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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.

Life

A PREGNANT PAUSE

Beaune carousel 2

I remember the feeling of nervous anticipation as I navigated my way through the Vienna airport in the winter of 2015. I was on my way to meet my fellow Masters of Wine students for our first year seminar in Rust, the heart of the Burgenland wine region of Austria.

There were a host of reasons for my sweaty palms and racing heart. Would my new colleaugues prove to be far more knowledgeable and experienced than me? Would our MW teachers be pretentious and aloof? And, above all…how would the group react to my rather prominent mid-section?

On retrospect, I suppose that preparing for the worst (judgemental comments and disapproving stares), made the reality a pleasant surprise. The organizer singled me out in a loud, yet jolly voice as ‘the pregnant one’, and reactions were a mix of disinterest or polite congratulations. No one seemed to find it odd that I was embarking on intensive wine tasting studies in my ‘delicate condition’. 

No one seemed to find it odd that I was embarking on intensive wine tasting studies in my ‘delicate condition’. 

In fact, I was regularly regaled, through out the week, with the story of Jancis Robinson sitting (and passing) her Masters of Wine exams while 8 months pregnant. To the MW set, this was irrefutable proof that one can prevail in the face of changing tastebuds, heartburn and general exhaustion.

Now, two years on, I find myself back in the same position; waddling into industry tastings to ply my trade. This time around I am in North America rather than Europe, and while I have not noticed any outright disapproval, I have met with much more curiousity about the logistics of wine tasting while pregnant.

Pregnancy takes your body on a bit of a wild journey. Your hormones are all over the place and most definitely affect your sense of smell and taste. Each woman has their own experience, and I can only speak of my two rides on this crazy carousel.

Pregnancy takes your body on a bit of a wild journey…Attraction to and repulsion by certain smells is so strong that I lose all notion of objectivity.

The first three months are tricky. Attraction to and repulsion by certain smells is so strong that I lose all notion of objectivity. It is almost impossible to neutrally judge a wine’s merits in these conditions. The tasting portion is even worse, with the separate structural elements of acid, tannin, oak, alcohol, residual sugar all standing out in jarring opposition. I suppose that this is nature’s way of keeping me off the sauce in that first critical phase while the embryo implants.

Around month four or five, a renewed sense of pleasure returns and with it, the bitter reality of having to wait out a long, dreary ‘dry season’. On the plus side, sensory perception appear to be functioning on high alert, with separate, clearly defined aromatics near bursting from the glass. Wines seem more harmonious on the palate (depending on quality level) and infinitely more desirable. 

The only foe that plagues me until the end is acidity. Dry wines with high acid levels remain unpalatable through out. Beloved wines like Chablis, Sancerre and Champagne lose much of their appeal.

Sensory perception appear to be functioning on high alert, with separate, clearly defined aromatics near bursting from the glass.

The most fascinating aspect of the whole process is the aftermath. While my sense of smell didn’t remain quite as sensitive after giving birth, I definitely feel that I retained more accute olfactory capacities than was previously the case. A specific wine tasted pregnant, that had revealed so much more nuance to me than before, still did so afterwards. Come July, I am hoping for a similar result.

And oh the sheer bliss of drinking wine again after such a long spell of carefully sniffing, swirling and spitting! In my case, absence definitely does make the heart grow fonder. Favourite wines are rediscovered like long lost friends, grown infinitely more special after such a long spell apart.

All in all, I think that pregnancy has and is enhancing my tasting ability and enjoyment. There are undeniable setbacks as our tastebuds adjust, and as we settle into a new, slower work pace during the waiting months and the sleepless nights with crying newborns. However, in my opinion, the rewards vastly outweigh the sacrifices.

Life

BEWARE THE LITTLE WHITE VAN

Spices at the market
I bring you a final excerpt from my 2010 blog “The Rhône Canuck”, written during the 10-years’ I lived as an expat Canadian in France. This episode is all about culture shock, white vans and the pleasures of market day.

