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Acidity in Wine & Why it Matters

acidity in wine

What do experts mean when they praise acidity in wine? Critics regularly enthuse about the racy acid of a German Riesling or the lively, crisp nature of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Why is acidity so important in wine appreciation?

According to tasting expert Michael Schuster in his excellent, Essential Winetasting book: “Acidity shapes and puts into relief the flavours in wine”.  Consider a well-made Beaujolais or Burgundian Pinot Noir. The red berry and cherry notes seem to pop on the palate. This is due to the acidity in wine lifting and highlighting the fruit; giving it a juicy, tangy quality.

“Acidity shapes and puts into relief the flavours in wine”.

Acidity is a crucial factor in wine balance. Low acid wines – think cheap Viognier from a hot region – can feel flat and heavy. Sweeter wine styles lacking sufficient acidity are cloying. High alcohol wines, without freshness, appear almost thick on the palate and warming on the finish.

Balance is the ultimate gauge of wine quality. When all components that make up a wine’s character – its flavours, body, acidity, alcohol, dryness/sweetness, tannin, etc. – are in harmony, you may barely even perceive them individually. Rather, they coalesce to form a cohesive whole.

Acidity is a crucial factor in wine balance…though what constitutes balance is entirely personal…

What constitutes balance, when it comes to acidity in wine,  is entirely personal however. High acid white wines like Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc can appear pleasant to some, and aggressive to others. The combination of high acidity and a very dry palate (˂2 grams/litre of residual sugar) can appear particularly austere to many tasters. Residual sugar (occurring when fermentation is stopped before transforming all grape sugars into alcohol) can be a good thing for highly acidic wines, softening their sharp edges. It may surprise you how many notoriously high acid, seemingly dry wines are actually slightly sweet. Champagne, Riesling from multiple origins, and many New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc are just a few examples.

The capacity of a wine to age well is also greatly impacted by its acidity; notably when it comes to white wine. Acidity in wine acts like a preservative, significantly slowing down oxidation and playing a role in bacterial stability.

The capacity of a wine to age well is also greatly impacted by its acidity; notably when it comes to white wine.

It might be a little more apparent now why wine writers use so many terms to describe acidity in wine. In case you are wondering how to situate all of these weird and wonderful words on the scale of low to high acidity, I tend to use the following lexicon:

Low acidity: soft, lush, flabby, thick, heavy

Medium acidity: moderate, round

Medium + acidity: fresh, bright, lively, vibrant, brisk

High acidity: crisp, zesty, zippy, racy, bracing, piercing, laser-like, tangy, mouthwatering, steely, firm

Overly high acidity: sharp, jagged, tart, hard, malic, sour

Here is a selection of pleasingly balanced medium + to high acid wines that I have enjoyed recently:

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

Man Vintners Chenin Blanc Free-run Steen 2017, Western Cape, South Africa – 88pts VW

Attractive notes of yellow fruit are underscored by steely, mineral hints on the nose. Zesty acidity is matched by a taut structure and vibrant, ripe lemon flavours on this light bodied, unoaked Chenin Blanc. Clean and citrussy on the finish. For more on the Chenin Blanc grape, click here.

Where to buy: SAQ (17.05$)

Paco & Lola Albarino 2017, Rias Baixas, Spain – 89pts. VW

Not as exuberantly fruit forward as certain Albariños, but very pleasant all the same. Bright floral aromas mingle with candied white fruits (apple, pear, peach). Light in body, this crisp, yet rounded easy-drinking white features tangy orchard fruit flavours and saline hints on the finish. For more on the Spanish grape: Albariño click here and scroll down to the 4th paragraph (on Galicia).

Where to buy: SAQ (18.20$), LCBO (19.95$)

Domaine des Fines Caillottes Pouilly Fumé 2017, Loire Valley, France – 91pts. PW

I liked this so much in a recent blind tasting that I immediately went out to buy another bottle. Drinking very well now despite its youthful vigour, this aromatic Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc is brimming with gooseberry, tropical fruit, and grapefruit notes. Upon aeration herbaceous nuances and hints of oyster shell develop. Bracing acidity is ably balanced by the medium body and expansive palate structure. Bone-dry and unoaked, with a long, lively finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (26.40$)

Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Turkheim 2016, Alsace, France – 93pts. PW

Fantastic value for the price. Intensely fragrant and complex, with spicy aromas (cinnamon, clove, and star anise) overlaying yellow fruits, white flowers, and wet stone nuances. The medium bodied, earthy palate is lifted by pure, racy acidity and a steely structure. Mineral hints and bright yellow fruis linger on the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (27.10$)

Oremus “Mandolas” 2016, Tokaj, Hungary – 92pts. PW

This wine is made from the Furmint grape in the Tokaj region of Hungary, better known for their sweet, botrytised Tokaji wines. An incredibly stylish wine with intriguing hints of fennel, anise, and lemon on the nose. Crisp and highly textural on the palate, with medium body and a concentrated core of lemon, quince and orchard fruit. An attractive touch of phenolic bitterness frames the long finish nicely.

Where to buy: SAQ (30.25$)

Bret Brothers Mâcon-Villages “Cuvée Ephémère” 2016, Burgundy, France – 93pts. PW

I have yet to be disappointed by a wine from this producer. This lovely Mâcon is no exception. Lovely honeysuckle, yellow peach, and stony mineral notes feature on the nose. The palate is brisk, full-bodied and richly textured with good depth of flavour (yellow apple, peach, mango hints). The fruit is tangy and bright on the long, mineral-laced finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (35.50$)

Château Thivin Côte de Brouilly Cuvée Les Sept Vignes 2016, Beaujolais, France – 91pts PW

I tasted this first at the domaine earlier this summer, and subsequently bought a bottle upon returning home. Firstly, because it was so good. Secondly, because it was the same price at the cellar door and here! This wonderfully lively red features brisk acidity, and juicy red berry, cherry, violet, and spiced flavours. It is medium bodied, with earthy hints from ageing in oak oak foudres, and lovely, velvety tannins. Serve slightly chilled.

Where to buy: SAQ (24.55$)

Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva 2014, Tuscany, Italy – 92pts. PW

I tasted a series of Chianti from this producer recently, including an exquisite 2013 ‘Vignetto Il Poggio” that was pretty darn near perfection in my humble opinion. Sadly, the 99$ price of this wine is a little out of my reach…sigh. For less than half that price, this Chianti Classico Riserva is really fantastic. Enticing aromas of sweet, stewed tomatoes, red cherry, dried herbs, and potpourri feature on the nose. Very fresh on the palate, with a lovely chalky texture, medium body, and spicy, cedar hints. The tannins are still a little firm. Cellar for 2 – 3 years, or serve with red meat to soften the tannins.

Where to buy: SAQ (35.25$), inquire with agent about the “Il Poggio” 2013: Elixirs Vins & Spiritueux 

Reviews Wines

The Lost Wines of Valdeorras

valdeorras wines
Photo credit: www.telmorodriguez.com

“Il passado esta el futuro” cried Telmo Rodriguez, swirling a glass of Godello in one hand while gesturing energetically with the other. The past is the future. Thus began an impassioned speech on the recent history of Spanish wine, and the replanting of Valdeorras.

