All Posts By

Jacky Blisson

Life Reviews Wines


women in wine

The wine trade, like so many other industries, has long been a male dominated arena.

The Greeks banned women from attending their symposiums. It was at these marathon eating and wine drinking orgies that the great political and theological discussions of the day took place. Women were thought to become too easily intoxicated, and prone to immoral behaviour.

The sentiment was much the same in ancient Rome. Physicians recommended women be denied wine due to their weak and fickle nature. Until 194 BC, women caught drinking could be put to death, or divorced.

It was also widely believed that a woman’s monthly visitor could harm vineyards and cause wine to spoil. Pliny the Elder, celebrated Roman author and naturalist, wrote that: “contact with the monthly flux of women turns new wine sour, makes crops wither, kills grafts, dries seeds in gardens, causes the fruit of trees to fall off…”.

This superstition about menstruation and wine quality persisted in many winemaking regions until well into the 20th century. Women were regularly banned from French and German cellars for fear that the wine would turn to vinegar.

In the London wine trade of the 1950s, tastings regularly took place in gentlemen’s clubs and other men-only venues. It was thought that women would arrive perfumed, thus spoiling the wine’s bouquet, and prone to gossip, disrupting the seriousness of the matter at hand.

In the province of Manitoba, women weren’t allowed to sell or serve alcoholic beverages until 1975.  And until very recently, women in many wine regions struggled to find vineyard and cellar work. They were thought too physically weak for the lifting of heavy grape crates and wine barrels.

Historically, the few examples of powerful women in wine generally came from family-run ventures. Widowed wives or only childred were given the reins for lack of a male heir. And despite the achievements of such dynamos as the Veuve Clicquot, the role of women in the wine world remained marginal.

Ironically, multiple scientific trials have shown that women actually have keener senses of smell, logically making them better wine tasters! The studies prove that women of reproductive age are able to detect odorants at far lower concentrations than men (and pre-pubescent/ post-menepausal women). They also have a greater ability to improve their aromatic recall with repeated exposure . I definitely found this to be the case during my pregnancies. To read my article on tasting while pregnant, click here.

Fast forward to 2018, and the situation is (thankfully) much improved. Today, women viticulturists, winemakers, sommelières, wine experts and the like are far more common. In 2014 and 2015, more women than men were appointed Masters of Wine. Strong female figures in the wine industry à la Jancis Robinson, Laura Catena, or Pascaline Lepeltier are leading the charge.

While we may now have a strong, and growing presence, the battle for respect, and equality is far from won. Many women in wine still feel significant frustration with the on-going discrimination, and sexism in the industry.

A couple of years back, I attended a “chapitre” (dinner) of the Chevalier de Tastevin at the Clos de Vougeot in Burgundy. The male speakers made regular jokes about how hard it was to be heard because there were lots of women in the room, and of course, women can’t help but chatter. I happened to be pregnant at the time, and my waiter rudely refused to bring me a spittoon, asserting that I would be bothering my neighouring diners, and should just abstain. Faced with my insistence, he finally plonked a large plastic bucket down at my feet, his disapproval awash on his arrogant face.

So while I raise my glass to celebrate how far we have come, I also toast to the day where such pathetic and disrespectful situations are a thing of the past.

Without further ado, here are a list of delicious wines crafted by women, from a recent, themed tasting in Montréal.

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

Antech Cuvée Expression Crémant de Limoux 2015, France – 88pts. VW

Lively blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Mauzac. This fresh, medium bodied sparkling wine is brimming with attractive honey, ripe lemon, red apple and floral notes. Broad, rounded, and moderately creamy on the palate, this dry bubbly offers great value.

Where to Buy: SAQ ( 19$), AOC & Cie Château et Domaines

Conte Tasca d’Almerita Regaleali Bianco 2016, Sicily, Italy – 87pts. VW

This Sicilian blend of indigenous grapes Inzolia and Grecanico, is a great every day, pre-dinner white wine. Crisp, light-bodied, unoaked, and bone-dry, with zesty lemon flavours lifting the mid-palate. Subtle bitter almond notes linger on the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (15.75$), Authentic Wine & Spirits

Velenosi Vigna Solaria 2016, Marche, Italy – 89pts VW

Intriguing nose laden with aromas of fresh bread, ripe lemon, white flowers, and stony mineral hints. Fresh, creamy, and broad on the palate, with moderate concentration, and layers of honey and citrus on the long finish. Very attractive!

Where to buy: SAQ (17.55$), Montalvin

Domaine Claude Lafond “Le Clos des Messieurs” 2016, Reuilly, Loire Valley – 91pts. PW

Elegant aromas of gooseberry, nettles, and citrus, are underscored by hints of tropical fruit. Racy acidity on the attack is softened by the medium body, and concentrated core of juicy red apples and grapefruit.  Bone-dry, with a long, lifted finish. This is high quality Loire Sauvignon Blanc, at a very nice price!

Where to buy: SAQ (22.75$), Le Maître de Chai

Paul Jaboulet Ainé “Parallèle 45” 2015, Côtes du Rhône – 89pts. VW

Pretty black fruit and spiced notes on the nose. This easy-drinking, unoaked red is medium in body, smooth, and rounded. For just over 15$, you can’t go wrong.

Where to buy: SAQ (15.60$), LBV International

Château Puy Castéra 2012, Haut Médoc, Bordeaux – 87pts. PW

Restrained aromas of cassis and black cherry, with earthy, gamey undertones. Lively acidity gives way to a medium body, firm structure, and dry finish, with subtle cedar nuances. Slightly lean and linear on the mid-palate, but attractive nonetheless, with dark fruit and earthy flavours.

Where to buy: SAQ (24,15$), Sélections Oeno 

Duckhorn “Decoy” Pinot Noir 2015, Sonoma, California – 89pts. PW

Ripe red berries, red cherry, and brambly notes feature on the moderately intense nose. The palate is light in body, with modest freshness and a lovely silky texture. Juicy red fruit and candied black cherry flavours abound. Subtle oak spice is well integrated, however the 14% alcohol is a shade warming, and the firm tannins are just slightly astringent.

Where to buy: SAQ (31.00$), Amphora Vins Fins

Emiliana “Coyam”, Colchagua, Chile 2013 – 92pts. PW

This bold, deeply coloured red is a blend of Syrah, Carmenère, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvèdre, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Fragrant aromas of both fresh and jammy dark fruits mingle with hints of cedar and wild herbs on the expressive nose.  Full-bodied, smooth and velvetty on the palate, with vibrant acidity that lifts the concentrated core of sweet fruit nicely. Attractive oaked nuances of cedar, spice, and tobacco linger on the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (29.95$), LCC Vins & Spiritueux. LCBO (29.95$)

Quinta da Ponte Pedrinha Reserva 2014, Dâo, Portugal – 93pts. PW

Moderately concentrated, complex aromas of black cherry, blueberry, and dried flowers are underscored by earthy, spicy, mineral hints. Fresh, full-bodied, and firm in structure, this moderately tannic, dry red needs a couple hours of decanting to unwind. The freshness, depth of flavour, and powdery texture are all in perfect harmony here. Ageing in seasoned oak casks brings lovely earthy nuances that linger on the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (25.45$), Le Marchand de Vin

Château Jolys “Cuvée Jean” 2015, Jurancon, South-West France – 89pts PW

Intense aromas of lemon curd, quince, and baked red apple feature on the nose. Racy acidity ably balances the sweet finish on this medium bodied, zesty, honeyed dessert white wine. A perfect partner for lemon meringue pie!

