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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.

Education

WHY WINE IS GIVING YOU HEADACHES

wine headaches

One of the main questions I get asked when I mention my profession is: why do I get headaches from drinking white or red wine? Before I have a chance to answer, the asker generally presents me with a few explanations they have read or heard about. These theories are often misguided. So I decided to review current literature and let you know why wine is giving you headaches.

***Side note: I have also made this blog post into a three minute 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. 

Sulphites

Let’s start with sulphites. Sulphites are a group of sulphur-based chemicals, which include sulphur dioxide. They are a naturally occurring by-product of wine fermentation. Sulphur is also added to many wines over the course of the winemaking process as it is a highly effective preservative against spoilage and oxidation. For these same reasons, sulphur is an ingredient in many processed foods like fruit juice, jams, flavoured yoghurts, pickled foods, mustard and dried fruits.

The European Union legal limit for total sulphur dioxide at bottling ranges between 100mg/L for organic dry red wines and 200mg/L for non-organic dry white wines – with all other organic and non organic dry wines falling between these limits. These are the maximum amounts, and most conscience winemakers are using far less nowadays. The majority of health professionals agree that, at these levels, the sulphites in wine do not cause headaches. Dried apricots can contain up to five times the sulphite levels of wine, and yet you rarely hear anyone insisting that dried fruit gives them migraines. It has been found that in roughly 1% of the population, generally people already suffering from issues like asthma, sulphites can cause breathing problems, but not headaches.

The tannin in red wine acts as an anti-oxidant, meaning that red wines generally contain less sulphur than white wines. If your wine headaches come primarily from red wine consumption, then there is even less likelihood that sulphites are to blame.

So why is wine giving you headaches? Several culprits have been identified by researchers:

Alcohol

People never seem to want to hear this but alcohol is often the problem. Many types of headaches are caused by simple dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning that it makes you pee more frequently. This causes the body to lose more fluid and become dehydrated. Happily, there are lots of simple ways to avoid alcohol-related dehydration:

  1. Drink moderately (health officials advise limiting consumption to 1 – 2 glasses of 120 – 150mL per day, depending on sex, weight, and tolerance)
  2. Try switching to lower alcohol wines
  3. Avoid sweeter wine styles (the combination of sugar and alcohol in wine is said to dehydrate the body even faster)
  4. Drink lots of water while drinking wine to make up for the fluid loss (a good rule of thumb is one glass of water for each glass of wine)
  5. Never drink on an empty stomach (food will help dilute the effects of alcohol)

Histamines

Histamines are compounds found on grape skins. These same chemicals are released by the body during an allergic reaction and cause symptoms like headaches, a runny nose, or dry, irritated eyes. Red wines tend to have have higher histamine concentrations as they are fermented with their grape skins. White wines are pressed off their skins before fermentation. So if red wines make your head throb, histamines might be to blame.

Why would histamines bother some wine drinkers and not others? Because certain people lack sufficient levels of an enzyme that breaks down histamines in the small intestines. If histamine levels are too high in the blood, they can dilate blood vessels and cause headaches. If you suspect that you might fall into this category, you could try taking a histamine blocker before a glass of red wine that has previously caused you a headache. Obviously, this cannot be your long term solution for continued red wine consumption however!

Tannins

Tannins are also naturally occurring compounds, or plant chemicals, found on grape skins, stems and seeds. Just like histamines, they are present in far higher concentrations in red wine. Tannins have been found to release serotonin in the brain. At low levels serotonin gives a sense of well-being and happiness. However, at high levels, it can cause some people to develop headaches.

Highly tannic wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or Nebbiolo, have a very firm, astringent texture on the palate. If you get the sense that these types of wines are causing you headaches try switching to white wine, or lower tannin reds like Pinot Noir, Gamay, or Grenache. Keep in mind though that many beverages and foods,  like strong black tea and dark chocolate, are high in tannin. If these things don’t bother you…tannin is probably not your issue.

The Good News!

You don’t need to stop drinking wine altogether just because you are getting headaches. There are thousands of different wines and wine styles out there. It is unlikely that they will all give you a headache. Use the tips I mentioned above, and when you try a new wine, start with a small amount then wait to see the effects (usually within 20 minutes or so) and continue – with moderation – if the headache doesn’t come.

Education

HOW ALCOHOL IN WINE SHAPES FLAVOUR

alcohol in wine

Alcohol in wine…you may think that its only redeeming quality is the mellowing effect it has on us after a hard day’s work. While this is important (in moderation, of course), alcohol actually plays a far more important role in shaping the way a wine tastes and feels on our palate.

***Side note: I have also made this blog post into a short 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. 

Let’s start with the basics. Wine is simply fermented grape juice. What happens during the fermentation process? Sugar from the pulp of the grapes gets converted into ethanol (aka ethyl alcohol) and carbon dioxide by yeast. Wine by its very nature could not exist without alcohol.

The alcohol in wine gives a subtle impression of sweetness on the palate. To demonstrate this fact, Michael Schuster proposes an excellent, try-this-at-home experiment in his “Essential Wine Tasting” book. Pour a glass of still water, then in another glass, mix 25% vodka/ 75% water. Taste the plain water, and then taste the vodka mixture. You will immediately see that, even though there is no sugar in the alcoholic beverage, it tastes sweet in comparison with the plain water.

You can also do a similar taste test with wine. If you take two comparable wines with the same level of residual sugar, the lower alcohol wine will appear drier, while the higher alcohol one will seem sweeter.

Alcohol in wine also brings a hint of bitterness similar to that found in tonic water. This bitterness is more or less perceptible depending on how powerful the wine is, and, is also subject to how sensitive the taster is to bitter flavours.

The taste buds on our tongue contain taste receptor cells that allow us to perceive sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami flavours. Humans have 25 specific taste receptors for bitterness, as compared to only 2 receptors for salty tastes. However, despite this abundance, many people fail to perceive bitterness. Depending on our genes, our bitter receptors are more or less acute.

Alcohol in wine also has an enormous impact on wine’s texture. We tend to think that wine is something that we smell and taste, but there is also an important tactile component to wine tasting. Some call this “mouthfeel”, how the wine is perceived on the palate (smooth or chalky, thin or thick).

In the case of higher alcohol wines, there is a definite viscosity – an almost syrupy impression that gives weight and roundness to the wine. If you go back to the glass of water vs. vodka mixture and taste them again side by side you will see that the water feels much lighter and leaner on the palate. Wine’s body is, in part, connected to alcohol levels. Dry, lower alcohol wines will feel lighter on the palate than equivalent, higher alcohol versions.

