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The Mighty South West

Photo credit: IVSO / P. Poupart
Photo credit: IVSO/ P. Poupart

From a Canadian’s perspective, France is a small country. 15 times smaller to be specific. A mere blip on the world map. Yet in terms of wine output, France is enormous. Not only in terms of sheer quantity, but also the diversity of wine styles, the number of producing regions and so on. Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne have become household names, even for you reasonable folks out there that don’t spend all of your waking moments thinking about wine. The oceans of wine coming out of the Languedoc have also assured this area pretty good visibility on the world stage. And the Loire and Rhône Valleys, with appellations like Sancerre and Châteauneuf-du-pape respectively, can hold their own quite nicely. But there is another vast wine producing area that often gets forgotten…

The South West of France is the 5th largest vineyard area in France with 47 000 hectares of vines. It cups Bordeaux to the south and east (of the right bank), extends to the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and continues south to the Spanish border and the Pyrénées mountains. The region is often a little too neatly summed up as being a cheaply priced Bordeaux alternative. While many good value Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends are to be had from places like Bergerac and the Côtes du Marmandais, there is a wealth of other grape varieties and wine styles out there.

There are 29 designated AOP (protected appellations) and 14 IGP (vin de pays) growing areas.  As well as the two mentionned above, the best known appellations, and easiest to find on most international markets, include: Madiran and Cahors (best known for their big, bold reds), AOP Fronton (lighter, violet scented reds), AOP Gaillac (where everything from still to sparkling to sweet white, rosé and red are crafted) and AOP Jurançon (where prized late harvest, sweet white wine is made). The largest territory however, is that of IGP Côtes du Gascogne, where crisp, lively, easy drinking white wines are the mainstay. Due to the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean, these wines often take on an intriguing saline note that adds to their refreshing appeal.

Given the size of the region and the diverse climate conditions and soil types, it is only natural that the grapes that grow well in one area are not suited to another.  Over 300 different varieties are grown here, with just over half native to the area. The majority of AOC wines, and many IGP wines are blends. I will give you a quick over view of some of the major players, and where to find them.

GAILLAC  COTES DU TARN                   Photo credit: IVSO/ P. Poupart

White Wine

Colombard – a major player in the production of IGP wines like Côtes de Gascogne and also in in the digéstif Armagnac. When over cropped it produces a fairly neutral white. The best examples have intense exotic fruit aromas, light body and moderate acidity.

Chenin Blanc – widespread in the eastern appellations and IGPs of the South West. Highly appreciated for its fruity, floral palate of aromas, medium body and bright acidity

Gros Manseng – a major blending component in many IGP Côtes de Gascogne, as well as dry Jurançon and Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl whites. Gros Manseng gives vibrancy and spicy notes.

Mauzac – adaptable to a wide variety of wine styles, it is used for sparkling, and still, dry and sweet wines, principally around the Gaillac area. It gives fresh orchard fruit in youth, and honeyed notes with age.

Petit Manseng – related to Gros Manseng, this grape has smaller berries with thicker skins, generally producing wines with greater aromatic complexity. The grape has the ability to produce high sugar levels while retaining fresh acidity; perfect for the sweet Jurançon dessert wines.

Sauvignon Blanc – used either as a single grape, notably in IGP designations, and as a blending element in several AOPs (Béarn, Tursan, Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl). The grape gives its characteristic citrus, gooseberry, cat pee notes as well as vibrant acidity.

Red Wine

Cabernet Franc (Bouchy, Acheria) – Though widely grown in Bordeaux and the Loire, this grape actually originated in Basque country. Slightly less tannic and more red fruit scented than its offspring Cabernet Sauvignon, it nevertheless provides good structure to red blends from many AOP & IGP regions (notably Madiran, Fronton, Irouléguy)

Cabernet Sauvigon – A second stringer in the South West. It provides fragrant cassis notes, firm tannins and deep colour. It is found in the same appellations as Cabernet Franc.

Duras – One of the most oldest grapes grown in the Tarn Valley. It is a major player in Gaillac, giving finesse, deep colour, moderately firm tannins and a fruity, peppery perfume.

Fer Servadou (Fer, Pinenc, Braucol, Mansois) – Similar aromatics and structure to Cabernet Sauvignon. Blending component in many appellations, notably Marcillac, Béarn & Gaillac.

Gamay – Off spring of Pinot Noir, the Burgundian grape Gamay is bright, fresh and very red fruit driven. It is a blending component in Gaillac and many surrounding appellations.

Malbec (Cot) – Originally from the South West, Cot (as it is called there) is the principal grape in the Cahors appellation. It produces densely coloured, full bodied, structured wines with black fruit aromatics, moderately fresh acidity and firm, chewy tannins. Well crafted versions have great aging potential.

