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Refreshing Wines to Beat the Heat

refreshing wine low alcohol

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound good? Not so fast…

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

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

Vinho Verde

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

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

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

Niagara Riesling

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

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

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

Prosecco

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

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

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

What about Rosé?

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

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

It’s Gotta be Red?

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

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

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

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

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

Parting Thoughts

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

Santé!

 

 

 

 

Life

The Master of Wine Tasting Exams – One Student’s Story

Masters of Wine Exam Story
Photo credit: Claude Rigoulet

The month of May began gray and dreary, with a near constant patter of rain. I told myself that this was for the best, as I hunched over my daily flight of mystery wines. Nothing to distract me from my studies. A feeling of dread was slowly growing in the pit of my stomach. Each week I did the math. Only 3 weeks left, only 2 weeks left, only 10 days left…

What had me in such a state? The Master of Wine tasting exams.

This was to be my second attempt at the notoriously hard three-day session of 12-wine blind tastings.

A feeling of dread was slowly growing in the pit of my stomach.

After successfully navigating the introductory year of studies in 2015, I moved on to stage 2. Studying became a way of life. I rocked my newborn son with one foot while blind tasting Cabernet Sauvignon. I read him bedtime stories about the importance of monitoring pH through out the winemaking process.

I came out of the 2016 exams with passing marks across all five theory papers and one of three tasting papers. Unfortunately, if even one tasting exam is failed, all three need to be re-sat. Approximately 10% of candidates pass the tasting portion of the exams each year. With that sobering statistic in mind, I decided to simply redouble my efforts in 2017.

And then life intervened.

A second pregnancy with a due date mere weeks after the 2017 exams meant that no airline would fly me to the exam centres in San Francisco or London. So, I had to bench myself. As frustrating as it was to take a year off, when June rolled around I was mighty glad that I hadn’t subjected myself to three days of intensely stressful exams in my exhausted state.

I rocked my newborn son with one foot while blind tasting Cabernet Sauvignon.

Pregnancy takes a toll on your palate and your memory. Despite trying to keep my studies up, I was feeling decidedly rusty when I embarked on the 2018 course year. A week in England in February for the annual MW study seminar brought me home in a blind panic.

Each day of the seminar began with a mock version of the tasting exam. Each day I failed miserably. I couldn’t finish any of the papers. I was way off in identifying wines that I had previously had no trouble blind tasting. I got loads of advice from the MW educators that contradicted previous instruction. I felt paralysed.

In the months that followed I forced myself to keep chugging along, leaning on my study partners for support. Every week my amazing husband would organize blind tastings for me, and every week the results were the same. I felt like I was turning in circles, never able to finish my practice exams, misidentifying the same set of wines over and over again.

And then, something just clicked into place. And not a second too soon, for the countdown was on…just a couple of months to go.

And then, something just clicked into place. And not a second too soon, for the countdown was on…just a couple of months to go. I finally started to do well and feel confident. Meanwhile, between my husband and two tiny boys, my house was a non-stop germ fest. Roseola, laryngitis, strep throat, gastro… they had it all. Every twinge in my throat made me nervous. I wanted to isolate myself inside a sterile bubble.

I left for the exam in San Francisco with my stomach in knots. I worried that I was getting sick, I worried that the tendonitis in my elbow would slow down my writing too much, I worried that I would forget all that I had studied and tasted, I worried that I was worrying too much…

The morning of the first exam, to my great surprise, I woke up feeling rested and ready. I won’t lie and say that a transcendent calm descended upon me. I was still a bundle of nerves, but had managed to convince myself that my countless hours of study would pay off.

The morning of the first exam, to my great surprise, I woke up feeling rested and ready.

Over the three days I developed a morning ritual…healthy breakfast, exam anxiety mini meditation, a couple bites of a banana to rinse my palate of all traces of toothpaste, and a swig of Muscadet to calibrate my perception of wine acidity. I made a playlist of catchy pop music and blared it through my headphones on my walk to the exam centre.

Each candidate must bring their own glasses for the exams and pour their own wines from identical green Burgundy bottles labelled only with the number of the wine. Every morning I steeled myself to maintain a steady hand, nervous that a broken glass or spilled wine would throw off my fragile equilibrium. I also made damn sure that I was pouring wine number 1 into glass number 1.

The feeling of relief that washed over me when time was called on the last exam was indescribable. Sustained nervousness over such a long period is a rare experience in my adult life, and not one that I soon wish to repeat.

The feeling of relief that washed over me when time was called on the last exam was indescribable.

And now…the long wait. Exam results are given in early September. Until then I can only hope for the best and distract myself with the simple pleasure of a chilled glass of bubbly on a warm summer’s day.

 

 

 

Education Life Reviews Wines

BLENDING AT CHATEAU PETIT-VILLAGE

Pomerol wine blending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without further ado, my notes:

Château Petit-Village Pomerol 2010

 

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

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

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

Château Petit-Village Pomerol 2007

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

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

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

Château Petit-Village Pomerol 2000

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

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

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

Life Reviews Wines

CELEBRATING WOMEN IN WINE

women in wine

The wine trade, like so many other industries, has long been a male dominated arena.

The Greeks banned women from attending their symposiums. It was at these marathon eating and wine drinking orgies that the great political and theological discussions of the day took place. Women were thought to become too easily intoxicated, and prone to immoral behaviour.

The sentiment was much the same in ancient Rome. Physicians recommended women be denied wine due to their weak and fickle nature. Until 194 BC, women caught drinking could be put to death, or divorced.

It was also widely believed that a woman’s monthly visitor could harm vineyards and cause wine to spoil. Pliny the Elder, celebrated Roman author and naturalist, wrote that: “contact with the monthly flux of women turns new wine sour, makes crops wither, kills grafts, dries seeds in gardens, causes the fruit of trees to fall off…”.

This superstition about menstruation and wine quality persisted in many winemaking regions until well into the 20th century. Women were regularly banned from French and German cellars for fear that the wine would turn to vinegar.

In the London wine trade of the 1950s, tastings regularly took place in gentlemen’s clubs and other men-only venues. It was thought that women would arrive perfumed, thus spoiling the wine’s bouquet, and prone to gossip, disrupting the seriousness of the matter at hand.