The viscosity of higher alcohol wines also gives a mouth-coating effect that diffuses aromas around the tongue and makes them seem more intense, with greater persistent. They can also feel quite warm on the finish, with very high alcohol wines appearing unpleasantly hot or spirity.

The majority of dry wines are between 12% to 14.5% alcohol. There is no “perfect” amount though. A balanced level of alcohol in wine will depend on many factors, notably the density and structure of a wine. The famous Amarone wines of the Valpolicella area regularly reach 16% alcohol, and generally feel harmonious due to their bold, weighty structure and high levels of dry extract. Conversely, many simple, linear red wines at 13.5% alcohol can feel hot and unbalanced. How we perceive alcohol content also depends on personal taste, tannin levels, acidity, dryness or sweetness, and various other elements of a wine’s make-up.

Consumed in moderation, alcohol in wine has been found to clear fat from the arteries and reduce the blood’s tendency to clot thereby limiting the risk of heart disease, heart attacks, and many types of strokes. Most major health organizations, deem 1 to 2 drinks per day (depending on sex, weight, height, etc.) to be moderate. A serving size is measured as 120 to 150mL (4 to 5 ounces) depending on which country’s guidelines you follow

As a parting note, keep in mind that the alcohol level quoted on the label is not necessarily 100% accurate. Eu wineries are allowed a 0.5% leeway up or down in wine alcohol labeling, while the USA permits a full 1% difference. I am always a little suspicious when I see a 14.9% bottle of US wine…Keeping it just shy of 15% seems much lighter, while in reality, the wine could actually be almost 16% alcohol!

So next time you are imbibing, try to think beyond the chill-out factor of alcohol in wine. Taste the sweetness, the bitterness, the viscosity, and the warming sensation on the finish, and you will see how vital alcohol is to shaping wine’s taste and texture.

 

Education Reviews Wines

Perplexed about Pinot Gris(gio)?

pinot gris pinot grigio
Photo Credit: Trentino vineyards, G. Blisson

If you drink white wine you have definitely had Pinot Grigio. It is the king of by-the-glass wine options in bars and cafés around the world. Why? Because even the cheapest versions are pretty inoffensive. They are smooth, easy drinking, and fairly neutral on the nose and palate. What’s not to tolerate?

What you may not know however is that this little grape  is capable of so. much. more.

Just like Syrah and Shiraz, Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are one and the same. The variety also goes by many other names but Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are the two most commonly used monikers. They have come to define quite varied stylistic approaches.

Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are one and the same. Pinot Gris wines tend to be richer and weightier, while Pinot Grigios are fresher, lighter in body, and leaner in structure.

Pinot Gris wines tend to be richer and weightier with fragrant aromas of ripe orchard and stone fruits, underscored by hints of spice. They often feature an oily, textural mouthfeel, and modest acidity. They can be unoaked or lightly oaked, and are often subtly sweet.

Pinot Grigio wines are generally much fresher, lighter in body, and leaner in structure. They are generally unoaked and bone-dry, with restrained citrus, orchard fruit, and almond aromas and flavours. This more delicate style is often achieved by early harvesting while grape acid levels remain relatively high.

The grape is a colour mutation of the Pinot Noir variety.

The grape is a colour mutation of the Pinot Noir variety. While most white wine grape skins are green when ripe, Pinot Gris/Grigio grapes range from a golden-pinkish shade to quite a deep grey-blue in warmer climates (hence the name Pinot Grid or grey Pinot). This dark skin colour often results in a subtle copper or pink tinge in the resultant wines. It also explains the existence of Pinot Grigio rosé.

While Pinot Gris/Grigio grapes are grown all over the world, France and Italy are by far the best known producers. Let’s go on a little tour of where the grape is most widely grown.

In Alsace, France Pinot Gris accounts for 15% of all vineyard plantings. It is considered one of the four “noble” grapes in Alsace (along with Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Muscat). With a few minor exceptions, these are the only grape varieties permitted in Alsace’s finest, Grand Cru vineyards. Alsace Pinot Gris is pale to deep gold in colour, with rounded acidity, complex aromas of earth, ripe stone and orchard fruits, hints of smoke and spice, and honeyed notes on late harvest wines.

In Alsace, France Pinot Gris accounts for 15% of all vineyard plantings.

Sweetness levels in Alsace range from off-dry (9 to 15g/L residual sugar) for the majority of wines, to marked, yet balanced, juicy sweetness for the late harvest categories of Vendanges Tardives (60 – 90g/L) and Sélection Grains Nobles (120 – 160g/L).

Alsatian Pinot Gris ranges from medium to full-bodied, has a rounded, subtly oily texture, and attractive phenolic grip on the finish. It is generally aged in neutral vessels like stainless steel or old oak foudres (large-scale barrels of varying sizes). The regional quality hierarchy ranges from: AOC Alsace, to AOC Alsace Grand Cru, with some producers also producing a “Réserve” level of AOC Alsace to define a middle ground.

In Italy, Pinot Grigio is produced predominantly in Northeastern Italy with strong holds in the Veneto and Friuli notably, but also Trentino, Alto Adige and Lombardy. The entry level examples are pale, crisp, dry, and neutral (as explained above). They are often labelled IGT (indicazione geografica tipica – which basically indicates that grapes can come from anywhere within a large region) or DOC delle Venezie.

In Italy, Pinot Grigio is produced throughout Northeastern Italy with strong holds in the Veneto and Friuli notably.

More premium versions have far more body, grip, and perfume. The Alto Adige region borders Austria and Switzerland. Pinot Grigio vineyards are planting on slopes at high altitudes, bringing vibrant acidity, attractive mineral hints, and aromatic notes of peach, pelon, pear, and spice. The wines tend to be light to medium bodied, precise, elegant, and quite long.

In Friuli-Venezia Giulia, excellent Pinot Grigio wines are made in several sub-zones. These wines tend to be slightly less fragrant than Alto Adige, but fuller-bodied and richly textured. The steep slopes of the Collio DOC gives zesty acidity. The wines are very powerful, and often delicately oaked. In Colli Orientali del Friuli, pretty aromas of white flowers and ripe apples feature.

In Germany, the grape is referred to as Grauburgunder or Ruländer (often used for sweeter styles). It is grown predominantly in the warm Baden and Pfalz regions, and also Rheinhessen. Styles range from the Grigio to Gris profiles, with the most powerful, fuller-bodied wines often displaying tropical fruit nuances and spice.

In Germany, the grape is referred to as Grauburgunder or Ruländer.

Oregon tends to produce a hybrid style featuring the fresher acidity and drier finish of Pinot Grigio, with the textural quality, body and higher alcohol often seen on Pinot Gris. The wines are more fruit-driven (less earthy/ mineral/ smoky) than European versions, with white orchard fruit and subtle tropical notes. Most wines are unoaked or aged in neutral oak to allow subtle oxygenation.

