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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.

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.

“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

 

Education Life Reviews Wines

BLENDING AT CHATEAU PETIT-VILLAGE

Pomerol wine blending

After a fabulous dinner in the gracious company of Christian Seely, managing director of AXA Millésimes, and Corinne Ilic, AXA Communications Director, we headed to bed with visions of 2005 vintage Château Pichon Baron dancing in our heads.

In our rooms, a document awaited us. The next morning, we were set to visit another AXA property: Château Petit-Village in Pomerol. The document contained instructions, starting with the day’s objective, namely “to create a blend from 7 samples of pure individual grape varieties from the 2017 vintage”.

Many people equate Bordeaux to Cabernet Sauvignon. However, Cabernet is only one of six grape varieties permitted for Bordeaux reds. These wines, barring a few exceptions, are always blends of two or more grapes. Moreover, Cabernet Sauvignon is not the most widely planted red grape in Bordeaux. That honour goes to Merlot.

Bordeaux reds, barring a few exceptions, are always blends of two or more grapes.

The most acclaimed vineyards of Bordeaux are divided into those on the left bank of a large body of water, the Gironde Estuary (and its tributary, the Garonne), and those on the right bank of another tributary, the Dorgogne river. On the left bank, Cabernet Sauvignon is the principal grape in the majority of fine wine blends. On the right bank, Merlot reigns supreme, with Cabernet Franc as its blending partner.

Perhaps you are wondering why Bordeaux wine producers blend multiple grapes together in their wines? Why not focus on individual varietals as they do in Burgundy and elsewhere?

There are many reasons. Two of the most important are related to climate and soil conditions.

Each grape type has its own specificities. If you were to plant different varieties of roses in your garden, you would see that each would bud and bloom at different dates; each would be more or less resistant to drought, to heavy rain, and to all manners of pests and diseases. Vineyards are the same.

On the left bank, Cabernet Sauvignon is the principal grape in the majority of fine wine blends. On the right bank, Merlot reigns supreme.

The left bank of Bordeaux has a temperate maritime climate with hot summers and mild autumns. The famous vineyards of the Médoc area are protected from cooling Atlantic breezes by coastal pine forests. This is the ideal climate for the late ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. On the right bank, significantly further inland from the coast, the climate is continental with cooler winters and chilling winds. Cabernet Sauvignon struggles to reach maturity here, but Merlot, an earlier ripening variety, thrives, as does Cabernet Franc.

Soil types vary widely from one vineyard to another in Bordeaux. Gravelly soils (in temperate areas) work well for Cabernet Sauvignon. They drain water away well, and radiate heat back up to the vines, providing a warmer environment to boost ripening. Clay soils are cooler, retaining water, and absorbing heat. Merlot is better suited to clay. Cabernet Franc can adapt to a wide variety of soils, yielding lighter, fresher wines in sand or limestone rich soils, and bolder, fuller-bodied wines in clay soils.

To ensure that each piece of land is used optimally growers plot out these soil and micro-climatic variations and plant different grapes accordingly.

The majority of Bordeaux vineyards have a wealth of different soil types. And while the left bank is generally warmer than the right bank, there are many factors that affect the micro-climate of each individual vineyard (orientation, altitude, shelter or lack thereof from wind, just to name a few). To ensure that each piece of land is used optimally – growing grapes that have the best chance of remaining healthy and reaching full ripeness year after year – growers plot out these soil and micro-climatic variations and plant different grapes accordingly.

Co-planting provides wine producers with an insurance policy of sorts. If certain parcels attain only marginal ripeness, are ravaged by frosts, or hit hard by rot, higher percentages of healthier, riper grapes can be selected from other vineyard plots to create the season’s blend. While vintage variation is an accepted trait in Bordeaux (see article here), each Château still strives to maintain a sense of stylistic similarity from one year to the next. This forms their reputation, and brings them a loyal following from their patrons.

Crafting the vintage’s blend is arguably the most important of the winemaker’s yearly tasks. Fine winemakers ferment each grape and plot separately. The wines are then transferred to barrel to begin their élévage. This resting period in contact with the micro-porous wood allows the wine to soften and harmonize.

Crafting the vintage’s blend is arguably the most important of the winemaker’s yearly tasks.

Depending on the percentage of new barrels used, their origin, fabrication methods, and so forth, the oak will impart more or less flavouring components (such as cedar or vanilla notes) to the wine. During this maturation period, the winemaker will take samples from each lot and taste them with his team to determine how much, if any, of each parcel will make it into the Grand Vin. This lofty term refers to the top wine of the estate. Lots judged lesser in quality are downgraded to the second and sometimes third wines of the Château.

Blending is a veritable art. There are many factors that need to be taken into consideration. The winemaker must calculate the overall quantity of wine required and the volume available of each parcel. They must also consider how the wine will evolve in bottle. An age-worthy Bordeaux requires blending components with fresh acidity, firm structure, and good tannic grip. Tasted early on in their maturation, these elements may appear less seductive, but given time to soften they will form an attractive framework, enhancing the more expressively fruity, plusher lots.

