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Jacky Blisson

Education Reviews Wines

EIGHT APPELLATIONS, EIGHT WINES FROM THE MÉDOC

wines from the medoc
Photo credit: Philippe Caumes

The Médoc region of Bordeaux is famous for its cru classés châteaux and its refined, ageworthy Cabernet-Sauvignon, Merlot blends. However, wines from the Médoc can also be incredibly affordable, offering great value for every day consumption.

Médoc Geography

The Médoc region is located north of Bordeaux, on the left bank of the Gironde estuary. Over 16,000 hectares of vineyards are planted here, spread over eight appellations. Heading north from the city of Bordeaux, these are: Haut-Médoc, Margaux, Moulis-en-Médoc, Listrac-Médoc, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, Saint-Estèphe, and Médoc.

The Médoc region has a warm, maritime climate. Sandwiched between the Atlantic ocean and the Gironde estuary, the Médoc peninsula benefits from the temperature moderating effect and the air circulation provided by these two large bodies of water.  While spring and early summer can be fairly damp, dryer conditions later in the growing season allow for consistent most vintages.

The soils of the Médoc are quite diverse in nature. In the south-east, gravel-rich soils are most prevalent. These gravels, mixed with sand and other alluvial deposits, originate from two sources: the Massif Central and Pyrenees mountains. They were carried along the Dordogne and Garonne rivers respectively, over thousands of years. Gravel is prized for its ability to warm quickly in the spring, reflect heat up into the vines during the day, and radiate it at night, aiding with ripening. It is also free draining, encouraging deep vine rooting. Late ripening grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot are most planted in the gravelly soils of the Médoc.

In lower lying areas, and notably, as you move further north and west, heavier clay-limestone soils, often with quite stony surface layers, dominate. These cooler, water retaining soils are common in large swathes of the Médoc AOC, as well as the appellations of Moulis, Listrac and Saint-Estèphe.  Early to mid ripening grapes like Merlot and Cabernet Franc thrive in these clay-based areas, yielding fruity, fleshy wines that round out the often angular Cabernet Sauvignon.

For an excellent 3D ariel view of the Médoc vineyards, click here.

Photo credit: Conseil interprofessionnel du vin de bordeaux

Quality Classifications

Two quality hierarchies exist for wines from the Médoc. The most famous, the 1855 classification, ranks top châteaux in five tiers from Premier Grand Cru Classé (first growths) to Cinquième Grand Cru Classé (fifth growths). With few exceptions, this ranking has remained unchanged since its inception. To learn more about the history and debate surrounding the 1855 classification, listen to my audio overview here.

A second estate classification system, Cru Bourgeois, was established in 1932 to highlight high-quality wines from the Médoc not included in the original list. This ranking has had quite a tumultuous history, with numerous revisions, an annulment, and much debate. The latest update was finalized as recently as February of this year. The 2020 Cru Bourgeois classification includes 249 châteaux ranked in three categories: Cru Bourgeois, Cru Bourgeois Supérieurs, Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnels. The ranking is set to be revised every five years, and all estates up for consideration must hold the French agricultural sustainability certification: Haute Valeur Environnementale. 

Earlier this month I tuned in to a virtual seminar on wines from the Médoc, which gave an overview of each of the appellation and highlighted one wine from the area.

MÉDOC AOC

The region-wide Médoc AOC can be used for any wine produced within the Médoc production area. For example, producers in Margaux or Saint-Julien may choose to declassify to Médoc AOC, potentially for young vines or areas of the vineyard yielding less ripe or pristine fruit. However, this practice is not frequently seen.

The appellation is generally reserved for the designated Médoc AOC section of vineyards that covers the northern third of the Médoc peninsula. This large area has 5,560 hectares of vines planted on mixed gravel and clay-limestone soils. Wine styles vary widely, depending on site and producer, but tend to be fashioned in a light, early-drinking, approachable style, with minimal oak ageing.

Merlot is the dominant grape here, and tends to make up the lion’s share of blends. Wines from the Médoc AOC are notably good value in warmer vintages, where grapes ripen fully, yielding wines with greater concentration, and more vibrant fruit flavours. Recent such vintages include 2015, 2016, 2018.

Château Tour St. Bonnet Médoc 2015 – 87pts. PW

The 2015 Château Tour St. Bonnet is a blend of 65% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot. It is vinified in concrete tanks and aged for 18 months in the same vessel. The hot, sunny 2015 growing conditions are apparent in the ripe red fruited nose, the smooth, supple structure, and velvety tannins. Fairly linear and short on the finish, but overall a pleasant, every day Bordeaux with attractive savoury undertones.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($23.85)

LISTRAC-MÉDOC

Listrac-Médoc neighbours Moulis-en-Médoc to the north. It boasts a marginally higher elevation than surrounding vineyards, reaching 43 metres at its highest point. Small in Médoc terms, with just 787 hectares of vines, Listrac-Médoc represents 5% of the Médoc vineyard area. The soils composition consists of three Pyrenean gravel terraces to the west, a Garonne gravel outcrop to the east, and a large central, flat land of clay-limestone.

This more marginal vineyard area is buffeted by strong winds and thus tends to ripen quite slowly. In warm vintages, this slow rate of berry maturation is an advantage, allowing for good acid retention and full phenolic development. However, in cooler growing seasons, Listrac-Médoc wines can be quite lean and vegetal.

Château Vieux Moulin Listrac-Médoc 2016 (Cru Bourgeois) – 88pts. PW

A blend of 58% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Petit Verdot, the Château Vieux Moulin 2016 is aged for 12 months in, mainly seasoned, French oak barrels. Restrained aromas of dark fruit, tobacco leaf, and hints of bell pepper on the nose. Brisk acidity on the attack, followed by a moderately firm, somewhat angular palate, with moderate concentration of tangy red and black fruit, with underlying dried herbal notes. Attractive chalky tannins frame the finish.

Moulis-en-Médoc

This narrow strip of vineyard land lies just north of Margaux, touching Listrac-Médoc. It is the smallest appellation of the Médoc, with 610 hectares planted, and 46 wine producers. The western part of the region is a fairly flat expanse with mainly sandy-clay soils. The central area features gravelly top soils with underlying clay-limestone layers. In the easternmost vineyards, closest to Margaux’s northern border, outcrops of Garonne gravels are highly prized vineyard soils.

Quality is variable depending on producer and vineyard site. Neither Moulis-en-Médoc nor Listrac-Médoc contain classed growth châteaux, however both have reputed Cru Bourgeois estates. Some famous names in Moulis-en-Médoc include Château Chasse-Spleen, Château Poujeaux, and Château Garricq.

Château La Garricq Moulis-en-Médoc 2015 (Cru Bourgeois) – 90pts. PW 

This blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 20% Petit Verdot is aged for 12 months in 1/3 new French oak. This is evident from the spicy, cedar notes on the nose, mingled with black fruit, dark chocolate, and hints of graphite. The palate shows more harmonious oak integration, with its concentrated red and black fruit flavours, tangy acidity, broad structure, and plush texture. Firm, ripe tannins frame the finish nicely.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($34.75)

HAUT-MÉDOC

The Haut-Medoc appellation stretches some 60 kilometres in length from just north of the city of Bordeaux, to north west of Saint-Estèphe. Due to its size, and diversity of soil types, orientations, aspects, proximity or distance from the Gironde, and so forth, wine style and quality from the Haut-Médoc is incredibly varied.

For much of its history, the Haut-Médoc, as well as the appellations along its north-south expanse, were salt marshes, unusable for viticulture. In the 17th century, Dutch merchants drained the marshes to expand Bordeaux vineyard acreage.

The majority of the Médoc’s Cru Bourgeois Supérieurs and Exceptionnels estates, as well as five cru classé châteaux are located in the Haut-Médoc.

Château de Gironville Haut-Médoc 2016 (Cru Bourgeois) – 91pts. PW

Château de Gironville is situated in the commune of Macau, just south of Margaux, near the mouth of the Garonne River. The estate boasts deep, fine gravel soils on their Cru Bourgeois ranked property. This blend of equal parts Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon is completed with 10% Petit Verdot. According to estate director, Yannick Reyrel, the Petit Verdot gives an intriguing peppery, fruity nuance to the blend and the gravel soils bring a suave texture.

Initally closed. High toned plum, cassis, and dark cherry aromas emerged with aeration, underscored by complexifying notes of black licorice, nutmeg, and earth. Fresh, full-bodied, and stylish on the palate with lively dark fruit flavours, ripe, polished tannins, and a lengthy finish. Drinking well now, with 4 – 5 years ageing potential.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($30.00, $62.00 for magnums)

SAINT-ESTÈPHE

Saint Estèphe is the northermost and largest of the cru appellations within the Haut-Médoc. The region’s 1,229 hectares of vineyards are spread across an undulating landscape, with gentle hillsides reaching 20 metres at their highest point. While gravel-rich soils are prevalent, notably at higher elevations, Saint Estèphe has significant areas of clay-dominant soils, with a limestone bedrock. Greater concentrations of clay in Saint-Estèphe equate to wider plantings of Merlot, giving the bold, full-bodied wines of the area a certain mid-palate roundness.