New Zealand is also a very fine up-and-coming region for Pinot Gris. Aromas of apple, pear, honeysuckle, and spice are common. On the warmer North Island the style is riper, weightier, and oilier.  Look to the regions of Hawkes Bay and Gisbourne for this. On the cooler South Island, the wines are fresher, more taut, and often more structured. Marlborough, Canterbury, and Central Otago are the main Pinot Gris producing regions here.

New Zealand is also a very fine up-and-coming region for Pinot Gris.

The majority of New Zealand Pinot Gris is off-dry, though with such a fresh character that the residual sugar is often barely perceptible. Ageing in used barrels with extended fine lees contact is becoming increasingly common in premium New Zealand Pinot Gris, giving a more layered, creamy mouthfeel to the wines.

The Pinot Gris/Grigio grape is the theme variety of this year’s: La Grande Dégustation de Montréal (on this Thursday to Saturday, Nov 1st to 3rd). I recently participated in the jury that selected the top 10 Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigios to feature at the fair, and in SAQ stores.

Among the winning wines, here is my top 5:

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

Domaine Schlumberger Pinot Gris AOC Alsace Grand Cru “Kitterle” 2013 – 92pts. PW

Initially muted, with notes of ripe yellow fruits (peach, plum, yellow apple), underscored by hints of mushroom, raw honey, and spice, becoming quite powerful with aeration. Brisk acidity, full-body, and a rich, layered texture expertly balance the medium sweet, fruity finish. Vibrant fruit flavours linger on the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (coming soon), inquire with agent: Sélections Oeno

Vignoble des 2 Lunes Pinot Gris “Sélénité” AOC Alsace 2016 – 89pts. PW

Moderately aromatic, with an initial earthy, wet stone character, giving way to pear, lemon and floral hints as it opens in the glass. This dry Pinot Gris is medium in body, with bright acidity, and a savoury, moderately firm palate profile. It finishes with tart apple and honeyed hints on the juicy finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (coming soon), inquire with agent: Vin Vrai

Maison Pierre Sparr Successeurs Pinot Gris “Calcaire” AOC Alsace 2015 – 88pts. VW

Earthy, with inviting peach, apricot notes, lemon zest, and hints of smoke on the nose. Really juicy and lively on the palate, with moderate concentration, a rounded structure, and subtle off-dry finish. Easy-drinking week-day white.

Where to buy: inquire with agent: Robert Peides

Tenute Salvaterra Pinot Grigio DOC Delle Venezie 2017 – 88pts VW

Expressive nose featuring yellow apple, melon, and apricot notes. Crisp, light-bodied, and precise on the palate with zesty citrus and orchard fruit flavours, and subtle candied fruit notes on the dry finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (coming soon), inquire with agent: Le Grand Cellier

Piera Martellozzo P.M. Pinot Grigio “Terre Magre” DOC Friuli 2017 – 87pts. VW

Delicate notes of white orchard fruit and lemon on the nose. The palate is juicy and rounded, with brisk acidity adding vibrancy and definition. Short, but pleasantly fruity, dry finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (coming soon), inquire with agent: Divin Paradis

 

Education

WHERE IS ALL OUR WINE COMING FROM?

global wine production

Have you ever wondered how much wine is actually made in the world, where it is all coming from, and who is drinking it? Well lucky for you, the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) tallies the numbers for us every year. For those of you not keen to cosy up with their 14-page global wine production report, here is a little recap. To read the OIV figures, click here.

In 2017, there were 7.6 million hectares of vineyards around the globe. This equates to 76 000 square kilometres of land devoted to grape vines (that’s just over half the size of England).

Spain has the largest surface area under vine but is only the third largest wine producer. Why is this? Because much of Spain’s central and southern plains are so dry that vines need to be planted with very wide spacing so as to share out what little moisture the soil holds.

China has come on like a bullet train, stabilizing now after 10 years of rampant growth. China is now the most widely planted grape growing nation after Spain. Like Spain, they also lag behind in terms of global wine production however. This is partly because a large portion of the vineyards are planted with table, rather than wine, grapes. It is also due to wine production inefficiencies.

Despite this, one cannot discount China’s meteoric rise in the world of wine grape growing. According to Forbes Magazine, there were no vines planted in the prestigious Ningxia region of north central China in 2005. Today, there are over 40 000 hectares – 1/3 the size of Bordeaux. Wine consumption in China is also rocketing upwards, with double the annual per capita amount recorded in 2008.

France, followed by Italy, and then Turkey make up the rest of the top 5 in terms of vineyard surface area. These 5 countries (Spain, China, France, Italy & Turkey) account for half of the wine grapes grown on the planet.

2017 marked a historic low in terms of global wine production. The European Union saw wine production levels drop by 15%. Poor weather conditions through out the growing season dramatically decreased yields across the Euro zone. The volume of wine produced world-wide in 2017 was 250 million hectolitres. In more relatable terms, this equates to roughly 32.5 billion bottles of wine (750mL) or 4 bottles of wine for each person on earth.

Italy and France have long duked it out for the title of number 1 wine producer. The past three vintages have seen Italy claim top spot, with 17% of global wine production in 2017. France comes in at a comfortable second place, with 15% of world-wide wine volume. Spain logs in at number 3, with the United States and finally Australia making up the top 5.

In 2017 we drank approximately 243.6 million hectolitres of wine. Topping the list of the world’s most thirsty nations we have: the USA, followed by France, Italy, Germany, and China. However, if you consider their respective populations, our American friends are actually quite moderate consumers weighing in at a mere 10L per person.

The biggest per capita wine drinking nations include: Andorra, the Vatican City, Croatia, Portugal, and good old France. Wine remains a fixture of daily life here; served alongside the bread at every meal. As the late, great French wine writer and merchant André Simon once said: “Wine makes every meal an occasion, every table more elegant, and every day more civilized”. I’ll drink to that!

Who is Jacky Blisson? Read all about my wine credentials here.

Education Reviews Wines

Acidity in Wine & Why it Matters

acidity in wine

What do experts mean when they praise acidity in wine? Critics regularly enthuse about the racy acid of a German Riesling or the lively, crisp nature of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Why is acidity so important in wine appreciation?

According to tasting expert Michael Schuster in his excellent, Essential Winetasting book: “Acidity shapes and puts into relief the flavours in wine”.  Consider a well-made Beaujolais or Burgundian Pinot Noir. The red berry and cherry notes seem to pop on the palate. This is due to the acidity in wine lifting and highlighting the fruit; giving it a juicy, tangy quality.