In the province of Manitoba, women weren’t allowed to sell or serve alcoholic beverages until 1975.  And until very recently, women in many wine regions struggled to find vineyard and cellar work. They were thought too physically weak for the lifting of heavy grape crates and wine barrels.

Historically, the few examples of powerful women in wine generally came from family-run ventures. Widowed wives or only childred were given the reins for lack of a male heir. And despite the achievements of such dynamos as the Veuve Clicquot, the role of women in the wine world remained marginal.

Ironically, multiple scientific trials have shown that women actually have keener senses of smell, logically making them better wine tasters! The studies prove that women of reproductive age are able to detect odorants at far lower concentrations than men (and pre-pubescent/ post-menepausal women). They also have a greater ability to improve their aromatic recall with repeated exposure . I definitely found this to be the case during my pregnancies. To read my article on tasting while pregnant, click here.

Fast forward to 2018, and the situation is (thankfully) much improved. Today, women viticulturists, winemakers, sommelières, wine experts and the like are far more common. In 2014 and 2015, more women than men were appointed Masters of Wine. Strong female figures in the wine industry à la Jancis Robinson, Laura Catena, or Pascaline Lepeltier are leading the charge.

While we may now have a strong, and growing presence, the battle for respect, and equality is far from won. Many women in wine still feel significant frustration with the on-going discrimination, and sexism in the industry.

A couple of years back, I attended a “chapitre” (dinner) of the Chevalier de Tastevin at the Clos de Vougeot in Burgundy. The male speakers made regular jokes about how hard it was to be heard because there were lots of women in the room, and of course, women can’t help but chatter. I happened to be pregnant at the time, and my waiter rudely refused to bring me a spittoon, asserting that I would be bothering my neighouring diners, and should just abstain. Faced with my insistence, he finally plonked a large plastic bucket down at my feet, his disapproval awash on his arrogant face.

So while I raise my glass to celebrate how far we have come, I also toast to the day where such pathetic and disrespectful situations are a thing of the past.

Without further ado, here are a list of delicious wines crafted by women, from a recent, themed tasting in Montréal.

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

Antech Cuvée Expression Crémant de Limoux 2015, France – 88pts. VW

Lively blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Mauzac. This fresh, medium bodied sparkling wine is brimming with attractive honey, ripe lemon, red apple and floral notes. Broad, rounded, and moderately creamy on the palate, this dry bubbly offers great value.

Where to Buy: SAQ ( 19$), AOC & Cie Château et Domaines

Conte Tasca d’Almerita Regaleali Bianco 2016, Sicily, Italy – 87pts. VW

This Sicilian blend of indigenous grapes Inzolia and Grecanico, is a great every day, pre-dinner white wine. Crisp, light-bodied, unoaked, and bone-dry, with zesty lemon flavours lifting the mid-palate. Subtle bitter almond notes linger on the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (15.75$), Authentic Wine & Spirits

Velenosi Vigna Solaria 2016, Marche, Italy – 89pts VW

Intriguing nose laden with aromas of fresh bread, ripe lemon, white flowers, and stony mineral hints. Fresh, creamy, and broad on the palate, with moderate concentration, and layers of honey and citrus on the long finish. Very attractive!

Where to buy: SAQ (17.55$), Montalvin

Domaine Claude Lafond “Le Clos des Messieurs” 2016, Reuilly, Loire Valley – 91pts. PW

Elegant aromas of gooseberry, nettles, and citrus, are underscored by hints of tropical fruit. Racy acidity on the attack is softened by the medium body, and concentrated core of juicy red apples and grapefruit.  Bone-dry, with a long, lifted finish. This is high quality Loire Sauvignon Blanc, at a very nice price!

Where to buy: SAQ (22.75$), Le Maître de Chai

Paul Jaboulet Ainé “Parallèle 45” 2015, Côtes du Rhône – 89pts. VW

Pretty black fruit and spiced notes on the nose. This easy-drinking, unoaked red is medium in body, smooth, and rounded. For just over 15$, you can’t go wrong.

Where to buy: SAQ (15.60$), LBV International

Château Puy Castéra 2012, Haut Médoc, Bordeaux – 87pts. PW

Restrained aromas of cassis and black cherry, with earthy, gamey undertones. Lively acidity gives way to a medium body, firm structure, and dry finish, with subtle cedar nuances. Slightly lean and linear on the mid-palate, but attractive nonetheless, with dark fruit and earthy flavours.

Where to buy: SAQ (24,15$), Sélections Oeno 

Duckhorn “Decoy” Pinot Noir 2015, Sonoma, California – 89pts. PW

Ripe red berries, red cherry, and brambly notes feature on the moderately intense nose. The palate is light in body, with modest freshness and a lovely silky texture. Juicy red fruit and candied black cherry flavours abound. Subtle oak spice is well integrated, however the 14% alcohol is a shade warming, and the firm tannins are just slightly astringent.

Where to buy: SAQ (31.00$), Amphora Vins Fins

Emiliana “Coyam”, Colchagua, Chile 2013 – 92pts. PW

This bold, deeply coloured red is a blend of Syrah, Carmenère, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvèdre, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Fragrant aromas of both fresh and jammy dark fruits mingle with hints of cedar and wild herbs on the expressive nose.  Full-bodied, smooth and velvetty on the palate, with vibrant acidity that lifts the concentrated core of sweet fruit nicely. Attractive oaked nuances of cedar, spice, and tobacco linger on the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (29.95$), LCC Vins & Spiritueux. LCBO (29.95$)

Quinta da Ponte Pedrinha Reserva 2014, Dâo, Portugal – 93pts. PW

Moderately concentrated, complex aromas of black cherry, blueberry, and dried flowers are underscored by earthy, spicy, mineral hints. Fresh, full-bodied, and firm in structure, this moderately tannic, dry red needs a couple hours of decanting to unwind. The freshness, depth of flavour, and powdery texture are all in perfect harmony here. Ageing in seasoned oak casks brings lovely earthy nuances that linger on the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (25.45$), Le Marchand de Vin

Château Jolys “Cuvée Jean” 2015, Jurancon, South-West France – 89pts PW

Intense aromas of lemon curd, quince, and baked red apple feature on the nose. Racy acidity ably balances the sweet finish on this medium bodied, zesty, honeyed dessert white wine. A perfect partner for lemon meringue pie!