Saint Estèphe has a mere five cru classé estates. However its best properties, including second growths, Château Cos d’Estournel and Château Montrose, and third growth, Château Calon-Ségur, are highly esteemed.

Château Beau-Site St. Estèphe 2015 (Cru Bourgeois) – 92pts. PW  

Château Beau-Site overlooks the Garonne River, from one of Saint-Estèphe’s higher grounds. The stony soils of the estate are deep and free-draining. The 2015 vintage is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc, aged 18 months in 35% new French oak.  Intense aromas of prune, mocha, and pencil shavings, are lifted by underlying hints of menthol and red currant. The palate is remarkably fresh, given the hot summer, with concentrated flavours of dark chocolate, black fruit, menthol, and cedar, and a dense, weighty structure. Excellent length and balance. Drinking well now.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($43.75)

MARGAUX

Margaux is the southernmost of the Haut-Médoc cru appellations, situated near the confluence of the Garonne and Gironde rivers. Vast quantities of Garonne gravel cover Margaux’s central area. This nutrient-poor soil is has excellent drainage stimulating deep vine rooting. Margaux has a marginally warmer mesoclimate than surrounding areas. The wines of the area are often described as quite velvety in texture, with floral overtones, and exotic spice nuances.

With its 1500 hectares of vines, Margaux accounts for 9% of the Médoc region’s vineyards. Among its 65 producers, Margaux has a whopping 21 classed growth châteaux – more than any other Médoc appellation. The region also boasts a number of highly regarded Cru Bourgeois estates.

Château d’Arsac Margaux 2014 (Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel) – 89pts. PW 

Château d’Arsac is a well-regarded 112-hectare property in the western part of the appellation. This blend of 53% Cabernet Sauvignon and 47% Merlot is reflective of the cooler 2014 vintage with its restrained bell pepper, dried herbal, and tart red currant aromas. The palate is far more inviting, with brisk acidity nicely balancing a broad, textural mid-palate and moderate concentration of dark fruit, graphite, and herbal flavours. Overall, a pleasant, supple wine – yet lacking the depth and opulence of top Margaux.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($38.50)

SAINT-JULIEN

Bordering the Gironde, just south of Pauillac, lies Saint-Julien. The 910 hectares of the appellation are planted on fairly uniform, gravel-rich soils. This factor is given as an explanation for the impressive concentration of classed growth estates here. Indeed, of a total 19 wine producers in Saint-Julien, 11 were included in the 1855 classification. There are no first growth vineyards in Saint-Julien, but its second growths are often referred to as “super seconds” inferring that they are worthy of first growth status. These include: Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, Chateau Gruaud-Larose, Léoville-Las Cases, Léoville-Barton, and Léoville-Poyferré.

The wines of Saint-Julien are often described as a combination of the silkiness and floral elegance of Margaux, with Pauillac’s power and heft.

Sarget de Gruaud Larose St. Julien 2016 – 94pts. LW

Sarget is the second label from Château Gruaud Larose. The 2016 cuvée is made from 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, and  4% Petit Verdot. Fragrant aromas of black plum, raspberry, violets, and exotic spice feature on the highly complex nose. The palate is full-bodied and firm, with a highly concentrated core of tangy red and black fruit, savoury notes, and subtle cedar nuances. Very polished and precise overall, with fine-grained tannins and a lengthy finish. Drinking well now, but should improve over the next eight to ten years.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($54.00)

PAUILLAC

The vineyard region of Pauillac is named for the Gironde port town of the same name. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates on the region’s gravel rich soils. However, marked variations in the depth, origin, and concentration of gravels across higher and lower lying sites leads to significant quality differences. In general terms, the wines of Pauillac are considered the most muscular and long lived of the Médoc, with notable cassis and graphite aromas.

Pauillac is the only Haut-Médoc cru appellation with two first growth estates: Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Mouton Rothschild. In all, Pauillac consists of 1213 hectares of vines, and has 18 classed growth estates.

Lacoste-Borie Pauillac 2016 – 93pts. LW

This is the second wine from fifth growth, Château Grand Puy Lacoste. The 2016 blend features 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc, aged in 45% new French oak for 15 months. Classic Pauillac aromas of cassis, dark plum, graphite, cedar, and hints of earthy, black truffle feature on the attractive, highly complex nose. The palate is lively, with a dense, full-bodied structure, and excellent depth of savoury, dark fruited flavours. Well-knit cedar nuances and firm, quite muscular tannins mark the finish. Would show best with six to eight years further cellaring, though has the power to hold nicely for another decade.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($59.00)

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

Médoc Wine
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TASTING THE TORRES ANTOLOGIA WINES

Torres Antologia

The Familia Torres Antologia wines are a collection of the Spanish powerhouse winery’s top five bottlings. According to Torres, this range represents the family’s most prized terroirs – they hold cherished historical significance, with a combination of old vines, mesoclimate, soil composition, and topography that set them apart.

Familia Torres’ 150 Year History

In the 150 years since Jaime and Miguel Torres established Torres y Compañia in Penedès, the winery has seen five generations successively take up the reins. And with each changing of the guard came new innovations. Miguel Torres Carbó was the first in the region to bottle wine. Miguel A. Torres is largely credited for modernizing Spanish winemaking practices and bringing international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon to Catalonia.

The current generation has been instrumental in reviving ancient grape varieties in Penedès and neighbouring regions. Ancestral Spanish cultivars like Moneu, Querol, and Garró had all but disappeared post Phylloxera. Miguel and Mireia Torres Maczassek are slowly replanting these forgotten grapes to preserve their region’s viticultural heritage.

Spurred on by Miguel A. Torres’ passion and dynamism, the family is also leading the way globally in terms of winery sustainability. In 2019, the Familia Torres co-founded International Wineries for Climate Action to “galvanize the global wine community towards creating climate change mitigation strategies and decarbonizing the industry”.  From 2008 to 2019, the company reduced their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per bottle by 30%, and target a 55% reduction by 2030.

Familia Torres Antologia Tasting

In celebration of their 150th anniversary, a series of Torres Antologia tastings were organized. Participants received an elegant wood case of judiciously sized, 187-millilitre samples and an invitation to virtually taste through the range with chief winemaker, Josep Sabarich.

In discussions with wine professionals (and enthusiasts alike) I am regularly faced with a tiresome stereotype: that boutique-scale wineries necessarily produce more complex and interesting wines than their high-volume counterparts. They dismiss the idea that a winery can produce both commercial, mass-market brands and serious, single vineyard wines. Having worked for a producer who ably proved this possible, I am always keen to see what “terroir wines” look like from bigger bottlers.

The Torres Antologia tasting started with the only white wine in the line up, followed by a range of four reds:

Milmanda

Milmanda is a white wine made exclusively from Chardonnay. It is sourced from a Torres’ vineyard planted in the early 1980s in the Conca de Barberà DO. This inland growing region is located in south central Catalonia between two rivers, the Riu Sec and El Francoli. The soils are a red, silty clay formed by alluvial deposits. In a region where summer rainfall is scarce, the high water holding capacity of these clay-rich soils is crucial. The vines are forced to dig down deep for sustenance, resulting in low yields of concentrated fruit.

The 2017 vintage was particularly dry, with 40% less rainfall than an average growing season. It was also a warm year, though cooler conditions prior to harvest allowed for good acid retention. The Milmanda parcel is hand harvested. Fermentation is started in tank at cool, 16°c to preserve freshness. At the mid-way mark, the wines are transferred to barrels to allow for harmonious oak integration. Malolactic fermentation is blocked half way in further efforts to retain vibrancy. The wine is then aged on its fine lees in 50% new French oak for four to six months before racking to stainless steel tanks for a further 10 to 14 months with regular bâtonnage throughout.

Torres “Milmanda” Conca de Barberà DO 2017 has attractive aromas of lemon, yellow pear, acacia, and beeswax on the nose. The palate is fresh, broad, and subtly creamy, with moderately concentrated notes of juicy yellow fruit, grilled notes and hints of crème caramel. Round and faintly warming on the finish –  89pts. LW. Where to Buy: Inquire with Canadian agent Vins Dandurand for Torres Antologia wines (Winesearcher average price for Milmanda 2017: $68.00 CAD).

