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TOP 10 VALUE WINES OF THE MONTH

value-wine-recommendations

Studying for the Master of Wine and writing about wine involves lots of…you guessed it…wine tasting! Though you may picture me sipping wine while chatting and nibbling from cheese boards, there is a little more to it. Professional tastings regularly include dozens of wines, which each need to be carefully tasted, analyzed, and noted in the space of 1 – 2 minutes per wine.

This past month, I participated in a professional jury tasting, attended multiple large wine fairs, sat down to a number of intimate, individual winemaker tastings and completed a series of blind tastings.

One of the major factors I consider when analyzing a specific wine is whether – in comparison to wines of similar style, origin, and price – it offers good value for money.

One of the major factors I consider when analyzing a specific wine is whether – in comparison to wines of similar style, origin, and price – it offers good value for money. This is a tricky proposition for various reasons. Firstly, as the criteria for measuring value at a 10$ price vs. 100$ is vastly different.

For entry-level to mid-tier wines (under 20$ CAD), I consider wines good value when they are clean, harmonious, and easy drinking. For premium wines (20 – 50$ CAD), I am looking for a little more personality; at least moderate aromatic complexity, some depth of flavour, and decent balance. Once, we venture into the territory of upper-premium to luxury wines (50$ CAD +), I expect wines to truly shine; ably representing their terroir and vintage, display excellent balance, length, intensity, complexity and concentration.

The criteria for measuring value at a 10$ price vs. 100$ is vastly different.

The notion of value is also deeply personal – depending on each person’s tastes and means. I struggle to identify the Burgundy wines that I love so much as being “good value” these days. A recent tasting of De Montille’s 2014 Corton Charlemagne will remain a highlight of my year, but am I willing to shell out 250$ to drink another bottle? Sadly, no…though I highly recommend it for those with spare cash lying around.

The notion of value is also deeply personal – depending on each person’s tastes and means.

The following is a list of my top 10 value wine recommendations that really stood out over the past month of tasting. Drop me a line and tell me what you think! I’d also love to hear about your go-to value wines.

MID-TIER (20$ or less)

Anselmi San Vincenzo 2017, IGT Veneto – 88pts. VW

This is a great white wine to sip while cooking dinner. Roberto Anselmi’s vineyards lie in and around the Soave appellation of northeastern Italy.  This easy-drinking, unoaked white is composed of the same major grape – Garganega – as Soave, and vinified in the same way. Attractive citrus, stone fruit and almond notes feature on the nose. Fresh, light-bodied and rounded on the palate, with attractive herbal hints on the dry finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (17.05$), LCBO (17.95$)

Avondale Trust Jonty’s Duck 2016, Paarl, South Africa – 89pts. VW

Organic wine from the Western Cape. Estate proprietor, Johnathan Grieve, is known as ‘Jonty’ around the farm. This wine is named after Jonty’s ducks, who patrol the vineyards destroying snails, which eat the vines. Chenin Blanc dominant blend, with a touch of Roussanne, Viognier, and Semillon. Zesty acidity, earthy nuances, bright citrus and hints of tropical fruit. The palate is medium in body, quite textural, with modest depth, and a clean, lifted finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (17,00$)

Gabriel Meffre Plan de Dieu « St Mapalis » 2017, Côtes du Rhône Villages, France – 90pts. VW

This Southern Rhône valley vineyard is a flat, sun-drenched plateau featuring the same stony soil as found in Châteauneuf-du-pâpe. This charming red is medium-bodied, with ripe black cherry, plum and raspberry flavours. Velvety in texture with smooth tannins and sufficiently fresh acidity for good balance.

Where to buy: SAQ (19.35$)

Viña Echeverría RST Chardonnay 2017 – 90pts. VW

This vibrant, lightly oaked Chardonnay hails from a newly discovered, cool coastal vineyard area of the Rapel Valley in Chile. This new wine range sees quality Chilean producer Viña Echeverría partner with Canadians: Thomas Bachelder (Niagara winemaker) and Steven Campbell of Lifford Wines. Ripe lemon, yellow apple, and subtle pineapple notes feature on the nose and palate. Medium in weight, with lively acidity and delicately creamy texture.

