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October 2015

Reviews Wines

The Many Faces of Syrah

Côte Rôtie Vineyard

In 2007, to the horror of my Burgundian winemaking buddies, I left Beaune and moved to the Rhône Valley. They couldn’t believe that I would forsake noble Pinot Noir for brash, in-your-face Grenache and Syrah.

I went down south for the weather to work for an amazing company, Gabriel Meffre, that makes not only lush Grenache-led southern Rhône wines but also elegant, powerful northern Rhône Syrah. The move was a fortuitous one as it was there that I met my husband, an oenologist with an unabiding love for Syrah. Together we travelled throughout the northern and southern Rhône tasting Syrah on its own or in blends. And I began to understand his enthusiasm.

Syrah is an intriguiging grape.  In the northern Rhône it is peppery, with violet and cassis notes and a dry, almost austere character.  In warmer climates, it transforms into a lush, almost hedonistic wine with sweet black fruit, chocolate and spiced notes. Either way, Syrah is bold.  It is not a subtle, wallflower of a grape.  It is an attention grabber.  Perhaps not the wine you want with salmon on a hot summer night, but as we shuffle (reluctantly) into icy winter Syrah is a great choice.  Especially when you consider the 14% + alcohol on many of the hot climate “Shiraz” labelled versions.

Syrah is bold.  It is not a subtle, wallflower of a grape.  It is an attention grabber.

If you can overlook the grey, chilly weather, the northern Rhône is an incredible vineyard to visit. In Côte Rôtie, vines are planted on slopes so steep they make you dizzy just looking at them. Côte Rôtie is about as far north as the Syrah grape can grow. It only thrives here because the best slopes are oriented south-east, hence the name which means “roasted slope”. This mix between cool climate and intense summer sunshine gives incredible complexity to the wines. They are both elegant and powerful; with pretty floral aromas and big, meaty flavours. Further south, the vineyards of Hermitage and Cornas also make top class Syrah, but that is a blog for another day. Hugging the famous hill of Hermitage and spanning outwards north, east and south, is the largest vineyard of the northern Rhône: Crozes-Hermitage. Wines from the northern part of the appellation, grown on granite, make richer, more complex wines while wines from the flatter, clay-dominant valley floor sites in the south tend to be simpler. Broadly speaking, Crozes-Hermitage is characterized by bright, red fruit, spice and earthy, herbacious notes. It is lively on the palate, with tart fruit; softer and less structured than the more illustrious villages, but generally offering good value.

While Syrah has a long and storied history in the northern Rhône, it is a pretty recent grape for Chile. Most plantings date only as far back as the 1990s. Despite this, Chilean Syrah has gained the attention of critics world-wide for its high quality and diversity of styles. Chile’s vineyards stretch almost 1300km from the hot, dry north to the cool, wet south, hemmed in by the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the Andes Mountains to the east. Cooling ocean currents and high altitude plantings give bright acidity that lifts the rich, fruit-driven flavours. If you’ve read my blog posting “The Death of Joy” you’ll know that I am not fond of comparisons, but if pressed I’d say that the up-and-coming cooler climates of Elqui and Limari give a slightly more tart, Old World style (with fuller, riper fruit) and more southerly regions like Colchagua and Maipo give more powerful, lush New World type examples with firm, but rounder tannins and higher intensity of sweet fruit.

The alternate name for Syrah, Shiraz, immediately brings Australia to mind. When I first started buying my own wine (rather than swiping bottles from my dad’s cellar), big, jammy, oaky Australian Shiraz was everywhere.  Often bearing labels with cuddly koalas, or hopping kangaroos or some other such furry creature. Just like all fads, the wine world seems to have done a total 360°and now detests these wines, sadly causing Australian wine sales to plummet in many countries. This is unfortunate, as more balanced, nuanced Shiraz abound from excellent producers, with great examples as reasonably priced as 15$ – 20$. South Australia is prime Shiraz territory. The Barossa Valley produces big, bold wines, with dark chocolate and black fruit aromas. The coastal McLaren Vale region gives more mellow, velvetty Shiraz with red fruit, spice and peppery notes.  The better wines from both regions have fresh acidity, poise and firm, but ripe tannins.

For the purposes of this initial overview tasting, I chose examples from the following producers: (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).

Laurent Combier “Cap Nord” Crozes-Hermitage 2011 – 90pts. PW

The “Cap Nord” cuvée from excellent producer Laurent Combier showcases vineyard parcels from the Northern Crozes-Hermitage villages of Gervans and Serves. Restrained aromas of tart red fruits, pepper and smoky notes. The palate is vibrant; medium bodied with a smooth tannic structure and subtly savoury notes through the medium length finish. 

