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Jacky Blisson

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.

_______________________________________________________________

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$), LCBO (29.95$)

Education Reviews Wines

COOL CLIMATE WINES…WHAT ARE THEY?

cool climate wines
Photo credit: Domaine St. Jacques

If you have spent any time chatting with wine geeks lately you may have heard them refer to certain wines as being “cool climate” in style. Perhaps you found yourself wondering, what are cool climate wines?

Vitis vinifera, the major grape vine species used to make wine, is a Mediterranean plant. It likes warm, sunny, fairly dry climates and produces abundant, ultra-ripe crops in these areas. In more marginal growing regions, the vine often struggles to fully ripen its grapes.

***Side note: I have also made this post into a YouTube video. To watch, just scroll down to the bottom & click play. If you enjoy the video, consider subscribing to my YouTube channel so you never miss an episode of my wine education series.

What is So Special about Cool Climate Wines?

It might seem counter-intuitive to grow a plant in a climate where the ripening of its crop is a constant concern. However, Vitis vinifera is a very particular species. The old adage goes that a grape vine needs to struggle to produce great wine. While not all winemakers would agree, many top producers do share this sentiment. Stressed vines generally produce lower grape yields which ripen at a slower rate. Proponents feel that this produces wines of greater concentration and complexity.

That is not to say that struggling vines always produce better quality. In the case of cool climates, grapes that have failed to fully ripen make thin, bitter, highly acidic wines that could strip the enamel from your teeth. However, grapes that have just attained that magical balance of vibrant acidity and sufficiently sweet fruit, with skins ripe enough to have lost their tough thickness and astringent taste, can produce incredibly elegant and refreshing wines.

Cool climate wines are generally lighter in body, with lower alcohol, and higher, more mouthwatering acidity than their counterparts from warmer growing regions. The fruit flavours are often subtler, ranging from tart to fresh, with green to white fruit notes on white wines and tangy cranberry, red berry and cherry aromas on reds.

In comparison, wines from warmer climates tend to be fuller-bodied, with higher alcohol, softer acidity, and more baked or jammy fruit flavours.

What Grapes Grow Best in Cool Climates?

Major concerns in cool climate growing areas include late budding, early autumn frosts, and cold winters. Grapes that ripen early and are able to withstand winter’s chill are best suited to cool climates.

In regions with frigid winters, where the thermostat regularly dips down below -20°C, cold-hardy hybrid grape varieties are often preferred by growers. Grapes like Frontenac, Maréchal Foch, Vidal and L’Acadie Blanc are popular in the coldest parts of Canada and northern USA.

Where winter conditions are slightly milder, Vitis vinifera varieties like Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Chardonnay, Gamay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc thrive.

What Makes a Climate Cool?

According to acclaimed American wine writer Matt Kramer, “the notion of cool climate is, in many ways, a New World concept”. Kramer made this assertion during a webinar exploring the evolution of cool climate wines for this year’s virtual International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4C).

Wines have been produced in marginal climates – like Chablis and Champagne – for centuries. However, classifying wines from these regions as “cool climate” is a relatively new phenomenon; one which has grown in prominence over the past ten years.

So, what factors make a wine region cool? To date there is no formal definition or set rules as to what constitutes a cool climate. With this in mind, a second i4C webinar, led by John Szabo MS, looked at major contributing factors to cool climates.

Latitudes between 30° and 50° in the northern and southern hemispheres are generally agreed to be the areas where wine grapes can successively be cultivated. Latitude has long been used as a primary argument for climate, with wine regions closer to 50° regularly typecast as cool climate.

Various measurement tools have also been developed in an attempt to codify viticultural climates. One system, called growing degree days (GDD) measures heat accumulation over the growing season. Another, called growing season temperature (GST), measures the average monthly temperature over the 7 months of the grape growing season. According to climate experts Gregory Jones and Hans Schultz, regions with GST averages between 13 – 15c, and GDDs of 850 – 1389 are classic cool climates regions.