Where to buy: SAQ (19.95$), LCBO (20.00$)

PREMIUM (20$ – 50$)

Flat Rock Cellars Pinot Noir 2016 – 89pts PW

This red is absolute proof that Niagara can make delicious wine at (reasonably) affordable prices. The Twenty Mile Bench consists of sheltered north-facing slopes with excellent air circulation from the lake. This brings moderate temperatures year-round and results in consistent, even ripening. Bright crushed strawberry on the nose. Light in body, with juicy acidity, smooth texture, rounded tannins and lingering red berry fruit on the mellow finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (23.95$), LCBO (20.95$)

Raul Perez Saint Jacques Ultreia Bierzo Mencia 2016 – 92pts. PW

The red wines of Bierzo in northwestern Spain were traditionally light, crisp, and fragrant. There is a current of quality producers who have moved into the area however, with Raul Perez as an undoubted star, that have revolutionized Mencia. This is a great example for a fantastic price. Inviting aromas of black cherry, pepper, and violets are underscored by earthy, savoury notes. Moderately firm on the palate with ripe, chewy tannins that need a little time to unwind. Juicy dark fruit flavours linger on the finish. Harmonious hints of vanilla and spice suggest well-executed, subtle oak ageing.

Where to buy: SAQ (22.80$)

Château de Maligny Chablis « Vigne de la Reine » 2016 – 89pts. PW

This clasically styled Chablis regularly punches above its weight. Restrained orchard fruit notes, mingle with earthy mushroom hints, wet stone and lemon aromas on the nose. The palate offers racy acidity, a light body, taut structure, delicate leesy texture, and bone-dry finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (24.45$)

Agnès Paquet Auxey-Duresses 2015 – 94pts PW

Auxey-Duresses is lesser-known Côte de Beaune village that can be quite lean and tart in cooler vintages. This 2015 from fantastic producer Agnès Paquet is anything but! Elegant cranberry, red cherry, and earthy notes feature on the nose. The palate is crisp, light-bodied and silken in texture with fine-grained tannins and a long, delicately oaked finish. For my palate, this beauty beat out Burgundies at twice the price in a recent tasting.

Where to buy: SAQ (34,75$)

Remelluri Rioja Reserva 2011 – 92pts. PW

From vines planted in the higher altitude Rioja Alavesa sub-region, this firmly structured, full-bodied Rioja has really vibrant acidity. Intense and moderately complex, with intriguing orange zest, dark plum, cassis, licorice and crushed raspberry on the nose and palate. Surprisingly youthful, with its deep ruby colour, bright fruit and pronounced tannins. Decant several hours before serving.

Where to buy: LCBO (39.95$). Québec: private import, inquire with agent: Trialto.

LUXURY (50$ +)

Champagne Jeeper Grande Réserve Blanc de Blancs

A surprising, yet memorably named Champagne house that got its moniker from the jeep gifted to the estate proprietor by American soldiers following world war two in to thank him for his  recognition of his service. This is a rich, opulent style of Champagne, fermented in oak and aged on its lees for 5 years. Toasty, brioche, grilled hazelnut aromas feature on the nose, underscored by ripe lemon and orchard fruit hints. Zesty acidity and fine bubbles are nicely matched by a concentrated core, creamy texture and brut dosage.

