All Posts By

Jacky Blisson

Education

Jura Wine Film: A Wine Travels Short Doc!

jura wine film

The Jura is fascinating wine country. Despite its small size, this historic French vineyard is beloved by sommeliers the world over. Curious to learn more, I set out to make a Jura wine film; journeying to the region with a rockstar camera crew to discover the Jura’s distinctive grapes, wine styles, terroirs, and more.

Join me as I dig in the vineyard soils with Stéphane Tissot, learn the secrets of Vin Jaune winemaking with Domaine Macle, and taste some Crémant du Jura bubblies with Domaine Baud. Tour the market of Arbois with me, alongside Meilleur Ouvrier de France, sommelier Philippe Troussard to find out what foods pair best with Jura wines.

To read up on the Jura, its famous Savagnin, Poulsard, Trousseau, and more. Read my article here. Otherwise, hope you enjoy the video. If you do, please feel free to give me a like, share, or comment!

Reviews Wines

Wine from Argentina: Consistent Good Value Across the Decades

wine from argentina

When tasting wine from Argentina I am regularly struck by their consistent, good value. The country’s major wine regions have been on a quest of continuous improvement since the first wave of foreign investors and flying winemakers hit Mendoza in the 1990s.

When the trend for bold, sun-baked wine from Argentina started to fade some fifteen years back, change was already afoot in the vineyards. Wineries had begun planting at higher altitudes and at the cooler southern reaches of the country.

Vineyard management techniques were altered to better shade the fruit and retain acidity. Winemaking practices have become more restrained but also expanded to allow for greater experimentation. Lesser-known wines from Argentina, from local grapes like Bonarda, Criolla, and Torrontés are cropping up on store shelves around the globe.

It is indeed an exciting time, with even the richest, ripest wine from Argentina showing far more freshness and balance. And with all this, the prices have remained surprisingly affordable.

Here are a handful of stand outs from a recent tasting of wine from Argentina:

Schroeder, Alpataco Pinot Noir 2019, Patagonia

Easy drinking red, with baked plum and red currant aromas on the nose, underscored by an attractive mix of savoury and minty hints. The palate is medium-bodied, with fresh fruity flavours, and a fleshy texture.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($16.80, Code SAQ 14714493)

Catena Zapata Chardonnay “High Mountain Vines” 2020, Mendoza

Ripe, tropical expression of Chardonnay with crisp acidity that ably balances the full-bodied, rounded palate. Inviting notes of mango, buttered toast, and yellow pear linger on the smooth finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($20.20, Code SAQ 865279), LCBO ($19.95, Vintages Code: 918805)

Bodega Santa Julia, El Burro Malbec Natural 2021, Mendoza

Very youthful, primary red that makes up what it lacks in complexity by its bright, tangy dark fruit, lively acidity, and supple frame. Serve chilled.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($21.40, SAQ Code 14764925), LCBO ($22.95, Vintages Code: 24214)

La Mascota Cabernet Sauvignon 2020, Mendoza

Great value for the price, with its appealing floral, dark cherry perfume. The palate is juicy and fresh, with a soft, medium weight frame and ripe tannins.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($16.95, SAQ Code 10895565), LCBO ($16.95, Vintages Code: 292110)

El Esteco Don David Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2020, Calchaqui Valley

Quite a complex nose for such an affordable wine, with intense baked red cherry, cassis, licorice, pencil shavings, and hints of cedar. The palate is full-bodied yet fresh with lively red and dark fruit flavours and lingering eucalyptus notes.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($17.95, SAQ Code 13545886)

Reviews Wines

Gulfi Wines: Fresh Nero d’Avola from Sicily’s Torrid South East

Gulfi Wines

Gulfi Wines are proof positive that fresh, balanced Sicilian reds are emerging from even the hottest sectors of the island. Last month, I tuned in to a discussion and tasting with Gulfi owner Matteo Catania to find out what makes his Nero d’Avola wines so compelling. Scroll down for 2019 vintage tasting notes.

