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THE TROUBLE WITH NATURAL WINE FANATICS…

natural wine fanatics

I live in a city awash with natural wine fanatics. I am a little less ardent in my appreciation. That is not to say there aren’t scores of natural wines that I like. There are. I found a whole lot to love at the Raw Wine show in Montréal last week.

The natural wine movement has done a lot for the world of wine. It has encouraged wineries of all sizes and doctrines to re-think their winemaking methods and decrease the quantity of potentially unnecessary additives. It has pushed the boundaries of experimentation in the vineyards and cellar. It has created new wine styles, offering consumers greater vinous choice. And it has yielded some fabulous, passionate advocates that do a great job educating wine lovers.

Unfortunately, it has also spawned a generation of natural wine fanatics; a breed of super fans that range from tiresomely vocal enthusiasts to closed minded zealots.

…the judgmental attitude of die-hard natural wine fanatics is doing a disservice to the entire natural wine movement.

Psychologist Jeremy Sherman, PhD describes fanatics as “…people who indulge in a heady, intoxicating and toxic concoction of self-affirming, know-it-all confidence that they have unique access to absolute truths, truths so perfect that they have to impose them on everyone.” It is exactly this mentality that makes me wary each time I enter a natural wine heavy establishment.

In my opinion, the judgmental attitude of die-hard natural wine fanatics is doing a disservice to the entire natural wine movement – alienating, rather than welcoming, potential new consumers.  In some quarters, there is almost a school yard mentality at play. Drinkers of anything other than natural wines are looked down on like kids on a playground wearing unfashionable clothes.

I remember being in a Parisian wine bar eight years ago politely listening to the sommelier expounding his theories on the superiority of natural wines. He insisted on choosing our wines  for us all night long. We made the appropriate noises, nodded, smiled, and on our way out, understanding that we were in the wine trade, he asked where we worked. We named the winery. His look of disgust was almost farcical. And he said, his words dripping with disdain, “Oh, I’ve heard of them. They’re conventional“.

…drinkers of anything other than natural wines are looked down on like kids on a playground wearing unfashionable clothes.

The urge natural wine fanatics feel to evangelize is frankly just irritating. If I dare to admit not liking a certain natural wine, I don’t want to listen to a super fan arguing with me, or rhapsodizing about the winemaker’s vision. This will not change my mind, or make the wine taste better.

Of course I prefer to drink wines that are made in an ethical, sustainable manner. A winemaker who sees themselves as a custodian of their vineyards for future generations is one I can get behind. Especially if said winemaker’s values extent to how they treat their staff, and their community. If that wine also happens to be made using only natural yeasts, with no additives, or maybe just a drop of sulphur at bottling, so much the better.

However, I will not suffer through a skin contact white with tannins so bitter they make my taste buds weep. I won’t marvel over a murky, gamey rosé. And, I refuse to drink a wine that tastes more like beer or cider. If I wanted beer or cider, I’d order it. Sure, the producer might have a compelling winemaking philosophy…but you can’t drink ideology. Or at least I can’t.

Sure, the producer might have a compelling winemaking philosophy…but you can’t drink ideology. 

To me, the world of wine is so marvellous because of its diversity of styles and flavour profiles. There is truly a wine out there for every budget and every palate. Opinion formers in the wine trade – sommeliers, wine merchants, wine writers, educators, etc. – have a vital role to play today in teaching consumers about the importance of supporting wineries working sustainably in their vineyards and cellars. However, we are there to act as guides, not dictators.

Why can’t we just drink and let drink?

End of rant…now, let’s get to the wines. A handful of the wineries that really impressed me at Raw Wine Montréal and some other recent tastings of natural or low interventionist winemakers include:

Bret Brothers & La Soufrandière, biodynamic producers from the Maconnais region of Burgundy. Incredibly precise, mineral, textured whites.

Pearl Morissette, minimal interventionist winemakers from  the Niagara Peninsula, Ontario. Beautifully nuanced Chardonnay, Riesling & Cabernet Franc.

Domaine Frédéric Brouca, passionate producer of old vine wines on the Schist soils of Faugères. Lovely, pure Cinsault and bold, yet balanced Mourvèdre-Syrah blends.

Domaine aux Moines, organic producers currently undergoing biodynamic conversion. Racy, elegant Savennières.

Château Maris, a biodynamic, sulpher-avoiding producer  in Minervois-la-Livinière (who doesn’t choose to label himself a natural wine maker). Textured, expansive Grenache Gris and bold, fragrant Syrah.

Domaine Mann, an organic producer from Alsace. Lovely crémant, aromatic, layered Pinot Gris, and long-lived Riesling.

Reyneke, producer of organic and biodynamic wines from Stellenbosch, South Africa. Vibrant Chenin Blanc and rich, concentrated Syrah.

 

 

 

Education Reviews

The Sunshine Wine from Washington State

wine from washington state
Photo credit: Washington State Wine Commission (Horse Heaven Hills AVA)

On the northwestern tip of the USA, bordering the Pacific Ocean, lies Washington State. Given its northerly, maritime location one would assume the climate is cool and damp. Not the kind of place where vineyards would thrive. And yet, Washington is second only to California in vineyard acreage and wine production in the United States.

Despite its northerly location, wine from Washington State is often pretty heady stuff. The Cascade Range of mountains divides the state from north to south, creating a rain shadow for the region that lies to its east: the Columbia Valley. It is in this warm, semi-arid land that a vast and flourishing vineyard lies.

