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THE ENCHANTING WINES OF ALSACE

NIEDERMORSCHWIHR - ALSACE
Photo credit: www.vinsalsace.com

Have you ever seen one of those magical store window displays before Christmas, where all the brightly coloured houses look straight out of a fairytale? Cobblestone streets wind this way and that, and rolling hills surround the quaint little village. A gentle dusting of snow clings to the rooftops. Pressing your nose up against the glass, you wish you could step into the enchanting tableau.

Well you can.

Just head to Alsace and wander down the streets of any number of the charming towns, like Eguisheim or Riquewihr. You may find yourself half expecting to see Hansel and Gretel pop out of a doorway, fleeing from the witch’s oven.

While pretty gingerbread houses might be all the incentive you need to make the trip, there are a number of other attractive features to this historic region of northeast France. The one that interests me most, of course, is the wine.

While pretty gingerbread houses might be all the incentive you need to make the trip, there are a number of other attractive features to this historic region of northeast France.

Winemaking has a long and storied past in Alsace. Wild grapes have grown in the area since long before man appeared on the scene. Evidence of cultivated vineyards and wine production date back to Roman times.

While it may seem surprising that viticulture was established so early in such a northerly location, the region is in fact ideally suited for grape growing. The Vosges mountains to the west act as a protective barrier, sheltering the area from prevailing rain-bearing winds. As a result, Alsace is actually one of the driest, sunniest parts of France. It is the smallest wine region of France, sandwiched between the Vosges and the Rhîne river to the east. The automn season is long and warm. This is perfect for the late ripening grape varieties that are so prized here.

The vineyards line the foothills of the Vosges at altitudes of 200 to 400 metres. The best sites are oriented south or southeast maximizing sun exposure.  The geology of the region is incredibly diverse, with rock formations spanning all periods from the primary to quaternary era. Soil composition also varies widely. According to experts, areas just 100 metres apart often have significant differences in soil makeup. Granite, chalk, marlstone, sandstone, loam, alluvial and even volcanic soils can be found here.

The geology of the region is incredibly diverse, with rock formations spanning all periods from the primary to quaternary era. Soil composition also varies widely.

This explains the wealth of grape varieties that grow so well here. While most other northern vineyards focus on just a handful of cool climate grapes, Alsace boasts a great number of single varieties and blended wines. The four most important of which, dubbed the “noble grapes” are: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Muscat. While white wines dominate, some very pleasant Pinot Noir is also made here, in an earthy, spiced, light-bodied style.

The appellation system of Alsace is quite straightforward. Still and sweet wines are either labelled Alsace AOC or Alsace Grand Cru AOC. There are currently 51 vineyards deemed to have superior terroir, meriting Grand Cru status. Only the noble grapes can be planted in these vineyards.

Alsace is also a well regarded producer of sparkling white wine, under the AOC Crémant d’Alsace. These bubblies are generally blends of several different white grape varieties, produced in much the same way as Champagne, though generally with a shorter ageing period. The wines are often quite fruity, medium bodied and rounded.

The wines showed incredible complexity, pure fruit flavours, attractive minerality and beautiful depth.

While exquisite Vendanges Tardives (late harvest) and Séléction de Grains Nobles (botrytised) dessert wines can be found here, the preconcieved notion that Alsatian wines are all sweet, is in fact wrong! The decision to ferment dry or leave some residual sugar tends to be based on grape, and on the producers individual style. Many winemakers have come up with sweetness scales on their back labels or started stating sec (dry) to indicate drier styles. The majority of the region’s most celebrated grape, Riesling, is made bone dry.

I had the great pleasure of attending a Vins d’Alsace tasting a couple of weeks back. The impression that remained after tasting through a wide range of wines, was one of outstanding value. When one ventures above the entry level offerings, into the 20$ to 50$ range, the wines showed incredible complexity, pure fruit flavours, attractive minerality and beautiful depth. The racy acidity of the Rieslings and firm structure guarantees long term ageing potential.

While 20$ plus might seem a little pricey for white wine, just consider that for comparable quality you would easily be paying double to triple for Burgundy, Bordeaux or premium New World whites.

