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Beat the winter blues with these big, balanced reds

big, bold red wine winter fresh balanced
Photo credit: Catena Zapata Winery (Adrianna Vineyard, Tupungato)

Winter hit us like a ton of bricks this year. It was like someone flipped a switch; from lazy Indian summer to North Pole overnight. In Montréal, we have broken records held nearly 150 years for longest, extreme cold snap. And it is only mid-January…

So, what do you drink when you can’t feel your face?

VODKA. Well, yes, but this is a wine blog folks, so I am thinking more along the lines of full-bodied red wines.

Before I go on, let me first apologize to my fellow wine geeks for this heresy. It is terribly uncool here to champion rich, dense, dark fruited red wine. There seems to have been a secret committee meeting amongst local wine writers and sommeliers whereby it was decreed: crisp, light wines good/ big, bold wines bad. I guess my invitation was lost in the mail.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the lighter reds too. If I was on a desert island, and I could only choose one red wine region for the rest of my life I’d pick Burgundy in a heart beat…but it would be hot on this island.

I don’t know about you, but when my fingers and toes feel like they might fall off, I don’t want a chilled Beaujolais. I want something that is going to light a fire in my belly; something with such rich, luscious fruit that I almost believe it will be summer again one day.

What I don’t want is a sweet, oaky, fruit bomb, with alcohol so fiery it tastes like kirsch. It is these wines that have given the full-bodied, high alcohol red category such a bad name in wine connoisseur circles. The missing element to these heavy, clumsy wines is balance.

Imagine a see-saw, or a two-sided weighing scale. On the one side, you have sweet, ultra-ripe fruit and high alcohol. In order to achieve equilibrium, you need an equivalent level of vibrant acidity. When these elements are in harmony, the fruit becomes brighter (less cloyingly sweet), and the alcohol is far less perceptible.

This is, of course, an oversimplification. There are far more factors at play. Not the least of which is the quality of the tannins. In a well balanced wine, they can vary from soft to quite firm (depending on the grape variety), but are smooth. That is to say, lacking the unpleasant bitterness or astringency they possess when under-ripe.

But how to find these wines amongst the vast selection on liquor store shelves?

One solution is to seek out hot, sunny regions with cooling influences. Factors like a refreshing maritime breeze, or high altitude, can slow the ripening process. The vines get plentiful warmth and sunshine for optimal sugar accumulation through-out the day, but at night, cooler air halts plant respiration and metabolism, allowing acid levels to drop more gradually. This drawn out grape vine maturation also allows tannins (naturally occurring compounds found in the grape skin, stems and pips) more time to fully ripen.

Here are just five such regions to look out for this winter:

Central Otago, New Zealand

Central Otago is a mountainous, inland region whose vineyards are the most southerly in the world. This land of extremes boasts the coldest winters, and the hottest day time summer temperatures, in all of New Zealand. The vines are planted on steep slopes, as high as 420 metres in altitude. They enjoy abundant sunshine during the day, with thermostat readings regularly exceeding 30°c. However, at night, temperatures can plummet to as low as 10°c. The region also has high UV levels, resulting in thick skinned grapes. Thicker skinned grapes have greater concentrations of polyphenols (compounds responsable for colour pigmentation, many of wines flavours, and tannic structure). Therefore, depending on winemaking procedures, thick skinned grapes tend to produce dark coloured, fragrant wines, with robust tannins.

Pinot Noir is King in Central Otago. While this variety is generally known for its pale, lighter bodied reds, here the wines are richly coloured, intensely aromatic, and bold in structure. Flavours range from ultra-ripe dark cherry, and plum, to crushed raspberries, with hints of thyme. They are vibrant, fresh, and highly concentrated, with smooth, ripe tannins.

Wineries to look out for: Rippon, Felton Road, Peregrine, Akarua, Mt. Difficulty

Gigondas, France

The Southern Rhône valley is famed for its sunny, mediterranean climate and rich, powerful Grenache, Syrah blends. Châteauneuf-du-pape is the most acclaimed, premium appellation. The double effect of the baking hot sun, and the large, rounded stones that adorn the vineyard floors, reflecting light and warmth back up to the vines, make for massive, velvetty smooth, alcoholic reds with raisined fruit. Looking for something similar, but with a more vibrant, fresher fruited character? Gigondas is the answer.