However, climate classifications based solely on one-size-fits-all indicators like latitude or GDDs are increasingly being called into question. Each region has its own unique geography and weather patterns. Wind circulation, altitude, soil types and colours, proximity to bodies of water capable of tempering temperature extremes…these are just a handful of factors that can significantly affect a region’s temperatures and exposure to sunlight.

Where Can I Find Cool Climate Wines?

The lighter, fresher wine styles associated with cool climates are becoming increasingly popular with wine lovers. Wine regions proclaiming themselves cool are popping up all over the world, leading to growing critical skepticism.

That being said, most wine experts agree that vineyard areas like Champagne, the Loire Valley, and Burgundy produce cool climate wines. Well known cooler areas in the USA include much of Oregon, coastal areas of Sonoma, and parts of Santa Barbara County. In Australia, Tasmania is an exciting region for cool climate wines. In New Zealand, several areas make the cut, such as the Awatere Valley in Marlborough, and parts of Central Otago.

If you want to go slightly off the beaten track, England has a growing reputation for fine cool climate sparkling wines. Here are home, Nova Scotia and Québec are also great cool climate sparkling contenders. Ontario and British Columbia each possess a number of cool climate terroirs making a wide array of cool Chardonnay, Riesling, Gamay, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir wines.

Tasting Cool Climate Wines

The series of i4C lectures discussing and debating cool climate wines and regions culminated as all great wine conversations should, with a tasting. Here are my notes on the six wines from Chablis, New Zealand, and Ontario generously supplied to me by the regions to celebrate i4C and all things cool climate.

Domaine Laroche 2018 Petit Chablis, France

Excellent as an aperitif, this light-bodied, taut Petit Chablis offers discreet earthy, yellow apple and nettle notes on the nose. White grape fruit and lime flavours provide an attractive juiciness to the nervy, high acid. Finishes bone dry.

Where to Buy: SAQ (23.45$), inquire with agent in Ontario: Select Wines

Domaine Gueguen 1er Cru Vaucoupin 2018, Chablis, France 

Very elegant premier cru Chablis, with pretty white blossoms and ripe orchard fruit notes on the nose. With a little time in the glass, underlying aromas of wet stone and white mushroom develop. The palate is defined by a firm, almost strident acidity on the attack that softens and broadens on the mid-palate. Vibrant white fruit flavours mingle with tingly saline notes that linger on the long, dry, finish.

Where to Buy: Inquire with agent Le Maitre de Chai

Villa Maria Single Vineyard Taylor’s Pass Chardonnay 2018, Marlborough, New Zealand

A really harmonious Chardonnay with bright yellow fruit aromas layered with buttered, flinty nuances and subtle toasty oak. The palate features vibrant acidity that enhances the juicy meyer lemon, passion fruit, and apricot flavours and balances the rich, round, textural palate. Pleasantly warming on the lengthy finish.

Where to Buy: LCBO (33.95$), inquire with agent in Québec: Vins Dandurand

Paddy Borthwick Chardonnay 2018, Wairarapa, New Zealand

Initially discreet nose, with an array of ripe, yellow fruit and flinty hints upon aeration. Fresh acidity provides definition to the rounded, full-bodied palate structure. Juicy stone fruits and subtle grapefruit pith bitterness on the dry, medium length finish. Slightly warming.

 Where to Buy: LCBO (25.00$)

Leaning Post Senchuk Vineyard Chardonnay 2018, Lincoln Lakeshore VQA, Niagara, Ontario 

Restrained earthy aromas on first approach, with delicate white floral, green apple, and lime hints developing after a few minutes in the glass. The racy acidity and very firm structure on this medium bodied white are balanced by a layered, textural mid-palate. Intriguing flavours of green fruits, earth and wet stone linger on the mouthwatering, dry finish. Needs 2 – 3 years cellaring to unwind.