Here are a few recommendations; wines that impressed me during the tasting.

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Photo credit: www.saq.com

What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out:

Domaine Barmès Buecher Crémant d’Alsace 2013 – 87pts. PW

Lively, attractive nose featuring hints of lemon verbena, citrus, green apple and a subtle leesy note. Crisp acidity gives way to sweet honeyed, floral notes on the broad palate. Firm, persistent bubbles abound. Brut dosage.

Where to buy: SAQ (26.35$)

Trimbach Riesling 2013 – 89pts. PW

Pale straw in colour. Somewhat restrained, with savoury, earthy notes lending complexity to green apple and lemon scented nose. Racy acidity thrills on the dry, light bodied palate, with bright juicy fruit bringing depth to the mid-palate. The moderately long finish offers stony minerality and bright, lemon flavours.

Where to buy: SAQ (23.75), LCBO (23.95$)

Josmeyer Riesling “Le Kottabe” 2013 – 92pts. PW

Pale straw in colour. Elegant aromas of red apple, grapefruit and white flowers, with underlying earthiness and stony minerality. Very clean and precise on the bone dry palate, with a rounded structure and high concentration of citrus and orchard fruits that lingers nicely. A touch of grapefruit zest brings an intriguing hint of bitterness to the finish, adding to its appeal for food pairings.

Where to buy: SAQ (31.75)

Domaine Ostertag Riesling “Heissenberg” 2014 – 92pts. PW

Pale gold in colour. Heady aromas of spice, yellow apples and pronounced minerality on the nose. The palate is rich, broad and rounded, with exceptional depth of vibrant stone fruit flavours. Just a touch of residual sugar brings balance to the fresh, lemony acidity. The finish is long and layered, with ever so slightly warming, 13.5% alcohol.

Where to buy: SAQ (44.25$)

Domaines Schlumberger Riesling Grand Cru “Saering” 2012 – 94pts. PW

This Grand Cru represents fantastic value! Intense, highly complex aromas of petrol, red apple, stony minerality and ripe apricots. Subtle spiced and floral notes develop upon aeration. Racy acidity is beautifully balanced by the rich, broad texture and bright, juicy fruit. The long finish is dry, with lingering stone fruits and mineral notes.

Where to buy: SAQ (33.00$)

Josmeyer “Mise de Printemps” Pinot Blanc 2015 – 90pts. PW

Pale lemon in colour. Fragrant aromas of white pear, melon, lemon curd and subtle floral notes feature on the nose. The medium weight palate is very fresh, rounded and easy drinking with bright, orchard fruit flavours. Quite dry, with a moderately long, fruity finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (22.90$)

Domaine Ostertag Pinot Gris “Barriques” 2013 – 89pts. PW

Pale gold, flecked with green. Somewhat restrained, yet complex smoky, mineral, earthy nose, with underlying green apple and grapefruit notes. The palate is clean, precise and light bodied with fresh acidity and moderate concentration of citrus and apples. Smoky notes linger on the moderately long finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (33.00$)

Preiss-Zimmer “Réserve Personnelle” Pinot Gris 2015 – 88pts. PW

Lively ripe pear, yellow apple and baking spice, with subtle smoky minerality. Medium bodied, with zesty acidity and juicy peach flavours. The mouthfeel is rich and smooth, with moderate viscosity. The balance between freshness and sweet finish is perfectly pitched.

Where to buy: SAQ (24.25$)

 

 

Education Reviews Wines

Acidity in Wine & Why it Matters

acidity in wine

What do experts mean when they praise acidity in wine? Critics regularly enthuse about the racy acid of a German Riesling or the lively, crisp nature of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Why is acidity so important in wine appreciation?

According to tasting expert Michael Schuster in his excellent, Essential Winetasting book: “Acidity shapes and puts into relief the flavours in wine”.  Consider a well-made Beaujolais or Burgundian Pinot Noir. The red berry and cherry notes seem to pop on the palate. This is due to the acidity in wine lifting and highlighting the fruit; giving it a juicy, tangy quality.

“Acidity shapes and puts into relief the flavours in wine”.

