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Red Wine

Producers Reviews

Producer Profile – Maison Albert Bichot

Albert Bichot Vineyard Chablis

Big and beautiful. Albéric Bichot’s tireless quest for quality.

When I was novice wine student living in Burgundy, my viticulture professors (all local growers) insisted that serious wines could only come from small estates and never from the big, bad négociant firms.  To my teachers, wineries that produced large quantities and largely worked with grapes bought from other growers could never attain the same heights of elegance, aromatic complexity or precision as the small farmer working his own plot of land.  As time went on, I learnt that the lines were rather more blurry than I was led to believe.  First of all, many large Burgundian négociants have significant vineyard holdings, and a growing number of small domaines are starting to buy in additional fruit to grow their sales.  Secondly, quality-oriented négociants are so meticulous in their choice of grower partners and the winemaking techniques employed that exceptional wines are regularly being made by wineries with little or no vineyards.  Lastly, many small growers make poor wines.  Good things, it would seem, do not always come in small packages.

This subject came to mind after a tasting I attended last week with the charming Albéric Bichot. The very definition of this hybrid of grower/ négociant, Maison Albert Bichot owns a whopping 100 hectares of vines. Their estates are spread out across the entire region, from Chablis, to Nuits-St-Georges, to Pommard and Mercurey. They also buy significant quantities from growers to meet the demands of their large clientèle world-wide.  I asked Albéric what he thought about this rivalry between small growers and big négociant firms, and he responded with a wry smile and a typically Gallic shrug.  His philosophy is simple: make the best wines possible, and let the quality speak for itself.

His philosophy is simple: make the best wines possible, and let the quality speak for itself.

Albéric took up the reins of the (then) 165 year-old family firm in 1996. Before settling down to the business of managing such a vast empire, it is said that Albéric was a great adventurer, travelling through the wilds of northern Canada and Patagonia.  He dreamed of being an astronaut so the stories go. But after just 5 minutes of hearing him talk about his vines, it is obvious that he is where he is meant to be.  Over the past 20 years, he has worked tirelessly to raise the image of Maison Bichot.  The vineyards are all sustainably or organically farmed, the yields have been sharply reduced and the majority of sourced fruit is now purchased as grapes rather than finished wine. A spokesman for Burgundy in their successful bid to obtain UNESCO world heritage status for their 1247 climats (vineyard parcels), Albéric is passionate about crafting wines that express their terroir and vintage.

The proof is definitely in the glass.  We tasted through a selection of mainly 2012 Chablis and Côte d’Or wines. “Une grande année” (an excellent vintage) according to Albéric, with fantastic ageing potential. The wines were consistently pleasant throughout, showing vibrant fruit, lifted acidity and smooth textures. Stand outs in terms of value and quality included the following:

Maison Bichot “Secret de famille” Chardonnay 2012 – 90pts. PW

Albéric kindly shared the family secret here, which is that the grapes are sourced from just outside the boundaries of top Côte d’Or villages and vinified with all the care given to the crus.  An intriguing nose of spiced apricot with undertones of licorice and subtle minerality. Lifted acidity gives way to a medium bodied, smooth textured mid-palate with a soft, toasty oak finish.  Great value.

Where to Buy: Coming in 2016 to an SAQ near you… (23.95$)

Maison Bichot Chablis 2012 – 87pts PW

Bright lemony fruit. Lively and refreshing with nice depth of flavour through the mid-palate and a lifted, mineral finish.  Fairly simple on the nose, but still very enjoyable for a week day wine.