Mas La Plana

This iconic Torres cuvée hails from 60-year-old organically farmed Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in the Turons de Vilafranca subzone of Penedès. This vineyard is on the site of the Torres winery. The vines are planted on a slope ranging in altitude from 180 to 240 metres above sea level.  The soils are very deep, diverse in nature, and of alluvial origin. They are moderately coarse, with layers of gravel, sand, silt, and clay; giving them good water holding potential. Huge efforts have been made in recent years to protect and improve biodiversity in the vineyard. The creation of wildlife corridors, planting of cover crops, installation of insectariums, use of integrated pest management techniques, and move to electric tractors are just some of the main initiatives in place.  Vineyard planting on this site began at the beginning of the 1960s, with many original vines still in existence.

Mas La Plana is fermented in a combination of vessels. Sabarich prefers large wooden vats for vineyard areas with warmer soils. These sites yield smaller grapes, with greater concentration and firmer tannic structure. He uses stainless steel for the cooler areas where grapes are larger and more acidic. Gentle punch downs helps with extraction, as does an extended maceration of up to two weeks. Ageing occurs in 85% new French oak in 300 to 500 litre casks.

Torres “Mas La Plana” Penedès DO 2016 is remarkably fresh given the hot, dry growing season. Ripe red currant, black cherry, and cassis mingle with notes of cigar box, graphite, and cedar on the complex, harmonious nose. The palate is firm and dense, with excellent depth of black fruit, dark chocolate, and cedar spice flavours. Tannins are muscular, yet ripe and fine-grained. Finishes long, with overt toasty oak and vibrant dark fruit – 92pts. LW. Where to Buy: Inquire with Canadian agent Vins Dandurand for Torres Antologia wines (Winesearcher average price for Mas La Plana 2016: $85.00 CAD)

Reserva Real

This blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Cabernet Franc, and 12% Merlot comes from the four-hectare vineyard, Les Arnes, in the Costers de l’Anoia subzone of Penedès. This area is due north of Mas La Plana. The site’s rocky Silurian slate soils are dark in colour, absorbing heat throughout the day and aiding with ripening. They are mineral-rich and free draining, yet quite shallow as hard rock blocks the vine from deeper rooting.

Grapes for Reserva Real are hand harvested. The three varieties are vinified separately, with a similarly long maceration and gentle extraction as Mas La Plana. However, instead of ageing in larger foudres (casks), Reserva Real is aged in new 225 litre French barrels for 18 months.

Torres Reserva Real Penedès DO 2016 is incredibly suave, with high-toned aromas of dark plum, cassis, cedar, menthol, and graphite on the nose. Intriguing earthy, black truffle notes emerge with aeration. Multifaceted in structure; initially brisk and quite firm, then broadening and deepening on the dense, flavourful mid-palate, tapering to elegant, polished tannins. Dark fruit, savoury nuances, and cedar-spice linger on the finish. Merits additional cellaring – 94pts LW. Where to Buy: Inquire with Canadian agent Vins Dandurand for Torres Antologia wines (Winesearcher average price for Reserva Real 2016: $167.00 CAD)

Gran Muralles

The Gran Muralles is a Mediterranean blend of mainly Garnacha and Cariñena, with small additions of Monastrell and native varieties Querol and Garró. Sabarich feels that “Garnacha brings the soul, while Cariñena provides the backbone of Gran Muralles”. He likes Monastrell for its bright fruit. Querol and Garró are among the grape varieties that the Familia Torres is endeavouring to bring back from near extinction in Catalonia. According to Sabarich, they add a hint of rusticity which furthers the aromatic complexity of the blend. The six-hectare vineyard site for Gran Muralles neighbours Milmanda, in the Conca de Barberà DO. This hilly plot features deep rocky, slate and granite-based soils with sandy areas.

The 2016 growing season was markedly different in Conca de Barberà as compared to Penedès. The weather was distinctly cool and rainy, producing a fresh and fruity style of wine. Much like Reserva Real, the Gran Muralles varieties are vinified separately, and then aged in new French oak barrels for 18 months before bottling.

Torres Gran Muralles Conca de Barberà DO 2016 has a seductive floral perfume, underscored by ripe blue and black fruit, baking spice, and toasty, nutty hints. Bright acidity and a moderately firm structure counterbalance the plush, richly textured mouthfeel, intensity of ripe black fruit and cocoa flavours. Hints of cedar and spice from extended oak ageing are nicely integrated. Finishes smooth and very long – 94pts. LW. Where to Buy: Inquire with Canadian agent Vins Dandurand for Torres Antologia wines (Winesearcher average price for Gran Muralles 2016: $220.00 CAD)

Mas de la Rosa

Tucked away in a secluded valley of the Priorat near Poboleda, this small 1.86-hectare plot of 80-year old Garnacha and Cariñena was first vinified by the Familia Torres in 2016. The vineyard is perched on a sharply angled slope of nearly 30% grade. All vineyard work is done by hand, or by horse, due to the steepness of the hillside and the bush vine plantings. The parcel faces northeast and is shaded from midday onwards. This, coupled with the moderately high, 420 metre altitude create a cooling effect that preserves freshness in the wines. The soils are a pure, disintegrated slate called llicorella. They are shallow, nutrient-poor soils that encourage the vines to root deeply.

The 2017 growing season in Priorat was very hot and dry in the spring through to mid-summer, with marginally cooler conditions at harvest. Small berries produced dense, richly coloured wines. After an eight to nine day cold soak, fermentation takes place at cooler, 24°c temperatures “to avoid creating a massive wine, and losing the soul of the grapes”, explained Sabarich. The blend is then aged for 16-months in new French oak barrels.

Torres Mas de la Rosa Priorat DOQ 2017 is initially shy, but gains in intensity with aeration. Crushed raspberry and blue fruit aromas gain in complexity with the development of savoury undertones and violet hints. The palate is medium in body, with a very focused quality and a seductive, silky texture giving way to fine, powdery tannins. Lively, concentrated red fruit flavours mingle with stony mineral hints on the finish – 93pts. LW. Where to Buy: Inquire with Canadian agent Vins Dandurand for Torres Antologia wines (Winesearcher average price for Mas de la Rosa 2017: $312.00 CAD)

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

 

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SIX WINES FOR THE WEEK-END

SIX WINES FOR THE WEEK-END!

The week-end is here, and yes, you may be thinking to yourself…meh, week day, week-end, what difference does it make? Wine. Wine is the difference. We can’t go out to restaurants at the moment, so why not splurge on a nicer bottle of wine and make a complicated recipe from that cookbook gathering dust in your kitchen cabinet?

I have been tasting up a storm over the past few weeks, traveling via my wine glass. I visited the Russian River Valley with the wines of Gary Farrell. I toured top tier vineyard sites of the Penedès and Priorat with Familia Torres’ Antologia range. I strolled through the gravelly flat lands of the Médoc, stopping at each of its eight appellations. And I spent a happy morning exploring Chablis, the Côte d’Or, and Côte Chalonnaise, while tasting Burgundy En Primeur 2019 wines. Those latter two articles should be out next week.

In the meanwhile, assorted samples have been gathering dust on my desk, my floor, my wine rack, etc. Their accusing looks from across the room finally wore me down, so this morning I gathered them up and grabbed a glass. Without further ado, here are six wines for the week-end – a selection of my top picks from the tasting.

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

Best for Brunch

Ponte G Pinot Grigo delle Venezie, Vino Spumante Brut (Veneto, Italy) – 87pts. VW

Pleasant aromas of white pear, apple, and hints of spice on the nose. The palate is medium in body, with smooth, rounded bubbles, fresh, stone fruit flavours, and a subtly fruity, brut finish. Similar to a Prosecco, with a bit more body, and less frothy bubbles.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($16.75)

Best for Spicy Asian Dishes

Albert Mann Gewürztraminer 2018 (Alsace, France) – 90 pts. PW

If not carefully managed, Gewürztraminer can become a little flabby, soft, and overly sweet on the palate. The organically-farmed Albert Mann 2018 is a testament to how fine it can be in skillful hands. Nuanced aromas of white blossoms, lychee, spice, and apricots feature on the nose. The palate is wonderfully silky and layered, with a lifted, fresh finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($34.25)

Best for Roasted Fowl & Mellow Earthy Flavours

La Grange Tiphaine Clef de Sol Montlouis-sur-Loire 2018 (Loire Valley, France) – 94pts. PW

I almost swooned when I tasted this white. It just checks all the boxes for me. This nose has classic Loire Chenin Blanc aromas (red apple, raw honey, nutmeg, and earthy nuances) that gain in intensity and depth with aeration. The palate is full-bodied and boldly flavoured with tangy, yet honeyed orchard fruit overlying savoury hints. Crisp acidity brings lift and vibrancy, while a subtly creamy, layered mid-palate gives huge textural appeal. Decant one hour before serving.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($37.00)

Best for Gourmet Pizza

Head High Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2018 (California, USA) – 90pts. PW