Merlot – Also offspring of Cabernet Franc (like Cabernet Sauvignon), Merlot makes an excellent blending component due to its fleshy mid-palate, rounded tannins and fragrant plum aromas. It is notably grown in Cahors as a minor blending component.

Négrette – The major grape of the Fronton appellation. It is a parent to Malbec. Négrette brings attractive violet notes, and sometimes animal and leather undertones. Fruity and medium bodied with moderate tannins, it is an ideal grape for rosé and easy drinking reds.

Syrah – A blending component in appellations like Fronton, Syrah brings elegance, fine tannins, black fruit and spiced notes.

Tannat – The principle red grape of Madiran. Named for its very firm tannic structure, the grape gives full-bodied, deeply coloured, raspberry scented reds that generally require a little time to unwind

1.ESTAING   CAHORS Photo credit: IVSO/ P. Poupart

Great Wines to Try

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

Chateau Montauriol Prestige AOP Fronton 2013 – 89pts. VW

This blend of 55% Negrette, 25% Syrah, 20% Cabernet Franc is just delicious. Attractive aromas of plum, kirsch and pepper on the nose. The palate is lively, medium bodied, showing moderate depth and complexity, with lingering dried fruit, floral and pepper flavours. Firm, yet ripe tannins frame the finish. The cedar oak imprint is quite subtle.

Where to Buy: SAQ (18.10$)

Château Montus AOP Madiran 2010 – 92pts. PW

Consistent high quality is a feature of this estate. A blend of 80% Tannat and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, this big, brooding red features complex aromatics of cherry, spice, prune and dark chocolate. Full bodied, densely structured yet velvetty on the palate, with chewy tannins and harmonious cedar oak. Long, layered finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (30.25$), LCBO (35.45$)

Château Montus AOP Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh 2011 – 91pts. PW

Made from 80% Petit Courbu, a little known grape from the obscure appellation of Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, this cuvée is absolutely worth discovering. Smoky citrus notes feature on the nose. Fresh, long and layered on the palate with lots of creamy lees character and well integrated toasty oak. Very stylish!

Where to Buy: SAQ (24.85$), LCBO (35.45$)

Odé d’Aydie AOP Madiran 2012 – 87pts. VW

Attractive aromas of fresh red cherries, with floral and spice undertones. Medium bodied, with lively, balanced acidity, firm tannins and subtle oak. No great aging potential, but pleasant every day drinking quality.

Where to buy: SAQ (19.35$)

Château de Gaudou “Renaissance” AOP Cahors 2012 – 87pts. PW

Pleasant earthy, animal notes on the nose, underscoring the fresh red and black fruit aromatics. Fresh acidity, full body, with attractive spiced, oak notes on the finish. This cuvée falls down a little on the finish due to the green, bitter edge on the tannins.

Where to buy: SAQ (22.85$), LCBO (25.95$)

Domaine du Tariquet “Classic” IGP Côtes de Gascogne 2015 – 88pts VW

At only 10.5% alcohol, this is a great option for an every day house white. It is light, refreshing, crisp and lively, with lots of citrus and floral notes. Fairly simple, but nice for the price.

Where to buy: SAQ (12.95$)

South West Vineyard photos, courtesy of IVSO/ P. Poupart

Education Life

Veneto Travel Diaries Part 5 – Valpolicella 101

Valpolicella

Valpolicella…land of wine, charm and tradition. So proclaims the Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella, responsable for the marketing and promotion of the region. And they are not wrong. Those three descriptors aptly sum up what awaits you when you arrive in this sunny paradise. Lush green hillsides and plains covered in vines, cherry and olive trees, farmers out tending to their crops and ancient stone villages boasting delicious trattorias.

The vineyards of Valpolicella lie in the province of Verona in Northeastern Italy. There are three distinct areas. Firstly, the “Classico” region, the historic heart of the appellation which consists of three major valleys (Fumane, Marano and Negrar). This area is slightly higher in altitude than the outlying DOC area and benefits from optimal ripening conditions. “Classico” on a label of Valpolicella is generally a good indication of quality, although increasingly producers from the outlying areas further to the east (Valpantena and the generic Valpolicella DOC area) are now producing excellent wines.

Valpolicella is red wine country. All of the wines are blended from the same set of indigenous grapes featuring the prerequisite Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella. Corvina is the major grape. It gives structure, body, bright acidity and attractive cherry and herbal notes to the wines. Its thick skin is a vital quality for the appassimento process (more on this later). Corvinone was originally thought to be a clone of Corvina, but has been proven to be a separate variety. The bunches are looser, with bigger grapes. It gives heady, perfumed wines, redolent with cherry and floral notes. Molinara is the minor player, accounting for 5 – 30% of blends. It is also a fairly aromatic grape, with the necessary thick skins. Small amounts of lesser known varieties like Molinara and Oseleta are sometimes thrown in for seasoning. Each producer will determine their own blend (within the DOC regulations), depending on what grows best in their vineyard, and what style they are looking to craft.