Rodriguez is well placed to comment on the subject. His family purchased the historic Remelluri estate in Rioja when he was just a boy. He witnessed first-hand the frantic pace of progress that engulfed the Spanish wine industry in the 1980s to early 2000s. He saw native grapes uprooted in favour of more popular international varieties. He saw gleaming stainless steel tanks replace concrete and wood. He was there for the “Parkerization” of wine styles, and has followed the aftermath.

In 1994, Rodriguez struck out on his own. He head east from Rioja to Navarra, a region then little known for its wine outside of Spain. In a time when Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot reigned supreme, he focused on the native grape Garnacha (aka Grenache).

As the company grew, Rodriguez continued his pursuit of indigenous grapes, from both famed and forgotten terroirs throughout Spain. In 2002, his wanderings took him to Valdeorras in Galicia – the rugged, rainy northwest corner of Spain.

Valdeorras, the “golden valley” acquired its name in Roman times, due to its wealth of gold mines. As was the case across much of Western Europe, the Romans planted vineyards that, centuries later, were tended by industrious monks.

Phylloxera, the Civil War, and the ensuing exodus of countryside dwellers saw Valdeorras’ vineyards abandoned en masse. The remote location, steep slopes, and unpopular grape varieties, doomed the valley to a long winter’s sleep.

Thankfully, enterprising young producers like Rodriguez have slowly begun filtering into the region and winemaking is once again a proud local tradition.

Situated on the eastern edge of Galicia, Valdeorras is located in the Ourense province, bordering Ribeira Sacra to the west and Bierzo to the north east. While maritime influences play a minor role on the local climate, the area is largely continental, with cold winters, warm summers and mild spring and fall seasons.

Slate mining is a major industry in Valdeorras, and a major soil type for the appellation’s vineyards. The hilly terrain, with altitudes raning from 300 to 700 metres above sea level boasts a wide diversity of other soils as well, ranging from alluvial, to calcaerous, to iron-rich clay, and granite.

White wine, made from the local Godello grape, is King in Valdeorras. Godello has long been touted the next “it” grape for white wine lovers. Although with a mere 1200 hectares planted, Godello won’t be bursting onto the international wine scene anytime soon. Wine experts liken Godello to Burgundian Chardonnay, with its crisp acid, lemon-fresh scent, mineral-laced flavours, affinity for oak ageing, and rich, weighty structure.

Red wines from Valdeorras are generally made solely or predominantly from Mencia. Better known as the major grape in neighbouring Bierzo, Mencia gives lively, light bodied reds with floral aromas, tart red fruit flavours, peppery hints and moderately firm tannins.

When Rodriguez first arrived in the area, he headed to the town of Santa Cruz, perched 600 metres above sea level, and spoke with its tiny community of just 938 souls. He observed the local vineyard practices and asked questions.

When he purchased a vineyard, it was upon the advice of the village elders, who deemed it the best. The “A Falcoeira” plot had been abandoned many years prior. Rodriguez set about replanting the land, and to the surprise of the locals, he did so in the historic manner. Rather than growing one single grape vine, he co-planted native red grapes.

Rodriguez just shrugs his shoulders when asked the blend of his signature wine from the A Falcoeira vineyard. The technical sheet for the “A Capilla” cuvée reads: Mencia, Brancellao, Sousón, Garnacha and others.

Reviving forgotten native varieties, and the ancient local tradition of field blends is what drives Rodriguez’s Galician endeavours today. He believes that Spanish winemakers across the country need to work harder to prove how unique, diverse, and exciting their top terroirs can be. For Rodriguez, incorporating the traditions of the past, with the high level of winemaking skill and tools of today, is perhaps the answer.

At a recent gathering in Montréal, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Telmo Rodriguez and tasting his range.

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

Gaba do Xil Godello 2017 – 88pts PW

Crisp, dry white with pretty lemon, green almond, fennel notes on the nose. Full-bodied, with a subtle, textural quality and moderate concentration of honeyed, nutty, savoury flavours. Finishes clean and fresh.

Where to buy: SAQ (21.60$)

Gaba do Xil Mencia 2016 – 87pts. VW

Discreet nose. Upon aeration, intriguing notes of red currant, blood orange, and white pepper come to the fore. Medium bodied, with brisk acidity, juicy red fruit flavours and a subtle vegetal hint. Tannins are silky, making for a smooth finish. Unoaked.

Where to buy: SAQ (19.80$)

Telmo Rodriguez “As Caborcas” 2015 – 93pts. PW

The first of the trio of Rodriguez’s top tier red wines from Valdeorras. As Caborcas hails from a 2.5 hectare vineyard in Santa Cruz featuring shallow granite soils planted on steep terraces. The is an old vineyard, boasting 60 year old co-planted vines of Mencia, Merenzao, Sousón, Godello, and Garnacha. Only 2500 bottles made.

Highly aromatic, with heady notes of macerated red cherry, cranberry, crushed strawberry, peony, and milk chocolate. Wonderfully fresh on the palate, with incredibly vibrant, highly concentrated notes of brambly, just ripe wild berries. This medium bodied, moderately firm red, finishes with powdery tannins that bring just a hint of attractive bitterness. Ageing in large, old foudres brings a rounded, earthy quality. Lovely!

Where to buy: SAQ (4 cases coming soon!). 77.25$

Telmo Rodriguez “O Diviso” 2015 – 94pts. PW

High altitude vineyards, 550 to 725 metres above the town of As Ermitas. The northwest exposure and soil diversity of this green slope long fascinated Rodriguez. The vineyard has a mix of old and recently planted vines; mainly Mencía, Brancellao, Sousón, and Garnacha, along with other red and white varieties.

A fuller, richer red than the As Caborcas. Intense aromas of ripe red cherry and black plum mingle with notes of rose, milk chocolate, and exotic spice on the nose. The palate is lively yet generous with impressive depth of flavour. Hints of leather and tobacco underscore the ripe red and black fruit flavours, and linger long on the finish. Fine grained tannins and well-integrated oak bring further polish.

Where to buy: SAQ (2 cases coming soon!). 77.25$

Telmo Rodriguez “A Capilla” 2015 – 96pts. PW

From the revered A Falcoeira vineyard, this 2015 cuvée is a stunner. The hot summer weather caused the vine to shut down briefly, allowing fresh acidity to be preserved. The steep granite-based slopes above Santa Cruz were largely replanted and are just now giving mature fruit of the depth and complexity sought by Rodriguez.

Incredibly elegant, with layer upon layer of aroma and flavour developing upon aeration. Notes of red currant, strawberry, rose, and cranberry, are underscored by autumnal, earthy hints and vibrant dried citrus peel. Brisk acidity is beautifully balanced by a rich, velvety mouthfeel, highly concentrated core, and full-bodied structure. Tannins are firm, yet perfectly ripe. The finish is almost endless, with notes of tea leaf, dark chocolate, fresh fruit, and cedar oak hints. Brimming with finesse.

