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5 Amazing Italian Wines to Drink with Pizza

Wines to drink with Pizza

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chianti Classico

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

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

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

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

Barbera d’Asti

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

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

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

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

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo

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

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

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

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

Rosso di Toscana

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

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

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

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

Valpolicella Ripasso

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Education Life

An Overview of Italian Wine! Che Figata!

overview of italian wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local recipes with a host of different wine pairing options

And so much more….

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

 

 

Education Life

Beat the winter blues with these big, balanced reds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Central Otago, New Zealand

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

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

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

Gigondas, France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ribera del Duero, Spain

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

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

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

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

Santa Barbara County, California

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

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

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

 

Education Reviews Wines

BUBBLES – PART 2: CHAMPAGNE & PREMIUM SPARKLING WINES UNDER 75$

champagne and premium sparkling wine
Photo credit: Claude Rigoulet

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

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

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

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

Why is this?

It all comes down to terroir and winemaking techniques.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to buy: LCBO (44.95$)

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

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

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

Champagne Jacquart Brut Mosaïque – 93pts. LW

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

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

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

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

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

Champagne Drappier Brut Nature Zéro Dosage – 92pts. LW

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

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

Champagne Taittinger Brut Réserve – 94pts. LW

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

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

Charles Heidseck Brut Réserve – 93pts. LW

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

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

Louis Roederer Brut Premier – 95pts. LW

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

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

Gosset Grande Réserve Brut – 95pts. LW

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

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

 

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

 

 

Education Reviews Wines

BUBBLES – PART 1: The Thrifty Shopper’s Guide

Budget friendly sparkling wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some famous tank method sparkling wines include:

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

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

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

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

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

Some well-known traditional method wines include:

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

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

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

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

Parés Baltà Cava Pink – 88pts. VW

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

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

Moingeon Prestige Brut Crémant de Bourgogne – 89pts. VW

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

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

Segura Viudas Gran Cuvée Reserva Cava – 89pts. VW

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

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

Marcel Cabelier Crémant du Jura Brut – 90pts PW

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

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

Bortolomiol BandaRossa Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore – 87pts. PW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley – 90pts. PW

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education Life

WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT WINE ANYWAY?

why do people love wine
Photo credit: Hermitage, Jasper Van Berkel

In today’s saturated global marketplace, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to alcoholic beverages. Beer, cider and spirits, like wine, all have their devout clientèle. In fact, in many places, wine sales pale in comparison to these giants. If intoxication is your main goal, they all ‘do the job’, often much more cheaply and quickly than wine. And each drink has its band of enthusiasts who prefer the taste of their chosen tipple.

So, why does fermented grape juice hold such an exalted position in the hearts and minds of enthusiasts the world over?

Let me count the ways…

Wine has a number of powerful assets that differentiate it firmly from other inebriants. Its perceived quality, authenticity and luxury, its uniqueness – with no two wines ever quite the same, the wealth of interesting new developments to appeal to the new information hungry, internet generation, wine’s image as a health conscience beverage. I could go on, but will spare you any further evidence of my propensity to ramble.

The Potent Allure of History & Rarity

The earliest evidence of cultivated vines date as far back as Georgia circa 6000 B.C. (click here for more information).

In ancient Egypt beer, made from Barley loaves, was the drink of the masses. Only the wealthy elite could afford to drink wine. This trend is seen through out history, with the poor drinking cider, mead and beer in Medieval England, while the nobles drank wine. Wine’s symbolic association with luxury, remains a persuasive sales incitement for the upper classes in many developing markets, like China, today.

Another facet of what drives consumers to value wine so highly is its perceived authenticity and rarity. The Schloss Johannisberg estate of the Rheingau was founded around 1100, while Louis Latour has been passed down from father to son in Burgundy since the 1700s. Owning a wine from a generations-old estate feels to many like holding a piece of history in one’s hand.

Regions like Burgundy, where many growers have as little as a few ares of different vineyard parcels, introduce a notion of scarcity for certain top wines. In a 2014 Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction, a parcel of 114 bottles of Romanée-Conti sold for a whopping 1.6M $.

While certain spirits can claim high retail prices, low production volumes and a long history of high quality, none have such a long and storied past.

The Vintage Mystique

Whereas the majority of beers, ciders and spirits strive to offer a consistent style and quality from one batch to the next, wine is the only beverage that has introduced the notion of bottlings by vintage. Variation in colour, aromas and flavours from one year to the next is not only accepted, but is indeed a major part of the fascination for many collectors.  En primeur week in Bordeaux, where wine is pre-sold from barrel before release, is a major part of the global wine trade calendar, stirring buyers and media alike into a frenzy.