Where to Buy: This cuvée is not available, but the classic 2014 Laurent Combier Crozes-Hermitage sells at the SAQ (27.15$)

Viñya Chocalan “Reserva” Maipo Valley Syrah 2013 – 86pts. VW

Chocalan is the local name for the yellow flower that grow wild in the Maipo Valley. Heady aromas of sweet spice, cassis liqueur, licorice and violets. The acidity, while fresh, doesn’t quite counter-balance the big, creamy core, high levels of toasty, vanilla scented oak and hot, 14.5% alcohol.

Where to Buy: LCBO (15.95$), SAQ (20.30$)

Yalumba “Patchwork” Barossa Shiraz 2011 – 88pts. PW

Yalumba makes consistently high quality wines at all price points. The “Patchwork” cuvée from Barossa is full-bodied with a firm structure and big, chunky tannins. The nose offers an interesting mix of animal notes, dark chocolate, black fruits and menthol. Overly prominent oak and a touch of astringency knock this otherwise well-made wine down a peg for me.

Where to Buy: LCBO (23.95$)

D’Arenberg “The Footbolt” McLaren Vale Shiraz 2012 – 89pts. PW

D’Arenberg is a go-to producer for fun, gluggable wines from the McLaren Vale. “The Footbolt” features a pretty, perfumed nose with sweet blueberry and cherry notes, violets, mixed spice and cedar. Lively and fullbodied, with a taut structure, smooth, subtle oak and chewy tannins. Represents good value for the price.

Where to Buy: LCBO (21.95$), SAQ (21.95$)

Patrick Jasmin Côte Rôtie 2010 – 91pts. LW

Four generations of the Jasmin family have farmed this tiny, high quality 5 hectare estate. Big and brooding, with intense leather, barnyard, cassis and tobacco on the nose. Bracing acidity underscores the firmly textured, full-bodied red through the mid-palate. Well-integrated oak and firm, grippy tannins mark the finish. A linear, somewhat austere Côte Rôtie. Needs time in the cellar to unwind.

Where to Buy: Unfortunately not currently available in Ontario or Québec

Producers Reviews

Producer Profile – Maison Albert Bichot

Albert Bichot Vineyard Chablis

Big and beautiful. Albéric Bichot’s tireless quest for quality.

When I was novice wine student living in Burgundy, my viticulture professors (all local growers) insisted that serious wines could only come from small estates and never from the big, bad négociant firms.  To my teachers, wineries that produced large quantities and largely worked with grapes bought from other growers could never attain the same heights of elegance, aromatic complexity or precision as the small farmer working his own plot of land.  As time went on, I learnt that the lines were rather more blurry than I was led to believe.  First of all, many large Burgundian négociants have significant vineyard holdings, and a growing number of small domaines are starting to buy in additional fruit to grow their sales.  Secondly, quality-oriented négociants are so meticulous in their choice of grower partners and the winemaking techniques employed that exceptional wines are regularly being made by wineries with little or no vineyards.  Lastly, many small growers make poor wines.  Good things, it would seem, do not always come in small packages.

This subject came to mind after a tasting I attended last week with the charming Albéric Bichot. The very definition of this hybrid of grower/ négociant, Maison Albert Bichot owns a whopping 100 hectares of vines. Their estates are spread out across the entire region, from Chablis, to Nuits-St-Georges, to Pommard and Mercurey. They also buy significant quantities from growers to meet the demands of their large clientèle world-wide.  I asked Albéric what he thought about this rivalry between small growers and big négociant firms, and he responded with a wry smile and a typically Gallic shrug.  His philosophy is simple: make the best wines possible, and let the quality speak for itself.

His philosophy is simple: make the best wines possible, and let the quality speak for itself.

Albéric took up the reins of the (then) 165 year-old family firm in 1996. Before settling down to the business of managing such a vast empire, it is said that Albéric was a great adventurer, travelling through the wilds of northern Canada and Patagonia.  He dreamed of being an astronaut so the stories go. But after just 5 minutes of hearing him talk about his vines, it is obvious that he is where he is meant to be.  Over the past 20 years, he has worked tirelessly to raise the image of Maison Bichot.  The vineyards are all sustainably or organically farmed, the yields have been sharply reduced and the majority of sourced fruit is now purchased as grapes rather than finished wine. A spokesman for Burgundy in their successful bid to obtain UNESCO world heritage status for their 1247 climats (vineyard parcels), Albéric is passionate about crafting wines that express their terroir and vintage.

The proof is definitely in the glass.  We tasted through a selection of mainly 2012 Chablis and Côte d’Or wines. “Une grande année” (an excellent vintage) according to Albéric, with fantastic ageing potential. The wines were consistently pleasant throughout, showing vibrant fruit, lifted acidity and smooth textures. Stand outs in terms of value and quality included the following:

Maison Bichot “Secret de famille” Chardonnay 2012 – 90pts. PW

Albéric kindly shared the family secret here, which is that the grapes are sourced from just outside the boundaries of top Côte d’Or villages and vinified with all the care given to the crus.  An intriguing nose of spiced apricot with undertones of licorice and subtle minerality. Lifted acidity gives way to a medium bodied, smooth textured mid-palate with a soft, toasty oak finish.  Great value.