 Where to Buy: LCBO (45.00$, 2017 vintage), leaningpostwines.com 

Legacy Willms Vineyard  Chardonnay 2017, Four Mile Creek VQA, Niagara, Ontario

A highly aromatic style of Chardonnay (potentially Chardonnay Musqué?), brimming with white peach, Bartlett pear and vanilla notes on the nose and palate. Fresh, fruity, and rounded on the palate, with medium weight and a smooth finish. Best for lovers of soft, fruit-forward Chardonnay styles.

Where to Buy: adamoestate.com/shop/

 

Education Reviews Wines

IT’S TIME TO DRINK SOUTH AFRICAN WINE

drink south african wine

It’s Time to Drink South African Wine

The Covid lock-down has been hard on wineries all across the globe. Months of sale revenues from winery tasting rooms and restaurant clients lost, stocks of unsold wines piling up. The situation for many producers is dire.

In South Africa, the circumstances are particularly challenging. For the second time since the beginning of the pandemic, domestic alcohol sales have been banned. A recent BBC article quotes South African President Cyril Ramaphosa as saying that this enforced prohibition is meant to “take pressure off the national healthcare system”.

Alcohol-related hospital visits are a significant concern in South Africa. According to Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, cited in The Economist: “admissions to trauma wards fell by 60-70% in April and May” (the first alcohol ban). The idea behind the ban is to ensure that sufficient space is freed up to dedicate hospital intensive care units to COVID-19 sufferers.

While this decision may have yielded initial, good results, increasing reports of a boom in illicit alcohol sales and home-made moonshine abound. Over the long run, these unregulated liquors may prove far more harmful to heavy drinkers. Meanwhile, South Africa’s wine industry is suffering. The Economist claims that “the first ban put 350 wine producers out of business”.

South Africa, with its rich winemaking heritage, its diverse range of regional and varietal styles, and its often impressive quality for price, has much to offer wine lovers . To learn more about South Africa’s wine history, regions and wines, check out my three-part series on The Renaissance of South African Wine.

The best way to show your support for the South African wine industry is simply to drink South African wine! To help get you started, here is a list of South African wines at all price points that I have enjoyed recently:

Robertson Winery Chenin Blanc 2019

A simple but easy drinking, every day white wine with cheerful yellow apple and melon flavours, fresh acidity, a light-bodied structure and soft, fruity finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (9.90$), LCBO (9.45$)

The Wolftrap Syrah, Mourvèdre, Viognier 2017, Western Cape

Reminiscent of a Côtes-du-Rhône red wine, The Wolftrap features baked red cherry, plum and baking spice aromas on the nose. The palate is smooth and rounded, with moderate acidity and subtle dark fruit flavours.

Where to Buy: SAQ (13.95$), LCBO (13.95$)

Man Vintners Chenin Blanc Free-run Steen 2017, Western Cape

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

Where to Buy: SAQ (17.05$)

AA Badenhorst The Drifter Cinsault 2019, Swartland

A really bright, silky textured Cinsault that, served slightly chilled, is just perfect for summer. The nose offers temptingly ripe dark berry fruits, with pretty violet accents. The palate offers just enough freshness to provide lift and verve to the light, fruity core.

Where to Buy: SAQ (18.45$)

Pearce Predhomme Wild Ferment Chenin Blanc 2018, Stellenbosch

This lovely Chenin Blanc is the result of a collaborative effort between Canadian wine pros: Nicholas Pearce and Will Predhomme, and reputed South African producer: The Winery of Good Hope. It offers really bright citrus, quince, tart apple aromas and flavours. The palate features nervy acidity that provides excellent balance to the rich, layered texture and medium body. Tangy citrus and green fruit notes linger on the dry finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (22.95$)

Sijnn Low Profile 2016, Western Cape

This 100% Syrah is deep and brooding in colour, with heady aromas of macerated black fruit, blueberry, dark chocolate and exotic spice, lifted by fresh eucalyptus and floral hints. The palate is full bodied and moderately firm, with a velvety texture, and a concentrated core of ripe dark fruit. A pleasing freshness throughout and subtle, well integrated spicy oak nuances make for a very harmonious red wine.