In August 2021, the Sicilian city of Syracuse experienced a Europe-wide, record-breaking temperature of 48.8 degrees Celsius. The island is indeed famous for its hot, dry summers. And as global temperatures warm, its heat waves continue to intensify.

Given the scorching climate, it is only natural to assume that the wines must be bold, ripe, heady affairs. Historically, most were, and in some regions, they still are.

However, lighter, fresher wine styles have been cropping up with increased frequency over the past two decades. The high altitude, volcanic terroir of Mount Etna was the first to reveal this potential to a global audience.

Of course, the headlining grape in Etna Rosso wines, Nerello Mascalese, is naturally light in body and high acid. Elsewhere on the island, Nero d’Avola is the reigning red wine variety. It stereotypically produces ultra-ripe, generously proportioned wines with muscular tannins.

Plantings were once concentrated to hot, arid sites in the southeast. Now, they stretch across the island. And, the best Nero d’Avola winemakers are proving that, with the right terroir and techniques, even this most robust of red grapes can produce vibrant, balanced wine styles. Gulfi Cantina is a prime example.

After the death of his father in the late 1990s, Vito Catania returned to the family vineyards around the small hilltop village of Chiaramonte Gulfi in Ragusa. A great lover of Bourgogne wines, Catania came home with the vision of crafting elegant, terroir-expressive wines from select native grapes, on the area’s best vineyard sites.

To bring his dream to fruition, Catania enlisted the help of renowned viticulture and oenology consultant, Salvo Foti. The pair conducted detailed soil and climate analyses throughout the region, leading Catania to acquire over 100 hectares of vineyards.

Today, the Gulfi estate is run by Vito’s son; third generation vigneron, Matteo Catania. The vineyards are concentrated in three main areas: the hilly, calcareous marl vineyards of Chiaramonte Gulfi, the chalky, southeastern area of Pachino Val di Noto, prime terroir for Nero d’Avola, and finally, Mount Etna.

In all three of these areas, cooling influences – whether it be Mount Etna’s high altitude, or lower lying Pachino’s cooling sea breezes – cause temperatures to drop overnight tempering the hot summer days and allowing the grapes to ripen slowly, while retaining refreshing acidity.

Gulfi’s vineyards are dry farmed (aka not irrigated) and planted at densities of over 8,000 vines per hectare, in the island’s traditional “Alberello” bush vine style. According to Matteo, these practices are the key to producing wines expressive of each site

Without irrigation, the vines are obliged to dig deep into their marl or limestone bedrocks for sustenance. This struggle for nourishment, combined with high-density planting, means that the vines produce less, yet more qualitative fruit with greater flavour concentration and complexity.

Chemical pesticides and herbicides were prohibited on the estate long before the winery committed to certified organic viticulture. Today, the vineyards are farmed biodynamically, under the continued guidance of consultant Salvo Foti.

Last month, I had the pleasure of listening to Matteo Catania wax lyrical about his family’s vision, while tasting the (fermented) fruits of their labour.

Gulfi Cantina Wines

Gulfi “Valcanzjria” IGT Sicilia Bianco 2020 (Sicily, Italy) – 90pts. PW

More commonly found on the slopes of Mount Etna, Gulfi is one of the rare estates to cultivate Carricante in southeastern Sicily.  Here, the grape is blended with Chardonnay and a touch of lesser-known native grape, Albanello. The blend is vinified with native yeast in stainless steel tanks, then aged on its fine lees for eight months before bottling.

Enticing notes of preserved lemon, wild thyme, chamomile tea, and wet stone gain in nuance and intensity over time in the glass. The palate is nervy and tensile, with lively acidity echoed by citrussy, herbal flavours. Hints of eucalyptus linger on the dry, fresh finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($26.35, Code SAQ 14947271). 