Corvina…gives structure, body, bright acidity and attractive cherry and herbal notes…

There are two key elements that make the wines of Valpolicella so enticing. Firstly, there is incredible value for money on offer here. While Tuscany and Piedmont enjoy greater international renown, the producers of Valpolicella have quietly but surely ramped up quality, while keeping the prices nice! Secondly, the region boasts unique winemaking methods resulting in a range of wine styles from light and fruity to rich and full-bodied.

As with so many classic, Old World wine regions, the wine classifications are best understood by picturing a multi-tiered pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, you have basic Valpolicella DOC. This is your every day, barbeque wine. It is lively, with tart cherry fruit flavours, medium body and smooth tannins. Served slightly chilled, it is dangerously drinkable. The next step up the pyramid brings us to Valpolicella Superiore DOC. These “superior” wines are aged a minimum of one year in oak or other wood vessels, and have a minimum alcohol content of 12%. They retain the bright, fruit driven character of the basic level, but with a little more depth and persistence. Ripasso della Valpolicella DOC offers even greater concentration and complexity. The vinification technique for Ripasso is unique. Dry base wines are made in the same manner as basic Valpolicella. Several months later, the base wine is transferred into a tank containing the leftover pommace of grape skins from the vinification of another wine, the Amarone. These skins are still rich in sugars and yeasts, provoking a second fermentation for the Valpolicella. The wine is “repassed” (hence the name Ripasso). This process adds glycerol (leading to a rounder mouthfeel), gives richer flavours and higher alcohol levels.

At the top of the pyramid, we have the two DOCG wines: Amarone della Valpolicella and Recioto della Valpolicella. This is where the “appassimento” process comes into play. Appassimento is the act of drying grapes for an extended period so that 40% or more of the water evaporates, resulting in shrivelled berries rich in flavour and sugar. The Amarone destined grapes are dried for 90 to 120 days on average, in large drying lofts designed to permit good air circulation. The bunches are carefully inspected throughout the process to ensure they remain in good condition, free of moulds that would taint the flavour. The raisined bunches are then carefully transferred to tanks or large wooden vats for fermentation, followed by long aging (2 years for Amarone, 4 years for Amarone Riserva) in large, generally neutral wood casks. The wine is opulent, bold, rich, full bodied, highly alcoholic, generally over 15% and often up to 17%. These are reds to cellar for 7 – 12 years and serve with savoury, hearty fare. Recioto winemaking begins in the same way, but the drying period is longer (120 to 150 days on average), and instead of then fermenting the wines dry, the process is halted mid-way to give a rich, concentrated, cherry and dried fruit scented, sweet wine (often up to 150g/L of residual sugar).

The wine is opulent, bold, rich, full bodied, highly alcoholic…best served with savoury, hearty fare.

Recioto is the oldest wine style of the area with a history dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The “Retico” was the wine of choice for the emperor Augustus, and the pride of all growers. It was in crafting this fine nectar that the Amarone style was (accidently) born. Amarone derives from the Italian word for bitter, and was the adjective used when the Recioto was occasionally left too long during fermentation with all of the sugar transformed to alcohol. The dry, alcoholic wine was considered overly bitter and generally thrown away. Not until the 1050s did opinions change and the Amarone style become appreciated in its own right.

Valpolicella is a storied region, with a long history of crafting unique, captivating wines. From light and fruity to heady and rich, there is a wine for every palate. Try this local recipe with a glass of Ripasso or Amarone and you will be packing your bags for Verona!

http://www.amaronetours.it/wines/amarone/amarone-recipes-risotto

 

Education

a nerdy little guide to tannin descriptions

Grapes on sorting table

If you read enough tasting notes, you will know that there is a whole language of descriptive words for things like acidity, mouthfeel, structure, and none more so than tannin. They are useful tools to describe a wine as precisely as possible. Some adjectives are fairly obvious, like silky or chewy, giving you an immediate sense of how they would play across your palate. Other terms are a little more obscure.

I was finding myself a little baffled by the majority of different tannin descriptors that I had heard or seen used…so, after talking to a number of MWs, winemakers, wine critics, etc., I decided to compile this nerdy little guide.

LEVELS

Low: soft, light, delicate, fine

Medium: moderate

High: big, massive, powerful

TYPES

Though there are no hard and fast rules, the following terms are most often used to describe a specific level of tannin. They are therefore (roughly) grouped by level.

Generally Associated with Light to Medium Tannin

Silky: Glides across the palate leaving little trace (ie. Burgundian Pinot Noir in ripe years)

Rounded: Well integrated, ripe and smooth. No harsh edges. Similar terms: supple, smooth.