***Side note: I have also made this blog post into a three minute 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. 

“Acidity shapes and puts into relief the flavours in wine”.

Acidity is a crucial factor in wine balance. Low acid wines – think cheap Viognier from a hot region – can feel flat and heavy. Sweeter wine styles lacking sufficient acidity are cloying. High alcohol wines, without freshness, appear almost thick on the palate and warming on the finish.

Balance is the ultimate gauge of wine quality. When all components that make up a wine’s character – its flavours, body, acidity, alcohol, dryness/sweetness, tannin, etc. – are in harmony, you may barely even perceive them individually. Rather, they coalesce to form a cohesive whole.

Acidity is a crucial factor in wine balance…though what constitutes balance is entirely personal…

What constitutes balance, when it comes to acidity in wine,  is entirely personal however. High acid white wines like Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc can appear pleasant to some, and aggressive to others. The combination of high acidity and a very dry palate (˂2 grams/litre of residual sugar) can appear particularly austere to many tasters. Residual sugar (occurring when fermentation is stopped before transforming all grape sugars into alcohol) can be a good thing for highly acidic wines, softening their sharp edges. It may surprise you how many notoriously high acid, seemingly dry wines are actually slightly sweet. Champagne, Riesling from multiple origins, and many New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc are just a few examples.

The capacity of a wine to age well is also greatly impacted by its acidity; notably when it comes to white wine. Acidity in wine acts like a preservative, significantly slowing down oxidation and playing a role in bacterial stability.

The capacity of a wine to age well is also greatly impacted by its acidity; notably when it comes to white wine.

It might be a little more apparent now why wine writers use so many terms to describe acidity in wine. In case you are wondering how to situate all of these weird and wonderful words on the scale of low to high acidity, I tend to use the following lexicon:

Low acidity: soft, lush, flabby, thick, heavy

Medium acidity: moderate, round

Medium + acidity: fresh, bright, lively, vibrant, brisk

High acidity: crisp, zesty, zippy, racy, bracing, piercing, laser-like, tangy, mouthwatering, steely, firm

Overly high acidity: sharp, jagged, tart, hard, malic, sour

Here is a selection of pleasingly balanced medium + to high acid wines that I have enjoyed recently:

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

Man Vintners Chenin Blanc Free-run Steen 2017, Western Cape, South Africa – 88pts VW

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

Where to buy: SAQ (17.05$)

Paco & Lola Albarino 2017, Rias Baixas, Spain – 89pts. VW

Not as exuberantly fruit forward as certain Albariños, but very pleasant all the same. Bright floral aromas mingle with candied white fruits (apple, pear, peach). Light in body, this crisp, yet rounded easy-drinking white features tangy orchard fruit flavours and saline hints on the finish. For more on the Spanish grape: Albariño click here and scroll down to the 4th paragraph (on Galicia).

Where to buy: SAQ (18.20$), LCBO (19.95$)

Domaine des Fines Caillottes Pouilly Fumé 2017, Loire Valley, France – 91pts. PW

I liked this so much in a recent blind tasting that I immediately went out to buy another bottle. Drinking very well now despite its youthful vigour, this aromatic Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc is brimming with gooseberry, tropical fruit, and grapefruit notes. Upon aeration herbaceous nuances and hints of oyster shell develop. Bracing acidity is ably balanced by the medium body and expansive palate structure. Bone-dry and unoaked, with a long, lively finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (26.40$)

Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Turkheim 2016, Alsace, France – 93pts. PW

Fantastic value for the price. Intensely fragrant and complex, with spicy aromas (cinnamon, clove, and star anise) overlaying yellow fruits, white flowers, and wet stone nuances. The medium bodied, earthy palate is lifted by pure, racy acidity and a steely structure. Mineral hints and bright yellow fruis linger on the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (27.10$)

Oremus “Mandolas” 2016, Tokaj, Hungary – 92pts. PW

This wine is made from the Furmint grape in the Tokaj region of Hungary, better known for their sweet, botrytised Tokaji wines. An incredibly stylish wine with intriguing hints of fennel, anise, and lemon on the nose. Crisp and highly textural on the palate, with medium body and a concentrated core of lemon, quince and orchard fruit. An attractive touch of phenolic bitterness frames the long finish nicely.

Where to buy: SAQ (30.25$)

Bret Brothers Mâcon-Villages “Cuvée Ephémère” 2016, Burgundy, France – 93pts. PW

I have yet to be disappointed by a wine from this producer. This lovely Mâcon is no exception. Lovely honeysuckle, yellow peach, and stony mineral notes feature on the nose. The palate is brisk, full-bodied and richly textured with good depth of flavour (yellow apple, peach, mango hints). The fruit is tangy and bright on the long, mineral-laced finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (35.50$)

Château Thivin Côte de Brouilly Cuvée Les Sept Vignes 2016, Beaujolais, France – 91pts PW

I tasted this first at the domaine earlier this summer, and subsequently bought a bottle upon returning home. Firstly, because it was so good. Secondly, because it was the same price at the cellar door and here! This wonderfully lively red features brisk acidity, and juicy red berry, cherry, violet, and spiced flavours. It is medium bodied, with earthy hints from ageing in oak oak foudres, and lovely, velvety tannins. Serve slightly chilled.

Where to buy: SAQ (24.55$)

Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva 2014, Tuscany, Italy – 92pts. PW

I tasted a series of Chianti from this producer recently, including an exquisite 2013 ‘Vignetto Il Poggio” that was pretty darn near perfection in my humble opinion. Sadly, the 99$ price of this wine is a little out of my reach…sigh. For less than half that price, this Chianti Classico Riserva is really fantastic. Enticing aromas of sweet, stewed tomatoes, red cherry, dried herbs, and potpourri feature on the nose. Very fresh on the palate, with a lovely chalky texture, medium body, and spicy, cedar hints. The tannins are still a little firm. Cellar for 2 – 3 years, or serve with red meat to soften the tannins.

Where to buy: SAQ (35.25$), inquire with agent about the “Il Poggio” 2013: Elixirs Vins & Spiritueux 

Education

NEW WAYS OF COPING WITH ARCTIC WINTERS

geotextiles
Photo credit: Domaine St. Jacques, Québec

 – As published on www.jancisrobinson.com on Aug. 28th 2018 – 

As the leaves fall from the vines in November, the annual race against the clock begins in the cooler reaches of the Northern Hemisphere. In Ningxia, China, vineyard workers at Pernod Ricard’s Helan Mountain Winery begin the arduous process of laying down canes for winter burial. Wind machines are readied for their winter vigil at Southbrook Vineyards on the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario. Meanwhile, at Domaine St. Jacques in Québec, a tractor appears in the vine row equipped with twin, overhead rolls of white fabric.