Where to buy: SAQ (23.35$), Le Maître de Chai

Education Life Reviews

5 Amazing Italian Wines to Drink with Pizza

Wines to drink with Pizza

The version of pizza that we know (and love) today was invented in the late 18th century in Naples, when some GENIUS decided to add tomato sauce to focaccia. And we all lived happily every after.

The Margherita pizza was apparently named after the Italian Queen of the same name who, upon a royal visit to Naples in 1889, was served a pizza topped with chopped tomatoes, mozzarella, and fresh basil.

Italian immigrants brought their culinary treasure around the globe, and with it, a thirst for their brisk, savoury, dry red wines. For nothing pairs better with pizza than Italian wine! But with an estimated 2000 different grape varieties grown in this viticultural paradise, how do you choose what to drink on pizza night?

  1. Match like for like: if you are throwing a frozen pie in the oven, or ordering in from a large chain, don’t waste money on a fancy bottle. Pair to the level of complexity of the food. There are lots of great 15$ wines out there that will do the trick nicely.
  2. Acidic foods require crisp, lively wines: tomato sauce is high in acidity. A low acid wine (as can be the case with big, jammy, hot climate reds) will seem flabby in comparison, lacking vibrancy and brightness.
  3. Rich foods can be tempered by higher acid wines: melted cheese is delicious, but can be a little too heavy. Pairing cheesy pizza with crisp wines can cut through the fat, facilitating digestion. Just think how well lemon and butter compliment each other in seafood sauces.
  4. Avoid big, tannic reds, unless your pizza is loaded with meat: tannins create a sensation of dryness (or astringency) on the palate. When tannins are ripe, this feeling can be quite pleasant – ranging from subtle to pronounced (in fuller-bodied wines) – giving structure to wine. Big tannins, however, require meat. Tannin binds with the proteins in meat, intensifying its rich, savoury flavours, and softening the wine.
  5. Beware heavily oaked wines: wood, just like the skins and stalks of grapes, contains tannins. New oak barrels can impart tannin to wines, making them firmer and drier on the palate.

In honour of superbowl Sunday, the husband and I ordered a big, cheesy, all-dressed pizza (pepperoni, peppers, mushrooms and olives). We decided to try out our pizza and wine pairing theories with a little taste test. We lined up the usual suspects and gave them each a swirl.

Ranked in order from most to least favourite pairing, here’s what we thought:

Chianti Classico

Why we chose it: Chianti os often cited as the ultimate pizza wine. Made predominantly from the Sangiovese grape, from vineyards grown in a hilly region of Tuscany, Chianti wines tend to be quite brisk and very dry. Aromas and flavours are fairly earthy, with tart red fruit notes, and sometimes subtle vegetal notes (tomato leaf, dried herbs). Tannins are generally only moderately firm, and quite chalky in texture

What we thought: Classic food and wine pairings exist for a reason! Guillaume and I both declared this the clear winner. The acidity was perfectly pitched, cutting through the grease with ease. The fine tannins worked well with the pepperoni. Both wine and pizza tasted better when served together.

Handy tips: Chianti has a quality hierarchy that starts with basic Chianti (often light in body, very crisp, with marginally ripe fruit, and moderate, grainy tannins). Chianti Classico comes from a specific sub-zone in the heart of the appellation. The grapes here tends to ripen more fully, producing wines with more body, greater aromatic nuance, and highly concentrated fruit flavours. You may see mentions like “Superiore” or “Riserva” on the label. These terms have to do with ageing periods in cellar, and fruit ripeness. They are an additional guage of quality : Superiore (minimum 1 year ageing, minimum 12% alcohol), Riserva (minimum 2 years’ ageing, minimum 12.5% alcohol).

Good value wines: Ricasoli “Brolio”, Antinori “Peppoli” or “Villa, Riserva”, Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva, Querciavalle Chianti Classico, Carpineto Chianti Classico

Barbera d’Asti

Why we chose it: Barbera d’Asti hails from the Piedmont region of north western Italy. The wines often have bright, tangy acidity, medium body, vibrant black cherry fruit flavours, and soft to moderate tannins.

What we thought: This pairing was a hit, and would certainly be the best choice for wine drinkers preferring fruitier reds. It also showed the best when we added hot chile flakes to one slice. The sweetness of the fruit counterbalanced the spicy heat nicely.

Handy tips: The grape variety is called Barbera. Asti is the name of the area (within Piedmont) where it grows. There are also delicious Barbera wines from neighbouring vineyards that would be a good fit. Look out for appellation names like Barbera d’Alba or Barbera del Monferrato.

Good value wines: Paolo Conterno “Bricco” Barbera d’Asti, Tenuta Olim Bauda “La Villa” Barbera d’Asti, Prunotto Barbera d’Alba, Michele Chiarlo “Le Orme” (Asti) or “Cipressi” (Alba), Borgogno Barbera d’Alba Superiore, Pio Cesare Barbera d’Alba

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo

Why we chose it: The Montepulciano grape, grown in the region of Abruzzo in south eastern Italy, produces wines that are deep in colour, with fresh acidity and medium body. They are fairly earthy, with ripe blackberry, cherry, and herbal notes. Tannins range from only moderately firm to quite markedly “chewy”.

What we thought: Our 15$ bottle worked reasonably well. The earthy flavours underscored the mushrooms nicely, and the fresh acidity evenly matched the tomato sauce. The tannins were just a shade too astringent for this pizza however. A meatier pie would probably suit this wine better.

Handy Tips: Confusingly, there is an appellation in Tuscany called Vino Nobile de Montepulciano. Wines from this vineyard area are made with Sangiovese, and have nothing whatsoever to do with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

Good value wines: Masciarelli, Valle Reale, Farnese, La Valentina, Contesa

Rosso di Toscana

Why we chose it: Literally translated, this means Tuscan red wine. These wines can come from vineyards planted virtually anywhere in Tuscany. They usually feature Sangiovese, and often have high proportions of international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the blends. They can be very refreshing, in an approachable, easy-drinking, fruity style with ripe, rounded tannins.

