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Education Life

WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT WINE ANYWAY?

Hermitage
Photo credit: Hermitage, Jasper Van Berkel

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

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

Let me count the ways…

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

The Potent Allure of History & Rarity

The earliest evidence of cultivated vines date as far back as Georgia circa 6000 B.C.

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

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

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

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

The Vintage Mystique

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

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

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

The Triumph of Terroir

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

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

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

The Dizzying Diversity

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

The Cult of the Wine Professional

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

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

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

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

And the Trump Card…Health!

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

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

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

In Summary

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

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

Education Reviews Wines

IT IS WORTH PAYING MORE?

Romanee-Conti bottles

In one of Hugh Johnson’s fabulous books, he advocates buying ageworthy wines by the case, so that bottles can be opened periodically, over the span of their recommended drinking life, to see how they evolve. Until recently, I would have judged this very sound advice indeed.

However, at least where Burgundy and Bordeaux are concerned, this just isn’t feasible for the average wine lover anymore. Even the most diehard fans of these classic cellar stockers are pulling back on bulk purchases. The wines have simply become too expensive for all but the world’s uber-wealthy.

With so many new, premium wines and wine regions popping up all over the globe, you might wonder how this is possible? Surely the increase in fine wine supply would equate to lower prices? Not so! Why is this? The reasons are manifold…

The cult of the wine critic in the 1990s and early 2000s led to certain wines developping such star power that well-to-do collecters, savvy wine traders and affluent status seekers flocked to them, driving prices ever higher. Massive economic growth in China from 2005 onward led to rash of seemingly overnight millionaires. Investments in luxury goods, including Grand Cru Bordeaux, ensued at an impressive pace. In Burgundy, a similar phenomenon occurred, and was compounded by regular poor harvests, and the scarce volumes of this comparably small vineyard region.

The cult of the wine critic in the 1990s and early 2000s led to certain wines to develop such star power … driving prices ever higher.

A 2011 Fortune article details the meteoric price escalation over the past 25 years, notably in Bordeaux. A bottle of Château Lafite Rotschild 1982 was listed at 84$ US in a 1986 fine wine catalogue, whereas the 2008 vintage came out at a whopping 1800$.  Likewise, a Joseph Drouhin Echezeaux Grand Cru 1983 was on offer at 30$. The 2015 vintage sells for an average of 205$ US on price comparison sites like Wine Searcher.

Have these wines reached such lofty prices, that they now cost more than they are worth? Many in the wine trade would respond with a resounding YES! Retailers from the US and UK have tried various tactics in recent years from lobbying growers’ associations to boycotting purchasing to get the top estates in Bordeaux to bring down their prices.

In my opinion, the question of quality-price ratio is a deeply personal one. I would never spend upwards of 3000$ on a purse because it is adorned with crisscrossed LVs. However, many would argue superior craftsmanship, or simply the pleasure of owning an iconic item, to validate their purchase.

On the other hand, I have no qualms shelling out thousands of dollars on world-wide travel, and will happily pay ten times the price of a local bus for the convenience of jumping in a cab on a rainy day.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of fine wine purchasing is the hit-and-miss nature of it all. While the top estates still produce excellent wines in poor vintages, they are not a patch on their counter parts in fine growing years. The buyer therefore needs to arm themselves with at least basic vintage information. Prices do drop marginally in poor vintages (at least in Bordeaux), but rarely in line with the quality difference.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of fine wine purchasing is the hit-and-miss nature of it all.

Wine is a living thing, that evolves in bottle. Sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the drastically worse. It can be affected by cork taint, and smell sharply of wet cardboard. It can go through a “dumb period” early in its cellaring, whereby the aromatics are muted and the palate so firm as to give little pleasure. It can also age more rapidly than expected, appearing dried out; lacking in fruit and glycerol.

You just never know what you are going to get.

So why do oenophiles still clamour after these insanely priced, potentially disappointing luxury wines? Simply put, because when they are good, they are like nothing you have ever tasted before. A truly fine Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru, at the height of its ageing curve, is so complex, so elegant, so powerful and yet silky on the palate that you feel the sensations continue to play across your tongue long after you have swallowed. The experience bears no ressemblance to that pleasant, fruity 50$ Pinot Noir you carafed last week-end.