Where to buy: SAQ (23.35$), Le Maître de Chai

Education Reviews Wines

The sparkling red wines of Lambrusco

Lambrusco sparkling red wine

Italy is the largest producer of sparkling wine on the planet. With its delicate bubbles, fruity personality, and affordable price, Prosecco has taken the world by storm. No longer reserved for special occasions, sparkling wine is now a popular after-work cocktail choice and brunch pairing.

But did you know that Italy also produces sparkling red wine?

And, did you also know that sparkling red wine is actually one of the oldest wine styles in existence? Some eperts claim that the Romans purposely left wine-filled amphorae in sunny spots to spur on a secondary fermentation, rendering still red wines slightly fizzy. Other historians claim that sweet, bubbly red wines were more often than not accidental, rather than a function of applied technique.

Whatever the historical methods, today’s version is definitely a deliberate, carefully crafted wine style. And it is called Lambrusco.

Forget any hazy notions you might have of Lambrusco as ultra-sweet, grape soda-pop wine. The better bottlings on the market today bear little ressemblence to this inglorious past. They remain vibrantly fruity – think tangy red berries and rhubarb – but are much drier, with intriguing earthy, savoury nuances, and an attractive bitter sensation on the finish. They are also quite light in alcohol; hovering around 11.5% for the most part.

Lambrusco hails from Emilia-Romagna. This verdant corner of northern Italy is one of the country’s heaviest culinary hitters. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar, spaghetti Bolognese, lasagna, prosciutto di Parma…these are just a handful of the region’s gastronomic treasures.

Confusingly, Lambrusco is both the name of the wine style, and the family of grapes from which it is produced. Over 60 different, related grapes exist in the Lambrusco family. They are all indigenous to the Emilia area, though they are planted more widely today.

Four of the best-quality Lambrusco grapes include:

  • Lambrusco Grasparossa (deep in colour, bold, fleshy, tannic)
  • Lambrusco Maestri (inky dark colour, intense, grapey perfume)
  • Lambrusco Salamino (deep purple colour, vibrant acidity, fruity, floral aromas, full-bodied)
  • Lambrusco di Sorbara (pale in colour, vibrant acidity, very fragrant, highly concentrated flavours)

Lambrusco wines are generally a blend of several Lambrusco grapes, as well as a small percentage (15% or less) of other local varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon is also a permitted, minor blending grape, bringing body and firmer structure to wines.

Styles range from secco (anywhere from bone-dry: 0g/L residual sugar, up to subtly fruity: 15g/L), semi-secco (off-dry: 12 – 32g/L), amabile (medium sweet: 30 – 50g/L RS), dolce (sweet: 45g/L +). If you like your bubbly dry, ask your friendly liquor store employee what the wine’s “residual sugar” is before purchasing. They usually have this kind of information on file. Residual sugar is a wine geek’s term for the sweetness level. Anything at 6g/L or less should appear quite dry, while the 6 – 12g/L range should still just give you a ripe, fruity finish rather than intense sweetness.

The majority of Lambrusco is made via tank fermentation. This process gives soft, gentle bubbles deemed “semi-sparkling” – or Frizzante in Italian. If you are curious to learn more about sparkling wine production methods (and who isn’t, really?), check out my “Bubbles” article here for more information.

Increasingly, Lambrusco producers are experimenting with other vinification techniques like the “metodo classico” (traditional method bottle fermentation, as in Champagne), and the “metodo ancestrale” (ancestral method, a variant on bottle fermentation). The former produces wines with much more vigourous mousse, and a creamy, layered quality on the palate. The latter is generally semi-sparkling, but with added nuance and textural appeal.

I was re-introduced to the exciting world of Lambrusco by the charming Scardova Ermes. As the export manager for leading Lambrusco producer Medici Ermete, Scardova travels the world singing the praises of his fine red bubblies.

Medici Ermete is a family-owned winery in Reggio Emilia, with over a century’s experience in crafting fine Lambrusco. They own 75 hectares of vineyards, and also source top quality grapes from long-standing grower partners. They receive regular accolades for their wines, including the top score of Tre Bicchieri in Italy’s famous Gambero Rosso wine publication, over 9 consecutive years, for their Concerto wine.

Scardova kindly sent me a range of wines to try. I roped in my esteemed sommelière friend Michelle Bouffard to taste with me. Here are our impressions:

Medici Ermete “Phermento” Lambrusco (metodo ancestrale)

Crafted from the pale, fragrant Lambrusco di Sobara grape, grown on top vineyard sites in the Modena area, this is a lovely apéritif wine. Vibrant aromas of rhubarb, wild strawberries, and herbal notes feature on the nose. The palate is crisp and lively, with delicate bubbles, and a very dry finish. The subtly creamy texture, and hints of baker’s yeast, give this pretty, pale pink bubbly additional appeal.

Medici Ermete “Concerto” DOC Reggiano Lambrusco 2016 – secco

A more robust offering, with a deep purple hue and medium body. Aromas of wild blueberry, candied cherry, and balsamic hints reveal themselves upon aeration. This fresh, delicately sparkling – secco style red- has soft tannins, and a bright, fruity finish (10g/L residual sugar).

Medici Ermete “I Quercioli” DOC Reggiano Lambrusco – secco

Made predominantly from a blend of Lambrusco Salamino and Lambrusco Marani grapes, this attractive red hails from one of Medici Ermete’s top estates, Tenuta Quercioli. Medium purple in colour, this weighty offering features elegant floral, crushed raspberry, dark berry, and herbal nuances on the nose. The palate is wonderfully textured, with lots of tangy berry fruit, and fine, subtly bitter tannins. Bright acidity ably balances the off-dry finish (14g/L).

Medici Ermete “I Quercioli” DOC Reggiano Lambrusco – dolce

Similar sourcing and blend as the previous wine, but crafted in a sweet style. Complex, earthy aromas abound, underscored by ripe plum, prune, balsamic notes, herbal nuances, and mulling spices. Rich and very smooth on the palate, the soft bubbles, and fresh acidity lift this dessert-style wine nicely. Savoury hints add interest on the finish, as do the mildly astringent tannins.

Serving Tips

These are wines to drink chilled. Medici Ermete suggests a serving temperature of 8 – 10°c. The mix of earthy, savoury notes, gentle tannins, and subtle fruity sweetness (for the secco wines) makes these semi-sparkling reds a fun pairing choice for a wide variety of dishes. Give them a try with a mixed plate of charcuterie and hard cheeses. Salut!

Where to buy

Unfortunately, good quality Lambrusco is hard to find on most liquor store shelves. Medici Ermete’s Concerto is available in Québec (17.70$) and BC (19.99$). To enquire about the other wines in their range, contact their regional agents: Italvine in Québec, Profile Wine Group in Ontario, Stile Brands in Western Canada,  Kobrand in the USA.


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!

Education Life Reviews

5 Amazing Italian Wines to Drink with Pizza

Wines to drink with Pizza

The version of pizza that we know (and love) today was invented in the late 18th century in Naples, when some GENIUS decided to add tomato sauce to focaccia. And we all lived happily every after.