Where to buy: SAQ (4 cases coming soon!). 77.25$

 

 

Producers Reviews

TERROIR WINE: The Winemaker’s Holy Grail

Randall Grahm Terroir Wine
Photo credit: Nicole diGiorgio sweetnessandlightphoto.com/ Bonny Doon Vineyards

The ambition of many a vineyard-owning winemaker is to craft the finest possible vin de terroir. It is a lofty notion – the story of one vineyard’s specific climate, soil type, orientation, and so forth, expressed through its grape variety(ies) and through the winemaker’s touch, to create a unique wine that could only come from that specific place and vintage.

Randall Grahm is a renowned Californian wine producer; founder of the Santa Cruz-based Bonny Doon Vineyard. Grahm has focused on the pursuit of terroir wines since selling his major brands: Big House Red, Pacific Rim, and Cardinal Zin back in 2006. At a recent tasting in Montréal, Grahm waxed lyrical on the subject.

Grahm separates wines into two categories: those that express winemaking technique, and those that convey provenance.

Grahm separates wines into two categories: those that express winemaking technique, and those that convey provenance. Both are of value. Not every vineyard site has superior qualities. Many are simply adequate to the task of producing good value, easy-drinking wine. And there is nothing wrong with that. A skilled winemaker can enhance quality using a variety of specialized techniques, but the resultant wines will never provoke the kind of “emotional or psychic resonance” Grahm attributes to terroir wine.

In certain, very special vineyards the world over, wine producers have observed a curious phenomenon. Despite using similar grape growing and winemaking techniques as practiced in neighbouring vineyards, the wines from these sites are different, and inexplicably better. They possess a sort of ethereal beauty that stirs the soul. In long established vineyard regions, these plots have been identified with special names or hierarchical classifications like Grand Cru, Grosse Lage, etc.

Grahm has traveled widely, and tasted terroir wines from across the globe. The one common factor he perceives in all of them is minerality. This buzz word is a hot topic of debate in wine circles. Wine writers (yours truly included) regularly describe wines like Chablis or Mosel Riesling as mineral – generally meaning that they smell of wet stone or struck flint, or that they provoke a prickly textural sensation on the palate separate from acidity or carbonation.

“Before I die, one thing that I want to know is…what is minerality?”.

Earth Science experts dismiss minerality as hogwash. A vine’s mineral uptake is so minute in quantity as to be imperceptible to the nose or palate, they say.  Theories abound on what causes these flavour compounds, but for now, no common consensus has been reached.

“Before I die, one thing that I want to know is…what is minerality?”. Grahm views minerality as a “function of greater resistance to oxidation”; an essential “life force” possessed by terroir wines. He sees a correlation between this mineral expression and “a presence of higher concentrations of minerals in soil, a favourable ratio of grape root mass to fruit mass, and healthy microbial life in the soil”. These are the conditions that Grahm is working with in his vineyard.

In a quiet corner of the San Benito County AVA, an inland area of the Central Coast of California, Grahm found Popelouchum. This 113-hectare vineyard in San Juan Bautista was a former settlement of the Mutsun people, a subset of the Ohlone tribe. The word means paradise in their dialect, and this is just what Grahm feels he has found.

Every effort is being taken here to ensure that the full potential of the site is expressed through the grapes. Dry farming using sustainable and biodynamic practices, low yields, moisture retaining biochar for soil amendments, and so forth.

Grahm muses that minerality gives wines an essential “life force” that sets them apart.

Grahm has even dedicated a portion of the vineyard to experimenting with growing grape crossings from seed. His ambition is to create new varieties perfectly suited to his land (and similar such vineyards) – with the necessary disease and drought resistance, along with an elegant, and refined flavour profile. This is important work in an era where climate change is dramatically altering growing conditions, making grapes once ideally suited to a site no longer viable.

The Popelouchum project is still in its infancy. The sole release, a 2015 Grenache grown from ungrafted vine cuttings taken from Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-pape, is incredibly vibrant with a highly perfumed, complex nose, silky structure, and persistent, dare-I-say mineral-laced finish. Sadly, you won’t find it on liquor store shelves. The bottling was so small that Grahm is sharing it privately with friends and enthusiasts. Commercial sales are still a couple of vintages down the road.

In the meantime, there are a wide range of Grahm’s Bonny Doon Vineyard wines on offer to distract us. They may not be the absolute expression of terroir that Grahm now seeks, but they certainly are skillfully made and very pleasant to drink.

My top 5 from this weeks’ tasting include:

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

Bonny Doon Vineyard Vin Gris de Cigare 2017 – 87pts PW

Pretty pale rose in colour. Subtle floral, and red apple hints feature on the nose. This tempting rosé really comes alive on the crisp, creamy textured palate. Light in body, moderately firm, with concentrated, tangy orchard fruit flavours.

Blend: Grenache, Mourvèdre, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Carignan

Where to buy: SAQ (22.75$)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Proprio Gravitas 2015 – 88pts PW

Attractive Sémillon character, with notes of lanolin, lemon zest, acacia, and exotic spice on the nose. Fresh, medium in body, with a smooth, rounded mouthfeel and pithy grapefruit notes on the finish.

Blend: Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat

Where to buy: SAQ (20.00$)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Blanc 2014 – 92pts PW

Absolutely killer quality for the price. Sourced from a single parcel, the Beeswax vineyard in Monterrey County. Intriguing aromas of fennel, anise, ripe lemon, apricot, and hints of toasty oak keep you coming back for more. The palate displays excellent balance, with fresh acidity, an ample frame, and highly concentrated, baked pear and spice flavours. Beautifully creamy and layered in texture. Just a shade warming on the finish.

Blend: Grenache Blanc, Roussanne

Where to buy: SAQ (35.00$)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant 2012 – 90pts PW

Quite earthy and brooding in nature, with aromas of licorice, black cherry, hints of pepper, and dried floral notes. Fresh and full-bodied, with a firm structure and ripe, grippy tannins. Moderate concentration of juicy, brambly red and dark fruit gives way to cigar box and spiced notes on the medium-length finish.

Blend: Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault

Where to buy: SAQ (40.00$)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Old Telegram 2016 – 93pts LW

Lovely floral nose, underscored by hints of dried orange peel, fresh cranberries, raspberries, and black cherry. This weighty, highly concentrated red really shines on the palate, with vibrant acidity, and well-integrated cedar-spice from mainly older oak ageing. The tannins are very elegant; fine-grained and ripe. The finish is long, earthy, and fresh.

Blend: 100% Mourvèdre

Where to buy: Enquire with agent, Trialto 

 

Education Reviews

ITS TIME FOR A GERMAN WINE REVIVAL

Drink German Wine
Photo credit: Deutsches Weininstitut

Cool climate has become a bit of a buzzword for wine enthusiasts in recent years. Marginal climates on the very brink of where grapes can successfully ripen are increasingly being sought out by growers conscience of the long term potential they offer. As temperatures continue to rise, and drought conditions worsen in many hot growing areas, cooler climates offer an attractive solution to climate change. The current fashion in wine geek circles is for crisp, elegant, lighter wine styles that these sites yield.

Sadly, when wine lovers think cool climate wines, they too often overlook the original cool climate king…

Germany.