Vivid aromas of red cherry, pomegranate, and mixed spice on the nose. The palate is true to its origin, marrying mouth watering acidity with a plush texture and ripe red fruit flavours. Finishes smooth and fresh, with delicate green herbal nuances. Great value for the price.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($24.95)

Best for Bold Flavoured, Mildly Spiced Meals

Valley of the Moon “Cuvée de la Luna” 2014 (California, USA) – 89pts. PW

An interesting blend of 44% Zinfandel, 21% Syrah, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 10% Sangiovese. The nose is perfumed with ripe blackberry, candied cherry, and milk chocolate aromas. Full-bodied and velvety smooth on the palate, with fresh acidity giving vibrancy to the blue and black fruit flavours. Finishes with subtle sweet tobacco and spicy oak nuances.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($27.40)

Best for Refined French Cuisine & for the Cellar

Château La Tour de By Médoc 2016 (Bordeaux, France) – 92pts. PW

Another exceptional value that drinks way above its humble appellation and mid $20 price point. The 2016 vintage is excellent throughout Bordeaux, with lots of great finds at affordable prices. The sustainably-farmed Château La Tour de By offers attractive red currant, plum, red pepper, and cedar hints on the nose. The palate is brisk and tightly knit, with vibrant red and black fruit flavours mingling with earthy undertones. The tannins are firm, yet fine-grained and elegant. Will cellar well over the next four to six years. Decant an hour before serving.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($26.50)

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TASTING THE WINES OF GARY FARRELL

wines of gary farrell
Photo credit: Gary Farrell Vineyards (winery, eagle’s nest view)

The wines of Gary Farrell are a testament to the unique and contrasting climate of the Russian River Valley. Plunging your nose in a glass of the 2017 Chardonnay, the ripeness of fruit evokes warmth and abundant sunshine, and yet lipsmacking acidity greets you on the taut, lively palate. The wines are a study in opposites, that most definitely attract.

Gary Farrell launched his eponymous wine label back in 1982. At the time, Napa was starting to gain worldwide attention thanks to the efforts of pioneers like Robert Mondavi, and the media attention garnered from the 1976 Judgement of Paris. However, on the other side of the Mayacamas mountains, Sonoma County remained a discreet and rugged frontierland. That is not to say exciting developments were not afoot. In the Russian River Valley, wineries like Davis Bynum were quietly proving how well suited cool climate varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were to the region’s cool, Pacific-influenced climate.

Farrell got his start at Davis Bynum, initially as an apprentice and finally as head winemaker. When he bottled his first wine, it was with fruit sourced from renowned local growers like Rochioli, Allen, and Hallberg, using the winery at Davis Bynum. By the late 1990s, the wines of Gary Farrell were widely respected, and production had expanded sufficiently to warrant construction of his own winery. Farrell chose a secluded, area in Healdsburg, the heartland of the Russian River Valley, to build his facility.

Today, the property is owned by an investment group including Bill Price, of reputed Sonoma and Napa Chardonnay specialist, Kistler Vineyards. Farrell may no longer be involved, but his legacy remains. Many of the same grower partnerships, established with a handshake nearly 40 years ago, hold strong. Since 2012, experienced local winemaker, and former chemist, Theresa Heredia has crafted the Gary Farrell wine style. In 2019, the winery attained “Year 2 Status” as a California Certified Sustainable Winemaking (CCSW) winery.

Last week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Theresa (virtually), to chat Russian River, how she crafts the wines of Gary Farrell, and taste a couple recent releases.

Russian River Valley Overview

Russian River Valley Map

Image credit: Gary Farrell Vineyards

The Sonoma County AVA (American Viticultural Area) of Russian River Valley begins on a sharp bend in the Russian River, where it changes its north-south course to head westward toward the Pacific coast. Many liken the region’s shape to a heart, extending south and west over a roughly 25-kilometre span in both directions. Despite decidedly warm, sunny day-time temperatures, the climate is generally deemed cool due to the heavy fogs that permeate the area, slipping through the Petaluma Gap to the south and via a wind tunnel formed by the Russian River, to the west. This phenomenon results in significant diurnal variation, with night time lows up to 20ºC cooler than day time highs.

Just over 6000 hectares are planted here, mainly to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as some coveted old vine Zinfandel. The region consists of five vineyard areas (or neighbourhoods as they are called locally): Middle Reach, Santa Rosa Plain, Green Valley, Sebastopol Hills, and Laguna Ridge. Each of these neighbourhoods has a distinct mesoclimate, elevation, soil composition, and so forth. The wines of Gary Farrell are made from grapes sourced through longstanding grower partnerships across the valley, producing blends with complimentary elements from various sites, as well as single vineyard cuvées.

Green Valley, the foggiest, coolest neighbourhood of Russian River Valley due to its location closest to the coast, possesses such an individual character that it has been granted separate sub-AVA status within the Valley. It is from the sandy soils of the Hallberg Vineyard located here, that Heredia sources one of Gary Farrell’s most admired Chardonnays.

Gary Farrell Sustainability Commitments

Sonoma County is committed to leading the way in terms of vineyard and winery sustainability. In fact, in 2014 the region set themselves the goal of achieving 100% sustainability for the sector. By 2019, they had achieved 99% of their target. At Gary Farrell, sustainability initiatives include a solar array spanning the length of the winery roof that defrays 93% of the property’s power usage. Their parking lot includes Tesla/EV charging stations to encourage electric car use among staff and visitors. As part of their progression through the CCSW certification process, the winery is developing a continuous improvement plan assessing areas like water conservation, enery efficiency, waste management, social sustainability, and so forth.

The wines of Gary Farrell are made from over three-quarters certified sustainable Chardonnay vineyard sources, and nearly 90% certified sustainable Pinot Noir partners.

Gary Farrell Winemaking & Tasting Notes

Chardonnay Winemaking

Freshness and vibrancy of fruit are key watchwords for Heredia. She prefers to harvest early, when Chardonnay reaches 21 to 23 brix. “My ideal scenario” says Heredia “is Chardonnay with a pH between 3.2 to 3.5 and total acidity of 7 to 9 grams/litre, but obviously this doesn’t always happen!”. After experimenting with varying periods of skin contact, she concluded that she generally prefers the fresh, more delicate quality of rapidly pressed whites. Heredia uses a range of different pressing techniques, each tailored specifically to the Chardonnay source and clone. Fermentation and ageing takes place in lightly toasted barrels on fine lees, using a careful selection of yeasts including Burgundian favourite RC212 and Montrachet.

Gary Farrell Chardonnay “Russian River Selection” 2017

The “Russian River Selection” cuvée is made from a blend of grower partner sites in the Middle Reach, Laguna Ridge, and Santa Rosa Plain neighbourhoods (including Rochioli, Rochioli-Allen, Bacigalupi, Westside Farms, Olivet Lane, and Martinelli). The harvest took place during a total eclipse, at a frenetic pace to beat a forecasted intense heat wave. Ageing lasted nine months, in 35% new French oak.

Initially shy, the nose reveals complex notes of ripe lemon, poached pear, white blossoms, and hints of buttered toast with aeration. The palate is defined by zesty acidity, a taut structure, medium body, and tangy white grapefruit and yellow fruit notes. A subtle layered creaminess comes through on the long, dry, delicately toasted finish. A vibrant, refined Chardonnay with harmonious oaked undertones. Still quite tightly-knit, would benefit from another year or two in cellar for the acidity to soften.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($53.25)

Pinot Noir Winemaking

Heredia has an equally restrained, site-specific approach when it comes to Pinot Noir. She harvests at 22 – 24 brix. Decisions on whether to destem or vinify whole clusters differ depending on the vintage and vineyard, though she likes the “tannin structure, backbone, and spice” that whole cluster fermentation can bring to Pinot Noir. After a three – five day cold soak, must is fermented at cooler temperatures with gentle punch downs, using wild yeasts when possible. Lightly toasted barrels are also employed for Pinot Noir ageing.

Gary Farrell Pinot Noir “Hallberg Vineyard” 2016

Sourced from the Hallberg vineyard site in the cool Green Valley sub-AVA, and aged 15 months in 40% new French oak, this Pinot Noir is fragrant and floral, with vibrant black cherry, exotic spice, and tea leaf aromas. Medium weight on the palate, with brisk acidity, nicely balanced by concentrated flavours of juicy red and black fruits with mocha undertones. Elegant, moderately firm tannins with just a touch of refreshing bitterness that adds interest on the finish.  Drinking well now for lovers of more taut, high acid reds, otherwise cellar for three to four years to allow a more supple expression to develop.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($57.00)

 

Education Reviews

WITHIN THE REGIONAL APPELLATIONS OF BURGUNDY

regional appellations of burgundy
The Regional Appellations of Burgundy Revised. Photo credit: Charnay-les-Mâcon, BIVB / Aurélien Ibanez

When the notion of terroir is evoked, Burgundy is often top of mind for wine lovers.  The painstaking work of the Cistercian monks in the Middle Ages laid down the foundations for the patchwork of unique terroirs (called climats) that define the region today.