“Cold hardiness is the main limiting factor for growing grapes in many regions across North America, and beyond”, affirms Dr. Jim Willwerth, Senior Viticultural Scientist at Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI). And yet, despite the challenges posed by icy winters, new vineyards continue to emerge in some of the chilliest corners of the planet.

The ever-increasing frequency of extreme heat and drought in many traditional vineyard regions is driving wine grape growers to seek out cooler climates. Thanks, in part, to this pattern of global warming, areas once considered too cold to successfully grow Vitis vinifera grapevines are flourishing.

“Cold hardiness is the main limiting factor for growing grapes in many regions across North America, and beyond”

The Niagara Peninsula is just one such example. Thomas Bachelder, winemaker in Oregon, Burgundy, coastal Chile, and Niagara, is convinced of the region’s vast potential. “We have the degree days, and complex limestone-rich soils”, explains Bachelder. “Niagara Chardonnay is elegant; racy, mineral and floral, with a solid core of rich dry extract”, he adds.

However, while temperatures may be milder on average in many marginal regions, climate change is also bringing more erratic weather patterns and greater extremes. In northerly, continental areas this means more vicious cold spells. The Vitis vinifera grape vine is not winter hardy. According to Dr. Willwerth, temperatures below -15°c can lead to loss of fruiting buds and damage to stem tissues. Winter injuries to grapevines create opportunities for infection and can lead to the development of Crown Gall disease. When the thermostat lingers below -25°c it can kill vines outright.

Because of this, cold hardy hybrid varieties are the preferred cultivars in many wintry regions. Lerkekåsa Vineyard in Norway focuses mainly on ungrafted hybrids like Hasanski sladki and Solaris. In Northern China, breeding programs have long centred on the Vitis amurensis grape species that can withstand temperatures of -40°c. In Québec and the Midwestern United States, resistant varieties such as Marquette and Frontenac are common.

…while temperatures may be milder on average in many marginal regions, climate change is also bringing more erratic weather patterns and greater extremes.

Critical success on an international level remains elusive for hybrid grape wines however. Consumers and professionals alike still maintain that Vitis vinifera is the only grapevine species qualitative enough for fine wine production. Regardless of limiting factors, the majority of growers continue to prize vinifera plantings above all others. And while they accept that some loss of fruiting buds is the price to pay for growing Vinifera in cold climates, they are increasingly looking for more effective solutions to keep these casualties to a minimum and prolong the lifespan of their vines.

The most important defense against winter injury lies in the initial grape variety and site pairing as different cultivars have varying degrees of cold hardiness. Vines must also be adequately prepared for the dormant period. Over cropping is found to reduce winter hardiness. “Managing vigour and crop level is key to ensure that we harvest at optimal maturity, at a reasonable time in the fall”, explains Southbrook’s Winemaking Consultant Ann Sperling. The vine requires time to build up sufficient reserves in its trunk and canes to resist cold temperatures.

Yet even vines in good health, with adequate stores, require additional protection to withstand deep freezes. These measures vary from one region to another, depending on the severity of winter temperatures, vineyard size, budget, available labour, and so forth.

The most important defense against winter injury lies in the initial grape variety and site pairing. Yet even vines in good health, with adequate stores, require additional protection to withstand deep freezes.

In regions where temperatures sub -15°c are a rare occurrence, wind machines are common. CCOVI estimates that half of Ontario’s vineyards are equipped with wind machines. These large fans can bring a 2 to 3-degree temperature increase around the fruiting zone. They have a number of shortcomings however. “At wind speeds of 8km/hr or higher wind machines are useless. The inversion layer doesn’t form”, says Sperling. “Their mechanisms are also easily damaged by wind”, she adds. The cost is prohibitive for many small growers. Tom Higgins of Heart & Hands Wine Company in the Finger Lakes region of New York estimates the price per fan at 50 000$ USD, with each unit covering 4 to 6 hectares.

To help growers use fans (and other cold protection methods) more effectively, scientists at CCOVI have created a bud cold hardiness monitoring program called Vine Alert. The system tracks a multitude of different cultivars, from vineyard plots all across Ontario, throughout the dormant period, sending alerts to growers when dangerous cold spells are forecasted. Similar such programs exist in British Columbia’s Okanagan and Similkameen valleys.

Where winter lows regularly plunge to -25°c or less, more dramatic actions are necessary. The most popular technique world-wide is to bury vines deep under the soil. While this method effectively protects vines against freezing temperatures it carries many risks. The process of laying down and uncovering the vines damages the vines and increases the potential for diseases entering cracks or trunk wounds. According to Helan Mountain Operations Manager, Mike Insley it is also “incredibly labour intensive and expensive”. Insley estimates that one third of the winery’s labour budget is spent covering and uncovering the vines.

Burying vines is an effective technique against freezing temperatures yet it carries many risks.

Photo credit: Helan Mountain Winery, Ningxia, China

The decision of when to unearth the vines is also fraught. Exposing the vine to the elements in early spring means earlier bud break and a longer growing season yet leaves the vine defenceless against spring frost. At Hinterland Winery in Prince Edward County, Ontario the team waits until late May, after the risk of frost has passed. This brings its own set of challenges. “We lose a month of the growing season”, says owner Vicki Samaras. “There is a risk of bud rot if the soils are moist”, she goes on to explain, “and, worst of all, you can hear the buds popping off as you pull the canes from the soil”.

From China to Russia and through out Canada, vine burial practioners are vocal in their frustration, yet committed to continue. “Why do we persist in the face of all of these disadvantages?” asks Insley, “Simple, we can’t grow vinifera varieties without winter protection”. Insley believes that the growing season conditions and subsequent high quality of wines produced in Ningxia is worth the effort.

In certain areas, alternate solutions are slowly gaining traction. Yvan Quirion, proprietor of Domaine St. Jacques, began experimenting with geotextiles on his estate in 2006. The results were so compelling that he now covers his entire 23-hectare property. Quirion trains his vines 30cm from the ground to capture ambient heat from the earth. He does an initial Cordon de Royat pruning, and then uses a tractor to drape geotextiles over the trellis in a tent-like fashion, securing the base of the fabric to the ground. Quirion says he can cover 20 kilometres in a day; winterizing the entire estate in less than a week. With careful maintenance, he has managed to re-use many of his geotextiles for going on 10 years.

Domaine St. Jacques began experimenting with geotextiles in 2006. The results were so compelling that they now covers their entire 23-hectare property.