Powdery: quantity of fine tannins that spread out all across the tongue & mouth (ie. Grenache dominant Châteauneuf-du-pape & Priorat)

Generally Associated with Medium to High Tannins

Velvetty: smooth textured; slightly more present than silky tannin (ie. Argentinian Malbec)

Plush: similar to velvetty, with a notion of richness/ sweetness (ie. Merlot – Pomerol, St. Emilion, Napa Valley, etc.)

Fine grained: firmly structured yet smooth (ie. High quality left bank Bordeaux)

Polished: smooth, seamless. Like silky but with more structure (ie. Zinfandel, some modern Rioja styles).

 Sinewy: like muscular but slightly more lean (ie. St. Estèphe)

Chalky: a shade rougher and thicker than powdery (ie. good quality Chianti, certain Argentinian Cabernet Sauvignons)

Grainy: slightly astringent, rough edged like sand (ie. cheap Chianti). Similar terms: sandy.

 Generally Associated with Very High Tannins

Chewy: coats the sides of the mouth, feels present and weighty enough to chew (ie. Douro red blends, Côte Rôtie, Hermitage)

Chunky: big, powerful and bulky…like chewy but bigger (ie. Barossa Shiraz, Aglianico)

Muscular: powerfully chalky tannins; generally associated with young wine. Similar terms: assertive (ie. Premium Napa Cabernet Sauvignon).

 Grippy: tannin that sticks to the sides of your mouth (ie. Barolo)

 Angular: tannins that hit one particular spot on your palate; jagged (ie. Bordeaux in lean years)

General Descriptors

These terms can apply to one or more tannin levels.

Unresolved vs. Resolved: Very firm, tightly knit referring to a young, highly tannic wine vs. softer, more mellow tannins after a period of ageing

Ripe: lack of any green, astringent or drying sensation

Firm: solid, unyielding. Generally medium + to high tannin wines. Similar terms: dense, tightly-knit.

Broad: opposite of firm. Generally medium to medium minus tannin wines.

Negative Descriptors

Often due to under ripe tannins or excessive extraction of bitter tannins (from seeds and/ or stems)

Harsh: rough and aggressive like sandpaper; drying. Similar terms: hard

Rustic/ Coarse: similar to harsh or aggressive, but slightly less damning

Aggressive: overly dominant, throwing off balance. Unpleasant. Similar terms: rigid.

Astringent: bitter and drying

Stalky: green, unripe, astringent

Education

French wine grape pronunciation guide

La Tache and Latour Wines

I often get asked how to pronounce French grape variety names.  They are tricky for our anglo tongues…lots of silent letters and emphasize on different syllables than we would use.  While no one expects you to go into the store and put on a Pepé Le Pew accent, getting fairly close to the actual pronunciation always makes you feel a little classier.

So here is a quick cheat sheet.

Just as a little guide, wherever possible I have tried to use real English words, so “are” is really pronounced “they are late for dinner” and not in any other fancy way you might come up with like “air” or “aré”. If I couldn’t come up with a real word, I have made up phonetic spellings.

Chardonnay = Shard-oh-nay (started with an easy one)

Sauvignon Blanc = Sew-vee-nyo* Blo* (Both o’s are pronounced the same way as the o in honest…I swear.. Don’t pronounce the n or c at the end.  Blanc does not rhyme with plonk.)

Chenin Blanc = Sheh-nuh Blo* (The Sheh noise is like the beginning of the word shed. See Sauvignon, above, for blanc pronunciation.)

Viognier= Vee-oh-knee-eh (Say that 10 times fast, emphasis on the VEE, and you’ll have it!)

Marsanne = M-are-san

Roussanne = Rue-san

Sémillon = Semi-yo* (Again with the honest o)

Gewürztraminer = Guh-vurts-tram-eener

Pinot Gris = Pee-no Gree

Pinot Blanc = Pee-no Blo* (See Sauvignon, above, for blanc pronunciation)

Riesling = Reeze-ling

Cabernet Sauvignon = Ca-bear-nay Sew-vee-nyo* (Same Sauvignon pronunciation as the Blanc. I also alert your attention to the u after the a in Sauvignon. There is no grape called Cab Sav.)