Germany’s original vineyards are said to have been planted some 2000 years ago by the Romans. Much like in Burgundy, the powerful monasteries of the Middle Ages are credited with identifying many of Germany’s  finest terroirs. In the 18th and 19th centuries, German wines were as highly prized as their counterparts in France. Queen Victoria was well-known for her love of Rheingau wines from the Hochheim area. In many of his excellent books, wine writer Hugh Johnson sings the praises of the thrilling Rieslings of the Mosel and the Rheingau.

So why are German wines so hard to find on liquor store shelves and restaurant wine lists these days?

Yes, there were some dark days for German wine in the difficult aftermath of the the second world war. Firstly, a grape called Müller-Thurgau was widely planted through-out Germany. This variety was created by crossing two separate grapes (one being Riesling) in order to obtain a new, early ripening, high yielding grape that thrived in a wide range of soils and climates. The downside was that Müller-Thurgau produced a fairly bland, neutral white. The second issue was the rise in popularity, first domestically, and then internationally for a very sweet, insipid style of white wine called Liebfraumilch (think Black Tower, Blue Nun, Deinhard).

As these inferior wines proliferated, so to did mass consumer perception that this was the extent of Germany’s wine-making abilities. And stereotypes, once firmly established, die hard. Germany’s quality-minded wine producers never ceased producing excellent wines, and wine connoisseurs never ceased drinking them; these wines just became specialty products for those “in the know”.

As the trend toward drier white wine picked up steam in the 1980s and 1990s, Liebfraumilch sales waned and German wine began to disappear from larger liquor store shelves. Meanwhile in Germany, a quality revolution was quietly underway. Wine producers increasingly turned back to Riesling, began experimenting with sweetness levels, and singling out their best terroirs in single vineyard bottlings.

Today, the quality coming out of Germany is second-to-none, but the average wine drinker wouldn’t know that…because they can’t find any.

What is that makes German wines worth seeking out? Here are just a handful of reasons:

The Noble Riesling Grape

Riesling is praised by wine experts the world over, for its exceptional cellaring capacity and ability to express terroir. In simpler terms, the Riesling grape is very high in natural fruity acid. Acids act as a sort of preservative, allowing wines to maintain the vibrancy of their aromas and flavours over time. Riesling is rarely subjected to wine-making techniques (like malolactic fermentation or new oak ageing) that alter wine’s flavour profile. They tend to be light in body and delicate in texture. German Rieslings are often highly fragrant with aromas that range from apple, lemon, white flowers, and wet stone (in drier wines from the coolest areas) to intense honeyed, peachy, spiced notes for later harvested and/or warmer climate wines.

There is almost five times more Riesling planted in Germany than in any other country world-wide.

Riesling’s Wide Range of Styles

The Riesling grape excels in all styles, from sparking, to still; from bone-dry to lusciously sweet. Riesling’s high acid lends itself well to the production of quality sparkling wine. Its thin skins make it susceptible to botrytis (aka noble rot), a fungus that shrivels the grape berries intensifying sweetness and imparting interesting flavour compounds. The sweet German dessert wines made from partially to fully botrytised grapes are among the most complex, sought after wines in the world.

Quick guide to understanding sweetness levels on German wine labels:

  • Dry Riesling: look for the term “Trocken” on the label, “Halbtrocken” or “Feinherb” wines will be marginally sweeter
  • Sweet Riesling (in ascending order): Kabinett* (off-dry), Spätlese* (late harvested, medium sweet), Auslese (partially botrytised, sweet), Beerenauslese (heavily botrytised, very sweet), Trockenbeerenauslese or TBA (wholly botrytised, lusciously sweet), Eiswein (ice wine, no botrytis, sweet to lusciously sweet)

* Just for to make things more confusing, Kabinett and Spätlese wines can also be fermented dry (rather than have the fermentation halted while residual sugar remains in the wine, as is the case with good quality sweet wines). You will see the word Trocken on these labels.

Cool Climate Vineyards

Germany is the northernmost major wine-producing country in Europe. Its climate is cool and continental for the most part. Grapes grown in cool climates accumulate sugars more slowly. They require a longer growing season to fully ripen. Germany’s vineyards lack the abundant sunshine of more southerly origins, but they are blessed with warm, dry fall weather allowing the grapes to hang long on the vines. Grapes that ripen slowly like this tend to be fresher, with brighter fruit, and more complex (often mineral-laced) aromatics.

Steep Slopes & Winding Rivers

The favourable fall weather alone isn’t sufficient to ripen grapes in the coolest German vineyards. In places like the Mosel Valley, Riesling thrives due to the perilously steep slopes upon which it is grown. These sharp inclines give more direct sunlight to the vines therefore increasing the rate of photosynthesis. Rivers also play a major role in tempering chilly German weather. Water maintains stable temperatures far long than air. In cool climates, rivers act as heat reservoirs. All of Germany’s major vineyard areas grow along the banks of the Mosel (and its tributaries the Saar and Ruwer), the Rhine, and the Main rivers.

The Pinot Persuasion

Although Riesling is the best known German wine grape, many other varieties flourish here. In fact, Germany is the third largest producer of Pinot Noir in the world. Called Spätburgunder (sh-pate-boorgunder) here, the style varies widely from region to region but often features a pale garnet colour, crisp acidity, tart red fruit flavours, light to medium body, and smooth tannins. These vibrant reds offer fantastic value for lovers of earthier, fresher Pinot Noir styles. For tangy, silky versions look to the Ahr, Franken, or Rheingau. For bolder, fruitier styles, try Baden or Pfalz.

White Pinot grapes, namely Pinot Gris (aka Grauburgunder) and Pinot Blanc (aka Weissburgunder), are widely grown in the Rheinhessen, Baden, and Pfalz. Both grapes can be quite neutral and lean. However, when not over-cropped, and when vinified with care, they are both lovely, textural wines. Pinot Blanc tends to have firmer acidity, while Pinot Gris is more fragrant. Great German Pinot Gris is powerful and concentrated, with notes of ripe pear, tropical fruit, and spice. Pinot Blanc can be quite nutty and citrussy, with lovely freshness.

Perfect Balance

The single most important attribute a wine must have to pass muster with me, is balance. All elements that one can smell and taste must seem harmonious to the nose and palate. On a balanced wine, the aromas, the flavours, the acidity, the alcohol, the tannins and so forth all work together like an orchestra to create one beautiful sound from many different instruments. Whereas, on an unbalanced wine, certain aspects will seem jarring, and out of synch.

I regularly taste high acid wines with little to no sweetness, and find them so lean and austere that they provide little drinking pleasure. Where acidity is high, as with Riesling, residual sugar can provide an attractive counter-weight, enhancing the fruity flavours. Before dismissing the sweeter Riesling wine styles, try them against bone-dry Rieslings and see for yourself. I am constantly met with wine lovers who swear they only drink dry wines, only to prefer a slightly sweeter style when given a selection to taste. Also, high acidity levels mask the perception of sweetness. You may think your favourite wine is bone-dry, only to find it is slightly sweet. Next time you drink a bottle of Champagne, check the sugar level.

