranean countries like Greece, Spain and Italy are masters of understated complexity in whites. Santorini’s assyrtiko, grown overlooking azure waters in crouching, nest-like vines that protect the grapes from wind and sun, is a pinnacle of the style. Sigalas starts with preserved lemons and sea rushes, adding layers of wild fennel, iodine and citrus that coat the palate and linger ineffably with a parting sting of acid and salt.
Better Basic: Oakridge 864 Drive Block Funder & Diamond Vineyard Chardonnay 2014
Oakridge was among the first flinty “new wave” Aussie chardonnays that I fell in love with. This 2014 reflects how well those wines have evolved compared to their oaky, buttery predecessors. Just starting to develop some sweet spice notes on top of its yuzu, white blossom and nettles, this has retained a lifting hint of matchstick and a spear of acidity through its middle.
Branching Out: Tyrrell’s Wines Vat 1 Semillon 2005
If you love a tight and austere wine that grows toasty and seductive with time, sémillon may make you forget chardonnay for good. Virtually mute and rippingly acidic when first made, Vat 1 reliably develops an almost baroque profusion of Meyer lemon, verbena, lanolin, spark plug, hay and oyster shell notes. Plus, as it’s a mere 11.2 per cent alcohol by volume, you needn’t feel guilty if you drink more than one glass.
6/9 Pinot Noir
Better Basic: Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2018
Virtually every wine-producing country with any ambition seems intent on crafting pinots in a “Burgundian” style, but few have the confidence to go their own way. Hamilton Russell’s delights with a sleek outer coating of fresh strawberries and pomegranate seeds, all glistening with acid, and a firm pine and cedarwood core.
Branching Out: Passopisciaro Contrada R 2011
Much as I bristle at all the chatter about Etna as the “Burgundy of Italy”—why can’t it just be the Etna of Italy?—I’ll happily recommend Etna to Burgundy lovers because they too appreciate subtle differences between sites and translucent, palate glazing reds.
This decade-old, single-contrada bottling smells the way you imagine lava might—broodingly smoky, bubbling with life force—and continues with an ethereal, fragrant bath of herbs, dried berries and wilted flowers.
Better Basic: John Duval Entity Shiraz 2018
As a multi-decade veteran of Penfolds and mentee of Grange creator Max Schubert, Duval knows his way around a shiraz vine. Bold, black and beautiful as Barossa shiraz should be, this wine nevertheless has a restraint that many point-chasing producers lost sight of years ago. Full and compact at the same time, its boysenberries and beach plums are held in check by a finely built structure, ready to ooze out gradually over the years.
Branching Out: Quinta Vale D Maria CV 2008
There is a definite sympathy between the Barossa and Portugal’s Douro Valley, and lovers of the former will find much to love in the latter. What Portuguese wines lack in raw hedonism they give back in complexity and unexpected grace notes. A blast of black plum, dried leather and smudge sticks gives way to redder fruit on the mid-palate, enlivened with anise and spice, then tannins that are unexpectedly soft and woolly.
Better Basic: Sociando Mallet 2015
A true standout from the Haut Médoc, this erstwhile Cru Bourgeois is said by most of those in the know to be a classed growth in all but name. Though these wines notoriously crave extended time in bottle, I would argue 2015 is reaching a happy place right about now—beautifully red-fruited and bright in bearing, its earthiness is being shed and the tannins dismantled to just the right degree.
Branching Out: Flor de Pingus 2015
In this era of ever riper Bordeaux, where any trace of green seems but a distant memory, I find much from the region to be more akin to Ribera del Duero than the dainty clarets of yesteryear. With that in mind, I’d steer Bordeaux lovers towards this second wine from Peter Sisseck’s Pingus for something smoky, fine and cedary with almost brackish black fruit, but without a trace of fat.
Better Basic: Riecine “Riecine” 2014
Whatever the true origin of the name may be—there are many theories, one of which is that it derives from “Sanguis Jovis” or “blood of Jove”—for me, authentic sangiovese must remind the drinker ever so slightly of blood. Nervy, high-altitude Riecine from Gaiole in Chianti Classico achieves this goal admirably with 100 per cent sangiovese. With an almost granita-like texture, with crystals melting into cabochons, droplets deliver blood orange, sage, iron and redcurrants, and pure, acid-driven luminosity.
Branching Out: Mastroberardino Taurasi Radici Riserva 2014
Never as translucent as sangiovese, nor as heady as nebbiolo or nerello mascalese, aglianico’s claim to its seat as one of Italy’s greatest red grapes rests on its savoury, almost taciturn bent. Mastroberardino’s iconic version brings to mind tobacco-saturated leather club chairs and tar smoke, with delightful fresh blackberries mingled with dried cherries on the palate. Upright and linear, it has the sharp tailoring of a perfect Neapolitan suit.
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