Approximately 55 000 acres (over 22 000 hectares) of vines are planted here, almost entirely within the immense Columbia Valley region. According to the Washington State Wine Commission, the Columbia Valley gets a whopping 16 hours of sunshine per day on average in the summer months. This makes it sunnier even than California’s Napa Valley. This abundance of sunshine means that wine from Washington State tends to be rich, ripe, and robust in style.

However, it is dangerous to over generalize when it comes to wine from Washington State. Due to its massive size and wide diversity of soil types, the Columbia Valley AVA (appellation ) contains 10 sub-appellations within its boundaries. Each possesses distinctly different mesoclimates. AVAs in the northern part of the region, such as Ancient Lakes have a cooler, continental climate, where grapes like Riesling and Chardonnay thrive. Conversely, Wahluke Slope in the south, central area is far warmer, favouring production of bold, fruity red wine from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah grapes.

Wine from Washington State that is labelled with a sub-appellation thus offer a slightly better notion to wine drinkers of the style of wine they are likely to discover upon uncorking the bottle. That is, if the wine drinker in question knows a little about these vineyards, or wants to do a quick google search. Washington wines labelled with just the Columbia Valley AVA (the majority) are harder to pin down.

A recent tasting of 34 white and red wine from Washington State consisted of mainly Columbia Valley AVA wines. On the whole, the wines were big and ultra-ripe. Many were pleasant, in a smooth, rounded, fruity style but there was a sense of sameness from glass to glass. This is not an indictment of wines from Washington State. There are scores of exciting wines being made in a  lighter, more nuanced style…they just aren’t as widely available on our retail shelves just yet.

My stand-out wines from the event are listed below:

L’Ecole N° 41 Sémillon 2017, Columbia Valley AVA – 90pts. PW

Very inviting nose featuring white floral notes and ripe lemon, with underlying hints of custard cream and exotic fruit. Full-bodied, with a rounded mouthfeel, and sufficient freshness to balance the faintly warming alcohol. Finishes dry, with lingering vanilla, toast nuances.

Where to Buy: SAQ (25.30$)

Barnard Griffen Fumé Blanc 2016, Columbia Valley AVA – 89pts. VW

Classic Sauvignon Blanc nose mingling musky aromas with vibrant guava, gooseberry and passion fruit notes. The palate is slightly lean, but fresh and clean, with hints of anise and bright citrus fruit flavours that give a pleasant bitterness to the finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (19.45$)

Alexandria Nicole Cellars “Shepherd’s Mark” 2016, Horse Heaven Hills AVA – 91pts. PW

Aromatic Viognier-led blend, with fragrant apricot, yellow pear and honeysuckle notes, underpinned by pleasant herbal nuances. Richly layered and plump on the palate, with macerated stone fruit flavours, lifted by a refreshing lemon-y tang. Finishes dry. A highly versatile white wine for food pairing.Q

Where to Buy: SAQ (26.00$)

Charles & Charles Riesling 2016, Yakima Valley AVA – 88pts. VW

Quite Germanic in style; highly aromatic with a lovely balance of tangy acidity and subtle sweetness. The nose displays petrol, ripe lemon and baked apple notes. The palate is lean, with a sleek, racy structure, and lifted finish. Great everyday apéritif style Riesling.

Where to Buy: SAQ (18.00$)

Hedges Family Estate “Le Merlot” 2016, Columbia Valley AVA – 92pts. PW

Seductive nose redolent with crushed blackberry, black plum, cedar and baking spices. Full bodied, with a velvety texture, polished tannins, and moderate depth of mingled black fruit and dark chocolate flavours. Finishes surprisingly fresh for such a ripe, heady red. Good value.

Where to Buy: SAQ (25.15$)

Barnard Griffen Syrah 2016, Columbia Valley AVA – 90pts. PW

This is a big, brooding Syrah. The ultra-ripe nose offers notes of baked blackberry, black cherry, violets, and dark chocolate. The palate starts fresh, with a firm grip, that gives way to a concentrated, fruity core. Notes of graphite and sweet tobacco linger on the finish. Decant several hours before drinking. Serve slightly chilled to tone down the warming alcohol.

Where to Buy: SAQ (25.35$)

Matthews Winery Claret 2013, Columbia Valley AVA – 91pts. LW

A rich, opulent Bordeaux blend with intense aromas of candied cassis cedar, baking spice and chocolate. Full-bodied and dense on the palate; brimming with macerated black fruit, sweet tobacco and cedar. Weighty, muscular tannins frame the long finish. A powerhouse red requiring an equally bold food pairing.

Where to Buy: SAQ (57.00$)

Hedges Family Estate “In Vogue” 2016, Columbia Valley AVA – 93pts. LW

Ultra-ripe cassis and black plum weave together nicely with notes of cedar, tobacco, leather, and spice on the complex nose. The palate is offers bright acidity, tightly knit structure, and a weighty core of luscious fruit. Finishes dry, with fine, sinewy tannins and lovely freshness. Bold, but well balanced with lots of finesse.

Where to Buy: SAQ (57.00$)

Education Reviews

AFFORDABLE FINE WINE ALTERNATIVES

Affordable Fine Wine Alternatives

AFFORDABLE FINE WINE ALTERNATIVES

Many of the world’s classic wine regions have longstanding quality hierarchies, with the best wines – the Grand Crus, the Riservas, the Gran Reservas, the Grosse Lages – at the top of the pyramid. These wines have always been rare and expensive, necessitating long cellaring and much debate on when and with whom to serve them.