Where to Buy: SAQ (22.40$)

Domaine Long-Depaguit Chablis Grand Cru “Les Clos” 2010 – 92pts. LW

This 63 hectare estate covers 10% of the total surface areas of Grand Cru vineyards in Chablis. The 2010 “Les Clos” is redolent with sweet, baked apricots, honey, lemon and subtle floral and mineral notes.  Searing acidity leads into a richly textured, juicy core followed by a lingering, toasted finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ Signature (68.00$)

Maison Bichot “Secret de famille” Pinot Noir 2012 – 90pts. PW

As per the white, the red “Secret de Famille” cuvée is a serious step up from your average AOC Bourgogne.  Seductive aromas of strawberry, cherry and violets are underscored by a pleasing earthiness. The tart acidity is balanced by a plush texture, smooth oak and firm, dusty tannins. Like the white, excellent for the price.

Where to Buy: SAQ (22.00$)

Maison Bichot Vosne-Romanée 2012 – 89pts. LW

Slightly closed on the nose, showing black and red berry fruit, rose petals, earthy notes and subtle spice upon aeration. Bracing acidity, showing power and concentration, with firm, ripe tannins and measured use of oak.  A little austere at present. Good potential, needs time to unwind.

Where to Buy: SAQ (67.25$)

Domaine du Clos Frantin Gevrey Chambertin “Les Murots ” 2012 – 93pts. LW

The star of the tasting! This high quality 13-hectare estate counts 8-hectares of Grand and Premier Cru vineyards. Rustic and earthy on the nose, with mixed red berries, soft floral notes and lots of minerality.  This wine really comes alive on the palate with vibrant acidity, bold fruit flavours, a silky texture and pronounced yet smooth tannins. Drinking well now, but will definitely improve with age.

Where to Buy: SAQ (65.25$)

Life

Uninspiring

SAQ Selection Rhône

I buy a lot of wine. A LOT. At the more affordable end of the spectrum, the LCBO tends to beat the SAQ in pricing so I do some shopping there whenever possible. But as I live in Montréal, the majority of my wine is bought at the SAQ. Also, they have a far superior range of French wines (surprise, surprise). So I was very much looking forward to the launch of the SAQ’s new loyality card “Inspire”. Visions of huge cost savings danced in my head. And then, finally, the big day came! I could sign up for my card. I raced to the SAQ website where a big INSPIRE banner ad informed me that “it would be crazy to miss out”. They didn’t have to tell me twice. I am not crazy! So I clicked on the link to find out that I will get a…wait for it…1$ rebate every time I spend 200$. Wow.

Here is the deal as I have understood it: for every 1$ spent, the SAQ awards you 5 points. Once you have accumulated 1000 points, you get a 1$ credit on your card. Granted, this is just the regular, every day deal and does not account for promotions whereby, for limited periods, you can get double points or more if you purchase certain, specified items. A glass half full, we-have-no-other-choice-but-to-shop-at-the-SAQ-so-just-need-to-take-what-we-can-get, type of person would surely tell me to stop complaining. Until now there wasn’t any sort of reward system for spending lots of dough at the liquor store. Comparatively, this is not bad.

So, while I am a little disappointed, I will acquiesce for now and hope that the “Inspire” program does finally live up to its promise. And, to be fair, the cost savings aspect is only one part of the overall concept. Using your card at purchase will allow the SAQ to catalogue your buying patterns and offer you personalized wine suggestions. They also plan to offer contests, events, workshops and all sorts of other fun stuff. I suppose, if I were a gracious sort of person, I would say that this sounds alright. But my stubborn side still thinks that 200$ for a 1$ discount seems a little uninspiring.

Reviews Wines

A Closer Look at Cabernet Sauvignon

Tokara Winery

This week’s wine flight centres around Cabernet Sauvignon based wines. Originally from the South West of France with mentions as far back as the sixteen hundreds, Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between the white grape Sauvignon Blanc and the red Cabernet Franc. Today, it is the most planted wine grape in the world.

What makes Cabernet Sauvignon so popular to grow? It is hardy, fairly disease and frost resistant and adapts well to a huge variety of climates and soil types. Cabernet Sauvignon has a fantastic aromatic and structural range; from green, herbaceous notes with vibrant acidity and a taut frame in cooler climates to intense black currant and dark berry fruits with more moderate acidity and broader structure in warmer areas. Top Cabernet Sauvignon has high acidity, full body and firm tannins allowing for excellent ageing potential, and with that, the potential for further aromatic development, the mellowing of texture and softening of tannins.