The same can be said for the top châteaux in Bordeaux, though you need to wait a little longer for the powerful Cabernet Sauvignon tannins to mellow. In their prime, these beauties offer a level of finesse, of balance and of sensuality, that is just incomparable with their more affordable brethren.

…when they are good, they are like nothing you have ever tasted before…

Whether you are able or willing to part with a chunk of your savings to have such an experience is up to you. With a little luck, you can find a generous sponsor or befriend someone in the wine trade with good connections! This has always been my modus operandi. I haven’t tasted a Romanée-Conti yet…but remain ever hopeful.

 

Producers Reviews

PRODUCER PROFILE – LUDIVINE GRIVEAU, DOMAINE DES HOSPICES DE BEAUNE

Ludivine Griveau Jacky Blisson

The snow was coming down fast and furious but I trudged onwards, tightening the hood of my parka around my frozen cheeks. Had it been another day, I might have slunk back to the comforting warmth of my office. But today was different. I was headed for a tasting and lunch with Ludivine Griveau, the new managing director of the Domaine des Hospices de Beaune.

Luckily for me, the weather kept the majority of my less intrepid colleaugues away, allowing me a far cosier encounter than I had anticipated. Over a scrumptious magret de canard and a line up of beautifully precise Burgundies, we settled in for a nice, long chat.

The Hospices de Beaune (often referred to as the Hôtel Dieu) was founded in 1443 as a charitable hospital and refuge following the Hundred Years’ war. The good works of the almshouse attracted many generous benefactors who, over more than five centuries, have bequeathed substantial land holdings. Today, the estate consists of 60 hectares of mainly premier and grand cru vineyards dotted through out the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits.

The Hospices de Beaune was founded in 1443 as a charitable hospital and refuge.

In 1859 the tradition of a yearly wine auction was established, to sell the wines of the Hospices and raise money for the hospital. Since the construction of a new, modern hospital in the early 1970s, the Hôtel Dieu has become a museum, but the winemaking activities and charitable deeds of the Hospices de Beaune continue.

The wine trade elite gather from around the globe in Beaune every 3rd Sunday of November to attend the auction, and bid on barrels of storied appellations like Clos de la Roche and Corton Charlemagne. In the days leading up to the main event, the Hospices cellars are opened for public, barrel tastings to allow clients to select the cuvées they wish to purchase. No other Burgundian estate is so closely or widely scutinized, making the Domaine des Hospices de Beaune something of a standard bearer for the quality of the region.

No other Burgundian estate is so closely or widely scutinized, making the Domaine des Hospices de Beaune something of a standard bearer for the quality of the region.

The office of managing director of the Hospices involves overseeing the vineyards and winemaking for the estate. Given the international attention, this is a daunting task for even the most experienced vigneron. In 2014, long time director Roland Masse announced his retirement, and the search for a worthy successor was launched. The process took nine months, with over fifty candidates vetted, before a victor was named: Ludivine Griveau.

Not since co-founder Guigone de Salins ran the Hôtel Dieu in the 1400s (after the death of her husband, Nicolas Rolin) has there been a woman at the helm of the Hospices de Beaune. And certainly not in the role of head winemaker! Historically, women weren’t even allowed in the wineries during the fermentation period for fear that their “monthly visitor” would turn the wine sour. Thankfully those days are gone, and the number of celebrated female winemakers in Burgundy is growing steadily. However, old habits die hard and I definitely felt a lingering sense of machoism during my years in Beaune.

Not since Guigone de Salins ran the Hôtel Dieu in the 1400s has there been a woman at the helm of the Hospices de Beaune.

I therefore applauded the choice of the Hospices board of directors, and went into my meeting with Ludivine predisposed to champion her appointment. It quickly became clear however, that she doesn’t need the backing of female solidarity to legitimize her role. Engaging, articulate and incredibly passionate, Ludivine brings with her a solid foundation of education and experience. She spent 4 years working as a viticulturist for the famed Domaine Jacques Prieur, before heading up the winemaking team at Maison Corton-André for 10 years.

Over this period, she worked in almost every appellation where the Hospices owns vines. The varied terroir of each parcel hold no secrets for her, giving her an incredible advantage in running the Hospices estate. Today, she manages a team of 23 staff, who each tend to just over 2 hectares of vines. She also travels the world to promote the domaine’s wines and the charitable aim of the estate.