What we thought: Despite having chosen a 2015 vintage (which was quite a warm, ripe year) this specific wine was very tightly knit, verging on austere. The pizza made the wine seem overly firm and astringent. Overall, an unsuccesful match.

Handy Tips: Rosso is a term used in some of Tuscany’s top appellations  to designate simpler, earlier drinking styles of wine. Where Rosso di Toscana IGT wines are often blended with tannic grapes like Caberenet Sauvignon (which is where our error potentially lay), Rosso from top appellation: Montalcino is 100% Sangiovese. Montalcino lies due south of the Chianti region. The wines are similar stylistically, but are riper in fruit and fuller bodied. Alternatively, Rosso di Toscana wines with a high percentage of Sangiovese, and blending partners like softer, rounded Merlot, would potentially also work well.

Good value wines: Altesino Rosso di Toscana or Rosso di Montalcino, Argiano Rosso di Montalcino, Col d’Orcia Rosso di Montalcino

Valpolicella Ripasso

Why we chose it: From the Veneto region, in Italy’s north east, Valpolicella is a blend of indigenous grapes: mainly Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella. Basic Valpolicella (Classico) wines tend to be light in body, fresh, floral, and vibrantly fruity (red and black fruits), with soft tannins. Ripasso versions are richer, and more concentrated, due to the process of adding the raisined grape pommace, left over after Amarone fermentation, to steep in the just fermented Valpolicella wine. This technique raises the alcohol levels, gives sweeter fruit flavours, and a fuller body.

What we thought: We should have stuck to Valpolicella Classico. The Ripasso, while delicious, was too rich, too sweet, and too big a wine for the pizza. It completely overpowered the food.

Handy Tips: Basic Valpolicella, served slightly chilled, would be a good choice for a simple pizza dinner. If you are serving gastronmically styled pizza, and wanted a similar profile, Valpolicella Superiore offers greater nuance and complexity. Superiore wines are aged for a minimum of 1 year prior to bottling.

Good value wines: Bolla, Masi, Tedeschi, Allegrini, Speri

So there you have it! With all these new wines to try, you may need to make pizza night a weekly occurrence.

Looking for something a little out of the ordinary? Why not try a dry Lambrusco? These lightly sparkling red wines from the Emilia-Romagna region are lively and fresh, with tangy red fruit flavours, and savoury nuances. Be sure to check for the mention “secco” (dry) or “semisecco” (just off-dry).

 

Education Life

An Overview of Italian Wine! Che Figata!

overview of italian wines

If I could only pick one vacation destination for the rest of my life it would be Italy. Hands down. No need to ponder over it. Easy decision. Why, you ask? Because, even at Autogrill, the country’s largest highway fastfood chain, you can get a decent panini, a drinkable glass of wine, and a delicious espresso.

The husband and I once spent a fantastic week skiing in the Aosta valley. At the resort restaurant, there was table service, amazing pasta, and hearty reds served in attractive stemware. Oh, and did I mention that it was cheap! I still dream about it.

I have traveled to Italy more than a dozen times, and there are still so many places I haven’t seen, or want to re-visit. I love the food, the wine, the coffee, the diversity and beauty of the landscapes, and especially the people. They seem to have perfected a sort of nonchalant confidence that is infectious.

And the language! I could sit in a café in a piazza all day, drifting from cappucino, to prosecco, listening to the melodic sound of Italian banter. Learning the language is definitely on my (very long) bucket list.

…roughly 2000 different wine grapes are grown in Italy today…

Italy boasts an incredibly diverse wine culture. According to Riccardo Ricci Curbastro of FEDERDOC (Italian agency for appellation wines), over 70% of Italy consists of hills and mountains. This, combined with the limited number of easily navigable rivers, meant that trade between the different regions was slow to develop historically. Each province developed their own foods, and cultivated their indigenous varieties. Italian wine grape expert Ian D’Agata estimates that roughly 2000 different wine grapes are grown in Italy today.

From north to south, hill to vale, Italy’s temperate to warm climate makes all regions, including its islands, suitable for grape vine cultivation. Take a drive down country lanes in any corner of Italy, and you will see vineyards somewhere along the way.

Italy is the largest wine producer in the world, beating out its nearest rivals France and Spain. It churned out almost 51 million hectolitres of wine in 2016 (equivalent to 6.6 billion bottles!). That’s a lot of vino.

Italy is the largest wine producer in the world, beating out its nearest rivals France and Spain

The driving force behind Italy’s prolific output is the popularity of its sparkling wines. Prosecco is the best-selling sparkling wine on the planet, and vast oceans of Asti (formerly Asti Spumante) are shipped around the globe.

Italy is also home to a wide number of crisp, refreshing white wines, and an impressive range of dry reds. From Chianti, to Barolo, to Amarone, the list of Italian wines worth a sip (or three) is endless.

February is Italian wine month here at JackyBlisson.com! I have a great line up of Italian wine and food articles coming your way, including:

From cheap & cheerful, to seriously trendy, you’ll discover why all the cool kids are drinking Lambrusco (Italy’s famous red sparkling wine).

A vertical tasting of Valpolicella’s crown jewel: Amarone (from 2010 back to 1998) from the group of family-owned wineries that comprise the prestigious Famiglie Storiche

Women in wine! A feature on some amazing Italian wine divas.

Local recipes with a host of different wine pairing options

And so much more….

So, stay tuned, and thanks for reading! Ciao.

 

 

Education Life

Beat the winter blues with these big, balanced reds

big, bold red wine winter fresh balanced
Photo credit: Catena Zapata Winery (Adrianna Vineyard, Tupungato)

Winter hit us like a ton of bricks this year. It was like someone flipped a switch; from lazy Indian summer to North Pole overnight. In Montréal, we have broken records held nearly 150 years for longest, extreme cold snap. And it is only mid-January…

So, what do you drink when you can’t feel your face?

VODKA. Well, yes, but this is a wine blog folks, so I am thinking more along the lines of full-bodied red wines.