Other Benefits

Cool climate wines struggle to ripen and therefore never attain very high alcohol levels. In the case of sweeter wines, the arrested fermentation process means that not all the sugar has been transformed into alcohol resulting in even lower alcohol levels. German Riesling ranges from 5.5% alcohol for the very sweet wines, up to 12% for the driest examples. Even the red wines rarely exceed 13%.

For me, German Riesling is the perfect hot summer’s lunch wine. Its vivacious acidity quenches your thirst, and its low alcohol won’t leave you yawning.

Avoiding the Pitfalls

Before you race to the store to buy the first German wine you see, there are some basic rules to follow. Unfortunately, syrupy sweet, characterless German wine still exists today. Avoid the cheapest options (in this market that pretty much means everything under 15$). And if you really and truly don’t like sweetness in your white wine, scan the label for the word trocken.

If you are keen to try German sparkling wine (called Sekt), look out for a mention of origin on the bottle. Cheap German Sekt is truly dreadful stuff, with a heavy, candied sweetness. The grapes can be sourced from anywhere in the EU, so do not reflect German vineyard fruit.

For dry to sweet wines, if you prefer a very light, delicate style with elegant, tangy fruit, mineral and floral notes look for wines from the Mosel Valley or Nahe. If you want something a shade more powerful, steelier in structure, but equally racy, Rheingau is for you. Finally, if you want more rounded acidity, riper fruit and spicy notes, the Pfalz region offers this an abundance.

A Couple of Suggestions

In a recent tasting of over 100 German wines here in Montréal, only a handful were available for purchase at the SAQ. Here are my top 4 to get you started on your German wine journey:

Selbach-Oster Riesling QbA 2016 – 89pts VW

Incredibly lively white with moderate intensity of red apple, honey and ripe lemon aromas. Piercing acidity offsets the subtle sweetness nicely on this delicate, light-bodied white. The finish is clean, and fairly brimming over with juicy, tangy fruit.

Where to buy: SAQ (18.20$)

Weingut Leitz Eins Zwei Dry 2016 – 88pts VW

Crafted in a “dry” style, the 9g/L residual sugar is barely perceptible here. This is a classically styled Rheingau with its bracing acidity, firm structure, and hints of peach, lemon, and stony minerals. This zesty white is a sure to get your taste buds jumping.

Where to buy: SAQ (19.25$).

Villa Welter Weissburgunder Trocken 2016 – 87pts. VW

Restrained, yet elegant on the nose with subtle pear, green apple and floral notes. This charming, biodynamic Pinot Blanc really comes alive on the palate. Crisp, yet rounded acidity, an attractive layered texture and lingering saline hints on the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (20.00$)

Reichsgraf Von Kesselstatt Piesport Goldtropfchen Grosses Gewachs Riesling 2014 – 93pts. PW

Lovely complexity on the nose. Slatey minerality is underscored by delicate floral notes, yellow apples and hints of petrol. Notes of raw honey and peach develop with aeration. The palate is silky and light, yet impressively concentrated, with racy acidity ably matched by incredibly vibrant fruit. The finish is long and mineral-laden.

Where to buy: SAQ (45.00$)

For those keen to explore further, here is a short list of other excellent German wine producers currently sold in limited volumes through the SAQ:

Joh. Jos. Prüm, Mosel Valley

Willi Schaefer, Mosel Valley

Weingut Weiser-Künstler, Mosel Valley

Weingut Hermann Dönnhoff, Nahe

Weingut Klaus Keller, Rheinhessen

Weingut Künstler, Rheingau

Weingut Ökonomierat Rebholz, Pfalz

 

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.

Reviews

VERTICAL TASTING AT CHATEAU PICHON BARON

Pichon Baron Wine Tasting
Photo credit: Daphne Feng

Three weeks ago, I was still bundling my kids up in snow suits. Today, they are sweating in shorts and tee-shirts. There is just no accounting for weather these days. And, according to climate change experts, the frequency of extreme weather events, and erratic weather patterns, is only going to increase in the coming years.

One of the (many) things that makes fine wine so fascinating, is its variability from one growing season to the next. While, “everyday wines” generally list a vintage on the label, they aim to offer a consistent taste profile year after year. Not so with fine wines. The goal here is to show the best of what that year’s vintage had to offer. In cooler years, the winemaker may strive to showcase the lively acidity, elegance, and restrained, tangy fruit. In warm years, producers might focus on the rich texture, ample body, ripe tannins and so forth.

The idea is not to make a wine so wildly different from one year to the next that it is unrecognisable; but simply to respect the fact that wine is a natural product, made from the grape harvest of one season, in one place. Regardless of the weather, the unique attributes given to a wine by a great terroir will always shine through if the vineyards are managed with care.

…wine is a natural product, made from the grape harvest of one season, in one place…

Weather is a constant preoccupation for Bordeaux grape growers. The climate, notably on the left bank of the Gironde Estuary, is maritime. Winter is mild, and summers are generally dry and hot. It is in spring and fall that problems often arise. Inclement weather often plagues both seasons. Chilly April temperatures can bring frost, damaging new buds. Wet weather in May/ June can affect flowering, lowering the crop quantity and quality. In the fall, cool, rainy weather can delay ripening which is particularly problematic for the late maturing Cabernet Sauvignon grape. Under-ripe Cabernet Sauvignon can have pungent bell pepper aromas, overly firm acidity, and astingent tannins.

Just as poor weather can spoil a vintage; a run of fine weather can save it. Never ask a wine producer how they think the current growing season’s wines will be. Until the day the grapes are harvested, conditions can (and often do) change dramatically. Grapes that are struggling to ripen mid-summer can be perfectly mature by harvest if the end-of-summer weather is sunny and warm.

Just as poor weather can spoil a vintage; a run of fine weather can save it.

Our tour of the Château Pichon Baron estate began with a walk in the vineyards, under cloudless blue skies, on a 25°c day just two weeks ago. A far cry from the frosty weather of 2017! After a fascinating tour of the various Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot parcels, it was on to the winery to see the state-of-the-art facilities.

Our visit came on the tail of the busy “en primeur” week. In Bordeaux, the majority of wine estates pre-sell their while still in barrel. Top Bordeaux wines are often aged for 18 months to 2 years before release. However, just 6 months into their barrel ageing, an initial blend is created and poured for prospective buyers and journalists.

We were lucky enough to sample the new blend to kick off our tasting. Château Pichon Baron is often referred to as a “super second”, standing out amongst the Second Growths (Deuxième Grands Cru Classé). This acclaimed status came in the wake of AXA Millésimes purchase of the estate back in 1987. The new team made the bold decision to cut back on the quantities of Grand Vin produced, including only the finest Cabernet Sauvignon parcels from the plateau of deep gravelly soil shared with neighbouring Châteaux Latour and Léoville Las Cases.

The mark of a truly exceptional estate is that, even in poor vintages, their wines are impressive.

Château Pichon Baron wines are renowned for their firm Pauillac style, regularly referred to as powerful or masculine. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates, making up as much as 80% of the blend in many vintages. Merlot plays a minor role here, rounding out Cabernet’s bold structure. The wines are aged for 18 months, in 70 to 80% new French oak from a range of top coopers.