Every winemaker and wine lover will tell you stories of their greatest vintages…the 1977 Dow’s vintage port, the 1945 Château Latour and so on. Just ask any winery what a popular critic’s judgement of the region’s vintage can do. When the Wine Spectator ran a feature on the excellent quality of 2010 in the Southern Rhône Valley, purchase requests flooded into Domaine de Longue Toque in Gigondas.

The evolution in style, from one year to the next, keeps wine collectors hooked.

The Triumph of Terroir

Terroir…a term that intimidates and impresses novice wine lovers in equal measures. No wine expert has every successfully summed up the concept in simple, concise terms. And this is a major part of its appeal. No one dares to refute a claim that they don’t fully understand!

Wine connoisseurs world-wide grow starry-eyed detailing the aromatic qualities imprinted on a wine by a specific soil type, weather pattern, altitude, and so forth. They speak confidently of Rutherford dust, Coonawarra terra rossa, and the slate soils of the Mosel. The vertiginous slopes of the Côte Rôtie and the patchwork of individual Burgundian climats are familiar and well understood arguments for the superior quality of the region’s wines.

Many beer, cider and spirits brands also claim certain aspects of weather and soil as the secret to their flavour. There is no denying the powerful aromatic effect the peat-rich soils of Islay have on local whisky’s like Laphroaig. But what lacks, in comparison to wine, is a consolidated approach adhered to by the entire category. Check any winery’s website and they will undoubtably boast of unique soils or old vines or ideal climate…some factor of “specialness” attributed to the vineyards and site.

The Dizzying Diversity

Yet another point of differentiation for wine is the sheer number of different grape varieties and wine styles available. Estimates vary, but there are said to be over 10 000 different wine producing grapes. Styles vary from white, rosé and red to still, sparkling, late harvest, fortified, botrytis-affected and so on. The sheer wealth of choice, from grape, to style, to vintage, to terroir, makes wine an endlessly appealing, singular beverage category.

The Cult of the Wine Professional

With the rise of vineyard plantings in countries around the globe, a new generation of passionate, innovative winemakers has arisen. In my grandfather’s generation, outside of a handful of prestigious regions like Bordeaux or Champagne, the grape grower and winemaker were rarely viewed as more than peasant farmers. Nowadays, they are revered creatures, adorning glossy wine and lifestyle magazines.

These new champions are keen to share their love of all things wine with all who will listen. This plays nicely to the information hungry, internet savvy Millennial consumer. Blind allegiances to specific appellations, estates or wine shop recommendations are a thing of the past. Today’s young wine drinkers research. They want to know as much as possible about what they are buying. From vintage reports, to blending variations, to emerging vineyard areas, to new grape plantings, today’s wine trade has never had so much to say, and such an enthusiastic audience.

The rise of sommeliers and chefs as gatekeepers to fashion in alcohol sales is also a boon for wine. Whereas beer and cider are traditionally categorized as pre-dinner or bar drinks, and many spirits proferred as digestifs, wine is considered the perfect mate for the main event…the meal. This gives wine a strong advantage, making it as much an everyday, rather than occasional, refreshment.

Given the aforementioned stylistic array of wines available, there are food pairing options for every type of cuisine from aromatic whites for Asian dishes to big Napa Cabs for steak.

And the Trump Card…Health!

Famous French scientist, Louis Pasteur, declared wine to be the healthiest, most hygienic of beverages. He advocated wine over water in a time where contaminated water sources led to many disease epidemics.  More recently, the concept of the French Paradox, the antioxidant effects of the polyphenol Resveratrol, has revived the connection between wine and good health.

Studies abound that show a correlation between moderate wine drinking and decreased levels of heat disease, stroke, diabetes, and so forth. In a recent Wine Intelligence survey of Chinese wine consumers, the purported health benefits of wine are given as a major reason consumers are switching from whiskey and beer to wine.

At 8 – 14% alcohol, as compared to 35 – 50% for most Vodkas, wine is considered a lower alcohol alternative. This is a strong sales argument in cultures like the UK where binge drinking is an ongoing problem.  Beer and cider can also lay claim to the argument of lower alcohol levels, but generally carry more calories for equivalent alcohol by volume.

In Summary

While competition is fierce amongst alcoholic beverages, wine has a number of compelling features that allow it to stand out from the crowd. Wine carries powerful affiliations with notions of luxury, rarity and authenticity. It is unique in its concepts of vintage and terroir variation. The multitude of different grape varieties and styles further set wine apart. And the rise of the winemaker and the sommelier as trendsetters also play their part.  Lastly, wine is the most popular alcoholic choice for health conscience consumers.