Cabernet Franc = Ca-bear-nay Fro* (Again…o like honest. Don’t pronounce the n or c. Rhymes with blanc, not with honk)

Merlot = Mur-low

Pinot Noir = Pee-no Nw-are

Syrah = See-ruh (I regularly hear Se-RAW.  The emphasis is on the first syllable, people)

Grenache = Gre-nash

Mourvèdre = More-ved-druh (keep the uh sound very soft)

Carignan = Ca-ree-nyo* (again with that honest o)

Petit Verdot = Put-ee V-air-doe (put as in “put your empty bottles in the recycling bin”)

Cinsault = San-so (the first word is like the beginning of the word “sand”, but don’t quite pronounce the n…it’s as though you were on the verge and then stopped)

Gamay = Think you can guess that one for yourself…

Education Reviews Wines

A Tasting Tour of Spain

Tio Pepe Cellars

Last Thursday, I attended La Grande Dégustation tasting event in Montréal. The theme country this year is Spain. For the country with the largest surface area under vine in the world, I do not devote nearly as much time as I should to tasting its wines. In the past, if given just two words to describe Spanish wines, I would have said oak and alcohol.  While this is not entirely untrue, I knew that my predjudice was based on vast over generalization so I decided to spend some time at the show on a tasting tour of Spain.

I started in Penedès, with a glass or three of bubbles. Cava is predominantly white (though rosé exists) and made in much the same way as Champagne. The major differences are the terroir and the grapes. In Cava, the native varieties Macabeu, Xarel-lo and Parellada dominate. Just as the right ingredients simmered together create the singular flavour of a delicious dish, each grape brings unique attributes that when blended, make a harmonious finished wine. Macabeu, the main player, is fairly neutral with subtle floral and lemon aromas and a touch of bitter almond on the finish. Doesn’t sound that exciting? Just think of it as the base…like homemade stock before you’ve added any salt or seasoning herbs. Xarel-lo (pronounced cha-re-low) is more overtly aromatic and fuller bodied. Parellada gives searing acidity and pronounced green apple and citrus notes. Bone dry (Brut Nature and Extra Brut) Cava exists, as do slightly sweet, off-dry (Semi Seco) styles. The majority of bottlings however, are Brut – no perceptible sweetness; just fruity and rounded. For the most part, Cava doesn’t have the finesse or ageing potential of Champagne, but it is generally good value “every day” fizz.

Just as the right ingredients simmered together create the singular flavour of a delicious dish, each grape brings unique attributes that when blended, make a harmonious finished wine.

My next stop was way down south in Andalucía, for some dry Sherry (aka Jerez). If you think Sherry is a sweet, sticky wine only good for cooking or as a gift for your grandmother, drink again. There is a huge range of apéritif styles from the delicate, bone dry Finos to the richly concentrated Oloroso. Dry Sherry is made from the native Palamino grape. What makes it so special is the ageing process. In Fino Sherry, the just fermented wine is fortified to ~15% alcohol, and then transferred to large, old oak barrels filled up 5/6 full. The empty space at the top allows for the development of a film of yeast called flor. This yeast covering protects the wine from oxidation and creates a unique flavour profile of pale, fresh, yet nutty wines with an intriguing salty tang. Oloroso Sherry is fortified to 17.5% alcohol; a level at which flor yeast cannot develop. These wines undergo highly oxidative ageing resulting in darkly coloured, powerful, dry whites with intense raisiny, nutty flavours.

On to cool, rainy north western Galicia for some lively whites. The Albariño grape (aka Alvarinho in Portugal) is the main variety grown in the coastal Rías Baixas DO. When well-made it is a total hedonistic pleasure to drink: bright peach, apricot and floral aromas, vibrant acidity, light bodied and smooth with moderate alcohol; really juicy and fun. Fleshier, creamy, oaked versions exist that can be totally delicious, but the lighter versions are more common. A 3 hour drive inland takes us to the Valdeorras DO; Godello country. While current plantings remain fairly low in the scheme of Spanish wine output, the grape has seen a surge in popularity internationally. And what’s not to like? The slatey soils of Valdeorras give Godello with pretty apple, pear and subtle peach notes, crisp acidity, full, layered texture and a mineral-tinged finish.

Time for the Spanish heavy-weight: Rioja DOC. The pronounced vanilla aromas in Rioja come from long ageing in American oak barrels, bought as staves and crafted by local barrelmakers. Historically, Rioja producers aged their wines for incredibly long periods before release; sometimes upwards of 20 years. Nowadays, the trend is toward fruitier, fresher wines less marked by age and oak. Many wineries are even using French oak, or a mix of both, to give a slightly more subtle, integrated oak profile. Styles are based on grape quality (vineyard site and harvest date) and length of ageing. The youngest wines, called simply Rioja or Joven, are aged less than a year in oak (if at all). The oldest and most prized wines, only made in the best vintages, are the Gran Reservas. They are aged a minimum of 2 years in oak and 3 years in bottle before release. The major grape in red Rioja blends is Tempranillo. It is a bold wine with moderate acidity, bright cherry and leather aromas, medium to high alcohol and big, chewy tannins. The younger wines are generally softer and simpler, while the Gran Reservas are a full throttle experience.