Acidity is a crucial factor in wine balance. Low acid wines – think cheap Viognier from a hot region – can feel flat and heavy. Sweeter wine styles lacking sufficient acidity are cloying. High alcohol wines, without freshness, appear almost thick on the palate and warming on the finish.

Balance is the ultimate gauge of wine quality. When all components that make up a wine’s character – its flavours, body, acidity, alcohol, dryness/sweetness, tannin, etc. – are in harmony, you may barely even perceive them individually. Rather, they coalesce to form a cohesive whole.

Acidity is a crucial factor in wine balance…though what constitutes balance is entirely personal…

What constitutes balance, when it comes to acidity in wine,  is entirely personal however. High acid white wines like Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc can appear pleasant to some, and aggressive to others. The combination of high acidity and a very dry palate (˂2 grams/litre of residual sugar) can appear particularly austere to many tasters. Residual sugar (occurring when fermentation is stopped before transforming all grape sugars into alcohol) can be a good thing for highly acidic wines, softening their sharp edges. It may surprise you how many notoriously high acid, seemingly dry wines are actually slightly sweet. Champagne, Riesling from multiple origins, and many New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc are just a few examples.

The capacity of a wine to age well is also greatly impacted by its acidity; notably when it comes to white wine. Acidity in wine acts like a preservative, significantly slowing down oxidation and playing a role in bacterial stability.

The capacity of a wine to age well is also greatly impacted by its acidity; notably when it comes to white wine.

It might be a little more apparent now why wine writers use so many terms to describe acidity in wine. In case you are wondering how to situate all of these weird and wonderful words on the scale of low to high acidity, I tend to use the following lexicon:

Low acidity: soft, lush, flabby, thick, heavy

Medium acidity: moderate, round

Medium + acidity: fresh, bright, lively, vibrant, brisk

High acidity: crisp, zesty, zippy, racy, bracing, piercing, laser-like, tangy, mouthwatering, steely, firm

Overly high acidity: sharp, jagged, tart, hard, malic, sour

Here is a selection of pleasingly balanced medium + to high acid wines that I have enjoyed recently:

(What do VW, PW, LW mean? Check out my wine scoring system to find out.)

Man Vintners Chenin Blanc Free-run Steen 2017, Western Cape, South Africa – 88pts VW

Attractive notes of yellow fruit are underscored by steely, mineral hints on the nose. Zesty acidity is matched by a taut structure and vibrant, ripe lemon flavours on this light bodied, unoaked Chenin Blanc. Clean and citrussy on the finish. For more on the Chenin Blanc grape, click here.

Where to buy: SAQ (17.05$)

Paco & Lola Albarino 2017, Rias Baixas, Spain – 89pts. VW

Not as exuberantly fruit forward as certain Albariños, but very pleasant all the same. Bright floral aromas mingle with candied white fruits (apple, pear, peach). Light in body, this crisp, yet rounded easy-drinking white features tangy orchard fruit flavours and saline hints on the finish. For more on the Spanish grape: Albariño click here and scroll down to the 4th paragraph (on Galicia).

Where to buy: SAQ (18.20$), LCBO (19.95$)

Domaine des Fines Caillottes Pouilly Fumé 2017, Loire Valley, France – 91pts. PW

I liked this so much in a recent blind tasting that I immediately went out to buy another bottle. Drinking very well now despite its youthful vigour, this aromatic Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc is brimming with gooseberry, tropical fruit, and grapefruit notes. Upon aeration herbaceous nuances and hints of oyster shell develop. Bracing acidity is ably balanced by the medium body and expansive palate structure. Bone-dry and unoaked, with a long, lively finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (26.40$)

Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Turkheim 2016, Alsace, France – 93pts. PW

Fantastic value for the price. Intensely fragrant and complex, with spicy aromas (cinnamon, clove, and star anise) overlaying yellow fruits, white flowers, and wet stone nuances. The medium bodied, earthy palate is lifted by pure, racy acidity and a steely structure. Mineral hints and bright yellow fruis linger on the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (27.10$)

Oremus “Mandolas” 2016, Tokaj, Hungary – 92pts. PW

This wine is made from the Furmint grape in the Tokaj region of Hungary, better known for their sweet, botrytised Tokaji wines. An incredibly stylish wine with intriguing hints of fennel, anise, and lemon on the nose. Crisp and highly textural on the palate, with medium body and a concentrated core of lemon, quince and orchard fruit. An attractive touch of phenolic bitterness frames the long finish nicely.