Before I go on, let me first apologize to my fellow wine geeks for this heresy. It is terribly uncool here to champion rich, dense, dark fruited red wine. There seems to have been a secret committee meeting amongst local wine writers and sommeliers whereby it was decreed: crisp, light wines good/ big, bold wines bad. I guess my invitation was lost in the mail.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the lighter reds too. If I was on a desert island, and I could only choose one red wine region for the rest of my life I’d pick Burgundy in a heart beat…but it would be hot on this island.

I don’t know about you, but when my fingers and toes feel like they might fall off, I don’t want a chilled Beaujolais. I want something that is going to light a fire in my belly; something with such rich, luscious fruit that I almost believe it will be summer again one day.

What I don’t want is a sweet, oaky, fruit bomb, with alcohol so fiery it tastes like kirsch. It is these wines that have given the full-bodied, high alcohol red category such a bad name in wine connoisseur circles. The missing element to these heavy, clumsy wines is balance.

Imagine a see-saw, or a two-sided weighing scale. On the one side, you have sweet, ultra-ripe fruit and high alcohol. In order to achieve equilibrium, you need an equivalent level of vibrant acidity. When these elements are in harmony, the fruit becomes brighter (less cloyingly sweet), and the alcohol is far less perceptible.

This is, of course, an oversimplification. There are far more factors at play. Not the least of which is the quality of the tannins. In a well balanced wine, they can vary from soft to quite firm (depending on the grape variety), but are smooth. That is to say, lacking the unpleasant bitterness or astringency they possess when under-ripe.

But how to find these wines amongst the vast selection on liquor store shelves?

One solution is to seek out hot, sunny regions with cooling influences. Factors like a refreshing maritime breeze, or high altitude, can slow the ripening process. The vines get plentiful warmth and sunshine for optimal sugar accumulation through-out the day, but at night, cooler air halts plant respiration and metabolism, allowing acid levels to drop more gradually. This drawn out grape vine maturation also allows tannins (naturally occurring compounds found in the grape skin, stems and pips) more time to fully ripen.

Here are just five such regions to look out for this winter:

Central Otago, New Zealand

Central Otago is a mountainous, inland region whose vineyards are the most southerly in the world. This land of extremes boasts the coldest winters, and the hottest day time summer temperatures, in all of New Zealand. The vines are planted on steep slopes, as high as 420 metres in altitude. They enjoy abundant sunshine during the day, with thermostat readings regularly exceeding 30°c. However, at night, temperatures can plummet to as low as 10°c. The region also has high UV levels, resulting in thick skinned grapes. Thicker skinned grapes have greater concentrations of polyphenols (compounds responsable for colour pigmentation, many of wines flavours, and tannic structure). Therefore, depending on winemaking procedures, thick skinned grapes tend to produce dark coloured, fragrant wines, with robust tannins.

Pinot Noir is King in Central Otago. While this variety is generally known for its pale, lighter bodied reds, here the wines are richly coloured, intensely aromatic, and bold in structure. Flavours range from ultra-ripe dark cherry, and plum, to crushed raspberries, with hints of thyme. They are vibrant, fresh, and highly concentrated, with smooth, ripe tannins.

Wineries to look out for: Rippon, Felton Road, Peregrine, Akarua, Mt. Difficulty

Gigondas, France

The Southern Rhône valley is famed for its sunny, mediterranean climate and rich, powerful Grenache, Syrah blends. Châteauneuf-du-pape is the most acclaimed, premium appellation. The double effect of the baking hot sun, and the large, rounded stones that adorn the vineyard floors, reflecting light and warmth back up to the vines, make for massive, velvetty smooth, alcoholic reds with raisined fruit. Looking for something similar, but with a more vibrant, fresher fruited character? Gigondas is the answer.

The vineyards surrounding this tiny town are perched on the edge of the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains at 100 to 430 metres in altitude. Temperatures are marginally cooler here. On the rare wintry days I experienced while living here, there was often a layer of snow in Gigondas, whereas just 5km away in the lower lying Vacqueyras, and Châteauneuf-du-pape, the fields remained green. Pockets of sandy soils at the foothills, and limestone-heavy areas further up, also contribute to the fresh, elegant style of the grapes grown here.

Wineries to look out for: Domaine des Bosquets, Château St. Cosme, Domaine de Longue Toque, Perrin, Domaine de la Bouïssière, Pierre Amadieu

Mendoza (Valle de Uco, Lujan de Cuyo), Argentina

The Uco Valley, at the foot of the Andes mountains, is located in the upper reaches of the Mendoza region. Vineyards are among the highest in the world, at 800 – 1100 metres.  Poor, free draining soils encourage vines to dig deep for moisture and nourishment, resulting in low yields and highly concentrated wines. The favourable climate conditions (hot, sunny days, cool nights, high UV levels, and long, dry growing season) has attracted many prominent French wine producers to set up shop. Further north, on the banks of the Mendoza river, lie the vineyards of Lujan de Cuyo. Sitting at 1000 metres in altitude, with cooling alpine breezes, this hot, dry sub-region also benefits from significantly cooler night air.

Malbec is the major grape produced here*. The wines are dark in colour, with lots of body, and velvetty smooth tannins. The Uco Valley examples are wonderfully vibrant, with elegant floral and ripe dark fruit aromas. Lujan de Cuyo wines are almost black in colour, and equally dense on the palate. Ultra-ripe black fruits, exotic spice, and mineral hints feature on the nose and palate.

* Cabernet Sauvignon and, increasingly, Cabernet Franc, also show great promise here.

Wineries to look out for: Catena Zapata, Achaval Ferrer, O. Fournier, Lurton, Zuccardi (the higher end, 20$+ wines), Trapiche (Terroir Series)

Ribera del Duero, Spain

The vineyards of the Ribera del Duero are located in the Castilla y Leon region, due north of Madrid, and south west of Rioja. The vineyards are planted on a high plateau, 600 to 800 metres above sea level. Hot, sunny days are tempered by chilly nights, thanks to the region’s elevated position, and to regular cold winds. Day-to-night temperature can vary by more than 50°c. These dramatic fluctuations allow for a very gentle ripening pace. Grapes are generally not harvested before late October. The Duero river divides this semi-arid land, providing a much needed water source for the vineyards to thrive.