The mark of a truly exceptional estate is that, even in poor vintages, their wines are impressive. A vertical tasting back through the past eight vintages of Pichon Baron showed just that. Here are my impressions from a tasting that will live long in my memory.

Many thanks to the Pichon Baron team for your gracious hospitality.

Château Pichon Baron 2017

Vibrant dark fruits (black currant, plum, blackberry) feature on the nose, with hints of graphite, sweet tobacco, and floral notes developing upon aeration. Full-bodied, yet very fresh, silky, moderately concentrated, and quite approachable despite its youth. The tannins are very firm and grippy, and the cedar, spice scented oak is already quite integrated.

Growing season: “2017 was a year of contrasts” reads the Château’s vintage report. Dangerous frosts in late spring, and very wet conditions in June challenged the harvest. Luckily the hot, dry weather that followed allowed for decent ripening.

Château Pichon Baron 2016

Exquisite balance defines this vintage. Complex aromas of ripe dark plum, cassis, gamey notes, earthy nuances, and cedar fairly leap from the glass. The palate is dense, firmly structured, yet velvety in texture. Brisk acidity lifts the highly concentrated core of black fruit, licorice, and graphite notes perfectly. The finish is incredibly persistent, wonderfully fresh and framed by elegant, fine-grained tannins.

Growing season: “A long, splendid Indian summer helped the grapes reach excellent ripeness levels”. Sugar and phenolic ripeness was optimal through-out the region, leading to elegant, firmly structured, ripe wines for long-term ageing.

Château Pichon Baron 2015

Very fruit driven aromas and flavours. Overt notes of crushed black cherry, plum, and cassis dominate on the nose. Upon aeration, licorice, cedar, and graphite notes emerge. The palate is weighty, opulent, and fleshy, with impressive depth and intensity. Cedar, spice flavours from the oak are still quite prominent, though well-balanced, adding nuance to the heady fruit. Big, grippy tannins punctuate the finish.

Growing season: “Summer started with warm and sometimes scorching hot, dry weather”. The heat led to some water stress, causing the grape skins to thickens. Stormy periods in August and September boosted ripening. The resultant wines are powerful, tannic and ultra-ripe.

Château Pichon Baron 2014

Quite restrained on the nose, with earthy, gamey, graphite, bell pepper notes in the foreground. Just ripe cassis and dark cherry notes develop with aeration. Brisk acidity is matched by a tightly knit structure, and tangy black fruit flavours. Muscular tannins need time to soften. The finish is very fresh, with attractive cassis and herbal notes.

Growing season: Difficult early summer requiring careful green harvesting and leaf stripping to help the grapes ripen. Hot and sunny late summer weather spurred on ripening. Wines were leaner and fresher than in 2015 or 2016.

Château Pichon Baron 2013

Very attractive on the nose, with inviting mint and dark fruit notes, underscored by hints of mushroom and gamey nuances. Tightly knit and somewhat angular on the palate, with crisp acidity and a very firm tannic structure.

Growing season: “They key word for the 2013 harvest could be ‘responsiveness’ as we constantly had to adapt operations to the unstable weather conditions.” The cool, damp conditions of 2013 led to leaner, more marginally ripe wine styles.

Château Pichon Baron 2012

Understated, yet elegant nose featuring leafy, minty notes providing an attractive backdrop for bright cassis, plum, and licorice notes. Graphite and cedar notes emerge with aeration. Very youthful and firm on the palate, yet also quite plush in texture. Fine-grained tannins, and well-integrated oak bring additional finesse.

Growing season: A late blossoming, wet vintage, where particular care was needed with green harvesting, plot selection, and grape sorting. A good, yet not highly concentrated vintage.

Château Pichon Baron 2011

Alluring nose with subtle notes of black cherry, plum, exotic spice, and leafy, floral hints. Lively, moderately firm, and silky on the palate, with fresh, almost peppery tannins. This is a lighter, yet very well balanced vintage, with seamless oak integration, and a long, lifted finish.

Growing season: “2011 was an early vintage…by September, we were recording astonishingly high phenolic potential in our Cabernet Sauvignon”. Though not as highly regarded as the stellar 2009 and 2010 duo, 2011 is an attractive, fresh-fruited vintage.

Château Pichon Baron 2010

Fragrant, highly complex nose brimming over with ripe black and blue fruits, exotic spice, graphite, tobacco, earthy notes, and hints of game. Very powerful, firmly structured, and muscular on the palate, with a vibrancy to the acidity that brings great focus and precision. Incredible concentration of sweet dark fruit, tobacco, and cedar flavours lingers long on the finish, promising exceptional ageing potential.

Growing season: “Dry conditions, low temperatures, and exceptional sunshine were the three major climate factors in this vintage”. An outstanding, very balanced vintage with for long term cellaring.

Château Pichon Baron 2009

Intense aromas of macerated red fruits, black cherry, cassis, and plum, are underscored by heady floral scents, licorice, sweet tobacco, and cedar. A lovely freshness underscores the weighty, layered sweet fruit flavours ably. Broad, and velvety smooth, with polished tannins and attractive, integrated oak.

Growing season: “Rich levels of sugar and anthocyans turned out to be well above those estimated in pre-harvest analyses”. A long, hot, and dry summer producing very ripe, voluptous wines. A top vintage.

 

Reviews

A Week in the World of Luxury Wine

Chateau Pichon Baron Visit
Photo credit: Château Pichon Baron, AXA Millésimes

It was on a particularly cold and dreary day in January that I sat down to write an essay that would bring me here, today, staring out at the majestic terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley. The Institute of Masters of Wine had issued a challenge to its students; a chance to win a scholarship trip to Bordeaux and Porto courtesy of the illustrious AXA Millésimes group.

The tour would include visits to the second growth Château Pichon Longueville Baron in Pauillac, the first growth Château Suduiraut in Sauternes, Château Petit-Village in Pomerol, and the Quinta do Noval in the Douro Valley. Only five winning essays would be selected, giving the authors a truly intimate experience at each winery.

Such an exciting opportunity seemed worth penning a couple of pages on a topic of AXA Millésime’s choosing. And against all odds, I won!

The trip dates were set for late April, just six weeks before the Masters of Wine tasting exam. Preparing for this fateful event has consumed me over the past six months. Getting out from behind my spitoon and back in the vineyard was exactly what I needed to shake off the cobwebs. It was high time I reminded myself what all the struggle and sacrifice is for.

I arrived in Bordeaux to cool, blustery weather and felt a little disheartened. Months of daydreaming about brilliant sunshine will do that to you. The drive out of town furthered my sense of anti-climax. It had been some time since my last visit, and I had forgotten all about the ugly, commercial outskirts. The juxtaposition is startling. One minute you are staring out at super-markets, strip malls and squat, stucco housing, the next you are surrounded by swathes of vineyards and stunning châteaux.

We pulled up to Château Pichon Longueville Baron just before lunch. This was to be our home for the next two days. All traces of jetlag were washed away as I gazed up at the graceful turrets. A glass of chilled Agrapart Champagne also helped set the tone, for what has been one of the most unforgettable chapters of my wine journey so far.