The Margherita pizza was apparently named after the Italian Queen of the same name who, upon a royal visit to Naples in 1889, was served a pizza topped with chopped tomatoes, mozzarella, and fresh basil.

Italian immigrants brought their culinary treasure around the globe, and with it, a thirst for their brisk, savoury, dry red wines. For nothing pairs better with pizza than Italian wine! But with an estimated 2000 different grape varieties grown in this viticultural paradise, how do you choose what to drink on pizza night?

  1. Match like for like: if you are throwing a frozen pie in the oven, or ordering in from a large chain, don’t waste money on a fancy bottle. Pair to the level of complexity of the food. There are lots of great 15$ wines out there that will do the trick nicely.
  2. Acidic foods require crisp, lively wines: tomato sauce is high in acidity. A low acid wine (as can be the case with big, jammy, hot climate reds) will seem flabby in comparison, lacking vibrancy and brightness.
  3. Rich foods can be tempered by higher acid wines: melted cheese is delicious, but can be a little too heavy. Pairing cheesy pizza with crisp wines can cut through the fat, facilitating digestion. Just think how well lemon and butter compliment each other in seafood sauces.
  4. Avoid big, tannic reds, unless your pizza is loaded with meat: tannins create a sensation of dryness (or astringency) on the palate. When tannins are ripe, this feeling can be quite pleasant – ranging from subtle to pronounced (in fuller-bodied wines) – giving structure to wine. Big tannins, however, require meat. Tannin binds with the proteins in meat, intensifying its rich, savoury flavours, and softening the wine.
  5. Beware heavily oaked wines: wood, just like the skins and stalks of grapes, contains tannins. New oak barrels can impart tannin to wines, making them firmer and drier on the palate.

In honour of superbowl Sunday, the husband and I ordered a big, cheesy, all-dressed pizza (pepperoni, peppers, mushrooms and olives). We decided to try out our pizza and wine pairing theories with a little taste test. We lined up the usual suspects and gave them each a swirl.

Ranked in order from most to least favourite pairing, here’s what we thought:

Chianti Classico

Why we chose it: Chianti os often cited as the ultimate pizza wine. Made predominantly from the Sangiovese grape, from vineyards grown in a hilly region of Tuscany, Chianti wines tend to be quite brisk and very dry. Aromas and flavours are fairly earthy, with tart red fruit notes, and sometimes subtle vegetal notes (tomato leaf, dried herbs). Tannins are generally only moderately firm, and quite chalky in texture

What we thought: Classic food and wine pairings exist for a reason! Guillaume and I both declared this the clear winner. The acidity was perfectly pitched, cutting through the grease with ease. The fine tannins worked well with the pepperoni. Both wine and pizza tasted better when served together.

Handy tips: Chianti has a quality hierarchy that starts with basic Chianti (often light in body, very crisp, with marginally ripe fruit, and moderate, grainy tannins). Chianti Classico comes from a specific sub-zone in the heart of the appellation. The grapes here tends to ripen more fully, producing wines with more body, greater aromatic nuance, and highly concentrated fruit flavours. You may see mentions like “Superiore” or “Riserva” on the label. These terms have to do with ageing periods in cellar, and fruit ripeness. They are an additional guage of quality : Superiore (minimum 1 year ageing, minimum 12% alcohol), Riserva (minimum 2 years’ ageing, minimum 12.5% alcohol).

Good value wines: Ricasoli “Brolio”, Antinori “Peppoli” or “Villa, Riserva”, Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva, Querciavalle Chianti Classico, Carpineto Chianti Classico

Barbera d’Asti

Why we chose it: Barbera d’Asti hails from the Piedmont region of north western Italy. The wines often have bright, tangy acidity, medium body, vibrant black cherry fruit flavours, and soft to moderate tannins.

What we thought: This pairing was a hit, and would certainly be the best choice for wine drinkers preferring fruitier reds. It also showed the best when we added hot chile flakes to one slice. The sweetness of the fruit counterbalanced the spicy heat nicely.

Handy tips: The grape variety is called Barbera. Asti is the name of the area (within Piedmont) where it grows. There are also delicious Barbera wines from neighbouring vineyards that would be a good fit. Look out for appellation names like Barbera d’Alba or Barbera del Monferrato.

Good value wines: Paolo Conterno “Bricco” Barbera d’Asti, Tenuta Olim Bauda “La Villa” Barbera d’Asti, Prunotto Barbera d’Alba, Michele Chiarlo “Le Orme” (Asti) or “Cipressi” (Alba), Borgogno Barbera d’Alba Superiore, Pio Cesare Barbera d’Alba

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo

Why we chose it: The Montepulciano grape, grown in the region of Abruzzo in south eastern Italy, produces wines that are deep in colour, with fresh acidity and medium body. They are fairly earthy, with ripe blackberry, cherry, and herbal notes. Tannins range from only moderately firm to quite markedly “chewy”.

What we thought: Our 15$ bottle worked reasonably well. The earthy flavours underscored the mushrooms nicely, and the fresh acidity evenly matched the tomato sauce. The tannins were just a shade too astringent for this pizza however. A meatier pie would probably suit this wine better.

Handy Tips: Confusingly, there is an appellation in Tuscany called Vino Nobile de Montepulciano. Wines from this vineyard area are made with Sangiovese, and have nothing whatsoever to do with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

Good value wines: Masciarelli, Valle Reale, Farnese, La Valentina, Contesa

Rosso di Toscana

Why we chose it: Literally translated, this means Tuscan red wine. These wines can come from vineyards planted virtually anywhere in Tuscany. They usually feature Sangiovese, and often have high proportions of international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the blends. They can be very refreshing, in an approachable, easy-drinking, fruity style with ripe, rounded tannins.

What we thought: Despite having chosen a 2015 vintage (which was quite a warm, ripe year) this specific wine was very tightly knit, verging on austere. The pizza made the wine seem overly firm and astringent. Overall, an unsuccesful match.

Handy Tips: Rosso is a term used in some of Tuscany’s top appellations  to designate simpler, earlier drinking styles of wine. Where Rosso di Toscana IGT wines are often blended with tannic grapes like Caberenet Sauvignon (which is where our error potentially lay), Rosso from top appellation: Montalcino is 100% Sangiovese. Montalcino lies due south of the Chianti region. The wines are similar stylistically, but are riper in fruit and fuller bodied. Alternatively, Rosso di Toscana wines with a high percentage of Sangiovese, and blending partners like softer, rounded Merlot, would potentially also work well.

Good value wines: Altesino Rosso di Toscana or Rosso di Montalcino, Argiano Rosso di Montalcino, Col d’Orcia Rosso di Montalcino

Valpolicella Ripasso

Why we chose it: From the Veneto region, in Italy’s north east, Valpolicella is a blend of indigenous grapes: mainly Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella. Basic Valpolicella (Classico) wines tend to be light in body, fresh, floral, and vibrantly fruity (red and black fruits), with soft tannins. Ripasso versions are richer, and more concentrated, due to the process of adding the raisined grape pommace, left over after Amarone fermentation, to steep in the just fermented Valpolicella wine. This technique raises the alcohol levels, gives sweeter fruit flavours, and a fuller body.