Despite many bitter winters, Quirion claims he has only incurred notable bud damage once, in January 2018, when the longest cold streak ever recorded struck the region. Even then, Quirion estimates a mere 10 – 15% loss of fruiting buds. Adamo Estate Winery in Hockley Valley, Ontario was also struck with similar temperatures, and the vines under geotextiles faired well. Only the Merlot grapes suffered bud damage.

Trials at Hinterland Winery began in 2018. “We saw a 33% increase in yield this year”, enthuses Samaras. Vines were uncovered a full month earlier than usual allowing for earlier, more uniform bud break. By bundling the geotextiles up on the topmost wire above the fruiting zone, they were able to keep them at the ready in the event of spring frost.

Adamo Estate began testing geotextiles in 2015, in partnership with CCOVI. After three years, winemaker Shauna White deems the results “phenomenal”. “The buried canes were much darker and less vibrant”, she asserts. “Under the blankets, they are brighter and healthier looking.” White also enthused about the increased crop load. In 2017, a geotextile-covered Pinot Noir plot half the size of a neighbouring, buried vine plot gave the same quantity of wine.

Adamo Estate began testing geotextiles in 2015, in partnership with CCOVI. After three years, winemaker Shauna White deems the results “phenomenal”. 

The use of geotextiles has even allowed Hinterland Winery to farm organically for the first time. “There is a lot of fungal disease in Ontario, much of which originates from the soil”, explains Samaras. “When you bury vines, you are obliged to train the vines low to the ground. Using geotextiles, we have raised the fruiting zone by 15cm”.

Geotextiles are not a perfect solution for all estates however. According to Mike Insley, they aren’t a viable option for Helan Mountain Winery. “Covers are potentially problematic on large-scale vineyards – a vineyard with a 3m row spacing would require 3333m of row covering for each hectare. That’s a lot to purchase, store, and apply”. Concerns about cost, storage, and unease with application methods seem to be the major obstacles to greater adoption by growers.

At Heart & Hands Wine Company, Tom Higgins is taking another approach. He has devised an automated heating system to protect against icy temperatures. Heating tape, more commonly used in roof de-icing, is permanently attached to the fruiting wire and then wrapped in plumbing tube insulation over winter. Temperature probes inside the insulation are triggered to activate the heating tape at -17°c, and to turn it off at approximately -13°c. The system can also be used to ward off spring frost, using higher temperature settings. “For every 100 feet of grape vine, it takes me 20 minutes to apply the insulation, and 10 minutes to remove it”, claims Higgins.

At Heart & Hands Wine Company, heating tape is permanently attached to the fruiting wire and then wrapped in plumbing tube insulation over winter.

Photo credit: Heart & Hands Wine Company, Finger Lakes, New York

The ease of use and relative affordability of his plan is a major part of its appeal. Higgins received a Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to pursue his research. Initial results are inconclusive after a relatively mild first winter of use, but Higgins is confident that the long-term benefits will be tremendous.

Times and techniques are definitely changing. Cool climate vineyards are gaining in prominence around the globe. Rising temperatures have rendered many wintry regions more hospitable for vinifera grape varieties. However, the increase in extreme weather events in these areas is making effective freeze protection strategies more and more vital. While wind machines and vine burial have proven effective in certain conditions, both methods have significant drawbacks. The advent of recent techniques such as geotextile coverage and heating systems are exciting developments likely to have a major impact on the future of cool climate viticulture.

Education Life

Refreshing Wines to Beat the Heat

refreshing wine low alcohol

Remember when you were a kid, and your mum would help you make lemonade on a hot day? You would get a little table ready with your cups, your pitcher of juice, and your home-made “Lemonade for sale” sign.

The adults would dutifully line up, buy a cup, and make jokes about how it was so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.

Stepping out into the searing heat that is Montréal this week, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some street omelettes forming…that is, if it weren’t for the tropical humidity.

So, for those of us who have moved on from lemonade, what wine should we drink to beat the heat?

Lemonade is high in acidity, and generally served ice cold. This makes it thirst-quenching, with a cooling sensation. When choosing wine for a hot summer’s eve, this same refreshing quality is a must.

Look for wines that can be chilled down to 8 to 12°c. These tend to be lighter in body, and predominantly white or rosé in colour. Combine this with crisp, lively acidity, and tart fruit flavours, and your palate is sure to feel invigorated.

Sound good? Not so fast…

Our bodies produce sweat to cool us down in hot weather. This process dehydrates us, so we need to drink more. Alcohol is a diuretic. It makes us ***ahem*** expel more liquid than we are taking in. Drinking lots of alcohol in hot weather is never a good idea.

Still want that glass of wine? I know I do. Lucky for us, there are lots of fantastic grapes/ regions producing lower alcohol wines. Here are but a few:

Vinho Verde

This wine style hails from the cool, rainy northwest of Portugal. While its literal translation is “green wine”, the name refers to the youthfulness of the wine, rather than its colour. Vinho Verde is bottled a mere 3 to 6 months after harvest.

Vinho Verde can come in white, rosé, and red. The most popular exported style is white wine. It is made from a blend of indigenous white grapes including Alvarinho, Avesso, Azal, Arinto, Loureiro, and Trajadura. Vinho Verde generally has subtle effervescence, tangy acidity, a light, delicate structure, and low 8.5 to 11% alcohol. Aromas and flavours are usually quite restrained, ranging from marginally ripe stone and citrus fruit, to floral, and sometimes mineral nuances.

Value to Premium Recommendations: Aveleda (for good value), Quintas de Melgaco (Astronauta series, for high quality)

Niagara Riesling

German Riesling is an obvious choice for high quality, lower alcohol white wine with racy acidity. To read more about this, click here.

But perhaps you don’t think of the Niagara region when you reach for a Riesling? This is a situation which needs to be rectified…immediately. Niagara produces some beautifully precise, bracing, light-bodied Rieslings in styles ranging from bone-dry to subtly sweet. Highly aromatic, brimming with lemon, apple, peach, and sometimes tropical fruit notes, these wines are dangerously drinkable. 10.5 to 12% alcohol is the norm.

Value to Premium Recommendations: Cave Spring, Tawse, Henry of Pelham

Prosecco

If it’s bubbles you are after, Prosecco often sits at a modest 11%. Made from the Glera grape in the north east of Italy, this frothy semi-sparkling wine is softer on the palate than Champagne or Cava. It boasts fresh acidity, pretty pear, peach, and floral aromas, and a very light palate profile.

Be sure to read the label before picking up a bottle though, as the term “dry” is actually (confusingly) used for the sweeter styles. If you want something literally dry, look for the word “brut”. A subtly sweet style will be called “extra dry”.