From an impressive vertical tasting of recent vintages at Pichon Baron, to blending 2017 vintage Petit Village Pomerol, to a botrytis master class at Château Suduiraut in Sauternes, our Bordeaux experience was second-to-none.

Now, in the lazy heat of the Cima Corgo (Upper Douro), we are basking in the complexities and hedonistic pleasure of top-class Port at Quinta do Noval.

Over the next few articles, I will endeavour to share my adventures with you, so stay tuned!

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 Reviews Wines

The sparkling red wines of Lambrusco

Lambrusco sparkling red wine

Italy is the largest producer of sparkling wine on the planet. With its delicate bubbles, fruity personality, and affordable price, Prosecco has taken the world by storm. No longer reserved for special occasions, sparkling wine is now a popular after-work cocktail choice and brunch pairing.

But did you know that Italy also produces sparkling red wine?

And, did you also know that sparkling red wine is actually one of the oldest wine styles in existence? Some eperts claim that the Romans purposely left wine-filled amphorae in sunny spots to spur on a secondary fermentation, rendering still red wines slightly fizzy. Other historians claim that sweet, bubbly red wines were more often than not accidental, rather than a function of applied technique.

Whatever the historical methods, today’s version is definitely a deliberate, carefully crafted wine style. And it is called Lambrusco.

Forget any hazy notions you might have of Lambrusco as ultra-sweet, grape soda-pop wine. The better bottlings on the market today bear little ressemblence to this inglorious past. They remain vibrantly fruity – think tangy red berries and rhubarb – but are much drier, with intriguing earthy, savoury nuances, and an attractive bitter sensation on the finish. They are also quite light in alcohol; hovering around 11.5% for the most part.

Lambrusco hails from Emilia-Romagna. This verdant corner of northern Italy is one of the country’s heaviest culinary hitters. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar, spaghetti Bolognese, lasagna, prosciutto di Parma…these are just a handful of the region’s gastronomic treasures.

Confusingly, Lambrusco is both the name of the wine style, and the family of grapes from which it is produced. Over 60 different, related grapes exist in the Lambrusco family. They are all indigenous to the Emilia area, though they are planted more widely today.

Four of the best-quality Lambrusco grapes include:

  • Lambrusco Grasparossa (deep in colour, bold, fleshy, tannic)
  • Lambrusco Maestri (inky dark colour, intense, grapey perfume)
  • Lambrusco Salamino (deep purple colour, vibrant acidity, fruity, floral aromas, full-bodied)
  • Lambrusco di Sorbara (pale in colour, vibrant acidity, very fragrant, highly concentrated flavours)

Lambrusco wines are generally a blend of several Lambrusco grapes, as well as a small percentage (15% or less) of other local varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon is also a permitted, minor blending grape, bringing body and firmer structure to wines.

Styles range from secco (anywhere from bone-dry: 0g/L residual sugar, up to subtly fruity: 15g/L), semi-secco (off-dry: 12 – 32g/L), amabile (medium sweet: 30 – 50g/L RS), dolce (sweet: 45g/L +). If you like your bubbly dry, ask your friendly liquor store employee what the wine’s “residual sugar” is before purchasing. They usually have this kind of information on file. Residual sugar is a wine geek’s term for the sweetness level. Anything at 6g/L or less should appear quite dry, while the 6 – 12g/L range should still just give you a ripe, fruity finish rather than intense sweetness.

The majority of Lambrusco is made via tank fermentation. This process gives soft, gentle bubbles deemed “semi-sparkling” – or Frizzante in Italian. If you are curious to learn more about sparkling wine production methods (and who isn’t, really?), check out my “Bubbles” article here for more information.

Increasingly, Lambrusco producers are experimenting with other vinification techniques like the “metodo classico” (traditional method bottle fermentation, as in Champagne), and the “metodo ancestrale” (ancestral method, a variant on bottle fermentation). The former produces wines with much more vigourous mousse, and a creamy, layered quality on the palate. The latter is generally semi-sparkling, but with added nuance and textural appeal.

I was re-introduced to the exciting world of Lambrusco by the charming Scardova Ermes. As the export manager for leading Lambrusco producer Medici Ermete, Scardova travels the world singing the praises of his fine red bubblies.

Medici Ermete is a family-owned winery in Reggio Emilia, with over a century’s experience in crafting fine Lambrusco. They own 75 hectares of vineyards, and also source top quality grapes from long-standing grower partners. They receive regular accolades for their wines, including the top score of Tre Bicchieri in Italy’s famous Gambero Rosso wine publication, over 9 consecutive years, for their Concerto wine.

Scardova kindly sent me a range of wines to try. I roped in my esteemed sommelière friend Michelle Bouffard to taste with me. Here are our impressions:

Medici Ermete “Phermento” Lambrusco (metodo ancestrale)

Crafted from the pale, fragrant Lambrusco di Sobara grape, grown on top vineyard sites in the Modena area, this is a lovely apéritif wine. Vibrant aromas of rhubarb, wild strawberries, and herbal notes feature on the nose. The palate is crisp and lively, with delicate bubbles, and a very dry finish. The subtly creamy texture, and hints of baker’s yeast, give this pretty, pale pink bubbly additional appeal.

Medici Ermete “Concerto” DOC Reggiano Lambrusco 2016 – secco

A more robust offering, with a deep purple hue and medium body. Aromas of wild blueberry, candied cherry, and balsamic hints reveal themselves upon aeration. This fresh, delicately sparkling – secco style red- has soft tannins, and a bright, fruity finish (10g/L residual sugar).

Medici Ermete “I Quercioli” DOC Reggiano Lambrusco – secco

Made predominantly from a blend of Lambrusco Salamino and Lambrusco Marani grapes, this attractive red hails from one of Medici Ermete’s top estates, Tenuta Quercioli. Medium purple in colour, this weighty offering features elegant floral, crushed raspberry, dark berry, and herbal nuances on the nose. The palate is wonderfully textured, with lots of tangy berry fruit, and fine, subtly bitter tannins. Bright acidity ably balances the off-dry finish (14g/L).

Medici Ermete “I Quercioli” DOC Reggiano Lambrusco – dolce

Similar sourcing and blend as the previous wine, but crafted in a sweet style. Complex, earthy aromas abound, underscored by ripe plum, prune, balsamic notes, herbal nuances, and mulling spices. Rich and very smooth on the palate, the soft bubbles, and fresh acidity lift this dessert-style wine nicely. Savoury hints add interest on the finish, as do the mildly astringent tannins.

Serving Tips

These are wines to drink chilled. Medici Ermete suggests a serving temperature of 8 – 10°c. The mix of earthy, savoury notes, gentle tannins, and subtle fruity sweetness (for the secco wines) makes these semi-sparkling reds a fun pairing choice for a wide variety of dishes. Give them a try with a mixed plate of charcuterie and hard cheeses. Salut!

