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PRODUCER PROFILE – MASI AGRICOLA

masi appassimento

If you live in Canada and like Italian wines, you have certainly come across the prodigious line up from Masi Agricola. They are known as one of the founding fathers of Amarone. Last week, I had the great pleasure of attending a tasting of some of their finest cuvées.

The process of drying the finest grapes to make richer, more concentrated wines is an old one in the Valpolicella region. However, until fairly recently, production was largely dedicated to crafting the sweet recioto style. Amarone, meaning “the great bitter”, refers to the technique of fermented the raisined grapes to near dryness, making for a full-bodied, high alcohol yet still luscious and velvetty red wine. Masi has dedicated generations to perfected their Amarone style. The grapes undergo the appassimento (drying) process on small bamboo racks in well aerated drying rooms. While the minimum drying time for the appellation is 55 days, Masi holds themselves to a higher standard, waiting an average of 100 days (until the grapes lose 35% of their weight). The resultant Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC wines are bold and intensely flavourful.

Masi’s ever continuing quest for quality improvement and innovation extends to all of their plethora of DOC and IGT wines.  Another case in point is Ripasso della Valpolicella. While the process of macerating the Valpolicella wines on Amarone pomace was used by many winemakers throughout the region, each estate had their own name for the technique. Masi coined the phrase “ripasso” in the 1980s and started selling the medium bodied reds internationally. The name and style caught on and, in 2009, a DOC was granted. By this time however, Masi had already abandoned the concept.

Masi’s ever continuing quest for quality improvement and innovation extends to all of their plethora of DOC and IGT wines.

They decided that simply steeping the lighter (and generally lesser quality) Valpolicella in the dregs of the Amarone wasn’t yielding the quality of wines they sought. They therefore developped a new process dubbed “double fermentation”. The concept is simple. The grapes are classed in three quality tiers; the best for Amarone, the second best for their former Ripasso wines and the third level (less concentrated grapes) for their simpler, every day wines . The second tier is further subdivided, with a portion immediately fermented and the rest put through the same appassimento process as Amarone, but only to a weight loss of 15%.  The dried grapes are added to the fermented wine causing a secondary fermentation to occur, making for a more complex, layered wine. Masi’s Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC wines like the delicious Montepiazzo cuvée are crafted in this manner.

Masi Agricola has been in the Boscaini family since 1772. Their story began with the acquisition of a vineyard plot called Vaio dei Masi (little valley). The estate was thus named and a legacy was born. Today, patriarch Sandro Boscaini heads up the estate, with children Alessandra and Raffaele managing the technical department. Like Robert Mondavi’s role promoting the Napa Valley, the Boscainis work tirelessly to show that the Veneto is capable of world class wines. Deemed “Italy’s wine factory” by Jancis Robinson, the region is best known for the millions of entry level bottles of light bodied Valpolicella and neutral Soave. Great vintages are rarely hailed in the press like those of Piedmont or Tuscany. The Boscainis have therefore taken matters into their own hands, creating a “5 star” concept to highlight top quality vintages like 2012. Weather conditions need to be optimal during the growing season and the appassimento period (good aeration of the drying grapes) for a vintage to be named.

My top picks from the tasting included the following:

Masi MontePiazzo Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC 2014 – 89pts. PW

Attractive dark ruby colour, with ripe notes of plum, black cherry, mixed spice and earthy undertones. Rounded acidity, medium bodied and a velvetty texture define the palate, with classic sour cherry flavours on the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (27.00$)

Blend details: 70% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, 10% Molinara

Masi Grandarella Refosco delle Venezie IGT 2011 – 88pts. PW

Refosco is an ancient variety, native to the Veneto region. It is generally quite a bold, tannic grape with a touch of bitterness. It is blended here, with Carmenère, which is planted in small pockets of the Veneto and Fruili regions. Intriguing aromatics of potpourri, red cherry, cedar and a subtle animal note define the nose. Pleasant on the palate, with a dense structure and tart acidity providing lift through the mid-palate. Ever so slightly rustic with ripe, chewy tannins.

Where to buy: SAQ (26.30$), LCBO (28.95$)

Blend details: 75% Refosco, 25% Carmenère

Masi Costasera Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 1997 – 94pts. LW

A brilliant example of the ageing potential of fine Amarone. The nose delights, with a lovely mix of tertiary earthy, truffle and prune notes, and fresh red and black berry fruit. Still bold and full-bodied, yet showing the mellow smoothness of its age. Sweet sappy fruit, and lifted tones of sour cherry linger on the persistent finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (107.50$)

Blend details: 70% Corvina, 25% Rondinella, 5% Molinara

Masi Campolongo di Torbe Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2009 – 95pts. LW

South west facing slopes catch the afternoon sun and benefit from the drying effects of the prevailing wind, ensuring optimally ripe, healthy grapes.  The result is an elegant wine, redolent with floral notes, cedar, black cherries, dark berries and subtle tertiary aromas. Firm, yet broad through the mid-palate with tangy acidity and a long, cigar box scented finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (107.50$ – 2007 vintage), LCBO (101.95$)

Blend details: 70% Corvina, 25% Rondinella, 5% Molinara

Masi Serego Alighieri Vaio Armaron Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2008 – 92pts. LW

A denser, more structured style. Subtle botrytis notes on the nose interweave nicely with macerated black fruits, spice and dried floral aromas. Full bodied with big, chunky tannins that frame the cedar, cigar box scented finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (86.75$), LCBO (69.95$)

Blend details: 65% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, 15% Molinara (Serego Alighieri clone)

Masi Mazzano Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2009 – 91pts. LW

Intense aromas of plum, mixed black berries and a lively minerality feature on the nose. Full bodied, fresh and tightly woven, with firm, chewy tannins and a lingering toasted note.

Where to buy: SAQ (99.25$), LCBO (101.95$ – 2007 vintage)

Blend details: 75% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, 5% Molinara

Reviews Wines

Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux 2012 Tasting

Smith Haut Lafitte aeriel view

When I was a kid, my dad used to buy Bordeaux futures and pull them out with much pomp and circumstance on special occasions. These bottles marked my vinous awakening. An evening of 1982 Cos d’Estournel and Léoville Las Cases was one of those seminal wine tasting moments for me; like the scene in “Amadeus” when Salieri describes hearing Mozart’s music for the first time.

Unfortunately, I don’t get as many opportunities to drink top class Bordeaux these days, so when a tasting like the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux rolls through town, I am a happy gal. 70 of the most prestigious Bordeaux estates under one roof, pouring their 2012 vintage…definitely an event worth the trouble of wearing heels on an icy January afternoon.

…definitely an event worth the trouble of wearing heels on an icy January afternoon.

2012 was not an easy vintage in Bordeaux. It was late ripening vintage, with a hot spell mid-summer. Merlot dominant blends fared well, but ill timed rain early October wreaked havoc on the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest. Jancis Robinson described the vintage as “timorous” and Robert Parker’s vintage charts give all but Pomerol good, but not great scores in the high 80s. The SAQ invitation however hyped the vintage as fabulous though…so I thought I should check it out for myself. After all, the growers of the Union des Grands Crus never really have terrible vintages. They harvest in several passes, and carefully sort, ensuring only the ripest, healthiest grapes make the cut for the “grand vin”.