Where to buy: SAQ (73.50$), LCBO (74,35$)

 

 

Producers Reviews

TERROIR WINE: The Winemaker’s Holy Grail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My top 5 from this weeks’ tasting include:

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

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

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

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

Where to buy: SAQ (22.75$)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Proprio Gravitas 2015 – 88pts PW

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

Blend: Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat

Where to buy: SAQ (20.00$)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Blanc 2014 – 92pts PW

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

Blend: Grenache Blanc, Roussanne

Where to buy: SAQ (35.00$)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant 2012 – 90pts PW

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

Blend: Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault

Where to buy: SAQ (40.00$)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Old Telegram 2016 – 93pts LW

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

Blend: 100% Mourvèdre

Where to buy: Enquire with agent, Trialto 

 

Life

The Master of Wine Tasting Exams – One Student’s Story

Masters of Wine Exam Story
Photo credit: Claude Rigoulet

The month of May began gray and dreary, with a near constant patter of rain. I told myself that this was for the best, as I hunched over my daily flight of mystery wines. Nothing to distract me from my studies. A feeling of dread was slowly growing in the pit of my stomach. Each week I did the math. Only 3 weeks left, only 2 weeks left, only 10 days left…

What had me in such a state? The Master of Wine tasting exams.

This was to be my second attempt at the notoriously hard three-day session of 12-wine blind tastings.

A feeling of dread was slowly growing in the pit of my stomach.

After successfully navigating the introductory year of studies in 2015, I moved on to stage 2. Studying became a way of life. I rocked my newborn son with one foot while blind tasting Cabernet Sauvignon. I read him bedtime stories about the importance of monitoring pH through out the winemaking process.

I came out of the 2016 exams with passing marks across all five theory papers and one of three tasting papers. Unfortunately, if even one tasting exam is failed, all three need to be re-sat. Approximately 10% of candidates pass the tasting portion of the exams each year. With that sobering statistic in mind, I decided to simply redouble my efforts in 2017.

And then life intervened.

A second pregnancy with a due date mere weeks after the 2017 exams meant that no airline would fly me to the exam centres in San Francisco or London. So, I had to bench myself. As frustrating as it was to take a year off, when June rolled around I was mighty glad that I hadn’t subjected myself to three days of intensely stressful exams in my exhausted state.

I rocked my newborn son with one foot while blind tasting Cabernet Sauvignon.

Pregnancy takes a toll on your palate and your memory. Despite trying to keep my studies up, I was feeling decidedly rusty when I embarked on the 2018 course year. A week in England in February for the annual MW study seminar brought me home in a blind panic.

Each day of the seminar began with a mock version of the tasting exam. Each day I failed miserably. I couldn’t finish any of the papers. I was way off in identifying wines that I had previously had no trouble blind tasting. I got loads of advice from the MW educators that contradicted previous instruction. I felt paralysed.

In the months that followed I forced myself to keep chugging along, leaning on my study partners for support. Every week my amazing husband would organize blind tastings for me, and every week the results were the same. I felt like I was turning in circles, never able to finish my practice exams, misidentifying the same set of wines over and over again.

And then, something just clicked into place. And not a second too soon, for the countdown was on…just a couple of months to go.

And then, something just clicked into place. And not a second too soon, for the countdown was on…just a couple of months to go. I finally started to do well and feel confident. Meanwhile, between my husband and two tiny boys, my house was a non-stop germ fest. Roseola, laryngitis, strep throat, gastro… they had it all. Every twinge in my throat made me nervous. I wanted to isolate myself inside a sterile bubble.

I left for the exam in San Francisco with my stomach in knots. I worried that I was getting sick, I worried that the tendonitis in my elbow would slow down my writing too much, I worried that I would forget all that I had studied and tasted, I worried that I was worrying too much…

The morning of the first exam, to my great surprise, I woke up feeling rested and ready. I won’t lie and say that a transcendent calm descended upon me. I was still a bundle of nerves, but had managed to convince myself that my countless hours of study would pay off.

The morning of the first exam, to my great surprise, I woke up feeling rested and ready.

Over the three days I developed a morning ritual…healthy breakfast, exam anxiety mini meditation, a couple bites of a banana to rinse my palate of all traces of toothpaste, and a swig of Muscadet to calibrate my perception of wine acidity. I made a playlist of catchy pop music and blared it through my headphones on my walk to the exam centre.

