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BRUNELLO DI MONTALCINO & THE 2012 VINTAGE

Brunello Vines - Consorzio
Photo credit: Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino

A villa in Tuscany…this notion conjures up romantic images of rolling hills dotted with vineyards and olive trees, warm sunshine, delicious, market-fresh food and, of course, incredible wine. For if there is one Italian region that even the least wine savvy among us has heard of, it is generally Tuscany.

Tuscany is the heart land and historic home of Italy’s most widely planted wine grape: Sangiovese. Said to be named after the latin term sanguis Jovis (blood of Jupiter), the Sangiovese grape produces wines that range stylistically from crisp, herbal, red fruited quaffers to complex, full-bodied, firmly tannic beauties, depending on where the grapes are planted.

Sangiovese is named after the latin term sanguis Jovis (blood of Jupiter).

Forty kilometres south of Siena (and its well-known, northern neighbour of Chianti), lies a series of sleepy hamlets and one lone hill rising to 564 metres in altitude. This is the municipality of Montalcino, where the storied Brunello di Montalcino red wine is crafted.

Montalcino spans over 24 000 hectares, with a mere 15% devoted to grape vines. The region is incredibly biodiverse, with a high proportion of forests, olive groves and seeded crop lands interspersed between the vineyards.

Sheltered from rain and hail by Mount Amiata to the south, Montalcino boasts a warm, dry Mediterranean climate. The lower lying vineyards tend to produce fuller, heartier, more deeply coloured wines. The plantings at higher elevations, where denser, limestone/ marl soils abound, are generally fresher, more firmly structured and tannic.

Montalcino is incredibly biodiverse, with a high proportion of forests, olive groves and seeded crop lands interspersed between the vineyards.

Whereas Chianti can blend in up to 30% of other, authorized red grapes, Montalcino reds are made solely of Sangiovese. Historically, one specific set of Sangiovese clones (informally called ‘Brunello’, or more specifically ‘Sangiovese Grosso’) was planted. This is no longer the case. Sangiovese Grosso grapes have a high pulp-to-skin ratio. Given that the highest concentration of phenolic (colour, tannins) and flavour compounds are found in the skin, a higher skin-to-pulp ratio is favourable for truly concentrated, complex wines. Nowadays, a large variety of clonal selections exist in Montalcino; a boon to both quality and stylistic diversity.

Brunello di Montalcino DOCG wines are aged for 5 years before release (with a minimum of 2 years in oak casks). Even more premium, are the Brunello ‘Riserva’ wines which see a full 6 years’ maturation. In their youth, they feature ripe, dark fruit aromatics, underscored by notes of violets, spice and bright, red fruits. They tend to be fresh and full-bodied on the palate, with lovely depth of ripe, fruit flavours and firm tannins. Due to their complexity and structure, Brunello wines have great ageing potential, softening and developing attractive dried floral, fig and leather flavours over time.

The painstaking labour that goes into crafting each bottle comes at a certain price tag. Brunello di Montalcino wines tend to start at 40$ and rise steadily into the 100$ + category. Luckily for the more cash strapped among us, there is a more affordable alternative, namely Rosso di Montalcino DOC. These wines are matured in cellars for just one year, with oak ageing optional. They may not have quite the complexity, concentration or longevityy of their illustrious big brother, but are often pleasant, good value wines.

In their youth, Brunello di Montalcino wines tend to be fresh and full-bodied on the palate, with lovely depth of ripe, fruit flavours and firm tannins.

A month ago, I had the good fortune to attend a seminar and tasting presented by the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino to showcase the much heralded 2012 vintage. Deemed ‘a return to finesse’ by the Wine Enthusiast and a ‘rockstar vintage’ by James Suckling, I was keen to see what all the fuss was about.

Cool, wet weather marked the 2012 winter season, followed by a very dry, warm summer. Rains late in the ripening period brought necessary water for the vines, without diluting flavours unduly. On the contrary, many growers reported yields down from 14% to as much as 30% on the abundant 2011 harvest.

My overall feeling, after tasting through a wide sampling of the vintage, was that quality is indeed exceptional from many producers, but on the whole uneven. Beautifully ripe fruit was a common theme. However tannins were sometimes green and astringent, suggesting that the intense summer heat caused a gap between sugar and phenolic ripening in certain vineyards.

Here are a selection of my favourites (Rosso and Brunello). Note that the majority of the 2012 Brunellos have yet to be released at the LCBO or SAQ (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).

Altesino Rosso di Montalcino 2014 – 89pts. PW

Always good value for money, the Altesino Rosso di Montalcino features pretty red cherry, earthy, balsamic notes on the nose. The palate is lively and pleasantly fruity, with moderate concentration and fine-grained tannins.

Where to Buy: SAQ (25,85$)

Argiano Di Rosso Montalcino DOC 2015 – 90pts PW

Ripe and fresh, with vibrant red fruit, earthy notes and savoury undertones. The palate is dense and firmly structured, yet pleasingly smooth in texture. This moderately concentrated red offers great balance, and finishes on ripe, chewy tannins. Fantastic value for the price.

Where to Buy: LCBO & SAQ (circa 25$, 2015 not yet released)

Altesino Brunello Di Montalcino DOCG 2012 – 92pts. LW

Vibrant red currant and cherry notes are underscored by leafy nuances, subtle spice and leather. Crisp acidity gives way to a very firm, tightly knit structure and highly concentrated fruit on the mid-palate. 2 years’ ageing in traditional Slavonian oak casks give a rounded, earthy tone to the finish and a fine grained tannin profile. This cuvée offers a lot of finesse. It is worth hanging on to this lovely red for 5 – 7 years’ to let it soften and broaden out.

Argiano Brunello Di Montalcino DOCG 2012 – 94pts. PW

A very fine balance of elegance, power, structure and finesse. The nose is moderately intense and highly complex, with earthy, spiced, red cherry, ripe tomato and hints of balsamic. Fresh and lively on the palate, providing a perfect counterweight to the weighty, firmly structured yet fleshy style. Lovely depth of flavour defines the mid palate, with fruity and savoury notes lingering on the finish.

Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – 94pts. LW

This is a fantastic example of the ageworthiness of the better 2012 Brunellos. Beautifully fresh red cherry, currant, spice, balsamic and talc notes feature on the nose. The palate is incredibly vibrant, full bodied, dense and tightly wound. The impressive depth of flavour and ripeness of the big, chewy tannins suggest superior ageability. Lay this down for at least 3 more years, or decant long before serving and pair with red meat.

Antinori Pian Delle Vigne Brunello Di Montalcino 2012 – 90pts. LW

Incredibly elegant, complex nose, featuring floral tones, tangy balsamic aromas, red cherry and blackberry. Upon aeration, deeper notes of leather and spice emmerge. Fresh and bright on the attack, with lovely, layered fruit that is somewhat marred by a drying sensation and a touch of phenolic bitterness that brought an otherwise very high score down a few pegs.

Pecci Celestino Brunello Di Montalcino DOCG 2012 – 92pts. LW

Very pretty nose, redolent with just ripe red cherries, potpourri, mixed spice and earthy notes. Upon aeration, intriguing leather notes develop. Very fresh and vibrant on the palate, with a firm, weighty structure and multiple layers of tangy fruit. The finish is long and lifted, marred only by the slightly drying nature of the firm, grainy tannins. Needs time.