When I was a kid growing up in the ‘burbs of Montréal, the grownups were always warning us to beware of men driving around in white vans.  They were loathe to explain why, but something in their serious expressions made us, for once, heed their advice.

Since then, the white van has always been synonymous with kidnappers and paedophiles in my mind.  It was therefore somewhat disconcerting, upon arriving in France, to see the sheer quantity of them on the roads.  It seems to be an unwritten law here that all plumbers, electricians, construction workers, farmers, etc. can only drive this type of vehicule. They are literally everywhere, and have funny little brand names like “Jumpy” and “Kangoo”…which should lessen their intimidation factor, but somehow doesn’t. Perhaps it is their lack of side windows that re-inforces old fears of what could be concealed within.

White vans are the French equivalent to the pick up truck…though mono-colour, and with none of the rugged cowboy-esque charm. Today is market day in my little town of Villeneuve-les-Avignon, so the parking lots around the main square are crammed with (menacing) rows of these identical machines.  When the van doors slide back, they are found to hold nothing more terrifying than crate upon crate of fresh vegetables, cheeses, meats, spices and other such riches.

Market day is a glorious day in little Provençal towns.  Frustratingly they are often held in the middle of the week (Thursday for me) and only from 6am to lunchtime.  But if you do manage to pull a sicky, or drag yourself out of bed in the wee hours the experience is worth it.  The colours of all those courgettes, aubergines, tomatoes, olives, etc. is mind boggling.

There is always a little outdoor café next door with all the old men holding court, drinking thimbleful after thimbleful of sharp, white Côtes du Rhône or Picpoul-de-Pinet.  Everyone shouts across to one another and the vendors flirt shamelessly; especially if you have a ‘petit accent’. 

You generally end up buying far more than you really need and cursing yourself a week or so later when you find slimy lettuce hiding behind the camembert in the far reaches of the fridge, but what the hell…it beats the scary hyper marchés (giant wallmart-esque supermarkets).

The truly tricky part is finding the strength to exercise self-restraint.  After the marketing is done, the café is a terrible lure.  Why not just stop for a half hour and a nice, refreshing Picpoul?  The glasses are so small, maybe just another one for the road?  Oh, they have oysters & shrimp too?  And suddenly its 4pm and you find yourself wandering home…ready for the sieste.

Life

A MOST CURIOUS JOURNEY

Rover
Photo credit: www.classicandperformancecar.com

My grandfather Frank Egan was a wine merchant in London many years ago. It was a gentler time, so my mother would have me believe. A time where the answering of letters, dictating of future correspondence and tasting of wines would take place in the morning, thus leaving gentlemen free to enjoy a long lunch and retire to their clubs for the afternoon. Regular “breakage” would keep the house well stocked in vintage Champagne, which served nicely as a little apéritif to enjoy in the bath before supper.

The only wine regions that really mattered could be rattled off in short order: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, the Mosel Valley, Porto and Sherry. This narrow focus allowed educated tasters to become highly proficient in the myriad lieux-dits, individual producers and specific vintage traits of each area. Wines were assigned a personality rather than described with a laundry list of aromas. Frank liked to compare his wines to women or racehorses. To him, this visual imagery aptly conveyed the rounded, voluptuous charm of a warm vintage Vosne-Romanée or the taut, powerful muscle of a young Pauillac.

When visiting his growers, Frank would make two appointments a day, thus allowing for lunch with one and dinner with the other. He was driven by chauffeur so as to properly honour the excellent wines of his gracious hosts. Day time attire consisted of pin striped suits and a bowler hat when in the city, and evening events invariably called for black tie.

In today’s fast paced, global wine industry such a leisurely rhythm seems unfathomable. But what would Frank make of us were he suddenly catapulted sixty-odd years into the future?

Though I only knew him through stories and photos, I can imagine him sitting in some trendy wine bar, staring agape at the tattooed, beardy sommelier, repeating the words ‘Nerello Mascalese?’ with a puzzled air. I can just see him wandering the aisles of a big box store marvelling at the quantity of ‘SKUs’, at the labelling by grape variety, and the vast number of wine producing regions.  Fine wines in screw cap? From New Zealand?

