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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.

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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$)

Education Reviews

AFFORDABLE FINE WINE ALTERNATIVES

Affordable Fine Wine Alternatives

AFFORDABLE FINE WINE ALTERNATIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to buy: SAQ, 25.65$

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

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

Where to buy: SAQ, 19.70$

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

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

Where to buy: SAQ, 22.10$

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

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

Where to buy: SAQ, 29.60$

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

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

Where to buy: SAQ, 30.25$

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

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

Where to buy: SAQ, 25.25$

Education

UPDATE: FREE TRADE FOR CANADIAN WINES

free trade canadian wines

UPDATE: Free Trade for Canadian Wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

free trade canadian wines

FREE TRADE FOR CANADIAN WINE

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

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

Why you ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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