What we thought: We should have stuck to Valpolicella Classico. The Ripasso, while delicious, was too rich, too sweet, and too big a wine for the pizza. It completely overpowered the food.

Handy Tips: Basic Valpolicella, served slightly chilled, would be a good choice for a simple pizza dinner. If you are serving gastronmically styled pizza, and wanted a similar profile, Valpolicella Superiore offers greater nuance and complexity. Superiore wines are aged for a minimum of 1 year prior to bottling.

Good value wines: Bolla, Masi, Tedeschi, Allegrini, Speri

So there you have it! With all these new wines to try, you may need to make pizza night a weekly occurrence.

Looking for something a little out of the ordinary? Why not try a dry Lambrusco? These lightly sparkling red wines from the Emilia-Romagna region are lively and fresh, with tangy red fruit flavours, and savoury nuances. Be sure to check for the mention “secco” (dry) or “semisecco” (just off-dry).


Education Life

An Overview of Italian Wine! Che Figata!

overview of italian wines

If I could only pick one vacation destination for the rest of my life it would be Italy. Hands down. No need to ponder over it. Easy decision. Why, you ask? Because, even at Autogrill, the country’s largest highway fastfood chain, you can get a decent panini, a drinkable glass of wine, and a delicious espresso.

The husband and I once spent a fantastic week skiing in the Aosta valley. At the resort restaurant, there was table service, amazing pasta, and hearty reds served in attractive stemware. Oh, and did I mention that it was cheap! I still dream about it.

I have traveled to Italy more than a dozen times, and there are still so many places I haven’t seen, or want to re-visit. I love the food, the wine, the coffee, the diversity and beauty of the landscapes, and especially the people. They seem to have perfected a sort of nonchalant confidence that is infectious.

And the language! I could sit in a café in a piazza all day, drifting from cappucino, to prosecco, listening to the melodic sound of Italian banter. Learning the language is definitely on my (very long) bucket list.

…roughly 2000 different wine grapes are grown in Italy today…

Italy boasts an incredibly diverse wine culture. According to Riccardo Ricci Curbastro of FEDERDOC (Italian agency for appellation wines), over 70% of Italy consists of hills and mountains. This, combined with the limited number of easily navigable rivers, meant that trade between the different regions was slow to develop historically. Each province developed their own foods, and cultivated their indigenous varieties. Italian wine grape expert Ian D’Agata estimates that roughly 2000 different wine grapes are grown in Italy today.

From north to south, hill to vale, Italy’s temperate to warm climate makes all regions, including its islands, suitable for grape vine cultivation. Take a drive down country lanes in any corner of Italy, and you will see vineyards somewhere along the way.

Italy is the largest wine producer in the world, beating out its nearest rivals France and Spain. It churned out almost 51 million hectolitres of wine in 2016 (equivalent to 6.6 billion bottles!). That’s a lot of vino.

Italy is the largest wine producer in the world, beating out its nearest rivals France and Spain

The driving force behind Italy’s prolific output is the popularity of its sparkling wines. Prosecco is the best-selling sparkling wine on the planet, and vast oceans of Asti (formerly Asti Spumante) are shipped around the globe.

Italy is also home to a wide number of crisp, refreshing white wines, and an impressive range of dry reds. From Chianti, to Barolo, to Amarone, the list of Italian wines worth a sip (or three) is endless.

February is Italian wine month here at! I have a great line up of Italian wine and food articles coming your way, including:

From cheap & cheerful, to seriously trendy, you’ll discover why all the cool kids are drinking Lambrusco (Italy’s famous red sparkling wine).

A vertical tasting of Valpolicella’s crown jewel: Amarone (from 2010 back to 1998) from the group of family-owned wineries that comprise the prestigious Famiglie Storiche

Women in wine! A feature on some amazing Italian wine divas.

Local recipes with a host of different wine pairing options

And so much more….

So, stay tuned, and thanks for reading! Ciao.



Education Life

Beat the winter blues with these big, balanced reds

big, bold red wine winter fresh balanced
Photo credit: Catena Zapata Winery (Adrianna Vineyard, Tupungato)

Winter hit us like a ton of bricks this year. It was like someone flipped a switch; from lazy Indian summer to North Pole overnight. In Montréal, we have broken records held nearly 150 years for longest, extreme cold snap. And it is only mid-January…

So, what do you drink when you can’t feel your face?

VODKA. Well, yes, but this is a wine blog folks, so I am thinking more along the lines of full-bodied red wines.

Before I go on, let me first apologize to my fellow wine geeks for this heresy. It is terribly uncool here to champion rich, dense, dark fruited red wine. There seems to have been a secret committee meeting amongst local wine writers and sommeliers whereby it was decreed: crisp, light wines good/ big, bold wines bad. I guess my invitation was lost in the mail.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the lighter reds too. If I was on a desert island, and I could only choose one red wine region for the rest of my life I’d pick Burgundy in a heart beat…but it would be hot on this island.

I don’t know about you, but when my fingers and toes feel like they might fall off, I don’t want a chilled Beaujolais. I want something that is going to light a fire in my belly; something with such rich, luscious fruit that I almost believe it will be summer again one day.

What I don’t want is a sweet, oaky, fruit bomb, with alcohol so fiery it tastes like kirsch. It is these wines that have given the full-bodied, high alcohol red category such a bad name in wine connoisseur circles. The missing element to these heavy, clumsy wines is balance.

Imagine a see-saw, or a two-sided weighing scale. On the one side, you have sweet, ultra-ripe fruit and high alcohol. In order to achieve equilibrium, you need an equivalent level of vibrant acidity. When these elements are in harmony, the fruit becomes brighter (less cloyingly sweet), and the alcohol is far less perceptible.

This is, of course, an oversimplification. There are far more factors at play. Not the least of which is the quality of the tannins. In a well balanced wine, they can vary from soft to quite firm (depending on the grape variety), but are smooth. That is to say, lacking the unpleasant bitterness or astringency they possess when under-ripe.

But how to find these wines amongst the vast selection on liquor store shelves?

One solution is to seek out hot, sunny regions with cooling influences. Factors like a refreshing maritime breeze, or high altitude, can slow the ripening process. The vines get plentiful warmth and sunshine for optimal sugar accumulation through-out the day, but at night, cooler air halts plant respiration and metabolism, allowing acid levels to drop more gradually. This drawn out grape vine maturation also allows tannins (naturally occurring compounds found in the grape skin, stems and pips) more time to fully ripen.

Here are just five such regions to look out for this winter:

Central Otago, New Zealand

Central Otago is a mountainous, inland region whose vineyards are the most southerly in the world. This land of extremes boasts the coldest winters, and the hottest day time summer temperatures, in all of New Zealand. The vines are planted on steep slopes, as high as 420 metres in altitude. They enjoy abundant sunshine during the day, with thermostat readings regularly exceeding 30°c. However, at night, temperatures can plummet to as low as 10°c. The region also has high UV levels, resulting in thick skinned grapes. Thicker skinned grapes have greater concentrations of polyphenols (compounds responsable for colour pigmentation, many of wines flavours, and tannic structure). Therefore, depending on winemaking procedures, thick skinned grapes tend to produce dark coloured, fragrant wines, with robust tannins.