This is red wine country. All blends must be composed of at least 75% Tempranillo (locally referred to as Tinto Fino or Tinta del Pais). The balance can be made up of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and/ or Malbec. Up to 5% of Garnacha, or the indigenous Albillo, can also be used. There are strict rules on wine ageing before the wines are bottled and released for sale. The levels range from: Crianza (2 years’ ageing, minimum 1 year in oak), Reserva (3 years’ ageing, minimum 1 year in oak), Gran Reserva (minimum 2 years in oak + 3 years’ in bottle).

At their best, Ribera del Duero reds are inky black, highly concentrated and full-bodied. Intense aromas of dark berry fruit and mocha are underscored by attractive French oak nuances (toasty, spicy notes). They are very fresh, firmly structured, but smooth, with elegant, polished tannins.

Wineries to look out for: Vega Sicilia & Dominio de Pingus (if you have very deep pockets), Bodegas Protos, Aalto, Finca Villacreces, Bodegas Valduero, Emilio Moro

Santa Barbara County, California

A mere 90 minutes north of Los Angeles, lies the vineyards of Santa Barbara county. The topography of this region is unique, in that the valleys run east to west, rather than the more standard north to south. There is massive diversity to be found here in terms of soil types and microclimates. The vineyards located on the eastern foothills are cooled by fog and ocean breezes funneled through the surrounding hills and mountains. Appellations such as Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley (especially the Ballard Canyon sub-zone for Syrah), and Sta Rita Hills, are gaining prominence.

Pinot Noir is the most planted red varieties in Santa Barbara County. It is generally dark in colour, with dense, powerful structure, and impressive depth of flavour. Very fragrant on the nose; brimming with black cherry, plum, and floral aromas. Syrah is also gaining in prominence. Imagine a mid-way point between a jammy, lush Shiraz and a crisp, taut Northern Rhône Syrah. This is a common style here. Rich, ripe dark berry fruit, lively acidity, full body, smooth, rounded mouthfeel, and firm, elegant tannins.

Wineries to look out for: Domaine de la Côte, Sanford, Au Bon Climat, Bien Nacido, Ojai Vineyard, Fess Parker

 

Life Producers Reviews

REQUIM FOR A VINE: Classical Music and Wine

Classical music & wine
Photo credit: Il Paradiso de Frassina

I am not a sceptic. When people tell me things, my first instinct is to believe them. I like magic tricks, and fairy tales. And I plan to use all of my wiles to keep my kids believing in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny as long as I possibly can (likely until some annoying child at school whose parents ‘didn’t want to lie’ ruin it for them).

Call me naive, or gullable, I don’t really care. In my experience, you enjoy life a lot more if you suspend your disbelief from time to time. After all, if you look back over the course of history, you would be hard pressed to find a cynic behind the important advancements our society has known. Rather, it is those that dare to ‘have a dream’, and potentially fail, that bring about change.

That is why I am always intrigued when I happen across a wine producer that has a unique story to tell about their vineyard or cellar practices. At a recent Brunello di Montalcino tasting in Montréal, I happened on such a tale.

At the foot of the Montosoli hill, in the Montalcino vineyards of Italy, lies a beautifully renovated 1000 year-old farmstead and a small holding of 4 hectares of vines. A walk through the vineyards reveals a most unusual site. Installed at regular intervals throughout the rows are Bose loudspeakers, playing Mozart to the grapes.

The estate is called Il Paradiso di Frassina, and is the brainchild of Montalcino maverick Giancarlo Cignozzi, renowned for his founding role in the acclaimed Tenuta Carpazo. In 2000, Cignozzi decided to leave Carpazo, yearning for a smaller operation, where he could craft artisan wines.

The vineyard, abandoned for some 50 years, was planted from scratch, and the tender, young vines were nurtured…with music. Originally, this consisted of a few accoustic speakers and a wide variety of classical and barroque styles. Within a short period, Cignozzi and his team discovered that the vines exposed to music were hardier, more disease resistant and ripened more consistently.

This discovery drew interest from the scientific community, with two universties, those of Florence and of Pisa, deciding to actively study the phenomenon. In Florence, the research is focused on the biophysical changes in the vines. In 2008, they asked Cignozzi to play only Mozart, to ‘give a single, geometric, and subtle textural tone to the musical harmonies’ to better determine how the sound waves benefit the vines. In Pisa, the study is focused on the insect population of the vineyards, and how it has changed under the musical influence.

The extraordinary developments at Il Paradiso di Frassina so impressed American technology company Bose, that they donated custom, all-weather speakers for the entire vineyard.

The results? According to Il Paradiso di Frassina’s patent, the size and thickness of the leaf has been found to be increased, along with the level of chlorophyll (essential to plant photosynthesis).  The need for copper and sulphur sprays (to ward off fungal infections) has decreased by 50%. Leaf respiration is improved, making them less resistant to climatic stress. The grapes have higher levels of anthocyanins and polyphenols (resulting in deeper colour and more robust tannins). And finally, the grapes are ripening more consistently and efficiently, allowing for earlier harvest dates, before the risk of autumn rains sets in.

And the wines?

Il Paradiso di Frassina Rosso di Montalcino 2015 – 88pts. PW

Very fresh and lively, with vibrant red currant, spice and earthy aromatics. Medium bodied, firm and moderately concentrated on the palate, with fleshy tannins and a clean finish.

Where to buy: Inquire with agent: Les Importations Olea Inc. www.olea.ca 

Il Paradiso di Frassina Brunello di Montalcino 2011 – 92pts LW

Complex aromas of ripe red cherry, talc and fresh, forest floor nuances are underscored by attractive minerality and subtle animal notes. Bright acidity gives way to a firm, dense mid-palate, with pretty floral and cherry flavours. The tannins are robust, but fine grained, and the oak imprint is subtle. The finish is persistent and savoury. Needs time.