The tasting area was organized as a walk-around tasting leading tasters from Graves, to Saint Emilion and Pomérol, and then back to the left bank for the Médoc and its famed crus. There was a good sized crowd of happy faces, sipping and nodding earnestly while the wineries spun their lustrous tales. I started with the whites. Péssac-Leognan, a top quality enclave within the Graves region, is reputed for its dry Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon blends. Imagine the tangy acidity, and fragrant citrus, gooseberry aromas of Sauvignon Blanc, but with more weight, a creamy, layered texture and a smooth, oak-kissed finish. This is top Bordeaux blanc…summed up briefly. The 2012 did not disappoint. Château Smith Haut Lafitte was particularly stunning with enticing white floral aromas, vibrant acidity, a velvetty core and lingering, flavourful finish.

The left bank reds were surprisingly approachable for such a recent release. The mid-summer warmth of the vintage is apparent in the bright, fruity aromatics and general lack of pyrazine (bell pepper) notes. The majority showed fresh, balanced acidity, smoothness, rounded tannins and well-integrated oak. Each appellation was true to form, with the Graves a little lighter and more delicate and the Margaux perfumed and silky. The power and depth of the best vintages is lacking in most, but for an early drinking option, 2012 seems to have a lot of charm. Château Gruaud-Larose was one of my top picks for its intoxicating cassis and exotic spiced nose and dense, brooding core. Château Phélan Ségur, Château Pichon-Longueville Baron, Château Léoville Barton and Château Brane-Cantenac were also heavy hitters.

The majority showed fresh, balanced acidity, smoothness, rounded tannins and well-integrated oak.

The right bank wines showed nicely; very smooth and polished. The Saint Emilion were a little more restrained, with attractive cassis and floral notes. The Pomérols really jumped out the glass though; brimming over with plum, red and black fruits, and spicy oak. The 2012 vintage offers the hedonistic pleasure of smooth, fruit-driven young wines and the tannin structure to age gracefully for 10 years or more.  Château Canon, Château Le Bon Pasteur and Château Clinet showed very nicely.

Sauternes was the only minor dip in the tasting. Sémillon is low in acidity at the best of times and with residual sugar regularly over 100g/L, Sauternes can easily become a little cloying. The range of aromatics on display was phenomenol. Château La Tour Blanche was redolent with tropical fruit, marmelade, honey and spiced notes. However, the acidity faded too quickly on the palate, leaving the finish mouth-coatingly sweet.

Detailled tastings notes for my favourite wines:

Château Smith Haut Lafitte AOC Pessac-Léognan white 2012 – 94pts. LW

Smith Haut Lafitte is a leader in sustainable development for the Bordeaux region. This ultra-stylish white, from 50 year old vines, shows enticing white floral and grapefruit aromas, vibrant acidity, a creamy, velvetty core and lingering, flavourful finish.

Blend: 90% Sauvignon Blanc, % Sauvignon Gris, 5% Sémillon

Château Canon AOC Saint Emilion 2012 – 93pts LW

Situated in pride of place atop the famed limestone summit, Château Canon produces particularly elegant Saint Emilion. Highly complex aromas of plum, floral notes, blackberry and herbal undertones follow through on the palate. Fresh acidity, dense, juicy mid-palate and firm, polished tannins. The finish is long and layered, with hints of cedar.

Blend: 70% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc

Château Le Bon Pasteur AOC Pomerol 2012 – 92pts LW

Fermented and aged in 100% new oak, this is a potent Pomerol with an intense raspberry, cherry, plum and spicy oak fragrance. Fresh and full body, with a smooth, rounded mouthfeel, firm, chewy tannins and a persistent, creamy finish.

Blend: 85% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc

Château Clinet AOC Pomerol 2012 – 93pts. LW

From the highest elevation of the famed Pomerol plateau, Château Clinet combines power and finesse. Attractive plum, cedar and black cherry on the nose, with a juicy, full bodied palate. Firm, grippy tannins provide a solid framework. The finish is fresh and long.

Blend: ~85% Merlot, ~10% Cabernet Sauvignon, ~5% Cabernet Franc

Château Brane-Cantenac AOC Margaux 2012 – 94pts. LW

An opulent style of Margaux, with heady floral aromas, underscored by ripe black currant and black cherries. The full-bodied palate shows lovely balance and poise; with vibrant fruit providing lift through the mid-palate. Aged 18 months in 70% new French barriques, the oak provides structure and a creamy texture without overpowering the fruit. The medium weight, polished tannins frame the long finish nicely.

Blend: 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot

Château Gruaud Larose AOC Saint-Julien 2012 – 96pts. LW

“The King of wines; the wine of Kings” is the motto of this renowned estate, dating back to 1725. This was definitely my feeling when tasting the elegant, highly complex 2012. Fragrant aromas of exotic spice, black and red currants, cedar and violets spring from the glass, gaining in intensity upon aeration. Powerful and brooding, with dense, concentrated layers of rich berry fruit and spice. and ripe, fine grained tannins. Lovely, fresh flavours linger on the beautifully persistent finish.

Blend: 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot

Château Léoville-Barton AOC Saint-Julien 2012 – 94pts. LW

Heady and stylish, with attractive aromas of mint, saffron, black fruits and floral undertones. Bright acidity leads into a full-bodied, dense core, with lots of juicy, black berry fruit and firm, fine grained tannins. The minty notes return on the finish, mingling with the cedar oak on the long, vibrant finish. The high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon makes this a bolder, more structured style of Saint-Julien.

Blend: 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc

Château Pichon-Longueville Baron AOC Pauillac 2012 – 92pts. LW

Only 40 of the 73 hectares that make up the Pichon-Longueville Baron estate are deemed fit for the “grand vin”. A further strict selection is carried out during blending, ensuring that only the finest quality barrels make up this cuvée. The 2012 offers classic Pauillac aromas of cassis, cedar and graphite, with a touch of bell pepper. Very firm and powerful, with big, grippy tannins and a medium length cedar-scented finish.

Blend: 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot

Château Phélan Ségur AOC Saint-Estèphe 2012 – 95pts. LW

Phélan Ségur, with its fleshy Merlot character and enticing mineral notes, is always an attractive example of Saint-Estèphe. The 2012 doesn’t disappoint. The nose is sweet and perfumed, brimming with red and black fruit, violets and earthy minerality. Very harmonious and smooth on the palate; the full body is off-set by bright acidity, a concetrated, fruit-driven core and firm, chewy tannins.

Blend: 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot

Château La Tour Blanche AOC Sauternes 2012 – 91pts. LW

Glorious exotic notes of mango, pineapple and passion fruit overlay botrytised notes of honey and marmelade. Lively acidity on attack, that falls just a touch flat on the finish. High viscosity, lots of juicy, exotic fruit and subtle, vanilla notes on the medium length finish.