In the Ribera del Duero DO, the same grape reigns supreme but offers quite a different taste experience. There are several reasons for this. Firstly because a different clone of Tempranillo, called Tinto Fino, is grown here.  Secondly, the high altitude (800m plateau) gives wide fluctuations in temperature from hot days to cool nights giving the wines bold flavours while preserving fresh acidity. Lastly, the supporting grapes are not the same. Whereas Rioja’s second stringers include Garnacha (Grenache), Graciano and Mazuelo, Ribera del Duero blends often include a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec. Roughly the same ageing categories exist as in Rioja. The best Ribera del Duero reds today are dark and inky in colour, concentrated and full bodied with intense, dark berry fruit and mocha notes. Alcohol levels can get quite high here, but the quality wines have enough fruit, body and structure to match.

In the Priorat DOC, south west of Barcelona, old vine Garnacha gives rich, powerful red blends. Cariñena (Carignan in France), Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are the seasoning grapes. Priorat, with its hot, dry climate and extremely low vigour soils, boasts some of the lowest yields of any top quality vineyards world-wide, at a mere 5 hl/ha (Grand Cru Burgundy = 25 hl/ha). The wines are incredibly concentrated with explosive cherry, tar and licorice aromas. Alcohol is also pretty massive in Priorat, but again, is well-balanced in the top wines.

Here are the stand out wines from my little tour (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out):

Segura Viudas Heredad NV – 86pts. PW

Pretty aromas of pear and brioche, with subtle nutty and floral notes. Zesty acidity, light body and creamy mousse, with a lifted citrus finish.  Pleasant, easy drinking fizz. Drinking well now. 

Grapes: Macabeu, Parelleda

Where to Buy: LCBO (29.95$)

Gonzalez Byass “Tres Palmas” Fino Jerez – 93pts. LW

González Byass, leading Sherry bodega, crafted this beautiful example of an aged Fino on the cusp of becoming Amontillado. Aged for 10 years, the flor has just about run its course, allowing for gentle oxidation. Deep old gold in colour, seductive notes of toffee, walnuts, caramel and marmelade mark the nose. Dry, with crisp acidity, an almost viscous mouth-feel and complex, woody notes on the lengthy finish.

Grapes: Palamino

Where to Buy: SAQ (47.00$, 500mL bottle)

La Caña Albariño Jorge Ordonez 2014 (Rias Baixas DO) – 89pts. PW

Really gluggable; with ripe peach, apricot and citrus aromas. Very fruit-driven on the palate, with balancing acidity. Light and subtly creamy through the mid-palate with just a hint of toasty oak on the finish. This is sure to be a crowd pleaser. 

*** I also highly recommend Jorge Ordonez more premium La Caña Navia old vine Albariño, as well as his Godellos, under the Avancia label. Totally delicious. 

Grapes: Albariño

Where to Buy: SAQ (22.95$)

Marqués de Riscal Reserva 2011 (Rioja DOC) – 91pts. PW

Fantastic value from one of the oldest and most reputable bodegas in Rioja. Inviting aromas of blueberry, black cherry, leather and animal notes on the nose. Bold, with a firm yet velvetty structure, fresh acidity, great depth of flavour and big, chewy tannins. Toasty, cedar and vanilla notes attest to the two years ageing in American oak, but accentuate rather than dominate the finish. 

*** If you want to splurge, the 2005 Gran Reserva is a beautifully complex and layered wine, but I found the oak a little overpowering, slightly drying out the finish.

Grapes: Tempranillo, Graciano, Mazuelo

Where to Buy: LCBO (24.55$), SAQ (22.95$)

Tamaral “Finca la Mira” Reserva 2009 (Ribera del Duero DO) – 89pts. LW

Produced from 100-year old vines from the Finca la Mira vineyard, this Reserva is redolent with floral notes, jammy dark berries, tobacco, leather and hints of mixed spice. Powerful, dense and concentrated with lively acidity and ripe, grippy tannins.  The oak plank and cedar notes from 2-years ageing in French oak are a little overpowering on the finish; disappointing considering the ultra appealing nose and attack. Needs further cellaring or a few hours decanting…and a nice steak to soften the tannin and mask the oak.

Grapes: Tinto Fino

Where to Buy: Not currently available, through the Tamaral Crianza offers decent value: SAQ (24.30$)

Education

Gigondas. The Other Southern Rhône Red.

Gigondas Meffre

I spent a fantastic day back in Gigondas last week tasting the 2013 vintage. It felt like I had never left. The Dentelles de Montmirail Mountains still tower majestically over the village. The beautiful old stone buildings, church and hospices are utterly unchanged. A town seemingly frozen in time…   But appearances can be deceptive. Gigondas’ 180+ growers are working hard to show the world that Châteauneuf-du-pape isn’t the only name in the Southern Rhône game.

