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TASTING THE WINES OF DOMAINE LOUIS MICHEL & FILS

the wines of domaine louis michel

The wines of Domaine Louis Michel epitomize all that I love in top Chablis. They are pure, precise, and incredibly elegant in a lean, steely style that, while understated, remain incredibly complex and powerfully structured.

Established in 1850, the estate has passed down from one generation to the next, to its present day configuration of 25-hectares graced with prime vineyard locations in three Grand Cru terroirs (Les Clos, Grenouilles, Vaudésir) and eight Premier Cru sites, as well as Chablis and Petit Chablis holdings.

Present day owner, Guillaume Michel is clearly passionate about his vines and his region. His enthusiasm is infectious as he explains his team’s vineyard and winemaking philosophies. Crucial to his ideology, is the cultivating of healthy, optimally ripened grapes that ably express their terroir.

The headaches and sleepless nights start early in the Chablis vineyard growing season. Spring frosts are becoming increasingly frequent in the region, keeping vineyard owners up at all hours checking weather data and lighting “bougies” (large parafin candles) in their best parcels on high-risk nights.

Roughly 40 years ago, the Michel family made a radical change to their winemaking procedure. They decided to stop fermenting and ageing their wines in oak barrels. The reasoning? The Michels began to see oak as an artifice, masking or altering the flavour profile of the grape and its terroir. They also felt that the wine should be manipulated or moved as little as possible to allow a purer expression.

Since then, the wines of Domaine Louis Michel have been vinified and matured in 100% stainless steel tanks. The gently pressed must is cooled down to 12°C – 13°C for clarification, and then slowly, cool fermented to temperatures up to 18°C. Maturation on fine lees lasts 8 – 10 months for Petit Chablis and Chablis, whereas the Premier and Grand Cru parcels remain in tank for up to 18 months to integrate further and reveal their full potential.

I recently attended an incredible tasting of the wines of Domaine Louis Michel; all Premier and Grand Cru wines from the 2015 and 2016 vintage. When asked how these vintages compared, Guillaume Michel explained that, “2015 was atypical. A very hot, sunny growing season resulting in rich, fruity wines brimming with white stone fruit flavours. 2016 was a challenging vintage beset by frost, rain, and hail that drastically lowered yields. The wines are surprisingly good however; highly aromatic, with lots of energy and pleasing tropical hints”.

Favourites from the tasting included:

Domaine Louis Michel Chablis 1er Cru Montmain 2015 – 90pts. LW

According to Guillaume Michel, Montmain is “always very floral and elegant, with lovely saline minerality”. This is definitely the case here, with underlying notes of star-anise, ripe lemon, yellow apple and earthy, white mushroom hints. Very sleek and racy on the palate, with a bone-dry, lingering finish.

Price: 51.50$, private import (enquire with agent)

Domaine Louis Michel Chablis 1er Cru Butteaux Vieilles Vignes 2016 – 92pts. LW

Fairly discreet on the nose, with notes of wet stone underscored by green apple, forest floor, and fresh almonds. This elegant white really comes alive on the palate, with its thrilling acidity, its powerful structure, layered core of juicy yellow pear, white peach and tingly minerality. Finishes with a subtle, appealing bitterness.

Price: N/A, coming to the SAQ before year’s end (enquire with agent)

Domaine Louis Michel Chablis 1er Cru Butteaux Vieilles Vignes 2015 – 92pts. LW

The 2015 vintage is quite similar, and equally impressive, with slightly broader, rounder acidity and more honeyed, spiced nuances to the flavour profile. Very juicy and fresh on the finish.

Price: 70.50$ at the SAQ

Domaine Louis Michel Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre 2016 – 93pts. LW

Montée de Tonnerre is a south west facing parcel just south of the Grand Cru hill, sharing many geological features. It is one of the best-known and admired of the Premier Cru vineyards, and for good reason. This elegant white boasts a powerfully flinty nose, with vibrant citrus notes, an array of ripe orchard fruits and subtly earthy hints. High, zesty acidity gives way to laser-like precision on the palate, and a lingering mineral-rich (almost spicy) finish.

Price: 60.50$ at the SAQ

Domaine Louis Michel Chablis Grand Cru Vaudésir 2016 – 95pts. LW

Quite a diverse terroir boasting a warm meso-climate, with slopes facing both south and north. Louis Michel’s vineyards are found on the north side. The 2016 is hugely aromatic, with oyster shell nuances interwoven with exotic citrus notes, pineapple, yellow plum, star-anise and earthy undertones. Broad, bracing acidity defines the palate, providing lovely lift for the opulent, richly textured core. A symphony of yellow fruit, ripe lemon and briny mineral notes on the finish.

Price: N/A, coming soon as a private import (enquire with agent)

Domaine Louis Michel Chablis Grand Cru Vaudésir 2015 – 93pts. LW

Similar opulence and aromatic intensity to the 2016, with a more ample frame and softer, juicier acidity. The flavour profile is also comparable, but veers towards baked rather than fresh fruit, with a very long, spicy, warming finish.

Price: 108.50$, in stock, private import (enquire with agent)

Domaine Louis Michel Grand Cru Les Clos 2016 – 95pts. LW

Guillaume Michel described Les Clos as being “austere in its youth; far more expressive on the palate than the nose, with notes of white pepper on the finish”.  Again, an able description for this compact, racy white with its discreet nose featuring white mushrooms, lemon, and green fruits. Lovely mid-palate concentration, vibrant tangy fruit flavours, and an incredibly long, peppered finish attest to the vast potential for those with the patience to wait a few years.

Price: N/A, coming to the SAQ end of 2019, enquire with agent

Domaine Louis Michel Grand Cru Grenouilles 2016 – 97pts. LW

For me, this was the star of the show. The nose is utterly alluring, at first offering pretty white floral notes, an array of yellow fruits, citrus, kiwi and earthy hints. Upon aeration, flinty mineral aromas come to the fore. The palate is crisp, firm, and very juicy, fairly brimming over with stone fruit and grapefruit flavours, nicely matched by the smooth, creamy texture. A hint of grapefruit pith bitterness adds additional textural intrigue on the long finish.

Price: N/A, coming to the SAQ end of 2019, enquire with agent

Producers Reviews

TASTING THE WINES OF DOMAINE MICHEL SARRAZIN

the wines of michel sarrazin

The Burgundian fog hung thick and relentless in the air as I guided my flashy fiat along the A6 southward to Givry. Exiting the highway at Chalon-sur-Saône, I was amazed to see how quickly I found myself ambling along tiny country lanes, crossing sleepy farming communities

At the top of a steep and winding path, I came across the hamlet of Jambles; part of the Givry appellation. I had arrived at my first visit of the morning: the Domaine Michel Sarrazin & Fils.

The Côte Chalonaise lies due south of Burgundy’s famed Côte d’Or. Aligoté, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards dot the landscape, but here they are interspersed with a variety of other crops and grazing land. From north to south, the top growing areas are: Bouzeron, Rully, Mercurey, Givry, and Montagny.

Apart from the nervy, elegant Aligoté from Bouzeron, the white wines of the Côte Chalonnaise are rarely lauded. The red wines, while often decidedly rustic, can achieve a vibrant fruitiness and silken texture in the right hands, on the right vineyard sites.

The commune of Givry is primarily devoted to red wine production, and is considered by many to offer the most elegant, fragrant Pinot Noirs of the region.

The commune of Givry is primarily devoted to red wine production, and is considered by many to offer the most elegant, fragrant Pinot Noirs of the region. My host for the morning, Guy Sarrazin, is certainly of this opinion. “Givry has a lovely, fruity expression”, he explained, “while Mercurey is generally earthier, and Rully often lacks weight”.  There are no Grand Cru vineyards here, but several excellent Premier Cru sites exist.