Brut to Dry Recommendations: Bisol “Crede” (brut), Adami “Vigneto Giardino Rive di Colbertaldo” (extra-dry), Marsuret “II Soler” (dry)

What about Rosé?

My favourite rosé wines are generally from the sunny south of France or similarly hot regions. Alcohol tends to creep up to 13% or higher here. I would be lying if I said this stopped me, but I definitely try to keep better track of consumption when imbibing the pink stuff.

Value Recommendations: Louis Bernard Côtes du Rhône Rosé (great value, SAQ Dépôt), Château de Nages Vieilles VignesS. de la Sablette Côtes de Provence 

It’s Gotta be Red?

For you red wine lovers out there, lighter styles (~12%) with vibrant acidity, and mouthwatering fruit flavours can be found in Cabernet Franc, Gamay, and Pinot Noir. The Loire Valley and Niagara make great cool climate examples. Cabernet Franc has lovely raspberry fruit flavours, but can be quite vegetal (leafy, bell pepper notes). This quality can be very attractive, when amply balanced by fruit.

Beaujolais is king for the Gamay grape. Gamay features pretty red berry and violet notes. It ranges from light bodied, with silky tannins, to grippy and powerful. For the lightest styles of Beaujolais, look to the villages of Brouilly, Chiroubles, or Fleurie.

Cool styles of Pinot Noir can be found around the globe. Burgundy is the best known and arguably the finest region, but prices are creeping ever upward. For best value options, look for the generic, region-wide designation of Bourgogne AOC, or southern Burgundian village wines from Mercurey, Rully, or Givry.

All three grapes can be served quite cool, at around 14 to 16°c.

Recommendations: Agnes Paquet Bourgogne RougeDomaine Michel Juillot Bourgogne Rouge, Thierry Germain “Domaine Roches Neuves” Saumur-Champigny, Bernard Baudry Chinon.

Parting Thoughts

A glass of wine, a glass of water. This golden rule has always stood me in good stead on nights where temptation gets the better of moderation.

Santé!

 

 

 

 

Education Reviews

ITS TIME FOR A GERMAN WINE REVIVAL

Drink German Wine
Photo credit: Deutsches Weininstitut

Cool climate has become a bit of a buzzword for wine enthusiasts in recent years. Marginal climates on the very brink of where grapes can successfully ripen are increasingly being sought out by growers conscience of the long term potential they offer. As temperatures continue to rise, and drought conditions worsen in many hot growing areas, cooler climates offer an attractive solution to climate change. The current fashion in wine geek circles is for crisp, elegant, lighter wine styles that these sites yield.

Sadly, when wine lovers think cool climate wines, they too often overlook the original cool climate king…

Germany.

Germany’s original vineyards are said to have been planted some 2000 years ago by the Romans. Much like in Burgundy, the powerful monasteries of the Middle Ages are credited with identifying many of Germany’s  finest terroirs. In the 18th and 19th centuries, German wines were as highly prized as their counterparts in France. Queen Victoria was well-known for her love of Rheingau wines from the Hochheim area. In many of his excellent books, wine writer Hugh Johnson sings the praises of the thrilling Rieslings of the Mosel and the Rheingau.

So why are German wines so hard to find on liquor store shelves and restaurant wine lists these days?

Yes, there were some dark days for German wine in the difficult aftermath of the the second world war. Firstly, a grape called Müller-Thurgau was widely planted through-out Germany. This variety was created by crossing two separate grapes (one being Riesling) in order to obtain a new, early ripening, high yielding grape that thrived in a wide range of soils and climates. The downside was that Müller-Thurgau produced a fairly bland, neutral white. The second issue was the rise in popularity, first domestically, and then internationally for a very sweet, insipid style of white wine called Liebfraumilch (think Black Tower, Blue Nun, Deinhard).

As these inferior wines proliferated, so to did mass consumer perception that this was the extent of Germany’s wine-making abilities. And stereotypes, once firmly established, die hard. Germany’s quality-minded wine producers never ceased producing excellent wines, and wine connoisseurs never ceased drinking them; these wines just became specialty products for those “in the know”.

As the trend toward drier white wine picked up steam in the 1980s and 1990s, Liebfraumilch sales waned and German wine began to disappear from larger liquor store shelves. Meanwhile in Germany, a quality revolution was quietly underway. Wine producers increasingly turned back to Riesling, began experimenting with sweetness levels, and singling out their best terroirs in single vineyard bottlings.

Today, the quality coming out of Germany is second-to-none, but the average wine drinker wouldn’t know that…because they can’t find any.

What is that makes German wines worth seeking out? Here are just a handful of reasons:

The Noble Riesling Grape

Riesling is praised by wine experts the world over, for its exceptional cellaring capacity and ability to express terroir. In simpler terms, the Riesling grape is very high in natural fruity acid. Acids act as a sort of preservative, allowing wines to maintain the vibrancy of their aromas and flavours over time. Riesling is rarely subjected to wine-making techniques (like malolactic fermentation or new oak ageing) that alter wine’s flavour profile. They tend to be light in body and delicate in texture. German Rieslings are often highly fragrant with aromas that range from apple, lemon, white flowers, and wet stone (in drier wines from the coolest areas) to intense honeyed, peachy, spiced notes for later harvested and/or warmer climate wines.

There is almost five times more Riesling planted in Germany than in any other country world-wide.

Riesling’s Wide Range of Styles

The Riesling grape excels in all styles, from sparking, to still; from bone-dry to lusciously sweet. Riesling’s high acid lends itself well to the production of quality sparkling wine. Its thin skins make it susceptible to botrytis (aka noble rot), a fungus that shrivels the grape berries intensifying sweetness and imparting interesting flavour compounds. The sweet German dessert wines made from partially to fully botrytised grapes are among the most complex, sought after wines in the world.

Quick guide to understanding sweetness levels on German wine labels:

  • Dry Riesling: look for the term “Trocken” on the label, “Halbtrocken” or “Feinherb” wines will be marginally sweeter
  • Sweet Riesling (in ascending order): Kabinett* (off-dry), Spätlese* (late harvested, medium sweet), Auslese (partially botrytised, sweet), Beerenauslese (heavily botrytised, very sweet), Trockenbeerenauslese or TBA (wholly botrytised, lusciously sweet), Eiswein (ice wine, no botrytis, sweet to lusciously sweet)

* Just for to make things more confusing, Kabinett and Spätlese wines can also be fermented dry (rather than have the fermentation halted while residual sugar remains in the wine, as is the case with good quality sweet wines). You will see the word Trocken on these labels.