I fell in love with Bordeaux in 2004. It was the eve of my departure for Burgundy to study in Beaune. My father, an unabashed French wine fanatic, decided to send me off in style. Knowing that I would get more than my fill of incredible Burgundies in the months to come, he decided to open a great Bordeaux, from a top vintage; namely a Château Léoville Las Cases 1982 from St. Julien. It was elegant and refined with so many layers of flavour, such a soft, silky mouthfeel and fine grained, rounded tannins. It just went on and on. Incredible…unforgettable. Sigh…

Unfortunately not all Cabernet blends from Bordeaux are that earth shattering. There are poor vintages, mediocre quality growers, lots of mass-produced wines at the cheaper end of the spectrum, not to mention the waiting game…the better Bordeaux need time to soften and develop. They are often quite green, austere and pucker-inducing in their youth. Aromas range from green pepper, graphite, violets and black currant at first, to tobacco, cedar, leather and earthy notes with age.

Stellenbosch in the Western Cape’s Coastal Region of South Africa has also developed a name for itself for good quality (and value) Cabernet. Despite a fairly hot, dry climate, Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon is distinctive for its herbaceous, eucalyptus aromas, restrained black currant and signature singed/ smoky notes. Dry and medium bodied like Bordeaux with similar use of French oak, but more moderate acidity and slightly higher alcohol levels.

The Coonawarra is a comparatively tiny vineyard area (just 15km x 2km) within the Limestone Coast area of South Australia. This out of the way pocket of vines is sought after due to the Terra Rossa (red soil) that has proved an incredible terroir for Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines are intensely fruity with black currant and plum notes; and lots of spicy mint undertones. Moderate to fresh acidity, full body, velvetty structure and firm, chewy tannins. Depending on the grower, oak is either restrained, spicy French or more overt, vanilla and coconut scented American.

The Mendoza region of Argentina provides Cabernet Sauvignon a cocktail of high altitude, ample sun and rocky soils. The resulting wines are fresh, with an intriguing combination of power and elegance. Aromas include black currant, black cherry and plum, underpinned with sweet spices and vanilla. Acidity, body and tannin are all high here, though tend to be balanced and smooth in the best examples, with well integrated American and/ or French oak.

Last but certainly not least, the Napa Valley. In a famous 1976 tasting in Paris, Cabernet Sauvignon from the famous Stag’s Leap beat out Bordeaux 1st growths in a blind tasting. Napa growers are, understandably, proud of their terroir. Cabernet Sauvignon grown here is powerful and lush. Ripe black and red fruits, soft menthol, eucalyptus notes and oak aromas dominate. The best examples generally have moderate acidity, full body, broad structure, firm, silky tannins and lots of toasty, vanilla oak on the finish.

For the purposes of this initial overview tasting, I chose classic examples from the following producers (What do VW, PW & LW mean?  Click on my scoring system for the answer):

Château Citran AOC Haut Médoc 2010 – 90pts. LW

Bordeaux blend of equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with ~5% Cabernet Franc. Restrained and earthy on the nose with notes of black currant, menthol, cedar and tobacco leaf. Bright, juicy acidity, medium body, firm, rounded tannins, moderate alcohol and subtle oak. Needs time or, barring that, a couple of hours in a decanter to unwind.

Where to Buy: Not currently available in Ontario or Québec

Les Fiefs de Lagrange AOC St. Julien 2010 – 92pts. LW

The second wine of renowned St. Julien property Château Lagrange. The blend is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot & 10% Petit Verdot. More elegant and intense with layered aromas of sweet cherry, cassis, violet, earthy notes, tobacco and eucalyptus. Full bodied with a silky texture, vibrant acidity, very firm, fine grained tannins and well integrated oak.