Where to Buy: SAQ (29.95$)

Mullineux Old Vines White 2018, Swartland

A blend of mainly Chenin Blanc, with white Rhône varietals, and a splash of Sémillon Gris. Initially quite flinty, with aromas of ripe lemon, yellow apple, gooseberry, and anis developing with aeration. The palate shows lovely balance of racy acidity, lifting the weighty, creamy textured mid-palate nicely. Finishes dry, with attractive nutty flavours, and well integrated toasty oak hints. Barrel fermented with native yeasts. Aged 11 months in mainly 3rd and 4th fill French casks.

Where to Buy: LCBO (37.95$). Private import in Québec, enquire with agent: Rézin.

 

 

Reviews Wines

Wine Region Stereotypes: A Sancerre Story

Wine region stereotypes

Wine Region Stereotypes: A Sancerre Story

Photo credit: Domaine Joseph Mellot

The sheer volume of wines being produced from an ever-increasing number of countries and regions is enough to leave even the most wine savvy shoppers feeling overwhelmed. Especially now, when picking out a bottle means lining up, disinfecting, playing the two-metre dance around fellow patrons and generally trying to get the hell out as fast as possible.

Since the lock-down many retailers are reporting sales spikes for well-known wine brands. This, of course, makes sense. Wine is a pleasure and a comfort in uncertain times. The consistency brands offer in terms of quality and taste profile is massively appealing.

Once could argue (and many have), that in the Old World, the region is the brand. You may not be able to list individual producers from any of these places, but names like Champagne, Rioja, and Chianti resonate. They embody a style of wine with distinctive aromas, flavours, and textures that have been honed over the centuries.

Famous for its racy, elegant Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre also produces small volumes of Pinot Noir-based rosé and red wine.

Sancerre is one such example. This 2900-hectare vineyard in the eastern part of the Loire Valley can trace its history back to antiquity. Famous for its racy, elegant Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre also produces small volumes of Pinot Noir-based rosé and red wine.

The region consists of low-lying hills and valleys, with three distinct soil types: Les Terres Blanches (clay-limestone soils), Les Caillotes (predominantly limestone), and Silex soils (clay, limestone, and silica mix). While these diverse elevations, orientations and soil types give a range of Sancerre styles, it is the taut, flinty, understated examples that have defined the region.

But what happens when wines from well-known brand-regions don’t fit their wine region stereotypes?

The other day I opened a bottle of Sancerre with a French friend. The wine was immensely drinkable (in my humble opinion). It had vibrant fruity aromas, balanced acidity, good depth of flavour and a dry, refreshing finish. And yet, my friend was disappointed. For him, a Sancerre without razor-sharp acidity and strident minerality was no Sancerre, and therefore no good.

I couldn’t help but wonder if he would have been so dismissive if he hadn’t known the wine’s origin?

Variations in weather conditions, site, and winemaking techniques can all result in radically different wines.

There are a multitude of reasons why various wines from the same grape variety and vineyard region taste differently. The Sancerre in question came from the exceptionally warm 2019 vintage. In warmer than average growing seasons, Sancerre’s usual tart green fruit and searing high acid gives way to riper stone or even tropical fruit and softer, rounder acidity.

Differing vineyard sites and individual winery choices in terms of vineyard care, yield levels, harvest date, and winemaking techniques can also affect a wine’s flavours, even in classically cool vintages. This is a hot topic of debate between traditional and modern wine producers the world over.

Should wines from famed regions conform to the region’s “branded” taste profile, or should they be a reflection of a specific vineyard site, or a vintage, or a winery’s unique vinification style? Will classic wine styles be lost if too many producers seek to differentiate their wines?

For certain regions, climate is the biggest factor shifting wine region stereotypes. Even the most ardent defenders of traditional, regional styles are helpless when faced with warming temperatures and increasingly erratic weather patterns. In Germany’s Mosel Valley, it is more and more challenging to produce the delicate, racy Rieslings that were once the norm. And in Sancerre, riper, fruitier wines are regularly to be found now.