The frenetic pace of wine retailing in this social media age would surely baffle him. And he might feel as though he had stepped into the pages of a sensationalist science fiction pulp, observing the use of GPS, sensors, probes and drones in the vineyards.

However, in terms of small-scale, fine winemaking, he would likely find himself back on familiar ground; much more so than if his time travelling Rover had dropped him in nineteen eighty. For the pendulum swung from tradition to innovation to such a violent degree with the embracing of mechanization, chemical weed and pesticide controls and so forth, that we are now seeing the inevitable counter movement.

Conscientious, quality-minded growers are increasingly organic (or in the process of conversion). They focus on canopy management techniques and decreasing irrigation frequency. In the cellar, spontaneous fermentation with indigenous yeasts, partial or whole cluster fermentation, and the absence of fining or filtration are all the rage for many a premium, artisanal winemaker. Were Frank to hear an estate manager proudly detail these exacting methods, he may scratch his head. He would likely think to himself, well yes, those are fairly standard procedures, what’s this chap so excited about?

If he were to taste the sought-after wines of today, fashioned in the post-Parker age of restraint, purity and freshness, he may not even find that his beloved Burgundies taste all that different. They are certainly a little riper and fleshier, potentially with silkier tannins, but recognizable all the same.

After the excitement of his incredible journey, it would be understandable if Frank hurried back to nineteen fifty to settle his nerves with a wee dram with his cronies. Yet perhaps I underestimate my progenitor… He may have been the kind of intrepid fellow that, once launched on the path of adventure, could not resist his curiosity. Turning the Rover’s dials to twenty eighty, what might he discover?

Touching down in Bordeaux mid-summer, he might feel the need to take off his blazer, and even roll up his sleeves. According to climate change focused researchers at the Institut de la science de la vigne et du vin, Bordeaux weather may more closely resemble that of coastal Portugal in as little as twenty to thirty years. Examining the back label of a fine claret, he might find the late ripening Tinto Cao grape listed along side Cabernet and Merlot.

Will Champagne make only red wines, and the finest bubblies hail from England and Tasmania? Will Frank find Napa and Barossa Valley vineyards all but abandoned? With the sheer size and massive ambition of China, the twenty eighty equivalent to supermarket shelves could well be dominated by the descendants of Great Wall and Changyu.

Perhaps he will stumble upon a post-apocalyptic scenario with massive swathes of vineyards lost to virulent parasite epidemics. By then, the disease resistant, cold hearty Regent hybrid and others of its ilk could conceivably be household names.

Alas, it is time to bring this time travel reverie to a close. Frank Egan must meekly step back into the black and white photos I cherish, nosing a selection of vintage Port. Though day dreams of him pushing on, increasingly poleward and higher in altitude, in search of the finest crus, will linger in my thoughts and drive me forward.

Frank Egan

Photo: Frank Egan & daughter Hazel, Guildhall tasting circa 1960.

 

Life

THE PURSUIT OF PURITY

Condrieu - glass & vineyard
Photo credit: Condrieu vineyards, Jasper Van Berkel

Purity. This simple six letter word conjures up profound connotations of flawless perfection. In recent years, it has become a buzzword for the natural wine movement. It is bandied about freely in winery literature, press articles and the like. In a recent Meininger’s article, Canberra-based natural winemaker Bryan Martin reckoned that his pét nat sparkling Riesling offers, ‘the most pure expression of Riesling that you can get’.  Isabelle Legeron asserts that, ‘natural wines have purer flavours…’ in the Basic Introduction to Natural Wine on her excellent website.