In recent years however, fine wine prices seem to have run rampant, with increases significantly outpacing inflation as explained in the recent Wine Searcher article: The Inexorable Rise of Wine Prices. Gone are the days where a middle income earner could occasionally splurge on a couple of cases of Bordeaux futures or cru Burgundy.

…fine wine prices seem to have run rampant, with increases significantly outpacing inflation.

The situation may seem bleak for cash strapped wine lovers, but all hope is not lost…

In general terms, quality – at all price levels – has soared over the past thirty years. Large-scale uprooting of unsuitable vineyard areas, and replanting of more qualitative rootstocks and grape varieties in mass production areas like the Languedoc-Roussillon has resulted in vastly superior entry to mid-tier wines.

Modern vinification techniques, marked improvements in winery hygiene, and the requirement of most appellations, regional bodies, and/ or retail buyers that wines pass stringent laboratory analyses and quality approval tastings, are also important contributing factors.

Many fine wine producers have also stepped up their game in terms of the quality of their “lesser wines”. By this, I mean their second wines, or regional to village tier wines. On a recent trip to Burgundy I was surprised to see how many estates vinify their more humble vineyards in almost exactly the same manner as their top terroirs – the same well trained harvest teams handpicking into small crates to avoid damaging the grapes, the same carefully monitored fermentation techniques, the same high quality maturation vessels. Only the duration of barrel ageing varied.

In an age where average wine consumers are having to trade down, wine producers will increasingly be judged on their lower tier offerings.

This scenario is not unique to Burgundy. In numerous recent tastings of prestigious estates from Piedmont, Tuscany, Rioja, Rhône, Bordeaux and the like, I was regularly struck by how good the more modest wines in the line-ups were. And this makes sense. In an age where average wine consumers are having to trade down, to more affordable, fine wine alternatives, estates will increasingly be judged on their lower tier offerings.

Granted, these wines won’t necessarily impress the more label conscience wine aficionados in your life. And they rarely possess the level of intensity, complexity, or ageability as their more illustrious counterparts. However, crafted by the right producers, in good vintage years, they can still provide a highly satisfying drinking experience.

Vineyard areas long dismissed as inferior are increasingly finding their champions.

Another phenomenon has also taken hold. Vineyard areas long dismissed as inferior are increasingly finding their champions. Quality-minded wine producers are moving in and proving that, on certain well-exposed plots, with careful vineyard management, lower yielding, often older vines can produce grand wines, far exceeding the reputation of their origin. As these wines and winemakers gain in stature, prices are creeping upwards, but there is still some affordable fine wine alternatives to be had. Areas like the Roussillon in France, or the Swartland in South Africa come to mind.

Curious to test out my theory? Check out these affordable fine wine alternatives from a handful of excellent wine estates:

Renato Ratti Ochetti Langhe Nebbiolo 2016, Piedmont, Italy – 91pts. PW

The Langhe designation covers a large area south of Alba, in Piedmont, and encompasses the famous enclaves of Barolo and Barbaresco. The vineyards for Barolo master Renato Ratti’s Langhe Nebbiolo “Ochetti” cuvée are situated approximately 240 metres above the Tanaro river, with an ideal, southwestern exposure. This is quite a silky style of Nebbiolo, with wonderfully fragrant cranberry, floral, and truffle aromas. It is medium in body, with vibrant acidity, and juicy red fruit flavours nicely balanced by lingering earthy nuances.

Where to buy: SAQ, 25.65$

Château Saint Cosme Côtes du Rhône red 2018, Rhône Valley, France – 90pts. PW

Generic Côtes du Rhône AOC reds are often fairly simple, fruity, every day wines. Not so here. This gem from revered Gigondas estate, Château Saint Cosme, punches well above its weight. Ripe, dark cherry, blueberry and black plum notes mingle with hints of garrigue and exotic spice. The palate is pleasingly fresh, with a bold structure and firm tannins. Cellar for 1 – 2 years or decant a couple of hours before serving.

Where to buy: SAQ, 19.70$

Château Bujan Côtes de Bourg 2016, Bordeaux, France – 94pts. PW

The Côtes de Bourg is one of Bordeaux’s lesser known appellations, on the right bank of the Gironde Estuary, roughly 40km north west of famed right bank vineyards Pomerol and St. Emilion. I picked this wine up on a whim, knowing nothing about the estate, simply trusting in the often excellent wine selections of the Rézin wine agency. What a find! A blend of 65% Merlot and 35% Cabernet Franc, with an incredibly inviting and surprisingly complex nose (given the price) featuring black plum, cassis, and licorice. Hints of violets, tobacco leaf and cocoa develop with aeration. The palate is velvety smooth, and medium in body, with excellent depth of flavour mirroring the aromatics. Finishes fresh, with moderately firm, polished tannins. Ready to drink.

Where to buy: SAQ, 22.10$

Raul Perez Ultreia Bierzo 2017, Castile and León, Spain – 92pts. PW

The mountainous region of Bierzo in Northwest Spain was little known internationally until Priorat star producer Alvaro Palacios invested in the area, paving the way for outstanding local producers like Raúl Pérez Pereira to gain international attention. All the wines in Perez’s range have impressed me; notably this lower premium priced Ultreia cuvée with its lovely floral notes, ripe black fruit flavours and savoury undertones. It is fresh, medium bodied and quite suave on the palate, with subtly grainy tannins. Drink now, lightly chilled.