Gigondas does indeed have ancient origins. The town, then named Jocunditas (meaning pleasure and enjoyment), was established in Roman times as a recreational retreat for soldiers. With such a long, rich history and impressive terroir, why isn’t Gigondas better known? Well, for starters, there just isn’t much of it to go around. At just over 1200 hectares planted, Gigondas is roughly 1/3 of the size of Châteauneuf-du-pape, with yields as low as Grand Cru Burgundy. Secondly, prominent Châteauneuf-du-pape grower, Baron Le Roy Boiseaumarié, was instrumental in the creation of the appellation of origin (AOC) system in France. Unsurprisingly this famed vineyard was one of the first to receive AOC status. Neighbouring, rival vineyard Gigondas did not attain similar single cru standing until 35 years later, in 1971. Not that I’m implying any sort of correlation there…

So what is it that makes Gigondas so darn special? I could come up with a long list of reasons, but two key factors stand out: altitude and geology. It is hot in the Southern Rhône in the summer time….really, really HAAAAWT. On the flat to gentle slopes of most of the regions’ vineyards, the Grenache grapes can easily reach over 16% alcohol. The wines, while often beautifully rich and concentrated, are about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Gigondas plantings vary from 100m to 430m in altitudes from the lower plateaux to the top of the Dentelles Mountains, with the majority of vineyards oriented north. This brings a cooling influence, infusing the wines with greater elegance, more fresh acidity, pretty floral notes and less baked fruit aromatics. The Dentelles Mountains rose to their lofty heights over 200 million years ago, around the same time as the Alps and the Pyrenees. The varied vineyard soils span 3 geological eras from limestone of the Mesozoic era, to sandy and limestone-marl soils of the Cenozoic period, to stony, gravel soils of the Quaternary era. In all of the Rhône Valley, only Hermitage can claim greater soil diversity

Not content to make the same wines from père en fils, the growers of Gigondas are constantly innovating and improving. They meet once a year in July to collectively blind taste each other’s previous vintage wines, rate them and give constructive notes. It is an incredible, teeth staining event with 60 + wines analyzed. They are also fighting to amend the cru’s AOC rules to include white wine. Currently only red and rosé wines can be labelled Gigondas. Locals feel this to be a travesty. The sandy soil skirting the foothills of the Dentelles is the ideal terroir for top class Clairette. The cooler, higher altitude parcels of limestone-marl give fresh, mineral-rich white Grenache, Marsanne and Roussanne. The resultant blends are incredibly vibrant, textured and complex whites that can legally only be sold as Côtes du Rhône today.

While you may need to wait a few more years to enjoy Gigondas whites, there is a fine selection of reds available throughout Canada. Given the exceptional quality, these wines are often a bargain at 30$ – 50$ a bottle.

Some excellent producers to look out for include*:

  • On the lighter, more elegant side (majority of plantings on higher altitude sites in the Dentelles): Domaine de Bosquets, Domaine de la Bouïssière, Château Saint Cosme, Perrin « La Gille », Pierre Amadieu
  • On the richer, more concentrated side (majority of plantings on southern facing slopes, or lower lying sites): Domaine Santa Duc, Domaine Brusset, Domaine de Longue Toque, Moulin de la Gardette

* I haven’t included my tastings notes here as the 2013 vintage is not yet available in the market. I can make them available on request however.

Education

And Now for Something Completely Different

Italian Vineyard

Italy, as you may know, is the largest wine producer in the world. Wine is literally made in every region of the country….a boast regularly made by our American friends….but who was actually tried one of the famed Tempranillos of Texas? And while we might naturally be inclined to praise the Romans for their industry, it was actually the Etruscans and Greeks that started vineyard cultivation here. It is perhaps due to this long history and proud heritage, that the Italians have maintained a rich diversity of indigenous grape varieties. Roughly 350 different grapes have official, recognized status, and there are said to be another 500 or so in production. So while you may know and love Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, or the grapes in Valpolicella blends…how many of you are familiar with Sagrantino, Falanghina or Negroamaro?

At the Italian Wine Trade Commission tasting in Montréal last week, I was fortunate to taste a variety of the weird and wonderful lesser-known Italian grapes and blends. Most of the wines are sadly not imported into Canada yet, so I won’t cite the winemakers. I will however list some of the more interesting grapes and regions that you should look out for. Next time you head to your local store, ask the staff to dig you up one of these to impress your friends (or make them think that you are an obnoxious wine geek):

Whites

Pallagrello Bianco

An obscure grape grown in the Campania region (the front part of the ankle in the Italian boot). It might be a stretch for your average liquor store to find you one of these, but you’ll feel wine savvy asking! This grape is often found in blends; sometimes as a single varietal. On its own, Pallagrello is often likened to Viognier; though styles can vary depending on ripeness and oak treatment. I tried an unoaked, medium bodied example that was fresh and lively, with bright lemon aromas, subtle floral and peach undertones; showing good balance and a clean finish. This is a fairly simple, every day style of wine; perfect for summer aperitifs when you are sick of the same old Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc!