Our blending session at Château Petit-Village was, in reality, nothing more than an amusing exercise. The winemakers knew better than to let us loose on their fine wine!  Daniel Llose, AXA Millésimes Technical Director, very generously gave of his time to guide us in our endeavors. We tasted through seven different parcels: 5 Merlot base wines from different plots and of varying vine ages, 1 Cabernet Franc, and 1 Cabernet Sauvignon. We then split into two-man teams and got busy with our funnels, beakers, and pipettes, pouring varying amounts of each of our preferred samples into a bottle, thus creating our Pomerol blends.

Blending is a veritable art. The winemaker must consider how the wine will evolve in bottle.

Pomerol is a small, yet highly prestigious appellation on the right bank. There are just under 800 hectares of vines planted here on a mix of gravel, limestone and clay soils. Château Petit-Village has an enviable position at the highest point of the (low lying) Pomerol vineyards, where the soils are gravelly with optimal drainage. The subsoil here is of particular note. The highly prized “crasse de fer”, an iron-rich clay, is said to impart complex aroma of truffles to the resultant wines. Grapes grown on these soils are the most sought after of Pomerol.

After our blends were tasted and politely deemed acceptable by Daniel, we moved on to taste the finished product. Over a sumptuous lunch of roasted duck, we sampled three very fine vintages of Château Petit-Village: 2010, 2007, 2000.

Without further ado, my notes:

Château Petit-Village Pomerol 2010

 

Fragrant aromas of ultra-ripe dark plum, black cherry, and blueberry dominate the nose, underscored with licorice, truffle, cedar, and floral notes. Powerfully structured and weighty, with rounded acidity. Velvety in texture, with impressive depth of dark fruit flavours lingering long on the persistent, layered finish. Firm, fine-grained tannins ensure superior ageability.

Blend: 73% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon

Ageing:  70% new French oak, 30% second use barrels. 15 months.

Château Petit-Village Pomerol 2007

Pretty notes of crushed plum, ripe raspberry, and blueberry mingle with hints of violet and subtle oaked nuances. Quite fresh and vibrant in style, with a full-body, soft, chalky texture, and medium weight, powdery tannins. Not as concentrated as the 2010, but very elegant, with well-integrated oak, and a long, lifted finish.

Blend: 78% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Franc, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon

Ageing: 60% new French oak, 40% second use barrels. 15 months.

Château Petit-Village Pomerol 2000

Fully mature, with an attractive tertiary nose featuring earthy, truffle aromas, dried plum, sweet tobacco hints, and exotic spice. Still pleasingly fresh on the palate, with a full-body, and supple texture. A concentrated core of dried floral and savoury nuances marks the mid-palate. The tannins are plush and rounded.

Blend: 75% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon

Ageing: 70% new French oak, 30% second use barrels. 15 months.

Education Reviews Wines

The sparkling red wines of Lambrusco

Lambrusco sparkling red wine

Italy is the largest producer of sparkling wine on the planet. With its delicate bubbles, fruity personality, and affordable price, Prosecco has taken the world by storm. No longer reserved for special occasions, sparkling wine is now a popular after-work cocktail choice and brunch pairing.

But did you know that Italy also produces sparkling red wine?

And, did you also know that sparkling red wine is actually one of the oldest wine styles in existence? Some eperts claim that the Romans purposely left wine-filled amphorae in sunny spots to spur on a secondary fermentation, rendering still red wines slightly fizzy. Other historians claim that sweet, bubbly red wines were more often than not accidental, rather than a function of applied technique.

Whatever the historical methods, today’s version is definitely a deliberate, carefully crafted wine style. And it is called Lambrusco.

Forget any hazy notions you might have of Lambrusco as ultra-sweet, grape soda-pop wine. The better bottlings on the market today bear little ressemblence to this inglorious past. They remain vibrantly fruity – think tangy red berries and rhubarb – but are much drier, with intriguing earthy, savoury nuances, and an attractive bitter sensation on the finish. They are also quite light in alcohol; hovering around 11.5% for the most part.

Lambrusco hails from Emilia-Romagna. This verdant corner of northern Italy is one of the country’s heaviest culinary hitters. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar, spaghetti Bolognese, lasagna, prosciutto di Parma…these are just a handful of the region’s gastronomic treasures.

Confusingly, Lambrusco is both the name of the wine style, and the family of grapes from which it is produced. Over 60 different, related grapes exist in the Lambrusco family. They are all indigenous to the Emilia area, though they are planted more widely today.