While wine enthusiasts the world over are familiar with Burgundy’s famous village, premier cru, and grand cru AOCs, the regional appellations of Burgundy possess similarly detailed vineyard lieux-dits that are decidedly less well understood. And yet, this tier accounts for over half of total production

Burgundy Appellation Overview 

Image credit: bourgogne-wines.com

Quality-minded viticulturists and wine producers the world over have emulated the Burgundian model of carving vineyards into blocks or plots based on individual mesoclimates, soil types, and topographical features. While enthusiasts applaud this origin-specific approach, detractors suggest that creating layer upon layer of appellations, sub-appellations, single vineyards and so forth is an overcomplication in the already complex world of wine. The risk of overwhelming new consumers, already tasked with comprehending grape variety, region, and vintage differences, is indeed high.

So when I initially learned that Burgundy had formalized sub-divisions (some admittedly pre-existing, others new) within the seemingly simple Bourgogne and Mâcon AOCs, I shook my head in despair. These sub-divisions of the Bourgogne and Mâcon AOC are called Dénominations Géographiques Complémentaires (additional geographical indications, or DGIs). There are now 14 DGIs within the Bourgogne AOC and 27 DGIs within the Mâcon AOC.

Sound complicated? That is what I thought. And then, I sat down with François Labet, president of the Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB), to gain a better understanding of the regional appellations of Burgundy.

Why the Regional DGIs are Useful

Continued high demand, coupled with low production volumes for the village to grand cru tier is making Burgundy less and less attainable for the average wine lover. The idea that Burgundy has become too expensive could serve to drive consumers away, and yet a quick search on the SAQ website reveals over 100 wines at or under $25/bottle.

New wine lovers, who are perhaps familiar with Burgundy’s reputation, but lack the means (or the inclination) to spend a fortune on their first bottle, are starting at the regional level. If the essence of Burgundy is its terroir-focused, climat approach doesn’t it make sense that the regional appellations of Burgundy also reflect their wide diversity of vineyard sites?

As an example, the regional Bourgogne AOC can be used for Chardonnays or Pinot Noirs made from across a swathe of vineyards stretching from Chablis to Beaujolais. Without even considering the wide variety of soil types, altitudes, orientations, etc., the sheer difference in climate from north to south is significant.

When selecting a Bourgogne blanc, the consumer has little idea whether it will be a racy, taut Chablis style wine or a sun-baked, rounded Mâconnais look-a-like (although the latter is more likely). However, if the Bourgogne blanc carried the additional mention “Côtes d’Auxerre”, the curious oenophile could quickly establish that the wine originates from a northerly terroir, west of Chablis, giving them a far clearer idea of the potential wine style.

This is great for involved wine enthusiasts, but what of my initial concern that casual imbibers will be overwhelmed by these additional complexities?

In examining the labels of new regional appellations of Burgundy – those with DGIs – my fears were assuaged. Bourgogne (or Mâcon) remain the AOC, and the prominent mention on the label. Consumers who don’t want to delve further can simply ignore the additional geographic mentions, much as they would a cuvée name.

Also, a number of these place names, like Bourgogne’s Hautes Côtes de Beaune or Mâcon’s Lugny are far from new to Burgundy lovers. They have existed in official capacities for many years, but have now been formally classified within this DGI sub-appellation style hierarchy.

The Seven Regional Appellations of Burgundy 

The regional tier of AOC wines accounts for 52% of Burgundy’s total output. White wine reigns in terms of production, making up more than half of production. Red wine volume is 27%, Crémant makes up 21%, and rosé a mere 1%.

  1. Bourgogne AOC * – Pinot Noir (some César in the Yonne) or Chardonnay wines produced across designated vineyards from Chablis to Beaujolais
  2. Bourgogne Aligoté AOCused for white, Aligoté wines made across designated areas of the Burgundy region
  3. Bourgogne Mousseux AOCused for red sparkling wines made across designated areas of the Burgundy region
  4. Bourgogne Passe-tout-grains AOC – used for rosé and red wines made from a minimum of 1/3 Pinot Noir and maximum of 2/3 Gamay, across designated areas of the Burgundy region
  5. Côteaux Bourguignons AOC – replaces the Bourgogne Ordinaire & Grand Ordinaire appellations; covers large stretches of Burgundy, more permissible white and red grape varieties vs. Bourgogne AOC 
  6. Crémant de Bourgogne AOCused for white and rosé traditional method sparkling wines made across designated areas of the Burgundy region
  7. Mâcon AOC * – used for white (mainly) and red wines made across the Mâcon region
    • Mâcon Villages exists within the Mâcon AOC, specifically for Chardonnay wines produced in 11 Mâconnais communes  

The Bourgogne & Mâcon Geographical Indications (DGIs)

Certain vineyard areas within the regional appellations of Burgundy: Bourgogne AOC and Mâcon AOC have the right to append their name to the AOC mention, indicating to consumers that the wine comes from a specific, named area. These Bourgogne or Mâcon “plus” wines, as François Labet calls them, must meet stricter production standards in terms of yield and ripening levels.

See the list of DGIs below, you can click on each one to learn more about them.

Bourgogne AOC:

Mâcon AOC:

 

Producers Reviews

TASTING THE WINES OF FLAT ROCK CELLARS

the wines of flat rock cellars
Photo credit: Flat Rock Cellars

Vintage after vintage, the wines of Flat Rock Cellars stand out for their approachable style and fine value for money. One could be forgiven for assuming that such consistency must be the result of formulaic winemaking. However, that, as I recently found out, is far from the case.

Ed Madronich opened his five-level gravity flow winery at the top of Niagara’s Twenty Mile Bench in the early 2000s. His ambitions were clear from the outset. From the careful mapping of vineyard blocks, to the selection of high-quality clones, to the installation of a geothermal heating and cooling system, and Sustainable Winemaking Ontario certification, the goal of making eco-responsible fine wines was clear.

Several equally impressive Ontario wineries got their start around the same time, investing similar time, money, and resources, with equally lofty objectives. What sets the wines of Flat Rock Cellars apart is their accessibility. Experimentation is rife at the winery, as it is in so many cellars, yet here, consumers are invited to follow along. Flat Rock bottles their trials so that customers can gain a deeper understanding of what different clones, terroirs, or winemaking methods bring to their wines.

In 2006, Flat Rock Cellars released a “clone research pack” consisting of four 2004 vintage Pinot Noirs. Three of the four wines were made from different Pinot Noir clones (Dijon clones 115, 667, and 777 for the nerdier among you). The fourth wine was a blend of the three clones that makes up the winery’s “Gravity” bottling. The pack was accompanied by a simple information sheet clearly explaining the impact different clones can have on a wine’s aromas and mouthfeel.

In the 2011 vintage, Pinot Noir was again featured, but this time from three different vineyard sites, offered as separate bottlings. The Pond Block, from a west-facing slope with abundant afternoon/evening sunshine and medium clay soils produced a ripe fruited, light bodied, early drinking red. The Summit Block, from a higher altitude planting, on a cool, windy, north-facing plot, gave a deep coloured, fuller bodied, bright acid style. Finally, the Bruce Block, the estate’s most northern parcel, with a south-facing slope, loamy soils on a limestone bedrock, yielded a structured, tannic wine requiring a few years’ cellaring.

The most recent experimental release is the Nature vs. Nurture series of 2017 vintage Pinot Noirs. The goal here is to show the impact yeast can make on wine flavour and texture. Both wines hail from the same vineyards and were vinified and aged in the same way. The only difference is that the Nature cuvée was made with wild yeast (natural yeast populations living on grape skins, as well as vineyard, and winery surfaces), while the Nurture was made with cultured yeast. The W15 strain was selected for its bright fruit and production of high glycerol levels giving a rounded mouthfeel.

Each of these experimental releases serves to draw back the curtain and teach consumers about different facets of the wonderfully complex world of winemaking. Efforts like this are to be applauded wherever they occur, but perhaps, especially in Canada. Ontario is a relatively young wine region still struggling to overcome an image of sweet, poor quality wines that dominated liquor store shelves into the 1980s.

While top-quality wine is now produced from coast to coast, we Canadians have been slow to adopt our wine industry. According to the Wine Growers Ontario organization, Canada is one of the lowest consumers of domestic wine among the top 16 largest wine consuming nations world-wide.

We are far quicker to champion the produce from our local farmers than our home-grown wines. And in a time where our wineries are suffering from the effects of dwindling tourism, limited capacity and/or closures at cellar doors, they need our support more than ever!