Cool Climate Vineyards

Germany is the northernmost major wine-producing country in Europe. Its climate is cool and continental for the most part. Grapes grown in cool climates accumulate sugars more slowly. They require a longer growing season to fully ripen. Germany’s vineyards lack the abundant sunshine of more southerly origins, but they are blessed with warm, dry fall weather allowing the grapes to hang long on the vines. Grapes that ripen slowly like this tend to be fresher, with brighter fruit, and more complex (often mineral-laced) aromatics.

Steep Slopes & Winding Rivers

The favourable fall weather alone isn’t sufficient to ripen grapes in the coolest German vineyards. In places like the Mosel Valley, Riesling thrives due to the perilously steep slopes upon which it is grown. These sharp inclines give more direct sunlight to the vines therefore increasing the rate of photosynthesis. Rivers also play a major role in tempering chilly German weather. Water maintains stable temperatures far long than air. In cool climates, rivers act as heat reservoirs. All of Germany’s major vineyard areas grow along the banks of the Mosel (and its tributaries the Saar and Ruwer), the Rhine, and the Main rivers.

The Pinot Persuasion

Although Riesling is the best known German wine grape, many other varieties flourish here. In fact, Germany is the third largest producer of Pinot Noir in the world. Called Spätburgunder (sh-pate-boorgunder) here, the style varies widely from region to region but often features a pale garnet colour, crisp acidity, tart red fruit flavours, light to medium body, and smooth tannins. These vibrant reds offer fantastic value for lovers of earthier, fresher Pinot Noir styles. For tangy, silky versions look to the Ahr, Franken, or Rheingau. For bolder, fruitier styles, try Baden or Pfalz.

White Pinot grapes, namely Pinot Gris (aka Grauburgunder) and Pinot Blanc (aka Weissburgunder), are widely grown in the Rheinhessen, Baden, and Pfalz. Both grapes can be quite neutral and lean. However, when not over-cropped, and when vinified with care, they are both lovely, textural wines. Pinot Blanc tends to have firmer acidity, while Pinot Gris is more fragrant. Great German Pinot Gris is powerful and concentrated, with notes of ripe pear, tropical fruit, and spice. Pinot Blanc can be quite nutty and citrussy, with lovely freshness.

Perfect Balance

The single most important attribute a wine must have to pass muster with me, is balance. All elements that one can smell and taste must seem harmonious to the nose and palate. On a balanced wine, the aromas, the flavours, the acidity, the alcohol, the tannins and so forth all work together like an orchestra to create one beautiful sound from many different instruments. Whereas, on an unbalanced wine, certain aspects will seem jarring, and out of synch.

I regularly taste high acid wines with little to no sweetness, and find them so lean and austere that they provide little drinking pleasure. Where acidity is high, as with Riesling, residual sugar can provide an attractive counter-weight, enhancing the fruity flavours. Before dismissing the sweeter Riesling wine styles, try them against bone-dry Rieslings and see for yourself. I am constantly met with wine lovers who swear they only drink dry wines, only to prefer a slightly sweeter style when given a selection to taste. Also, high acidity levels mask the perception of sweetness. You may think your favourite wine is bone-dry, only to find it is slightly sweet. Next time you drink a bottle of Champagne, check the sugar level.

Other Benefits

Cool climate wines struggle to ripen and therefore never attain very high alcohol levels. In the case of sweeter wines, the arrested fermentation process means that not all the sugar has been transformed into alcohol resulting in even lower alcohol levels. German Riesling ranges from 5.5% alcohol for the very sweet wines, up to 12% for the driest examples. Even the red wines rarely exceed 13%.

For me, German Riesling is the perfect hot summer’s lunch wine. Its vivacious acidity quenches your thirst, and its low alcohol won’t leave you yawning.

Avoiding the Pitfalls

Before you race to the store to buy the first German wine you see, there are some basic rules to follow. Unfortunately, syrupy sweet, characterless German wine still exists today. Avoid the cheapest options (in this market that pretty much means everything under 15$). And if you really and truly don’t like sweetness in your white wine, scan the label for the word trocken.

If you are keen to try German sparkling wine (called Sekt), look out for a mention of origin on the bottle. Cheap German Sekt is truly dreadful stuff, with a heavy, candied sweetness. The grapes can be sourced from anywhere in the EU, so do not reflect German vineyard fruit.

For dry to sweet wines, if you prefer a very light, delicate style with elegant, tangy fruit, mineral and floral notes look for wines from the Mosel Valley or Nahe. If you want something a shade more powerful, steelier in structure, but equally racy, Rheingau is for you. Finally, if you want more rounded acidity, riper fruit and spicy notes, the Pfalz region offers this an abundance.

A Couple of Suggestions

In a recent tasting of over 100 German wines here in Montréal, only a handful were available for purchase at the SAQ. Here are my top 4 to get you started on your German wine journey:

Selbach-Oster Riesling QbA 2016 – 89pts VW

Incredibly lively white with moderate intensity of red apple, honey and ripe lemon aromas. Piercing acidity offsets the subtle sweetness nicely on this delicate, light-bodied white. The finish is clean, and fairly brimming over with juicy, tangy fruit.

Where to buy: SAQ (18.20$)

Weingut Leitz Eins Zwei Dry 2016 – 88pts VW

Crafted in a “dry” style, the 9g/L residual sugar is barely perceptible here. This is a classically styled Rheingau with its bracing acidity, firm structure, and hints of peach, lemon, and stony minerals. This zesty white is a sure to get your taste buds jumping.

Where to buy: SAQ (19.25$).

Villa Welter Weissburgunder Trocken 2016 – 87pts. VW

Restrained, yet elegant on the nose with subtle pear, green apple and floral notes. This charming, biodynamic Pinot Blanc really comes alive on the palate. Crisp, yet rounded acidity, an attractive layered texture and lingering saline hints on the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (20.00$)

Reichsgraf Von Kesselstatt Piesport Goldtropfchen Grosses Gewachs Riesling 2014 – 93pts. PW

Lovely complexity on the nose. Slatey minerality is underscored by delicate floral notes, yellow apples and hints of petrol. Notes of raw honey and peach develop with aeration. The palate is silky and light, yet impressively concentrated, with racy acidity ably matched by incredibly vibrant fruit. The finish is long and mineral-laden.

Where to buy: SAQ (45.00$)

For those keen to explore further, here is a short list of other excellent German wine producers currently sold in limited volumes through the SAQ:

Joh. Jos. Prüm, Mosel Valley

Willi Schaefer, Mosel Valley

Weingut Weiser-Künstler, Mosel Valley

Weingut Hermann Dönnhoff, Nahe

Weingut Klaus Keller, Rheinhessen

Weingut Künstler, Rheingau

Weingut Ökonomierat Rebholz, Pfalz