Villa I Cipressi Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – 91pts. LW

Medium ruby, faded at rim. Vibrant and fruity on the nose, with fresh red cherry and currant notes, underscored by hints of violets, earthy tones and subtle spice. Crisp and firmly structured on the palate, with layers of tart red fruits and balsamic flavours. The tannins are firm, yet ripe. While already quite harmonious, this red would definitely benefit from additional cellaring.

 

Education Reviews Wines

THE EVOLUTION OF RIOJA

Rioja Vineyards
Photo credit: us.riojawine.com

The past twenty odd years has been an exciting time in the winemaking world. So-called ‘New World’ producers have resoundingly proven that they can compete on the global stage, and a new generation of ‘Old World’ growers have emerged. This latter group is travelling more and embracing modern technologies; refining the styles of their wines as they go.

The result is a blurring of the lines, whereby the clichéd characteristics of certain wines and regions no longer apply. Wines made oceans apart, in dramatically different climates and soil types, are surprisingly similar. While others, made two cellars down in the same village, bear little ressemblance.

This situation has many traditionalists shaking their heads, and looking back longingly to a time when Chablis was Chablis, and nothing else came close. I’ll admit that, when blind tasting, the lazy part of me secretly wishes that all regional wines fit their textbook descriptions. And yet, how boring life would be for winemakers were they all to make the same wines as their neighbours.

Rioja is a prime example of a region that has undergone significant stylistic changes in recent years. The stereotypical definition of ‘classic Rioja’ is a pale garnet coloured red, with soft red fruit, heavy American oak influence (vanilla, dill flavours) and a mellow, tertiary character from prolonged barrel maturation (soft tannins, leather and dried fruit nuances). The traditional whites are heavily oxidized; deep gold in colour with nutty, honeyed flavours.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, ‘modern Rioja’ is often inky dark in colour, with fresh acidity, ripe black fruit aromatics, firm tannins and French oak flavours (spice, cedar). Tempranillo is still king, but Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuelo (Carignan) and Graciano are bigger supporting players here. The whites now run the gamut from crisp, lean and unoaked through to full bodied, rich and lavishly oaked (the barrel maturation periods are shorter however, resulting in fresher, fruitier wines).

The shift in styles may seem fairly radical, and does tend to cause a certain amount of nostalgic muttering amongst traditionalists. Yet when we look at the evolution of Rioja wines over the regions’ long history, it becomes apparent that change is the constant and not a recent trend.

Prior to the 18th century, Rioja wines were not aged in oak. Barrels were used strictly as a means of transport for exported wines, and lined with resins that negatively impacted the flavour profile. It wasn’t until local vineyard owners began visiting cellars in Bordeaux and consulting with French oenologists in the mid 1800s, that barrel ageing came to Rioja. The practice quickly caught on, and increasing numbers of wineries began maturing their wines in French oak.

The move to American oak came about as a cost saving measure in the early 19th century, as it could be imported cheaply from Spain’s overseas colonies and coopered locally. The duration of oak ageing became a gauge of quality, with soft, sweet vanilla scented reds ruling the pack.

The ageing classifications of Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva only came about some forty years ago. Prior to that, consumers had little way of knowing how long a Rioja had slumbered in barrel. Vibrantly fruit, Beaujolais-esque reds co-existed with pale, mellow wines of 20 or more years’ oak maturation.

If anything, this labeling legislation has been a boon in bringing greater transparency and consistency of style to Rioja wines, whereby (for reds):

Crianza: 2 years’ minimum ageing (at least 1 year in barrel)

Reserva: 3 years’ minimum ageing (at least 1 year in barrel)

Gran Reserva: 5 years’ minimum ageing (at least 2 years in barrel)

And while the fashion for denser, riper fruited, fuller-bodied Rioja continues to gain traction, there remain a large number of stalwarts who continue crafting their wines along fairly classical lines (López de Heredia, CVNE, Marqués de Murrieta, Muga, Marqués de Riscal, just to name a few).

These producers may not age wines in barrel for as long as they once did, and many now prefer a mix of American and French oak, but the mellow appeal and sweet fragrance are not lost. The wines have simply gained in freshness and vibrancy.

Here are a list of great classic and modern Riojas to try from a recently attended tasting (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).

Conde Valdemar, Finca Alto de Cantabria 2015 (white) – 93pts. VW

At just shy of 20$, this suave, beautifully balanced white offers fantastic value. Toasty, vanilla oak aromas are ably matched by attractive candied pear, honey and spiced notes. The palate is tangy and fresh, with a creamy, layered centre and bright fruit lingering on the finish.

Blend: 100% Viura

Where to buy: SAQ (19,85$)

Rioja Vega Tempranillo Blanco 2015 (white) – 89pts. PW

A mutation of the red Tempranillo grape, Tempranillo Blanco has only been approved for use in white Rioja wines since 2007. This lively example is laden with ripe, red apples, yellow pear and floral nuances. Medium bodied, smooth and moderately creamy, this easy drinking white boasts a long, delicately oaked finish.

Blend: 100% Tempranillo Blanco

Where to buy: LCBO (21,95$) SAQ (22,95$)

Dinastia Vivanco “Seleccion de Familia” Crianza 2012 (red) – 88pts. VW

Attractive, spiced strawberry and candied cherry notes are underscored by earthy nuances on the nose. The palate is dense and firm in structure, with brisk acidity. A moderately concentrated core of tart red fruits lifts the mid-palate. The finish is framed by ripe, grainy tannins and subtle cedar, vanilla oak.

Blend: 100% Tempranillo

Where to Buy: SAQ (19,95$)

Bodega Palacios Remondo “La Montesa” 2013 (red) – 90pts. VW

Breaking away from the traditional Tempranillo led style, this tempting red is predominantly Grenache-based. Intense aromas of stewed strawberries, mixed spices and fresh, herbal notes feature on the nose. The palate offers wonderful vibracy, with nice depth of flavour and firm, yet ripe tannins. Hints of vanilla linger on the finish.

Blend: 85% Garnacha, 15% Tempranillo

Where to Buy: LCBO (24,95$), SAQ (19,90$)

Muga Reserva 2012 (red) – 89pts. PW

Intense red cherry, strawberry and dark fruit aromas underscored by licorice and vanilla nuances. A fresh, lively attack leads into a broad, dry, grainy-textured palate of medium weight. Tart red and black fruits linger through to the medium length finish. American oak nuances (vanilla, dill) are tempered with hints of spicy, cedar scented French oak.

Blend: 70% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha, 7% Mazuelo, 3% Graciano

Where to Buy: LCBO (23,95$), SAQ (23,35$)

Bodegas Palacio “Glorioso” Reserva 2012 (red) – 90pts. PW

Elegant, yet somewhat restrained nose featuring prunes, baking spice, cassis and dark cherries. Upon aeration hints of citrus and fresh strawberries emmerge. The palate offers brisk acidity, a powerful, tightly knit structure and firm tannins. The finish is lengthy and nuanced, with lingering cedar oak notes. Needs time in cellar to unwind, or several hours decanting before serving.

Blend: 100% Tempranillo

Where to Buy: SAQ (25,50$)

Marqués de Murrieta “Ygay” Reserva 2011 (red) – 91pts. PW

Pretty, fragrant nose featuring crushed strawberries, dark cherry and spice, underscored by earthy, leather nuances. Quite elegant on the palate, with fresh acidity ably balanced by the bright fruit. Slightly lean on the mid-palate, though finishes well, with fine grained tannins and nicely integrated toasty, vanilla oak.