Where to buy: SAQ, 29.60$

Casanova di Neri Rosso di Montalcino 2016, Tuscany, Italy – 91pts. PW

The term “baby Brunello” was coined to describe the DOC Rosso di Montalcino, as these wines hail from the same region and grape (Sangiovese) as the mighty Brunello di Montalcino. Rosso di Montalcino wines are aged a minimum of 1 year before bottling vs. 5 years for Brunello, with no oak maturation required. Top Brunello estate Casanova di Neri makes quite a serious style of Rosso di Montalcino, especially from the elegant 2016 vintage. The nose is redolent with red cherry, wild berries, licorice and cloves, with earthy undertones. The palate is dry, with bright acidity, lovely depth of fruit and fine, chalky tannins. Decant several hours before serving.

Where to buy: SAQ, 30.25$

Joseph Faiveley Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2017, Burgundy, France – 89pts. PW

A light, very pretty Burgundian Pinot Noir with pure, ripe strawberry and cherry notes, and underlying herbal, briary hints. Brisk, silky smooth and juicy fruited on the palate, this is not a massively complex wine but, served nicely chilled, is a very satisfying Pinot Noir. A recent tasting of the Joseph Faiveley Gevrey Chambertin 2015 reminded me what fantastic quality and value there is to be had from this first-rate Burgundian négociant.

Where to buy: SAQ, 25.25$

Education

UPDATE: FREE TRADE FOR CANADIAN WINES

free trade canadian wines

UPDATE: Free Trade for Canadian Wines

Last summer, I wrote the article below bemoaning Canada’s archaic laws that prohibit the cross-border movement of alcohol. A year later, while there has been some movement, free trade for Canadian wines (and other alcoholic beverages) remains a long way off.

In April 2019, the Liberal government introduced legislation to remove the federal requirement that alcohol moving from one province to another be sold or consigned to a provincial liquor authority. However, it remains at the discretion of each province to forbid or allow direct-to-consumer shipping of out of province alcohol…so essentially, nothing has changed.

We remain a country where, unless you live in the progressive havens of BC, Manitoba or Nova Scotia, “you can order a gun from another province and have it delivered to you, but you can’t order a bottle of wine” laments Dan Paszkowski, president of the Canadian Vintners Association. 

Great wine is being made across Canada – from British Columbia to Nova Scotia. If you want to stand behind Canadian grape growers and winemakers, head on over to FreeMyGrapes and make your voice heard.

To read my full article from last year, click here or simply scroll down below the image. 

PS – Wines from Ontario, BC and Nova Scotia are STILL shelved in the USA or “Autres Pays” (Other Countries) aisles in the majority of SAQ outlets

free trade canadian wines

FREE TRADE FOR CANADIAN WINE

This past week-end, I attended the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (I4C). Held in the Niagara region of Ontario, this joyous event is equal parts professional conference on cool climate winemaking, and raucous party toasting Canada’s arrival in the realm of world-class fine wines.

I tasted so many delicious sparkling wines, Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Francs that I literally lost count. I came home brimming over with enthusiasm, ready to stock my cellar with Canadian wine. But I can’t.

Why you ask?

Because in Canada, we cannot legally order wine for home delivery from an out-of-province winery (except in BC, Manitoba and Nova Scotia). And because we have provincial alcohol monopolies, I can only buy what one single retailer decides to offer me.

In Canada, we cannot legally order wine for home delivery from an out-of-province winery.

According to the Canadian Vintners Association, 100% Canadian wine represents less than a 5 % wine sales market share in eight of our 10 provinces. No other wine producing country in the world has such ludicrously low domestic market share.

To test this theory, I took a stroll through my local SAQ the other day. I was happy to see a prominent “Origine Québec” section. However, when I looked for wines from Canada’s other provinces, I was sorely disappointed. There were a total of three wines. They were sitting in the category headed “Autres Pays” (Other Countries), mixed in with wines from obscure eastern European origins.

When I asked an employee if this was the extent of their domestic range, he reassured me that there were more in the produits réguliers (general list) section. He led me to the aisle. Under the category “United States”, I found 2 more Canadian wines.

Canadian wine represents less than a 5 % wine sales market share in eight of our 10 provinces.

Granted, this was one of the smaller format, SAQ Classique stores. But it is located in the heart of one of Montréal’s busiest commercial and residential neighbourhoods. While the larger SAQ Séléction outlets have a better range of Canadian wines, these stores are fewer and farther between.

I can always order on-line from the liquor board, but the selection is a mere fraction of what is on offer direct from the wineries.

So why can’t I just order direct? Because federal restrictions and provincial laws exist across Canada that prohibit the cross-border movement of alcohol. Even if I were to get in my car and drive the 4.5 hours to Prince Edward County or 6.5 hours to Niagara, I still couldn’t legally bring back more than 12 bottles (9 litres).

Nearly a century since the end of prohibition, and we are still being told that we require public supervision of our alcohol intake…

In 2012 Gerard Comeau, a New Brunswick native, was fined 292$ for bringing Québec purchased beer into the province. Comeau refused to pay, citing section 121 of Canada’s constitution which promises free trade of goods between provinces. After a 5-year legal battle, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Comeau. They argued that the New Brunswick provincial legislation (section 134B) was not intended to restrict trade, simply to “enable public supervision of the production, movement, sale, and use of alcohol within New Brunswick”.

Nearly a century since the end of prohibition, and we are still being told by the Canadian powers-that-be, that we require public supervision of our alcohol intake. And that this imperative trumps our constitutional right to free trade.

The subject of interprovincial alcohol trade was on the agenda of last week’s meeting of Canada’s premiers. The consensus reached was less than impressive. While the premiers agree to “significantly increase personal use exemption limits”, according to New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant, no specific amount or clear indication of timelines were given.