Where to Buy: Not currently available in Ontario or Québec

Le Bonheur Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 – 86pts. PW

This prominent Stellenbosch estate on the Simonsberg Mountain was established in the 18 hundreds. The wine shows a marked green character with eucalyptus, menthol and bell pepper notes dominating the soft black fruit undertones. Full bodied with moderate acidity and grippy tannins. The juicy fruit character on the palate seems at odds with the green nose.

Where to Buy: SAQ (23.50$)

Jim Barry “The Cover Drive” Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – 90pts. PW

Seductive notes of cassis, plum and dark cherry, with underlying minty and dark chocolate aromas. Good balance of fresh acidity and full-bodied, fruity structure. Lots of vanilla-rich oak aromas here. Tannins are pronounced, but ripe. Very pleasant, but no aromatic development in glass.

Where to Buy: LCBO (26.95$), SAQ (27.55$)

Catena Mendoza Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – 93pts. PW

Leading Argentinian producer Catena is hailed as a pioneer of top quality, high altitude wines in the Mendoza region. Pretty nose of ripe blackberries, tea leaf, dark chocolate, menthol and subtle cedar notes. The palate is fresh and lively; full bodied with a smooth texture, soft tannins and present, but well integrated oak.  Easy drinking; great value for the price.

Where to Buy: LCBO (19.95$), SAQ (22.30$)

Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – 89pts. PW

Robert Mondavi was known world-wide for his tireless efforts to gain global recognition for the high quality of Napa Valley wines.  The winery has since been sold, but the wines are still well-made. This Cab shows attractive menthol, cassis, raspberry, sweet spice and intense vanilla notes on the nose. Bright, juicy acidity is backed by a full body and firm tannic structure. It is tightly wound; needs time for the oak to integrate and the tannins to soften.

Where to Buy: LCBO (34.95$), SAQ (34.75$)

 

Education

Gigondas. The Other Southern Rhône Red.

Gigondas Meffre

I spent a fantastic day back in Gigondas last week tasting the 2013 vintage. It felt like I had never left. The Dentelles de Montmirail Mountains still tower majestically over the village. The beautiful old stone buildings, church and hospices are utterly unchanged. A town seemingly frozen in time…   But appearances can be deceptive. Gigondas’ 180+ growers are working hard to show the world that Châteauneuf-du-pape isn’t the only name in the Southern Rhône game.

Gigondas does indeed have ancient origins. The town, then named Jocunditas (meaning pleasure and enjoyment), was established in Roman times as a recreational retreat for soldiers. With such a long, rich history and impressive terroir, why isn’t Gigondas better known? Well, for starters, there just isn’t much of it to go around. At just over 1200 hectares planted, Gigondas is roughly 1/3 of the size of Châteauneuf-du-pape, with yields as low as Grand Cru Burgundy. Secondly, prominent Châteauneuf-du-pape grower, Baron Le Roy Boiseaumarié, was instrumental in the creation of the appellation of origin (AOC) system in France. Unsurprisingly this famed vineyard was one of the first to receive AOC status. Neighbouring, rival vineyard Gigondas did not attain similar single cru standing until 35 years later, in 1971. Not that I’m implying any sort of correlation there…

So what is it that makes Gigondas so darn special? I could come up with a long list of reasons, but two key factors stand out: altitude and geology. It is hot in the Southern Rhône in the summer time….really, really HAAAAWT. On the flat to gentle slopes of most of the regions’ vineyards, the Grenache grapes can easily reach over 16% alcohol. The wines, while often beautifully rich and concentrated, are about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Gigondas plantings vary from 100m to 430m in altitudes from the lower plateaux to the top of the Dentelles Mountains, with the majority of vineyards oriented north. This brings a cooling influence, infusing the wines with greater elegance, more fresh acidity, pretty floral notes and less baked fruit aromatics. The Dentelles Mountains rose to their lofty heights over 200 million years ago, around the same time as the Alps and the Pyrenees. The varied vineyard soils span 3 geological eras from limestone of the Mesozoic era, to sandy and limestone-marl soils of the Cenozoic period, to stony, gravel soils of the Quaternary era. In all of the Rhône Valley, only Hermitage can claim greater soil diversity