Gulfi “Rossojbleo” IGT Sicilia Rosso 2019 (Sicily, Italy) – N/A

The Nero d’Avola vineyards for the Rossojbleo cuvée are planted on the lower slopes of southeastern Sicily’s Hyblaean Mountains at 450 metres altitude. Nearby forests and gentle marine breezes temper the hot local climate, allowing the grapes to ripen more slowly. The clay-rich soils are laced with limestone sediments and sand.

This is the estate’s more affordable Nero d’Avola red wine. To accentuate its fresh, easy-drinking character, the grapes are fermented at moderate temperatures in stainless steel tanks and aged for seven to eight months in the same vessels.

While my sample was unfortunately corked, I have enjoyed many vintages of this medium bodied, juicy, dark fruited red with its earthy undertones, ripe tannins, and subtle hint of bitter cherries.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($22.90 $, Code SAQ: 14923990).

Gulfi Cerasuolo Di Vittoria Rouge 2019 (Sicily, Italy) – 93pts. PW

Cerasuolo Di Vittoria is Sicily’s only vineyard area ranked DOCG; the highest appellation status in Italy. The wines here are made from a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato grown in prime, south-facing, low yielding vineyards of clay-limestone at 420 metres altitude.

In this cuvée, Matteo uses equal parts Nero d’Avola and Frappato to produce a lighter, fresher, pure fruited wine style. The blend undergoes a long, slow maceration, followed by eight months’ ageing in tank. After bottling, the wine is held back for a further eight months to integrate.

Alluring notes of fresh dark cherry, plum, and black currant mingle with aromas of dried herbs and almond essence on the nose. The palate is lively throughout, lifting the robust palate, and underscoring the cranberry and dark fruit flavours. Ripe, ever-so-slightly grippy tannins frame the long finish. Decant for an hour and serve chilled down to 16 – 18c.

Where to Buy: SAQ (34.50, Code SAQ: 14044848)

Gulfi “Nerojbleo” Nero d’Avola IGT Sicilia Rosso 2019 (Sicily, Italy) – 91pts. PW

This was the very first wine produced by the Gulfi estate and remains their flagship wine. The cuvée is named for the grape, Nero d’Avola, and the mountains (Jbleo in Italian) where the vineyards are located. It is the premium iteration of the Rossojbleo wine, made from the area’s best, south-west facing red clay plots.

The Nero d’Avola grapes undergo a long, slow maceration in tank and are then aged for one year in a mix of small French oak barrels and larger casks. After bottling, the wine is held back for a further eight months to integrate.

Very open and fragrant, with blueberry, floral, and balsamic aromas over peppery, savoury nuances. Brisk acidity matches the firm structure and tart red and black fruit flavours on the palate. Finishes with ripe, muscular tannins and pleasantly warming eaux-de-vie hints, well integrated with lingering fruity, savoury notes.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($28.00, Code SAQ 13437391)

Gulfi wines can be found in Ontario through the Charlie’s Burgers Wine Program.

This article is a re-print of my recent Gulfi Wines article for Good Food Revolution. Want to learn more about artisanal food, wine, beer and spirits.? Check out their excellent website.

Reviews Wines

La Grange Tiphaine Wines: Biodynamic Loire Valley at its Best

Damien Delecheneau La Grange Tiphaine

On a recent visit to the Loire Valley, I caught up with Damien Delecheneau for a terroir ramble through his Touraine vineyards and a 2020 vintage tasting of La Grange Tiphaine wines.

We woke up to glorious sunshine on Saturday. The sky was blue and cloudless. The weather was balmy. It was the perfect day for a wedding. This was the main reason for our quick transatlantic jaunt to Pontlevoy in the Loire Valley. But… I couldn’t spend a weekend in Touraine without sneaking in at least one winery visit.

As luck would have it, the domaine I had in mind was tantalizingly nearby: La Grange Tiphaine. I first tasted La Grange Tiphaine wines a few years back. From the first sip of their Clef du Sol Chenin Blanc, I was hooked. To me, it struck the perfect balance of bright fruit, subtly oxidative flavours, rich textural palate, and vibrant acidity.