Blend: 83% Sémillon, 12% Sauvignon Blanc, 5% Muscadelle

Reviews Wines

The fickle finesse of Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir Tasting Line Up

While Pinot Noir is often cited as one of the most popular grape varieties in North America, it only accounts for a measly 2% of marketshare (according to a 2014 study by the University of Adelaide).  It is no match for the heavy hitters Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with over 3 times as many plantings world-wide. Why is this? Well, Pinot Noir is a notoriously hard grape to grow. Just like Goldilocks and her porridge, Pinot Noir does not like it too hot or too cold. It is suceptible to frost, prone to rot and a host of other diseases and viruses, and often suffers problems at flowering leading to crop loss and uneven ripening. It is also a fairly low yielding grape. So why, you may be asking yourself, do so many top class wine producers bother to grow it?

At its best, Pinot Noir is the most ethereal of wines, possessing an elegance and finesse that no other red variety even comes close to matching. It is a thin skinned grape, leading to wines of fairly pale colour, vibrant acidity, light to medium body and low tannins.  Aromas range from earthy notes, red berries, game and floral tones in cooler climates to black cherry, cola and baking spices in hotter vineyards. Though the origin of the grape is unknown, Pinot Noir’s adopted home is, undisputedly, the famed region of Burgundy. Nowadays, Pinot Noir is grown around the world; through out France, Italy, Germany, Australia, New Zeland, USA, Chile, South Africa and many other countries.

At its best, Pinot Noir is the most ethereal of wines, possessing an elegance and finesse that no other red variety even comes close to matching.

If you have read my tasting style page, you will know that I am a wholehearted Burgundy lover. It is an incredible place. Evidence of grape growing dates back to the 2nd century AD. The vineyards are a patchwork of small, individual plots lining a gentle, eastern facing limestone slope. Basic red Pinot Noir from across the region is labelled Bourgogne, whereas superior wines carry the names of the single village or vineyard sitings where they are grown, like Chambolle Musigny or Corton. Burgundy is a cool place, with a heavy fog that seems to descend in November and lift at the end of March. Summers are hit and miss, and in poor vintages, many wines can be acidic, thin and reedy. Yet, in the years when the vines get enough sunshine, Burgundy produces the most incrediblely complex, elegant, nuanced and long lasting Pinot Noirs on earth.

New Zealand is a relatively new player in the Pinot game. Growers started focussing on the grape in earnest in the late 1970s. Today, it is the most planted red grape variety in the country. The majority of plantings can be found on the South Island, in Marlborough and the Central Otago region. Marlborough Pinot Noir from the right producers (Mt. Riley and Vavasour come to mind) is gulpably good, with aromas of dark cherry, plums and spice, medium body and fine, rounded tannins. The Central Otago is developing a reputation as the best New Zealand terroir for serious Pinot Noir. The cool, mountaneous terrain yields wines of great intensity and finesse.  High toned, fragrant reds are made here with bright red and black berry fruit, a firm structure yet silky texture. Alcohol levels are surprisingly high, but generally well integrated lending weight and roundness.

You may assume that Australia is too hot of a country for balanced Pinot Noir, but the state of Victoria and island of Tasmania offer several interesting cooler climate vineyard sites. In Victoria, the best known region for Pinot Noir is the Yarra Valley. Rolling hills and valleys from 50m to 400m in altitude make for a huge range of temperatures and soil compositions, hence a wide diversity of wine styles. The best Yarra Pinot Noirs display pretty red fruits, spice, wood smoke and sometimes a meaty undertone.

In California, the sunny climate shines through on Pinot Noir. It is much sweeter and sappier, with bright, almost candied fruit, cola notes and often a healthy dollop of vanilla from oak ageing. Cooler climates do exist in areas through out Sonoma, the Central Coast and Carneros, thanks to the maritime influence. However, the wines still display more overt fruitiness and softer acidity for the most part, than any other major Pinot Noir producing country.

Though this title is hotly disputed among New World vineyards, Oregon is often cited as having the most Burgundian of Pinot Noir styles. The Oregon Wine Board’s website has a great tagline…”if you were a wine grape, you’d want to be planted in Oregon”. They boast a long, sunny growing season with crisp, cool nights giving wines with excellent balance of fresh acidity and ripe, juicy fruit. While many regions can (and do) make the same claim, the best Pinot Noirs from Oregon are living proof of the promised brightness and vibrancy. AVAs like the Willamette Valley and Yamhill-Carlton are home to some stunning examples.

For the purposes of this initial overview tasting, I chose examples from the following producers: (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).

La Pousse d’Or Volnay 1er Cru “En Caillerets” 2010 – 93pts LW

A testament to the expression that “patience is a virtue”. At first glance, a restrained, tightly woven offering with a firm structure and seemingly simple earthy, red berry aromas. Upon aeration, the development in glass was superb. The nose showed great elegance, with cassis bud, floral notes and vibrant strawberry aromas. The racy acidity was solidly balanced by a velvetty texture and firm, yet finely grained tannins. The oak is very well integrated, adding lovely textural elements without overpowering the moderate length finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (the 2010 is sold out, but the 2011 & 2012 – albeit lesser vintages – are available for 94$ and 114$ respectively)

Sylvie Esmonin Gevrey Chambertin Vieilles Vignes 2012 – 91pts LW

Headed up by a fantastic female winemaker, this organic estate makes bold, stylish Gevrey Chambertin. The 2012 old vines cuvée displays enticing mixed black fruits, mocha and forest floor notes. Crisp and juicy on the palate, with lots of body and and good depth through the mid-palate. Big, velvetty tannins frame the finish nicely.

Where to Buy: Not currently sold in Ontario or Quebec

Cloudline Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2013 – 90pts. PW

This highly drinkable red offers great value for the price. A pretty, pale ruby colour, offering vibrant red cherry, cranberry and strawberry fruit, with underlying early grey notes. The tart acidity is backed by a fresh, linear structure, subtle rounded tannins and moderate, 13% alcohol.

Where to Buy: SAQ (25.55$)

Coldstream Hills Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2012 – 87pts. PW

A bigger, bolder wine with a deeper ruby colour, full body and big, chewy tannins. Intense aromas of macerated red fruits, herbal notes and a certain meatiness. Fresh acidity frames the broad, fleshy structure. The oak is just a touch too prominent for my liking, adding toasty, spiced, mocha notes to the finish. The alcohol, though a reasonable 13.5%, feels a little hot.

Where to Buy: SAQ (30.25$)

Wooing Tree “Beetle Juice” Pinot Noir Central Otago 2012 – 89pts. PW

If one can get passed the unattractive label, this Central Otago Pinot has a lot to offer. Deep ruby in colour, with pretty, ripe black berry, black cherry, floral and spiced aromas. The high toned acidity leads into a lifted, juicy core and a toasty oaked finish. The tannins are firm and grippy; potentially needing a couple of years to unwind. The alcohol is a slightly overpowering 14.5%.