Not content to make the same wines from père en fils, the growers of Gigondas are constantly innovating and improving. They meet once a year in July to collectively blind taste each other’s previous vintage wines, rate them and give constructive notes. It is an incredible, teeth staining event with 60 + wines analyzed. They are also fighting to amend the cru’s AOC rules to include white wine. Currently only red and rosé wines can be labelled Gigondas. Locals feel this to be a travesty. The sandy soil skirting the foothills of the Dentelles is the ideal terroir for top class Clairette. The cooler, higher altitude parcels of limestone-marl give fresh, mineral-rich white Grenache, Marsanne and Roussanne. The resultant blends are incredibly vibrant, textured and complex whites that can legally only be sold as Côtes du Rhône today.

While you may need to wait a few more years to enjoy Gigondas whites, there is a fine selection of reds available throughout Canada. Given the exceptional quality, these wines are often a bargain at 30$ – 50$ a bottle.

Some excellent producers to look out for include*:

  • On the lighter, more elegant side (majority of plantings on higher altitude sites in the Dentelles): Domaine de Bosquets, Domaine de la Bouïssière, Château Saint Cosme, Perrin « La Gille », Pierre Amadieu
  • On the richer, more concentrated side (majority of plantings on southern facing slopes, or lower lying sites): Domaine Santa Duc, Domaine Brusset, Domaine de Longue Toque, Moulin de la Gardette

* I haven’t included my tastings notes here as the 2013 vintage is not yet available in the market. I can make them available on request however.

Education

And Now for Something Completely Different

Italian Vineyard

Italy, as you may know, is the largest wine producer in the world. Wine is literally made in every region of the country….a boast regularly made by our American friends….but who was actually tried one of the famed Tempranillos of Texas? And while we might naturally be inclined to praise the Romans for their industry, it was actually the Etruscans and Greeks that started vineyard cultivation here. It is perhaps due to this long history and proud heritage, that the Italians have maintained a rich diversity of indigenous grape varieties. Roughly 350 different grapes have official, recognized status, and there are said to be another 500 or so in production. So while you may know and love Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, or the grapes in Valpolicella blends…how many of you are familiar with Sagrantino, Falanghina or Negroamaro?

At the Italian Wine Trade Commission tasting in Montréal last week, I was fortunate to taste a variety of the weird and wonderful lesser-known Italian grapes and blends. Most of the wines are sadly not imported into Canada yet, so I won’t cite the winemakers. I will however list some of the more interesting grapes and regions that you should look out for. Next time you head to your local store, ask the staff to dig you up one of these to impress your friends (or make them think that you are an obnoxious wine geek):

Whites

Pallagrello Bianco

An obscure grape grown in the Campania region (the front part of the ankle in the Italian boot). It might be a stretch for your average liquor store to find you one of these, but you’ll feel wine savvy asking! This grape is often found in blends; sometimes as a single varietal. On its own, Pallagrello is often likened to Viognier; though styles can vary depending on ripeness and oak treatment. I tried an unoaked, medium bodied example that was fresh and lively, with bright lemon aromas, subtle floral and peach undertones; showing good balance and a clean finish. This is a fairly simple, every day style of wine; perfect for summer aperitifs when you are sick of the same old Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc!

Falanghina

This might be a little more familiar territory for some. It should be fairly easy to find one or two to try in bigger liquor stores. This is also a Campanian grape, sometimes compared with Pinot Grigio, though the best examples show a little more complexity. I sipped my way through a few of these, and found the best ones were medium bodied, with crisp acidity and moderate alcohol. Aromas of apple, citrus blossom dominated, with lovely spice and mineral touches and the characteristic Italian bitter almond note on the finish. Current SAQ & LCBO prices tend to range from 15 – 20$.

