Tuesday, 2 December 2014

My 100th Post - Wine Trade Masterclass with Olivier Humbrecht, Master of Wine, at Salt Tapas & Bar, Raffles City

It's taken me a rather long time, but after 34 months, I've finally reached my 100th post.  And it is fitting that I celebrate this milestone with one of the artisans who originally inspired this adventure, Olivier Humbrecht of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht.

Olivier Humbrecht, Master of Wine
This blogging caper began after a trip to French wine country in September 2011, when Emily, Liz and I made wine in Burgundy for a week, before heading to Alsace on the German border.  I made an appointment for a tasting at Olivier's Domaine Zind-Humbrecht during the harvest season, probably not the best timing in the world.  And surely enough, when the monolithic Olivier greeted us at reception, he said "I'm really busy, I'm sorry I will need to return to the cellars in an hour".  We then spent the next 2.5 hours together as he gave us a crash course in biodynamic winemaking and the myriad terroirs of Alsace.  And it was sometime during that conversation that I realised I had a story to tell, that there were so many stories that should be told more often and to wider audiences, and that I should be helping to celebrate these artisans who bring us so much joy.

I kept in touch with Olivier in the following years, and he introduced me to his new importer Boon Heng of Wein & Vin.  Which was probably a mistake on Olivier's part because Boon and I sent him a chaser email every 3 or so months pressuring him to visit Singapore.  In November 2014, he finally relented, making his first visit to Asia since April 2007.  We hosted a brunch for him at Cherry Garden (please pick up the January 2015 edition of Epicure magazine to read my account of the event), and Boon invited me to attend a trade tasting with Olivier at Salt Tapas & Bar two days later.  Free drinks, free nibbles and what would most likely be a very educational talk with one of my favourite winemakers - what was there not to like?


As things happen, a work meeting ran overtime so I sheepishly turned up about 25 minutes late and was sequestered into a dark corner of the room for my sins.  Leaving that aside for a minute, I'm not too much of a fan of trade tastings because the fundamental elements that make for a good tasting are quiet, good white lighting and clearly marked glasses and a decent space on which to place your glasses.  Putting up with the relentless jibber-jabber of the trade mafia usually takes care of the first element, while the folks at Salt let me down on the other two.

Olivier is one of the world's most high-profile biodynamic winemakers, and has presided over the biodynamic winegrowers' association Biodyvin since 2002.  Olivier tells a fascinating story of how he first started biodynamic practices.  His father Leonard was buying in treated compost for use in the vineyards.  "But the compost that you buy is heat-treated, it's dead", he told his father.  "We should be using compost that is active and alive".  So he went to the nearest poultry farm, bought a cartload of chicken ca-ca and dumped it in a corner of the property.  Months and months passed and it wouldn't compost.  Frustrated, he took a sample of the stubbornly stable sh!t to the local laboratory for testing.  The results astounded him.  "This manure will never compost because it contains too many antibiotics (from the chickens)", the lab told Olivier.  Bear that in mind the next time you buy an industrially-raised bird from a supermarket.

Bearing that in mind, Olivier then went to purchase some manure from an organic chicken farm, which composted beautifully.  He returned to the farm to speak to its owner, who told Olivier that he had implemented biodynamic practices at his farm.  Olivier was determined to learn more about this regime, and it was not long before he realised its benefits for the ecosystem of his vineyards.

The key goal in his winemaking is the pursuit of physiological ripeness.  "A lot of people think ripeness is just about sugar ripeness", he says, which is not unreasonable perhaps in a cold climate.  "Sugar is just about sunlight, water and chlorophyll.  If you add enough of those, you will get sugar ripeness.  That does not mean you will get a good wine.  Physiological ripeness is about the maturity of the seeds, the skins".

A scientist by inclination, he loves to dissect popular perceptions about wine, with an economy of simple words.  One of the best lines he came up with today related to the "drinking red wine for health" myth.  "The key antioxidants in red wine are phenols.  But if you re drinking red wine just for phenols, you should drink Gewurztraminer, or maybe even Riesling.  Gewurztraminer has just as high phenol content as red Burgundy".  He stops, then quips: "If you don't like red wine but are just drinking it for phenols, you would be better off chewing on a piece of wood!"

Olivier was here to showcase his most recent releases imported into Singapore.  I am reluctant to provide any long tasting notes because I know from personal experience that Olivier's wines often require some 4-5 years before they show at their best.  I know this provides little comfort to the trade guys and their restaurant wine lists which emphasise wines for immediate consumption, but Olivier's wines, true vins de garde, reward cellaring and patience.  That having been said, the following are the wines which caught my eye (or should that be palate?) and which I would certainly consider putting some money down for.

1.  2011 Muscat - Very prominent nose of freshly ground white pepper, with a surprising hint of mango on the palate and some slightly green honeydew.

2.  2011 Riesling Grand Cru Brand - A lovely Brand nose of white flowers and honey, but scorchingly dry on the palate.  Olivier assigns an "Indice" number to his table wines based on their sweetness impression on the palate, with 1 being dry and 5 being sweet.  This is definitely an Indice 1, and requires at least three more years to unravel its tightly wound core of minerals and lemon.

