These wine styles may be a slight departure from the breezy rosés and weightless whites of summer, but are just as drinkable in Hong Kong's warm autumn weather
With the arrival of September, we are now into that funny season when we begin to feel like unearthing the autumnal cashmere and dusting off leather boots, but the weather isn’t quite ready to cooperate. The temperature is still well into the thirties most days (at least here where I sit in Hong Kong) and any cool beverage we choose to take out with us for cocktail hour on the terrace is soon dripping with condensation (as, more often than not, are we).
There is, however, a certain something, perhaps in the quality of the light, that doesn’t quite jell with the breezy rosés and weightless whites of summer. Hence the turn to a category we’ll call “Change of Season” wines: the wine equivalent of shifting from frisée to roasted vegetable salads. A step up in heft, depth and seriousness but still airy enough to keep sipping well into the warmth of the night.
Where: Léon, northwestern Spain
What: Still red
Why: As is the case with so many of my Spanish favourites, the northwestern region of Bierzo (a mere stone’s throw from Galicia and Asturias, solid “Green Spain” country) is cooler and wetter than the harsher inland climes of central Spain. The wines are likewise a little “cooler” and more withholding. The region’s raw potential has also been teased out by the light touch of young(ish) dynamos like Raúl Pérez and Alvaro Palacios, who tend to keep their winemaking minimal (i.e. don’t expect a lot of new oak vanilla here).
Unlike most red wine in Spain, made from the ubiquitous tempranillo and garnacha grapes, Bierzo’s reds are based on the rather remarkable mencia, a grape once thought to be related to cabernet franc because of its bright red fruit with a refreshing hit of leafiness. Though the genetic link has been disproven, the analogy remains apt––much like its ostensible relative, mencia can deliver a range of styles from the silky and lyrical to the stolid, rustic and chunky. In the right hands, the grape’s combination of bright acidity and assertive tannins provides a tense, wiry frame on which to drape elegant folds of crimson cherry fruit and tonic herbal details with just enough body to carry you cheerily into the chillier months.
Which: Descendientes de J. Palacios Petalos, Raúl Pérez Ultreia de Valtuille, Losada Altos de Losada
2. Castel del Monte
Where: Puglia, Italy
What: Still red
Why: Far removed from Puglia’s tourist-friendly fishing villages of Polignano a Mare and other Instagram magnets, the distinctively octagonal Castel del Monte fortress is dense with Italian history. It was built in the 1240s by Emperor Frederick II, one of the great “could have been’s” of history, who many scholars believe was the sole figure between the fall of the western Roman empire in 476 and the reunification of Italy in 1861 who might have been able to successfully unite the peninsula. The hot, arid country surrounding this castle on a hill produces several wine styles, among which the Nero di Troia Riserva and Rosso Riserva (based principally on the nero di troia grape) are the most captivating.
Although virtually unknown outside of Italian wine circles, nero di troia is causing waves in Puglia for challenging the more famous primitivo (aka zinfandel). The fact is that it has been renowned for producing exceptional wines for cellaring since the 1950s, when Rivera’s icon wine Il Falcone was first recognised as a collectible (it was named for Frederick II’s passion for falconry). This thick skinned, heat resistant grape takes the punishing Puglian sun and turns it into something refined and majestic as Frederick’s hunting birds. Lithe and sinewy, and only 13% alcohol on average, consider picking one of these as a hugely affordable alternative to classic Claret.
Which: Rivera Il Falcone, Torrevento Bolonero
Where: Bordeaux, France
What: Still white
Why: Pessac Léognan, the filet mignon in the tenderloin that is Graves, the appropriately gravelly southern section of Bordeaux’s Left Bank, is legendary for dry white wines made from a blend of sauvignon blanc and sémillon. Very much unlike the juicy, playful image sauvignon has acquired in much of the new world, some of these wines rank among the world’s most prized (think Haut Brion Blanc, which retails for around US$1,000).
In the wake of a summer spent drinking less serious whites, it is always nice to have a reminder of why white wines can absolutely be the equal of reds when made with sufficient ambition. As the summer heat and humidity dissipate, we welcome the return of a little oak and waxiness on our white wines (available in spades courtesy of the sémillon) while the pungent greenery of sauvignon blanc in the blend feels a suitable nod to the persistence of tropical breezes. High end or less lofty, these wines deliver intensely pleasurable late summer drinking.
Which: Top choices: Domaine de Chevalier Blanc, Château Pape Clement Blanc; Affordable: Château Latour-Martillac Blanc, Château Carbonnieux Blanc
4. South African Chenin Blanc
Where: Western Cape, South Africa
What: Still white
Why: Chenin blanc is arguably one of the world’s most underrated great grapes, capable of producing wines that can evolve and improve for decades and decades. However, a challenge with many of the greatest expressions of this grape from its homeland in western France’s Loire Valley is that they tend to carry either a little or a lot of residual sugar, something I personally am not quite ready for until puffer coat season is well and truly upon us.
In fact, it is South Africa where the chenin blanc grape is most widely planted and the wines from here are typically dry and sometimes aged in oak (usually old but occasionally new). Though chenin was not always accorded much respect and was often used to fuel the production of jug wines and distillates, there have always been exceptions and today the efforts of the top producers are easily the equal of their old world counterparts. The most exciting examples are coming out of the previously overshadowed Swartland, where old chenin bush vines have inspired a new generation of winemakers to elevate this grape with bottles that intermingle stones with stone fruit and luscious texture with blazing acidity.
Which: Top choices: Sadie Family Palladius, Mullineux Granite Old Vines Chenin Blanc; Affordable: Mullineux Kloof Street Chenin Blanc or Spier 21 Gables Chenin Blanc
5. Georgian Rkatsiteli
Where: Kakheti, Georgia
What: Orange or “amber”
Why: Curiosity about the elusive category called orange wines has now spread from the most avant garde of wine circles to your dad’s wine club, unfortunately carrying with it a lot of misconceptions. What they are is wines made from white grapes in the manner of red wines i.e. fermented with the grape skins, releasing a lot more tannin and flavour from the skins than is typical for white wines. This produces savoury, structured wines that still have some of the fragrance and acidity typical of whites. What they are not is white wines aged in oxidative conditions for so long that they turn orange.
The Caucasian country of Georgia is considered the home of orange wines (actually referred to here as “amber” wines), but in fact most places once made white wines this way. The difference is that Georgia has maintained the tradition of fermenting amber wines in earthenware containers called qvevri (pronounced something like “KWEH-vree”), often buried underground, for approximately 8,000 years. Their most famous white grape, Rkatsiteli (“rrr-cat-see-TELL-ee”), often in combination with the more fragrant Mtsvane (“mmm-TSVA-nay”), produces wines with supple tannins and profound, orange inflected fruit, somewhere between dried apricots and preserved mandarin peel.
Which: Pheasant’s Tears Rkatsiteli, Askaneli Brothers Rkatsiteli Qvevri, Duruji Valley Tsinandali