Beer may quench my thirst on a hot summer’s day, and cocktails are a fun choice for ladies night out, but wine will always have my heart.

Education Reviews Wines

IT IS WORTH PAYING MORE?

Is it worth paying more for fine wine

In one of Hugh Johnson‘s fabulous books, he advocates buying ageworthy wines by the case, so that bottles can be opened periodically, over the span of their recommended drinking life, to see how they evolve. Until recently, I would have judged this very sound advice indeed.

However, at least where Burgundy and Bordeaux are concerned, this just isn’t feasible for the average wine lover anymore. Even the most diehard fans of these classic cellar stockers are pulling back on bulk purchases. The wines have simply become too expensive for all but the world’s uber-wealthy.

With so many new, premium wines and wine regions popping up all over the globe, you might wonder how this is possible? Surely the increase in fine wine supply would equate to lower prices? Not so! Why is this? The reasons are manifold…

The cult of the wine critic in the 1990s and early 2000s led to certain wines developping such star power that well-to-do collecters, savvy wine traders and affluent status seekers flocked to them, driving prices ever higher. Massive economic growth in China from 2005 onward led to rash of seemingly overnight millionaires. Investments in luxury goods, including Grand Cru Bordeaux, ensued at an impressive pace. In Burgundy, a similar phenomenon occurred, and was compounded by regular poor harvests, and the scarce volumes of this comparably small vineyard region.

The cult of the wine critic in the 1990s and early 2000s led to certain wines to develop such star power … driving prices ever higher.

A 2011 Fortune article details the meteoric price escalation over the past 25 years, notably in Bordeaux. A bottle of Château Lafite Rotschild 1982 was listed at 84$ US in a 1986 fine wine catalogue, whereas the 2008 vintage came out at a whopping 1800$.  Likewise, a Joseph Drouhin Echezeaux Grand Cru 1983 was on offer at 30$. The 2015 vintage sells for an average of 205$ US on price comparison sites like Wine Searcher.

Have these wines reached such lofty prices, that they now cost more than they are worth? Many in the wine trade would respond with a resounding YES! Retailers from the US and UK have tried various tactics in recent years from lobbying growers’ associations to boycotting purchasing to get the top estates in Bordeaux to bring down their prices.

In my opinion, the question of quality-price ratio is a deeply personal one. I would never spend upwards of 3000$ on a purse because it is adorned with crisscrossed LVs. However, many would argue superior craftsmanship, or simply the pleasure of owning an iconic item, to validate their purchase.

On the other hand, I have no qualms shelling out thousands of dollars on world-wide travel, and will happily pay ten times the price of a local bus for the convenience of jumping in a cab on a rainy day.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of fine wine purchasing is the hit-and-miss nature of it all. While the top estates still produce excellent wines in poor vintages, they are not a patch on their counter parts in fine growing years. The buyer therefore needs to arm themselves with at least basic vintage information. Prices do drop marginally in poor vintages (at least in Bordeaux), but rarely in line with the quality difference.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of fine wine purchasing is the hit-and-miss nature of it all.

Wine is a living thing, that evolves in bottle. Sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the drastically worse. It can be affected by cork taint, and smell sharply of wet cardboard. It can go through a “dumb period” early in its cellaring, whereby the aromatics are muted and the palate so firm as to give little pleasure. It can also age more rapidly than expected, appearing dried out; lacking in fruit and glycerol.

You just never know what you are going to get.

So why do oenophiles still clamour after these insanely priced, potentially disappointing luxury wines? Simply put, because when they are good, they are like nothing you have ever tasted before. A truly fine Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru, at the height of its ageing curve, is so complex, so elegant, so powerful and yet silky on the palate that you feel the sensations continue to play across your tongue long after you have swallowed. The experience bears no ressemblance to that pleasant, fruity 50$ Pinot Noir you carafed last week-end.

The same can be said for the top châteaux in Bordeaux, though you need to wait a little longer for the powerful Cabernet Sauvignon tannins to mellow. In their prime, these beauties offer a level of finesse, of balance and of sensuality, that is just incomparable with their more affordable brethren.

…when they are good, they are like nothing you have ever tasted before…

Whether you are able or willing to part with a chunk of your savings to have such an experience is up to you. With a little luck, you can find a generous sponsor or befriend someone in the wine trade with good connections! This has always been my modus operandi. I haven’t tasted a Romanée-Conti yet…but remain ever hopeful.

Who am I to judge? Learn more about me here.