The vineyards surrounding this tiny town are perched on the edge of the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains at 100 to 430 metres in altitude. Temperatures are marginally cooler here. On the rare wintry days I experienced while living here, there was often a layer of snow in Gigondas, whereas just 5km away in the lower lying Vacqueyras, and Châteauneuf-du-pape, the fields remained green. Pockets of sandy soils at the foothills, and limestone-heavy areas further up, also contribute to the fresh, elegant style of the grapes grown here.

Wineries to look out for: Domaine des Bosquets, Château St. Cosme, Domaine de Longue Toque, Perrin, Domaine de la Bouïssière, Pierre Amadieu

Mendoza (Valle de Uco, Lujan de Cuyo), Argentina

The Uco Valley, at the foot of the Andes mountains, is located in the upper reaches of the Mendoza region. Vineyards are among the highest in the world, at 800 – 1100 metres.  Poor, free draining soils encourage vines to dig deep for moisture and nourishment, resulting in low yields and highly concentrated wines. The favourable climate conditions (hot, sunny days, cool nights, high UV levels, and long, dry growing season) has attracted many prominent French wine producers to set up shop. Further north, on the banks of the Mendoza river, lie the vineyards of Lujan de Cuyo. Sitting at 1000 metres in altitude, with cooling alpine breezes, this hot, dry sub-region also benefits from significantly cooler night air.

Malbec is the major grape produced here*. The wines are dark in colour, with lots of body, and velvetty smooth tannins. The Uco Valley examples are wonderfully vibrant, with elegant floral and ripe dark fruit aromas. Lujan de Cuyo wines are almost black in colour, and equally dense on the palate. Ultra-ripe black fruits, exotic spice, and mineral hints feature on the nose and palate.

* Cabernet Sauvignon and, increasingly, Cabernet Franc, also show great promise here.

Wineries to look out for: Catena Zapata, Achaval Ferrer, O. Fournier, Lurton, Zuccardi (the higher end, 20$+ wines), Trapiche (Terroir Series)

Ribera del Duero, Spain

The vineyards of the Ribera del Duero are located in the Castilla y Leon region, due north of Madrid, and south west of Rioja. The vineyards are planted on a high plateau, 600 to 800 metres above sea level. Hot, sunny days are tempered by chilly nights, thanks to the region’s elevated position, and to regular cold winds. Day-to-night temperature can vary by more than 50°c. These dramatic fluctuations allow for a very gentle ripening pace. Grapes are generally not harvested before late October. The Duero river divides this semi-arid land, providing a much needed water source for the vineyards to thrive.

This is red wine country. All blends must be composed of at least 75% Tempranillo (locally referred to as Tinto Fino or Tinta del Pais). The balance can be made up of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and/ or Malbec. Up to 5% of Garnacha, or the indigenous Albillo, can also be used. There are strict rules on wine ageing before the wines are bottled and released for sale. The levels range from: Crianza (2 years’ ageing, minimum 1 year in oak), Reserva (3 years’ ageing, minimum 1 year in oak), Gran Reserva (minimum 2 years in oak + 3 years’ in bottle).

At their best, Ribera del Duero reds are inky black, highly concentrated and full-bodied. Intense aromas of dark berry fruit and mocha are underscored by attractive French oak nuances (toasty, spicy notes). They are very fresh, firmly structured, but smooth, with elegant, polished tannins.

Wineries to look out for: Vega Sicilia & Dominio de Pingus (if you have very deep pockets), Bodegas Protos, Aalto, Finca Villacreces, Bodegas Valduero, Emilio Moro

Santa Barbara County, California

A mere 90 minutes north of Los Angeles, lies the vineyards of Santa Barbara county. The topography of this region is unique, in that the valleys run east to west, rather than the more standard north to south. There is massive diversity to be found here in terms of soil types and microclimates. The vineyards located on the eastern foothills are cooled by fog and ocean breezes funneled through the surrounding hills and mountains. Appellations such as Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley (especially the Ballard Canyon sub-zone for Syrah), and Sta Rita Hills, are gaining prominence.

