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Jefford on Monday: Delicacy in the East

Impressive, beautiful and disconcerting: that’s Hong Kong. I made my first visit for the Decanter Asia Wine Awards a few weeks ago. Seven million people squeeze on to just 25 per cent of the region’s 1,092 square kilometers of intractable granite and rhyolitic lava, which demands impressive civil engineering. The other 800 sq km soars upwards vertiginously, and is a jungle kingdom administered by a panoply of luscious insects and intriguing snakes: a beautiful contrast.

That epic population density, though, felt disconcerting to someone brought up in the spacious somnolence of Britain’s East Anglia. In Cyberport, the organizing team had managed, against the odds, to find a calm, light, un-frantic tasting space well below cloud level: perfect for chasing exquisite scent and flavour, while the only objects hurrying by outside were whale-like container ships.

Any conclusions based on our debut year have to be provisional, but the Asian palates I was lucky enough to taste with struck me as being different in two important respects to the European palates with whom I help judge the Decanter World Wine Awards.  

They are less ready than European tasters (and much less ready than Australian tasters) to dispatch a wines as an aesthetic failure, or to describe any perceived shortcomings as a fault. As a mentor, I was more than happy with this open-mindedness and receptiveness. One of the biggest difficulties with tasting a large number of wines in a day is that aesthetic norms imperceptibly narrow as the day proceeds; it’s easy for tasters to become, if you like, over-focused and almost rut-bound in the hunt for a certain sort of excellence. Perhaps it was a relatively unfamiliarity with some of the wines submitted, perhaps it was the diversity of what we were tasting, or perhaps it was a studious respectfulness, but on almost every panel there was someone to defend a quieter quality in a wine, or to stand up for a singularity.  

This, I think, reflects most wine-drinking (as opposed to ‘tasting’) experience: we all look for something to like in a wine we’ve bought, rather than rushing to criticize it. This meant that fewer wines were defenestrated than in London: 84.4% received awards compared to 70.1% in this year’s DWWA, with a rise of almost 40% in the number of bronzes (though as co-chair Steven Spurrier points out here that might also have been because fewer ‘everyday’ wines were entered than in the UK).

The tasters I worked with, too, seemed to value harmony, compositional qualities and balance more than gum-grabbing concentration, power and thrust. No ‘big beast’ could be sure of a gold in HK. Some well-crafted examples, of course, did make it through (including a Hentley Farm Barossa wine actually called ‘The Beast’), but the list of wines winning either Gold Awards or Gold Awards and Regional Trophies contains many wines of subtlety and understatement (such as the Olmaia Cabernet from Col d’Orcia in Tuscany; at least three 2007 red Bordeaux wines including La Chapelle de Bages from Haut-Bages-Libéral; a delicate 2009 Barbaresco Palazzina from Montaribaldi; Santa Carolina’s classical 2010 Reserva de la Famiglia Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2009 Peccavi Chardonnay from Margaret River, as well as a handful of deserving Pinots and Rieslings).  

My own discovery of the show were some of the beguiling white wines from Georgia which were entered, and which were pure pleasure to taste and to judge. These aren’t big beasts at all; indeed the Trophy-winning blend of Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane (the 2010 Tsinandali from Wine Man in Kakheti) measured up at just 12.5%, as did the hauntingly fragrant 2011 Mstvane from Khareba in the same region, which also took gold. Three separate red Saperavi wines made it through to Silver Award level (including the 2010 from Wine Man), and yet another gracefully floral, mineral white from a fourth indigenous variety, Krakhuna, took another Silver back home (the 2011 from Khareba). Singular, yes, yet complex and compelling, too: these wines made me want to jump on the next flight to Tbilisi. Well done to our panelists for sniffing them out.

There was some speculation beforehand as to whether the national origin of judges would affect taste, but this seemed immaterial: I couldn’t assign any particular flavour preconceptions to, say Indian judges in contrast to Korean or Chinese judges. Perhaps inevitably in this first year, the commitment to back a gold from the moment of tasting was something which many of our tasters felt shy about – until, that is, it came to fine sweet wines. Then our panelists expressed a roar of approval. No wonder Bernard Magrez has just acquired his third Sauternes château (Clos Haut-Peyraguey). Sweet-wine exporters, go east.    

Written by Andrew Jefford

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