It is not simply the principle of the matter that irks me, it is the great disservice being done to our fledgling wine industry.

And no matter what the new limits are, the very fact that there are limits flies in the face of free trade. It is not simply the principle of the matter that irks me, it is the great disservice being done to our fledgling wine industry. It would seem that our governments are far more concerned with protecting the revenue stream from alcohol monopolies, than supporting the development of Canada’s wineries.

Great wine is being made across Canada – from British Columbia to Nova Scotia. If you want to stand behind Canadian grape growers and winemakers, head on over to FreeMyGrapes and make your voice heard.

You can toast your contribution with a glass of fine Canadian wine. Need a recommendation? Check out my list of favourites (here) from my recent week judging the 2019 National Wine Awards of Canada.

Education

HOW TO READ A WINE LABEL

how to read a wine label

Have you ever stopped to actually read a wine label? I mean, not just a quick glance at the picture of a stately Château or a cheeky hippo, but really taken a few seconds to peruse the contents of the front and back label? You would be amazed by how much you can learn about a wine’s style and quality level once you know how to read a wine label.

***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 weekly wine education series. 

The wine label, as I describe it below, often encompasses the front and back labels as many producers prefer to keep the front label information to a minimum to focus on the estate or brand name and the art work. With that in mind, the useful information on wine labels includes:

 

The Brand/ Estate Name

Generally displayed fairly prominently on the front label. This is the name of the wine producer’s estate or one of their brands. This is key information to retain if you enjoy a wine and want to purchase it again.

 The Cuvée Name

Most wineries produce more than one wine. A cuvée name like “Yellow Label”, “Bin 407”, or “Hommage à…” is a good way to differentiate one wine from another; especially if the estate makes more than one wine from the same grape variety. This information is useful to note down, alongside the estate/brand name for re-purchasing.

 The Grape Variety

The taste of a specific grape variety, once it has been transformed into wine, can vary depending on the climate of the vineyards and/ or the winemaking techniques employed. Just because you like one producer’s Malbec, you are not guaranteed to like another winemaker’s take on the same grape…especially if one hails from Mendoza and the other from Cahors. Most grape varieties do tend to have basic character traits though that regularly occur regardless of origin, so knowing your preferred varieties can be helpful.

That being said, many European regions traditionally don’t, or legally can’t, write the grape name on the label. For these regions, like Chianti or the Rhône Valley, the expression of the local terroir is more important than varietal typicity.

In Europe, if a single variety is listed on the label, the wine will contain a minimum of 85% of that variety, with up to 15% of other grapes allowed. In the USA however, a wine with one single grape mentioned on the label can have just 75% of that variety in the blend.

 The Vintage

The vintage refers to the year in which the grapes were harvested. Each growing season is different, especially in cooler climate areas. Colder growing seasons will give wines with more tart flavours and higher acid. Wines from warmer growing seasons will be riper and fleshier. When you are purchasing premium wines, it is worth considering the vintage conditions to get a sense of how the wine will taste or, potentially, how well it will cellar.

If you are buying more affordable, every day wines there is generally less vintage variation but these wines usually don’t age very well, so you want to make sure you are buying a recent bottlings. For white and rosé wines  look for a harvest date within the last 18 months or so, for most red wines you can push this up to 3 years.

 The Appellation of Origin

Somewhere on the front and/ or back label, you will see an indication of the wine’s origin, sometimes called an appellation. An appellation can be as wide as a whole region like Bordeaux or California, or it can be as specific as a single village or vineyard site. Generally, the more site specific the appellation, the better quality the wine. If you see terms like Premier Cru or Grand Cru on French wine, Classico on Italian wine, Erste Lage or Grosse Lage on German wines, these are indications of superior (sometimes single vineyard) sites.

Quality Designations

Riserva, Reserva, Gran Reserva, Superiore, Smaragd…  Each region and country, especially in Europe, has their own set of terms to denote superior quality wines. Wines with these mentions usually come from better vineyard sites, have achieved a high level of ripeness, and are aged for longer at the winery. I go into more detail about these mentions and appellation specifications in region specific articles.

There are also a couple of very vague terms that wineries love to throw on labels. Some of the most notorious mentions include : “Old Vines” and “Reserve” or “Prestige”.

Older vines generally produce a lower yield of more flavourful, concentrated grapes. Wines from healthy 30-year-old or older vines often give high quality wines. However, there is no set legal definition for the term. So, if you see the term Vieilles Vignes or Old Vines on the label, you never really know if the vines are barely teenagers or really are mature adults. If you see a wine labelled “old vine” under 15$, I would be a little suspicious.

The words Reserve and Prestige can also be pretty meaningless. They are meant to imply a step up in quality from the producer’s basic wines, and many wineries do employ these terms honestly. Frustratingly, there are countless Prestige or Reserve wines out there that are barely palatable. Sadly, for many wineries, these words are nothing but marketing hype.

The Alcohol Percentage by Volume

A wine’s alcohol percentage will tell you a lot about its taste profile. The lower in alcohol the wine, generally the lighter it will be in body. Alcohol gives viscosity to wine, giving a weightier, more rounded sensation. A 12% alcohol red wine will taste very lean on the palate as compared to a 14.5% alcohol version.

Health & Dietary Information

If you look at a wine’s back label, you might see some health warnings like:

Contains Sulphites: Yes, many wines contain sulphites – both naturally as a by-product of fermentation – and potentially added to protect them from oxidation and bacterial spoilage. Don’t be alarmed though, the level is well within health and safety norms, and contrary to popular belief, most health officials agree that sulphites in wine do not cause headaches.