Pinot Noir is King in Central Otago. While this variety is generally known for its pale, lighter bodied reds, here the wines are richly coloured, intensely aromatic, and bold in structure. Flavours range from ultra-ripe dark cherry, and plum, to crushed raspberries, with hints of thyme. They are vibrant, fresh, and highly concentrated, with smooth, ripe tannins.

Wineries to look out for: Rippon, Felton Road, Peregrine, Akarua, Mt. Difficulty

Gigondas, France

The Southern Rhône valley is famed for its sunny, mediterranean climate and rich, powerful Grenache, Syrah blends. Châteauneuf-du-pape is the most acclaimed, premium appellation. The double effect of the baking hot sun, and the large, rounded stones that adorn the vineyard floors, reflecting light and warmth back up to the vines, make for massive, velvetty smooth, alcoholic reds with raisined fruit. Looking for something similar, but with a more vibrant, fresher fruited character? Gigondas is the answer.

The vineyards surrounding this tiny town are perched on the edge of the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains at 100 to 430 metres in altitude. Temperatures are marginally cooler here. On the rare wintry days I experienced while living here, there was often a layer of snow in Gigondas, whereas just 5km away in the lower lying Vacqueyras, and Châteauneuf-du-pape, the fields remained green. Pockets of sandy soils at the foothills, and limestone-heavy areas further up, also contribute to the fresh, elegant style of the grapes grown here.

Wineries to look out for: Domaine des Bosquets, Château St. Cosme, Domaine de Longue Toque, Perrin, Domaine de la Bouïssière, Pierre Amadieu

Mendoza (Valle de Uco, Lujan de Cuyo), Argentina

The Uco Valley, at the foot of the Andes mountains, is located in the upper reaches of the Mendoza region. Vineyards are among the highest in the world, at 800 – 1100 metres.  Poor, free draining soils encourage vines to dig deep for moisture and nourishment, resulting in low yields and highly concentrated wines. The favourable climate conditions (hot, sunny days, cool nights, high UV levels, and long, dry growing season) has attracted many prominent French wine producers to set up shop. Further north, on the banks of the Mendoza river, lie the vineyards of Lujan de Cuyo. Sitting at 1000 metres in altitude, with cooling alpine breezes, this hot, dry sub-region also benefits from significantly cooler night air.

Malbec is the major grape produced here*. The wines are dark in colour, with lots of body, and velvetty smooth tannins. The Uco Valley examples are wonderfully vibrant, with elegant floral and ripe dark fruit aromas. Lujan de Cuyo wines are almost black in colour, and equally dense on the palate. Ultra-ripe black fruits, exotic spice, and mineral hints feature on the nose and palate.

* Cabernet Sauvignon and, increasingly, Cabernet Franc, also show great promise here.

Wineries to look out for: Catena Zapata, Achaval Ferrer, O. Fournier, Lurton, Zuccardi (the higher end, 20$+ wines), Trapiche (Terroir Series)

Ribera del Duero, Spain

The vineyards of the Ribera del Duero are located in the Castilla y Leon region, due north of Madrid, and south west of Rioja. The vineyards are planted on a high plateau, 600 to 800 metres above sea level. Hot, sunny days are tempered by chilly nights, thanks to the region’s elevated position, and to regular cold winds. Day-to-night temperature can vary by more than 50°c. These dramatic fluctuations allow for a very gentle ripening pace. Grapes are generally not harvested before late October. The Duero river divides this semi-arid land, providing a much needed water source for the vineyards to thrive.

This is red wine country. All blends must be composed of at least 75% Tempranillo (locally referred to as Tinto Fino or Tinta del Pais). The balance can be made up of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and/ or Malbec. Up to 5% of Garnacha, or the indigenous Albillo, can also be used. There are strict rules on wine ageing before the wines are bottled and released for sale. The levels range from: Crianza (2 years’ ageing, minimum 1 year in oak), Reserva (3 years’ ageing, minimum 1 year in oak), Gran Reserva (minimum 2 years in oak + 3 years’ in bottle).

At their best, Ribera del Duero reds are inky black, highly concentrated and full-bodied. Intense aromas of dark berry fruit and mocha are underscored by attractive French oak nuances (toasty, spicy notes). They are very fresh, firmly structured, but smooth, with elegant, polished tannins.

Wineries to look out for: Vega Sicilia & Dominio de Pingus (if you have very deep pockets), Bodegas Protos, Aalto, Finca Villacreces, Bodegas Valduero, Emilio Moro

Santa Barbara County, California

A mere 90 minutes north of Los Angeles, lies the vineyards of Santa Barbara county. The topography of this region is unique, in that the valleys run east to west, rather than the more standard north to south. There is massive diversity to be found here in terms of soil types and microclimates. The vineyards located on the eastern foothills are cooled by fog and ocean breezes funneled through the surrounding hills and mountains. Appellations such as Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley (especially the Ballard Canyon sub-zone for Syrah), and Sta Rita Hills, are gaining prominence.

Pinot Noir is the most planted red varieties in Santa Barbara County. It is generally dark in colour, with dense, powerful structure, and impressive depth of flavour. Very fragrant on the nose; brimming with black cherry, plum, and floral aromas. Syrah is also gaining in prominence. Imagine a mid-way point between a jammy, lush Shiraz and a crisp, taut Northern Rhône Syrah. This is a common style here. Rich, ripe dark berry fruit, lively acidity, full body, smooth, rounded mouthfeel, and firm, elegant tannins.

Wineries to look out for: Domaine de la Côte, Sanford, Au Bon Climat, Bien Nacido, Ojai Vineyard, Fess Parker


Education Reviews Wines


champagne and premium sparkling wine
Photo credit: Claude Rigoulet

Now that you have had a week-end to go out and taste test the 10 great value sparkling wines I offered up last week (if not, click here), it’s time to double down. Yes folks, today’s recommendations get a little pricier! I have, however, restricted the list to wines under 75$, to keep them within attainable gift-giving limits.

So, is it really worth spending 20$ to 50$ more? The short answer: YES!

That is not to say that all higher priced bubblies are better than their more affordable counter-parts. There are many excellent, small sparkling wine houses that are far superior to some of the major producers. There are also glaring examples of big brand Champagnes that are priced way over their true value.

I simply mean that a serious step up in complexity, elegance and finesse often comes when you lay down a couple of extra twenties.

Why is this?

It all comes down to terroir and winemaking techniques.

When making premium quality wine, grapes are generally sourced from the best vineyard sites, with ideal micro-climates, optimal sun exposure, mature vines, and highly prized soil compositions.

For instance, in Champagne the best Chardonnay grapes are said to come from the eastern-facing slopes of the Côte des Blancs. Experts will tell you that the chalky soils here give very fresh, light, elegant whites. The best Pinot Noirs are puported to hail from the western and northern flanks of the Montagne de Reims. Fragrant, robust reds are produced from the limestone soils here.

The grapes are harvested within very specific ripeness parameters to yield wines with the right balance of vibrant acidity and bright fruit flavours. Careful sorting in the vineyards and winery ensures that only perfectly healthy grapes make the cut.

The majority of premium-priced sparkling wines, including all the ones reviewed below, are made following the traditional method. Much of their complexity, and the key to what makes each wine unique, comes from these 3 key factors:

The blending. In traditional method sparkling wine production, blending is a complex process! The intial winemaking step, is the fermentation of grapes to yield a dry, still wine (aka “base wines”). Producers regularly keep back a percentage of each seasons’ base wine to age in their cellars. Non-vintage sparkling wines are a combination of the newly fermented dry wine from the years’ harvest, and older base wines from previous vintages. These matured wines are called “réserve wines”.