The Sarrazins have been growing grapes in and around Givry since the 17th century. The Domaine Michel Sarrazin was established by the current generations’ father in 1964, and it was at this juncture that the winery began bottling and selling their wines. Brothers Guy and Jean Yves are now at the helm, and have gained critical acclaim in France and abroad for the great value and consistent, high quality of their range.

Domaine Michel Sarrazin consists of 35 hectares in the appellations of Bourgogne AOC, Bourgogne Aligoté, Maranges, Givry, and Mercurey.

I was shown into a cool, dark cellar used to stock boxed, ready-to-ship orders. The tasting bar was tucked into the corner of this charmless room. Surveying my surroundings and my gruff host, I wondered what what I was in for. Thankfully as the morning progressed, Guy warmed to his subject and the twinkle in his eye was undeniable as he poured his finest reds.

Today, the Domaine Michel Sarrazin consists of 35 hectares in the appellations of Bourgogne AOC, Bourgogne Aligoté, Maranges, Givry, and Mercurey. The brothers produce 25 different wines ranging in style from crémant, to white, rosé, and red. The estates’ top wines hail from their Givry 1er Cru vineyards dotted through out the appellation. The vineyards are farmed according to the French lutte raisonnée system (literally translated as “the reasoned fight”, basically meaning that chemical sprays are strictly limited; used only when absolutely necessary).

All of Sarrazin’s wines, from the most humble to the grandest are matured in top quality French oak, sourced exclusively from the François Frères cooperage. Sarrazin believes that judicious oak maturation brings the structural lift and flavour complexity he seeks to enhance the individual expression of each terroir. The duration of ageing and percentage of new barrels used depends on the vineyard.

Overall, the wines were a revelation for me. The earthiness and rusticity of certain wines served to heighten complexity, underscoring lively fruit, floral, and spiced aromas. I was treated to a lengthy tasting, covering the majority of Guy’s range.

The fantastic value and dangerous drinkability of Guy’s Bourgogne AOC wines impressed me. Sarrazin’s Givry 1er Crus showed how versatile the wines of the appellation can be, from the elegant Champs Lalot, to the weightier, firmer Grande Berge.

Tasting notes from my favourite wines below.

 

Bourgogne Aligoté “Les Charnailles” 2017

Aromas of white flowers, lemon, grapefruit and anis hints feature on the nose. The palate is defined by its nervy acidity, light body, tangy citrus fruit flavours, and saline mineral notes on the lifted finish.

Givry 1er Cru “Champs Lalot” Blanc 2017

Though quite restrained on the nose, this medium bodied white comes into its own on the palate. Fresh, with attractive yellow apple and pear flavours, mingled with buttery notes, and hints of green almond. The subtle phenolic grip on the finish boulsters the structure nicely prolonging the lemon-infused finish.

Bourgogne Rouge Vieilles Vignes 2017

Pretty red cherry, raspberry and earthy nuances appear with aeration. Light in colour and body, this brisk red is brimming with juicy red berry flavours. The finish is smooth and rounded.

Givry “Les Dracy” 2017

Quite a light, lifted style of Givry, with restrained red berry and mossy, forest floor notes. Smooth and linear on the palate, with tangy red fruit flavours and lovely, silky tannins.

Givry 1er Cru “Champs Lalot” Rouge 2017

Very elegant, with a heady violet perfume underscored by raspberry, red cherry and cedar nuances. The palate is incredibly tangy and firmly structured, with lively acidity, medium body, tart red fruit flavours, and fine-grained tannins.

Givry 1er Cru “Les Bois Gauthiers” 2017

Discreet, with an earthier, less fruit forward expression than Champs Lalot. The palate is weightier, with quite firm, chewy tannins and lingering herbal, red berry notes.

Givry 1er Cru “Grande Berge” 2017

Intially restrained, the Grande Berge gains quickly in intensity, with intriguing exotic spice, red berry, red currant, and cedar notes. Crisp, vibrant acidity is matched by a very taut structure on this medium bodied red. It finishes quite earthy, with firm tannins and lingering mocha flavours.

Givry 1er Cru “Grande Berge” 2015

The 2015 vintage of Grande Berge is highly aromatic, with intense red cherry, black plum, and raspberry notes. Still tightly knit, but far weightier on the palate, with an abundance of ripe red berries, mocha, and spice. The tannins are broad and ripe.

Life Wines

BURGUNDY REVISITED: WINE TASTING IN BURGUNDY

wine tasting in burgundy

On a cool and blustery day late December, I was speeding along the route nationale 74 in a rented, mint green Fiat 500. My destination? Gevrey-Chambertin to kick off a few days of wine tasting in Burgundy. I smiled as I passed the blink-and-you-miss-it village of Prémeaux-Prissey and a flood of memories assailed me.

I arrived in Burgundy in 2004 to study International Wine Commerce at the CFPPA de Beaune. I didn’t drive stick, my French was lousy, and my only acquaintance was an elderly widow. To make matters worse it was November – the month where a thick, grey fog descends over Burgundy and rarely lifts before the following March.

To say that my first couple of months were challenging is a vast understatement.

I had found accommodations at Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron in the sleepy town of Prémeaux-Prissey. Slowly but surely my French improved. I made friendships that I cherish to this day. And I drank some incredible wine. If someone had told me back then how lucky I was to be drinking top Burgundy on a regular basis, perhaps I would have sipped it more slowly and thoughtfully.

It has been 12 years since I called Burgundy home. After my formation and a two-year stint sourcing small lots of high-end Burgundy for North American private clients and importers, I moved on, to South Africa, then Avignon, and eventually home, to Montréal. I make the pilgrimage to Beaune most every year though. The siren song of Chambolle always lure me back. And there is nothing quite like popping a warm gougères in your mouth, washed down with a taut, tangy Puligny.

On this particular visit mid December, I was on a fact-finding mission. I have been drinking Burgundy in a fairly nonchalant way these past 10 years. But with the Master of Wine tasting exam looming (and not my first stab at it….sigh), it is time to get serious.

I had tastings lined up at excellent estates from Marsannay all the way down to Givry. The goal was to re-visit Burgundian wine styles and winemaking practices.

Much has changed in Burgundy since the early 2000s. Wine producers are far more ecologically conscience, wines are handled less reductively pre-fermentation, and the percentage of new oak – even at the Grand Cru level – has decreased significantly.

The resultant wines are, for the most part, silkier, lighter, and more ethereal than I remember. The difference between appellations is also less clear cut. Individual winemaking styles and the unique expression of each climat (vineyard plot) distinguishes the wines far more distinctly today.

The following series of articles covers my visits, tastings, and impressions from a few days’ intensive wine tasting in Burgundy.

 

 

Education

7 HOUSE WINE STYLES TO ALWAYS KEEP IN STOCK

house wines

The ultimate wine lover’s dream is a large wine cellar – with perfect temperature and humidity conditions – laden with treasures from around the wine producing globe. Unfortunately, not all of us have the space or the budget to make this fantasy a reality. But, if you love to drink wine regularly, and to entertain, it is still nice to have a small stock of “house wines” to avoid last minute rushes to the wine store.

Not sure what to buy? Keep reading!

I recommend having at least one bottle of these seven different styles of house wines on hand. They should cover the majority of wine drinking occasions.

***Side note: I have also made this post into a YouTube video. To watch, just scroll down to the bottom & click play. If you enjoy the video, consider subscribing to my YouTube channel so you never miss an episode of my weekly wine education series. 

