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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.

 

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$)

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.

 

Reviews Wines

There’s Something About Merlot

Why to give Merlot a second chance

Merlot was a favourite, in many countries, for many years.  There is really little not to love about it.  A common description would read: red berry and plum aromas, moderate acidity, smooth texture and soft tannins.  Sounds good, right? Then, in 2004, an Indie film about a (fairly annoying) anxiety-ridden wine snob who detests Merlot and lives for Pinot Noir hit the big screen.  The movie was called “Sideways”.  Since then Merlot sales have plummeted in North America while Pinot Noir has gone through the roof. It seemed like a fad at first, but 11 years later it is (sadly) still cool to say that you don’t drink Merlot.  This drives me crazy. I would like to take all the haters out there and make them blind taste a whole slew of Merlots…from Bordeaux, from California, from Chile.  I am convinced that they would change their tune after a couple of sips.

Merlot does not simply boil down to fruity, round and easy-drinking. The grape is planted around the world, from Bordeaux to Chile to California and beyond. It is the most planted red grape in France. Depending on where it is grown, the care taken in the vineyard and the vinification techniques employed, the wine can be very different.  In cooler climates like the right bank of Bordeaux, Merlot takes on earthy aromas, has fresh acidity, a weightier structure and more firm tannins.  It is often mistaken for Cabernet Sauvignon, though generally has riper fruit aromas and a fleshier, broader mid-palate. In warm climates, such as the Napa Valley, Sonoma or Paso Robles in California, Merlot is more voluptuous with rich, fruit flavours, a velvetty texture and soft tannins.  It is a grape that can handle oak (in measured doses); taking on a richer texture, more firm but well-rounded tannins.

Most people consider Cabernet Sauvignon to be the major grape of Bordeaux, but there is actually significantly more Merlot planted.  On the left bank, Merlot is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon to act as “the flesh on Cabernet Sauvignon’s bones”. On the right bank, Merlot is the dominant player, usually with Cabernet Franc (Merlot’s father) in the supporting role.  The clay and limestone-rich soils of Pomerol and St. Emilion are what Merlot loves.  Pomerol is the smallest appellation in Bordeaux, with only 800 hectares under vine.  It is also home to the most sought-after, expensive Châteaux.  Its best wines are described as powerful, opulent, and even decadent. St. Emilion is one of the largest wine producing regions of Bordeaux. There is a diverse array of soil types, and consequently, a wide range of wine styles from elegant and light, to richer and more concentrated. Beautiful minerality is a feature of top St. Emilion estates planted on the limestone slopes.

Merlot is the third most planted red variety in Chile.  The Colchagua Valley, the South-Western half of the Rapel Valley region, is gaining increasing attention for the high quality of its Merlot. Cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean temper the warm Mediterranean climate and give the wines elegance, vibrant acidity and bright, red fruit flavours.  Apalta, which stands for “poor soils” in the local dialect, is one of the best vineyards in the area.  The low fertility soils force the vine roots to dig deep and produce wines with excellent depth of flavour and good tannic structure.

Despite waning interest for the grape, there are still substantial Merlot plantings throughout California.  In the Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon generally gets pride of place on the slopes. Merlot is often planted on the hot valley floor, where its intense red berry and plum aromatics, and smooth texture, make it the perfect blending partner to soften Cabernet lead blends.  There are however a number of serious producers making excellent Merlot dominant wines, with lush, hedonistic profiles.

For the purposes of this initial overview tasting, I chose examples from the following producers (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).

Casa Lapostolle “Canto de Apalta” Rapel Valley 2011 – 90pts. PW

Unfortunately it was impossible to find anything other than very entry level Chilean Merlot at our dear liquor boards (sigh…), so I had to settle for this blend.  Though settle is a poor word, as it is lovely. Inviting black cherry, cassis, menthol and spiced aromas, very fresh on the palate with a full, velvetty frame, marked but balanced oak and alcohol.  Only moderate length and complexity, but worth the price.

Grapes: Merlot, Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah

Where to Buy: SAQ (22.25$)

Château Yon Figeac St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé 2011 – 89pts. PW

This sustainably farmed estate is hailed for its consistent quality even in mediocre vintages such as 2011. Restrained notes of tobacco, cedar, red berries and kirsch on the nose. Dry, medium-bodied though somewhat lean in structure with fine grained tannins, subtle oak and an attractive tobacco dominant finish.

Grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Franc

Where to Buy: Not currently available in Québec or Ontario

Château le Caillou Pomerol 2009 – 88pts. LW

Situated on the iron-rich clay soils of the plateau of Pomerol, this tiny 7 hectare estate is organically farmed. Understated yet complex palate of aromas including animal notes, plum, red berries, menthol and cedar. Vibrant acidity, full-bodied with moderate alcohol, firm but ripe tannins and well integrated oak.  Lacking some richness and fruit expression considering the vintage.

Grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Franc

Where to Buy: LCBO (52.95$), SAQ – 2010 vintage (43.00$)

Sterling Vineryards Napa Valley Merlot 2012 – 92pts. PW

Merlot is grown here on the valley floor, on deep rooting, volcanic stone soils.  Heady aromas of sweet cherry, baked plum, eucalyptus and floral notes.  Smooth, full bodied and velvetty, with toasty oak and a sweet, red berry finish.  Big and bold, with just enough acidity to maintain good balance.

Grapes: Merlot

Where to Buy: LCBO (24.95$)