Where to Buy: Coming in 2016 to an SAQ near you… (23.95$)

Maison Bichot Chablis 2012 – 87pts PW

Bright lemony fruit. Lively and refreshing with nice depth of flavour through the mid-palate and a lifted, mineral finish.  Fairly simple on the nose, but still very enjoyable for a week day wine.

Where to Buy: SAQ (22.40$)

Domaine Long-Depaguit Chablis Grand Cru “Les Clos” 2010 – 92pts. LW

This 63 hectare estate covers 10% of the total surface areas of Grand Cru vineyards in Chablis. The 2010 “Les Clos” is redolent with sweet, baked apricots, honey, lemon and subtle floral and mineral notes.  Searing acidity leads into a richly textured, juicy core followed by a lingering, toasted finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ Signature (68.00$)

Maison Bichot “Secret de famille” Pinot Noir 2012 – 90pts. PW

As per the white, the red “Secret de Famille” cuvée is a serious step up from your average AOC Bourgogne.  Seductive aromas of strawberry, cherry and violets are underscored by a pleasing earthiness. The tart acidity is balanced by a plush texture, smooth oak and firm, dusty tannins. Like the white, excellent for the price.

Where to Buy: SAQ (22.00$)

Maison Bichot Vosne-Romanée 2012 – 89pts. LW

Slightly closed on the nose, showing black and red berry fruit, rose petals, earthy notes and subtle spice upon aeration. Bracing acidity, showing power and concentration, with firm, ripe tannins and measured use of oak.  A little austere at present. Good potential, needs time to unwind.

Where to Buy: SAQ (67.25$)

Domaine du Clos Frantin Gevrey Chambertin “Les Murots ” 2012 – 93pts. LW

The star of the tasting! This high quality 13-hectare estate counts 8-hectares of Grand and Premier Cru vineyards. Rustic and earthy on the nose, with mixed red berries, soft floral notes and lots of minerality.  This wine really comes alive on the palate with vibrant acidity, bold fruit flavours, a silky texture and pronounced yet smooth tannins. Drinking well now, but will definitely improve with age.

Where to Buy: SAQ (65.25$)

Life

Uninspiring

SAQ Selection Rhône

I buy a lot of wine. A LOT. At the more affordable end of the spectrum, the LCBO tends to beat the SAQ in pricing so I do some shopping there whenever possible. But as I live in Montréal, the majority of my wine is bought at the SAQ. Also, they have a far superior range of French wines (surprise, surprise). So I was very much looking forward to the launch of the SAQ’s new loyality card “Inspire”. Visions of huge cost savings danced in my head. And then, finally, the big day came! I could sign up for my card. I raced to the SAQ website where a big INSPIRE banner ad informed me that “it would be crazy to miss out”. They didn’t have to tell me twice. I am not crazy! So I clicked on the link to find out that I will get a…wait for it…1$ rebate every time I spend 200$. Wow.

Here is the deal as I have understood it: for every 1$ spent, the SAQ awards you 5 points. Once you have accumulated 1000 points, you get a 1$ credit on your card. Granted, this is just the regular, every day deal and does not account for promotions whereby, for limited periods, you can get double points or more if you purchase certain, specified items. A glass half full, we-have-no-other-choice-but-to-shop-at-the-SAQ-so-just-need-to-take-what-we-can-get, type of person would surely tell me to stop complaining. Until now there wasn’t any sort of reward system for spending lots of dough at the liquor store. Comparatively, this is not bad.

So, while I am a little disappointed, I will acquiesce for now and hope that the “Inspire” program does finally live up to its promise. And, to be fair, the cost savings aspect is only one part of the overall concept. Using your card at purchase will allow the SAQ to catalogue your buying patterns and offer you personalized wine suggestions. They also plan to offer contests, events, workshops and all sorts of other fun stuff. I suppose, if I were a gracious sort of person, I would say that this sounds alright. But my stubborn side still thinks that 200$ for a 1$ discount seems a little uninspiring.

Reviews Wines

There’s Something About Merlot

Comparative Merlot Tasting

Merlot was a favourite, in many countries, for many years.  There is really little not to love about it.  A common description would read: red berry and plum aromas, moderate acidity, smooth texture and soft tannins.  Sounds good, right? Then, in 2004, an Indie film about a (fairly annoying) anxiety-ridden wine snob who detests Merlot and lives for Pinot Noir hit the big screen.  The movie was called “Sideways”.  Since then Merlot sales have plummeted in North America while Pinot Noir has gone through the roof. It seemed like a fad at first, but 11 years later it is (sadly) still cool to say that you don’t drink Merlot.  This drives me crazy. I would like to take all the haters out there and make them blind taste a whole slew of Merlots…from Bordeaux, from California, from Chile.  I am convinced that they would change their tune after a couple of sips.