Blend: 92% Tempranillo, 3% Mazuelo, 3% Garnacha, 2% Graciano

Where to Buy: SAQ (27,25$)

Cune Gran Reserva 2009 (red) – 92pts. PW

The elegant nose features ripe plum, blackberry, red cherry, vanilla and cedar notes, with hints of dried fruit, leather and spice developing upon aeration. Very silky and plush on the palate, with rounded acidity, full body and loads of ripe plum and vanilla flavours. The tannins are moderately firm, yet velvetty in texture framing the finish nicely. Only moderate concentration and intensity prevent an even higher rating for this, nevertheless, attractive Gran Reserva.

Blend: 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 5% Mazuelo

Where to Buy: LCBO (38,95$), SAQ – 2008 vintage (27,85$)

CVNE “Viña Real” Gran Reserva 2008 (red) – 92pts. PW

Heady aromas of stewed strawberries, licorice and morello cherries are nicely counterbalanced by attractive earthy notes. Fresh and full bodied on the palate, yet already quite mellow with wonderful depth of flavour and a long, harmonious finish. The tannins remain firm, but the oak is already well integrated.

Blend: 95% Tempranillo, 5% Graciano

Where to Buy: SAQ (35,50$), LCBO – 2008 vintage (37,00$)

CVNE “Imperial” Gran Reserva 2009 (red) – 94pts. LW

Intense, highly complex aromas of tar, tobacco, dark fruits and floral notes are underscored by spicy, vanilla nuances. The palate is fresh, full bodied and dense, yet reveals a pleasantly fleshy texture with time in glass. A highly concentrated core of ripe, dark fruits lifts the mid-palate. The finish is somewhat impenetrable at present, with muscular tannins and pronounved toasty, vanilla oak. Needs additional cellaring (4 – 5 years minimum) to harmonize further.

Blend: 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 5% Mazuelo

Where to Buy: SAQ (52,25$)

Education

THE RENAISSANCE OF SOUTH AFRICAN WINE – PART 3

Hamilton Russell Daycare 2007
Photo: Hamilton Russell Vineyards preschool kids, 2007 (Jacky Blisson)

It is no secret that South Africa has a decidedly chequered past when it comes to human rights. Driving through the vast shanty towns that surround major and even minor cities nation-wide, it is apparent that inequality is still rife today. And yet, as a Canadian descendent of European settlers, it would be hypocritical of me to point fingers. The racial segregation and abuses to which our own indigenous populations have long been subjected are equally disgraceful.

In 2011, Human Right’s Watch published a damning report on the conditions of South African farm workers, with particular emphasis on fruit and wine farms in the Western Cape. Unacceptable living conditions, illegal evictions, alcoholism, dangerous pesticide exposure and obstruction to joining unions were just some of the highlighted concerns. Further fuel was added to the fire last year, when an inflammatory Danish documentary surfaced depicting slavery-like situations on certain estates.

The national, promotional body: Wines of South Africa responded to the ensuing negative press with the following statement: ‘The South African wine industry has come a long way in recent years … to improve the sustainability of one of its biggest assets – the workers. Whilst we recognize that there is still a lot of work to be done, there are numerous programmes that include social upliftment, housing, land reform, education, skills and medical care for farm workers and their families. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of bodies such as WIETA and Fairtrade, there are regular audits across the board… It will take time, but the reality is that change is taking place, even despite many wine farmers running their businesses on very tight margins.’

Chris Mullineux of Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines in the Swartland asserts ‘there is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of farmers are doing their best to uplift their workers lives and in many cases you can see they visibly are being improved’. And this, despite the many challenges the industry faces. He explains that the South African wine sector, unlike the majority of wine producing countries, does not receive any government subsidies, and is at the mercy of a volatile exchange rate and high rate of inflation. Roughly 50% of South African wine is sold in bulk at very low prices, with the wineries often operating at a loss.

‘There is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of farmers are doing their best to uplift their workers lives…’

This cycle of unsustainably low purchase prices from major retailers is effectively slowing the pace of progress, according to US-based South African fine wine importer Pascal Schildt. ‘Quality has massively improved over the past decade, but prices have not risen apace. Consumers need to be encouraged to trade up a few dollars, thereby allowing retailers to adjust their buying habits’.

As in most industries, buying the cheapest quality available is (more often than not) tantamount to supporting labour exploitation. A marginal shift upwards can make a huge difference to a wine estate’s ability to adequately compensate workers, with the added bonus of providing significantly more pleasure in the glass.

Just as the conscience minded among us try to buy local and/ or sustainably produced goods, we as wine drinkers can initiate change by supporting South African wine producers that are making the necessary efforts to treat workers fairly. And, despite a murky track record and the obstacles outlined above, significant improvements are to be found on a vast number of wine farms.

Quality has massively improved over the past decade, but prices have not risen apace’.

One of the pioneers of this movement is highly respected Elgin estate Paul Cluver. Their Thandi brand of wines was the first agriculturally-based Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) project back in 1995. Thandi Wines went on to become the first Fair Trade certified wine brand in the world, funneling back profits to community upliftment projects like education, healthcare, housing improvements and so forth.

Top ranked Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Walker Bay runs the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley pre-school on their property, accepting under priveledged children from through out the community, in the hopes that a strong early educational base will set them in good stead to succeed in their future schooling. Countless other such projects exist throughout the Cape winelands. See a list of great initiatives compiled by Wines of South Africa here.

Seeking out wines that hold the Fair Trade or WIETA (Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association) accreditation is an increasingly sound way to ensure the purchase of equitably produced wines. South Africa is currently the largest producer of Fair Trade wine in the world, with over 76 certified farms employing over 3000 workers. Fair Trade products are labelled with a distinctive logo, making them easy to identify. WIETA is another standard bearer, working to ensure that fair wages and acceptable labour conditions are upheld in the South African wine trade. A large number of South African wineries are members (see full list here) and are regularly audited to ensure that they meet the required norms.

South Africa is currently the largest producer of Fair Trade wine in the world.

If there is one thing that struck me during my harvest work and travels through South Africa, it was the ardent desire of wineries to prove themselves on the world stage. On the whole, they are a passionate, enthusiastic community commited to throwing off the shackles of the past. While injustices are still rampant, significant efforts are being made by many wine farms to redress the situation. Our responsability as consumers is to champion the leaders of this movement.

Education

THE RENAISSANCE OF SOUTH AFRICAN WINE – PART 2

Swartland vineyards
Photo Credit: Swartland vineyards, Wines of South Africa

In part 2 of my South Africa series, I look at some of the exciting Western Cape wine growing districts and wine producers cropping up on our liquor board shelfs. Click here for a map of the Cape winelands (courtesy of Wines of South Africa). 

The majority of South Africa’s vineyards are situated in the Western Cape, in proximity to the coast whose cooling influence tempers the otherwise baking hot growing season. This results in good acid retention and balanced wines.  Value priced offerings will often be labeled under this large, generic region or the sub-zone of the Coastal Region. These wines can be blended from across their delimited territories.

Smaller sub-divisions (named districts and wards) exist when we move up the ladder to mid-range and premium priced wines. Within these smaller vineyard areas, more specific styles emerge. The following are just a handful of the most exciting, high quality districts that we are starting to see in regular rotation here:

ELGIN: Attractively aromatic whites and vibrant light reds flourish here due to the combined cooling influence of southerly winds and moderate elevation (350 metres above sea level). Elgin lies in a basin of the Hottentots-Holland Mountains, south-east of Stellenbosch.

Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc make up the bulk of white wine production, while Pinot Noir and Syrah account for much of the red wine. Paul Cluver is an excellent, mid-sized Elgin producer making consistently high quality, good value whites and reds.

STELLENBOSCH: Likely the best-known district of the Cape Winelands, wine production in Stellenbosch dates back to the 17th century. Less than one hour’s drive due east of Cape Town, the terrain here is mountainous with sufficient rainfall and well-drained soils. While a wide diversity of soil types and mesoclimates exist (owing to the varying exposition and altitude of plantings), many of the most prized vineyard sites lie on ancient decomposed granite or sandstone beds. The climate is generally hot and dry, with cooling afternoon breezes from the south-east.

Cabernet Sauvignon is king here, though Pinotage, Syrah, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc are also produced in abundance. Over 170 wine producers call Stellenbosch home, and trade continues to flourish. Among the many excellent wineries, Rustenberg, Glenelly, Vergelegen produces good, mid-range to premium priced Bordeaux Blends, Waterkloof for fantastic, biodynamic Rhône style blends and Ken Forrester for clean, consistent, good value old vine Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.

SWARTLAND: Traditionally a wheat-producing region, the Swartland (65km north of Cape Town) has been making waves on the international wine scene in recent years as the hot, new growing region of South Africa. Hot is indeed an apt descriptor, as well as dry, making hardy, drought resistant bush vines a common occurrence. The dominant soil type is shale, with pockets of granite and schist providing interesting alternative terroirs.

The Mediterranean climate makes for excellent Rhône style reds. Lovely Chenin Blanc is also grown here. The excitement generated by Swartland’s star producers is largely justified. Fantastic, affordable quality can be found from the Kloof Street (from the Mullineux Family Wines), A.A. Badenhorst and Leeuwenkuil (bright, juicy Cinsault). Exceptional, premium to luxury priced wines from: Mullineux Family Wines and The Sadie Family.

TULBAGH MOUNTAINS: A fairly secluded valley, inland from the Swartland, encircled by mountains to the west, north and east. Due to this unique topography, cool night time air becomes trapped in the vineyards making for chilly morning temperatures that gradually rise in the hot afternoons. Soils are quite varied making for a wide variety of styles. Only 13 wine producers reside here at present, but the acclaim of their wines speaks volumes.

Traditional method sparkling wines, called ‘Méthode Cap Classique’ are gaining traction here. Syrah and Rhône blend whites are also performing well. Krone produces easy drinking, competitively priced sparkling wines, while Fable Mountain Vineyards is garnering top accolades for their premium white and red Rhône blends.

WALKER BAY: This pretty district extends from the town of Hermanus on the south coast of the Western Cape, with the majority of top-rated vineyards lying in the aptly named Hemel-en-Aarde valley (meaning Heaven and Earth). The close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean brings cooling breezes that temper the otherwise hot climate. Clay-rich soils bring a firm structure to the wines. I spent many a happy month here, working harvest and sampling my way through the vibrant, juicy wines of the region.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the star grapes of the area, though Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Pinotage are also gaining in popularity. Hamilton-Russell Vineyards has a long-standing reputation for fine, premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Bouchard-Finlayson makes very precise, focused wines from ranging from attractively fruity mid-range whites to premium Pinot Noir. Crystallum Wines regularly impresses me with their beautifully creamy, complex wines.

 

Education

The Renaissance of South African Wine – Part 1

Hamilton Russell Estate
Photo: Hamilton Russell Vineyards (by Jacky Blisson)

In Canada, we are often a little late to the party when it comes to new wine trends. So, if you still think South Africa is only good for inexpensive, nondescript white wines, you are forgiven. After all, that is pretty much all our liquor boards were stocking for years. Happily, all that is changing.

Read on for a three part series on the renaissance of the South African wine industry: why South Africa was typecast in a cheap ‘n cheerful role and how the industry has changed, what exciting regions to look for, and finally the people behind the wines.

South African wine producers often flinch when they see their wines lumped in to the ‘New World’ wine category. Indeed, the history of winemaking dates back to 1655, with the establishment of the country’s first vineyard by then governor Jan van Riebeeck. This may seem relatively recent when compared with the first Calabrian vines planted around 1500 B.C. And it may not appear to massively pre-date the Californian and Australian industries, which both originated in the late 1700s.

What makes South Africa stand apart from other New World regions in historical terms, is how quickly Cape wines rose to international prominence. While most other non-European wine producing nations saw little growth, and minimal export sales until the late 1900s, the sweet wines of Constantia were sought after by the European ruling class in the 1700s. According to the Oxford Wine Companion, Napoleon himself had the wine shipped in during his exile on St. Helena.

Despite this promising start, a series of misfortunes befell South African wine growers which slowly eroded the high quality image the famed Constantia wine or ‘Vin de Constance’ had brought. Pests in the form of voracious, grape eating birds meant that many estates picked too early resulting in thin, acidic wines. The Phylloxera epidemic followed, decimating over a quarter of the country’s plantings by 1890.

Partly in response to the variable wine quality and poor financial returns of so many wine farmers, a ‘super cooperative’ was formed in 1915 to bring unity and improve conditions. In short order, the KWV (Kooperative Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika) became a powerful, controlling force in the South African wine industry. They were responsible for setting grape and wine prices, as well as quotas for wine production. Growers were incentivized on quantity, leading to ever increasing yields.

The international sanctions imposed by the apartheid regime led to a period of isolation. South African producers were cut off from the latest innovations in viticultural and vinification techniques, and lost touch with changing international tastes and trends.

With Mandela’s liberation from prison in 1990 came a resurgence in international interest for South African wines. Sadly, by this point, most of the nation’s vineyards were in a poor state. Vineyard virus was rampant. The grape varieties planted were unfashionable; mainly Chenin Blanc, Sultana and Colombard. Wine quality was, on the whole, pretty dismal.

Given the often thin, reedy nature of the whites and astringency of the (under-ripe) reds, major market were only willing to buy in at very low rates, positioning the wines at rock bottom prices on shelf.  This set a precedent that has proved difficult for South Africa to shake off.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and the situation is radically different. The number of individual estates has more than doubled, with a growing number of small, boutique wineries commanding widespread acclaim. Massive advancements have been made in eradicating vineyard virus, reducing yields, achieving optimal ripening conditions and planting grape varieties best suited to individual vineyard sites.

The European and American press have been effusive in their praise of the new wave of top quality South African wines. Neal Martin, of Robert Parker fame, has proclaimed South Africa ‘the most dynamic and exciting New World country’. Tim Atkin MW, echoes this view, calling the wines ‘world class’.

In 2007, I spent a few months working the harvest at the top-rated Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Walker Bay, and touring the wineries of the Western Cape. I saw first hand the incredible strides in quality. Carefully managed vineyards and impeccably clean wineries gleaming with modern technology were the norm. The producers we met were literally bursting with enthusiasm as they eagerly detailed their winemaking techniques and proudly poured their wines. It was a far cry from the cool, superior attitude I had thus far encountered when dealing with French vignerons.

High quality South African wines now exists not only at the luxury end of the spectrum, but also in the every day, sub 15$ category. Chenin Blanc continues to dominate white wine plantings, with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc also enjoying high praise. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are the two top seated reds, with increasing buzz generated by the bright, fruity old-vine Cinsault and elegant Pinot Noir. Gamey, smoky Pinotage (a South African created hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault) provides a unique taste profile that further sets this exceptional wine region apart.