2 Sparkling Wines (yes, you need two!)

First up, sparkling wine. When I moved to France a number of years ago, I discovered something incredible. Small growers in Champagne were selling excellent non-vintage fizz for 12 – 15 euros! At the time, only the big Champagne houses were making it to the liquor store shelves in Canada, and their basic bubblies were five times more expensive than these little gems. I started drinking Champagne regularly. I always had a cold bottle ready for any piece of good news – big or small. Every little triumph was a reason to drink Champagne. Those were the days…

Back home in Montréal, my budget doesn’t quite extend to weekly bottles of Champagne. This is potentially for the best though, as I have been forced to branch out and discover the wide world of excellent sparkling wines outside of France.

I recommend stocking two types of bubblies for your house wines: a more affordable version for the every-day celebrations, and a finer bottle for the big moments.

For your first bottle, even though you are spending less, you still want something you’d enjoy drinking. I suggest seeking out the higher quality tiers of budget-friendly sparkling wine regions. If you like delicate fruity aromas, soft bubbles, and fresh acidity, try Prosecco at the Superiore DOCG level. If you prefer the more vigorous, firm bubbles of Champagne, with hints of brioche, biscuit-type aromas, go for Cava at the Reserva or Gran Reserva level. Crémant wines, made through out France, will also provide a similar experience.

In terms of your fancier fizz, Champagne is obviously the classic choice. If you want to go all out, look for Vintage Champagne or a Prestige cuvées of a non-vintage wine. Don’t forget however, that really top-drawer sparkling wine is cropping up all over the world – potentially in your own backyard – and drinking local is awesome! Look to England, parts of Canada, Tasmania, Marlborough if you want something with that really racy acidity of Champagne. If you want something a little richer & rounder – try California or South Africa’s top sparkling wines.

To learn more about premium sparkling wines, click here.

An Aperitif-style White Wine

Ok…on to your every-day house wines. I enjoy drinking a glass of white wine while I am cooking supper. I want something fairly light in body, crisp, dry and generally un-oaked at this juncture of the evening; a wine that is easy-drinking on its own and as refreshing as lemonade on a hot day. These are also typically the kinds of wines I would serve at a dinner party as an aperitif, or with light fare such as oysters, grilled white fish, or salads.

An easy go-to white wine grape variety is Sauvignon Blanc (more elegant, restrained styles from Loire, more pungent grassy, passion fruit examples from New Zealand) or dry Riesling (try Alsace, or the Clare and Eden Valleys in Australia). If you would like to try something a little different, look for the zesty, peach-scented, mineral Albarino grape from Spain, the crisp, dry, herbal, lemony Assyrtiko grape grown mainly on the island of Santorini in Greece, or finally firmly structured, brisk, peach/ grapefruit/ earthy Grüner Veltliner from Austria.

 A Richer, Fuller-bodied White Wine

If you are cooking poultry, fattier fish, cream-based sauces, or serving soft cheeses, you will need a weightier, more textural white that can stand up to the heavier food. Chardonnay wines, notably those aged in oak, work well here. Be careful however, because Chardonnay runs the gamut from quite lean, citrussy & mineral to very broad, heavy & tropical – check with store staff before buying to make sure you get a style that suits your palate.

Interesting alternatives to Chardonnay include white Rhône Valley blends featuring grapes like Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier. These can also be found outside of France, with fine examples made in Paso Robles, California and Victoria, Australia. Pinot Gris from Alsace, notably the Grand Cru versions, also have a lovely textural weight, depth, and vibrancy of fruit that will shine in this category.

A Light-bodied Red Wine (or Rosé)

Sadly, not all of your guests are going to love white wine (I know…it is a shock to me too). The perfect host will not be flustered by this set-back. They will simply trade out the white for a crisp rosé, or a light, juicy red wine. Pale, dry rosé works well for pre-dinner drinks. Rosés with deeper colour and more depth, or pale, fresh red wines will marry well with those fleshier fish or poultry dishes.

Pinot Noir, Gamay, and lighter styles of Cabernet Franc are excellent light-bodied red wine grapes. Look for cooler climate origins, as the hotter regions will likely verge into the medium to full bodied category, with more baked fruit flavours and higher alcohol. What you are looking for here is tangy acidity, a delicate structure, and fairly silky tannins.

For a more exotic option, try Etna DOC wines, made from the Nerello Mascalese grape, on the slopes of the famed Mount Etna in Sicily.

An ‘”All-Rounder” Red Wine

Between the delicate, tangy light reds and the big, bold ones, I always think that it is a good idea to have a more versatile red in your house wines arsenal. A wine that is medium in body, fresh (but not overly acidic), subtly fruity, smooth and rounded on the palate. These wines tend to pair with the widest range of foods making them a great option for your every-day fare.

Côtes-du-Rhône red wines (made from a blend of Grenache and Syrah) are a fantastic choice here. If you like the style, but prefer a wine with a touch more body and depth, look for the Villages level of Côtes-du-Rhône. Valpolicella from the Veneto in Italy is also a lovely, fruity option, or – if you like the vanilla, spice flavours of oaked reds – try a Rioja Reserva.

A Full-bodied Red Wine

When you are barbecuing steak, preparing a heartily flavoured stew, or serving pungent, hard cheeses, you need a wine with equally bold flavours. The tannins from these more powerful reds also binds with and softens proteins in meat, intensifying their rich savoury flavours, and in turn, reducing the astringency of the wine.

A wide range of options exist. Classics include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot blends (with more vibrant, tart fruited examples from Bordeaux vs. more lush, ultra-ripe fruited versions from the Napa Valley), Malbec and Syrah are also great traditional choices. Looking a little further afield, you could try Portuguese blends from the Douro region, or Grenache, Carignan blends from Priorat region of Spain.

Final Thoughts

In France, the dessert is sometimes accompanied by a sweet wine and it is common practice to offer a digestif (literally a wine/ spirit to help you digest) after the meal. The French really know how to live. Sigh…

There is a vast world of amazing options out there but, for most of us, after-dinner wines tend only to be served on special occasions. Unless space permits, you don’t necessarily need to stock these in advance.

I hope that this helps you a little with your next trip to the wine store. If you have any questions, or comments on any of the wines, write me a comment and I will happily respond.

Education Reviews Wines

BUBBLES – PART 2: CHAMPAGNE & PREMIUM SPARKLING WINES UNDER 75$

champagne and premium sparkling wine
Photo credit: Claude Rigoulet

Now that you have had a week-end to go out and taste test the 10 great value sparkling wines I offered up last week (if not, click here), it’s time to double down. Yes folks, today’s recommendations get a little pricier! I have, however, restricted the list to wines under 75$, to keep them within attainable gift-giving limits.

So, is it really worth spending 20$ to 50$ more? The short answer: YES!

That is not to say that all higher priced bubblies are better than their more affordable counter-parts. There are many excellent, small sparkling wine houses that are far superior to some of the major producers. There are also glaring examples of big brand Champagnes that are priced way over their true value.

I simply mean that a serious step up in complexity, elegance and finesse often comes when you lay down a couple of extra twenties.

Why is this?

It all comes down to terroir and winemaking techniques.

When making premium quality wine, grapes are generally sourced from the best vineyard sites, with ideal micro-climates, optimal sun exposure, mature vines, and highly prized soil compositions.

For instance, in Champagne the best Chardonnay grapes are said to come from the eastern-facing slopes of the Côte des Blancs. Experts will tell you that the chalky soils here give very fresh, light, elegant whites. The best Pinot Noirs are puported to hail from the western and northern flanks of the Montagne de Reims. Fragrant, robust reds are produced from the limestone soils here.

The grapes are harvested within very specific ripeness parameters to yield wines with the right balance of vibrant acidity and bright fruit flavours. Careful sorting in the vineyards and winery ensures that only perfectly healthy grapes make the cut.