Suitable for vegetarians/ or vegans: substances are often added to wines before bottling to absorb any sediments and, occasionally, to soften tannins. These are called fining agents. Certain are composed of milk products, egg whites, and gelatin so are not always vegetarian/ vegan friendly. If a wine has been labelled “suitable” for one group or both, it will either be fined using an alternative substance like bentonite clay, or has been bottled without fining.

Other Information

Each wine label or capsule will have a lot code (a string of multiple digits) somewhere on the wine capsule or label that will allow wineries to trace a bottle back to the exact bottling date, batch, and so forth for quality control reasons.

A reference to the bottler, and whether it was estate bottled or not, is included in some countries as well. Some labels also carry information on the importer, wine agency, or distributor that carries a wine. This is a good point of contact for consumers looking for retailer information or wanting to report an issue with a purchased bottle.

Finally, many back labels will also give information about the winery, the winemaking techniques, food pairing options, service temperature suggestions and so on. That can also make for interesting reading if you so desire.

The Video

For those visual learners among you who prefer to watch… here is a video version of the above article!

 

Education

HOW TO FIND THE BEST ROSÉ WINES

best rosé wines

You know that spring has arrived when stacks of rosé wine start hitting the wine shops. From still to sparkling, dry to sweet, pale pink to deep fuscia , there is a huge diversity of styles when it comes to rosé. This can make finding the best rosé wines to suit your palate a little tricky!

What is Rosé?

Rosé is essentially a paler, lighter bodied version of red wine. It is generally made with red wine grape varieties. The difference is that rosé wines spend as little as a few hours, or up to two to three days, in contact with their skins, before being pressed and then fermented like white wine. Red wines are macerated on their skins for far longer (anywhere from one to three weeks).   Rosé’s shorter maceration period means that the colouring pigments, aromatic compounds, and tannins found in grape skins have less time to leach into the wine, resulting in paler wines, with more delicate aromas and softer tannins.

What Grape Varieties are used to Make Rosé?

Each rosé producing country and region has its favourite grape varieties. I have tasted rosé wines made from dozens of different grapes, but some of the most popular varieties include:

  • Grenache: fragrant raspberry aromas, moderate acidity, high alcohol
  • Syrah: dark fruit & spice flavours, fresh acidity, firm structure, tannic
  • Cinsault: light, perfumed (ripe to candied red berries), refreshing, low tannins
  • Vermentino (aka Rolle): minor white grape used in Côtes de Provence rosé blends. Said to accentuate aromatics and give subtle saline nuances on the finish.
  • Pinot Noir: elegant, with tart red berry and floral notes, crisp acidity, low to moderate tannins
  • Sangiovese: high, crisp acidity, sometimes a faint sour cherry bitterness, generally very dry
  • Cabernet Sauvignon: similar aromas as the red wine, if more restrained: bell pepper, black currant notes, crisp, medium bodied, with a firm structure, subtle tannic grip
  • Zinfandel: overt candied red and black fruit, often produced in a simple, low alcohol, sweet style

How much or how little the chosen grape variety(ies) influence the style of the wine depends on how long the rosé macerates on its grape skins, and what percentage of each grape is used if a blend of two or more varieties is made.

Fun Fact about Rosé Wine!

Thanks to a big celebrity boost and some clever social media campaigns, rosé wine has skyrocketed in popularity over the last decade. Despite what you might think though, rosé is far from a new wine style. The Greeks were making rosé wines in the colony of Massilia (Marseille) back in 600 B.C. Long after the Romans arrived and started producing fuller-bodied red wines, the pale pink Provincia Romana wines remained popular.

Different Rosé Styles

The stylistic range of rosé wine is immense. From light-bodied, refreshing, bone-dry rosés to sweet, low alcohol, fruity rosés, and elegant sparkling rosés, there is definitely a rosé wine out there for you.  The major styles include:

Sparkling rosé 

The majority of sparkling rosé wines follow the same initial winemaking as still rosés, followed by a secondary fermentation in tank or bottle to render the wines effervescent. Depending on the region, they can be mono-varietal wines or blends, and tend to have a fairly similar profile to their sparkling white counterparts, with more vibrant fruit, and a slightly weightier, rounder mid-palate. In Champagne, rosé is produced by blending still white wines and red wines together. This gives a slightly firmer, more structured style of sparkling rosé.

Try these styles:

  • Champagne rosé, France (generally Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Meunier blends)
  • Franciacorta rosé, Italy (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc blends)
  • Cava Rosado, Spain (a blend of white Cava grapes with a minimum of 25% red grapes including: Garnacha, Monastrell, Pinot Noir or Trepat)

Pale Pink to Salmon Coloured, Dry Rosé

Pale coloured rosé wine is generally “direct pressed”. This means that the grapes are only in contact with their skins for a very brief period (4 – 6 hours is common). This style of rosé tends to have fairly restrained aromas ranging from pink grapefruit, to subtle red berry notes, to floral or herbal nuances. They are light in body, often quite crisp and refreshing, with a bone dry finish. Pale, dry rosé is a great alternative to crisp white wines for pre-supper sipping.

Try these styles:

  • Côtes-de-Provence, France (Grenache or Cinsault dominant blends from Provence)
  • Côtes-du-Rhône or Costières-de-Nîmes, France (Grenache, Syrah led blends from the Southern Rhône)
  • Pale Spanish rosado (Tempranillo-led blends from Navarra or Rioja)

Coral to Fuscia Coloured, Dry Rosé

Medium to dark coloured rosé wine is often fermented on its skins like a red wine for anywhere from 10 to 36 hours, before being drawn off its skins and finishing fermentation in a separate vessel. This process is called “saignée” which literally means bleeding off. Rosés made in this style tend to have more intense fruity aromas, a weightier mouthfeel, and firmer structure. They can also have subtle tannic grip on the finish. This denser style of rosé will pair well with a variety of lighter fare. You can serve it in place of light red wines.