Pinot Noir is the most planted red varieties in Santa Barbara County. It is generally dark in colour, with dense, powerful structure, and impressive depth of flavour. Very fragrant on the nose; brimming with black cherry, plum, and floral aromas. Syrah is also gaining in prominence. Imagine a mid-way point between a jammy, lush Shiraz and a crisp, taut Northern Rhône Syrah. This is a common style here. Rich, ripe dark berry fruit, lively acidity, full body, smooth, rounded mouthfeel, and firm, elegant tannins.

Wineries to look out for: Domaine de la Côte, Sanford, Au Bon Climat, Bien Nacido, Ojai Vineyard, Fess Parker

 

Education Reviews Wines

The Mighty South West

South West Wines
Photo credit: IVSO/ P. Poupart

From a Canadian’s perspective, France is a small country. 15 times smaller to be specific. A mere blip on the world map. Yet in terms of wine output, France is enormous. Not only in terms of sheer quantity, but also the diversity of wine styles, the number of producing regions and so on. Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne have become household names, even for you reasonable folks out there that don’t spend all of your waking moments thinking about wine. The oceans of wine coming out of the Languedoc have also assured this area pretty good visibility on the world stage. And the Loire and Rhône Valleys, with appellations like Sancerre and Châteauneuf-du-pape respectively, can hold their own quite nicely. But there is another vast wine producing area that often gets forgotten…

The South West of France is the 5th largest vineyard area in France with 47 000 hectares of vines. It cups Bordeaux to the south and east (of the right bank), extends to the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and continues south to the Spanish border and the Pyrénées mountains. The region is often a little too neatly summed up as being a cheaply priced Bordeaux alternative. While many good value Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends are to be had from places like Bergerac and the Côtes du Marmandais, there is a wealth of other grape varieties and wine styles out there.

There are 29 designated AOP (protected appellations) and 14 IGP (vin de pays) growing areas.  As well as the two mentionned above, the best known appellations, and easiest to find on most international markets, include: Madiran and Cahors (best known for their big, bold reds), AOP Fronton (lighter, violet scented reds), AOP Gaillac (where everything from still to sparkling to sweet white, rosé and red are crafted) and AOP Jurançon (where prized late harvest, sweet white wine is made). The largest territory however, is that of IGP Côtes du Gascogne, where crisp, lively, easy drinking white wines are the mainstay. Due to the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean, these wines often take on an intriguing saline note that adds to their refreshing appeal.

Given the size of the region and the diverse climate conditions and soil types, it is only natural that the grapes that grow well in one area are not suited to another.  Over 300 different varieties are grown here, with just over half native to the area. The majority of AOC wines, and many IGP wines are blends. I will give you a quick over view of some of the major players, and where to find them.

GAILLAC  COTES DU TARN                   Photo credit: IVSO/ P. Poupart

White Wine

Colombard – a major player in the production of IGP wines like Côtes de Gascogne and also in in the digéstif Armagnac. When over cropped it produces a fairly neutral white. The best examples have intense exotic fruit aromas, light body and moderate acidity.

Chenin Blanc – widespread in the eastern appellations and IGPs of the South West. Highly appreciated for its fruity, floral palate of aromas, medium body and bright acidity

Gros Manseng – a major blending component in many IGP Côtes de Gascogne, as well as dry Jurançon and Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl whites. Gros Manseng gives vibrancy and spicy notes.

Mauzac – adaptable to a wide variety of wine styles, it is used for sparkling, and still, dry and sweet wines, principally around the Gaillac area. It gives fresh orchard fruit in youth, and honeyed notes with age.

Petit Manseng – related to Gros Manseng, this grape has smaller berries with thicker skins, generally producing wines with greater aromatic complexity. The grape has the ability to produce high sugar levels while retaining fresh acidity; perfect for the sweet Jurançon dessert wines.

Sauvignon Blanc – used either as a single grape, notably in IGP designations, and as a blending element in several AOPs (Béarn, Tursan, Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl). The grape gives its characteristic citrus, gooseberry, cat pee notes as well as vibrant acidity.

Red Wine

Cabernet Franc (Bouchy, Acheria) – Though widely grown in Bordeaux and the Loire, this grape actually originated in Basque country. Slightly less tannic and more red fruit scented than its offspring Cabernet Sauvignon, it nevertheless provides good structure to red blends from many AOP & IGP regions (notably Madiran, Fronton, Irouléguy)

Cabernet Sauvigon – A second stringer in the South West. It provides fragrant cassis notes, firm tannins and deep colour. It is found in the same appellations as Cabernet Franc.