Not all wines from famous regions fit their stereotypes, but this doesn’t necessarily make them lesser bottlings.

While you may think this adds yet another layer of confusion in the already fraught business of buying wine, perhaps it is enough to simply remember this: not all wines fit their wine region stereotypes, but this doesn’t necessarily make them lesser bottlings. If you want a classic example, don your mask and check with store staff. Otherwise, take a risk and judge the wine on pleasure alone.

The wines that sparked these musings were generously supplied by Québec wine agency: AOC & Cie Check out my tasting notes below.

Joseph Mellot Sancerre (blanc) La Chatellenie 2019, Loire Valley

Highly aromatic, with white peach and grapefruit notes fairly leaping from the glass. With aeration, hints of gooseberry and fresh-cut grass emerge. The palate is crisp and lively with a medium-bodied, rounded structure and really juicy peach, lime and herbal flavours that linger on the dry, lifted finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (26.00$)

Joseph Mellot Sancerre (rosé) Le Rabault  2019

Medium salmon pink in colour, with attractive red currant, rhubarb, and pink grapefruit aromas marrying nicely with an underlying earthiness on the nose. The palate is fresh, medium-weight and smooth, with a concentrated core of just-ripe red berries. Finishes dry, with a pleasant hint of refreshing bitterness. While this is a lovely aperitif rosé, it has the depth and body to pair nicely with a range of summery dishes.

Where to buy: SAQ (26.80$)

Reviews Wines

Affordable Wine Finds from Portugal

affordable wine finds

Shopping in stores is a stressful business these days. The line ups, the distancing, the masks, the fear of touching anyone or anything…  The days of browsing liquor store aisles at a leisurely pace, hunting down great, affordable wine finds seem but a distant memory.

Our current grab and go approach to in-store wine purchasing has led to major sales increases in bag-in-box wines and budget-friendly name brands around the globe. It makes sense. Uncertain times make inexensive, known brands all the more appealing. However, as the pandemic stretches on with no forseeable end in sight, you may find yourself in danger of falling into a bit of a wine rut.

Personally, I can’t think of anything more depressing than drinking the same wine everyday. It would be like eating the same meal or watching the same movie. In this bizarre, Ground Hog’s Day-like period, I find any novelty welcome. Luckily, widely available, affordable wine finds are plentiful these days. Case in point: the Coroa d’Ouro brand from Pocas.

The Coroa d’Ouro range of Douro Valley white and red table wines were launched 30 years ago and the brand is still going strong. My regular readers will know how fond of Portuguese wines I am in terms of affordable wine finds. From vibrant, layered whites to bold, yet elegant reds and luscious fortified wines, Portugal is hard to beat.

I recently received a sampling of Pocas wines and was immediately struck by the quality/price ratio. These are clean, well-made wines with no artifice or undue pretension. To learn a little more before picking up a bottle, check out my tasting notes on these affordable wine finds below:

Pocas, Coroa d’Ouro Branco 2018, Douro, Portugal

The Coroa d’Ouro Branco is a perfect everyday white for lovers of crisp, light-bodied, dry wines. It offers delicate lemon, herbal aromas on the nose and a smooth palate, with tangy, lemon curd flavours and a touch of refreshing citrus pith bitterness on the finish. 13% alcohol.

Where to Buy: SAQ (12.65$),

Poças, Vale de Cavalos Branco 2018, Douro, Portugal

A blend of native Portuguese white grapes: Codega, Gouveio Rabigato and Viosinho. Somewhat reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc on the nose with its vibrant gooseberry and lemon aromas, differentiated by intriguing hints of spearmint. Light in body, yet quite textural on the mid-palate, with really bright acidity and tangy green fruit and dried herb flavours. Dry, unoaked and refreshing. 13.5% alcohol.