While I am loathe to place the wines of such a diverse, fast changing region into one mould, it is often true that South African wines seem to strike a stylistic balance between Old World and New. While bolder and fruitier than many European wines, they still tend to be more restrained, with greater intensity of savoury, earthy flavours than many of their American and Southern Hemisphere counterparts.

Education Reviews Wines

DRY SHERRY…DON’T CALL IT A COMEBACK

Photo credits: http://www.sherry.wine/

The story of Sherry is an incredibly fascinating one. The rich history of the region, the diversity of styles, and the complexity of the vinification process make these wines a truly exceptional tasting experience.

So why isn’t it more popular?

Trendy wine bar goers in New York and London would argue that Sherry is making a come back, but browse the aisles of your local wine shop and I doubt you’ll find more than a few dusty bottles tucked away in corner.

According to Christopher Canale-Parola, North American sales manager for reputed bodega Gonzalez Byass, the main issue is poor “brand” image. Sherry is seen by many as an “old person’s wine”; not enough is being done to draw in a younger crowd.

This puts me in mind of the Old Spice brand of men’s grooming products. For years, Old Spice was dismissed as grandpa’s cologne and largely forgotten. However, the crafty marketers at Proctor & Gamble were able to skyrocket sales 5 odd years ago with the “Old Man Spice: The man your man could smell like” campaign. The product didn’t change, but the funny, engaging commercial changed people’s perception and the brand became cool again.

Sherry is seen by many as an “old person’s wine”.

Sadly, the Sherry wine region doesn’t have quite the same advertising budget as Proctor & Gamble, but knowledge is cool (it’s true…my mum said so). Educating the more adventurous consumers among you and encouraging everyone to get out there and try a Sherry or three is our best bet.

So if you are curious to learn more about Sherry, read on!

Sherry is produced in the region of Andalucia, in southwestern Spain. The heartland of cultivation lies within the “Sherry Triangle”, the area between the three main production cities of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

What is so special about this land?

First of all, the dazzling white soil. Albariza is a mixture of chalk, limestone, clay and sand formed from the sediment of ancient marine fossils. The excellent water holding capacity of this porous soil allows vines to flourish despite the region’s arid summer conditions.

vinos_jerez_sherry_wines_vinas_con_cipreses 

Secondly, the unique interplay of weather patterns. The rainy fall/ winter weather brings the necessary water. The long, sunny summers spur vigourous growth. And two dueling winds: the poniente (western breeze bringing moisture-rich from the Atlantic ocean) and levante (south-eastern hot, dry gale said to drive men mad) provide perfect wine ageing conditions.

The majority of Sherry wines are made from the Palomino Fino grape. The prized attributes of this variety are its high yield levels, relatively neutral character and moderate acidity. It is the perfect blank canvas on which to display the winemaking techniques that result in Sherry’s particular aromatic profile and palate character.

The wine produced here is fortified, meaning that a neutral grape spirit has been added to increase the alcohol content. In this health conscious day and age, you might be wondering why anyone would want to deliberately boost alcohol? The practice of fortification was borne out of necessity to withstand long boat journeys. Harmful yeasts and bacteria that regularly caused wine to referment (becoming fizzy), turn to vinegar, or spoil in other ways were found to become inactivate in higher alcohol environments. With further experimentation, it was also determined that the level of alcohol added had a significant effect on one of the major factors that makes Sherry so unique: the flor.

Palomino…is the perfect blank canvas on which to display the winemaking techniques that result in Sherry’s particular aromatic profile and palate character.

Dry Sherry is made initially in much the same way as any other unoaked white wine.  Fermentation produces a dry, base wine of 11 – 12% alcohol, called mosto. During the roughly 6 week period of maceration and settling that follows, a curious thing occurs. A film of yeast forms, gradually covering the surface of the wine completely. The yeast coating, called flor, is either encouraged in its development, or destroyed, by the fortification.

vinos_jerez_sherry_wines_catando_con_venencia vinos_de_jerez_sherry_wines_0

Flor develops best at alcohol levels of 14.5% to 16%. The pale, delicate Fino and Manzanilla styles of Sherry are fortified to 15% and spend their entire maturation under the flor barrier. The flor has a number of intriguing effects on the mosto. It acts as a natural oxygen barrier, keeping the underlying wine pale and fresh. Think of it as the plastic wrap you would use to keep cut apples from turning brown. The flor also performs a complex set of metabolic processes that result in the development of attractive nutty, green apple aromas and in the conversion of all remaining glycerol, leaving the wine bone dry.

At over 16.5%, the blanket of yeast is destroyed. Rich, dark Oloroso Sherry is fortified to 17% or 18% alcohol and deliberately exposed to oxygen. Over time, the wine slowly turns a deep shade of mahogany and gains in power and concentration as the water evaporates.

The activity of the flor leaves the wines pale, fresh and bone dry…with attractive nutty, green apple aromas.

After fortification, the wine is transferred to barrel for ageing (or crianza). Both styles of Sherry are aged in large, old American oak casks. The casks are filled to only 5/6 of capacity allowing ambient oxygen to either feed the flor, or create the oxidative reactions mentionned above for Oloroso.

The barrels are arranged in a multi-level set-up called a solera system. Essentially, this is a form of fractional blending whereby the top tier of barrels are filled with the new wine of the vintage. At each bottling, a small portion of wine is withdrawn from the bottom layer of barrels (called solera), in a process named the saca. The bottom tier is then replenished with wine from the level above (the first criadera), which is in turn re-filled from the level above this (the second criadera) and so on for as many levels as the bodega chooses to have.

senor-tio-pepe-02 vinos_jerez_sherry_wines_bodega_crianza

Wines age in this manner for anywhere from 5 to 6 years for many Finos to 30 years + for fine Oloroso. A quick overview of dry Sherry styles is as follows:

FINO: Made only from the delicate free run juice, fortified to 15%, and aged entirely under flor. Pale straw in colour, bone dry, with a sharp quality and singular aromatic profile of baker’s yeast, fresh almonds and green apple.

MANZANILLA: Produced in the same manner as Fino, but exclusively in the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda where the proximity to the sea results in thicker, denser flor growth. Delicate floral aromas and a faint salty flavour set this style apart.

AMONTILLADO: Starts out as a Fino but, for various reasons, is eventually re-fortified to 17% and continues its maturation in oxidative conditions, like Oloroso. Amontillado has the yeast aromas and dry texture of Fino, with the deeper colour and more intense flavours of Oloroso.

PALO CORTADO: Also begins ageing as a Fino, but for a shorter time period than Amontillado (only 1 – 3 years). Once the flor veil has disappeared, ageing takes place under oxidative conditions. According to the Jerez DO Regulatory Council, Palo Cortado “combines the smooth, delicate and sharp qualitites of Amontillado with the vinous, rounded qualities of Oloroso”.

OLOROSO: Made from the gently pressed juice, yielding darker, more structured, tannic wine. Fortified to 17%, this wine ages under oxidiative conditions. Dark in colour, full bodied, rich and rounded with a nutty, vinous flavour profile.