Each candidate must bring their own glasses for the exams and pour their own wines from identical green Burgundy bottles labelled only with the number of the wine. Every morning I steeled myself to maintain a steady hand, nervous that a broken glass or spilled wine would throw off my fragile equilibrium. I also made damn sure that I was pouring wine number 1 into glass number 1.

The feeling of relief that washed over me when time was called on the last exam was indescribable. Sustained nervousness over such a long period is a rare experience in my adult life, and not one that I soon wish to repeat.

The feeling of relief that washed over me when time was called on the last exam was indescribable.

And now…the long wait. Exam results are given in early September. Until then I can only hope for the best and distract myself with the simple pleasure of a chilled glass of bubbly on a warm summer’s day.

 

 

 

Education Life Reviews Wines

BLENDING AT CHATEAU PETIT-VILLAGE

Pomerol wine blending

After a fabulous dinner in the gracious company of Christian Seely, managing director of AXA Millésimes, and Corinne Ilic, AXA Communications Director, we headed to bed with visions of 2005 vintage Château Pichon Baron dancing in our heads.

In our rooms, a document awaited us. The next morning, we were set to visit another AXA property: Château Petit-Village in Pomerol. The document contained instructions, starting with the day’s objective, namely “to create a blend from 7 samples of pure individual grape varieties from the 2017 vintage”.

Many people equate Bordeaux to Cabernet Sauvignon. However, Cabernet is only one of six grape varieties permitted for Bordeaux reds. These wines, barring a few exceptions, are always blends of two or more grapes. Moreover, Cabernet Sauvignon is not the most widely planted red grape in Bordeaux. That honour goes to Merlot.

Bordeaux reds, barring a few exceptions, are always blends of two or more grapes.

The most acclaimed vineyards of Bordeaux are divided into those on the left bank of a large body of water, the Gironde Estuary (and its tributary, the Garonne), and those on the right bank of another tributary, the Dorgogne river. On the left bank, Cabernet Sauvignon is the principal grape in the majority of fine wine blends. On the right bank, Merlot reigns supreme, with Cabernet Franc as its blending partner.

Perhaps you are wondering why Bordeaux wine producers blend multiple grapes together in their wines? Why not focus on individual varietals as they do in Burgundy and elsewhere?

There are many reasons. Two of the most important are related to climate and soil conditions.

Each grape type has its own specificities. If you were to plant different varieties of roses in your garden, you would see that each would bud and bloom at different dates; each would be more or less resistant to drought, to heavy rain, and to all manners of pests and diseases. Vineyards are the same.

On the left bank, Cabernet Sauvignon is the principal grape in the majority of fine wine blends. On the right bank, Merlot reigns supreme.

The left bank of Bordeaux has a temperate maritime climate with hot summers and mild autumns. The famous vineyards of the Médoc area are protected from cooling Atlantic breezes by coastal pine forests. This is the ideal climate for the late ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. On the right bank, significantly further inland from the coast, the climate is continental with cooler winters and chilling winds. Cabernet Sauvignon struggles to reach maturity here, but Merlot, an earlier ripening variety, thrives, as does Cabernet Franc.

Soil types vary widely from one vineyard to another in Bordeaux. Gravelly soils (in temperate areas) work well for Cabernet Sauvignon. They drain water away well, and radiate heat back up to the vines, providing a warmer environment to boost ripening. Clay soils are cooler, retaining water, and absorbing heat. Merlot is better suited to clay. Cabernet Franc can adapt to a wide variety of soils, yielding lighter, fresher wines in sand or limestone rich soils, and bolder, fuller-bodied wines in clay soils.

To ensure that each piece of land is used optimally growers plot out these soil and micro-climatic variations and plant different grapes accordingly.

The majority of Bordeaux vineyards have a wealth of different soil types. And while the left bank is generally warmer than the right bank, there are many factors that affect the micro-climate of each individual vineyard (orientation, altitude, shelter or lack thereof from wind, just to name a few). To ensure that each piece of land is used optimally – growing grapes that have the best chance of remaining healthy and reaching full ripeness year after year – growers plot out these soil and micro-climatic variations and plant different grapes accordingly.

