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EIGHT APPELLATIONS, EIGHT WINES FROM THE MÉDOC

wines from the medoc
Photo credit: Philippe Caumes

The Médoc region of Bordeaux is famous for its cru classés châteaux and its refined, ageworthy Cabernet-Sauvignon, Merlot blends. However, wines from the Médoc can also be incredibly affordable, offering great value for every day consumption.

Médoc Geography

The Médoc region is located north of Bordeaux, on the left bank of the Gironde estuary. Over 16,000 hectares of vineyards are planted here, spread over eight appellations. Heading north from the city of Bordeaux, these are: Haut-Médoc, Margaux, Moulis-en-Médoc, Listrac-Médoc, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, Saint-Estèphe, and Médoc.

The Médoc region has a warm, maritime climate. Sandwiched between the Atlantic ocean and the Gironde estuary, the Médoc peninsula benefits from the temperature moderating effect and the air circulation provided by these two large bodies of water.  While spring and early summer can be fairly damp, dryer conditions later in the growing season allow for consistent most vintages.

The soils of the Médoc are quite diverse in nature. In the south-east, gravel-rich soils are most prevalent. These gravels, mixed with sand and other alluvial deposits, originate from two sources: the Massif Central and Pyrenees mountains. They were carried along the Dordogne and Garonne rivers respectively, over thousands of years. Gravel is prized for its ability to warm quickly in the spring, reflect heat up into the vines during the day, and radiate it at night, aiding with ripening. It is also free draining, encouraging deep vine rooting. Late ripening grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot are most planted in the gravelly soils of the Médoc.

In lower lying areas, and notably, as you move further north and west, heavier clay-limestone soils, often with quite stony surface layers, dominate. These cooler, water retaining soils are common in large swathes of the Médoc AOC, as well as the appellations of Moulis, Listrac and Saint-Estèphe.  Early to mid ripening grapes like Merlot and Cabernet Franc thrive in these clay-based areas, yielding fruity, fleshy wines that round out the often angular Cabernet Sauvignon.

For an excellent 3D ariel view of the Médoc vineyards, click here.

Photo credit: Conseil interprofessionnel du vin de bordeaux

Quality Classifications

Two quality hierarchies exist for wines from the Médoc. The most famous, the 1855 classification, ranks top châteaux in five tiers from Premier Grand Cru Classé (first growths) to Cinquième Grand Cru Classé (fifth growths). With few exceptions, this ranking has remained unchanged since its inception. To learn more about the history and debate surrounding the 1855 classification, listen to my audio overview here.

A second estate classification system, Cru Bourgeois, was established in 1932 to highlight high-quality wines from the Médoc not included in the original list. This ranking has had quite a tumultuous history, with numerous revisions, an annulment, and much debate. The latest update was finalized as recently as February of this year. The 2020 Cru Bourgeois classification includes 249 châteaux ranked in three categories: Cru Bourgeois, Cru Bourgeois Supérieurs, Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnels. The ranking is set to be revised every five years, and all estates up for consideration must hold the French agricultural sustainability certification: Haute Valeur Environnementale. 

Earlier this month I tuned in to a virtual seminar on wines from the Médoc, which gave an overview of each of the appellation and highlighted one wine from the area.

MÉDOC AOC

The region-wide Médoc AOC can be used for any wine produced within the Médoc production area. For example, producers in Margaux or Saint-Julien may choose to declassify to Médoc AOC, potentially for young vines or areas of the vineyard yielding less ripe or pristine fruit. However, this practice is not frequently seen.

The appellation is generally reserved for the designated Médoc AOC section of vineyards that covers the northern third of the Médoc peninsula. This large area has 5,560 hectares of vines planted on mixed gravel and clay-limestone soils. Wine styles vary widely, depending on site and producer, but tend to be fashioned in a light, early-drinking, approachable style, with minimal oak ageing.

Merlot is the dominant grape here, and tends to make up the lion’s share of blends. Wines from the Médoc AOC are notably good value in warmer vintages, where grapes ripen fully, yielding wines with greater concentration, and more vibrant fruit flavours. Recent such vintages include 2015, 2016, 2018.

Château Tour St. Bonnet Médoc 2015 – 87pts. PW

The 2015 Château Tour St. Bonnet is a blend of 65% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot. It is vinified in concrete tanks and aged for 18 months in the same vessel. The hot, sunny 2015 growing conditions are apparent in the ripe red fruited nose, the smooth, supple structure, and velvety tannins. Fairly linear and short on the finish, but overall a pleasant, every day Bordeaux with attractive savoury undertones.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($23.85)

LISTRAC-MÉDOC

Listrac-Médoc neighbours Moulis-en-Médoc to the north. It boasts a marginally higher elevation than surrounding vineyards, reaching 43 metres at its highest point. Small in Médoc terms, with just 787 hectares of vines, Listrac-Médoc represents 5% of the Médoc vineyard area. The soils composition consists of three Pyrenean gravel terraces to the west, a Garonne gravel outcrop to the east, and a large central, flat land of clay-limestone.

This more marginal vineyard area is buffeted by strong winds and thus tends to ripen quite slowly. In warm vintages, this slow rate of berry maturation is an advantage, allowing for good acid retention and full phenolic development. However, in cooler growing seasons, Listrac-Médoc wines can be quite lean and vegetal.

Château Vieux Moulin Listrac-Médoc 2016 (Cru Bourgeois) – 88pts. PW

A blend of 58% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Petit Verdot, the Château Vieux Moulin 2016 is aged for 12 months in, mainly seasoned, French oak barrels. Restrained aromas of dark fruit, tobacco leaf, and hints of bell pepper on the nose. Brisk acidity on the attack, followed by a moderately firm, somewhat angular palate, with moderate concentration of tangy red and black fruit, with underlying dried herbal notes. Attractive chalky tannins frame the finish.