Where to buy: 55.50$ (SAQ)

Flauto Magico Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2011 – 93pts LW

Wonderfully suave, harmonious red. Intense aromas of red currant, red cherry and balsamic feature on the nose. Upon aeration, a lovely earthiness develops, with sweet talc notes and stony mineral nuances. Full-bodied and firm, yet velvetty in texture with a rich profile of fresh fruit flavours and a long finish, framed by robust, grainy tannins and woody tones from long ageing in cask.

Where to buy: Inquire with agent: Les Importations Olea Inc. www.olea.ca 

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

Education Life

WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT WINE ANYWAY?

why do people love wine
Photo credit: Hermitage, Jasper Van Berkel

In today’s saturated global marketplace, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to alcoholic beverages. Beer, cider and spirits, like wine, all have their devout clientèle. In fact, in many places, wine sales pale in comparison to these giants. If intoxication is your main goal, they all ‘do the job’, often much more cheaply and quickly than wine. And each drink has its band of enthusiasts who prefer the taste of their chosen tipple.

So, why does fermented grape juice hold such an exalted position in the hearts and minds of enthusiasts the world over?

Let me count the ways…

Wine has a number of powerful assets that differentiate it firmly from other inebriants. Its perceived quality, authenticity and luxury, its uniqueness – with no two wines ever quite the same, the wealth of interesting new developments to appeal to the new information hungry, internet generation, wine’s image as a health conscience beverage. I could go on, but will spare you any further evidence of my propensity to ramble.

The Potent Allure of History & Rarity

The earliest evidence of cultivated vines date as far back as Georgia circa 6000 B.C. (click here for more information).

In ancient Egypt beer, made from Barley loaves, was the drink of the masses. Only the wealthy elite could afford to drink wine. This trend is seen through out history, with the poor drinking cider, mead and beer in Medieval England, while the nobles drank wine. Wine’s symbolic association with luxury, remains a persuasive sales incitement for the upper classes in many developing markets, like China, today.

Another facet of what drives consumers to value wine so highly is its perceived authenticity and rarity. The Schloss Johannisberg estate of the Rheingau was founded around 1100, while Louis Latour has been passed down from father to son in Burgundy since the 1700s. Owning a wine from a generations-old estate feels to many like holding a piece of history in one’s hand.

Regions like Burgundy, where many growers have as little as a few ares of different vineyard parcels, introduce a notion of scarcity for certain top wines. In a 2014 Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction, a parcel of 114 bottles of Romanée-Conti sold for a whopping 1.6M $.

While certain spirits can claim high retail prices, low production volumes and a long history of high quality, none have such a long and storied past.

The Vintage Mystique

Whereas the majority of beers, ciders and spirits strive to offer a consistent style and quality from one batch to the next, wine is the only beverage that has introduced the notion of bottlings by vintage. Variation in colour, aromas and flavours from one year to the next is not only accepted, but is indeed a major part of the fascination for many collectors.  En primeur week in Bordeaux, where wine is pre-sold from barrel before release, is a major part of the global wine trade calendar, stirring buyers and media alike into a frenzy.

Every winemaker and wine lover will tell you stories of their greatest vintages…the 1977 Dow’s vintage port, the 1945 Château Latour and so on. Just ask any winery what a popular critic’s judgement of the region’s vintage can do. When the Wine Spectator ran a feature on the excellent quality of 2010 in the Southern Rhône Valley, purchase requests flooded into Domaine de Longue Toque in Gigondas.

The evolution in style, from one year to the next, keeps wine collectors hooked.

The Triumph of Terroir

Terroir…a term that intimidates and impresses novice wine lovers in equal measures. No wine expert has every successfully summed up the concept in simple, concise terms. And this is a major part of its appeal. No one dares to refute a claim that they don’t fully understand!

Wine connoisseurs world-wide grow starry-eyed detailing the aromatic qualities imprinted on a wine by a specific soil type, weather pattern, altitude, and so forth. They speak confidently of Rutherford dust, Coonawarra terra rossa, and the slate soils of the Mosel. The vertiginous slopes of the Côte Rôtie and the patchwork of individual Burgundian climats are familiar and well understood arguments for the superior quality of the region’s wines.

Many beer, cider and spirits brands also claim certain aspects of weather and soil as the secret to their flavour. There is no denying the powerful aromatic effect the peat-rich soils of Islay have on local whisky’s like Laphroaig. But what lacks, in comparison to wine, is a consolidated approach adhered to by the entire category. Check any winery’s website and they will undoubtably boast of unique soils or old vines or ideal climate…some factor of “specialness” attributed to the vineyards and site.

The Dizzying Diversity

Yet another point of differentiation for wine is the sheer number of different grape varieties and wine styles available. Estimates vary, but there are said to be over 10 000 different wine producing grapes. Styles vary from white, rosé and red to still, sparkling, late harvest, fortified, botrytis-affected and so on. The sheer wealth of choice, from grape, to style, to vintage, to terroir, makes wine an endlessly appealing, singular beverage category.

The Cult of the Wine Professional

With the rise of vineyard plantings in countries around the globe, a new generation of passionate, innovative winemakers has arisen. In my grandfather’s generation, outside of a handful of prestigious regions like Bordeaux or Champagne, the grape grower and winemaker were rarely viewed as more than peasant farmers. Nowadays, they are revered creatures, adorning glossy wine and lifestyle magazines.

These new champions are keen to share their love of all things wine with all who will listen. This plays nicely to the information hungry, internet savvy Millennial consumer. Blind allegiances to specific appellations, estates or wine shop recommendations are a thing of the past. Today’s young wine drinkers research. They want to know as much as possible about what they are buying. From vintage reports, to blending variations, to emerging vineyard areas, to new grape plantings, today’s wine trade has never had so much to say, and such an enthusiastic audience.

The rise of sommeliers and chefs as gatekeepers to fashion in alcohol sales is also a boon for wine. Whereas beer and cider are traditionally categorized as pre-dinner or bar drinks, and many spirits proferred as digestifs, wine is considered the perfect mate for the main event…the meal. This gives wine a strong advantage, making it as much an everyday, rather than occasional, refreshment.

Given the aforementioned stylistic array of wines available, there are food pairing options for every type of cuisine from aromatic whites for Asian dishes to big Napa Cabs for steak.