Co-planting provides wine producers with an insurance policy of sorts. If certain parcels attain only marginal ripeness, are ravaged by frosts, or hit hard by rot, higher percentages of healthier, riper grapes can be selected from other vineyard plots to create the season’s blend. While vintage variation is an accepted trait in Bordeaux (see article here), each Château still strives to maintain a sense of stylistic similarity from one year to the next. This forms their reputation, and brings them a loyal following from their patrons.

Crafting the vintage’s blend is arguably the most important of the winemaker’s yearly tasks. Fine winemakers ferment each grape and plot separately. The wines are then transferred to barrel to begin their élévage. This resting period in contact with the micro-porous wood allows the wine to soften and harmonize.

Crafting the vintage’s blend is arguably the most important of the winemaker’s yearly tasks.

Depending on the percentage of new barrels used, their origin, fabrication methods, and so forth, the oak will impart more or less flavouring components (such as cedar or vanilla notes) to the wine. During this maturation period, the winemaker will take samples from each lot and taste them with his team to determine how much, if any, of each parcel will make it into the Grand Vin. This lofty term refers to the top wine of the estate. Lots judged lesser in quality are downgraded to the second and sometimes third wines of the Château.

Blending is a veritable art. There are many factors that need to be taken into consideration. The winemaker must calculate the overall quantity of wine required and the volume available of each parcel. They must also consider how the wine will evolve in bottle. An age-worthy Bordeaux requires blending components with fresh acidity, firm structure, and good tannic grip. Tasted early on in their maturation, these elements may appear less seductive, but given time to soften they will form an attractive framework, enhancing the more expressively fruity, plusher lots.

Our blending session at Château Petit-Village was, in reality, nothing more than an amusing exercise. The winemakers knew better than to let us loose on their fine wine!  Daniel Llose, AXA Millésimes Technical Director, very generously gave of his time to guide us in our endeavors. We tasted through seven different parcels: 5 Merlot base wines from different plots and of varying vine ages, 1 Cabernet Franc, and 1 Cabernet Sauvignon. We then split into two-man teams and got busy with our funnels, beakers, and pipettes, pouring varying amounts of each of our preferred samples into a bottle, thus creating our Pomerol blends.

Blending is a veritable art. The winemaker must consider how the wine will evolve in bottle.

Pomerol is a small, yet highly prestigious appellation on the right bank. There are just under 800 hectares of vines planted here on a mix of gravel, limestone and clay soils. Château Petit-Village has an enviable position at the highest point of the (low lying) Pomerol vineyards, where the soils are gravelly with optimal drainage. The subsoil here is of particular note. The highly prized “crasse de fer”, an iron-rich clay, is said to impart complex aroma of truffles to the resultant wines. Grapes grown on these soils are the most sought after of Pomerol.

After our blends were tasted and politely deemed acceptable by Daniel, we moved on to taste the finished product. Over a sumptuous lunch of roasted duck, we sampled three very fine vintages of Château Petit-Village: 2010, 2007, 2000.

Without further ado, my notes:

Château Petit-Village Pomerol 2010

 

Fragrant aromas of ultra-ripe dark plum, black cherry, and blueberry dominate the nose, underscored with licorice, truffle, cedar, and floral notes. Powerfully structured and weighty, with rounded acidity. Velvety in texture, with impressive depth of dark fruit flavours lingering long on the persistent, layered finish. Firm, fine-grained tannins ensure superior ageability.

Blend: 73% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon

Ageing:  70% new French oak, 30% second use barrels. 15 months.

Château Petit-Village Pomerol 2007

Pretty notes of crushed plum, ripe raspberry, and blueberry mingle with hints of violet and subtle oaked nuances. Quite fresh and vibrant in style, with a full-body, soft, chalky texture, and medium weight, powdery tannins. Not as concentrated as the 2010, but very elegant, with well-integrated oak, and a long, lifted finish.