Where to buy

Unfortunately, good quality Lambrusco is hard to find on most liquor store shelves. Medici Ermete’s Concerto is available in Québec (17.70$) and BC (19.99$). To enquire about the other wines in their range, contact their regional agents: Italvine in Québec, Profile Wine Group in Ontario, Stile Brands in Western Canada,  Kobrand in the USA.

 

Reviews Wines

The unique, ageworthy wines of Amarone

amarone wine
Photo credit: Tedeschi Wines

With so much cross over nowadays, in terms of viticultural and winemaking techniques, it is getting harder and harder to find unique wine styles. Burgundian look-a-like Chardonnay is cropping up through-out Australia. German Rieslings are getting drier and more alcoholic, especially in the warmer sub-zones, making them harder to differentiate from Alsace.

To make matters worse (from the point of view of a Masters of Wine student), popular grape varieties – think Syrah or Sauvignon Blanc – are being planted all around the world. Deducing the origin of a wine in a blindtasting scenario has never been so complicated.

So when you (the wine student) are handed a glass of inky, dense, full-bodied red wine, with a heady fragrance of stewed black fruits, figs, kirsch, peonies, and spice, you find yourself smiling. For Amarone is truly a wine apart.

A dense, full-bodied red wine, with a heady fragrance of stewed black fruits, figs, kirsch, peonies, and spice.

Hailing from the Valpolicella region of Northeast Italy, Amarone is a very specific wine style. It is made from the same indigenous grapes as Valpolicella, but from the best vineyard sites featuring mature vines and lower yields. Harvested at optimal ripeness, the grapes are then left to shrivel in warm, ventilated drying lofts for several months. For more information on this special process, called appassimento, click here to read my article “Valpolicella 101”.

Once the grapes are deemed sufficiently raisined, they are lightly crushed and then macerated at cool temperatures for an extended period prior to fermentation. This “cold soak” process allows good colour and aromatic development without excessive tannin extraction. A long, relatively cool fermentation follows bringing the wines to near dryness, with warming alcohol levels, regularly surpassing 15%.

Amarone is a very specific wine style…from the best Valpolicella vineyard sites featuring mature vines and lower yields.

An extended ageing period follows in small barrels or large oak casks whereby tannins mellow, wines harmonize, and aromatic complexity heightens. This is where “tertiary” aromas and flavours like fig, leather, or earthy notes originate.

On a grey, blustery day last month, I pulled the hood of my parka tightly about my face, and trudged through the snow to a very worthy event. The 13 Valpolicella estates that make up the Famiglie Storiche were in town presenting a vertical tasting of Amarone.

This group of prestigious, family-owned wineries share a passion for Amarone as a symbol of the Valpolicella territory. They hold themselves to a higher standard of quality than is required for the appellation.

The aim of the Famiglie Storiche estates is to show the world just how impressive Amarone can be when produced to the highest quality standards.

They believe that the finest, Amarone-worthy vineyards are situated on slopes. These hillside vines receive more direct sunlight, allowing for optimal ripening. Furthermore, these sites have shallow soils that limit vine vigour, lowering grape yields, and thus giving wines of greater concentration and intensity. Grapes are left to ripen to a minimum potential alcohol of 15%. The appassimento period is longer, and the minimum oak ageing duration is 36 months (vs. 24 months required for basic Amarone).

The aim of the Famiglie Storiche estates is to show the world just how impressive Amarone can be when produced to the highest quality standards. The Montréal tasting spanned vintages from 8 to 20 years-old, and ably proved how age-worthy fine Amarone can be.

The stand out wines of the tasting for me were the following. For the ultimate Amarone evening, scroll to the bottom for a great local recipe.

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

Torre d’Orti Amarone della Valpolicella 2010 – 92pts. LW

A modern, opulent style of Amarone with lavish new French oak nuances (cedar, sweet spice), and a dense, yet velvetty texture. Ultra-ripe dark cherry and plum fruit feature on the nose, underscored by notes of dark chocolate. Fresh, full-bodied, and moderately tannic, with well-integrated 15% alcohol. Hints of tobacco linger on the finish.

Where to buy: L’Enoteca di Moreno de Marchi (Québec)

Masi “Costasera” Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2007 – 94pts. LW

Classico is a term used in many Italian vineyards referring to the historic growing area of a region, from which the vineyards spread outwards. The Classico sub-zone is generally considered the “heart” of the appellation, often consisting of the best vineyard sites.

Masi’s dark, brooding Costasera 2007 is still incredibly youthful, featuring vibrant acidity and a tightly knit palate structure. Elegant, complex aromas of peony, rose, dark fruits, and cocoa delight on the nose. The mid-palate shows great depth of flavour, with meaty, savoury nuances adding interest. The tannins, while polished, are still quite firm. Needs a few more years cellaring to mellow and integrate further.

Where to buy: Authentic Wines & Spirits (national)

Musella Amarone della Valpolicella Riserva 2006 – 94pts. LW

Riserva refers to wines aged longer before bottling. The minimum duration for Riserva status is 4 years (vs. 2 years for basic Amarone).

Intense aromas of licorice, red cherry, blueberry, plum and dried fruit feature on the nose. The palate is highly concentrated, with a velvetty smooth texture, and perfectly balanced acidity. Very firm, grippy tannins frame the finish. This bold, weighty, warming red needs an equally hearty meal to do it justice.

Where to buy: Importation le Pot de Vin (Québec)

Tenuta Sant’Antonio “Campo dei Gigli” Amarone della Valpolicella 2004 – 90pts. LW

Intriguing aromas of prune, licorice, tobacco, and pepper gain in intensity upon aeration. Fresh, and full-bodied, with a moderately concentrated core of sweet dark fruit and savoury hints. Moderately firm, powdery tannins diffuse across the palate, framing the finish nicely. Drinking well now.

Where to buy: Mark Anthony Wines (national)

Tedeschi “Capitel Monte Olmi” Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2001 – 95pts LW

A massively structured red, with a dense, richly textured palate profile. Brimming with blueberry, cherry, fig, mocha, sweet spice, and tobacco notes, this is an incredibly complex, fragrant wine. The whopping 16% alcohol is seamlessly integrated, as are the firm, ripe tannins. Drinking well now, with the power and depth to hold for several years yet.

Where to buy: La Céleste Levure (Québec), Noble Estates (Ontario)

Speri “Vigneto Monte Sant-Urbano” Amarone della Valpolicella 1998 – 92pts. LW

Dried fruit, herbal notes, roasted nuts, and mineral nuances feature on the nose of this 20-year old beauty. Still very fresh, and firm on the palate, with a layered complexity of prune, leather, and tobacco flavours. Overall, a very harmonious, well integrated red with a powerful, concentrated nature, and lengthy finish. Drink now before freshness fades.

Where to buy: Lifford Wines (Ontario)

Pairing Suggestions

Amarone should be opened several hours before serving, and decanted if possible. I prefer it chilled down a couple of degrees. The alcohol can feel quite hot on the finish if served too warm.

While dining in the Valpolicella region a couple of years ago, I was served the most decadent meal, with a fine Amarone. It was a rich, savoury risotto, made by replacing the majority of broth with Amarone wine. It is absolutely delicious, but remember… a little goes a long way!

Click here for the recipe. Buon appetito!