The majority of premium-priced sparkling wines, including all the ones reviewed below, are made following the traditional method. Much of their complexity, and the key to what makes each wine unique, comes from these 3 key factors:

The blending. In traditional method sparkling wine production, blending is a complex process! The intial winemaking step, is the fermentation of grapes to yield a dry, still wine (aka “base wines”). Producers regularly keep back a percentage of each seasons’ base wine to age in their cellars. Non-vintage sparkling wines are a combination of the newly fermented dry wine from the years’ harvest, and older base wines from previous vintages. These matured wines are called “réserve wines”.

Réserve wines bring added nuance, especially in poor vintages! Depending on the age of the réserve wines, and how much is used in the blend, they can add interesting flavours of grilled nuts, dried fruits, and earthy notes. Once the winemaker feels he has achieved the right balance of fresh and matured nuances in his blend, the wine will be bottled to undergo its secondary fermentation.

The maturation. Premium sparkling wines tend to be aged on their lees for many years. This long cellaring period has several advantages. Firstly, as previously explained, they take on a powerful autolytic character (bakery/patisserie-type aromas, rich, creamy texture, and very fine, well-defined bubbles). Secondly, extended bottle ageing gives the various structural components of the wine time to fully integrate. Acidity softens, firm structure mellows, and flavours harmonize.

The dosage. Once the cellar master determines that the lees-ageing period should come to an end, a complex process takes place to move the yeast sediment to the top of the bottle so as to be expelled. The bottles are briefly opened, the lees are removed (aka disgorged), and the bottle space is filled with a mixture of wine and sugar called the “liquer d’expedition”.

The majority of traditional method sparkling wines today are “brut”, meaning that they have up to 12g/L residual sugar. A popular new trend is the move towards bone-dry styles such as “extra-brut” (6g/L residual sugar or less), or even “zéro dosage” (with no sugar added).

While you may think that you prefer your wine as dry as possible, know this: 8 – 12g/L residual sugar is barely perceptible against the searing acidity of many sparkling wines. The no/ low sugar styles can appear overly tart and austere to the uninitiated.

There is a wealth of other fascinating reasons why Champagne and other premium sparkling wines are so enticing. I could wax lyrical on the subject all day, but I think the real proof is in the bottle. So without further ado, here are my top 10, premium sparkling wines for this festive season!

Ca’ del Bosco Cuvée Prestige Franciacorta (Italy) – 89pts LW

Chardonnay dominant, with a seasoning of Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. Moderately intense, featuring attractive white floral notes, bosc pear and hints of buttery pastry. Very fresh, with vigorous bubbles and a broad, layered mid-palate and dry finish.

Where to buy: LCBO (41.95$), agent: . SAQ (43.00$), agent: Montalvin

Henry of Pelham Carte Blanche Estate Blanc de Blancs 2012 – 91pts. LW

Made from 100% Chardonnay, and aged on its lees for 5 years, this opulent sparkling wine offers a rich texture, and tempting flavours of baked apple, ripe lemon and toast. Wonderfully vibrant acidity and fine, persistent mousse balance the concentrated fruity, toasted core nicely.

Where to buy: LCBO (44.95$)

Champagne Paul Goerg Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru Brut – 92pts. LW

Very elegant for the price, with mineral nuances, white floral notes and orchard fruits on the nose. Crisp and light-bodied, with laser-like focus, and a zesty core of lemon and green apple. Bone dry, with lingering stony minerality.

Where to buy: SAQ (46.25$), agent: AOC & Cie

Champagne Jacquart Brut Mosaïque – 93pts. LW

A richly textured style, blending the three major Champagne grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Meunier. Enticing aromas of hazelnut, red apple and brioche on the nose. Medium bodied, with brisk acidity, a creamy, concentrated mid-palate, and very fine, lingering bubbles.

Where to buy: SAQ (47.25$), agent: Univins 

Benjamin Bridge Brut 2011 (Nova Scotia) – 88pts LW

Mostly composed of hybrid grapes (capable of surviving our challenging winters), Benjamin Bridge Brut is an incredibly vibrant, citrus-driven sparkling. Searing acidity and vigorous bubbles feature on the light weight palate. A zesty core of ripe lemon and subtle mineral nuances linger through to the clean, dry finish.

Where to buy: LCBO (49.95$). SAQ (49.75$)

Champagne Drappier Brut Nature Zéro Dosage – 92pts. LW

Somewhat restrained, developing tart orchard fruit, hints of red berries, and green almond notes upon aeration. This is a very clean, precise, bone dry Champagne with racy acidity and a long, mineral-laced finish. Well-delineated, elegant bubbles give breadth and elegance to this exclusively Pinot Noir based cuvée. Great choice for oysters!

Where to buy: LCBO (58.95$), agent: Kirkwood Diamond CanadaSAQ (49.75$), agent: Amphora Vins Fins

Champagne Taittinger Brut Réserve – 94pts. LW

This Chardonnay-led blend offers a lot of finesse for the price. Alluring aromas of grilled nuts and toast interweave beautifully with bright red apple and white blossom notes. Incredibly vibrant on the palate, with a firm structure, softened by the smooth, layered texture. The finish is long and wonderfully fresh.

Where to buy: LCBO (61.95$), SAQ (59.75$). Agent: Vins Philippe Dandurand

Charles Heidseck Brut Réserve – 93pts. LW

Charles Heidseck (not to be confused with Piper!) is a rich, golden hued Champagne crafted with 40% Réserve wine. This brings intriguing blend of bright yellow fruits and freshly baked bread, with attractive tertiary notes of dried fruits and toasted almonds. The palate is zesty, medium bodied, and very concentrated, with attractive, persistent bubbles. Bonus (if gift giving or trying to impress guests): the new label is very classy!

Where to buy: LCBO (69.95$), agent: Breakthru Beverage Canada (sold out in QC, enquire with agent).

Louis Roederer Brut Premier – 95pts. LW

One of my perennial favourites, Louis Roederer Champagne never fails to impress. This Pinot Noir and Meunier led blend is highly complex, featuring notes of brioche, delicate red berries, and orchard fruits, underscored by intriguing nutty aromas. Searing acidity, firm structure and vibrant bubbles, are expertly balanced by the rich, creamy texture and concentrated, toasty core.

Where to buy: LCBO (72.95$), agent: Authentic Wines & SpiritsSAQ (70.00$), agent: Le Marchand du Vin

Gosset Grande Réserve Brut – 95pts. LW

Very opulent, hedonistic style featuring equal parts Chardonnay/ Pinot Noir, and a small percentage of Meunier. Highly autolytic in character, with pretty yellow apple, ripe lemon, and ginger spice adding complexity. Zesty and firm on the palate, with a creamy texture, impressive depth of flavour, and very fine, persistent mousse.

Where to buy: SAQ (73.00$), agent: Réserve & Sélection

 

(What does LW stand for?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).

 

 

Education Reviews Wines

BUBBLES – PART 1: The Thrifty Shopper’s Guide

Budget friendly sparkling wines

Oh yes indeed, Christmas is just around the corner! Perhaps you are among those more evolved earthlings that despair at the endless stream of jazzified holiday jingles, and resent the pressure to make merry this time of year. But before you lose yourself in a bitter monologue about the manipulative schemes of Hallmark or Coca-Cola, think of the benefits of the “hap, happiest season of all”…  In a word: Bubbles!

Sparkling wine flows pretty freely at every office party and holiday get-together through-out the month of December, which should make even the Grinchiest among you smile. For, in my experience, nothing gets people in the festive spirit faster than a glass (or three) of the fizzy stuff.