Moulis-en-Médoc

This narrow strip of vineyard land lies just north of Margaux, touching Listrac-Médoc. It is the smallest appellation of the Médoc, with 610 hectares planted, and 46 wine producers. The western part of the region is a fairly flat expanse with mainly sandy-clay soils. The central area features gravelly top soils with underlying clay-limestone layers. In the easternmost vineyards, closest to Margaux’s northern border, outcrops of Garonne gravels are highly prized vineyard soils.

Quality is variable depending on producer and vineyard site. Neither Moulis-en-Médoc nor Listrac-Médoc contain classed growth châteaux, however both have reputed Cru Bourgeois estates. Some famous names in Moulis-en-Médoc include Château Chasse-Spleen, Château Poujeaux, and Château Garricq.

Château La Garricq Moulis-en-Médoc 2015 (Cru Bourgeois) – 90pts. PW 

This blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 20% Petit Verdot is aged for 12 months in 1/3 new French oak. This is evident from the spicy, cedar notes on the nose, mingled with black fruit, dark chocolate, and hints of graphite. The palate shows more harmonious oak integration, with its concentrated red and black fruit flavours, tangy acidity, broad structure, and plush texture. Firm, ripe tannins frame the finish nicely.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($34.75)

HAUT-MÉDOC

The Haut-Medoc appellation stretches some 60 kilometres in length from just north of the city of Bordeaux, to north west of Saint-Estèphe. Due to its size, and diversity of soil types, orientations, aspects, proximity or distance from the Gironde, and so forth, wine style and quality from the Haut-Médoc is incredibly varied.

For much of its history, the Haut-Médoc, as well as the appellations along its north-south expanse, were salt marshes, unusable for viticulture. In the 17th century, Dutch merchants drained the marshes to expand Bordeaux vineyard acreage.

The majority of the Médoc’s Cru Bourgeois Supérieurs and Exceptionnels estates, as well as five cru classé châteaux are located in the Haut-Médoc.

Château de Gironville Haut-Médoc 2016 (Cru Bourgeois) – 91pts. PW

Château de Gironville is situated in the commune of Macau, just south of Margaux, near the mouth of the Garonne River. The estate boasts deep, fine gravel soils on their Cru Bourgeois ranked property. This blend of equal parts Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon is completed with 10% Petit Verdot. According to estate director, Yannick Reyrel, the Petit Verdot gives an intriguing peppery, fruity nuance to the blend and the gravel soils bring a suave texture.

Initally closed. High toned plum, cassis, and dark cherry aromas emerged with aeration, underscored by complexifying notes of black licorice, nutmeg, and earth. Fresh, full-bodied, and stylish on the palate with lively dark fruit flavours, ripe, polished tannins, and a lengthy finish. Drinking well now, with 4 – 5 years ageing potential.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($30.00, $62.00 for magnums)

SAINT-ESTÈPHE

Saint Estèphe is the northermost and largest of the cru appellations within the Haut-Médoc. The region’s 1,229 hectares of vineyards are spread across an undulating landscape, with gentle hillsides reaching 20 metres at their highest point. While gravel-rich soils are prevalent, notably at higher elevations, Saint Estèphe has significant areas of clay-dominant soils, with a limestone bedrock. Greater concentrations of clay in Saint-Estèphe equate to wider plantings of Merlot, giving the bold, full-bodied wines of the area a certain mid-palate roundness.

Saint Estèphe has a mere five cru classé estates. However its best properties, including second growths, Château Cos d’Estournel and Château Montrose, and third growth, Château Calon-Ségur, are highly esteemed.

Château Beau-Site St. Estèphe 2015 (Cru Bourgeois) – 92pts. PW  

Château Beau-Site overlooks the Garonne River, from one of Saint-Estèphe’s higher grounds. The stony soils of the estate are deep and free-draining. The 2015 vintage is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc, aged 18 months in 35% new French oak.  Intense aromas of prune, mocha, and pencil shavings, are lifted by underlying hints of menthol and red currant. The palate is remarkably fresh, given the hot summer, with concentrated flavours of dark chocolate, black fruit, menthol, and cedar, and a dense, weighty structure. Excellent length and balance. Drinking well now.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($43.75)

MARGAUX

Margaux is the southernmost of the Haut-Médoc cru appellations, situated near the confluence of the Garonne and Gironde rivers. Vast quantities of Garonne gravel cover Margaux’s central area. This nutrient-poor soil is has excellent drainage stimulating deep vine rooting. Margaux has a marginally warmer mesoclimate than surrounding areas. The wines of the area are often described as quite velvety in texture, with floral overtones, and exotic spice nuances.

With its 1500 hectares of vines, Margaux accounts for 9% of the Médoc region’s vineyards. Among its 65 producers, Margaux has a whopping 21 classed growth châteaux – more than any other Médoc appellation. The region also boasts a number of highly regarded Cru Bourgeois estates.