Try these styles:

  • Tavel, France (Grenache dominant blends from the Southern Rhône Valley)
  • Navarra, France (Garnacha single varietal wines)
  • Bandol, France (Mourvèdre dominant blends, South Eastern France)
  • Marsannay, France (Pinot Noir from Burgundy) or Sancerre rosé (Pinot Noir, Loire Valley)

Sweet Rosé

Off-dry to sweet styles of rosé have a long-standing and staunchly loyal following. They are often quite low in alcohol, with overtly fruity/candied flavours, and a smooth, rounded palate. Sweetness levels vary from subtle to pronounced. They can be anywhere from pale pink to deep fuscia in colour. These rosé styles are perfect for wine lovers with a sweet tooth.

Try these styles:

  • White Zinfandel, California (medium sweet, low 9 – 10% alcohol, moderate acidity)
  • Pink Moscato, California & Australia (Mosato, often blended with a touch of Merlot, medium sweet to sweet, very low 7.5 to 9% alcohol, moderate acidity, still and semi-sparkling versions)
  • Rosé d’Anjou, France (mainly Grolleau grape, medium sweet, low 10% alcohol, brisk acidity, Loire Valley)
  • Cabernet d’Anjou, France (Cabernet Franc and/ or Cabernet Sauvignon, off-dry, Loire Valley)

Oak Aged, Premium Rosé

Don’t be surprised if you see rosé wines well over the 30$ mark on wine store shelves these days. Many of these, especially from the rosé hot spot of Provence, are starting to employ fine white winemaking techniques for rosé. This treatment is usually reserved for the estate’s best parcels of old vines. Vinification practices include barrel fermentation, lees stirring, long barrel ageing, and so forth. The result is a concentrated yet voluptuous style of rosé with a creamy, layered texture and a complex array of subtle fruity, spicy and woody nuances.

Try these wines:

  • Côtes-de-Provence top cuvées such as: Château d’Esclans “Garrus”, Clos Cibonne “Cuvée Speciale des Vignette”
  • Bandol, France: Château Romassan (owned by Domaine Ott)
  • Rioja, Spain: López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva Rosado
  • Abruzzo, Italy: Valentini Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo

 

Expert Tips to Get Maximum Enjoyment from your Next Glass of Rosé Wine! 

Education Life

LOW CALORIE WINES: HOW TO DRINK WINE ON A DIET

low calorie wines

So you want to lose a few pounds, but you don’t want to give up your evening glass of wine? I am with you! Never fear, there is a way. It does involve moderation though…or failing that, seeking out low calorie wines.

The calories in wine come from wine’s alcohol and its sugar content. Alcohol actually contributes more calories than sugar; 7 calories per gram of alcohol, compared to just 4 calories per gram of sugar. So, you want to pay particular attention to alcohol levels. Want to learn more about the best low calorie wines + great tips and tricks to keep your wine consumption moderate? Just click on the video, and if you like what you see, consider subscribing to my channel so you never miss a weekly episode!

 

Education

How Long Does an Open Bottle of Wine Last?

How long does an open bottle of wine last

How long does an open bottle of wine last? You want to drink moderately, but you don’t want your leftover wine going bad too quickly! So how do you go about keeping wine fresh and how long does wine last after opening? Check out this wine 101 video for great tips on how to preserve wine after opening.

If you like this video, consider subscribing to my YouTube mastering wine channel so you never miss a weekly episode.

Education

WHAT IS NATURAL WINE?

What is natural wine

If you have been into a wine bar or trendy wine-focused restaurant in recent years, you have likely come across natural wine. Perhaps you were surprised by the colour or the flavours. Maybe you loved it, potentially you hated it! Still not sure exactly sure what is natural wine?

Learn all about natural wine in the short wine education video below where I break down: what is natural wine, and why wine experts have such fierce, conflicting emotions about this unique new wine style.

Education

7 HOUSE WINE STYLES TO ALWAYS KEEP IN STOCK

house wines

The ultimate wine lover’s dream is a large wine cellar – with perfect temperature and humidity conditions – laden with treasures from around the wine producing globe. Unfortunately, not all of us have the space or the budget to make this fantasy a reality. But, if you love to drink wine regularly, and to entertain, it is still nice to have a small stock of “house wines” to avoid last minute rushes to the wine store.

Not sure what to buy? Keep reading!

I recommend having at least one bottle of these seven different styles of house wines on hand. They should cover the majority of wine drinking occasions.

***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 weekly wine education series. 

2 Sparkling Wines (yes, you need two!)

First up, sparkling wine. When I moved to France a number of years ago, I discovered something incredible. Small growers in Champagne were selling excellent non-vintage fizz for 12 – 15 euros! At the time, only the big Champagne houses were making it to the liquor store shelves in Canada, and their basic bubblies were five times more expensive than these little gems. I started drinking Champagne regularly. I always had a cold bottle ready for any piece of good news – big or small. Every little triumph was a reason to drink Champagne. Those were the days…

Back home in Montréal, my budget doesn’t quite extend to weekly bottles of Champagne. This is potentially for the best though, as I have been forced to branch out and discover the wide world of excellent sparkling wines outside of France.