Scientists explain the phenomenon thusly: carbon dioxide bubbles expand when shaken, therefore when they hit the stomach, they fizz, pushing the alcohol rapidly down into the small intestine where it is absorbed. This quickfire process makes us feel intoxicated more quickly than a still wine, whose journey from stomach to intestine is more leisurely.

I think it is the combination of this fact, with the glamour and sophistication we attribute to sparkling wine consumption. We picture movie stars on red carpets, rich people on yachts, etc. Whenever I open a bottle of bubbly for guests I am always met with appreciation and enthusiasm for this “special treatment”.

The good news (if you are the one supplying the drinks) is that sparkling wine doesn’t necessarily have to cost a fortune. There are a wealth of decent, budget friendly offerings in the 20$ – 40$ range these days. The trick is to pick the premium versions from less prestigious regions, rather than the cheapest Champagne.

For the nerdy among you, let me first give a brief overview of how sparkling wine is made, and the regions offering good value. Those that are just looking for a quick recommendation can skip to the bottom.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a by-product of alcoholic fermentation. Simply put, yeast converts grape sugar into alcohol and CO2. When making still wines, the CO2 is allowed to escape from the tank. In sparkling winemaking, the vessel is sealed, thus trapping the CO2 which dissolves into the wine, creating bubbles. Voila!

The most important stylistic difference between the sparkling wines of the world relates to the vessel used for this carbonation process. For quality bubblies, two major methods exist: the “tank method” and the “traditional method”.

The tank method (aka Charmat method) has several variants, but in basic terms, the bubbles are created in sealed, pressurized tanks holding large volumes of wine. Once the process is complete, the wine is rapidly bottled to preserve its fresh, fruity character. It is best consumed within a year or two of release.

The tank method produces bigger, frothier bubbles that range in intensity from a very soft sparkle (referred to as frizzante in Italy), to slightly firmer, more persistent mousse (as is the case with many Italian spumante wines).

These wines are a great option if you prefer a gently bubbly, fruity, light wine. They are generally smooth, easy drinking and often quite low in alcohol. Styles range from bone dry (extra-brut) to quite sweet. The sweetness level is usually indicated on the label.

Some famous tank method sparkling wines include:

  • Moscato d’Asti: white, floral & grapey aromas, ~5.5% alcohol, frizzante style bubbles, always sweet
  • Prosecco: white, citrus & orchard fruit notes, ~11% alcohol, generally spumante, though frizzante styles exist, ranging from quite dry (brut) to semi sweet (dry). *** For best quality, look for Prosecco Superiore DOCG.
  • Lambrusco: red sparkling wine, red berry & currant flavours, ~12% alcohol, mainly frizzante, and dry (secco), though popular commercial styles exist that are off-dry (semi secco) or sweet (amabile)
  • Sekt: white sparkling wine from Germany, ~11.5% alcohol, spumante, semi sweet

The traditional method (formerly called the Champagne method) refers to the process of rendering a formerly still wine sparkling, once it is in the bottle. The grapes are initially fermented in a barrel or tank, to yield a dry, still wine. The wine is then bottled, dosed with a measure of sugar and yeast, and then capped. This provokes a second fermentation to occur within the bottle. The resultant bubbles, despite being more vigorous, are generally finer (less explosive on the palate) and more persistent than tank method wines.

Sparkling wines made in this way are less overtly fruity, but tend to boast more complex aromas and flavours. This is due to quite a complex process which occurs once the yeast cells – spent from their hard work creating alcohol and CO2 from sugar – begin to break-down. Over time, as these “lees” degrade they begin to give off attractive bakery/ patisserie type aromas that range from fresh bread to buttery pastry notes.

Value priced traditional method sparkling wines are generally matured on their lees for 9 to 24 months. This time length gives quite a subtle, lees character. Pricier wines can age for many years, gaining in complexity, developing a rich, creamy texture, as well as smaller, more refined bubbles.

Traditional method wines can be from a specific vintage (as identified on the label), or “non vintage”, meaning that they are a blend of several different vintages. I will delve into what this means for the wines, stylistically speaking, in part 2 of this article.

Some well-known traditional method wines include:

  • Champagne: Elegant, complex aromatics & flavours (brioche, orchard fruits, floral, chalky minerality). Racy, and taut in structure. Fine, persistent mousse. ~12% alcohol. Generally quite dry (brut).
  • Crémant: Name for sparkling wines from 7 French regions outside of Champagne. The taste profile depends on the grape variety used, climate, etc. Generally speaking, crémants are similar to Champagne; though a little broader, rounder and fruitier.
  • Cava: Spanish bubbly. Fairly lean, with bracing acidity, and pronounced lemon and apple aromas. 11 – 12% alcohol. Generally dry (brut).
  • Franciacorta: Italy’s most prestigious bubbly. Mainly Chardonnay, with Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. Ripe lemon, peach and floral notes. 18 months’ minimum ageing on lees (30 months for single vintage wines) gives Franciacorta a rich, rounded mid-palate.
  • There are also wonderful bubblies from right here in Canada (Nova Scotia & Niagara notably), as well as California, South Africa (Cap Classique), Tasmania, England, Marlborough (New Zealand) and the list goes on. I will endeavour to write more about these in future posts!

The historical variant of producing sparkling wine in bottle, is the ancestral method. It consists of a single fermentation that begins in tank, and finishes in bottle. Classic versions of this wine style are quite cloudy as the sediment is not removed. Gently sparkling, medium sweet, low alcohol wines are still produced in this way in the French regions of Limoux, Bugey, Gaillac and Cerdon.

Renewed interest in the ancestral method has come about with the trend toward low interventionist (or “natural”) winemaking. Pétillant naturel (aka “pét nat”) wines are springing up from all corners of the winemaking globe. This style is harder to pin down, as the range is enormous…from murky, sour horror stories to very elegant, fresh, finely sparkling wines that are a delight to drink. If possible, ask to taste the pét nat that your hipster sommelier is trying to push on you, before commiting to a whole bottle!

A series of recent tastings of all manners of sparkling wines revealed these budget friendly sparkling wines; perfect for your holiday parties (or for kicking back on a Monday night…if you are a lesser mortal like me who LOVES every cheesy commercial and shopping mall Santa that mark the festive season).

Parés Baltà Cava Pink – 88pts. VW

Pink Cava. Who knew? And it’s organic! This pretty little number is a Grenache dominant blend with tangy red berry and red apple flavours. Crisp and light bodied, with vibrant bubbles and a clean, dry finish. Not overly complex, but a great every day fizz.

Where to buy: SAQ (17.60$), agent: Trialto

Moingeon Prestige Brut Crémant de Bourgogne – 89pts. VW

Restrained notes of brioche, hazelnut and yellow apples on the nose. Well-delineated, persistent bubbles and crisp acidity set the tempo, and are nicely underscored by a broad, textured mid-palate offering nice depth of flavour. The finish is dry, with lingering hints of orchard fruit and brioche.

Where to buy: SAQ (18.80$), agent: Divin Paradis

Segura Viudas Gran Cuvée Reserva Cava – 89pts. VW

A solid performer, from one of the major Cava houses. Aromas of yellow fruit and almond feature on the nose. Brisk acidity is ably balanced by a concentrated core of ripe orchard fruit and hints of brioche. Subtly creamy in texture, with a fresh, dry finish and fine, persistent bubbles.

Where to buy: SAQ (19.85$), agent: Featherstone Désautels

Marcel Cabelier Crémant du Jura Brut – 90pts PW

This organic, 100% Chardonnay was a favourite for me. Pretty floral and white pear aromas, lovely freshness, and a subtly creamy texture won me over. This dry bubbly is medium bodied, with a broad structure, and a bright, fruity finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (21.80$), agent: Séléctions Fréchette

Bortolomiol BandaRossa Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore – 87pts. PW

Classic Valdobbiadene profile, with fragrant notes of candied pear and ripe lemon. Hints of anise and white flowers develop upon aeration. Very fresh and light on the palate, with moderate concentration and a fruity, off-dry finish. Overly frothy, foaming bubbles brought this otherwise attractive wine down a couple of points for me.