Where to Buy: LCBO (39.95$), SAQ (31.50$)

La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2013 – 86pts. PW

Though I am sure this easy drinking, intensely fruit style would have many admirers, it is not the style of Pinot Noir I personally enjoy. Medium ruby in colour, with overt stewed strawberry, cola and spiced notes. Moderate acidity, with a firm yet velvetty structure, jammy fruit on the palate and vanilla and custard cream oak flavours on the fairly short finish.

Where to Buy: LCBO (31.95$), SAQ (34.00$)

 

Restaurants Reviews

Maison Publique

Maison Publique restaurant

While out walking the dog one frosty eve last week, Guillaume and I were reminiscing about the days before we were sporting a baby carrier and pulling on a leash, when we could just pop into a bar for an improptu drink or a meal. We agreed that dining out is a little more complicated to organize, but that there was no reason we couldn’t still pull off a 5 à 7 from time to time with our good natured little lad. So we trundled off in search of a quenching glass of white, and found ourselves in front of the very cool storefront of Maison Publique.

I inquired about a beverage while Guillaume secured our furry friend outside, and was curtly told that “you have to eat”. Despite the lukewarm greeting, we forged ahead, installing ourselves at the bar. I siddled up to the board to check out the sparse, simply worded menu (my favourite kind) and found myself joined by a friendly face offering advice and explanations, claiming to “know the menu well”. Our curiousity and appetites were piqued, so our original plan to share one appetizer quickly went out the window, and we settled in for 3 shared plates.

The sommelier, the gruff fellow from the beginning, loosened up and came by to talk wine. Canadian wine. No imports. And why not? I am all for going “local” if the producers are good, which they increasingly are. There is no formal printed wine list, just a verbal run down of suggestions. Usually, I am not a fan of this method, as I find sommeliers often omit a lot of wines and push their personal favourites on you with little regard for your tastes. This was not the case at Maison Publique. Our friend offered a range and described the wines well. I started with a glass of Norman Hardie Prince Edward County Riesling. Vibrant, with searing acidity, lots of juicy apple and citrus fruit and a smooth, lifted finish. A super choice for pre-dinner sipping, at an agreeably low 10.5% alcohol. Guillaume went a little off the beaten track with a Viognier from the Okanagan. This is definitely a minor player here, with less than 80 hectares (200 acres) total planted in the province.  The Calliope Viognier comes from the talented folks at Burrowing Owl winery. While the nose showed great Viognier typicity, brimming with peach, apricot and floral aromas that played through nicely on the palate, the wine fell a bit flat on the finish, lacking the necessary acidic bite for balance (quick trip to the Calliope website showed the wine’s pH at 3.54; high for white).

We were off to a good start, enjoying some friendly chit chat with my menu adviser from earlier, when the dog, sick of being left out of the fun, starting barking up a storm outside. Our evening, which looked to be coming to a screeching halt, was saved by a kindly invitation to bring the dog in to sit at our feet under the bar. This is when we realized that the humble words about knowing the menu well had actually coming from the restaurants’ owner (and chef). So with the family all assembled in a cosy corner of the bar, we tucked in to our first dish: Calamari …cooked to perfection; soft and tender with a hearty squid ink sauce and some good, rustic bread for dipping. Seeing how much our gluttonous 7 month-old was enjoying the squid ink, the chef slipped away to the kitchen and came back with a small dish of creamy polenta, already at baby-ready temperature. Any lingering urge to wrap up our evening melted away, and we signalled the sommelier over.

He suggested a Reimer Vineyards “Galahad” Pinot Noir/ Gamay blend from Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Red Stone Cabernet Franc from Beamsville to go with the next two incredible courses. The Galahad was a hit. Pretty earthy and red fruit flavours, fresh acidity, rounded tannins, and a soft finish.  A great choice with the horse meat carpaccio, served with finely cut spiced, roasted potatoes, fresh herbs and well-dosed little portions of a lifted, tomato-based sauce. The lightbodied Pinot blend also worked well with the bagna càuda, roasted root vegetables in a creamy, flavourful sauce subtly infused with garlic and anchovies . The Red Stone Cab Franc was not such a success. We were duly informed that it was a bit of a big and oaky offering, but decided to try it all the same. That will teach us to listen better next time! It was just as the sommelier had warned; potentially appealing to lovers of toasty, vanilla laden wines, but not to our taste. The vegetal character of the Cabernet Franc clashed with the heavy oak, and the overall effect was disjointed and overpowering.

We were all having a great time; even the dog was snoring peacefully. The chef again disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a tasty carrot mash for our little guy, which was gobbled up posthaste. So we decided to stay for one more plate. For us: fried partridge (delicously crispy skin, but a tad dry) and another surprise dish for baby: a spoonful of creamy, tart apricot sorbet, perfect for teething gums the chef explained. So there we were, merrily sated, having proved that we could have a great, spontaneous evening out…even if it did end at 7:30pm.

Overall, Maison Publique gets high praise from us. We were given such warm hearted, personalized attention. The menu is deceptively simple; each dish featuring complex, layered, harmonious flavours. The wines are well-crafted, interesting choices. Not all were to our taste, but that’s the beauty of wine…something for every palate. We will definitely return.

As a side note, we also brunched here recently. The pancakes are among the best I have ever had…so light and fluffy. The welsh rarebit is also a solid choice if you like richer fare (for brunch or dinner). 

Education Reviews Wines

A Tasting Tour of Spain

Tio Pepe Cellars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Segura Viudas Heredad NV – 86pts. PW

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

Grapes: Macabeu, Parelleda

Where to Buy: LCBO (29.95$)

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

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

Grapes: Palamino

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

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

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

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

Grapes: Albariño

Where to Buy: SAQ (22.95$)

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

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

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

Grapes: Tempranillo, Graciano, Mazuelo

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

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

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

Grapes: Tinto Fino

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

Reviews Wines

The Many Faces of Syrah

Côte Rôtie Vineyard

In 2007, to the horror of my Burgundian winemaking buddies, I left Beaune and moved to the Rhône Valley. They couldn’t believe that I would forsake noble Pinot Noir for brash, in-your-face Grenache and Syrah.

I went down south for the weather to work for an amazing company, Gabriel Meffre, that makes not only lush Grenache-led southern Rhône wines but also elegant, powerful northern Rhône Syrah. The move was a fortuitous one as it was there that I met my husband, an oenologist with an unabiding love for Syrah. Together we travelled throughout the northern and southern Rhône tasting Syrah on its own or in blends. And I began to understand his enthusiasm.

Syrah is an intriguiging grape.  In the northern Rhône it is peppery, with violet and cassis notes and a dry, almost austere character.  In warmer climates, it transforms into a lush, almost hedonistic wine with sweet black fruit, chocolate and spiced notes. Either way, Syrah is bold.  It is not a subtle, wallflower of a grape.  It is an attention grabber.  Perhaps not the wine you want with salmon on a hot summer night, but as we shuffle (reluctantly) into icy winter Syrah is a great choice.  Especially when you consider the 14% + alcohol on many of the hot climate “Shiraz” labelled versions.