3.  2012 Pinot Gris Calcaire - From the yellow limestone of the Heimbourg. Limestone is apparently the best soil for Pinot Gris, which loves warm soil.  Typical varietal character of stone fruits with a very clean acidity and long finish.

4.  2012 Pinot Gris Grand Cru Rangen de Thann Clos St Urbain - I love Rangen wines because they have that distinctive nose of gunpowder, smoke and spice.  Lots of lemon rind here on the nose as well, but it finished round, sweet and rich.

5.  Gewurztraminers - There is a very clear hierarchy here.  The 2012 basic Gewurz was the only wine in the entire line-up that disappointed.  I got a peppery nose, green asparagus and a bitter finish.  My preference for Gewurz is for a little residual sugar to balance out the higher tannin (the smaller Gewurz berries have a higher ratio of skin to flesh and pip), and at under 2.7g/L RS, this one really falls on the wrong side of the ledger.

But invest a few more dollars and you can get the 2011 Gewurz Turckheim.  This one's on the other end of the spectrum, with lots of sweetness and ripe tropical fruits.  It maintains its balance, although not as well as the 2011 Gewurz Clos Windsbuhl (right), from Zind-Humbrecht's monopole vineyard.  While sweet on the palate, it has less residual sugar, but more alcoholic body and more acidity on the palate.  It also has more of a spicy character than the straightforward, fruity Turckheim.  It is a travesty that the Clos Windsbuhl was not given a cru classification when quite a few dodgy vineyards were given  grand cru for political reasons.  I hope that as and when the premier cru classification is introduced in Alsace, this injustice will be, to some extent, rectified.

None of Olivier's brilliant late-harvest wines were showcased this afternoon, and it is perhaps an acknowledgment that the market here is not particularly receptive to sweet wines, especially when they are not cheap.  I must say, though, that Olivier's late-harvest wines, the vendanges tardives (literally "late-harvest") and Selections de Grains Nobles (literally "selections of botrytised berries") are stonkingly, absolutely bloody brilliant.  I know that Wein & Vin recently brought in some SGNs from the remarkable 2008 vintage (I know because bought a case of them!) and I would strongly suggest that you drop them a line to enquire about availability (+65 6777 9123 or info@weinvin.com).

Salt Tapas put up some nibbles to absorb the alcohol.  It seems to me that so many tapas joints here have basically given up on the good and the fresh, and are going down the route of the deep-fried, the slow-roasted, the slow-cooked, particularly when it comes to vegetable elements.  And that includes the various tapas bars who associate themselves with Michelin-starred restaurants and chefs.  I don't know whether this is because Singapore does not have its own primary producers and therefore cannot showcase a wonderfully good, crunchy, tart vegetable as an element in a dish, but it all generally ends up being a procession of caramelly, gooey, crunchy bites.  Frankly, that bores me.

Roasted Garlic Flat Bread ($8++)

Beef Pastrami, German Salami and Prosciutto (roughly $13++ per item)

Tempura Prawn Taco, Pineapple Salsa and Chipotle Aioli ($14++ for a small platter)

Jamon and Manchego Croquette, Basil Mayo ($14++)

Platter of Goat Cheese, Manchego and Roquefort ($18++)

A pungent young goat cheese on the left, manchego in the centre and Roquefort on the right.  Decent,  but we were very surprised that cheese arrived so early, given we had literally had only a few bites to eat.

Patatas Bravas ($12++)

The potatoes were too soft in this dish, with not very convincing caramelisation on the outside.  This resulted in a very monotonous texture.

Salt and Pepper Squid, Lime Mayo ($23++)

Tender but greasy.  A good sponge for alcohol, but not much else in it.


Let us not forget, however, that this day belongs to Olivier Humbrecht.  The man is a genius, a savant and generally a very nice guy.  Personally, I have learnt much more from him about winemaking in three sessions than I have from anywhere else.  His passion is infectious, and if anyone is ever in danger of falling out of love with wine and gastronomy, a personal tasting with Olivier may well be a panacea for their ills.

And as for you, dear readers, thank you sooooo much for bearing with me over the last three years.  "Julian's Eating" is never going to be one of Singapore's most read food blogs, whether because (a) I don't post nearly enough; (b) I don't chase after content and only write what I feel is worthy of being featured; and (c) my own failings, of which there are many.  But this blog has far more regular readers and followers today than I ever hoped to have had when I first started, and for that I am immensely grateful.

When I first entered the blogosphere, one of the initial joys was the freedom to publish my thoughts, unedited and uncensored.  As time went on, I realised the true value of blogging is in the community we find, and the friendships we make.  For that as well, I am truly thankful.  I hope you will continue on this little gastronomic adventure with me, and please always feel free to leave your thoughts and comments after each post.


  1. Hi Julian , congratulations on your 100th post ! It has been a great pleasure reading your blog - it is always informative and thoughtfully written (even chicken s**t sounds interesting now) ... you have to keep up the good work and save us from the likes of this http://www.ladyironchef.com/2014/12/beginners-wine-terms-glossary/#more-44198 ....

    Merry Xmas and Happy New Year !

  2. Hi cyberK13

    Thank you, and thanks very much for reading. It is always a pleasure to hear from you.

    I just looked at the link to ladyironchef and well...I was always told that if you don't have anything nice to say, you shouldn't say anything. I will take that advice here!

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and yours also!