Where to buy: SAQ (22.50$), agent: Maison InVino

Langlois-Château Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé – 89pts. PW

Lovely pale pink in colour, with muted aromas of tart red berries and spice. Incredibly vibrant, with juicy raspberry flavours and just a hint of cream. This dry, Cabernet Franc based wine is light and fresh. Only moderately persistent mousse, but otherwise, very pleasant.

Where to buy: SAQ (23.50$), agent: Authentic Wines & Spirits

Bernard Massard Cuvée de L’Ecusson Chardonnay Brut – 91pts. PW

I am a fan of the great value sparkling wines from Luxembourg producer Bernard Massard (click here for other reviews). This new, black label Chardonnay is no exception! Intriguing notes of lemon, fresh herbs and orchard fruits feature on the nose. Crisp acidity and fine, persistent mousse frame the palate nicely, with bright fruit and a subtle lees character lingering on the dry finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (23.60$), agent: UniVins

Domaine Moutard-Diligent, Patrick Piuze Non Dosé – 90pts. PW

I often find extra-brut sparkling wines (those with virtually no residual sugar) a little too lean and mean, but this Burgundian bubbly has enough depth and body to withstand a bone dry finish. Initially quite restrained, developping notes of brioche, green apple and fresh almons with time. The racy acidity is elegantly balanced by quite gentle bubbles and a subtly creamy, layered mid-palate

Where to buy: SAQ (24.20$), agent: La Céleste Levure

Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley – 90pts. PW

Intense aromas of yellow pear, red apple, toast and candied lemon fairly brim over on the nose. Lively and broad on the palate, with lots of body, a sedutively creamy, toasty mid-palate and a lengthy, fruit-laden finish. This dry bubbly is a great value alternative to Champagne, if you like a richer, more opulent style.

Where to buy: SAQ (32.85$), agent: Bergeron-les-Vins. LCBO (37.95$), agent: Authentic Wine & Spirits

Parés Baltà Blanca Cusiné Cava Gran Reserva 2010 – 90pts. PW

A certain elegance, and aromatic complexity sets this Cava apart. Nuances of fresh bread, lemon, green apple and white flowers linger long in the glass. The palate is very focused and precise, with laser-like acidity and well-delineated, fine bubbles.

Where to buy: SAQ (35.25$), agent: Trialto

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

Producers Reviews

PRODUCER PROFILE – DOMAINE QUEYLUS

Domaine Queylus Niagara Wine
Photo credits: Domaine Queylus

If you have been following my blog for any length of time, you will know that I come from a family of unabashed wine snobs. Our saving grace, and the reasons we still have any friends willing to imbibe with us, is our ability to revise our initial judgement calls.

Through out my childhood, my parents hosted an annual mulled wine party, and their well-mannered guests always came bearing gifts. I still remember my father snickering at bottles of Niagara wine received in the 1990s. They went into the “cooking wine” stock without a backward glance.

I was therefore duly shocked when, on a visit home from Burgundy 10 years later, he served me a Château des Charmes Chardonnay, declaring it ‘not half bad’.  And he was right.

It wasn’t until 2009 however that I made my first visit to the vineyards of Niagara. The company I was then working for in Gigondas had just merged with the large Burgundian négociant firm: Boisset, and my new colleagues insisted that I visit their Ontario estate: Le Clos Jordanne.

I will admit that I went into the visit with low expectations. Our appointment was for early afternoon, and we had tasted some pretty green, over oaked wines over the course of the morning. Pulling up outside a glorified shed made of corrugated iron did little to assuage my doubts. However, just 2 or 3 barrels in to our tasting, my opinion was radically altered. Here was elegant, expressive, balanced Pinot Noir that could ably hold its own on the world stage.

And I was far from the only enthusiast.

A group of friends and wine lovers from Québec were also following the successes of the Clos Jordanne, and its talented, Québecois winemaker Thomas Bachelder, with interest. So much so that they decided to pool their resources and purchase a 10-hectare orchard in 2006 at a site near Beamsville in the Lincoln Lakeshore appellation.

Armed with the knowledge that the choices made when preparing to plant a vineyard will dictate the quality produced for years to come, this band of brothers pulled out all the stops. Internationally renowned vineyard consultant Alain Sutre was called in to perform detailed soil analyses; to determine what to plant and where.

Though the project was intially set to be dedicated to Pinot Noir, the variable soils called for greater diversification. A pocket of heavy blue clay, similar to that found in Pomerol, was planted to Merlot. A cooler site, near the lake, was given over to Chardonnay.

Thomas Bachelder left the Clos Jordanne, and joined the Queylus team early on, as consultant, head winemaker and estate manager. He brought with him a wealth of experience and an uncompromising ambition to craft balanced, elegant wines in tribute to his years in Burgundy, though with a clear sense of Niagara terroir.

Today, the estate consists of 16 hectares spread across three appellations: the intial plot at Lincoln Lakeshore near Beamsville, Twenty Mile Bench near Jordan, and Vinemount Ridge in St Ann’s.

Over a sumptuous lunch at the always fantastic La Chronique restaurant in Montréal, I had the opportunity to taste the 2011, 2012 and 2013 Pinot Noirs from each of the three tiers of Domaine Queylus’ range. Much like in Burgundy, Queylus has segmented their wines into a Villages level (called “Tradition”), and Premier Cru level (“Réserve”) and a Grand Cru bottling (“Grande Réserve”).

My notes as follows:

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

   

Pinot Noir Tradition 2013 – 89pts. PW

Fragrant red berrry and cranberry notes on the nose, underscored by hints of white pepper. Lovely balance of crisp acidity, medium body and tangy, just ripe fruit flavours. Silky tannins. Easy drinking and fresh.

Where to buy: LCBO (29.95$), SAQ (31.00$)

Pinot Noir Tradition 2014 – 88pts. PW

Moderately intense red cherry, red berry and eucalyptus notes on the nose. Firmer and fuller bodied than the 2013, with a tightly knit structure and somewhat chewy tannins. Subtle cedar, spice notes linger on the finish.

Where to buy: coming summer 2017

Pinot Noir Réserve 2011 – 93pts. LW

I particularly like this vintage for its lightness of body, purity of fruit and freshness. Local growers might not agree however, given the challenges the poor growing season weather presented, and the heavy sorting that quality-minded estates like Queylus were obliged to undertake.

The nose is initially quite subdued, but shows lovely complexity upon aeration, with pretty raspberry, red cherry, floral, spice and tea leaf notes. Silky on the palate, with vibrant acidity and bright fruit flavours. The finish is long and layered, with well integrated oak and lovely fruit.

Where to buy: stocks running low, enquire in stores

Pinot Noir Réserve 2013 – 94pts. LW

Intriguing aromas of red cherry, red berry, musc and potpourri abound on the nose. The palate is crip, full bodied and firm, with an attractive velvetty texture and concentrated red berry flavours. Moderately chewy, yet ripe tannins frame the finish. Spicy, toasted oak lends further complexity on the long finish. Good, mid-term cellaring potential.

Where to buy: SAQ (47.25$), LCBO (coming soon)

Pinot Noir Grande Réserve 2011 – 93pts. LW

Elegant notes of violets, red cherries, dark fruits and a hint of white pepper define the nose. This fresh, medium bodied cuvée is moderately firm, with fine grained tannins and highly concentrated fruit flavours, with underlying savoury nuances. Vibrant, lifted finish. Ready to drink.