Syrah is bold.  It is not a subtle, wallflower of a grape.  It is an attention grabber.

If you can overlook the grey, chilly weather, the northern Rhône is an incredible vineyard to visit. In Côte Rôtie, vines are planted on slopes so steep they make you dizzy just looking at them. Côte Rôtie is about as far north as the Syrah grape can grow. It only thrives here because the best slopes are oriented south-east, hence the name which means “roasted slope”. This mix between cool climate and intense summer sunshine gives incredible complexity to the wines. They are both elegant and powerful; with pretty floral aromas and big, meaty flavours. Further south, the vineyards of Hermitage and Cornas also make top class Syrah, but that is a blog for another day. Hugging the famous hill of Hermitage and spanning outwards north, east and south, is the largest vineyard of the northern Rhône: Crozes-Hermitage. Wines from the northern part of the appellation, grown on granite, make richer, more complex wines while wines from the flatter, clay-dominant valley floor sites in the south tend to be simpler. Broadly speaking, Crozes-Hermitage is characterized by bright, red fruit, spice and earthy, herbacious notes. It is lively on the palate, with tart fruit; softer and less structured than the more illustrious villages, but generally offering good value.

While Syrah has a long and storied history in the northern Rhône, it is a pretty recent grape for Chile. Most plantings date only as far back as the 1990s. Despite this, Chilean Syrah has gained the attention of critics world-wide for its high quality and diversity of styles. Chile’s vineyards stretch almost 1300km from the hot, dry north to the cool, wet south, hemmed in by the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the Andes Mountains to the east. Cooling ocean currents and high altitude plantings give bright acidity that lifts the rich, fruit-driven flavours. If you’ve read my blog posting “The Death of Joy” you’ll know that I am not fond of comparisons, but if pressed I’d say that the up-and-coming cooler climates of Elqui and Limari give a slightly more tart, Old World style (with fuller, riper fruit) and more southerly regions like Colchagua and Maipo give more powerful, lush New World type examples with firm, but rounder tannins and higher intensity of sweet fruit.

The alternate name for Syrah, Shiraz, immediately brings Australia to mind. When I first started buying my own wine (rather than swiping bottles from my dad’s cellar), big, jammy, oaky Australian Shiraz was everywhere.  Often bearing labels with cuddly koalas, or hopping kangaroos or some other such furry creature. Just like all fads, the wine world seems to have done a total 360°and now detests these wines, sadly causing Australian wine sales to plummet in many countries. This is unfortunate, as more balanced, nuanced Shiraz abound from excellent producers, with great examples as reasonably priced as 15$ – 20$. South Australia is prime Shiraz territory. The Barossa Valley produces big, bold wines, with dark chocolate and black fruit aromas. The coastal McLaren Vale region gives more mellow, velvetty Shiraz with red fruit, spice and peppery notes.  The better wines from both regions have fresh acidity, poise and firm, but ripe tannins.

For the purposes of this initial overview tasting, I chose examples from the following producers: (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).

Laurent Combier “Cap Nord” Crozes-Hermitage 2011 – 90pts. PW

The “Cap Nord” cuvée from excellent producer Laurent Combier showcases vineyard parcels from the Northern Crozes-Hermitage villages of Gervans and Serves. Restrained aromas of tart red fruits, pepper and smoky notes. The palate is vibrant; medium bodied with a smooth tannic structure and subtly savoury notes through the medium length finish. 

Where to Buy: This cuvée is not available, but the classic 2014 Laurent Combier Crozes-Hermitage sells at the SAQ (27.15$)

Viñya Chocalan “Reserva” Maipo Valley Syrah 2013 – 86pts. VW

Chocalan is the local name for the yellow flower that grow wild in the Maipo Valley. Heady aromas of sweet spice, cassis liqueur, licorice and violets. The acidity, while fresh, doesn’t quite counter-balance the big, creamy core, high levels of toasty, vanilla scented oak and hot, 14.5% alcohol.

Where to Buy: LCBO (15.95$), SAQ (20.30$)

Yalumba “Patchwork” Barossa Shiraz 2011 – 88pts. PW

Yalumba makes consistently high quality wines at all price points. The “Patchwork” cuvée from Barossa is full-bodied with a firm structure and big, chunky tannins. The nose offers an interesting mix of animal notes, dark chocolate, black fruits and menthol. Overly prominent oak and a touch of astringency knock this otherwise well-made wine down a peg for me.

Where to Buy: LCBO (23.95$)

D’Arenberg “The Footbolt” McLaren Vale Shiraz 2012 – 89pts. PW

D’Arenberg is a go-to producer for fun, gluggable wines from the McLaren Vale. “The Footbolt” features a pretty, perfumed nose with sweet blueberry and cherry notes, violets, mixed spice and cedar. Lively and fullbodied, with a taut structure, smooth, subtle oak and chewy tannins. Represents good value for the price.

Where to Buy: LCBO (21.95$), SAQ (21.95$)

Patrick Jasmin Côte Rôtie 2010 – 91pts. LW

Four generations of the Jasmin family have farmed this tiny, high quality 5 hectare estate. Big and brooding, with intense leather, barnyard, cassis and tobacco on the nose. Bracing acidity underscores the firmly textured, full-bodied red through the mid-palate. Well-integrated oak and firm, grippy tannins mark the finish. A linear, somewhat austere Côte Rôtie. Needs time in the cellar to unwind.

Where to Buy: Unfortunately not currently available in Ontario or Québec

Producers Reviews

Producer Profile – Maison Albert Bichot

Albert Bichot Vineyard Chablis

Big and beautiful. Albéric Bichot’s tireless quest for quality.

When I was novice wine student living in Burgundy, my viticulture professors (all local growers) insisted that serious wines could only come from small estates and never from the big, bad négociant firms.  To my teachers, wineries that produced large quantities and largely worked with grapes bought from other growers could never attain the same heights of elegance, aromatic complexity or precision as the small farmer working his own plot of land.  As time went on, I learnt that the lines were rather more blurry than I was led to believe.  First of all, many large Burgundian négociants have significant vineyard holdings, and a growing number of small domaines are starting to buy in additional fruit to grow their sales.  Secondly, quality-oriented négociants are so meticulous in their choice of grower partners and the winemaking techniques employed that exceptional wines are regularly being made by wineries with little or no vineyards.  Lastly, many small growers make poor wines.  Good things, it would seem, do not always come in small packages.

This subject came to mind after a tasting I attended last week with the charming Albéric Bichot. The very definition of this hybrid of grower/ négociant, Maison Albert Bichot owns a whopping 100 hectares of vines. Their estates are spread out across the entire region, from Chablis, to Nuits-St-Georges, to Pommard and Mercurey. They also buy significant quantities from growers to meet the demands of their large clientèle world-wide.  I asked Albéric what he thought about this rivalry between small growers and big négociant firms, and he responded with a wry smile and a typically Gallic shrug.  His philosophy is simple: make the best wines possible, and let the quality speak for itself.

His philosophy is simple: make the best wines possible, and let the quality speak for itself.