Château d’Arsac Margaux 2014 (Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel) – 89pts. PW 

Château d’Arsac is a well-regarded 112-hectare property in the western part of the appellation. This blend of 53% Cabernet Sauvignon and 47% Merlot is reflective of the cooler 2014 vintage with its restrained bell pepper, dried herbal, and tart red currant aromas. The palate is far more inviting, with brisk acidity nicely balancing a broad, textural mid-palate and moderate concentration of dark fruit, graphite, and herbal flavours. Overall, a pleasant, supple wine – yet lacking the depth and opulence of top Margaux.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($38.50)

SAINT-JULIEN

Bordering the Gironde, just south of Pauillac, lies Saint-Julien. The 910 hectares of the appellation are planted on fairly uniform, gravel-rich soils. This factor is given as an explanation for the impressive concentration of classed growth estates here. Indeed, of a total 19 wine producers in Saint-Julien, 11 were included in the 1855 classification. There are no first growth vineyards in Saint-Julien, but its second growths are often referred to as “super seconds” inferring that they are worthy of first growth status. These include: Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, Chateau Gruaud-Larose, Léoville-Las Cases, Léoville-Barton, and Léoville-Poyferré.

The wines of Saint-Julien are often described as a combination of the silkiness and floral elegance of Margaux, with Pauillac’s power and heft.

Sarget de Gruaud Larose St. Julien 2016 – 94pts. LW

Sarget is the second label from Château Gruaud Larose. The 2016 cuvée is made from 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, and  4% Petit Verdot. Fragrant aromas of black plum, raspberry, violets, and exotic spice feature on the highly complex nose. The palate is full-bodied and firm, with a highly concentrated core of tangy red and black fruit, savoury notes, and subtle cedar nuances. Very polished and precise overall, with fine-grained tannins and a lengthy finish. Drinking well now, but should improve over the next eight to ten years.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($54.00)

PAUILLAC

The vineyard region of Pauillac is named for the Gironde port town of the same name. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates on the region’s gravel rich soils. However, marked variations in the depth, origin, and concentration of gravels across higher and lower lying sites leads to significant quality differences. In general terms, the wines of Pauillac are considered the most muscular and long lived of the Médoc, with notable cassis and graphite aromas.

Pauillac is the only Haut-Médoc cru appellation with two first growth estates: Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Mouton Rothschild. In all, Pauillac consists of 1213 hectares of vines, and has 18 classed growth estates.

Lacoste-Borie Pauillac 2016 – 93pts. LW

This is the second wine from fifth growth, Château Grand Puy Lacoste. The 2016 blend features 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc, aged in 45% new French oak for 15 months. Classic Pauillac aromas of cassis, dark plum, graphite, cedar, and hints of earthy, black truffle feature on the attractive, highly complex nose. The palate is lively, with a dense, full-bodied structure, and excellent depth of savoury, dark fruited flavours. Well-knit cedar nuances and firm, quite muscular tannins mark the finish. Would show best with six to eight years further cellaring, though has the power to hold nicely for another decade.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($59.00)

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

Médoc Wine
Education Reviews

WITHIN THE REGIONAL APPELLATIONS OF BURGUNDY

regional appellations of burgundy
The Regional Appellations of Burgundy Revised. Photo credit: Charnay-les-Mâcon, BIVB / Aurélien Ibanez

When the notion of terroir is evoked, Burgundy is often top of mind for wine lovers.  The painstaking work of the Cistercian monks in the Middle Ages laid down the foundations for the patchwork of unique terroirs (called climats) that define the region today.

While wine enthusiasts the world over are familiar with Burgundy’s famous village, premier cru, and grand cru AOCs, the regional appellations of Burgundy possess similarly detailed vineyard lieux-dits that are decidedly less well understood. And yet, this tier accounts for over half of total production

Burgundy Appellation Overview 

Image credit: bourgogne-wines.com

Quality-minded viticulturists and wine producers the world over have emulated the Burgundian model of carving vineyards into blocks or plots based on individual mesoclimates, soil types, and topographical features. While enthusiasts applaud this origin-specific approach, detractors suggest that creating layer upon layer of appellations, sub-appellations, single vineyards and so forth is an overcomplication in the already complex world of wine. The risk of overwhelming new consumers, already tasked with comprehending grape variety, region, and vintage differences, is indeed high.

So when I initially learned that Burgundy had formalized sub-divisions (some admittedly pre-existing, others new) within the seemingly simple Bourgogne and Mâcon AOCs, I shook my head in despair. These sub-divisions of the Bourgogne and Mâcon AOC are called Dénominations Géographiques Complémentaires (additional geographical indications, or DGIs). There are now 14 DGIs within the Bourgogne AOC and 27 DGIs within the Mâcon AOC.

Sound complicated? That is what I thought. And then, I sat down with François Labet, president of the Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB), to gain a better understanding of the regional appellations of Burgundy.

Why the Regional DGIs are Useful

Continued high demand, coupled with low production volumes for the village to grand cru tier is making Burgundy less and less attainable for the average wine lover. The idea that Burgundy has become too expensive could serve to drive consumers away, and yet a quick search on the SAQ website reveals over 100 wines at or under $25/bottle.

New wine lovers, who are perhaps familiar with Burgundy’s reputation, but lack the means (or the inclination) to spend a fortune on their first bottle, are starting at the regional level. If the essence of Burgundy is its terroir-focused, climat approach doesn’t it make sense that the regional appellations of Burgundy also reflect their wide diversity of vineyard sites?

As an example, the regional Bourgogne AOC can be used for Chardonnays or Pinot Noirs made from across a swathe of vineyards stretching from Chablis to Beaujolais. Without even considering the wide variety of soil types, altitudes, orientations, etc., the sheer difference in climate from north to south is significant.

When selecting a Bourgogne blanc, the consumer has little idea whether it will be a racy, taut Chablis style wine or a sun-baked, rounded Mâconnais look-a-like (although the latter is more likely). However, if the Bourgogne blanc carried the additional mention “Côtes d’Auxerre”, the curious oenophile could quickly establish that the wine originates from a northerly terroir, west of Chablis, giving them a far clearer idea of the potential wine style.