Where to buy: 1st vintage for the Grande Réserve tier; likely out of stock. Enquire with domaine.

Pinot Noir Grande Réserve 2012 – 94pts. LW

A riper, richer vintage than the 2011 or 2013, this 2012 Grande Réserve features sweet spice, stewed strawberry, ripe red cherries and subtle earthy notes on the nose. Full bodied and fleshy on the palate, with intense candied red fruit and oaked flavours (cedar/ spice). Quite tannic and taut on the finish, this vintage needs time in cellar to unwind.

Where to buy: SAQ (62.50$), LCBO (60.00$)

Pinot Noir Grande Réserve 2013 – 95pts. LW

A beautifully balanced, lovely wine all around. Just ripe strawberry and raspberry aromas are enhanced by chalky minerality and subtle tomato leaf nuances. Bright acidity lifts the firm structure and fine grained texture. Wonderfully vibrant, juicy fruit flavours play across the mid-palate and linger long on the layered finish. Great oak integration. Superior ageing potential. Bravo!

Where to buy: SAQ (set for an August 2017 release), LCBO (coming soon)

Cabernet Franc/ Merlot Réserve 2012 – 90pts. PW

Classic Cabernet Franc aromatics of bell pepper and just ripe raspberries feature on the nose, with deeper, riper cassis notes developping upon aeration. Fresh, full bodied and moderately fleshy across the mid-palate. Needs some time for the oak flavours to fully integrate. Highly drinkable.

Where to buy: SAQ (37.00$)

Producers Reviews Wines

Bénédicte & Stéphane Tissot: Extreme Winemaking in the Jura

Benedicte Stephane Tissot Jura Wine Chardonnay Savagnin Blanc
Photo credit: Bénédicte & Stéphane Tissot

I saw a great cartoon in France once, of a man sitting behind a desk burdened down by files, looking exasperated, with a dream bubble showing him happily working in the vineyards. The second image depicts him exhausted in the cellar, with tanks overflowing, dreaming of a quiet, orderly office life.

The idyllic notion of owning a vineyard – lovingly tending the vines by hand and crafting vibrant, terroir-driven wines in a neat little cellar – is the wistful reverie of many a wine lover. The reality is, of course, not nearly as romantic.

The work is back breaking (just spend one day harvesting the low lying grapes in Burgundy and you will know what I mean). There are countless pests and diseases that threaten the health of the plant on a daily basis. This is not to mention the uncontrollable variable of weather.

Wine-related social media posts are currently flooded with images of vineyards in Champagne and Chablis ablaze with smudge pots (oil-burning mini fires), in desperate attempts to ward off frost damage. In just one night, or a couple of minutes where hail is concerned, crops can be utterly devastated.

Wineries working on a small to moderate scale, without the luxury of large vineyard teams or fancy equipment to respond rapidly to such threats, are at particular risk. This is especially true for those based in marginal climates where rot, hail and frost are prevalent. Getting a palatable wine in bottle each year in these conditions represents nothing short of a feat of courage and skill.

Enter Bénédicte and Stéphane Tissot. Based in the tiny Jura appellation, The Tissots own some 35 hectares of vineyards, manned by a team of 15 hardy souls. The Jura region is made up of just 2000 hectares of vineyards, on a narrow strip running 60km north to south in eastern France. The climate is similar to the Côte d’Or (Burgundy), with damp, cool winters and warm, mainly dry summers. The vines are planted at an average altitude of 300 metres.

Domaine Tissot have not only made the bold choice of farming according to biodynamic principles, they are also adherents to the low interventionist movement (aka natural winemaking), fermenting with natural yeasts and limiting sulphur dioxide additions. The Tissot estate is that rare breed of winery that enjoys a cult-like following amongst the hipster sommelier set, but is equally well regarded by more traditional wine gatekeepers.

I met Stéphane Tissot on a grey, chilly day. I’ll admit that I went into the tasting feeling as uncertain as the weather. Would the wines be that breed of murky, sour natural wines that I have difficulty embracing? Or would they embody the standard to which (I feel) this wine category should be aiming?

While I can’t claim to have unabashedly loved all of the wines, I was impressed. There was a common theme of complexity, elegance and freshness running through the dozen or so cuvées we sampled. The savoury, earthy quality that makes Jura whites so intriguing was amply displayed. The reds, though beautifully textured and wonderfully vibrant, were less to my taste. The pretty fruit and floral tones felt a bit muted to me; overshadowed by volatile or bretty aromatics.

My top three white wine picks from the tasting include the following: (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out)

Photo credit: www.saq.com

Domaine Tissot Les Graviers 2014 – 92pts. PW

100% Chardonnay from the Arbois appellation. Stony, limestone scree top soils, over clay sub-soils. Les Graviers is a blend of 7 vineyards planted between 1952 and 2002.

Moderately intense nose featuring chalky minerality and toasty aromas underscored by lemon and green apple. Brisk acidity is ably balanced by the faintly creamy, layered texture and well-integrated oak. Very precise, with concentrated citrus, earthy/savoury nuances and grilled, nutty flavours. A subtle bitterness on the finish adds interest without masking the fruit.

Where to buy: SAQ (38.25$)

Domaine Tissot Les Bruyères 2014 – 90pts. PW

100% Chardonnay from the Arbois appellation. Limestone-rich soils. 40 – 80 year old vines.

Somewhat muted, rustic white*, with savoury notes, honey, floral tones and subtle minerality developing upon aeration. Cleaner on the palate, with crisp acidity, medium body, concentrated orchard fruit and earthy flavours. While fermented and aged in (mainly used) French oak, the imprint is very subtle and harmonious. Long, layered finish with subtle hoppy sourness.

* I recommend decanting a couple of hours before serving to allow these reductive notes to blow off.

Where to buy: SAQ (46.50$)

Domaine Tissot Vin Jaune 2007 – 94pts. LW

Vin Jaune is a unique, oxidative wine style made only in the Jura; aged for over 6 years in untopped barrels (initially under a veil of yeast, much like in Sherry). The grape used is the local Savagnin Blanc (a crisp, firm white). It is an acquired taste, but nothing beats it with an aged Comté cheese!

Lovely old gold colour. Wonderfully complex aromatics featuring earthy, savoury notes, raw honey, baker’s yeast and ripe apple. The palate remains incredibly vibrant, with crisp acidity, a firm structure, yet smooth, integrated structure. Rich nutty, savoury flavours linger on the long, layered finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (75.00$)

Education

THE RENAISSANCE OF SOUTH AFRICAN WINE – PART 2

Swartland vineyards
Photo Credit: Swartland vineyards, Wines of South Africa

In part 2 of my South Africa series, I look at some of the exciting Western Cape wine growing districts and wine producers cropping up on our liquor board shelfs. Click here for a map of the Cape winelands (courtesy of Wines of South Africa). 

The majority of South Africa’s vineyards are situated in the Western Cape, in proximity to the coast whose cooling influence tempers the otherwise baking hot growing season. This results in good acid retention and balanced wines.  Value priced offerings will often be labeled under this large, generic region or the sub-zone of the Coastal Region. These wines can be blended from across their delimited territories.

Smaller sub-divisions (named districts and wards) exist when we move up the ladder to mid-range and premium priced wines. Within these smaller vineyard areas, more specific styles emerge. The following are just a handful of the most exciting, high quality districts that we are starting to see in regular rotation here:

ELGIN: Attractively aromatic whites and vibrant light reds flourish here due to the combined cooling influence of southerly winds and moderate elevation (350 metres above sea level). Elgin lies in a basin of the Hottentots-Holland Mountains, south-east of Stellenbosch.

Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc make up the bulk of white wine production, while Pinot Noir and Syrah account for much of the red wine. Paul Cluver is an excellent, mid-sized Elgin producer making consistently high quality, good value whites and reds.

STELLENBOSCH: Likely the best-known district of the Cape Winelands, wine production in Stellenbosch dates back to the 17th century. Less than one hour’s drive due east of Cape Town, the terrain here is mountainous with sufficient rainfall and well-drained soils. While a wide diversity of soil types and mesoclimates exist (owing to the varying exposition and altitude of plantings), many of the most prized vineyard sites lie on ancient decomposed granite or sandstone beds. The climate is generally hot and dry, with cooling afternoon breezes from the south-east.

Cabernet Sauvignon is king here, though Pinotage, Syrah, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc are also produced in abundance. Over 170 wine producers call Stellenbosch home, and trade continues to flourish. Among the many excellent wineries, Rustenberg, Glenelly, Vergelegen produces good, mid-range to premium priced Bordeaux Blends, Waterkloof for fantastic, biodynamic Rhône style blends and Ken Forrester for clean, consistent, good value old vine Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.

SWARTLAND: Traditionally a wheat-producing region, the Swartland (65km north of Cape Town) has been making waves on the international wine scene in recent years as the hot, new growing region of South Africa. Hot is indeed an apt descriptor, as well as dry, making hardy, drought resistant bush vines a common occurrence. The dominant soil type is shale, with pockets of granite and schist providing interesting alternative terroirs.

The Mediterranean climate makes for excellent Rhône style reds. Lovely Chenin Blanc is also grown here. The excitement generated by Swartland’s star producers is largely justified. Fantastic, affordable quality can be found from the Kloof Street (from the Mullineux Family Wines), A.A. Badenhorst and Leeuwenkuil (bright, juicy Cinsault). Exceptional, premium to luxury priced wines from: Mullineux Family Wines and The Sadie Family.

TULBAGH MOUNTAINS: A fairly secluded valley, inland from the Swartland, encircled by mountains to the west, north and east. Due to this unique topography, cool night time air becomes trapped in the vineyards making for chilly morning temperatures that gradually rise in the hot afternoons. Soils are quite varied making for a wide variety of styles. Only 13 wine producers reside here at present, but the acclaim of their wines speaks volumes.

Traditional method sparkling wines, called ‘Méthode Cap Classique’ are gaining traction here. Syrah and Rhône blend whites are also performing well. Krone produces easy drinking, competitively priced sparkling wines, while Fable Mountain Vineyards is garnering top accolades for their premium white and red Rhône blends.

WALKER BAY: This pretty district extends from the town of Hermanus on the south coast of the Western Cape, with the majority of top-rated vineyards lying in the aptly named Hemel-en-Aarde valley (meaning Heaven and Earth). The close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean brings cooling breezes that temper the otherwise hot climate. Clay-rich soils bring a firm structure to the wines. I spent many a happy month here, working harvest and sampling my way through the vibrant, juicy wines of the region.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the star grapes of the area, though Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Pinotage are also gaining in popularity. Hamilton-Russell Vineyards has a long-standing reputation for fine, premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Bouchard-Finlayson makes very precise, focused wines from ranging from attractively fruity mid-range whites to premium Pinot Noir. Crystallum Wines regularly impresses me with their beautifully creamy, complex wines.

 

Education

The Renaissance of South African Wine – Part 1

Hamilton Russell Estate
Photo: Hamilton Russell Vineyards (by Jacky Blisson)

In Canada, we are often a little late to the party when it comes to new wine trends. So, if you still think South Africa is only good for inexpensive, nondescript white wines, you are forgiven. After all, that is pretty much all our liquor boards were stocking for years. Happily, all that is changing.

Read on for a three part series on the renaissance of the South African wine industry: why South Africa was typecast in a cheap ‘n cheerful role and how the industry has changed, what exciting regions to look for, and finally the people behind the wines.

South African wine producers often flinch when they see their wines lumped in to the ‘New World’ wine category. Indeed, the history of winemaking dates back to 1655, with the establishment of the country’s first vineyard by then governor Jan van Riebeeck. This may seem relatively recent when compared with the first Calabrian vines planted around 1500 B.C. And it may not appear to massively pre-date the Californian and Australian industries, which both originated in the late 1700s.

What makes South Africa stand apart from other New World regions in historical terms, is how quickly Cape wines rose to international prominence. While most other non-European wine producing nations saw little growth, and minimal export sales until the late 1900s, the sweet wines of Constantia were sought after by the European ruling class in the 1700s. According to the Oxford Wine Companion, Napoleon himself had the wine shipped in during his exile on St. Helena.

Despite this promising start, a series of misfortunes befell South African wine growers which slowly eroded the high quality image the famed Constantia wine or ‘Vin de Constance’ had brought. Pests in the form of voracious, grape eating birds meant that many estates picked too early resulting in thin, acidic wines. The Phylloxera epidemic followed, decimating over a quarter of the country’s plantings by 1890.

Partly in response to the variable wine quality and poor financial returns of so many wine farmers, a ‘super cooperative’ was formed in 1915 to bring unity and improve conditions. In short order, the KWV (Kooperative Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika) became a powerful, controlling force in the South African wine industry. They were responsible for setting grape and wine prices, as well as quotas for wine production. Growers were incentivized on quantity, leading to ever increasing yields.

The international sanctions imposed by the apartheid regime led to a period of isolation. South African producers were cut off from the latest innovations in viticultural and vinification techniques, and lost touch with changing international tastes and trends.

With Mandela’s liberation from prison in 1990 came a resurgence in international interest for South African wines. Sadly, by this point, most of the nation’s vineyards were in a poor state. Vineyard virus was rampant. The grape varieties planted were unfashionable; mainly Chenin Blanc, Sultana and Colombard. Wine quality was, on the whole, pretty dismal.

Given the often thin, reedy nature of the whites and astringency of the (under-ripe) reds, major market were only willing to buy in at very low rates, positioning the wines at rock bottom prices on shelf.  This set a precedent that has proved difficult for South Africa to shake off.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and the situation is radically different. The number of individual estates has more than doubled, with a growing number of small, boutique wineries commanding widespread acclaim. Massive advancements have been made in eradicating vineyard virus, reducing yields, achieving optimal ripening conditions and planting grape varieties best suited to individual vineyard sites.

The European and American press have been effusive in their praise of the new wave of top quality South African wines. Neal Martin, of Robert Parker fame, has proclaimed South Africa ‘the most dynamic and exciting New World country’. Tim Atkin MW, echoes this view, calling the wines ‘world class’.

In 2007, I spent a few months working the harvest at the top-rated Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Walker Bay, and touring the wineries of the Western Cape. I saw first hand the incredible strides in quality. Carefully managed vineyards and impeccably clean wineries gleaming with modern technology were the norm. The producers we met were literally bursting with enthusiasm as they eagerly detailed their winemaking techniques and proudly poured their wines. It was a far cry from the cool, superior attitude I had thus far encountered when dealing with French vignerons.

High quality South African wines now exists not only at the luxury end of the spectrum, but also in the every day, sub 15$ category. Chenin Blanc continues to dominate white wine plantings, with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc also enjoying high praise. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are the two top seated reds, with increasing buzz generated by the bright, fruity old-vine Cinsault and elegant Pinot Noir. Gamey, smoky Pinotage (a South African created hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault) provides a unique taste profile that further sets this exceptional wine region apart.

While I am loathe to place the wines of such a diverse, fast changing region into one mould, it is often true that South African wines seem to strike a stylistic balance between Old World and New. While bolder and fruitier than many European wines, they still tend to be more restrained, with greater intensity of savoury, earthy flavours than many of their American and Southern Hemisphere counterparts.