What about the sweet stuff? While many people are more familiar with the sweeter, cream styles à la Harvey’s Bristol Cream, the majority of Sherry consumed in Spain is actually dry. That being said, sweet Sherry can be exquisite. It exists in two forms:

VINO DULCE NATURAL: naturally sweet wine made from the Pedro Ximénez or Moscatel grapes, fortified after the partial fermentation of grapes left to shrivel in the sun (soleo). These are rich, heady, highly viscous wines that can contain dizzying levels of residual sugar (350g/L + for many PX wines).

BLENDED SHERRY: in this style, dry Fino, Amontillado or Oloroso is blended with sweet Vino Dulce Natural (or concentrated grape must). Depending on the Sherry style used and the sweetness level, these wines are labelled pale cream (off dry), medium (slightly sweet) or cream (lusciously sweet)

If you find yourself grabbing your keys, eager to go out and buy a Sherry to taste tonight, here are a few suggestions (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out):

Tio Pepe Extra Dry Fino – 90pts. VW

According to Sherry expert César Saldaña, Director of the Regulating Council of the Sherry appellation (DO), Tio Pepe is a classic example of well-made Fino. Brilliant pale straw, with aromas of baker’s yeast, green apple and fresh almonds. Sharp, bone dry and precise on the palate, with a clean, zesty finish. Aged in barrel for a minimum of 4 years.

Where to Buy: SAQ (18.80$), LCBO (17.95$)

Valdespino “Deliciosa” Manzanilla – 88pts PW

Pale straw colour. Delicate chamomile flower and orchard fruit notes are underscored by baker’s yeast and nutty aromas. Bone dry, with a tangy saline note on the palate and a clean, linear structure through to the medium length finish. Aged 5 years in a 7 tier solera system.

Where to Buy: LCBO (24.00$), try “La Gitana” Manzanilla at the SAQ (21.25$)

Bodegas Hidalgo “Napoleon” Amontillado – 87pts. PW

Pale amber in colour. Somewhat restrained nose with hints of yeast, mingled with grilled almond, caramel, woody and spiced notes. Very dry on the palate, with medium body and warming alcohol.

Where to Buy: LCBO (23.00$), 

González Byass “Alfonso” Seco Oloroso – 91pts VW

Pale amber in colour. Intense woody, spiced notes feature on the nose, with undertones of hazelnuts, leather and caramel. Rich, rounded and full bodied, with a dry, lifted finish.

Where to Buy: LCBO (20.00$)

Bodegas Lustau “Peninsula” Palo Cortado – 91pts PW

Medium amber in colour. Elegant, complex aromas of cinnamon, nutmeg, marzipan and citrus, overlaid with woody notes. Crisp and fresh on the medium bodied palate, with attractive baker’s yeast notes on the dry, lingering finish.

Where to Buy: LCBO (35.00$), try Lustau Almacenista Palo Cortado Vides at the SAQ (35.25$)

Gonzalez Byass Del Duque VORS Amontillado – 93pts LW

VORS on a label means “very old rare Sherry”. These fine wines are aged for 30 years or more. This outstanding example is medium topaz in colour. Intense, and highly complex with aromas of dried fruit, grilled nuts, mixed spice, leather and caramel on the nose. Crisp, dry and richly textured, with excellent concentration of flavours. The finish is very long with nutty, yeast and dried orange peel notes.

Where to Buy: LCBO (40.00$, half bottle)

Education Reviews Wines

The Mighty South West

Photo credit: IVSO / P. Poupart
Photo credit: IVSO/ P. Poupart

From a Canadian’s perspective, France is a small country. 15 times smaller to be specific. A mere blip on the world map. Yet in terms of wine output, France is enormous. Not only in terms of sheer quantity, but also the diversity of wine styles, the number of producing regions and so on. Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne have become household names, even for you reasonable folks out there that don’t spend all of your waking moments thinking about wine. The oceans of wine coming out of the Languedoc have also assured this area pretty good visibility on the world stage. And the Loire and Rhône Valleys, with appellations like Sancerre and Châteauneuf-du-pape respectively, can hold their own quite nicely. But there is another vast wine producing area that often gets forgotten…

The South West of France is the 5th largest vineyard area in France with 47 000 hectares of vines. It cups Bordeaux to the south and east (of the right bank), extends to the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and continues south to the Spanish border and the Pyrénées mountains. The region is often a little too neatly summed up as being a cheaply priced Bordeaux alternative. While many good value Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends are to be had from places like Bergerac and the Côtes du Marmandais, there is a wealth of other grape varieties and wine styles out there.

There are 29 designated AOP (protected appellations) and 14 IGP (vin de pays) growing areas.  As well as the two mentionned above, the best known appellations, and easiest to find on most international markets, include: Madiran and Cahors (best known for their big, bold reds), AOP Fronton (lighter, violet scented reds), AOP Gaillac (where everything from still to sparkling to sweet white, rosé and red are crafted) and AOP Jurançon (where prized late harvest, sweet white wine is made). The largest territory however, is that of IGP Côtes du Gascogne, where crisp, lively, easy drinking white wines are the mainstay. Due to the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean, these wines often take on an intriguing saline note that adds to their refreshing appeal.

Given the size of the region and the diverse climate conditions and soil types, it is only natural that the grapes that grow well in one area are not suited to another.  Over 300 different varieties are grown here, with just over half native to the area. The majority of AOC wines, and many IGP wines are blends. I will give you a quick over view of some of the major players, and where to find them.

GAILLAC  COTES DU TARN                   Photo credit: IVSO/ P. Poupart

White Wine

Colombard – a major player in the production of IGP wines like Côtes de Gascogne and also in in the digéstif Armagnac. When over cropped it produces a fairly neutral white. The best examples have intense exotic fruit aromas, light body and moderate acidity.

Chenin Blanc – widespread in the eastern appellations and IGPs of the South West. Highly appreciated for its fruity, floral palate of aromas, medium body and bright acidity

Gros Manseng – a major blending component in many IGP Côtes de Gascogne, as well as dry Jurançon and Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl whites. Gros Manseng gives vibrancy and spicy notes.

Mauzac – adaptable to a wide variety of wine styles, it is used for sparkling, and still, dry and sweet wines, principally around the Gaillac area. It gives fresh orchard fruit in youth, and honeyed notes with age.

Petit Manseng – related to Gros Manseng, this grape has smaller berries with thicker skins, generally producing wines with greater aromatic complexity. The grape has the ability to produce high sugar levels while retaining fresh acidity; perfect for the sweet Jurançon dessert wines.

Sauvignon Blanc – used either as a single grape, notably in IGP designations, and as a blending element in several AOPs (Béarn, Tursan, Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl). The grape gives its characteristic citrus, gooseberry, cat pee notes as well as vibrant acidity.

Red Wine

Cabernet Franc (Bouchy, Acheria) – Though widely grown in Bordeaux and the Loire, this grape actually originated in Basque country. Slightly less tannic and more red fruit scented than its offspring Cabernet Sauvignon, it nevertheless provides good structure to red blends from many AOP & IGP regions (notably Madiran, Fronton, Irouléguy)

Cabernet Sauvigon – A second stringer in the South West. It provides fragrant cassis notes, firm tannins and deep colour. It is found in the same appellations as Cabernet Franc.

Duras – One of the most oldest grapes grown in the Tarn Valley. It is a major player in Gaillac, giving finesse, deep colour, moderately firm tannins and a fruity, peppery perfume.

Fer Servadou (Fer, Pinenc, Braucol, Mansois) – Similar aromatics and structure to Cabernet Sauvignon. Blending component in many appellations, notably Marcillac, Béarn & Gaillac.

