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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$)

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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$), SAQ (34.75$)

 

Reviews Wines

A Comparative Tasting of Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc Tasting

Summer is drawing to a close. The kids are back in school, and it is time for me to kick my own studies back in to high gear if I want even a microscopic chance of passing my Master of Wine (MW) exams next June. So while most diligent students are hitting the books, I will be hitting the bottle…hard. It is an interesting sight to see a new mother rocking her baby in his bouncy chair while simultaneously blind tasting a flight of wines (cue the boos and hisses on my awesome parenting!). But that is how I will be spending the next 9 months. Each week a new flight, tasted with a fellow MW candidate, and a new tasting article for you lucky folks.

Our journey begins with a comparative tasting of Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley, Bordeaux, New Zealand, Chile and South Africa. This zesty white is generally high in acidity, dry, light bodied, with moderate alcohol; the definition of thirst quenching. Aromas range from citrus, grassy, gooseberry and mineral to more overt tropical notes, stone fruits and blackcurrant buds (the prettier, French description for the aroma Anglophones describe as “cat pee”). With the exception of sweet wines made from botrytised Sémillon/ Sauvignon Blanc blends, Sauvignon Blanc is generally meant to be drunk young (within 2 – 3 years of harvest), while the bright fruit aromas and bracing acidity are at their height.

I first discovered how seriously good Sauvignon Blanc can be on a visit to the Loire Valley, the presumed origin of the grape, shortly after I moved to France ten years ago. The charming, 11th century village of Sancerre is perched on a hilltop looking down on its vineyards and pastures. The streets are lined with signs boasting wine tastings and little cafés where my friends and I ate sharp, earthy Crottin de Chavignol goat cheese, the perfect partner for the local tart, flinty white wine. After an epic, 4-hour tasting with Alphonse Mellot in his labyrinthine cellars, complete with scantily-clad ladies astride model bi-planes strung from the ceiling, I was hooked on Sancerre. Elegant and light bodied, with searing acidity, and delicate citrus, gooseberry and mineral-rich aromatics…impossible not to love. Neighbouring Pouilly Fumé makes a similarly whites, though generally in a richer and broader style.

A school tasting trip to the Graves area South of Bordeaux revealed a totally different style of Sauvignon Blanc to me. First of all because they tend to blend with the Sémillon grape, and secondly due to the often liberal use of French oak. The acidity is still quite striking, but the wines have more body and a subtly creamy, nutty texture. Aromas include lemon, grassy notes, currant bud, all underpinned by the oak flavours.

While France is its historic home, New Zealand claims to be the new king of Sauvignon Blanc. The majority of plantings come from the cool Marlborough vineyard on the South Island. Intense, “in your face” grassy, asparagus and gooseberry aromas dominate here, with riper examples showing lots passion fruit and peach notes. Most wines are unoaked, with racy acidity, light body and moderate alcohol.

Less well known currently, but growing rapidly in reputation are the cooler coastal areas of Chile (especially the Casablanca and the San Antonio Vallys) and South Africa (Western Cape coastal region and Cape South Coast). Both countries produce a range of styles, from lean and crisp to more lush and tropical. Their Sauvignon Blancs are regularly described as being mid-way between the restrained, elegant style of the old world and the overt, heady new world offers. I had the opportunity to taste some fantastically vibrant examples from the Walker Bay area South East of Cape Town when I worked there. The ocean breezes drifting in from the South Atlantic Ocean give a zesty, saline finish to the wines.

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):

Domaine Fouassier Sancerre “Les Grands Groux” 2013 – 92pts. PW

Domaine Fouassier farms his vineyard according to organic, and where possible, biodynamic principles. This wine shows excellent Sancerre typicity with elegant aromas of lemon, green apple and white florals hints on the nose. It has bracing acidity, a light body, integrated alcohol and an intriguing chalky minerality on the medium length finish. Very pleasant and balanced. Lacks the concentration and depth of flavour of top Sancerre.