Where to Buy: SAQ (16.60$)

Pocas, Coroa d’Ouro Tinto 2017, Douro, Portugal

A pleasant, simple, highly versatile red that will pair well with a wide variety of dishes. If you like unoaked Côtes-du-Rhône reds, this will likely suit your palate. Ripe mixed berries and a hint of spice on the nose. Fresh, medium-bodied, and smooth with juicy red fruit flavours. It finishes dry with fine, powdery tannins. 13% abv. Serve slightly chilled (16 – 18c).

Where to Buy: SAQ (13.95$, also available in magnums!)

Poças, Vale de Cavalos Tinto 2017, Douro, Portugal

This is a typical Douro blend with a dominance of Touriga Nacional, prized in the region for its elegance, florality and bold structure. Ripe black plum, dried herbs, hints of black licorice and baked fig feature on the nose. The palate is moderately firm, with juicy acidity and attractive black fruit and dark chocolate flavours. Medium weight, chalky tannins frame the dry finish. Pleasantly warming. 13.5% alcohol. Serve slightly chilled (16 – 18c).

Where to Buy: SAQ (17.95$)

Reviews Wines

Drink Local Wine This Week-End

drink local wine
Photo credit: Stratus Vineyards

The imperative to drink local wine has never been stronger. Lock-down has deprived our wineries of two huge revenue streams: their on-site tasting rooms and their restaurant accounts. Sadly, whereas most country’s around the globe are proud to drink local wine, we eastern Canadians remain reluctant to embrace our growing wine industry.

I recently completed a series of interviews with Ontario wineries and almost all respondents mentioned the challenges they face convincing domestic consumers to drink local wine. “We’re still at that stage where it feels like our last worst wine is the one we get judged by” lamented one producer. Sure there are still poor quality wines made in Canada…just as there are disappointing wines from France, Italy, California and everywhere else on the winemaking globe. We do our winemakers a disservice when we stop trying local wines after one or two bad bottles.

Judging at the National Wine Awards of Canada last summer (article here) really drove home the excellent quality available from coast to coast. It also underlined the huge stylistic diversity of which we are capable – from racy, sweet-and-sour Rieslings, to elegant Sparkling wines, Chardonnay of every imaginable description, juicy Gamay, ripe, herbaceous Cabernet Franc….the list goes on and on.

While we pine away at home, looking for ways to stay apart yet come together, perhaps another gesture of solidarity could be making the choice to drink local wine.

Here are a few nice options in the 20 – 30$ range to get you started:

Domaine Bergeville Le Blanc Brut 2018

Located in Hatley, in the Eastern Townships, Domaine de Bergeville is one of Québec’s most respected wineries. Given the region’s icy winters and humid summers, their commitment to organic and biodynamic viticulture is a feat of courage and skill. Dry and ultra-refreshing, this clean, taut sparkling wine features tangy green fruit flavours and fine, lingering bubbles. Look out for the rosé, also in stores now.

Where to Buy: SAQ (27.85$)

Stratus Vineyards Tollgate Chardonnay 2017

This voluptuous Chardonnay, with its heady notes of melted butter and crème caramel, its medium bodied and rounded palate, is nicely balanced by vibrant acidity, tangy red apple and ripe lemon flavours and a lifted, subtly toasted finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (24.95$), LCBO (24.95$)

La Cantina Vallée d’Oka Rosé du Calvaire 2019, Québec

You will have to move quickly to snag a few bottles of this little gem. Last summer the stores in my neighbourhood couldn’t keep it in stock.  Imagine the bright, tangy rhubarb and red berry notes of cool climate Pinot Noir, combined with the rounded, subtly textural mouthfeel of Chardonnay….all in a pretty pink package.

Where to Buy: SAQ (19.95$)

Château des Charmes Gamay Noir ‘Droit’ 2017, Niagara, Ontario

Just a ferociously gluggable Gamay. The Château des Charmes”Droit” cuvée really showcases the St David’s Bench terroir nicely with its medium body, ripe dark fruit aromas and velvetty texture, all nicely balanced by really refreshing acidity and tangy fruit flavours.