This is great for involved wine enthusiasts, but what of my initial concern that casual imbibers will be overwhelmed by these additional complexities?

In examining the labels of new regional appellations of Burgundy – those with DGIs – my fears were assuaged. Bourgogne (or Mâcon) remain the AOC, and the prominent mention on the label. Consumers who don’t want to delve further can simply ignore the additional geographic mentions, much as they would a cuvée name.

Also, a number of these place names, like Bourgogne’s Hautes Côtes de Beaune or Mâcon’s Lugny are far from new to Burgundy lovers. They have existed in official capacities for many years, but have now been formally classified within this DGI sub-appellation style hierarchy.

The Seven Regional Appellations of Burgundy 

The regional tier of AOC wines accounts for 52% of Burgundy’s total output. White wine reigns in terms of production, making up more than half of production. Red wine volume is 27%, Crémant makes up 21%, and rosé a mere 1%.

  1. Bourgogne AOC * – Pinot Noir (some César in the Yonne) or Chardonnay wines produced across designated vineyards from Chablis to Beaujolais
  2. Bourgogne Aligoté AOCused for white, Aligoté wines made across designated areas of the Burgundy region
  3. Bourgogne Mousseux AOCused for red sparkling wines made across designated areas of the Burgundy region
  4. Bourgogne Passe-tout-grains AOC – used for rosé and red wines made from a minimum of 1/3 Pinot Noir and maximum of 2/3 Gamay, across designated areas of the Burgundy region
  5. Côteaux Bourguignons AOC – replaces the Bourgogne Ordinaire & Grand Ordinaire appellations; covers large stretches of Burgundy, more permissible white and red grape varieties vs. Bourgogne AOC 
  6. Crémant de Bourgogne AOCused for white and rosé traditional method sparkling wines made across designated areas of the Burgundy region
  7. Mâcon AOC * – used for white (mainly) and red wines made across the Mâcon region
    • Mâcon Villages exists within the Mâcon AOC, specifically for Chardonnay wines produced in 11 Mâconnais communes  

The Bourgogne & Mâcon Geographical Indications (DGIs)

Certain vineyard areas within the regional appellations of Burgundy: Bourgogne AOC and Mâcon AOC have the right to append their name to the AOC mention, indicating to consumers that the wine comes from a specific, named area. These Bourgogne or Mâcon “plus” wines, as François Labet calls them, must meet stricter production standards in terms of yield and ripening levels.

See the list of DGIs below, you can click on each one to learn more about them.

Bourgogne AOC:

Mâcon AOC:

 

Education Reviews Wines

A WINE TASTER’S SENSE OF SMELL

wine tasters sense of smell

A wine taster’s sense of smell is their most vital faculty. I remember reading once that Robert Parker’s nose was insured to the tune of one million dollars. Fan or not, it is hard to deny the global influence Parker wielded as a wine critic from the late 1990s to early 2010s. His livelihood was contingent on an acute sense of smell; any lasting impairment of which would have very likely ended his career.

As one of the main symptoms of COVID-19, anosmia, the loss of smell, has been on my mind a lot these past months. Research conducted by Harvard Medical School suggests that permanent olfactory damage due to COVID-19 is unlikely, and that most sufferers fully regain their sense of smell within weeks of being struck ‘smell blind’.

Be this as it may, I can’t help but shudder every time I hear a story about ‘so and so’s cousin’ or ‘a friend of a friend’ that still hasn’t recovered their sense of smell months after recovering from the virus. I think about all of my colleagues in the world of wine, food, perfume, and so on who rely so wholly on their nose to perform their job. I also worry, from a purely selfish standpoint, about losing the pure pleasure of eating and drinking; two of my most beloved activities.

The Link Between Smell & Flavour

“All of what you consider flavor is smell. When you are eating, all the beautiful, complicated flavors … they are all smell.” – Venkatesh Murthy, Department Chair, Molecular and Cellular Biology, Harvard University (article link)

Our ability to taste is directly linked to our sense of smell. If our olfactory abilities are impaired, we can’t taste flavour correctly. Strictly speaking, taste refers to the primary sensations which our taste buds can identify; namely sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.

In order for flavour to develop on the palate, molecules of our food or beverage travel to the nasal cavity (via a passage that connects the nose to the back of the throat). Signals are then sent to the brain that transform these basic tastes into flavours.

How Smell Triggers Memory

The processing of smell is related to the area of the brain called the limbic system, which deals with emotion and with memory. When a scent is perceived, connections are made by the brain relating the odour to the feelings or events the person is experiencing. According to olfactory branding expert, Dawn Goldworm, smell is the only sense that is fully developed in-vitro and is the most powerful of the five senses in children (article link).

This facet of my work, plunging my nose into a glass of wine and being suddenly overtaken by a rush of nostalgia or an inexplicable feeling of quiet contentment, this is why I find wine so endlessly fascinating. The sense of joy that a great bottle of wine provides me is what spurred me on for five long years of Masters of Wine (MW) study. To have it suddenly vanish is an unimaginable.

Retraining the Nose

When I was preparing for the MW tasting exams, I found myself unconsciously training my nose throughout the day. I literally did stop and smell the roses each time I walked the dog. I nosed the coffee grounds as I filled the bodum. I sniffed the cumin and pepper jars while preparing dinner.

A common after-effect of anosmia, in those that recover any sensation, is a range of smell distortions – from finding once enjoyed smells abhorrent to perceiving certain smells differently. Various therapies exist to help the ‘smell challenged’ regain their olfactory abilities. The most popular method is simply to re-train the nose through repetitive smelling.