Where to buy: SAQ (30.25$)

Bret Brothers Mâcon-Villages “Cuvée Ephémère” 2016, Burgundy, France – 93pts. PW

I have yet to be disappointed by a wine from this producer. This lovely Mâcon is no exception. Lovely honeysuckle, yellow peach, and stony mineral notes feature on the nose. The palate is brisk, full-bodied and richly textured with good depth of flavour (yellow apple, peach, mango hints). The fruit is tangy and bright on the long, mineral-laced finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (35.50$)

Château Thivin Côte de Brouilly Cuvée Les Sept Vignes 2016, Beaujolais, France – 91pts PW

I tasted this first at the domaine earlier this summer, and subsequently bought a bottle upon returning home. Firstly, because it was so good. Secondly, because it was the same price at the cellar door and here! This wonderfully lively red features brisk acidity, and juicy red berry, cherry, violet, and spiced flavours. It is medium bodied, with earthy hints from ageing in oak oak foudres, and lovely, velvety tannins. Serve slightly chilled.

Where to buy: SAQ (24.55$)

Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva 2014, Tuscany, Italy – 92pts. PW

I tasted a series of Chianti from this producer recently, including an exquisite 2013 ‘Vignetto Il Poggio” that was pretty darn near perfection in my humble opinion. Sadly, the 99$ price of this wine is a little out of my reach…sigh. For less than half that price, this Chianti Classico Riserva is really fantastic. Enticing aromas of sweet, stewed tomatoes, red cherry, dried herbs, and potpourri feature on the nose. Very fresh on the palate, with a lovely chalky texture, medium body, and spicy, cedar hints. The tannins are still a little firm. Cellar for 2 – 3 years, or serve with red meat to soften the tannins.

Where to buy: SAQ (35.25$), inquire with agent about the “Il Poggio” 2013: Elixirs Vins & Spiritueux 

Reviews Wines

The unique, ageworthy wines of Amarone

amarone wine
Photo credit: Tedeschi Wines

With so much cross over nowadays, in terms of viticultural and winemaking techniques, it is getting harder and harder to find unique wine styles. Burgundian look-a-like Chardonnay is cropping up through-out Australia. German Rieslings are getting drier and more alcoholic, especially in the warmer sub-zones, making them harder to differentiate from Alsace.

To make matters worse (from the point of view of a Masters of Wine student), popular grape varieties – think Syrah or Sauvignon Blanc – are being planted all around the world. Deducing the origin of a wine in a blindtasting scenario has never been so complicated.

So when you (the wine student) are handed a glass of inky, dense, full-bodied red wine, with a heady fragrance of stewed black fruits, figs, kirsch, peonies, and spice, you find yourself smiling. For Amarone is truly a wine apart.

A dense, full-bodied red wine, with a heady fragrance of stewed black fruits, figs, kirsch, peonies, and spice.

Hailing from the Valpolicella region of Northeast Italy, Amarone is a very specific wine style. It is made from the same indigenous grapes as Valpolicella, but from the best vineyard sites featuring mature vines and lower yields. Harvested at optimal ripeness, the grapes are then left to shrivel in warm, ventilated drying lofts for several months. For more information on this special process, called appassimento, click here to read my article “Valpolicella 101”.

Once the grapes are deemed sufficiently raisined, they are lightly crushed and then macerated at cool temperatures for an extended period prior to fermentation. This “cold soak” process allows good colour and aromatic development without excessive tannin extraction. A long, relatively cool fermentation follows bringing the wines to near dryness, with warming alcohol levels, regularly surpassing 15%.

Amarone is a very specific wine style…from the best Valpolicella vineyard sites featuring mature vines and lower yields.

An extended ageing period follows in small barrels or large oak casks whereby tannins mellow, wines harmonize, and aromatic complexity heightens. This is where “tertiary” aromas and flavours like fig, leather, or earthy notes originate.