Réserve wines bring added nuance, especially in poor vintages! Depending on the age of the réserve wines, and how much is used in the blend, they can add interesting flavours of grilled nuts, dried fruits, and earthy notes. Once the winemaker feels he has achieved the right balance of fresh and matured nuances in his blend, the wine will be bottled to undergo its secondary fermentation.

The maturation. Premium sparkling wines tend to be aged on their lees for many years. This long cellaring period has several advantages. Firstly, as previously explained, they take on a powerful autolytic character (bakery/patisserie-type aromas, rich, creamy texture, and very fine, well-defined bubbles). Secondly, extended bottle ageing gives the various structural components of the wine time to fully integrate. Acidity softens, firm structure mellows, and flavours harmonize.

The dosage. Once the cellar master determines that the lees-ageing period should come to an end, a complex process takes place to move the yeast sediment to the top of the bottle so as to be expelled. The bottles are briefly opened, the lees are removed (aka disgorged), and the bottle space is filled with a mixture of wine and sugar called the “liquer d’expedition”.

The majority of traditional method sparkling wines today are “brut”, meaning that they have up to 12g/L residual sugar. A popular new trend is the move towards bone-dry styles such as “extra-brut” (6g/L residual sugar or less), or even “zéro dosage” (with no sugar added).

While you may think that you prefer your wine as dry as possible, know this: 8 – 12g/L residual sugar is barely perceptible against the searing acidity of many sparkling wines. The no/ low sugar styles can appear overly tart and austere to the uninitiated.

There is a wealth of other fascinating reasons why Champagne and other premium sparkling wines are so enticing. I could wax lyrical on the subject all day, but I think the real proof is in the bottle. So without further ado, here are my top 10, premium sparkling wines for this festive season!

Ca’ del Bosco Cuvée Prestige Franciacorta (Italy) – 89pts LW

Chardonnay dominant, with a seasoning of Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. Moderately intense, featuring attractive white floral notes, bosc pear and hints of buttery pastry. Very fresh, with vigorous bubbles and a broad, layered mid-palate and dry finish.

Where to buy: LCBO (41.95$), agent: . SAQ (43.00$), agent: Montalvin

Henry of Pelham Carte Blanche Estate Blanc de Blancs 2012 – 91pts. LW

Made from 100% Chardonnay, and aged on its lees for 5 years, this opulent sparkling wine offers a rich texture, and tempting flavours of baked apple, ripe lemon and toast. Wonderfully vibrant acidity and fine, persistent mousse balance the concentrated fruity, toasted core nicely.

Where to buy: LCBO (44.95$)

Champagne Paul Goerg Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru Brut – 92pts. LW

Very elegant for the price, with mineral nuances, white floral notes and orchard fruits on the nose. Crisp and light-bodied, with laser-like focus, and a zesty core of lemon and green apple. Bone dry, with lingering stony minerality.

Where to buy: SAQ (46.25$), agent: AOC & Cie

Champagne Jacquart Brut Mosaïque – 93pts. LW

A richly textured style, blending the three major Champagne grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Meunier. Enticing aromas of hazelnut, red apple and brioche on the nose. Medium bodied, with brisk acidity, a creamy, concentrated mid-palate, and very fine, lingering bubbles.

Where to buy: SAQ (47.25$), agent: Univins 

Benjamin Bridge Brut 2011 (Nova Scotia) – 88pts LW

Mostly composed of hybrid grapes (capable of surviving our challenging winters), Benjamin Bridge Brut is an incredibly vibrant, citrus-driven sparkling. Searing acidity and vigorous bubbles feature on the light weight palate. A zesty core of ripe lemon and subtle mineral nuances linger through to the clean, dry finish.

Where to buy: LCBO (49.95$). SAQ (49.75$)

Champagne Drappier Brut Nature Zéro Dosage – 92pts. LW

Somewhat restrained, developing tart orchard fruit, hints of red berries, and green almond notes upon aeration. This is a very clean, precise, bone dry Champagne with racy acidity and a long, mineral-laced finish. Well-delineated, elegant bubbles give breadth and elegance to this exclusively Pinot Noir based cuvée. Great choice for oysters!

Where to buy: LCBO (58.95$), agent: Kirkwood Diamond CanadaSAQ (49.75$), agent: Amphora Vins Fins

Champagne Taittinger Brut Réserve – 94pts. LW

This Chardonnay-led blend offers a lot of finesse for the price. Alluring aromas of grilled nuts and toast interweave beautifully with bright red apple and white blossom notes. Incredibly vibrant on the palate, with a firm structure, softened by the smooth, layered texture. The finish is long and wonderfully fresh.

Where to buy: LCBO (61.95$), SAQ (59.75$). Agent: Vins Philippe Dandurand

Charles Heidseck Brut Réserve – 93pts. LW

Charles Heidseck (not to be confused with Piper!) is a rich, golden hued Champagne crafted with 40% Réserve wine. This brings intriguing blend of bright yellow fruits and freshly baked bread, with attractive tertiary notes of dried fruits and toasted almonds. The palate is zesty, medium bodied, and very concentrated, with attractive, persistent bubbles. Bonus (if gift giving or trying to impress guests): the new label is very classy!

Where to buy: LCBO (69.95$), agent: Breakthru Beverage Canada (sold out in QC, enquire with agent).

Louis Roederer Brut Premier – 95pts. LW

One of my perennial favourites, Louis Roederer Champagne never fails to impress. This Pinot Noir and Meunier led blend is highly complex, featuring notes of brioche, delicate red berries, and orchard fruits, underscored by intriguing nutty aromas. Searing acidity, firm structure and vibrant bubbles, are expertly balanced by the rich, creamy texture and concentrated, toasty core.

Where to buy: LCBO (72.95$), agent: Authentic Wines & SpiritsSAQ (70.00$), agent: Le Marchand du Vin

Gosset Grande Réserve Brut – 95pts. LW

Very opulent, hedonistic style featuring equal parts Chardonnay/ Pinot Noir, and a small percentage of Meunier. Highly autolytic in character, with pretty yellow apple, ripe lemon, and ginger spice adding complexity. Zesty and firm on the palate, with a creamy texture, impressive depth of flavour, and very fine, persistent mousse.

Where to buy: SAQ (73.00$), agent: Réserve & Sélection


(What does LW stand for?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).



Education Reviews Wines

BUBBLES – PART 1: The Thrifty Shopper’s Guide

Budget friendly sparkling wines

Oh yes indeed, Christmas is just around the corner! Perhaps you are among those more evolved earthlings that despair at the endless stream of jazzified holiday jingles, and resent the pressure to make merry this time of year. But before you lose yourself in a bitter monologue about the manipulative schemes of Hallmark or Coca-Cola, think of the benefits of the “hap, happiest season of all”…  In a word: Bubbles!

Sparkling wine flows pretty freely at every office party and holiday get-together through-out the month of December, which should make even the Grinchiest among you smile. For, in my experience, nothing gets people in the festive spirit faster than a glass (or three) of the fizzy stuff.