Albéric took up the reins of the (then) 165 year-old family firm in 1996. Before settling down to the business of managing such a vast empire, it is said that Albéric was a great adventurer, travelling through the wilds of northern Canada and Patagonia.  He dreamed of being an astronaut so the stories go. But after just 5 minutes of hearing him talk about his vines, it is obvious that he is where he is meant to be.  Over the past 20 years, he has worked tirelessly to raise the image of Maison Bichot.  The vineyards are all sustainably or organically farmed, the yields have been sharply reduced and the majority of sourced fruit is now purchased as grapes rather than finished wine. A spokesman for Burgundy in their successful bid to obtain UNESCO world heritage status for their 1247 climats (vineyard parcels), Albéric is passionate about crafting wines that express their terroir and vintage.

The proof is definitely in the glass.  We tasted through a selection of mainly 2012 Chablis and Côte d’Or wines. “Une grande année” (an excellent vintage) according to Albéric, with fantastic ageing potential. The wines were consistently pleasant throughout, showing vibrant fruit, lifted acidity and smooth textures. Stand outs in terms of value and quality included the following:

Maison Bichot “Secret de famille” Chardonnay 2012 – 90pts. PW

Albéric kindly shared the family secret here, which is that the grapes are sourced from just outside the boundaries of top Côte d’Or villages and vinified with all the care given to the crus.  An intriguing nose of spiced apricot with undertones of licorice and subtle minerality. Lifted acidity gives way to a medium bodied, smooth textured mid-palate with a soft, toasty oak finish.  Great value.

Where to Buy: Coming in 2016 to an SAQ near you… (23.95$)

Maison Bichot Chablis 2012 – 87pts PW

Bright lemony fruit. Lively and refreshing with nice depth of flavour through the mid-palate and a lifted, mineral finish.  Fairly simple on the nose, but still very enjoyable for a week day wine.

Where to Buy: SAQ (22.40$)

Domaine Long-Depaguit Chablis Grand Cru “Les Clos” 2010 – 92pts. LW

This 63 hectare estate covers 10% of the total surface areas of Grand Cru vineyards in Chablis. The 2010 “Les Clos” is redolent with sweet, baked apricots, honey, lemon and subtle floral and mineral notes.  Searing acidity leads into a richly textured, juicy core followed by a lingering, toasted finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ Signature (68.00$)

Maison Bichot “Secret de famille” Pinot Noir 2012 – 90pts. PW

As per the white, the red “Secret de Famille” cuvée is a serious step up from your average AOC Bourgogne.  Seductive aromas of strawberry, cherry and violets are underscored by a pleasing earthiness. The tart acidity is balanced by a plush texture, smooth oak and firm, dusty tannins. Like the white, excellent for the price.

Where to Buy: SAQ (22.00$)

Maison Bichot Vosne-Romanée 2012 – 89pts. LW

Slightly closed on the nose, showing black and red berry fruit, rose petals, earthy notes and subtle spice upon aeration. Bracing acidity, showing power and concentration, with firm, ripe tannins and measured use of oak.  A little austere at present. Good potential, needs time to unwind.

Where to Buy: SAQ (67.25$)

Domaine du Clos Frantin Gevrey Chambertin “Les Murots ” 2012 – 93pts. LW

The star of the tasting! This high quality 13-hectare estate counts 8-hectares of Grand and Premier Cru vineyards. Rustic and earthy on the nose, with mixed red berries, soft floral notes and lots of minerality.  This wine really comes alive on the palate with vibrant acidity, bold fruit flavours, a silky texture and pronounced yet smooth tannins. Drinking well now, but will definitely improve with age.

Where to Buy: SAQ (65.25$)

Reviews Wines

There’s Something About Merlot

Comparative Merlot Tasting

Merlot was a favourite, in many countries, for many years.  There is really little not to love about it.  A common description would read: red berry and plum aromas, moderate acidity, smooth texture and soft tannins.  Sounds good, right? Then, in 2004, an Indie film about a (fairly annoying) anxiety-ridden wine snob who detests Merlot and lives for Pinot Noir hit the big screen.  The movie was called “Sideways”.  Since then Merlot sales have plummeted in North America while Pinot Noir has gone through the roof. It seemed like a fad at first, but 11 years later it is (sadly) still cool to say that you don’t drink Merlot.  This drives me crazy. I would like to take all the haters out there and make them blind taste a whole slew of Merlots…from Bordeaux, from California, from Chile.  I am convinced that they would change their tune after a couple of sips.

Merlot does not simply boil down to fruity, round and easy-drinking. The grape is planted around the world, from Bordeaux to Chile to California and beyond. It is the most planted red grape in France. Depending on where it is grown, the care taken in the vineyard and the vinification techniques employed, the wine can be very different.  In cooler climates like the right bank of Bordeaux, Merlot takes on earthy aromas, has fresh acidity, a weightier structure and more firm tannins.  It is often mistaken for Cabernet Sauvignon, though generally has riper fruit aromas and a fleshier, broader mid-palate. In warm climates, such as the Napa Valley, Sonoma or Paso Robles in California, Merlot is more voluptuous with rich, fruit flavours, a velvetty texture and soft tannins.  It is a grape that can handle oak (in measured doses); taking on a richer texture, more firm but well-rounded tannins.

Most people consider Cabernet Sauvignon to be the major grape of Bordeaux, but there is actually significantly more Merlot planted.  On the left bank, Merlot is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon to act as “the flesh on Cabernet Sauvignon’s bones”. On the right bank, Merlot is the dominant player, usually with Cabernet Franc (Merlot’s father) in the supporting role.  The clay and limestone-rich soils of Pomerol and St. Emilion are what Merlot loves.  Pomerol is the smallest appellation in Bordeaux, with only 800 hectares under vine.  It is also home to the most sought-after, expensive Châteaux.  Its best wines are described as powerful, opulent, and even decadent. St. Emilion is one of the largest wine producing regions of Bordeaux. There is a diverse array of soil types, and consequently, a wide range of wine styles from elegant and light, to richer and more concentrated. Beautiful minerality is a feature of top St. Emilion estates planted on the limestone slopes.

Merlot is the third most planted red variety in Chile.  The Colchagua Valley, the South-Western half of the Rapel Valley region, is gaining increasing attention for the high quality of its Merlot. Cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean temper the warm Mediterranean climate and give the wines elegance, vibrant acidity and bright, red fruit flavours.  Apalta, which stands for “poor soils” in the local dialect, is one of the best vineyards in the area.  The low fertility soils force the vine roots to dig deep and produce wines with excellent depth of flavour and good tannic structure.

Despite waning interest for the grape, there are still substantial Merlot plantings throughout California.  In the Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon generally gets pride of place on the slopes. Merlot is often planted on the hot valley floor, where its intense red berry and plum aromatics, and smooth texture, make it the perfect blending partner to soften Cabernet lead blends.  There are however a number of serious producers making excellent Merlot dominant wines, with lush, hedonistic profiles.

For the purposes of this initial overview tasting, I chose examples from the following producers (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).