Falanghina

This might be a little more familiar territory for some. It should be fairly easy to find one or two to try in bigger liquor stores. This is also a Campanian grape, sometimes compared with Pinot Grigio, though the best examples show a little more complexity. I sipped my way through a few of these, and found the best ones were medium bodied, with crisp acidity and moderate alcohol. Aromas of apple, citrus blossom dominated, with lovely spice and mineral touches and the characteristic Italian bitter almond note on the finish. Current SAQ & LCBO prices tend to range from 15 – 20$.

Arneis

This grape is grown in the Piedmont region, home to the celebrated Barolo and Barbaresco reds. It is most commonly found in DOCG Roero and DOCG/ DOC Langhe white wines. Arneis means “little rascal” in the Piemontese dialect and was so named due to its pesky tendency to become over-ripe and lacking in acidity. When well-made, it is a dry, vibrant white with the example I tasted showing moderate acidity, pretty floral, honeyed and nutty aromas, medium body, a smooth texture and a pleasant grassy note. From lighter to more full bodied, complex styles, current LCBO & SAQ prices range from 15 – 30$.

Vernaccia

Most famously cultivated in the DOCG Vernaccia di San Gimignano wines of Tuscany. Many styles exist from simple, unoaked, every day wines made to be drunk soon after harvest, to more complex, layered examples that some consider the best expression of top Italian white wines. When at their pinnacle, they are full-bodied, distinctive wines with intense floral, mineral and earthy aromas. Rounded and suave on the palate; they often show a mineral edge and a touch of that aforementioned bitterness on the finish.

Reds:

Negroamaro

This is a bit of a different beast; not necessarily for you if you like smooth, fruity wines but worth a swig for those that like their reds dry and earthy. The grape hails from hot, sunny Puglia (the heel to Italy’s boot), notably the Salento area. The name literally means black and bitter, which is an apt description. These rustic wines are generally deep garnet in colour, with a perfumed dried floral and blueberry bouquet, and underlying earthiness. They are medium to full bodied, with a firm structure, grippy tannins and a sometimes bitter, herbal edged finish. They range in price from entry level offerings at 10$ to premium, cellar-worthy wines at 80$.

Montepulciano

After Sangiovese, Montepulciano is the most widely planted red grape in Italy; cultivated in 20 of Italy’s 95 provinces. The most well-known examples come from the DOCG and DOC appellations of Abruzzo (calf of the boot). Confusingly, the highly reputed Tuscan DOCG Vino Nobile di Montepulciano does not actually contain this grape, but is made primarily from Sangiovese. Montepulciano offers fantastic value at both ends of the spectrum. The examples tasted were deep, garnet in colour with moderate acidity, smooth texture and firm, rounded tannins. They ranged in style from soft and plummy, with tart cherry notes to more concentrated, dense wines with an aromatic array of black fruits, floral notes, spice and a hint of leather. A huge range of pricing is on offer, from 10$ pizza pairings to 100$ decanter worthy wines.

Sagrantino

This is a fairly uncommon grape, mainly grown around the village of Montefalco in Umbria (just south of Tuscany). The best expressions come from the DOCG Sagrantino di Montefalco. This appellation requires a minimum of 30 months ageing (12 months in oak) before release. These rich, full-bodied reds are dark and brooding, with intense red fruit aromas; underlaid with cherry, dark chocolate and herbal notes. High in alcohol, with a velvetty texture and firm, chewy tannins; these are robust and age worthy wines in need of equally full flavoured food pairings. A sweet, passito version is also made in very small quantities. Here the grapes are left to shrivel in the wine under protective ceilings for a 2-month period to produce rich, sappy wines with kirsch and cedar notes. Pick one up for 20$ – 80$.

Aglianico

According to French oenologist Denis Dubourdieu, Aglianico is potentially the oldest wine grape consumed in history. Its origins are Greek; the root of the name is thought to come from the latin for “Greek Vine”. It is grown in the Basilicata and Campania regions of southern Italy, with each province boasting a DOCG: Aglianico del Vulture and Taurasi respectively. The wines are dry, with moderate to crisp acidity, full body and robust tannins. Intriguing aromas of black berries, plum, smoke, cacao and musk abound on the most lauded examples. More entry level offerings are equally pleasant, though simpler, with a lighter bodied profile, and softer red berry notes. Current SAQ & LCBO offerings range from 15$ – 70$.