Let me start by saying that I am an enthusiastic supporter of growers that strive to create healthy, balanced vineyards free of chemical poisons. I actively seek out producers crafting singular wines that stand out from the crowd. I therefore applaud natural winemaking and its laudable principles. However, I take issue with the community’s appropriation of the notion of purity.  This act has tacit implications for other winemaking styles. It also calls into question the true motivation of its admirers.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, purity means ‘freedom from adulteration or contamination’. The majority of low interventionist wines are made without additives. In this sense, deeming them pure is a fair assessment. Wild yeasts are allowed to spur spontaneous fermentation, acid levels are not adjusted, commercial enzymes are eschewed and sulphur dioxide, if used at all, is kept to a strict minimum. In ideal conditions: impeccable winery hygiene, scrupulous oxygen management, precise temperature control from fermentation right through to the moment of consumption, these wines can be divine. The complexity, elegance and, indeed purity, of well-made natural wines is, to me, a given.

But ideal conditions are rarely achieved in winemaking, as in life. Naturally occurring yeast colonies often struggle to complete fermentation as alcohol levels and temperatures rise. Stuck fermentations are common leaving the must at risk of exposure to all manners of yeasts and bacteria that can significantly alter aromatics and flavours. This isn’t always a bad thing. In certain cases, the result is a heightened complexity that gives the wine infinitely more appeal. Be this as it may, microbial infection is a form of contamination, rendering the affected wine impure if we are to take the dictionary definition literally.

…ideal conditions are rarely achieved in winemaking, as in life.

This idea takes on additional significance if we consider the most common usage for this term. More often than not purity, as relates to wine, is a descriptor for the character of the fruit. In the glossary section of the Wine Cellar Insider, purity is likened to ‘tasting a sweet, ripe berry off the vine’. And yet, the heady raspberry bouquet of Grenache is muted in the presence of pungent Brettanomyces-induced barnyard aromas. The acrid pitch of high volatile acidity levels overshadows the fruity vibrancy of even the spriteliest Gamay. To me, wines protected from microbial and oxidative reactions, with precision and restraint, show far brighter, more expressive fruit.

The reputed natural wine advocate Pierre Jancou, speaking though his website MorethanOrganic.com, purports that natural wines have ‘purity and honesty of expression’, while wines made in a conventional way ‘taste of the same few manufactured flavours’. The term conventional is murky. For many adherents to the natural wine movement, any manipulation in the winery equates to conventional winemaking. Following that logic, the simple act of chaptalising, commonly practiced in most cool vintage for even top Burgundy estates, renders wines conventional. I don’t know of many fortunate enough to taste the exquisite wines of Domaine Leflaive that would claim they lack complexity or a true sense of terroir.

The notion of honesty of expression is also troubling as it stakes out a moral high ground for natural wines. The insinuation is anything but subtle. Wines made with any form of vinification aides or antioxidants are dishonest; those that imbibe are being duped. So does the practice of egg white fining at Château Margaux make their wines less sincere? With the softening of the tannins, does the pure expression of this storied wine lessen?

The notion of honesty of expression is troubling as it stakes out a moral high ground for natural wines.

American writer Calvin Trillin once said, ‘the price of purity is purists’. Time and again, I have found myself staring down zealous sommeliers who swears only by natural wines. They have an almost religious fervour about them, blithely filling their wine lists with offerings that only a handful of customers will actually enjoy. They condemn other wine styles and patronize those that dare to offer a differing opinion.

The thought that intrigues me is, deep down, do enthusiasts truly love the wines, or is it the idea of experiencing so-called purity that has them hooked? Every field has its share of purists. My musician brother told me of audiophiles that go to insane lengths and spend upwards of 50 000$ on sound systems in the pursuit of ‘the perfect sound’. Where does one draw the line between passion and obsession? And what is the virtue of purity for purity’s sake?

The danger, as I see it, is a narrowing of scope. Purists often have a limited view of what is acceptable, and what is not. Applying a strict set of doctrines to winemaking seems a step backward. I often hear natural wine advocates claim that the wines hearken back to the days before industrialization. And yet, I am quite sure that if our forefathers, who watched in dismay when their wine turned vinegary, could have flipped a switch to cool their tanks, or restarted fermentation with cultured yeasts, they would have. The winemakers I admire most embrace both tradition and innovation. They step back when they can and step in (with a gentle touch) when necessary to preserve wine from spoilage.

The danger, as I see it, is a narrowing of scope. Purists often have a limited view of what is acceptable, and what is not.