Four of the best-quality Lambrusco grapes include:

  • Lambrusco Grasparossa (deep in colour, bold, fleshy, tannic)
  • Lambrusco Maestri (inky dark colour, intense, grapey perfume)
  • Lambrusco Salamino (deep purple colour, vibrant acidity, fruity, floral aromas, full-bodied)
  • Lambrusco di Sorbara (pale in colour, vibrant acidity, very fragrant, highly concentrated flavours)

Lambrusco wines are generally a blend of several Lambrusco grapes, as well as a small percentage (15% or less) of other local varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon is also a permitted, minor blending grape, bringing body and firmer structure to wines.

Styles range from secco (anywhere from bone-dry: 0g/L residual sugar, up to subtly fruity: 15g/L), semi-secco (off-dry: 12 – 32g/L), amabile (medium sweet: 30 – 50g/L RS), dolce (sweet: 45g/L +). If you like your bubbly dry, ask your friendly liquor store employee what the wine’s “residual sugar” is before purchasing. They usually have this kind of information on file. Residual sugar is a wine geek’s term for the sweetness level. Anything at 6g/L or less should appear quite dry, while the 6 – 12g/L range should still just give you a ripe, fruity finish rather than intense sweetness.

The majority of Lambrusco is made via tank fermentation. This process gives soft, gentle bubbles deemed “semi-sparkling” – or Frizzante in Italian. If you are curious to learn more about sparkling wine production methods (and who isn’t, really?), check out my “Bubbles” article here for more information.

Increasingly, Lambrusco producers are experimenting with other vinification techniques like the “metodo classico” (traditional method bottle fermentation, as in Champagne), and the “metodo ancestrale” (ancestral method, a variant on bottle fermentation). The former produces wines with much more vigourous mousse, and a creamy, layered quality on the palate. The latter is generally semi-sparkling, but with added nuance and textural appeal.

I was re-introduced to the exciting world of Lambrusco by the charming Scardova Ermes. As the export manager for leading Lambrusco producer Medici Ermete, Scardova travels the world singing the praises of his fine red bubblies.

Medici Ermete is a family-owned winery in Reggio Emilia, with over a century’s experience in crafting fine Lambrusco. They own 75 hectares of vineyards, and also source top quality grapes from long-standing grower partners. They receive regular accolades for their wines, including the top score of Tre Bicchieri in Italy’s famous Gambero Rosso wine publication, over 9 consecutive years, for their Concerto wine.

Scardova kindly sent me a range of wines to try. I roped in my esteemed sommelière friend Michelle Bouffard to taste with me. Here are our impressions:

Medici Ermete “Phermento” Lambrusco (metodo ancestrale)

Crafted from the pale, fragrant Lambrusco di Sobara grape, grown on top vineyard sites in the Modena area, this is a lovely apéritif wine. Vibrant aromas of rhubarb, wild strawberries, and herbal notes feature on the nose. The palate is crisp and lively, with delicate bubbles, and a very dry finish. The subtly creamy texture, and hints of baker’s yeast, give this pretty, pale pink bubbly additional appeal.

Medici Ermete “Concerto” DOC Reggiano Lambrusco 2016 – secco

A more robust offering, with a deep purple hue and medium body. Aromas of wild blueberry, candied cherry, and balsamic hints reveal themselves upon aeration. This fresh, delicately sparkling – secco style red- has soft tannins, and a bright, fruity finish (10g/L residual sugar).

Medici Ermete “I Quercioli” DOC Reggiano Lambrusco – secco

Made predominantly from a blend of Lambrusco Salamino and Lambrusco Marani grapes, this attractive red hails from one of Medici Ermete’s top estates, Tenuta Quercioli. Medium purple in colour, this weighty offering features elegant floral, crushed raspberry, dark berry, and herbal nuances on the nose. The palate is wonderfully textured, with lots of tangy berry fruit, and fine, subtly bitter tannins. Bright acidity ably balances the off-dry finish (14g/L).

Medici Ermete “I Quercioli” DOC Reggiano Lambrusco – dolce

Similar sourcing and blend as the previous wine, but crafted in a sweet style. Complex, earthy aromas abound, underscored by ripe plum, prune, balsamic notes, herbal nuances, and mulling spices. Rich and very smooth on the palate, the soft bubbles, and fresh acidity lift this dessert-style wine nicely. Savoury hints add interest on the finish, as do the mildly astringent tannins.

Serving Tips

These are wines to drink chilled. Medici Ermete suggests a serving temperature of 8 – 10°c. The mix of earthy, savoury notes, gentle tannins, and subtle fruity sweetness (for the secco wines) makes these semi-sparkling reds a fun pairing choice for a wide variety of dishes. Give them a try with a mixed plate of charcuterie and hard cheeses. Salut!

Where to buy

Unfortunately, good quality Lambrusco is hard to find on most liquor store shelves. Medici Ermete’s Concerto is available in Québec (17.70$) and BC (19.99$). To enquire about the other wines in their range, contact their regional agents: Italvine in Québec, Profile Wine Group in Ontario, Stile Brands in Western Canada,  Kobrand in the USA.

 

Education Life Reviews

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).