Gamay – Off spring of Pinot Noir, the Burgundian grape Gamay is bright, fresh and very red fruit driven. It is a blending component in Gaillac and many surrounding appellations.

Malbec (Cot) – Originally from the South West, Cot (as it is called there) is the principal grape in the Cahors appellation. It produces densely coloured, full bodied, structured wines with black fruit aromatics, moderately fresh acidity and firm, chewy tannins. Well crafted versions have great aging potential.

Merlot – Also offspring of Cabernet Franc (like Cabernet Sauvignon), Merlot makes an excellent blending component due to its fleshy mid-palate, rounded tannins and fragrant plum aromas. It is notably grown in Cahors as a minor blending component.

Négrette – The major grape of the Fronton appellation. It is a parent to Malbec. Négrette brings attractive violet notes, and sometimes animal and leather undertones. Fruity and medium bodied with moderate tannins, it is an ideal grape for rosé and easy drinking reds.

Syrah – A blending component in appellations like Fronton, Syrah brings elegance, fine tannins, black fruit and spiced notes.

Tannat – The principle red grape of Madiran. Named for its very firm tannic structure, the grape gives full-bodied, deeply coloured, raspberry scented reds that generally require a little time to unwind

1.ESTAING   CAHORS Photo credit: IVSO/ P. Poupart

Great Wines to Try

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

Chateau Montauriol Prestige AOP Fronton 2013 – 89pts. VW

This blend of 55% Negrette, 25% Syrah, 20% Cabernet Franc is just delicious. Attractive aromas of plum, kirsch and pepper on the nose. The palate is lively, medium bodied, showing moderate depth and complexity, with lingering dried fruit, floral and pepper flavours. Firm, yet ripe tannins frame the finish. The cedar oak imprint is quite subtle.

Where to Buy: SAQ (18.10$)

Château Montus AOP Madiran 2010 – 92pts. PW

Consistent high quality is a feature of this estate. A blend of 80% Tannat and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, this big, brooding red features complex aromatics of cherry, spice, prune and dark chocolate. Full bodied, densely structured yet velvetty on the palate, with chewy tannins and harmonious cedar oak. Long, layered finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (30.25$), LCBO (35.45$)

Château Montus AOP Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh 2011 – 91pts. PW

Made from 80% Petit Courbu, a little known grape from the obscure appellation of Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, this cuvée is absolutely worth discovering. Smoky citrus notes feature on the nose. Fresh, long and layered on the palate with lots of creamy lees character and well integrated toasty oak. Very stylish!

Where to Buy: SAQ (24.85$), LCBO (35.45$)

Odé d’Aydie AOP Madiran 2012 – 87pts. VW

Attractive aromas of fresh red cherries, with floral and spice undertones. Medium bodied, with lively, balanced acidity, firm tannins and subtle oak. No great aging potential, but pleasant every day drinking quality.

Where to buy: SAQ (19.35$)

Château de Gaudou “Renaissance” AOP Cahors 2012 – 87pts. PW

Pleasant earthy, animal notes on the nose, underscoring the fresh red and black fruit aromatics. Fresh acidity, full body, with attractive spiced, oak notes on the finish. This cuvée falls down a little on the finish due to the green, bitter edge on the tannins.

Where to buy: SAQ (22.85$), LCBO (25.95$)

Domaine du Tariquet “Classic” IGP Côtes de Gascogne 2015 – 88pts VW

At only 10.5% alcohol, this is a great option for an every day house white. It is light, refreshing, crisp and lively, with lots of citrus and floral notes. Fairly simple, but nice for the price.

Where to buy: SAQ (12.95$)

South West Vineyard photos, courtesy of IVSO/ P. Poupart

Education Life

Veneto Travel Diaries Part 5 – Valpolicella 101

Valpolicella

Valpolicella…land of wine, charm and tradition. So proclaims the Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella, responsable for the marketing and promotion of the region. And they are not wrong. Those three descriptors aptly sum up what awaits you when you arrive in this sunny paradise. Lush green hillsides and plains covered in vines, cherry and olive trees, farmers out tending to their crops and ancient stone villages boasting delicious trattorias.

The vineyards of Valpolicella lie in the province of Verona in Northeastern Italy. There are three distinct areas. Firstly, the “Classico” region, the historic heart of the appellation which consists of three major valleys (Fumane, Marano and Negrar). This area is slightly higher in altitude than the outlying DOC area and benefits from optimal ripening conditions. “Classico” on a label of Valpolicella is generally a good indication of quality, although increasingly producers from the outlying areas further to the east (Valpantena and the generic Valpolicella DOC area) are now producing excellent wines.

Valpolicella is red wine country. All of the wines are blended from the same set of indigenous grapes featuring the prerequisite Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella. Corvina is the major grape. It gives structure, body, bright acidity and attractive cherry and herbal notes to the wines. Its thick skin is a vital quality for the appassimento process (more on this later). Corvinone was originally thought to be a clone of Corvina, but has been proven to be a separate variety. The bunches are looser, with bigger grapes. It gives heady, perfumed wines, redolent with cherry and floral notes. Molinara is the minor player, accounting for 5 – 30% of blends. It is also a fairly aromatic grape, with the necessary thick skins. Small amounts of lesser known varieties like Molinara and Oseleta are sometimes thrown in for seasoning. Each producer will determine their own blend (within the DOC regulations), depending on what grows best in their vineyard, and what style they are looking to craft.

Corvina…gives structure, body, bright acidity and attractive cherry and herbal notes…

There are two key elements that make the wines of Valpolicella so enticing. Firstly, there is incredible value for money on offer here. While Tuscany and Piedmont enjoy greater international renown, the producers of Valpolicella have quietly but surely ramped up quality, while keeping the prices nice! Secondly, the region boasts unique winemaking methods resulting in a range of wine styles from light and fruity to rich and full-bodied.

As with so many classic, Old World wine regions, the wine classifications are best understood by picturing a multi-tiered pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, you have basic Valpolicella DOC. This is your every day, barbeque wine. It is lively, with tart cherry fruit flavours, medium body and smooth tannins. Served slightly chilled, it is dangerously drinkable. The next step up the pyramid brings us to Valpolicella Superiore DOC. These “superior” wines are aged a minimum of one year in oak or other wood vessels, and have a minimum alcohol content of 12%. They retain the bright, fruit driven character of the basic level, but with a little more depth and persistence. Ripasso della Valpolicella DOC offers even greater concentration and complexity. The vinification technique for Ripasso is unique. Dry base wines are made in the same manner as basic Valpolicella. Several months later, the base wine is transferred into a tank containing the leftover pommace of grape skins from the vinification of another wine, the Amarone. These skins are still rich in sugars and yeasts, provoking a second fermentation for the Valpolicella. The wine is “repassed” (hence the name Ripasso). This process adds glycerol (leading to a rounder mouthfeel), gives richer flavours and higher alcohol levels.

At the top of the pyramid, we have the two DOCG wines: Amarone della Valpolicella and Recioto della Valpolicella. This is where the “appassimento” process comes into play. Appassimento is the act of drying grapes for an extended period so that 40% or more of the water evaporates, resulting in shrivelled berries rich in flavour and sugar. The Amarone destined grapes are dried for 90 to 120 days on average, in large drying lofts designed to permit good air circulation. The bunches are carefully inspected throughout the process to ensure they remain in good condition, free of moulds that would taint the flavour. The raisined bunches are then carefully transferred to tanks or large wooden vats for fermentation, followed by long aging (2 years for Amarone, 4 years for Amarone Riserva) in large, generally neutral wood casks. The wine is opulent, bold, rich, full bodied, highly alcoholic, generally over 15% and often up to 17%. These are reds to cellar for 7 – 12 years and serve with savoury, hearty fare. Recioto winemaking begins in the same way, but the drying period is longer (120 to 150 days on average), and instead of then fermenting the wines dry, the process is halted mid-way to give a rich, concentrated, cherry and dried fruit scented, sweet wine (often up to 150g/L of residual sugar).