Casa Lapostolle “Canto de Apalta” Rapel Valley 2011 – 90pts. PW

Unfortunately it was impossible to find anything other than very entry level Chilean Merlot at our dear liquor boards (sigh…), so I had to settle for this blend.  Though settle is a poor word, as it is lovely. Inviting black cherry, cassis, menthol and spiced aromas, very fresh on the palate with a full, velvetty frame, marked but balanced oak and alcohol.  Only moderate length and complexity, but worth the price.

Grapes: Merlot, Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah

Where to Buy: SAQ (22.25$)

Château Yon Figeac St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé 2011 – 89pts. PW

This sustainably farmed estate is hailed for its consistent quality even in mediocre vintages such as 2011. Restrained notes of tobacco, cedar, red berries and kirsch on the nose. Dry, medium-bodied though somewhat lean in structure with fine grained tannins, subtle oak and an attractive tobacco dominant finish.

Grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Franc

Where to Buy: Not currently available in Québec or Ontario

Château le Caillou Pomerol 2009 – 88pts. LW

Situated on the iron-rich clay soils of the plateau of Pomerol, this tiny 7 hectare estate is organically farmed. Understated yet complex palate of aromas including animal notes, plum, red berries, menthol and cedar. Vibrant acidity, full-bodied with moderate alcohol, firm but ripe tannins and well integrated oak.  Lacking some richness and fruit expression considering the vintage.

Grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Franc

Where to Buy: LCBO (52.95$), SAQ – 2010 vintage (43.00$)

Sterling Vineryards Napa Valley Merlot 2012 – 92pts. PW

Merlot is grown here on the valley floor, on deep rooting, volcanic stone soils.  Heady aromas of sweet cherry, baked plum, eucalyptus and floral notes.  Smooth, full bodied and velvetty, with toasty oak and a sweet, red berry finish.  Big and bold, with just enough acidity to maintain good balance.

Grapes: Merlot

Where to Buy: LCBO (24.95$)

 

Reviews Wines

Chenin Blanc: The Quality Revolution

Loire & South African Chenin Blanc

Another week, another flight!  Next grape up to bat is Chenin Blanc. This incredibly versatile white can be made in a range of styles from sparkling, to still (dry and off-dry), to sweet wines.  This week, we are looking at entry level and premium still wines from Chenin’s two strongholds: the Loire Valley and South Africa.

For many years Chenin Blanc has gotten a bad rap outside of its historic home in the Loire Valley.  It is a vigorous grape that grows well in many soil types and climates.  When over cropped, the wines are insipid and forgettable.  In overly hot climates the grapes ripen too quickly leaving insufficient time for much aromatic complexity to develop. This was the case for a long time in South Africa, where the majority of Chenin Blanc was used to add acidity to high volume, bulk blends.  Ditto in California, where plantings were highest in the hot Central Valley for jug wine production.

Happily, the days of cheap and cheerful Chenin plonk are fading.  More and more growers (those that didn’t pull up their vines to plant more popular varieties) are starting to show Chenin the love…and as our friends in the Loire knew already, when the vine is in balance and optimal maturity is reached at the right pace, the wines are stunning. At its best, Chenin has bright, pure fruit flavours ranging from quince, apple, honey and spice in cool climates to more ripe, tropical and peach notes in warmer areas.  The palate is vibrant with bracing acidity, lots of juicy fruit flavours, light to medium body, moderately high alcohol (12°c – 13.5°c) and often a hint of sweet, tangy fruit on the finish.

For dry to off-dry styles of Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, Vouvray is king (sparkling through to sweet styles are produced here, but we will look at those at a later date).  The vineyard sits atop a plateau on the right bank of the Loire Valley.  Dotted through the town are the most incredible, cavernous cellars, carved out of the local white Tuffeau stone (a marine sedimentary rock).  The cool, continental climate and diverse soil composition gives wines with racy acidity, intense depth of flavour and lingering minerality. On a visit to see Benjamin Joliveau, viticulturalist with Domaine Huet, I had the pleasure of tasting through a vertical of off-dry and sweet Vouvray dating back to 1985.  With age, the acidity mellowed, and notes of dried apricot, honey and baking spice intensified.

Bone dry, brimming with juicy acidity and richly textured, the Savennières vineyard near the town of Angers, gives another expression of high quality Loire Chenin Blanc.  Once considered austere and hard-edged in their youth, Savennières wine growers are starting to make more readily approachable styles. The vineyard was made famous by biodynamic wine pioneer Nicolas Joly whose wines from the vineyard plot “Coulée de Serrant” are world renowned.

It is thought that the founder of Cape Town, Jan Van Riebeeck, brought Chenin Blanc cuttings over to South Africa in 1655.  The grape, sometimes referred to locally as Steen, is still the most widely planted variety in the country. Dry styles range from light and fruity, to full bodied and oaked.  The Coastal Region, Stellenbosch, and the Swartland are just three appellations (called WO, Wine of Origin, in South Africa) that are making noise internationally with their interpretations of Chenin Blanc.  The secret to great South African Chenin Blanc, according to my dear friend and South African wine guru Pascal Schildt, is the high volume of old vines that produce rich, concentrated flavour.

For the purposes of this initial overview tasting, I chose classic examples from the following producers (What do VW, PW & LW mean?  Click on my scoring system for the answer):

Ken Forrester “Petit” Chenin Blanc 2015 (Western Cape) – 87pts. VW

Ken Forrester is a highly respected Chenin Blanc producer from Stellenbosch. This everyday white is pale golden in colour with green hues.  Ripe melon, guava and candied peach notes dominate the nose.  Dry, light bodied and fresh with a subtle effervescence, and a fruity finish.  Simple, but well-made and easy drinking, representing decent value.

 Where to Buy: SAQ (14.85$)

 Marc Brédif Vouvray 2013 – 89pts. PW

Restrained notes of red apple, quince, baking spices and subtle floral aromas. Bracing acidity leads into a juicy, medium weight core and a lifted, ripe apple finish. A well-balanced, linear wine that is drinking well now but shows little potential for further development.

 Where to Buy: SAQ (20.45$)

 Domaine Ogereau “Clos le Grand Beaupréau” Savennières 2012 – 93pts. PW

The Ogereau family refer to themselves as “vine gardeners” referring to the loving care lavished on each individual vine in their 20 hectare holdings. This heady, enticing white shows ginger, honey, quince jelly and baked apple on the nose. The bright, zesty acidity is balanced by the ample frame, but the alcohol runs a touch hot and a subtle bitterness on the finish stops this wine just shy of perfect.

 Where to Buy: SAQ (30.50$)

 Domaine Huet “Clos du Bourg” Vouvray sec 2012 – 90Pts. LW

Biodynamic estate, Domaine Huet is one of the leading lights of Vouvray.  The Clos du Bourg, one of the domaine’s best vineyards, is reputed for its shallow, stony soils giving intense minerality and generous texture. This dry Chenin has a soft, pretty nose featuring cinnamon, baked apples, honey, quince and mineral notes. Racy acidity, broad, juicy texture and lingering minerality.  This was a wet, cool vintage; not the best example of this vineyard’s potential but nonetheless well-made and enjoyable.