When asked what her objective for the estate is, 5 to 10 years down the road, she didn’t hesitate. ‘Perfection!’. Such a bold claim demanded further explanation, so she quickly expanded on her theme. The wines of the Hospices, once purchased in barrel mid-November, are transferred to selected wineries and négociant houses for the rest of their barrel maturation and bottling. The final wines will of course vary depending on the cellar master’s methods. The Domaine des Hospices’ role is to provide optimally ripe, healthy grapes that are vinified in such a way as to elicit wines of surpassing elegance and finesse. This is her aim.

The Domaine des Hospices’ role is to provide optimally ripe, healthy grapes … of surpassing elegance and finesse. This is her aim.

As any self-respecting French vigneron will tell you: ‘Les meilleurs vins sont fait dans les vignes’ (the best wines are made in the vineyards), meaning that it is the quality of the ripened grape that defines how good the wine will be.  All 60 hectares of the Hospices estate are farmed sustainably; a method generally called lutte raisonnée. Ludivine has injected a seemingly subtle, but important difference with her team; a practice she calls ‘lutte réfléchie’. Instead of simply tempering the use of non organic inputs, she insists that they really stop and think about each potential treatment and what possible alternatives could be employed.

It is this exacting attention to detail that sets her apart. She gives a wry chuckle and admits that she drives her team crazy sometimes with her exhaustive decision making process. This attitude does not falter in the winery. ‘Pinot Noir is an incredibly delicate grape, that requires careful attention and a soft touch in the cellar’ she asserts. She started her first harvest season by explaining the concept of gentle punch downs to her staff; the idea being to limit extraction to just the right tannic balance.

hospices wines

Over the course of our meal, we shared a steely, mineral-edged St. Romain blanc (cuvée Menault) 2014 and a silky, elegant Monthélie rouge 1er cru “les Duressesses” (cuvée Lebelin) 2011 both masterfully aged by J. Drouhin. The pièce de résistance followed, by way of a ripe, powerful, richly textured Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru (cuvée Madeleine Collignon) 2009. These wines ably represented the standard of quality for which the Domaine des Hospices de Beaune is renowned.

It will be a little while yet before the Hospices wines crafted by Ludivine are released. I await my first tasting with anticipation! Perhaps the fact that she began during the highly acclaimed Burgundy vintage of 2015 is an omen of good things to come…

Life

A MOST CURIOUS JOURNEY

Rover
Photo credit: www.classicandperformancecar.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank Egan

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

 

Life

FROM BEAUNE CANUCK TO RHONE CANUCK

Dentelles de Montmirail
Photo credit: Gabriel Meffre

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

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

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

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

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

Life

My Father’s Daughter

Jacky Blisson in Beaune

I have decided to partake in few throwback Thursdays this fall, and republish excerpts from the blog I wrote in 2010 while living in France. I called myself “The Rhône Canuck” and shared my musings as a Canadian wine lover living and working in France.

This first introductory post summarizes my decision to move to France. I hope you enjoy it!

As a child sitting on my father’s knee while he sipped his wee dram and told stories about the good old days…Paris in the ’60s, drinking crate loads of excellent, cheap Bourgogne rouge…I never thought I would one day end up living in the country of his wistful reveries.  But the seed was planted early and, it would seem, in fertile soil.

By age seven my dad swore that I had “the palate of the family” as he poured out Sherries of varying qualities and asked me to sniff out the best.  Though I’m sure my correct response must surely have been a fluke, the die was nevertheless cast.

And so eighteen years later I found myself winging my way to Beaune, my personal mecca, with visions of Corton dancing in my head.  I had been accepted at the CFPPA de Beaune (an agricultural college linked to an engineering university in Dijon) for a year-long course in “Connaissances et Commerce International des Vin”. My Dad and I celebrated my new adventure with a bottle of his coveted 1982 Leoville Las Cases. I knew from the first heady sip that I was on the right path.

With my head filled with glossy Wine Spectator images of elegant, refined looking winemakers, I was in for a shock when I came across my first red-blooded Burgundian vigneron! And so launched my 6 years…and counting…love affair with Burgundy and the Rhône; the wines, the savoir-vivre and of course the people (had to throw that one in since I just married one!).

Yes, the administration is a nightmare, the rudeness of the public service industry is hard for a nice Canadian to bear and everyone truly is always on strike. On the other hand, taking two hours for lunch everyday is a perfectly acceptable practice, and wine is always served.

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$), SAQ (34.00$)

 

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$)