Where to Buy: SAQ (19.95$), LCBO (19.95$)

Tawse Winery Unfiltered Cabernet Franc 2017, Niagara, Ontario

2017 was a rainy, tempestuous vintage saved by a long, warm fall that yielded some really top notch wines in Niagara. This is a lovely mid-way style for Cabernet Franc with rich, ripe blue and black fruit balancing out hints of bell pepper and sweet tobacco. Fresh and full-bodied on the palate with a suave texture, juicy dark fruit flavours and fine, chalky tannins.

Where to Buy: SAQ (29.95$)

Education

THE IMPORTANCE OF OLD VINE VINEYARDS

old vine vineyards
Photo credit: Jim Hunneyball, Old Vine Project (South Africa)

Great wine is made in the vineyard. Ask any producer with fine wine aspirations and they will agree. A vine in balance, producing healthy, optimally ripened grapes boasting complex, concentrated flavours –  this is the winemaker’s holy grail. It is for this reason that old vine vineyards are so highly prized.

Old vines is a term seen with increasing frequency on premium wine labels. While there is no legally agreed upon definition for what constitutes old vine vineyards, several wine regions have come up with their own specifications. The Barossa Valley’s Old Vine Charter separates mature vines into four categories: from “old vines” at a minimum of 35 years old, to “ancestor vines” that have surpassed the venerable age of 125.

In South Africa, an initiative called the Old Vine Project, works to classify and protect the country’s old vine vineyards.  Project founder and renowned viticulturist Rosa Kruger and her team travel the country in search of old vine vineyards, convincing vineyard owners to preserve these important sites. In South Africa, like in the Barossa Valley, the minimum age for old vine status is 35 years.

“Young vines are exploring their soils as they build structure above and below the ground and this leads to more vigour – larger canopies, more shade, bigger crops and resulting wines that are often thinner and lighter in style”, explains Swartland wine producer Chris Mullineux. “Old vines on the other hand tend to be in better natural balance. The yields are generally lower and the resultant wine has more texture and intensity without having to pick riper or aim for extraction in the cellar”.

Rosa Kruger agrees. She firmly believes that, “age in vines brings an intensity, a perceived freshness, a texture, and a sense of place”. Old vines have a deeper, more developed root system – up to 30% according to Kruger – giving them better nutrient and water reserves, and far greater adaptability to climatic variations. They show far less vintage variation than their younger counterparts.

Old vine vineyards are an important aspect of a wine region’s heritage. In certain sectors they prove a treasure trove of lost or forgotten grape varieties. Vineyards that predate the rise of clonal selections in the 1970s offer important genetic biodiversity. The fear that Spain is losing its old vine vineyards drove Aragon wine producer Fernando Mora MW to set up “save the old vines” an association with ambitions to register and conserve older vineyard plots.

There are many reasons why old vines are in short supply in many of the world’s vineyards. Growers are often paid based on the tonnage and sugar ripeness of their crop. Younger vines generally produce more plentiful crop loads and are thus more profitable, leading to uprooting of older, lower yielding vines. Vineyards are also regularly beset by pests, viruses, fungal infections, extreme weather events and other factors that can damage the vines, shortening their lifespan.

The South African Old Vine Project places great emphasis on caring for younger vines to ensure a healthy and productive old age. To this end, they are developing a second classification to register and monitor 25 year old vines, with the aim of increasing their likelihood of achieving old vine status. Perhaps the most important idea the group espouses however, is the notion of “planting to grow old”; encouraging growers to ensure they are planting clean, virus-free vine materials.

This sentiment is echoed by French nursery man Lilian Bérillon. In the late 1990s, Bérillon found himself increasingly alarmed at the rampant disease and mortality rate in French vineyards. This led him to launch a self-proclaimed “new grapevine nursery model” in 2005. Bérillon’s approach focuses on massal selections, biodynamic practices in the propagation of his cuttings, and rigorous sorting of newly grafted plants, keeping only plants exhibiting a strong graft union and healthy root system. To ensure his new plants are free from all pests, Bérillon submits them to a laborious hot water treatment prior to sale.