And the Trump Card…Health!

Famous French scientist, Louis Pasteur, declared wine to be the healthiest, most hygienic of beverages. He advocated wine over water in a time where contaminated water sources led to many disease epidemics.  More recently, the concept of the French Paradox, the antioxidant effects of the polyphenol Resveratrol, has revived the connection between wine and good health.

Studies abound that show a correlation between moderate wine drinking and decreased levels of heat disease, stroke, diabetes, and so forth. In a recent Wine Intelligence survey of Chinese wine consumers, the purported health benefits of wine are given as a major reason consumers are switching from whiskey and beer to wine.

At 8 – 14% alcohol, as compared to 35 – 50% for most Vodkas, wine is considered a lower alcohol alternative. This is a strong sales argument in cultures like the UK where binge drinking is an ongoing problem.  Beer and cider can also lay claim to the argument of lower alcohol levels, but generally carry more calories for equivalent alcohol by volume.

In Summary

While competition is fierce amongst alcoholic beverages, wine has a number of compelling features that allow it to stand out from the crowd. Wine carries powerful affiliations with notions of luxury, rarity and authenticity. It is unique in its concepts of vintage and terroir variation. The multitude of different grape varieties and styles further set wine apart. And the rise of the winemaker and the sommelier as trendsetters also play their part.  Lastly, wine is the most popular alcoholic choice for health conscience consumers.

Beer may quench my thirst on a hot summer’s day, and cocktails are a fun choice for ladies night out, but wine will always have my heart.

Education Life

OUR BLIND LOVE AFFAIR WITH ORGANIC WINES

organic wine critical thinking
Photo credit: Jasper Van Berkel

When I was a kid, it wasn’t uncommon to see people throw bags of leftover McDonald’s wrappers out of their car windows on the highway. Recycling was a new and little understood concept. And we regularly left the tap running while we brushed our teeth or did the dishes.

We would never have spend good money on bruised, mis-shapen produce or sprung 5$ more to ensure that our meat was grass-fed and hormone-free.

How times have changed.

I often find it curious how we as a society swing from one extreme to another before finally reaching a middle ground.  Today’s eco-conscience, Western consumers are increasingly dogmatic in their quest for organic goods. They spend the extra time and money to procure them, and pat themselves on the back for their efforts. I should know. I am one of them.

Do you sense a vaguely sarcastic tone? Oh, it’s there alright. For, what is often lacking in this right-minded behaviour is a sense of critical thinking. It is a drastic over simplification to assume that a product is truly environmentally friendly because it has “organic” stamped on it.

It is a drastic over simplification to assume that a product is truly environmentally friendly because it has “organic” stamped on it.

How good for the planet are organic bananas, wrapped in a plastic containers, flown up from Central America? Sure, you could argue that they beat the same fruit sprayed with pesticides that kill the soil and surrounding flora and fauna…but again, there is more to the debate than this.

I regularly hear wine lovers and professionals alike enthuse about a winery, citing its organic or biodynamic status as the primary reason for loving them. Shouldn’t taste be the n°1 criteria for liking one wine more than another? And how sure can you be that the estate in question is truly behaving sustainably from the vine to the bottling line? Your reasons might include the following:

They are certified. There exist a vast number of organic wine certifying bodies around the world; each with different rules and regulations. The common thread is a ban on artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. However, not all certifications cover the products used in the winery. Furthermore, the levels of heavy metals permitted in organic viticulture can build up dangerous levels of soil toxicity, leading to “dead” soils that require regular fertilizer additions for vines to grow.

Domaine Fondrèche of the Rhône Valley recently joined an increasing number of French winemakers by dropping his organic certification (Eco-cert). Speaking to Decanter magazine last year, estate owner Sebastien Vincenti said: ‘I will reduce the copper build-up in the soils by changing my treatment programme to one that is more balanced between organic and synthesized products. The amount of oil used for tractors will also be halved, as I will not need to apply the treatments so regularly, so I will be lowering my carbon footprint’.

…the levels of heavy metals permitted in organic viticulture can build up dangerous levels of soil toxicity…

I have been to the vineyard and seen the soil health and biodiversity first-hand. This is certainly a solid and compelling argument. Growers committed to thriving vineyard environments are definitely worth favouring, but one should still ask themselves…to what extent are these ecological principles practiced? I recently saw footage of helicopters swooping back and forth over the vineyards of a revered biodynamic estate in Burgundy to ward off frost. I make no judgement as to the detrimental environmental impact of hours of helicopter fuel. Even the wealthiest domaines can little afford to lose a whole years’ crop and damage the latent buds for the following seaon. I just think consumers should be aware of these contradictions.

And what of irrigation? California is often held up as a gold standard for sustainable vineyard management. Yet, the bulk of wines produced in this frequently drought-stricken land are entirely dependent on irrigation. High-end wineries selling wines at premium prices are increasingly making efforts to reduce water usage, but the real volume of wine production comes from the entry to mid-tier level wines (sub 20$). A 2016 University of California Davis study shows an average of 300 litres of irrigation water used to produce a mere 1 litre of wine. The vineyards might look healthy, but at what cost to the planet?

As you can see, the subject is not as cut and dry as one might assume. Some wineries’ environmental efforts are little more than empty marketing ploys, while others are quietly making earth-friendly choices, without plastering the evidence of their good deeds on their labels.

…an average of 300 litres of irrigation water is used to produce a mere 1 litre of wine in California…

This is why I have always been more attracted to wineries that speak about sustainability rather than strictly defined organic practices. My ideal wine producer makes ecological choices holistically and pragmatically; weighing out environmental impact at each juncture (within feasible economic limits) rather than following a pre-set guideline. They also consider the social aspect of their enterprise. An estate that treats their grapes better than their employees surely doesn’t deserve our patronage?

Don’t mistake my meaning. I am not against organic certification; many adherents truly are leaders in vineyard ecology. And I certainly champion any efforts a winery makes to become more green. I merely suggest that wine drinkers beware of putting blind faith in estates’ organic claims, and not jump too quickly into assuming the moral high ground for these wines over their ‘conventionally farmed’ peers.