Blend: 78% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Franc, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon

Ageing: 60% new French oak, 40% second use barrels. 15 months.

Château Petit-Village Pomerol 2000

Fully mature, with an attractive tertiary nose featuring earthy, truffle aromas, dried plum, sweet tobacco hints, and exotic spice. Still pleasingly fresh on the palate, with a full-body, and supple texture. A concentrated core of dried floral and savoury nuances marks the mid-palate. The tannins are plush and rounded.

Blend: 75% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon

Ageing: 70% new French oak, 30% second use barrels. 15 months.

Reviews

VERTICAL TASTING AT CHATEAU PICHON BARON

Pichon Baron Wine Tasting
Photo credit: Daphne Feng

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Château Pichon Baron 2017

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

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

Château Pichon Baron 2016

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

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

Château Pichon Baron 2015

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

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

Château Pichon Baron 2014

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

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

Château Pichon Baron 2013

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

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

Château Pichon Baron 2012

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

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

Château Pichon Baron 2011

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

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

Château Pichon Baron 2010

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

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

Château Pichon Baron 2009

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

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

 

Reviews

A Week in the World of Luxury Wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education Reviews Wines

IT IS WORTH PAYING MORE?

Is it worth paying more for fine wine

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.

Who am I to judge? Learn more about me here.

Life

THE DEATH OF JOY: Comparative tastings and the standardization of style

Comparative wine tastings standardization

It is human nature to want to compare; to establish a bench mark and then try to measure up. In our Darwin-esque “survival of the fittest” mentality, we are trying to survive by determining who is best and how to emulate them. We love to give out trophies and scores and proclaim that x is better than y, and that all should prefer x. And the supposedly genteel, refined world of wine is no different.

I regularly read articles on comparative tastings that look to rock the establishment with proclamations that new world, less well reputed vineyards are superior to their renowned old world counterparts. In a famous 1976 tasting dubbed “The Judgement of Paris”, Californian Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons beat white Burgundies and red Bordeaux in a series of blind tastings.   Just last week, an Australian publication proudly announced that the new wave of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producers from the Yarra Valley and New Zealand are better than Burgundy, often for half the price.

While I understand that new regions, looking to gain in respect and notoriety from wine consumers, can help their cause by likening their wines to revered vineyards. And I relate to the need to set a goal and aspire to achieving the greatness we perceive in others… I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that the wine industry seems stuck in a comparison rut.

I love the freshness, the fruit purity and precision of a good Central Otago Pinot Noir. And I love the elegance, complexity, and structure of a Chambolle-Musigny. I especially appreciate the fact that both styles exist to compliment different meals and occasions. Why determine that one is better than the other? Who decides what the best criteria is to make such a choice? And why should we trust their judgement?

The writer that hailed Yarra Valley as better than Burgundy based his decision on “freshness, primary fruit and verve”. Burgundian winemaker, Benjamin Leroux, argued that the majority of his fellow producers were not looking to highlight those characteristics but rather focus on structure. Two different approaches and preferences, that ultimately both result in great wines. So why not simply celebrate the wealth of diversity in styles?

Yes, it is irksome to pay so much more for the supposedly great wines from fabled vineyards, than purportedly better wines from newer origins. But so far these constant comparisons have not resulted in significant price decreases for the former. They just drive up prices for the latter… Great for the grower, but not so much for the drinker!

Mark Twain once said that “comparison is the death of joy”.

Our obsession with determining a uniform best, rather than savouring well-made wines from around the world for their individual charms, is a glum affair.

In the 1990s/early 2000s, when winemakers in Bordeaux and Châteauneuf-du-pape saw that more extracted, oakier wines were receiving higher Robert Parker scores, there was a rush to replicate the style and a generation of copycat wines emerged. I for one would rather have a wealth of styles from the light, fresh and fruity to the big, bold and tannic and everything in between. For, as many different types of wine that exist, there are an equal number of different consumer preferences, palates, dishes to pair with and so on. In my humble opinion, that is the principle joy of wine.