Education Life

OUR BLIND LOVE AFFAIR WITH ORGANIC WINES

organic wine critical thinking
Photo credit: Jasper Van Berkel

When I was a kid, it wasn’t uncommon to see people throw bags of leftover McDonald’s wrappers out of their car windows on the highway. Recycling was a new and little understood concept. And we regularly left the tap running while we brushed our teeth or did the dishes.

We would never have spend good money on bruised, mis-shapen produce or sprung 5$ more to ensure that our meat was grass-fed and hormone-free.

How times have changed.

I often find it curious how we as a society swing from one extreme to another before finally reaching a middle ground.  Today’s eco-conscience, Western consumers are increasingly dogmatic in their quest for organic goods. They spend the extra time and money to procure them, and pat themselves on the back for their efforts. I should know. I am one of them.

Do you sense a vaguely sarcastic tone? Oh, it’s there alright. For, what is often lacking in this right-minded behaviour is a sense of critical thinking. It is a drastic over simplification to assume that a product is truly environmentally friendly because it has “organic” stamped on it.

It is a drastic over simplification to assume that a product is truly environmentally friendly because it has “organic” stamped on it.

How good for the planet are organic bananas, wrapped in a plastic containers, flown up from Central America? Sure, you could argue that they beat the same fruit sprayed with pesticides that kill the soil and surrounding flora and fauna…but again, there is more to the debate than this.

I regularly hear wine lovers and professionals alike enthuse about a winery, citing its organic or biodynamic status as the primary reason for loving them. Shouldn’t taste be the n°1 criteria for liking one wine more than another? And how sure can you be that the estate in question is truly behaving sustainably from the vine to the bottling line? Your reasons might include the following:

They are certified. There exist a vast number of organic wine certifying bodies around the world; each with different rules and regulations. The common thread is a ban on artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. However, not all certifications cover the products used in the winery. Furthermore, the levels of heavy metals permitted in organic viticulture can build up dangerous levels of soil toxicity, leading to “dead” soils that require regular fertilizer additions for vines to grow.

Domaine Fondrèche of the Rhône Valley recently joined an increasing number of French winemakers by dropping his organic certification (Eco-cert). Speaking to Decanter magazine last year, estate owner Sebastien Vincenti said: ‘I will reduce the copper build-up in the soils by changing my treatment programme to one that is more balanced between organic and synthesized products. The amount of oil used for tractors will also be halved, as I will not need to apply the treatments so regularly, so I will be lowering my carbon footprint’.

…the levels of heavy metals permitted in organic viticulture can build up dangerous levels of soil toxicity…

I have been to the vineyard and seen the soil health and biodiversity first-hand. This is certainly a solid and compelling argument. Growers committed to thriving vineyard environments are definitely worth favouring, but one should still ask themselves…to what extent are these ecological principles practiced? I recently saw footage of helicopters swooping back and forth over the vineyards of a revered biodynamic estate in Burgundy to ward off frost. I make no judgement as to the detrimental environmental impact of hours of helicopter fuel. Even the wealthiest domaines can little afford to lose a whole years’ crop and damage the latent buds for the following seaon. I just think consumers should be aware of these contradictions.

And what of irrigation? California is often held up as a gold standard for sustainable vineyard management. Yet, the bulk of wines produced in this frequently drought-stricken land are entirely dependent on irrigation. High-end wineries selling wines at premium prices are increasingly making efforts to reduce water usage, but the real volume of wine production comes from the entry to mid-tier level wines (sub 20$). A 2016 University of California Davis study shows an average of 300 litres of irrigation water used to produce a mere 1 litre of wine. The vineyards might look healthy, but at what cost to the planet?

As you can see, the subject is not as cut and dry as one might assume. Some wineries’ environmental efforts are little more than empty marketing ploys, while others are quietly making earth-friendly choices, without plastering the evidence of their good deeds on their labels.

…an average of 300 litres of irrigation water is used to produce a mere 1 litre of wine in California…

This is why I have always been more attracted to wineries that speak about sustainability rather than strictly defined organic practices. My ideal wine producer makes ecological choices holistically and pragmatically; weighing out environmental impact at each juncture (within feasible economic limits) rather than following a pre-set guideline. They also consider the social aspect of their enterprise. An estate that treats their grapes better than their employees surely doesn’t deserve our patronage?

Don’t mistake my meaning. I am not against organic certification; many adherents truly are leaders in vineyard ecology. And I certainly champion any efforts a winery makes to become more green. I merely suggest that wine drinkers beware of putting blind faith in estates’ organic claims, and not jump too quickly into assuming the moral high ground for these wines over their ‘conventionally farmed’ peers.

Education Reviews Wines

BRUNELLO DI MONTALCINO & THE 2012 VINTAGE

Brunello di Montalcino 2012 vintage
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$)