Bérillon’s driving principle is simple. The only way to achieve a healthy, sustainable vineyard capable of growing old and producing high quality wines is to start with a solid foundation; namely clean, robust, genetically diverse planting material.

From the preparation of soils, to the planting of clean plant materials well suited to the site, to the meticulous care required each and every growing season, achieving healthy, old vine vineyards is no easy feat. And yet, the advantages in terms of sustainability, biodiversity, and preserving vineyard heritage are undeniable. For quality minded wine producers, the uniquely complex, characterful wines derived from old vine vineyards are ample proof of their importance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Education

THE GREATEST (ACCIDENTAL) WINE DISCOVERIES

wine discoveries

The art of winemaking dates back over 8000 years. One would think, given this long history, that the skill would have been mastered long ago. But the diversity of grape varieties, styles, regional characteristics and so forth ensure a constant evolution of vinification practices. While many of the most revered wine styles today came about though trial and error, others were little more than accidental wine discoveries.

***Side note: I have also made this post into a YouTube video. To watch, just scroll down to the bottom & click play. If you enjoy the video, consider subscribing to my YouTube channel so you never miss an episode of my wine education series. 

When you think about it, our first encounter with wine was accidental. Historians suggest that our ape ancestors discovered alcohol roughly 10 million years ago by eating damaged fruits that had fallen from the tree and fermented. How and when humans first attempted to transform this fruit into a palatable beverage is unknown. However, the earliest evidence of organized winemaking efforts date back to the South Caucasus area (modern day Georgia) circa 6000 BC.

So many of my favourite wine styles can be considered accidental wine discoveries…

Take sparkling wine. Carbonation in wine has existed since ancient Greece and Rome. Why some wines suddenly developed bubbles and others did not was a complete mystery at the time. The effervescence was often attributed to moon phases, or even to good or evil spirits. What these early winemakers did not realize was that the wines they thought had completed fermentation, had in fact not. Once placed into sealed amphorae for sale, certain began re-fermenting, producing carbon dioxide that dissolved into the liquid making bubbles.

According to wine historian Rod Philips, it wasn’t until the 15 to 16 hundreds that sparkling wine became an intentional, commercially produced wine style. Multiple claims exist as to who invented sparkling wine. From the fabled tale of Dom Pérignon seeing stars as he tasted his fizzy creation, to the labours of Benedictine monks in Limoux, to the research trials of a British scientists, the history of sparkling wine remains laced with intrigue.

As wine discoveries go, the creation of fortified wine styles – like Port – was incredibly beneficial for the times. In the 16th and 17th century, wines were often subjected to long sea voyages to reach their customers. During the journey, they were often exposed to overly high oxygen levels and extremes of temperature that caused spoilage. Through out Europe it became common practice to add brandy to the wine casks just before shipping. Brandy was found to act as a preservative – keeping the wine fresher for longer. Upon tasting the richer, sweeter, higher alcohol wines, customers found that they rather liked them and a new wine style was born.

The positive effects that oak ageing can have on wine quality was also among the greatest of accidental wine discoveries. Oak can impart pleasant aromas and flavours to wines, such as cedar, vanilla, and spicy notes. It can also soften wines’ tannins and give a rounder, smoother mouthfeel over time. But these benefits were not the original reasons for maturing wine in oak. Oak barrels were originally used to transport wine. They were lighter for Roman troops to carry than clay amphorae, as they moved further and further afield from Rome. Oak was plentiful in European forests, and a soft enough wood to easily bend into barrel shape.

Just like penicillin, microwave ovens, pacemakers, super-glue, the slinky…some of our greatest inventions in wine have come about entirely by accident. Perhaps with the hands off approach of today’s minimum intervention winemakers, the next accidental wine innovation is in the making.