A sense of relief overcomes me each time the aromas waft out of my evening glass of wine. The thought of losing, and labouring to regain, these precious scents fills me with dread. Put more positively, it makes me appreciate my nose more than ever.

While I doubt my sense of smell will ever merit a one million dollar insurance policy, it is worth immeasurable riches to me.

_______________________________________________________________

Here are a trio of recently tasted, aromatic wines. If you can’t smell these fragrant beauties, a Covid-19 test might be in order!

Granbazan Etiqueta Verde Rias Baixas 2018

One of my favourite Albariño  currently on offer in Québec. Really juicy white peach, lemon zest, and grapefruit flavours on the palate, heightened by mouthwatering acidity, a rounded, textural palate and a hint of refreshing, pithy bitterness on the finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (19.60$)

Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Marlbough, New Zealand

Textbook Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc with exuberant notes of gooseberry, passion fruit, guava and fresh cut grass on the nose. Mouthwatering acidity cuts across the lightweight palate providing definition to the clean, citrussy flavours and lifting the medium length finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (21.40$)

Domaine Marcel Deiss Complantation 2018, Alsace, France

The cuvée name ‘Complantation’ refers to a traditional viticultural practice of growing a variety of different grapes within the same vineyard plot. This blend of thirteen different Alsatian grapes is so vibrant it hums. Notes of lemon, wet stone, marzipan and macerated yellow fruits leap from the glass. The palate’s crisp acidity ably balances its rounded texture and dry, fruity finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (24.80$)

 

Education Reviews Wines

COOL CLIMATE WINES…WHAT ARE THEY?

cool climate wines
Photo credit: Domaine St. Jacques

If you have spent any time chatting with wine geeks lately you may have heard them refer to certain wines as being “cool climate” in style. Perhaps you found yourself wondering, what are cool climate wines?

Vitis vinifera, the major grape vine species used to make wine, is a Mediterranean plant. It likes warm, sunny, fairly dry climates and produces abundant, ultra-ripe crops in these areas. In more marginal growing regions, the vine often struggles to fully ripen its grapes.

***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 wine education series.

What is So Special about Cool Climate Wines?

It might seem counter-intuitive to grow a plant in a climate where the ripening of its crop is a constant concern. However, Vitis vinifera is a very particular species. The old adage goes that a grape vine needs to struggle to produce great wine. While not all winemakers would agree, many top producers do share this sentiment. Stressed vines generally produce lower grape yields which ripen at a slower rate. Proponents feel that this produces wines of greater concentration and complexity.

That is not to say that struggling vines always produce better quality. In the case of cool climates, grapes that have failed to fully ripen make thin, bitter, highly acidic wines that could strip the enamel from your teeth. However, grapes that have just attained that magical balance of vibrant acidity and sufficiently sweet fruit, with skins ripe enough to have lost their tough thickness and astringent taste, can produce incredibly elegant and refreshing wines.

Cool climate wines are generally lighter in body, with lower alcohol, and higher, more mouthwatering acidity than their counterparts from warmer growing regions. The fruit flavours are often subtler, ranging from tart to fresh, with green to white fruit notes on white wines and tangy cranberry, red berry and cherry aromas on reds.

In comparison, wines from warmer climates tend to be fuller-bodied, with higher alcohol, softer acidity, and more baked or jammy fruit flavours.

What Grapes Grow Best in Cool Climates?

Major concerns in cool climate growing areas include late budding, early autumn frosts, and cold winters. Grapes that ripen early and are able to withstand winter’s chill are best suited to cool climates.

In regions with frigid winters, where the thermostat regularly dips down below -20°C, cold-hardy hybrid grape varieties are often preferred by growers. Grapes like Frontenac, Maréchal Foch, Vidal and L’Acadie Blanc are popular in the coldest parts of Canada and northern USA.

Where winter conditions are slightly milder, Vitis vinifera varieties like Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Chardonnay, Gamay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc thrive.

What Makes a Climate Cool?

According to acclaimed American wine writer Matt Kramer, “the notion of cool climate is, in many ways, a New World concept”. Kramer made this assertion during a webinar exploring the evolution of cool climate wines for this year’s virtual International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4C).

Wines have been produced in marginal climates – like Chablis and Champagne – for centuries. However, classifying wines from these regions as “cool climate” is a relatively new phenomenon; one which has grown in prominence over the past ten years.

So, what factors make a wine region cool? To date there is no formal definition or set rules as to what constitutes a cool climate. With this in mind, a second i4C webinar, led by John Szabo MS, looked at major contributing factors to cool climates.

Latitudes between 30° and 50° in the northern and southern hemispheres are generally agreed to be the areas where wine grapes can successively be cultivated. Latitude has long been used as a primary argument for climate, with wine regions closer to 50° regularly typecast as cool climate.

Various measurement tools have also been developed in an attempt to codify viticultural climates. One system, called growing degree days (GDD) measures heat accumulation over the growing season. Another, called growing season temperature (GST), measures the average monthly temperature over the 7 months of the grape growing season. According to climate experts Gregory Jones and Hans Schultz, regions with GST averages between 13 – 15c, and GDDs of 850 – 1389 are classic cool climates regions.

However, climate classifications based solely on one-size-fits-all indicators like latitude or GDDs are increasingly being called into question. Each region has its own unique geography and weather patterns. Wind circulation, altitude, soil types and colours, proximity to bodies of water capable of tempering temperature extremes…these are just a handful of factors that can significantly affect a region’s temperatures and exposure to sunlight.