Where to buy: SAQ (26.10$)

Michel Redde “La Moynerie” Pouilly Fumé 2013 – 91pts. PW

The third generation of Redde sons are currently running this 42 hectare estate in Pouilly Fumé. Grapes planted on flint, limestone and marl soils are blended here to create a mineral-laden nose, underpinned with citrus aromas. Vibrant acidity gives way to a rounded, smooth mid-palate. The finish is lifted and mineral. Highly drinkable and good value for the price, though not especially complex.

Where to buy: SAQ (25.75$)

Château Cruzeau Pessac-Léognan 2010 – 89pts. PW

Château Cruzeau is owned by the highly reputed Bordeaux producer, André Lurton. A deeper yellow gold colour is the first indication of the richer, fuller Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc style. Intense currant bud, lemongrass, apple and oak aromas abound. Fresh, juicy acidity marks the palate, with a medium bodied, subtly creamy mid-palate and reasonable oak integration through-out. Short finish.

Where to buy: LCBO (25.25$), SAQ (24.95$)

Babich Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2014 – 93pts. LW

Family owned since 1916, this large, award winning estate offers high quality at incredible value. Pale, white gold. Surprisingly elegant; with less of the pungent grassiness of many comparably priced Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs. The nose is refined, with lemon, passionfruit, floral and subtle mineral notes. Lean, with racy acidity, lots of juicy passionfruit and lemon flavours and a soft, rounded finish. At less than 20$, this is a bargain.

Where to buy: LCBO (15.95$), SAQ (19.65$)

Caliterra “Tributo” Sauvignon Blanc (Leyda, Chile) – 85pts. VW

An entry level brand from the owners of leading Chilean winery Errazuriz. Caliterra “Tributo” is a clean, well-made but fairly simple offering, with pungent vegetal, guava and lemon notes on the nose. Crisp and light-bodied, with moderate alcohol. Easy drinking but unexciting for the price.

Where to buy: SAQ (16.95$)

Bouchard-Finlayson Walker Bay Sauvignon Blanc – 88pts. PW

This 25 year old winery sits on an incredible plot of land in the stunning Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven and earth) Valley in the Walker Bay. Their house Sauvignon Blanc is an intensely aromatic offering though the lime, verbena, and grassy notes have a slightly acrid quality to them. More pleasant on the palate; smooth and light bodied with moderate acidity, lots of juicy peach and lime aromas through the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (22.95$)

Reviews Wines

Around the World in 6 Summer Whites

Cono Sur Winery Bicycles

So, while living in France, surrounded by stunning vineyards and oceans of incredible wine, is fantastic…. The downside is the lack of diversity. Not only can you not find Italian or Spanish wines, it is hard to get wines from other regions of France. My mission since arriving back in Canada has been to taste widely, at all different prices…because I can! Here is a mishmash of what I’ve been drinking this week (don’t worry, I have friends. I didn’t finish all these wines myself).

We start our tour in Australia. D’Arenberg is an excellent winery in the McLaren Vale region of South Australia. They are probably best known for their deliciously juicy Shiraz and Grenache offerings. I was intrigued by this interesting white blend: Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, both known for their light body, bracing acidity and purity of fruit aromas, blended with Marsanne and Roussanne, Rhône varieties that offer elegance and rich, nutty flavour (Marsanne), body and structure (Roussanne).

Over to New Zealand for some….you guessed it…Sauvignon Blanc! No trip to the liquor store in the summer seems complete without coming face to face with a display of Kim Crawford, so I figured I should give it a swirl and see what all the fuss is about. Marlborough is New Zealand largest and best known wine region. The combination of cool nights, hot days, low rainfall and free-draining, moderately fertile soil makes for racy, intense Sauvignon Blanc with exuberant tropical fruit, citrus and grassy profiles.

On to Chile, to taste Cono Sur Viognier. Renowned for their excellent value wines, Cono Sur is also a leading name in sustainability. The Viognier grape becomes notoriously flabby and oily when grown in overly hot climates where acidity levels aren’t high enough to balance the fruit and alcohol. If handled correctly however, Viognier is the poster child for lush, hedonistic whites. At a mere 10$ a bottle, I was curious to see what this wine would offer.