Scientists explain the phenomenon thusly: carbon dioxide bubbles expand when shaken, therefore when they hit the stomach, they fizz, pushing the alcohol rapidly down into the small intestine where it is absorbed. This quickfire process makes us feel intoxicated more quickly than a still wine, whose journey from stomach to intestine is more leisurely.

I think it is the combination of this fact, with the glamour and sophistication we attribute to sparkling wine consumption. We picture movie stars on red carpets, rich people on yachts, etc. Whenever I open a bottle of bubbly for guests I am always met with appreciation and enthusiasm for this “special treatment”.

The good news (if you are the one supplying the drinks) is that sparkling wine doesn’t necessarily have to cost a fortune. There are a wealth of decent, budget friendly offerings in the 20$ – 40$ range these days. The trick is to pick the premium versions from less prestigious regions, rather than the cheapest Champagne.

For the nerdy among you, let me first give a brief overview of how sparkling wine is made, and the regions offering good value. Those that are just looking for a quick recommendation can skip to the bottom.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a by-product of alcoholic fermentation. Simply put, yeast converts grape sugar into alcohol and CO2. When making still wines, the CO2 is allowed to escape from the tank. In sparkling winemaking, the vessel is sealed, thus trapping the CO2 which dissolves into the wine, creating bubbles. Voila!

The most important stylistic difference between the sparkling wines of the world relates to the vessel used for this carbonation process. For quality bubblies, two major methods exist: the “tank method” and the “traditional method”.

The tank method (aka Charmat method) has several variants, but in basic terms, the bubbles are created in sealed, pressurized tanks holding large volumes of wine. Once the process is complete, the wine is rapidly bottled to preserve its fresh, fruity character. It is best consumed within a year or two of release.

The tank method produces bigger, frothier bubbles that range in intensity from a very soft sparkle (referred to as frizzante in Italy), to slightly firmer, more persistent mousse (as is the case with many Italian spumante wines).

These wines are a great option if you prefer a gently bubbly, fruity, light wine. They are generally smooth, easy drinking and often quite low in alcohol. Styles range from bone dry (extra-brut) to quite sweet. The sweetness level is usually indicated on the label.

Some famous tank method sparkling wines include:

  • Moscato d’Asti: white, floral & grapey aromas, ~5.5% alcohol, frizzante style bubbles, always sweet
  • Prosecco: white, citrus & orchard fruit notes, ~11% alcohol, generally spumante, though frizzante styles exist, ranging from quite dry (brut) to semi sweet (dry). *** For best quality, look for Prosecco Superiore DOCG.
  • Lambrusco: red sparkling wine, red berry & currant flavours, ~12% alcohol, mainly frizzante, and dry (secco), though popular commercial styles exist that are off-dry (semi secco) or sweet (amabile)
  • Sekt: white sparkling wine from Germany, ~11.5% alcohol, spumante, semi sweet

The traditional method (formerly called the Champagne method) refers to the process of rendering a formerly still wine sparkling, once it is in the bottle. The grapes are initially fermented in a barrel or tank, to yield a dry, still wine. The wine is then bottled, dosed with a measure of sugar and yeast, and then capped. This provokes a second fermentation to occur within the bottle. The resultant bubbles, despite being more vigorous, are generally finer (less explosive on the palate) and more persistent than tank method wines.

Sparkling wines made in this way are less overtly fruity, but tend to boast more complex aromas and flavours. This is due to quite a complex process which occurs once the yeast cells – spent from their hard work creating alcohol and CO2 from sugar – begin to break-down. Over time, as these “lees” degrade they begin to give off attractive bakery/ patisserie type aromas that range from fresh bread to buttery pastry notes.

Value priced traditional method sparkling wines are generally matured on their lees for 9 to 24 months. This time length gives quite a subtle, lees character. Pricier wines can age for many years, gaining in complexity, developing a rich, creamy texture, as well as smaller, more refined bubbles.

Traditional method wines can be from a specific vintage (as identified on the label), or “non vintage”, meaning that they are a blend of several different vintages. I will delve into what this means for the wines, stylistically speaking, in part 2 of this article.

Some well-known traditional method wines include:

  • Champagne: Elegant, complex aromatics & flavours (brioche, orchard fruits, floral, chalky minerality). Racy, and taut in structure. Fine, persistent mousse. ~12% alcohol. Generally quite dry (brut).
  • Crémant: Name for sparkling wines from 7 French regions outside of Champagne. The taste profile depends on the grape variety used, climate, etc. Generally speaking, crémants are similar to Champagne; though a little broader, rounder and fruitier.
  • Cava: Spanish bubbly. Fairly lean, with bracing acidity, and pronounced lemon and apple aromas. 11 – 12% alcohol. Generally dry (brut).
  • Franciacorta: Italy’s most prestigious bubbly. Mainly Chardonnay, with Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. Ripe lemon, peach and floral notes. 18 months’ minimum ageing on lees (30 months for single vintage wines) gives Franciacorta a rich, rounded mid-palate.
  • There are also wonderful bubblies from right here in Canada (Nova Scotia & Niagara notably), as well as California, South Africa (Cap Classique), Tasmania, England, Marlborough (New Zealand) and the list goes on. I will endeavour to write more about these in future posts!

The historical variant of producing sparkling wine in bottle, is the ancestral method. It consists of a single fermentation that begins in tank, and finishes in bottle. Classic versions of this wine style are quite cloudy as the sediment is not removed. Gently sparkling, medium sweet, low alcohol wines are still produced in this way in the French regions of Limoux, Bugey, Gaillac and Cerdon.

Renewed interest in the ancestral method has come about with the trend toward low interventionist (or “natural”) winemaking. Pétillant naturel (aka “pét nat”) wines are springing up from all corners of the winemaking globe. This style is harder to pin down, as the range is enormous…from murky, sour horror stories to very elegant, fresh, finely sparkling wines that are a delight to drink. If possible, ask to taste the pét nat that your hipster sommelier is trying to push on you, before commiting to a whole bottle!

A series of recent tastings of all manners of sparkling wines revealed these budget friendly sparkling wines; perfect for your holiday parties (or for kicking back on a Monday night…if you are a lesser mortal like me who LOVES every cheesy commercial and shopping mall Santa that mark the festive season).

Parés Baltà Cava Pink – 88pts. VW

Pink Cava. Who knew? And it’s organic! This pretty little number is a Grenache dominant blend with tangy red berry and red apple flavours. Crisp and light bodied, with vibrant bubbles and a clean, dry finish. Not overly complex, but a great every day fizz.

Where to buy: SAQ (17.60$), agent: Trialto

Moingeon Prestige Brut Crémant de Bourgogne – 89pts. VW

Restrained notes of brioche, hazelnut and yellow apples on the nose. Well-delineated, persistent bubbles and crisp acidity set the tempo, and are nicely underscored by a broad, textured mid-palate offering nice depth of flavour. The finish is dry, with lingering hints of orchard fruit and brioche.

Where to buy: SAQ (18.80$), agent: Divin Paradis

Segura Viudas Gran Cuvée Reserva Cava – 89pts. VW

A solid performer, from one of the major Cava houses. Aromas of yellow fruit and almond feature on the nose. Brisk acidity is ably balanced by a concentrated core of ripe orchard fruit and hints of brioche. Subtly creamy in texture, with a fresh, dry finish and fine, persistent bubbles.