Where Can I Find Cool Climate Wines?

The lighter, fresher wine styles associated with cool climates are becoming increasingly popular with wine lovers. Wine regions proclaiming themselves cool are popping up all over the world, leading to growing critical skepticism.

That being said, most wine experts agree that vineyard areas like Champagne, the Loire Valley, and Burgundy produce cool climate wines. Well known cooler areas in the USA include much of Oregon, coastal areas of Sonoma, and parts of Santa Barbara County. In Australia, Tasmania is an exciting region for cool climate wines. In New Zealand, several areas make the cut, such as the Awatere Valley in Marlborough, and parts of Central Otago.

If you want to go slightly off the beaten track, England has a growing reputation for fine cool climate sparkling wines. Here are home, Nova Scotia and Québec are also great cool climate sparkling contenders. Ontario and British Columbia each possess a number of cool climate terroirs making a wide array of cool Chardonnay, Riesling, Gamay, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir wines.

Tasting Cool Climate Wines

The series of i4C lectures discussing and debating cool climate wines and regions culminated as all great wine conversations should, with a tasting. Here are my notes on the six wines from Chablis, New Zealand, and Ontario generously supplied to me by the regions to celebrate i4C and all things cool climate.

Domaine Laroche 2018 Petit Chablis, France

Excellent as an aperitif, this light-bodied, taut Petit Chablis offers discreet earthy, yellow apple and nettle notes on the nose. White grape fruit and lime flavours provide an attractive juiciness to the nervy, high acid. Finishes bone dry.

Where to Buy: SAQ (23.45$), inquire with agent in Ontario: Select Wines

Domaine Gueguen 1er Cru Vaucoupin 2018, Chablis, France 

Very elegant premier cru Chablis, with pretty white blossoms and ripe orchard fruit notes on the nose. With a little time in the glass, underlying aromas of wet stone and white mushroom develop. The palate is defined by a firm, almost strident acidity on the attack that softens and broadens on the mid-palate. Vibrant white fruit flavours mingle with tingly saline notes that linger on the long, dry, finish.

Where to Buy: Inquire with agent Le Maitre de Chai

Villa Maria Single Vineyard Taylor’s Pass Chardonnay 2018, Marlborough, New Zealand

A really harmonious Chardonnay with bright yellow fruit aromas layered with buttered, flinty nuances and subtle toasty oak. The palate features vibrant acidity that enhances the juicy meyer lemon, passion fruit, and apricot flavours and balances the rich, round, textural palate. Pleasantly warming on the lengthy finish.

Where to Buy: LCBO (33.95$), inquire with agent in Québec: Vins Dandurand

Paddy Borthwick Chardonnay 2018, Wairarapa, New Zealand

Initially discreet nose, with an array of ripe, yellow fruit and flinty hints upon aeration. Fresh acidity provides definition to the rounded, full-bodied palate structure. Juicy stone fruits and subtle grapefruit pith bitterness on the dry, medium length finish. Slightly warming.

 Where to Buy: LCBO (25.00$)

Leaning Post Senchuk Vineyard Chardonnay 2018, Lincoln Lakeshore VQA, Niagara, Ontario 

Restrained earthy aromas on first approach, with delicate white floral, green apple, and lime hints developing after a few minutes in the glass. The racy acidity and very firm structure on this medium bodied white are balanced by a layered, textural mid-palate. Intriguing flavours of green fruits, earth and wet stone linger on the mouthwatering, dry finish. Needs 2 – 3 years cellaring to unwind.

 Where to Buy: LCBO (45.00$, 2017 vintage), leaningpostwines.com 

Legacy Willms Vineyard  Chardonnay 2017, Four Mile Creek VQA, Niagara, Ontario

A highly aromatic style of Chardonnay (potentially Chardonnay Musqué?), brimming with white peach, Bartlett pear and vanilla notes on the nose and palate. Fresh, fruity, and rounded on the palate, with medium weight and a smooth finish. Best for lovers of soft, fruit-forward Chardonnay styles.

Where to Buy: adamoestate.com/shop/

 

Education Reviews Wines

IT’S TIME TO DRINK SOUTH AFRICAN WINE

drink south african wine

It’s Time to Drink South African Wine

The Covid lock-down has been hard on wineries all across the globe. Months of sale revenues from winery tasting rooms and restaurant clients lost, stocks of unsold wines piling up. The situation for many producers is dire.

In South Africa, the circumstances are particularly challenging. For the second time since the beginning of the pandemic, domestic alcohol sales have been banned. A recent BBC article quotes South African President Cyril Ramaphosa as saying that this enforced prohibition is meant to “take pressure off the national healthcare system”.

Alcohol-related hospital visits are a significant concern in South Africa. According to Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, cited in The Economist: “admissions to trauma wards fell by 60-70% in April and May” (the first alcohol ban). The idea behind the ban is to ensure that sufficient space is freed up to dedicate hospital intensive care units to COVID-19 sufferers.

While this decision may have yielded initial, good results, increasing reports of a boom in illicit alcohol sales and home-made moonshine abound. Over the long run, these unregulated liquors may prove far more harmful to heavy drinkers. Meanwhile, South Africa’s wine industry is suffering. The Economist claims that “the first ban put 350 wine producers out of business”.

South Africa, with its rich winemaking heritage, its diverse range of regional and varietal styles, and its often impressive quality for price, has much to offer wine lovers . To learn more about South Africa’s wine history, regions and wines, check out my three-part series on The Renaissance of South African Wine.