Where to Buy: SAQ (43.50$)

 Bellingham “The Bernard Series” Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2014 (Coastal Region) – 87pts. PW

The Bellingham estate is one of the oldest in South Africa, dating back to the 1690s. This intensely aromatic white has an oak-rich crème brulée character, with tropical fruit and apricot undertones. Lively and full-bodied, with a broad, creamy texture, and a toasty finish. The heavy handed use of oak and warming alcohol throws off the balance.

 Where to Buy: SAQ (25.00$)

Reviews Wines

A Closer Look at Cabernet Sauvignon

Tokara Winery

This week’s wine flight centres around Cabernet Sauvignon based wines. Originally from the South West of France with mentions as far back as the sixteen hundreds, Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between the white grape Sauvignon Blanc and the red Cabernet Franc. Today, it is the most planted wine grape in the world.

What makes Cabernet Sauvignon so popular to grow? It is hardy, fairly disease and frost resistant and adapts well to a huge variety of climates and soil types. Cabernet Sauvignon has a fantastic aromatic and structural range; from green, herbaceous notes with vibrant acidity and a taut frame in cooler climates to intense black currant and dark berry fruits with more moderate acidity and broader structure in warmer areas. Top Cabernet Sauvignon has high acidity, full body and firm tannins allowing for excellent ageing potential, and with that, the potential for further aromatic development, the mellowing of texture and softening of tannins.

I fell in love with Bordeaux in 2004. It was the eve of my departure for Burgundy to study in Beaune. My father, an unabashed French wine fanatic, decided to send me off in style. Knowing that I would get more than my fill of incredible Burgundies in the months to come, he decided to open a great Bordeaux, from a top vintage; namely a Château Léoville Las Cases 1982 from St. Julien. It was elegant and refined with so many layers of flavour, such a soft, silky mouthfeel and fine grained, rounded tannins. It just went on and on. Incredible…unforgettable. Sigh…

Unfortunately not all Cabernet blends from Bordeaux are that earth shattering. There are poor vintages, mediocre quality growers, lots of mass-produced wines at the cheaper end of the spectrum, not to mention the waiting game…the better Bordeaux need time to soften and develop. They are often quite green, austere and pucker-inducing in their youth. Aromas range from green pepper, graphite, violets and black currant at first, to tobacco, cedar, leather and earthy notes with age.

Stellenbosch in the Western Cape’s Coastal Region of South Africa has also developed a name for itself for good quality (and value) Cabernet. Despite a fairly hot, dry climate, Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon is distinctive for its herbaceous, eucalyptus aromas, restrained black currant and signature singed/ smoky notes. Dry and medium bodied like Bordeaux with similar use of French oak, but more moderate acidity and slightly higher alcohol levels.

The Coonawarra is a comparatively tiny vineyard area (just 15km x 2km) within the Limestone Coast area of South Australia. This out of the way pocket of vines is sought after due to the Terra Rossa (red soil) that has proved an incredible terroir for Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines are intensely fruity with black currant and plum notes; and lots of spicy mint undertones. Moderate to fresh acidity, full body, velvetty structure and firm, chewy tannins. Depending on the grower, oak is either restrained, spicy French or more overt, vanilla and coconut scented American.

The Mendoza region of Argentina provides Cabernet Sauvignon a cocktail of high altitude, ample sun and rocky soils. The resulting wines are fresh, with an intriguing combination of power and elegance. Aromas include black currant, black cherry and plum, underpinned with sweet spices and vanilla. Acidity, body and tannin are all high here, though tend to be balanced and smooth in the best examples, with well integrated American and/ or French oak.

Last but certainly not least, the Napa Valley. In a famous 1976 tasting in Paris, Cabernet Sauvignon from the famous Stag’s Leap beat out Bordeaux 1st growths in a blind tasting. Napa growers are, understandably, proud of their terroir. Cabernet Sauvignon grown here is powerful and lush. Ripe black and red fruits, soft menthol, eucalyptus notes and oak aromas dominate. The best examples generally have moderate acidity, full body, broad structure, firm, silky tannins and lots of toasty, vanilla oak on the finish.

For the purposes of this initial overview tasting, I chose classic examples from the following producers (What do VW, PW & LW mean?  Click on my scoring system for the answer):

Château Citran AOC Haut Médoc 2010 – 90pts. LW

Bordeaux blend of equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with ~5% Cabernet Franc. Restrained and earthy on the nose with notes of black currant, menthol, cedar and tobacco leaf. Bright, juicy acidity, medium body, firm, rounded tannins, moderate alcohol and subtle oak. Needs time or, barring that, a couple of hours in a decanter to unwind.

Where to Buy: Not currently available in Ontario or Québec

Les Fiefs de Lagrange AOC St. Julien 2010 – 92pts. LW

The second wine of renowned St. Julien property Château Lagrange. The blend is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot & 10% Petit Verdot. More elegant and intense with layered aromas of sweet cherry, cassis, violet, earthy notes, tobacco and eucalyptus. Full bodied with a silky texture, vibrant acidity, very firm, fine grained tannins and well integrated oak.

Where to Buy: Not currently available in Ontario or Québec

Le Bonheur Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 – 86pts. PW

This prominent Stellenbosch estate on the Simonsberg Mountain was established in the 18 hundreds. The wine shows a marked green character with eucalyptus, menthol and bell pepper notes dominating the soft black fruit undertones. Full bodied with moderate acidity and grippy tannins. The juicy fruit character on the palate seems at odds with the green nose.

Where to Buy: SAQ (23.50$)

Jim Barry “The Cover Drive” Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – 90pts. PW

Seductive notes of cassis, plum and dark cherry, with underlying minty and dark chocolate aromas. Good balance of fresh acidity and full-bodied, fruity structure. Lots of vanilla-rich oak aromas here. Tannins are pronounced, but ripe. Very pleasant, but no aromatic development in glass.

Where to Buy: LCBO (26.95$), SAQ (27.55$)

Catena Mendoza Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – 93pts. PW

Leading Argentinian producer Catena is hailed as a pioneer of top quality, high altitude wines in the Mendoza region. Pretty nose of ripe blackberries, tea leaf, dark chocolate, menthol and subtle cedar notes. The palate is fresh and lively; full bodied with a smooth texture, soft tannins and present, but well integrated oak.  Easy drinking; great value for the price.

Where to Buy: LCBO (19.95$), SAQ (22.30$)

Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – 89pts. PW

Robert Mondavi was known world-wide for his tireless efforts to gain global recognition for the high quality of Napa Valley wines.  The winery has since been sold, but the wines are still well-made. This Cab shows attractive menthol, cassis, raspberry, sweet spice and intense vanilla notes on the nose. Bright, juicy acidity is backed by a full body and firm tannic structure. It is tightly wound; needs time for the oak to integrate and the tannins to soften.

Where to Buy: LCBO (34.95$), SAQ (34.75$)