Where to buy: SAQ (19.85$), agent: Featherstone Désautels

Marcel Cabelier Crémant du Jura Brut – 90pts PW

This organic, 100% Chardonnay was a favourite for me. Pretty floral and white pear aromas, lovely freshness, and a subtly creamy texture won me over. This dry bubbly is medium bodied, with a broad structure, and a bright, fruity finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (21.80$), agent: Séléctions Fréchette

Bortolomiol BandaRossa Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore – 87pts. PW

Classic Valdobbiadene profile, with fragrant notes of candied pear and ripe lemon. Hints of anise and white flowers develop upon aeration. Very fresh and light on the palate, with moderate concentration and a fruity, off-dry finish. Overly frothy, foaming bubbles brought this otherwise attractive wine down a couple of points for me.

Where to buy: SAQ (22.50$), agent: Maison InVino

Langlois-Château Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé – 89pts. PW

Lovely pale pink in colour, with muted aromas of tart red berries and spice. Incredibly vibrant, with juicy raspberry flavours and just a hint of cream. This dry, Cabernet Franc based wine is light and fresh. Only moderately persistent mousse, but otherwise, very pleasant.

Where to buy: SAQ (23.50$), agent: Authentic Wines & Spirits

Bernard Massard Cuvée de L’Ecusson Chardonnay Brut – 91pts. PW

I am a fan of the great value sparkling wines from Luxembourg producer Bernard Massard (click here for other reviews). This new, black label Chardonnay is no exception! Intriguing notes of lemon, fresh herbs and orchard fruits feature on the nose. Crisp acidity and fine, persistent mousse frame the palate nicely, with bright fruit and a subtle lees character lingering on the dry finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (23.60$), agent: UniVins

Domaine Moutard-Diligent, Patrick Piuze Non Dosé – 90pts. PW

I often find extra-brut sparkling wines (those with virtually no residual sugar) a little too lean and mean, but this Burgundian bubbly has enough depth and body to withstand a bone dry finish. Initially quite restrained, developping notes of brioche, green apple and fresh almons with time. The racy acidity is elegantly balanced by quite gentle bubbles and a subtly creamy, layered mid-palate

Where to buy: SAQ (24.20$), agent: La Céleste Levure

Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley – 90pts. PW

Intense aromas of yellow pear, red apple, toast and candied lemon fairly brim over on the nose. Lively and broad on the palate, with lots of body, a sedutively creamy, toasty mid-palate and a lengthy, fruit-laden finish. This dry bubbly is a great value alternative to Champagne, if you like a richer, more opulent style.

Where to buy: SAQ (32.85$), agent: Bergeron-les-Vins. LCBO (37.95$), agent: Authentic Wine & Spirits

Parés Baltà Blanca Cusiné Cava Gran Reserva 2010 – 90pts. PW

A certain elegance, and aromatic complexity sets this Cava apart. Nuances of fresh bread, lemon, green apple and white flowers linger long in the glass. The palate is very focused and precise, with laser-like acidity and well-delineated, fine bubbles.

Where to buy: SAQ (35.25$), agent: Trialto

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

Reviews Wines


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$)

Life Producers Reviews

REQUIM FOR A VINE: Classical Music and Wine

Classical music & wine
Photo credit: Il Paradiso de Frassina

I am not a sceptic. When people tell me things, my first instinct is to believe them. I like magic tricks, and fairy tales. And I plan to use all of my wiles to keep my kids believing in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny as long as I possibly can (likely until some annoying child at school whose parents ‘didn’t want to lie’ ruin it for them).

Call me naive, or gullable, I don’t really care. In my experience, you enjoy life a lot more if you suspend your disbelief from time to time. After all, if you look back over the course of history, you would be hard pressed to find a cynic behind the important advancements our society has known. Rather, it is those that dare to ‘have a dream’, and potentially fail, that bring about change.

That is why I am always intrigued when I happen across a wine producer that has a unique story to tell about their vineyard or cellar practices. At a recent Brunello di Montalcino tasting in Montréal, I happened on such a tale.

At the foot of the Montosoli hill, in the Montalcino vineyards of Italy, lies a beautifully renovated 1000 year-old farmstead and a small holding of 4 hectares of vines. A walk through the vineyards reveals a most unusual site. Installed at regular intervals throughout the rows are Bose loudspeakers, playing Mozart to the grapes.

The estate is called Il Paradiso di Frassina, and is the brainchild of Montalcino maverick Giancarlo Cignozzi, renowned for his founding role in the acclaimed Tenuta Carpazo. In 2000, Cignozzi decided to leave Carpazo, yearning for a smaller operation, where he could craft artisan wines.

The vineyard, abandoned for some 50 years, was planted from scratch, and the tender, young vines were nurtured…with music. Originally, this consisted of a few accoustic speakers and a wide variety of classical and barroque styles. Within a short period, Cignozzi and his team discovered that the vines exposed to music were hardier, more disease resistant and ripened more consistently.

This discovery drew interest from the scientific community, with two universties, those of Florence and of Pisa, deciding to actively study the phenomenon. In Florence, the research is focused on the biophysical changes in the vines. In 2008, they asked Cignozzi to play only Mozart, to ‘give a single, geometric, and subtle textural tone to the musical harmonies’ to better determine how the sound waves benefit the vines. In Pisa, the study is focused on the insect population of the vineyards, and how it has changed under the musical influence.

The extraordinary developments at Il Paradiso di Frassina so impressed American technology company Bose, that they donated custom, all-weather speakers for the entire vineyard.

The results? According to Il Paradiso di Frassina’s patent, the size and thickness of the leaf has been found to be increased, along with the level of chlorophyll (essential to plant photosynthesis).  The need for copper and sulphur sprays (to ward off fungal infections) has decreased by 50%. Leaf respiration is improved, making them less resistant to climatic stress. The grapes have higher levels of anthocyanins and polyphenols (resulting in deeper colour and more robust tannins). And finally, the grapes are ripening more consistently and efficiently, allowing for earlier harvest dates, before the risk of autumn rains sets in.

And the wines?

Il Paradiso di Frassina Rosso di Montalcino 2015 – 88pts. PW

Very fresh and lively, with vibrant red currant, spice and earthy aromatics. Medium bodied, firm and moderately concentrated on the palate, with fleshy tannins and a clean finish.

Where to buy: Inquire with agent: Les Importations Olea Inc. 

Il Paradiso di Frassina Brunello di Montalcino 2011 – 92pts LW

Complex aromas of ripe red cherry, talc and fresh, forest floor nuances are underscored by attractive minerality and subtle animal notes. Bright acidity gives way to a firm, dense mid-palate, with pretty floral and cherry flavours. The tannins are robust, but fine grained, and the oak imprint is subtle. The finish is persistent and savoury. Needs time.

Where to buy: 55.50$ (SAQ)

Flauto Magico Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2011 – 93pts LW

Wonderfully suave, harmonious red. Intense aromas of red currant, red cherry and balsamic feature on the nose. Upon aeration, a lovely earthiness develops, with sweet talc notes and stony mineral nuances. Full-bodied and firm, yet velvetty in texture with a rich profile of fresh fruit flavours and a long finish, framed by robust, grainy tannins and woody tones from long ageing in cask.

Where to buy: Inquire with agent: Les Importations Olea Inc. 

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