The best way to show your support for the South African wine industry is simply to drink South African wine! To help get you started, here is a list of South African wines at all price points that I have enjoyed recently:

Robertson Winery Chenin Blanc 2019

A simple but easy drinking, every day white wine with cheerful yellow apple and melon flavours, fresh acidity, a light-bodied structure and soft, fruity finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (9.90$), LCBO (9.45$)

The Wolftrap Syrah, Mourvèdre, Viognier 2017, Western Cape

Reminiscent of a Côtes-du-Rhône red wine, The Wolftrap features baked red cherry, plum and baking spice aromas on the nose. The palate is smooth and rounded, with moderate acidity and subtle dark fruit flavours.

Where to Buy: SAQ (13.95$), LCBO (13.95$)

Man Vintners Chenin Blanc Free-run Steen 2017, Western Cape

Attractive notes of yellow fruit 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.

Where to Buy: SAQ (17.05$)

AA Badenhorst The Drifter Cinsault 2019, Swartland

A really bright, silky textured Cinsault that, served slightly chilled, is just perfect for summer. The nose offers temptingly ripe dark berry fruits, with pretty violet accents. The palate offers just enough freshness to provide lift and verve to the light, fruity core.

Where to Buy: SAQ (18.45$)

Pearce Predhomme Wild Ferment Chenin Blanc 2018, Stellenbosch

This lovely Chenin Blanc is the result of a collaborative effort between Canadian wine pros: Nicholas Pearce and Will Predhomme, and reputed South African producer: The Winery of Good Hope. It offers really bright citrus, quince, tart apple aromas and flavours. The palate features nervy acidity that provides excellent balance to the rich, layered texture and medium body. Tangy citrus and green fruit notes linger on the dry finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (22.95$)

Sijnn Low Profile 2016, Western Cape

This 100% Syrah is deep and brooding in colour, with heady aromas of macerated black fruit, blueberry, dark chocolate and exotic spice, lifted by fresh eucalyptus and floral hints. The palate is full bodied and moderately firm, with a velvety texture, and a concentrated core of ripe dark fruit. A pleasing freshness throughout and subtle, well integrated spicy oak nuances make for a very harmonious red wine.

Where to Buy: SAQ (29.95$)

Mullineux Old Vines White 2018, Swartland

A blend of mainly Chenin Blanc, with white Rhône varietals, and a splash of Sémillon Gris. Initially quite flinty, with aromas of ripe lemon, yellow apple, gooseberry, and anis developing with aeration. The palate shows lovely balance of racy acidity, lifting the weighty, creamy textured mid-palate nicely. Finishes dry, with attractive nutty flavours, and well integrated toasty oak hints. Barrel fermented with native yeasts. Aged 11 months in mainly 3rd and 4th fill French casks.

Where to Buy: LCBO (37.95$). Private import in Québec, enquire with agent: Rézin.

 

 

Education

THE IMPORTANCE OF OLD VINE VINEYARDS

old vine vineyards
Photo credit: Jim Hunneyball, Old Vine Project (South Africa)

Great wine is made in the vineyard. Ask any producer with fine wine aspirations and they will agree. A vine in balance, producing healthy, optimally ripened grapes boasting complex, concentrated flavours –  this is the winemaker’s holy grail. It is for this reason that old vine vineyards are so highly prized.

Old vines is a term seen with increasing frequency on premium wine labels. While there is no legally agreed upon definition for what constitutes old vine vineyards, several wine regions have come up with their own specifications. The Barossa Valley’s Old Vine Charter separates mature vines into four categories: from “old vines” at a minimum of 35 years old, to “ancestor vines” that have surpassed the venerable age of 125.

In South Africa, an initiative called the Old Vine Project, works to classify and protect the country’s old vine vineyards.  Project founder and renowned viticulturist Rosa Kruger and her team travel the country in search of old vine vineyards, convincing vineyard owners to preserve these important sites. In South Africa, like in the Barossa Valley, the minimum age for old vine status is 35 years.

“Young vines are exploring their soils as they build structure above and below the ground and this leads to more vigour – larger canopies, more shade, bigger crops and resulting wines that are often thinner and lighter in style”, explains Swartland wine producer Chris Mullineux. “Old vines on the other hand tend to be in better natural balance. The yields are generally lower and the resultant wine has more texture and intensity without having to pick riper or aim for extraction in the cellar”.

Rosa Kruger agrees. She firmly believes that, “age in vines brings an intensity, a perceived freshness, a texture, and a sense of place”. Old vines have a deeper, more developed root system – up to 30% according to Kruger – giving them better nutrient and water reserves, and far greater adaptability to climatic variations. They show far less vintage variation than their younger counterparts.

Old vine vineyards are an important aspect of a wine region’s heritage. In certain sectors they prove a treasure trove of lost or forgotten grape varieties. Vineyards that predate the rise of clonal selections in the 1970s offer important genetic biodiversity. The fear that Spain is losing its old vine vineyards drove Aragon wine producer Fernando Mora MW to set up “save the old vines” an association with ambitions to register and conserve older vineyard plots.

There are many reasons why old vines are in short supply in many of the world’s vineyards. Growers are often paid based on the tonnage and sugar ripeness of their crop. Younger vines generally produce more plentiful crop loads and are thus more profitable, leading to uprooting of older, lower yielding vines. Vineyards are also regularly beset by pests, viruses, fungal infections, extreme weather events and other factors that can damage the vines, shortening their lifespan.

The South African Old Vine Project places great emphasis on caring for younger vines to ensure a healthy and productive old age. To this end, they are developing a second classification to register and monitor 25 year old vines, with the aim of increasing their likelihood of achieving old vine status. Perhaps the most important idea the group espouses however, is the notion of “planting to grow old”; encouraging growers to ensure they are planting clean, virus-free vine materials.