My notes from a recent: wines of Flat Rock Cellars (virtual) Pinot Noir tasting session:

Flat Rock Cellars Nature Pinot Noir 2017

Pale ruby in colour with brick hues. Wonderfully perfumed on the nose, with ripe strawberry, raspberry, floral, and tea leaf aromas. Reminiscent of Marlborough Pinot Noir aromatics. Really vibrant on the palate, with a silky texture and an initial lightness that gives way to surprising depth of tangy raspberry and orange peel flavours. Medium weight fine grained tannins and just a whisper of spicy, vanilla oak on the finish.

Where to Buy: very limited quantities, inquire with winery

Flat Rock Cellars Nurture Pinot Noir 2017

Marginally deeper in colour than the Nature, with a more discreet nose initially. With aeration, the Nurture reveals ripe red and dark fruit notes underscored by hints of mocha. Mouth-watering acidity brings lift and definition on the palate. This is a fuller, slightly more taut wine, with dark chocolate flavours mingling with tangy red berry and dark fruit flavours. Moderately firm tannins frame the delicately oaked finish.

Where to Buy: very limited quantities, inquire with winery

Flat Rock Cellars Estate Pinot Noir 2018

This, for me, is Flat Rock’s best value bottling. The Estate Pinot Noir has easy drinking appeal vintage after vintage, with its perky nose of ripe cherry, red berries, and hints of menthol. The palate hums with juicy acidity and tangy red berry flavours on a smooth, lightweight backdrop. Best slightly chilled (16 – 18°C).

Where to Buy: SAQ (23.95$), LCBO (22.95$)

Flat Rock Cellars Gravity Pinot Noir 2016

The Gravity cuvée is a weightier, fuller throttle Pinot Noir than the estate. Marked cedar and mocha notes on the nose, with underlying red currant, cherry, and herbal hints. Crisp acidity on the attack, with a dense, velvety core and overt roasted coffee, baking spice flavours overlying discreet red fruit notes. The tannins remain somewhat grippy. Cellar for 2 – 3 years further or decant a couple of hours before serving.

Where to Buy: SAQ (38.00$), LCBO (34.95$)

Flat Rock Cellars Riddled Sparkling 2017

Pleasantly open on the nose with ripe fruited notes of yellow apple, apricot, and honeyed hints. Crisp and lively on the palate, with firm, persistent bubbles, medium body, and a rounded, delicately creamy texture. Finishes dry, with bright apply flavours and intriguing hints of baker’s yeast. A bargain at under 30$ LCBO.

Blend: 61% Pinot Noir, 39% Chardonnay

Where to Buy: LCBO (27.75$), Québeckers…there is a shameful lack of Canadian bubbly at the SAQ, go forth & pester your local store staff (or just inquire with local agent: Langevin Inc.)

Flat Rock Cellars Riddled Sparkling 2010

This bottling is largely sold-out. It was sent to me to show how well sparkling wines can age when sealed with a crown cap (like beer bottles), which is Flat Rock Cellars’ preferred bubbly closure. The results are surprising. At ten years’ of age, this is a remarkably youthful wine, with its pale straw colour, and discreet aromas of chamomile, beeswax, and lemon. Very fine, silky bubbles and racy acidity on the attack, giving way to an expansive mid-palate brimming with roasted almond, brioche, and crème caramel flavours, befitting its 5+ years of lees ageing. The finish is long and layered, with bright citrus notes lifting the deeper, torrified notes.

Blend:  100% Chardonnay

 

 

Life Reviews Wines

Thanksgiving 2020 Wines & Reasons to Celebrate

Thanksgiving 2020 Wines

It is Turkey time! So let’s pick out some Thanksgiving 2020 wines. No, international readers, Thanksgiving is not solely an American holiday. We Canadians celebrate the bounty of harvest and the blessings of the year on the second Monday of October. Sure, many of you might be thinking that there is not much to be thankful for in these challenging times of deadly viruses, rampant wildfires, ongoing global conflict, and the uncertain future of democracy. But, I would like to offer the following anecdote as a counter argument.

A couple of years ago I met a charming Piedmontese wine producer at an Italian wine trade fair. He poured through a selection of wines that I greatly enjoyed and we had a very interesting conversation. Fast forward to last week and the delivery of a mystery bottle of wine to my door. It was a bottle of Barolo, offered as a gift to congratulate me on my Master of Wine success. When I wrote back to thank Gabriele for his generosity, he said that, especially in these hard times, we have to take every occasion to celebrate our victories. He signed off with the sentence, “thank God 2020 is not only about bad news”!

Bad news is indeed all around us – big and small. While I feel petty relating my trivial problems, the daily reality of living in a “red zone” – where gatherings are prohibited, quashing our Thanksgiving family gathering, and threatening to ruin our children’s Halloween festivities – is pretty glum. I am therefore all the more determined to seize every opportunity for fun. And what could be more fun than cooking a massive feast and pairing it with the perfect wines? Not. Much!

So here are my “screw the seriously messed up world situation, let’s eat some turkey and drink something delicious” Thanksgiving 2020 wines (or just regular old week-end) meal.

Under the “I’m just keeping it casual and need to save my pennies” category, I recommend these Thanksgiving 2020 wines:

Mont Gras “Amaral” Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Leyda Valley, Chile

Drink this while you are stuffing the turkey, chopping potatoes, and bopping along to your favourite tunes. Its lively, light bodied style and vibrant lemon, passion fruit, herbal aromas will keep your palate refreshed.

Where to Buy: SAQ (14.60$), Ontarians, try slightly pricier, but fantastic value San Pedro 1865

Maison Ogier Ventoux Rosé

This Southern Rhône Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault blend is the epitome of easy drinking charm with its soft, rounded mouthfeel and inviting candied red fruit aromas. This medium bodied, dry rosé is a perfect Turkey wine for your red wine averse friends.

Where to Buy: LCBO (14.55$), Québeckers, try the Maison Gassier Buti Nages Languedoc rosé

Châsse Galerie Languedoc Red, by Jean-Noël Bousquet 2017, Languedoc, France

Great value for the price, with baked dark fruit, chocolate, and subtly smoky notes on the nose. The palate is full bodied and velvety smooth, with ripe, rounded tannins and and a dry, bright-fruited finish. The combination of rich, ripe fruit and fairly unobtrusive tannins will compliment the turkey, stuffing, and savory side dishes.

Where to Buy: SAQ (15.35$), Ontarians, try the Mathilde Chapoutier Languedoc 2017

Under the “I am upping my game, but still want to keep things reasonable” category, check out these Thanksgiving 2020 wines:

Bisol Crede Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore 2019, Italy

A lovely, harmonious Prosecco with none of the frothy, mouth-filling bubbles of lesser examples. This dry, silky textured bubbly has delicate apple, pear, white floral aromas and a clean, fresh palate.

Where to Buy: SAQ (22.50$), Ontarians, try the Varaschin Prosecco Superiore DOCG

Domaine Labranche-Laffont Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh 2018, South-West, France

Another great apéritif white, with an intriguing, aromatic nose of star anise, beeswax, fresh almonds & citrus. The palate is racy and sleek, with tangy tangerine and grapefruit flavours lingering on the dry finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (24.45$)

Flat Rock Cellars Estate Pinot Noir 2018, Twenty Mile Bench, Ontario, Canada

The 2018 Estate Pinot Noir has perky aromas of ripe cherry, red berries, and hints of menthol. The palate hums with juicy acidity and tangy red berry flavours on a smooth, lightweight backdrop. Much like a tart, subtly sweet cranberry sauce, this Pinot will offset the richness of Thanksgiving fare perfectly.

Where to Buy: SAQ (23.95$), LCBO (22.95$)

Domaine Cazes “Marie Gabrielle” Côtes de Roussillon 2019, Languedoc-Roussillon, France

Classic rich, smooth and ripe fruited Côtes du Roussillon redolent with macerated black, blue fruit and lingering notes of dark chocolate. The finish is fresh, with moderately firm tannins. A hearty wine great for chilly fall evenings.

Where to Buy: SAQ (18.90$), Ontarians, try Domaine de la Rougeante Corbières 2016

Under the “I’m splashing out, who know when this madness will end?” category, how about these Thanksgiving 2020 wines:

Domaine St. Jacques Brut Rosé Sparkling, Québec, Canada

Initially shy, revealing delicate cranberry, red apple, savoury herbal notes on the nose, with just a hint of brioche. Crisp and taut on the palate, with fine mousse and a nice balance of tangy red fruit and subtly creamy texture. Finishes crisp and dry.

Where to Buy: SAQ (34.85$), Ontarians, try the Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catherine Rosé Brut

Tawse Winery Robyn’s Block Chardonnay 2016, Twenty Mile Bench, Ontario, Canada

This is an opulent, yet harmonious Chardonnay with vibrant acidity and subtle stony minerality to offset the rich, layered texture. The nose features seductive aromas of raw honey, yellow apple, white floral notes, and almonds. The palate is crisp and full bodied, with a concentrated core of ripe orchard fruit, subtle butter, and vanilla nuances. Long and layered.