I recommend stocking two types of bubblies for your house wines: a more affordable version for the every-day celebrations, and a finer bottle for the big moments.

For your first bottle, even though you are spending less, you still want something you’d enjoy drinking. I suggest seeking out the higher quality tiers of budget-friendly sparkling wine regions. If you like delicate fruity aromas, soft bubbles, and fresh acidity, try Prosecco at the Superiore DOCG level. If you prefer the more vigorous, firm bubbles of Champagne, with hints of brioche, biscuit-type aromas, go for Cava at the Reserva or Gran Reserva level. Crémant wines, made through out France, will also provide a similar experience.

In terms of your fancier fizz, Champagne is obviously the classic choice. If you want to go all out, look for Vintage Champagne or a Prestige cuvées of a non-vintage wine. Don’t forget however, that really top-drawer sparkling wine is cropping up all over the world – potentially in your own backyard – and drinking local is awesome! Look to England, parts of Canada, Tasmania, Marlborough if you want something with that really racy acidity of Champagne. If you want something a little richer & rounder – try California or South Africa’s top sparkling wines.

To learn more about premium sparkling wines, click here.

An Aperitif-style White Wine

Ok…on to your every-day house wines. I enjoy drinking a glass of white wine while I am cooking supper. I want something fairly light in body, crisp, dry and generally un-oaked at this juncture of the evening; a wine that is easy-drinking on its own and as refreshing as lemonade on a hot day. These are also typically the kinds of wines I would serve at a dinner party as an aperitif, or with light fare such as oysters, grilled white fish, or salads.

An easy go-to white wine grape variety is Sauvignon Blanc (more elegant, restrained styles from Loire, more pungent grassy, passion fruit examples from New Zealand) or dry Riesling (try Alsace, or the Clare and Eden Valleys in Australia). If you would like to try something a little different, look for the zesty, peach-scented, mineral Albarino grape from Spain, the crisp, dry, herbal, lemony Assyrtiko grape grown mainly on the island of Santorini in Greece, or finally firmly structured, brisk, peach/ grapefruit/ earthy Grüner Veltliner from Austria.

 A Richer, Fuller-bodied White Wine

If you are cooking poultry, fattier fish, cream-based sauces, or serving soft cheeses, you will need a weightier, more textural white that can stand up to the heavier food. Chardonnay wines, notably those aged in oak, work well here. Be careful however, because Chardonnay runs the gamut from quite lean, citrussy & mineral to very broad, heavy & tropical – check with store staff before buying to make sure you get a style that suits your palate.

Interesting alternatives to Chardonnay include white Rhône Valley blends featuring grapes like Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier. These can also be found outside of France, with fine examples made in Paso Robles, California and Victoria, Australia. Pinot Gris from Alsace, notably the Grand Cru versions, also have a lovely textural weight, depth, and vibrancy of fruit that will shine in this category.

A Light-bodied Red Wine (or Rosé)

Sadly, not all of your guests are going to love white wine (I know…it is a shock to me too). The perfect host will not be flustered by this set-back. They will simply trade out the white for a crisp rosé, or a light, juicy red wine. Pale, dry rosé works well for pre-dinner drinks. Rosés with deeper colour and more depth, or pale, fresh red wines will marry well with those fleshier fish or poultry dishes.

Pinot Noir, Gamay, and lighter styles of Cabernet Franc are excellent light-bodied red wine grapes. Look for cooler climate origins, as the hotter regions will likely verge into the medium to full bodied category, with more baked fruit flavours and higher alcohol. What you are looking for here is tangy acidity, a delicate structure, and fairly silky tannins.

For a more exotic option, try Etna DOC wines, made from the Nerello Mascalese grape, on the slopes of the famed Mount Etna in Sicily.

An ‘”All-Rounder” Red Wine

Between the delicate, tangy light reds and the big, bold ones, I always think that it is a good idea to have a more versatile red in your house wines arsenal. A wine that is medium in body, fresh (but not overly acidic), subtly fruity, smooth and rounded on the palate. These wines tend to pair with the widest range of foods making them a great option for your every-day fare.

Côtes-du-Rhône red wines (made from a blend of Grenache and Syrah) are a fantastic choice here. If you like the style, but prefer a wine with a touch more body and depth, look for the Villages level of Côtes-du-Rhône. Valpolicella from the Veneto in Italy is also a lovely, fruity option, or – if you like the vanilla, spice flavours of oaked reds – try a Rioja Reserva.

A Full-bodied Red Wine

When you are barbecuing steak, preparing a heartily flavoured stew, or serving pungent, hard cheeses, you need a wine with equally bold flavours. The tannins from these more powerful reds also binds with and softens proteins in meat, intensifying their rich savoury flavours, and in turn, reducing the astringency of the wine.

A wide range of options exist. Classics include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot blends (with more vibrant, tart fruited examples from Bordeaux vs. more lush, ultra-ripe fruited versions from the Napa Valley), Malbec and Syrah are also great traditional choices. Looking a little further afield, you could try Portuguese blends from the Douro region, or Grenache, Carignan blends from Priorat region of Spain.

Final Thoughts

In France, the dessert is sometimes accompanied by a sweet wine and it is common practice to offer a digestif (literally a wine/ spirit to help you digest) after the meal. The French really know how to live. Sigh…

There is a vast world of amazing options out there but, for most of us, after-dinner wines tend only to be served on special occasions. Unless space permits, you don’t necessarily need to stock these in advance.

I hope that this helps you a little with your next trip to the wine store. If you have any questions, or comments on any of the wines, write me a comment and I will happily respond.