The wine is opulent, bold, rich, full bodied, highly alcoholic…best served with savoury, hearty fare.

Recioto is the oldest wine style of the area with a history dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The “Retico” was the wine of choice for the emperor Augustus, and the pride of all growers. It was in crafting this fine nectar that the Amarone style was (accidently) born. Amarone derives from the Italian word for bitter, and was the adjective used when the Recioto was occasionally left too long during fermentation with all of the sugar transformed to alcohol. The dry, alcoholic wine was considered overly bitter and generally thrown away. Not until the 1050s did opinions change and the Amarone style become appreciated in its own right.

Valpolicella is a storied region, with a long history of crafting unique, captivating wines. From light and fruity to heady and rich, there is a wine for every palate. Try this local recipe with a glass of Ripasso or Amarone and you will be packing your bags for Verona!

http://www.amaronetours.it/wines/amarone/amarone-recipes-risotto

 

Education

a nerdy little guide to tannin descriptions

Grapes on sorting table

If you read enough tasting notes, you will know that there is a whole language of descriptive words for things like acidity, mouthfeel, structure, and none more so than tannin. They are useful tools to describe a wine as precisely as possible. Some adjectives are fairly obvious, like silky or chewy, giving you an immediate sense of how they would play across your palate. Other terms are a little more obscure.

I was finding myself a little baffled by the majority of different tannin descriptors that I had heard or seen used…so, after talking to a number of MWs, winemakers, wine critics, etc., I decided to compile this nerdy little guide.

LEVELS

Low: soft, light, delicate, fine

Medium: moderate

High: big, massive, powerful

TYPES

Though there are no hard and fast rules, the following terms are most often used to describe a specific level of tannin. They are therefore (roughly) grouped by level.

Generally Associated with Light to Medium Tannin

Silky: Glides across the palate leaving little trace (ie. Burgundian Pinot Noir in ripe years)

Rounded: Well integrated, ripe and smooth. No harsh edges. Similar terms: supple, smooth.

Powdery: quantity of fine tannins that spread out all across the tongue & mouth (ie. Grenache dominant Châteauneuf-du-pape & Priorat)

Generally Associated with Medium to High Tannins

Velvetty: smooth textured; slightly more present than silky tannin (ie. Argentinian Malbec)

Plush: similar to velvetty, with a notion of richness/ sweetness (ie. Merlot – Pomerol, St. Emilion, Napa Valley, etc.)

Fine grained: firmly structured yet smooth (ie. High quality left bank Bordeaux)

Polished: smooth, seamless. Like silky but with more structure (ie. Zinfandel, some modern Rioja styles).

 Sinewy: like muscular but slightly more lean (ie. St. Estèphe)

Chalky: a shade rougher and thicker than powdery (ie. good quality Chianti, certain Argentinian Cabernet Sauvignons)

Grainy: slightly astringent, rough edged like sand (ie. cheap Chianti). Similar terms: sandy.

 Generally Associated with Very High Tannins

Chewy: coats the sides of the mouth, feels present and weighty enough to chew (ie. Douro red blends, Côte Rôtie, Hermitage)

Chunky: big, powerful and bulky…like chewy but bigger (ie. Barossa Shiraz, Aglianico)

Muscular: powerfully chalky tannins; generally associated with young wine. Similar terms: assertive (ie. Premium Napa Cabernet Sauvignon).

 Grippy: tannin that sticks to the sides of your mouth (ie. Barolo)

 Angular: tannins that hit one particular spot on your palate; jagged (ie. Bordeaux in lean years)

General Descriptors

These terms can apply to one or more tannin levels.

Unresolved vs. Resolved: Very firm, tightly knit referring to a young, highly tannic wine vs. softer, more mellow tannins after a period of ageing

Ripe: lack of any green, astringent or drying sensation

Firm: solid, unyielding. Generally medium + to high tannin wines. Similar terms: dense, tightly-knit.

Broad: opposite of firm. Generally medium to medium minus tannin wines.

Negative Descriptors

Often due to under ripe tannins or excessive extraction of bitter tannins (from seeds and/ or stems)

Harsh: rough and aggressive like sandpaper; drying. Similar terms: hard

Rustic/ Coarse: similar to harsh or aggressive, but slightly less damning

Aggressive: overly dominant, throwing off balance. Unpleasant. Similar terms: rigid.

Astringent: bitter and drying

Stalky: green, unripe, astringent

Education

French wine grape pronunciation guide

La Tache and Latour Wines

I often get asked how to pronounce French grape variety names.  They are tricky for our anglo tongues…lots of silent letters and emphasize on different syllables than we would use.  While no one expects you to go into the store and put on a Pepé Le Pew accent, getting fairly close to the actual pronunciation always makes you feel a little classier.

So here is a quick cheat sheet.

Just as a little guide, wherever possible I have tried to use real English words, so “are” is really pronounced “they are late for dinner” and not in any other fancy way you might come up with like “air” or “aré”. If I couldn’t come up with a real word, I have made up phonetic spellings.

Chardonnay = Shard-oh-nay (started with an easy one)

Sauvignon Blanc = Sew-vee-nyo* Blo* (Both o’s are pronounced the same way as the o in honest…I swear.. Don’t pronounce the n or c at the end.  Blanc does not rhyme with plonk.)

Chenin Blanc = Sheh-nuh Blo* (The Sheh noise is like the beginning of the word shed. See Sauvignon, above, for blanc pronunciation.)

Viognier= Vee-oh-knee-eh (Say that 10 times fast, emphasis on the VEE, and you’ll have it!)

Marsanne = M-are-san

Roussanne = Rue-san

Sémillon = Semi-yo* (Again with the honest o)

Gewürztraminer = Guh-vurts-tram-eener

Pinot Gris = Pee-no Gree

Pinot Blanc = Pee-no Blo* (See Sauvignon, above, for blanc pronunciation)

Riesling = Reeze-ling

Cabernet Sauvignon = Ca-bear-nay Sew-vee-nyo* (Same Sauvignon pronunciation as the Blanc. I also alert your attention to the u after the a in Sauvignon. There is no grape called Cab Sav.)

Cabernet Franc = Ca-bear-nay Fro* (Again…o like honest. Don’t pronounce the n or c. Rhymes with blanc, not with honk)

Merlot = Mur-low

Pinot Noir = Pee-no Nw-are

Syrah = See-ruh (I regularly hear Se-RAW.  The emphasis is on the first syllable, people)

Grenache = Gre-nash

Mourvèdre = More-ved-druh (keep the uh sound very soft)

Carignan = Ca-ree-nyo* (again with that honest o)

Petit Verdot = Put-ee V-air-doe (put as in “put your empty bottles in the recycling bin”)

Cinsault = San-so (the first word is like the beginning of the word “sand”, but don’t quite pronounce the n…it’s as though you were on the verge and then stopped)

Gamay = Think you can guess that one for yourself…