This sentiment is echoed by French nursery man Lilian Bérillon. In the late 1990s, Bérillon found himself increasingly alarmed at the rampant disease and mortality rate in French vineyards. This led him to launch a self-proclaimed “new grapevine nursery model” in 2005. Bérillon’s approach focuses on massal selections, biodynamic practices in the propagation of his cuttings, and rigorous sorting of newly grafted plants, keeping only plants exhibiting a strong graft union and healthy root system. To ensure his new plants are free from all pests, Bérillon submits them to a laborious hot water treatment prior to sale.

Bérillon’s driving principle is simple. The only way to achieve a healthy, sustainable vineyard capable of growing old and producing high quality wines is to start with a solid foundation; namely clean, robust, genetically diverse planting material.

From the preparation of soils, to the planting of clean plant materials well suited to the site, to the meticulous care required each and every growing season, achieving healthy, old vine vineyards is no easy feat. And yet, the advantages in terms of sustainability, biodiversity, and preserving vineyard heritage are undeniable. For quality minded wine producers, the uniquely complex, characterful wines derived from old vine vineyards are ample proof of their importance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Education

THE GREATEST (ACCIDENTAL) WINE DISCOVERIES

wine discoveries

The art of winemaking dates back over 8000 years. One would think, given this long history, that the skill would have been mastered long ago. But the diversity of grape varieties, styles, regional characteristics and so forth ensure a constant evolution of vinification practices. While many of the most revered wine styles today came about though trial and error, others were little more than accidental wine discoveries.

***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 wine education series. 

When you think about it, our first encounter with wine was accidental. Historians suggest that our ape ancestors discovered alcohol roughly 10 million years ago by eating damaged fruits that had fallen from the tree and fermented. How and when humans first attempted to transform this fruit into a palatable beverage is unknown. However, the earliest evidence of organized winemaking efforts date back to the South Caucasus area (modern day Georgia) circa 6000 BC.

So many of my favourite wine styles can be considered accidental wine discoveries…

Take sparkling wine. Carbonation in wine has existed since ancient Greece and Rome. Why some wines suddenly developed bubbles and others did not was a complete mystery at the time. The effervescence was often attributed to moon phases, or even to good or evil spirits. What these early winemakers did not realize was that the wines they thought had completed fermentation, had in fact not. Once placed into sealed amphorae for sale, certain began re-fermenting, producing carbon dioxide that dissolved into the liquid making bubbles.

According to wine historian Rod Philips, it wasn’t until the 15 to 16 hundreds that sparkling wine became an intentional, commercially produced wine style. Multiple claims exist as to who invented sparkling wine. From the fabled tale of Dom Pérignon seeing stars as he tasted his fizzy creation, to the labours of Benedictine monks in Limoux, to the research trials of a British scientists, the history of sparkling wine remains laced with intrigue.

As wine discoveries go, the creation of fortified wine styles – like Port – was incredibly beneficial for the times. In the 16th and 17th century, wines were often subjected to long sea voyages to reach their customers. During the journey, they were often exposed to overly high oxygen levels and extremes of temperature that caused spoilage. Through out Europe it became common practice to add brandy to the wine casks just before shipping. Brandy was found to act as a preservative – keeping the wine fresher for longer. Upon tasting the richer, sweeter, higher alcohol wines, customers found that they rather liked them and a new wine style was born.

The positive effects that oak ageing can have on wine quality was also among the greatest of accidental wine discoveries. Oak can impart pleasant aromas and flavours to wines, such as cedar, vanilla, and spicy notes. It can also soften wines’ tannins and give a rounder, smoother mouthfeel over time. But these benefits were not the original reasons for maturing wine in oak. Oak barrels were originally used to transport wine. They were lighter for Roman troops to carry than clay amphorae, as they moved further and further afield from Rome. Oak was plentiful in European forests, and a soft enough wood to easily bend into barrel shape.

Just like penicillin, microwave ovens, pacemakers, super-glue, the slinky…some of our greatest inventions in wine have come about entirely by accident. Perhaps with the hands off approach of today’s minimum intervention winemakers, the next accidental wine innovation is in the making.

 

 

 

Education Life

Fast & Easy Ways to Remove Red Wine Stains

Red wine stains can signal the end of your favourite shirt, or your pristine white couch. Around my house, red wine stains are a frequent occurrence! I have tried pretty much every method I know of to get rid of red wine stains – from white wine, to club soda, to salt – and none of them really work. Thankfully, I finally discovered a fast, easy and super effective method to remove red wine stains.

Check out the video below to learn more…and while you are at it, why not click the little subscribe button in the bottom right hand corner so you never miss an episode of my wine education YouTube series!

Education Reviews Wines

THE TROUBLE WITH NATURAL WINE FANATICS…

natural wine fanatics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why can’t we just drink and let drink?

Speaking of which…let’s get to the wines. A handful of the producers that really impressed me at Raw Wine Montréal and various other recent tastings of natural or low interventionist winemakers include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Education Reviews

The Sunshine Wine from Washington State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to Buy: SAQ (25.30$)

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

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

Where to Buy: SAQ (19.45$)

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

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

Where to Buy: SAQ (26.00$)

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

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

Where to Buy: SAQ (18.00$)

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

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

Where to Buy: SAQ (25.15$)

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

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

Where to Buy: SAQ (25.35$)

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

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

Where to Buy: SAQ (57.00$)

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

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

Where to Buy: SAQ (57.00$)