Where to Buy: LCBO (46.15$), SAQ (48.25$ – 2015 vintage)

Agnès Paquet Auxey-Duresses 2018, Burgundy, France

An appellation which is often austere in its youth, however the warm 2018 vintage in the skillful hands of Agnès Paquet is a delight. Bright red berry and cassis notes on the nose, with floral and faintly earthy undertones. The palate is incredibly vivacious, with a silken texture, tangy fruit flavours, and fine-grained tannins. The finish is long and lifted.

Where to Buy: SAQ (45.00$)

 

 

Life

UNDERSTANDING THE WINE LIST IN 2020

Understanding the wine list

Wine is a complex subject that has impressed and intimidated its drinkers since time immemorial. Understanding the wine list, or even a sommelier’s spiel about a restaurant’s offerings, has long driven fear into the hearts of diners. The number of variables to comprehend is overwhelming: wine producer, vineyard region, grape variety, vintage, etc.

In 2020, understanding the wine list is no simpler a task. The number of winemaking areas and grapes has grown exponentially. Regions that previously exported very little are making waves internationally. Winemaking styles have evolved. Experimentation is rife. It is an exciting time in the world of wine, but it is also a confusing one.

Paradoxically, wine list entries seem to be getting shorter in many a trendy wine-focused bar/bistro/restaurant. At a glance, this might seem like a more approachable technique. However, I wonder if it isn’t actually just the opposite.

The other day, I went out for a drink with some friends who enjoy wine, but don’t profess to know much about it.  They scanned the by-the-glass wines, shrugged and ordered cocktails. Why? Because how on earth is the average wine drinker supposed to know what this means?

VDF, cuvée name, Domaine XYZ, 2017

Even an aficionado, unless they happen to be familiar with the particular estate and wine, isn’t going to understand more than that this is a Vin de France from the 2017 vintage.  The wine list author might just as well have written French wine and left it at that.

Not wanting to be rude and spend ten minutes looking up wine details on my phone, I decided to let the sommelier guide me. After all, with a wine list so opaque, you have to assume that this is what the establishment wants you to do.

My plan backfired. With a line up of patrons eager to enjoy the socially distanced terrace, our waiter was in no mood to expound on each wine list entry. I broadly explained wine styles I like (and don’t), he insisted that only one red from their list would meet my needs.

He poured the wine. It was a dull, commercial blend with a hollow mid-palate and an artificial caramel flavour on the finish. I sighed but, unwilling to bore my friends further, accepted the drink.

I cannot count the amount of times that I have been faced with situations similar to this in recent times. For me, ordering wine in a restaurant has become an experience fraught with potential disappointment. Not only are obscure sub-regions, or worse, vast generic appellations often given as the only indication of a wine’s origin, but even if the list offers greater detail, there is no guarantee that the wine in question will taste anything like what is (or once was) typical for said place.

It is not that I believe that wine regions and styles should remain static. It is only natural that what is typical from a wine region in 2020 is not necessarily what was so in 1990, or 1950. It is also exciting to taste wines from an estate pushing the boundaries of their region’s most recent iteration of typicity. But, it can also be incredibly frustrating if you were expecting a certain flavour profile and received something very different.

This is what I find so curious about wine service in so many places today. If a restaurant served a spiced, savoury take on a classic chocolate cake, they would never just write chocolate cake on the menu and fail to inform customers of the flavour twist. And yet, no such compunction exists with regards to wine lists.

I ordered a Faugères from a chalkboard list a while back. I chose it expecting a ripe, rich, velvety wine. I received a thin, acidic, faintly sour red. When I expressed my displeasure, the waiter protested that the wine was from a revered, up-and-coming estate, and perhaps I hadn’t understood the style? Maybe I would have liked the wine if I had known what to expect, or maybe I would not have ordered it, being a pretty anemic choice to pair with steak.

I will say it again. Wine is complex. And complex subjects require explanation. Perhaps a laundry list of country, region, regional hierarchy, lieu-dit, grape, and vintage doesn’t make understanding the wine list any easier. At the very least though, it provides many points of access for consumers to begin to explore wine’s nuances. A cryptic, short form wine list speaks only to the initiated, excluding all others.

A simple list may work in an establishment where knowledgeable waitstaff and/or sommeliers are readily available to carefully explains, in layman’s terms, how a wine will taste (being honest about facets of a wine that customers might not be familiar with, or like, such as a tannic white wine or a red wine heady with volatile acidity). How many such places really exist though? And how many customers feel confident that they can accurately explain what they want in a wine?

I would love to see more descriptive wine lists, where the wine style is clearly stated and the words a good sommelier might use to convey flavours are clearly written out, painting an olfactive picture for consumers. Perhaps in this scenario, we could draw more people towards the wine list and away from the cocktail menu.

End of rant.

Education Reviews Wines

A WINE TASTER’S SENSE OF SMELL

wine tasters sense of smell

A wine taster’s sense of smell is their most vital faculty. I remember reading once that Robert Parker’s nose was insured to the tune of one million dollars. Fan or not, it is hard to deny the global influence Parker wielded as a wine critic from the late 1990s to early 2010s. His livelihood was contingent on an acute sense of smell; any lasting impairment of which would have very likely ended his career.

As one of the main symptoms of COVID-19, anosmia, the loss of smell, has been on my mind a lot these past months. Research conducted by Harvard Medical School suggests that permanent olfactory damage due to COVID-19 is unlikely, and that most sufferers fully regain their sense of smell within weeks of being struck ‘smell blind’.

Be this as it may, I can’t help but shudder every time I hear a story about ‘so and so’s cousin’ or ‘a friend of a friend’ that still hasn’t recovered their sense of smell months after recovering from the virus. I think about all of my colleagues in the world of wine, food, perfume, and so on who rely so wholly on their nose to perform their job. I also worry, from a purely selfish standpoint, about losing the pure pleasure of eating and drinking; two of my most beloved activities.

The Link Between Smell & Flavour

“All of what you consider flavor is smell. When you are eating, all the beautiful, complicated flavors … they are all smell.” – Venkatesh Murthy, Department Chair, Molecular and Cellular Biology, Harvard University (article link)

Our ability to taste is directly linked to our sense of smell. If our olfactory abilities are impaired, we can’t taste flavour correctly. Strictly speaking, taste refers to the primary sensations which our taste buds can identify; namely sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.

In order for flavour to develop on the palate, molecules of our food or beverage travel to the nasal cavity (via a passage that connects the nose to the back of the throat). Signals are then sent to the brain that transform these basic tastes into flavours.

How Smell Triggers Memory

The processing of smell is related to the area of the brain called the limbic system, which deals with emotion and with memory. When a scent is perceived, connections are made by the brain relating the odour to the feelings or events the person is experiencing. According to olfactory branding expert, Dawn Goldworm, smell is the only sense that is fully developed in-vitro and is the most powerful of the five senses in children (article link).

This facet of my work, plunging my nose into a glass of wine and being suddenly overtaken by a rush of nostalgia or an inexplicable feeling of quiet contentment, this is why I find wine so endlessly fascinating. The sense of joy that a great bottle of wine provides me is what spurred me on for five long years of Masters of Wine (MW) study. To have it suddenly vanish is an unimaginable.

Retraining the Nose

When I was preparing for the MW tasting exams, I found myself unconsciously training my nose throughout the day. I literally did stop and smell the roses each time I walked the dog. I nosed the coffee grounds as I filled the bodum. I sniffed the cumin and pepper jars while preparing dinner.

A common after-effect of anosmia, in those that recover any sensation, is a range of smell distortions – from finding once enjoyed smells abhorrent to perceiving certain smells differently. Various therapies exist to help the ‘smell challenged’ regain their olfactory abilities. The most popular method is simply to re-train the nose through repetitive smelling.

A sense of relief overcomes me each time the aromas waft out of my evening glass of wine. The thought of losing, and labouring to regain, these precious scents fills me with dread. Put more positively, it makes me appreciate my nose more than ever.

While I doubt my sense of smell will ever merit a one million dollar insurance policy, it is worth immeasurable riches to me.

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Here are a trio of recently tasted, aromatic wines. If you can’t smell these fragrant beauties, a Covid-19 test might be in order!