On a grey, blustery day last month, I pulled the hood of my parka tightly about my face, and trudged through the snow to a very worthy event. The 13 Valpolicella estates that make up the Famiglie Storiche were in town presenting a vertical tasting of Amarone.

This group of prestigious, family-owned wineries share a passion for Amarone as a symbol of the Valpolicella territory. They hold themselves to a higher standard of quality than is required for the appellation.

The aim of the Famiglie Storiche estates is to show the world just how impressive Amarone can be when produced to the highest quality standards.

They believe that the finest, Amarone-worthy vineyards are situated on slopes. These hillside vines receive more direct sunlight, allowing for optimal ripening. Furthermore, these sites have shallow soils that limit vine vigour, lowering grape yields, and thus giving wines of greater concentration and intensity. Grapes are left to ripen to a minimum potential alcohol of 15%. The appassimento period is longer, and the minimum oak ageing duration is 36 months (vs. 24 months required for basic Amarone).

The aim of the Famiglie Storiche estates is to show the world just how impressive Amarone can be when produced to the highest quality standards. The Montréal tasting spanned vintages from 8 to 20 years-old, and ably proved how age-worthy fine Amarone can be.

The stand out wines of the tasting for me were the following. For the ultimate Amarone evening, scroll to the bottom for a great local recipe.

(What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out)

Torre d’Orti Amarone della Valpolicella 2010 – 92pts. LW

A modern, opulent style of Amarone with lavish new French oak nuances (cedar, sweet spice), and a dense, yet velvetty texture. Ultra-ripe dark cherry and plum fruit feature on the nose, underscored by notes of dark chocolate. Fresh, full-bodied, and moderately tannic, with well-integrated 15% alcohol. Hints of tobacco linger on the finish.

Where to buy: L’Enoteca di Moreno de Marchi (Québec)

Masi “Costasera” Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2007 – 94pts. LW

Classico is a term used in many Italian vineyards referring to the historic growing area of a region, from which the vineyards spread outwards. The Classico sub-zone is generally considered the “heart” of the appellation, often consisting of the best vineyard sites.

Masi’s dark, brooding Costasera 2007 is still incredibly youthful, featuring vibrant acidity and a tightly knit palate structure. Elegant, complex aromas of peony, rose, dark fruits, and cocoa delight on the nose. The mid-palate shows great depth of flavour, with meaty, savoury nuances adding interest. The tannins, while polished, are still quite firm. Needs a few more years cellaring to mellow and integrate further.

Where to buy: Authentic Wines & Spirits (national)

Musella Amarone della Valpolicella Riserva 2006 – 94pts. LW

Riserva refers to wines aged longer before bottling. The minimum duration for Riserva status is 4 years (vs. 2 years for basic Amarone).

Intense aromas of licorice, red cherry, blueberry, plum and dried fruit feature on the nose. The palate is highly concentrated, with a velvetty smooth texture, and perfectly balanced acidity. Very firm, grippy tannins frame the finish. This bold, weighty, warming red needs an equally hearty meal to do it justice.

Where to buy: Importation le Pot de Vin (Québec)

Tenuta Sant’Antonio “Campo dei Gigli” Amarone della Valpolicella 2004 – 90pts. LW

Intriguing aromas of prune, licorice, tobacco, and pepper gain in intensity upon aeration. Fresh, and full-bodied, with a moderately concentrated core of sweet dark fruit and savoury hints. Moderately firm, powdery tannins diffuse across the palate, framing the finish nicely. Drinking well now.

Where to buy: Mark Anthony Wines (national)

Tedeschi “Capitel Monte Olmi” Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2001 – 95pts LW

A massively structured red, with a dense, richly textured palate profile. Brimming with blueberry, cherry, fig, mocha, sweet spice, and tobacco notes, this is an incredibly complex, fragrant wine. The whopping 16% alcohol is seamlessly integrated, as are the firm, ripe tannins. Drinking well now, with the power and depth to hold for several years yet.