Next up, the Loire Valley in France, with the classic summer seafood wine: Muscadet. La Cave du Coudray “Réserve du Chiron” is a « Sur Lie » style, meaning that the wine has spent time in contact with the dead yeast cells, a process which imparts a rich, creaminess to the wine. Classic Muscadet is lean and dry, with refreshing acidity, lots of minerality and a creamy mid palate.

Italy has become known for their Pinot Grigio whites in recent years. Unfortunately, the popularity of this grape has led to mass production and some fairly neutral, boring wines. Masi, a highly respected Veneto producer, offers an interesting twist with their “Masianco” white by blending in Verduzzo. This little known grape, native to North-Eastern Italy, is fresh, with herbal and honeyed notes. I wanted to see what the Verduzzo would bring to this Pinot Grigio.

Last stop Spain. While Rioja is well-known for its savoury, full bodied reds, the whites generally go unnoticed. And this, despite the fact that until 1975, more white than red was purportedly planted in the region. The El Meson Rioja Blanco is 100% Viura (aka Macabeu in southern France, or Macabeo in the rest of Spain). This grape is often associated with neutral, mass produced wines. However, when not overcropped, and picked early, it can offer crisp, lively wines with great minerality and a pleasing honeyed note.

The verdicts?

What do VW, PW & LW mean?  Click on my scoring system for the answer.

D’Arenberg “The Stump Jump” White 2014 – 85pts. VW

Medium, yellow gold. Intense nose of green apples and citrus with floral and exotic fruit undertones. Fresh and vibrant; just shy of medium bodied with moderate alcohol, a touch of residual sugar and a zesty finish. Easy drinking, yet fails to highlight the individual character of the grapes in the blend.

Grapes: Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne

Where to buy: LCBO (14.95$), SAQ (17.35$)

Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2014 – 88pts. PW

Pale, straw yellow. Lively and refreshing, with aromas of lime, gooseberry, passionfruit and underlying herbal notes. Dry, light bodied and crisp, with moderate alcohol and a smooth, citrus dominant finish. Very pleasant, but for the price it lacks individuality and complexity.

Grapes: Sauvignon Blanc

Where to buy: LCBO (19.95$), SAQ (21.00$)

Cono Sur “Bicicleta” Viognier 2014 – 90pts. VW

Pale, white gold. Heady aromas of candied peach, tropical fruits and floral notes. Lush, medium bodied with moderate acidity, and juicy fruitiness throughout. A touch of bitterness and heat on the finish but, at this price, still represents killer value.

Grapes: Viognier

Where to buy: LCBO (9.95$)

La Cave du Coudray “Réserve du Chiron” Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie 2013 – 88pts. VW

Pale, yellow gold. Delicate aromas of citrus and melon with subtle minerality. Dry and balanced, with fresh acidity, a subtle, creamy lees note on the mid-palate and moderate alcohol. Citrus and mineral notes on the finish. Lacking some depth and richness for a Sur Lie offering, but overall worth picking up at bottle at this price.

Grapes: Melon de Bourgogne

Where to buy: LCBO (13.95$)

Masi “Masianco” 2014 – 87pts. VW

Pale, white gold. Delicate floral aromas with undertones of pear and honeydew melon. Crisp, light to medium bodied with a smooth, rounded texture and hint of juicy sweetness on the finish. A versatile wine; easy to pair with light summer fare. Fair value.

Grapes: Pinot Grigio, Verduzzo

Where to buy: LCBO (15.00$), SAQ (16.95$)

El Meson Rioja Blanco 2014 – 90pts. VW

Pale yellow gold. Restrained nose with hints of honeysuckle, lemongrass, peach and grassy notes. Dry, zesty and lean, with lots of juicy peach and citrus, good balance and a lifted, lightly mineral finish. A perfect, aperitif wine for hot summer days. Highly drinkable.

Grapes: Viura

Where to buy: www.wineonline.ca (12.95$)