Merlot does not simply boil down to fruity, round and easy-drinking. The grape is planted around the world, from Bordeaux to Chile to California and beyond. It is the most planted red grape in France. Depending on where it is grown, the care taken in the vineyard and the vinification techniques employed, the wine can be very different.  In cooler climates like the right bank of Bordeaux, Merlot takes on earthy aromas, has fresh acidity, a weightier structure and more firm tannins.  It is often mistaken for Cabernet Sauvignon, though generally has riper fruit aromas and a fleshier, broader mid-palate. In warm climates, such as the Napa Valley, Sonoma or Paso Robles in California, Merlot is more voluptuous with rich, fruit flavours, a velvetty texture and soft tannins.  It is a grape that can handle oak (in measured doses); taking on a richer texture, more firm but well-rounded tannins.

Most people consider Cabernet Sauvignon to be the major grape of Bordeaux, but there is actually significantly more Merlot planted.  On the left bank, Merlot is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon to act as “the flesh on Cabernet Sauvignon’s bones”. On the right bank, Merlot is the dominant player, usually with Cabernet Franc (Merlot’s father) in the supporting role.  The clay and limestone-rich soils of Pomerol and St. Emilion are what Merlot loves.  Pomerol is the smallest appellation in Bordeaux, with only 800 hectares under vine.  It is also home to the most sought-after, expensive Châteaux.  Its best wines are described as powerful, opulent, and even decadent. St. Emilion is one of the largest wine producing regions of Bordeaux. There is a diverse array of soil types, and consequently, a wide range of wine styles from elegant and light, to richer and more concentrated. Beautiful minerality is a feature of top St. Emilion estates planted on the limestone slopes.

Merlot is the third most planted red variety in Chile.  The Colchagua Valley, the South-Western half of the Rapel Valley region, is gaining increasing attention for the high quality of its Merlot. Cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean temper the warm Mediterranean climate and give the wines elegance, vibrant acidity and bright, red fruit flavours.  Apalta, which stands for “poor soils” in the local dialect, is one of the best vineyards in the area.  The low fertility soils force the vine roots to dig deep and produce wines with excellent depth of flavour and good tannic structure.

Despite waning interest for the grape, there are still substantial Merlot plantings throughout California.  In the Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon generally gets pride of place on the slopes. Merlot is often planted on the hot valley floor, where its intense red berry and plum aromatics, and smooth texture, make it the perfect blending partner to soften Cabernet lead blends.  There are however a number of serious producers making excellent Merlot dominant wines, with lush, hedonistic profiles.

For the purposes of this initial overview tasting, I chose examples from the following producers (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).

Casa Lapostolle “Canto de Apalta” Rapel Valley 2011 – 90pts. PW

Unfortunately it was impossible to find anything other than very entry level Chilean Merlot at our dear liquor boards (sigh…), so I had to settle for this blend.  Though settle is a poor word, as it is lovely. Inviting black cherry, cassis, menthol and spiced aromas, very fresh on the palate with a full, velvetty frame, marked but balanced oak and alcohol.  Only moderate length and complexity, but worth the price.

Grapes: Merlot, Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah

Where to Buy: SAQ (22.25$)

Château Yon Figeac St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé 2011 – 89pts. PW

This sustainably farmed estate is hailed for its consistent quality even in mediocre vintages such as 2011. Restrained notes of tobacco, cedar, red berries and kirsch on the nose. Dry, medium-bodied though somewhat lean in structure with fine grained tannins, subtle oak and an attractive tobacco dominant finish.

Grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Franc

Where to Buy: Not currently available in Québec or Ontario

Château le Caillou Pomerol 2009 – 88pts. LW

Situated on the iron-rich clay soils of the plateau of Pomerol, this tiny 7 hectare estate is organically farmed. Understated yet complex palate of aromas including animal notes, plum, red berries, menthol and cedar. Vibrant acidity, full-bodied with moderate alcohol, firm but ripe tannins and well integrated oak.  Lacking some richness and fruit expression considering the vintage.

Grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Franc

Where to Buy: LCBO (52.95$), SAQ – 2010 vintage (43.00$)

Sterling Vineryards Napa Valley Merlot 2012 – 92pts. PW

Merlot is grown here on the valley floor, on deep rooting, volcanic stone soils.  Heady aromas of sweet cherry, baked plum, eucalyptus and floral notes.  Smooth, full bodied and velvetty, with toasty oak and a sweet, red berry finish.  Big and bold, with just enough acidity to maintain good balance.

Grapes: Merlot

Where to Buy: LCBO (24.95$)