Duras – One of the most oldest grapes grown in the Tarn Valley. It is a major player in Gaillac, giving finesse, deep colour, moderately firm tannins and a fruity, peppery perfume.

Fer Servadou (Fer, Pinenc, Braucol, Mansois) – Similar aromatics and structure to Cabernet Sauvignon. Blending component in many appellations, notably Marcillac, Béarn & Gaillac.

Gamay – Off spring of Pinot Noir, the Burgundian grape Gamay is bright, fresh and very red fruit driven. It is a blending component in Gaillac and many surrounding appellations.

Malbec (Cot) – Originally from the South West, Cot (as it is called there) is the principal grape in the Cahors appellation. It produces densely coloured, full bodied, structured wines with black fruit aromatics, moderately fresh acidity and firm, chewy tannins. Well crafted versions have great aging potential.

Merlot – Also offspring of Cabernet Franc (like Cabernet Sauvignon), Merlot makes an excellent blending component due to its fleshy mid-palate, rounded tannins and fragrant plum aromas. It is notably grown in Cahors as a minor blending component.

Négrette – The major grape of the Fronton appellation. It is a parent to Malbec. Négrette brings attractive violet notes, and sometimes animal and leather undertones. Fruity and medium bodied with moderate tannins, it is an ideal grape for rosé and easy drinking reds.

Syrah – A blending component in appellations like Fronton, Syrah brings elegance, fine tannins, black fruit and spiced notes.

Tannat – The principle red grape of Madiran. Named for its very firm tannic structure, the grape gives full-bodied, deeply coloured, raspberry scented reds that generally require a little time to unwind

1.ESTAING   CAHORS Photo credit: IVSO/ P. Poupart

Great Wines to Try

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

Chateau Montauriol Prestige AOP Fronton 2013 – 89pts. VW

This blend of 55% Negrette, 25% Syrah, 20% Cabernet Franc is just delicious. Attractive aromas of plum, kirsch and pepper on the nose. The palate is lively, medium bodied, showing moderate depth and complexity, with lingering dried fruit, floral and pepper flavours. Firm, yet ripe tannins frame the finish. The cedar oak imprint is quite subtle.

Where to Buy: SAQ (18.10$)

Château Montus AOP Madiran 2010 – 92pts. PW

Consistent high quality is a feature of this estate. A blend of 80% Tannat and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, this big, brooding red features complex aromatics of cherry, spice, prune and dark chocolate. Full bodied, densely structured yet velvetty on the palate, with chewy tannins and harmonious cedar oak. Long, layered finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (30.25$), LCBO (35.45$)

Château Montus AOP Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh 2011 – 91pts. PW

Made from 80% Petit Courbu, a little known grape from the obscure appellation of Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, this cuvée is absolutely worth discovering. Smoky citrus notes feature on the nose. Fresh, long and layered on the palate with lots of creamy lees character and well integrated toasty oak. Very stylish!

Where to Buy: SAQ (24.85$), LCBO (35.45$)

Odé d’Aydie AOP Madiran 2012 – 87pts. VW

Attractive aromas of fresh red cherries, with floral and spice undertones. Medium bodied, with lively, balanced acidity, firm tannins and subtle oak. No great aging potential, but pleasant every day drinking quality.

Where to buy: SAQ (19.35$)

Château de Gaudou “Renaissance” AOP Cahors 2012 – 87pts. PW

Pleasant earthy, animal notes on the nose, underscoring the fresh red and black fruit aromatics. Fresh acidity, full body, with attractive spiced, oak notes on the finish. This cuvée falls down a little on the finish due to the green, bitter edge on the tannins.

Where to buy: SAQ (22.85$), LCBO (25.95$)

Domaine du Tariquet “Classic” IGP Côtes de Gascogne 2015 – 88pts VW

At only 10.5% alcohol, this is a great option for an every day house white. It is light, refreshing, crisp and lively, with lots of citrus and floral notes. Fairly simple, but nice for the price.

Where to buy: SAQ (12.95$)

South West Vineyard photos, courtesy of IVSO/ P. Poupart