Where to buy: La Céleste Levure (Québec), Noble Estates (Ontario)

Speri “Vigneto Monte Sant-Urbano” Amarone della Valpolicella 1998 – 92pts. LW

Dried fruit, herbal notes, roasted nuts, and mineral nuances feature on the nose of this 20-year old beauty. Still very fresh, and firm on the palate, with a layered complexity of prune, leather, and tobacco flavours. Overall, a very harmonious, well integrated red with a powerful, concentrated nature, and lengthy finish. Drink now before freshness fades.

Where to buy: Lifford Wines (Ontario)

Pairing Suggestions

Amarone should be opened several hours before serving, and decanted if possible. I prefer it chilled down a couple of degrees. The alcohol can feel quite hot on the finish if served too warm.

While dining in the Valpolicella region a couple of years ago, I was served the most decadent meal, with a fine Amarone. It was a rich, savoury risotto, made by replacing the majority of broth with Amarone wine. It is absolutely delicious, but remember… a little goes a long way!

Click here for the recipe. Buon appetito!

Reviews Wines

WHAT TO DRINK THIS WEEK-END

Week-end wine recommendations
Photo credit: Maison Gabriel Meffre 

For your drinking pleasure on this chilly first week-end in December, I offer a mixed bag of under 20$* whites & reds! My apologies for the extended blogging hiatus…a gorgeous little baby named Charlie is my excuse. He has graciously agreed to start sleeping for more than 2 hours in a row, so I should be back to inundating the web with my wine musings shortly!

* Okay, I added one over 20$ red…but it is worth every single extra penny!

(What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out)

Laurus Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2015 – 93pts. VW

Viognier and Roussanne predominate in this highly textured, fragrant, full-bodied white. Aromas of white peach, yellow apple, ripe lemon and acacia feature on the nose. The medium weight palate offers a lovely freshness, concentrated stone fruit flavours and spicy oak nuances. The finish is long and layered.  This is an absolute steal at under 20$.

Where to buy: SAQ (19.95$), agent: Elixirs Vins & Spiritueux

Attems Pinot Grigio 2016, Venezia Giulia – 88pts. VW

This is a clear step up from the majority of thin, neutral Pinot Grigios flooding liquor store shelves these days.  Suprisingly fragrant, with yellow apple, quince and ripe lemon aromas. Crisp and dry on the palate, with a subtly creamy, layered texture, and interesting savoury nuances on the moderate length finish. Great apéritif wine.

Where to buy: SAQ (18.55$), agent: Mark Anthony Wine & Spirits

Gustave Lorentz “Réserve” Pinot Blanc 2016, Alsace – 89pts. VW

If you haven’t discovered the wines of Alsace yet, you are missing out! While not considered a “noble grape” in Alsace, well-made Pinot Blanc is often lively and rounded, with pretty orchard fruit aromatics, a subtle smokiness and an attractive, ever-so-slightly off-dry finish. Gustav Lorentz “Réserve” ticks all the boxes, with nice depth of ripe citrus and apple flavours on the smooth, medium weight palate. The finish is faintly honeyed, balancing the fresh acidity nicely.

Where to buy: LCBO (17.95$), agent: Amethyst Wines 

Casa Ferreirinha “Papa Figos” 2016, Douro – 89pts. VW

Inviting nose of ripe dark fruit and red cherries, with floral and spiced hints. Moderately firm on the palate, this medium bodied Douro blend displays lovely freshness, powdery tannins and a dry, lifted finish. A quarter of the blend is matured in used barrels, rounding out the structure and bringing a subtle earthiness to the mix. Fantastic value for this highly versatile, food friendly red!

Where to buy: SAQ (16.95$), agent: Authentic Wines & Spirits Quebec

Domaine Theulot-Juillot Mercurey Vieilles Vignes 2015 – 91pts. PW

If you love juicy, fragrant, silky textured red Burgundy (but have stopped buying them due to the scary prices these days) this wine is for you! The nose is subdued, with moderately complex earthy, red berry and tea leaf notes developping upon aeration. The palate, however, is wonderfully vibrant, brimming with tangy red fruit. Medium bodied, with well integrated spicy, toasty oak. Moderately firm, fine-grained tannins frame the dry, lengthy finish.

Where to buy: LCBO (26.95$)