For all the well-crafted natural wines out there that truly embody a notion of purity, there are as many top class conventionally made wines that can justly make the same claim. The term cannot simply be brandished by one camp as a distinguishing feature of style.  Firstly, because the assertion is often inaccurate. Secondly, as applying the word to a specific winemaking philosophy carries the insinuation that wines not made in this manner are impure and therefore less worthy. This powerful implication could well be the reason that many wine lovers have become such die-hard fans. Perhaps it is time for natural wines to lay down the banner of purity and let drinkers decide for themselves?

 

Life

A Brand New Screwing Machine…

Photo credit: Gabriel Meffre
After a few weeks hiatus, I bring you another excerpt from my 2010 blog “The Rhône Canuck”. This episode is all about the ridiculous subtleties of language that can trip you up when living abroad…

 

6 years on living in France, and I finally feel that my French is reasonably good. Of course my accent will always remain a dead give away and I seem destined to endure the vaguely patronising title of “la petite canadienne”, but all in all je me débrouille pas trop mal.

And so, after years of being teased for my gaffes in French (apparently a salopette does not mean what I thought it did…), I can now retaliate. For although many Frenchies declare themselves to be bilingual on their CVs, the percentage that actually does speak and write intelligible English is relatively small. I am regularly confronted with winery technical sheets that enthusiastically describe the “profound colour”, “specific nose” and “generous matter” of Côtes du Rhônes and Gigondas. Or, my personal favourite, the ageing process of a Merlot being explained as “breeding in tank for 6 months”. And what better food pairing suggestion than “foul”?

I still chuckle when I think of an old marketing colleague proudly explaining to a client that we had just invested in a “brand new screwing machine” (a screw cap closure unit for our bottling line). My very polite and conservative client from Saskatchewan and I burst out laughing until tears streamed down our faces…and the more we laughed, the redder and more tight-lipped my poor colleaugue became.

But before I get too smug, I must admit that this immersion in franglais has taken an alarming toll on my English. I find myself saying things like “It would arrange me if you would pass by at 6” or that I am going to “profit from the nice weather to go for a walk”. Looks like the French might have the last laugh after all…

Life

FROM BEAUNE CANUCK TO RHONE CANUCK

Dentelles de Montmirail
Photo credit: Gabriel Meffre

Hi folks. Here is the second installment in the “Throwback Thursdays” republication of my 2010 Rhône Canuck blog. This brief post details my move from Burgundy to the Rhône Valley. Enjoy!

So here I am happily ensconced in the foothills of the majestic Dentelles de Montmirail (the range of craggy mountains that towers over the sleepy hamlet of Gigondas).  My new job? To sing the praises of the noble marriage of Grenache & Syrah.

Please don’t think that I have forsaken my first loves, Pinot & Chardonnay.  They still stand mightily on their pedestals and I make the pilgrimage back to the motherland regularly!  But somewhere around my 3rd winter in Beaune the endless winter fog got the better of me.  The locals scoffed at a Canadian complaining about the cold, but these people don’t heat their lofty 17th century homes. The damp seeps in every corner and you can only put on so many sweaters before you start feeling like the Michelan man.  Sure the vin chaud helps, but what with the glass or so of petit Chablis at lunch, a kir or three for the apéro, a nice bottle of Pommard with dinner and maybe a Poire Williams for the digéstif…Beaune was definitely having a wee effect on my young liver!

So what’s a wine-loving Canuck to do?  Go home and work for one of our beloved monopolies, scheming up ways to bring the next Fuzion to Canada?  Certainly not! A stint in South Africa as a lowly winemaking assistant for Hamilton Russell Vineyards, that was the solution.  What an incredible place…the endless blue skies, the breathtaking sunsets, the generosity of spirit!  Almost, but unfortunately not quite, makes you forget the endless shantytowns, the breathtaking inequality…

A few months and a pair of callused, purple hands later, I realised what a great job sales is!  So off back to France, to start anew, in the sunny and WINDY southern Rhône as a proud footsoldier for the maison Gabriel Meffre.