Arneis

This grape is grown in the Piedmont region, home to the celebrated Barolo and Barbaresco reds. It is most commonly found in DOCG Roero and DOCG/ DOC Langhe white wines. Arneis means “little rascal” in the Piemontese dialect and was so named due to its pesky tendency to become over-ripe and lacking in acidity. When well-made, it is a dry, vibrant white with the example I tasted showing moderate acidity, pretty floral, honeyed and nutty aromas, medium body, a smooth texture and a pleasant grassy note. From lighter to more full bodied, complex styles, current LCBO & SAQ prices range from 15 – 30$.

Vernaccia

Most famously cultivated in the DOCG Vernaccia di San Gimignano wines of Tuscany. Many styles exist from simple, unoaked, every day wines made to be drunk soon after harvest, to more complex, layered examples that some consider the best expression of top Italian white wines. When at their pinnacle, they are full-bodied, distinctive wines with intense floral, mineral and earthy aromas. Rounded and suave on the palate; they often show a mineral edge and a touch of that aforementioned bitterness on the finish.

Reds:

Negroamaro

This is a bit of a different beast; not necessarily for you if you like smooth, fruity wines but worth a swig for those that like their reds dry and earthy. The grape hails from hot, sunny Puglia (the heel to Italy’s boot), notably the Salento area. The name literally means black and bitter, which is an apt description. These rustic wines are generally deep garnet in colour, with a perfumed dried floral and blueberry bouquet, and underlying earthiness. They are medium to full bodied, with a firm structure, grippy tannins and a sometimes bitter, herbal edged finish. They range in price from entry level offerings at 10$ to premium, cellar-worthy wines at 80$.

Montepulciano

After Sangiovese, Montepulciano is the most widely planted red grape in Italy; cultivated in 20 of Italy’s 95 provinces. The most well-known examples come from the DOCG and DOC appellations of Abruzzo (calf of the boot). Confusingly, the highly reputed Tuscan DOCG Vino Nobile di Montepulciano does not actually contain this grape, but is made primarily from Sangiovese. Montepulciano offers fantastic value at both ends of the spectrum. The examples tasted were deep, garnet in colour with moderate acidity, smooth texture and firm, rounded tannins. They ranged in style from soft and plummy, with tart cherry notes to more concentrated, dense wines with an aromatic array of black fruits, floral notes, spice and a hint of leather. A huge range of pricing is on offer, from 10$ pizza pairings to 100$ decanter worthy wines.

Sagrantino

This is a fairly uncommon grape, mainly grown around the village of Montefalco in Umbria (just south of Tuscany). The best expressions come from the DOCG Sagrantino di Montefalco. This appellation requires a minimum of 30 months ageing (12 months in oak) before release. These rich, full-bodied reds are dark and brooding, with intense red fruit aromas; underlaid with cherry, dark chocolate and herbal notes. High in alcohol, with a velvetty texture and firm, chewy tannins; these are robust and age worthy wines in need of equally full flavoured food pairings. A sweet, passito version is also made in very small quantities. Here the grapes are left to shrivel in the wine under protective ceilings for a 2-month period to produce rich, sappy wines with kirsch and cedar notes. Pick one up for 20$ – 80$.

Aglianico

According to French oenologist Denis Dubourdieu, Aglianico is potentially the oldest wine grape consumed in history. Its origins are Greek; the root of the name is thought to come from the latin for “Greek Vine”. It is grown in the Basilicata and Campania regions of southern Italy, with each province boasting a DOCG: Aglianico del Vulture and Taurasi respectively. The wines are dry, with moderate to crisp acidity, full body and robust tannins. Intriguing aromas of black berries, plum, smoke, cacao and musk abound on the most lauded examples. More entry level offerings are equally pleasant, though simpler, with a lighter bodied profile, and softer red berry notes. Current SAQ & LCBO offerings range from 15$ – 70$.