Granbazan Etiqueta Verde Rias Baixas 2018

One of my favourite Albariño  currently on offer in Québec. Really juicy white peach, lemon zest, and grapefruit flavours on the palate, heightened by mouthwatering acidity, a rounded, textural palate and a hint of refreshing, pithy bitterness on the finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (19.60$)

Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Marlbough, New Zealand

Textbook Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc with exuberant notes of gooseberry, passion fruit, guava and fresh cut grass on the nose. Mouthwatering acidity cuts across the lightweight palate providing definition to the clean, citrussy flavours and lifting the medium length finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (21.40$)

Domaine Marcel Deiss Complantation 2018, Alsace, France

The cuvée name ‘Complantation’ refers to a traditional viticultural practice of growing a variety of different grapes within the same vineyard plot. This blend of thirteen different Alsatian grapes is so vibrant it hums. Notes of lemon, wet stone, marzipan and macerated yellow fruits leap from the glass. The palate’s crisp acidity ably balances its rounded texture and dry, fruity finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (24.80$)

 

Producers Reviews

THE SUSTAINABLE STORY OF SOUTHBROOK VINEYARDS

Southbrook Vineyards
Photo credit: Southbrook Vineyards

Re-printing of an article published on JancisRobinson.com 

Bill Redelmeier does not believe in half measures. “When I was a kid, I loved collecting things like baseball cards and fossils. Now, I collect certifications” he chuckles. Indeed, Southbrook Vineyards, Canada’s largest organic and biodynamic winery, is certified by Ecocert Canada, Demeter, and Sustainable Winemaking Ontario. What’s more, the estate’s hospitality pavilion was built to a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold Standard.

A slow smile spreads across Redelmeier’s face when I ask what inspired this zeal for sustainability.  Telling stories is what he loves.  “I grew up on a farm” he says, settling back in his chair. “My father always told me: you have to work twice as hard as your staff. You have to learn all of the jobs firsthand, because you can’t expect others to do things that you are not willing to do.” For a young Bill Redelmeier, this meant long hours atop a tractor, spraying pesticides, and herbicides on corn crops.

Redelmeier’s watershed moment came with the birth of his first child. “My wife wouldn’t let me use the washing machine at home because she didn’t want to wash Andrew’s clothes in the same machine. This really got me thinking. I didn’t want to subject myself to the chemicals any longer and I couldn’t ask my employees to do it either”.

In 1991, Redelmeier established Southbrook Winery, a négociant-éleveur business making wine from grapes sourced in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. The wines were a popular addition to the family’s bustling farm market north of Toronto. When, in the early 2000s, respected Canadian winemaker, and ardent biodynamic practitioner Ann Sperling became available for consultation services, Redelmeier leapt at the opportunity.

By 2005, Redelmeier was ready to move away from the family farm and devote himself to his passion project, establishing an organic and biodynamic estate vineyard in Niagara. Southbrook Vineyards found its home on a 75-acre plot in Niagara’s Four Mile Creek sub-appellation with Sperling on board as Director of Winemaking and Viticulture.

While Redelmeier and Sperling were equally convinced of the qualitative advantage of biodynamic farming, Sperling also valued its practical benefits. “Organics is a lot about what you can’t do, whereas biodynamics provides solutions” she explains. “It adds an awful lot to the toolbox when you think about all of the various teas, the compost preps, all the things that are building biodiversity above the ground and making healthier vines.”

In the interest of improving vine health, the duo took a radical decision. Diseased vines due to leaf-roll and red blotch virus are a widespread problem in Ontario, and throughout North America. “At Southbrook, we started re-planting our vineyards early, so almost everything that we are growing now is virus-free” says Sperling, adding that “it is like night and day in terms of how well the vineyards are responding.” Not only has she witnessed more resistant vines with earlier ripening grapes, but the results in the winery have also impressed her. “When everything is working well in the vineyard the fermentations are more successful, and the wines have better structure and balance.”

In 2006, alongside vineyard re-planting and certifications, Southbrook was also breaking ground on their LEED Gold Standard hospitality pavilion. As part of the overall vineyard eco-system, it made sense to Redelmeier that the building should be an equally important part of the equation.  With its white, reflective PVC roof, its highly insulated walls, triple-glazed floor-to-ceiling windows, automatic faucets, and dual flush toilets, the pavilion is a model of energy efficiency.

Just beyond its cheerful purple façade lies a 170MwH solar panel field that has yielded an 80% reduction in the winery’s net electricity consumption. Running the length of the pavilion is a large strip of bioswale, whose native wetland plants break down pollutants from storm water that drains in from the property’s paved surfaces. Further wetlands on the property treat wastewater and disperse purified water into the surrounding soil.

To enhance the property’s biodiversity, Redelmeier purchased an adjoining 75-acre parcel of land in 2008. “It has about 15 acres of forest, which serves as a biodiversity reserve, and 60 acres of pastureland” says Sperling. The pastures are now the site of Linc Farm, home to a thriving population of sheep, cattle, pigs and laying hens raised in non-GMO, chemical-free conditions. The operation is managed by Sperling’s daughter and partner, animal welfare specialists. The arrangement suits Redelmeier perfectly. “She pays me shit for rent” he says with a grin, referring to the excellent compost and manure the farm animals provide.

The winery’s culture of ecological and ethical production is something Redelmeier and Sperling work hard to instill in their staff. “It is a constant exercise due to routine seasonal staff turn over” Sperling admits, but they persist, taking every opportunity to bring the team out to the vineyards and winery to learn. They also derive comfort in the knowledge that they are providing a safe environment for employees, visitors, and the community at large. “Nothing leaves our property that is going to harm or negatively affect people in anyway” says Sperling.

Organic viticulture is far from the norm in Ontario. According to Redelmeier, only 1% of the province’s vineyards are farmed organically. To encourage local growers to convert, Redelmeier has established long-term organic grape buying contracts, adding wines from sourced grapes alongside his range of estate bottlings. For now, he has no plans to expand the estate’s plantings. Preserving vineyard biodiversity is integral to Southbrook’s philosophy. “To go out and walk along the edge of the vineyard in the late summer and suddenly you’re surrounded by Monarch butterflies, that is a delight” says Sperling, detailing the recovery of this absent native species upon planting milkweed in their meadows.

Southbrook’s sustainability commitments don’t stop at the winery gates. “We source most of our bottles from an Ontario manufacturer of light-weight glass composed of 80% recycled materials. The labels are from Ontario. The Stelvin capsules are from Québec” explains Redelmeier. Transport costs are also low. The winery sells the majority of its production in a 160km radius around Niagara. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Redelmeier and his son have even taken to hand delivering orders to clients around the province. “If one good thing has come from this situation, it is the closer personal relationships we are developing with our customers” he says.

Despite his positive outlook Redelmeier admits that, while Southbrook is on solid economic footing, turning a profit is a constant challenge. According to a 2018 industry-wide benchmarking survey rising land, labour, and input costs, coupled with poor gross margins through the province’s alcohol monopoly, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), are major limiting factors for Ontario wineries. Yields are also low, notably in Southbrook’s biodynamic model. “When I started the winery, Ann made me promise to never go over two tonnes per acre. We may get there someday” Redelmeier says, unfazed.

For Redelmeier, the estate’s low yields are integral to the high-quality wines they strive to produce. Quality wines made with respect for the land and the people involved, this was the dream when setting up Southbrook, and remains the estate’s vision for the future. The way Sperling sees it, “we are the mask wearers – to use pandemic terms – we are the ones that are thinking about the big picture, the long-term; making decisions that protect us but also protect others”.


Southbrook Vineyards wines can be found in select liquor stores across Canada. To get your taste buds tingling, here are my tasting notes from a selection of three wines that were generously provided to me by the winery’s Québec agent: Vertigo Vins & Spiritueux

bubbly   riesling   vidal

 

Southbrook Vineyards Bubbly Pét Nat 2018, VQA Beamsville Bench

Inviting aromas of spiced apple cider on the nose, underscored by hints of brioche and white flowers. Zesty high acid and fine, vigorous bubbles lift and shape the medium bodied, bone dry palate. Finishes with a touch of refreshing bitterness and flavours of digestive biscuit and tangy, dry cider.

Where to Buy: SAQ (27.95$), LCBO (29.95$)

Southbrook Vineyards Riesling “Laundry Vineyard” 2018, VQA Vinemount Ridge

Delicate aromas of ripe lemon, white orchard fruit and honey feature on the nose. The palate is equally engaging with its racy acidity tempered by just a hint of honeyed sweetness, its silky texture, light body and juicy fruit flavours. A very elegant unoaked white wine.

Where to Buy: Direct from the winery (2017 vintage. 22.75$), inquire with agent in Québec

Southbrook Vineyards Skin Fermented Vidal 2019, VQA Ontario

Pale amber in colour, with distinctive notes of quince, gooseberry, and orange zest perched above an earthy bass note. Lipsmacking high acid like a jolt of electricity on the palate, with a textural, grapefruit pith astringency, light body, and very dry, juicy finish. Packs quite a flavour and texture punch for its modest 10.7% alcohol.

Where to Buy: SAQ (29.95$), LCBO (29.95$)