We made the hairpin turn into the winery’s unassuming entrance path and pulled to a stop in front of a pretty wooden barn, with raised flower and vegetable patches in front. We had given little notice for our visit and had arrived late. I braced myself for a (deservedly) cool welcome and breathed a sigh of relief when Damien came out of the house, all smiles.

La Grange Tiphaine wines. It all Starts in the Vineyards…

Damien Delecheneau grew up on this family vineyard, on the outskirts of Amboise. He is the fifth generation to tend to its vines. As we walk out into the Sauvignon Blanc and Côt vineyards, dotted with fabulous metal sculptures from a local artist, Damien told us his tale.

While he once dreamed of becoming an airline pilot, the call of the vines eventually won out. Or perhaps it was fate intervening. In any event, the decision to pursue a winemaking degree proved a good one, as it was during his studies in Bordeaux that he met Coralie, his future wife and partner at the estate.

The pair travelled to California and South Africa for winemaking vintages before settling in the Loire. Damien took up the reigns of La Grange Tiphaine in 2002 and Coralie joined him several years later. From the outset, the couple decided to make some significant changes.

In the late 2000s, the estate was converted to organic and then biodynamic viticulture. Each of their over 50 vineyard plots in the Touraine, Touraine-Amboise, and Montlouis-Sur-Loire appellations are tended according to their individual needs. Damien detailed years of trial and error, while the team worked to regenerate their soils and hone their biodynamic methods.

“We used to buy compost” said Damien. “We would apply it year after year, at great expense, and see little result. When we started making our own, everything changed”. The estate, now over 16 hectares of estate vineyards, is constantly fine tuning its practices. A few years’ back they stopped ploughing the vines, in favour of simply hoeing under the vines and allowing natural cover crops to grow up between rows, and serve as beneficial mulch once cut back.

After years of combatting punishing spring frosts, Coralie and Damien invested in fixed and mobile wind turbines. According to Damien, within a few short vintages, they had already paid for themselves. “The spring frosts were particularly bad in 2021” he explained. “Many neighbours lost up to 70% of their yields. My losses were less than 30%”.

It is these exacting vineyard practices and investments, that allows La Grange Tiphaine to harness the full potential of their terroir. Bending down in row of newly planted Sauvignon Blanc, Damien shows me the flinty, clay-rich soils. The pale stones absorb heat and reflect it back to the vines, while the clay provides ample sustenance.

These soils and the temperate continental climate permit a range of grapes to thrive, but it is the Côt (aka Malbec) from these Touraine-Amboise vineyards that really interests Damien. “For me, Côt is the finest red grape in our region”. And indeed, his Côt Vieilles Vignes, with its century-old plantings, reveals impressive depth and concentration.

La Grange Tiphaine Wines from Montlouis-sur-Loire. Prime Terroir for Chenin Blanc.

Our conversation led on to the vineyards of Mountlouis-Sur-Loire, home to La Grange Tiphaine’s illustrious Chenin Blanc wines. Long in the shadow of the larger Vouvray appellation on the Loire’s north bank, Montlouis has quietly risen prominence over the past 25 years.

“It is prime Chenin Blanc terroir with a fascinating mosiac of flint, sand, silt, clay, and limestone soils” explains Damien. This diversity, coupled with varying vine orientations and mesoclimates allows Montlouis to produce six different styles of wine from the Chenin Blanc grape: dry (sec), off-dry (demi-sec), medium sweet (moelleux), sweet – botrytised or not (liquoreux), traditional method sparkling wines, and pétillant naturel.

This final wine style, officially termed Pétillant Originel, is a recent addition to the Montlouis-sur-Loire appellation charter, in no small part thanks to Damien. When Montlouis trailblazer François Chidaine relinquished his position as president of the appellation, Damien took up the role.

Considered one of the most dynamic appellations in the Loire, Montlouis is highly regarded for its commitment to sustainable vineyard practices. It is also the site of a recently launched annual event “Montlouis On the Rock”; an international Chenin Blanc celebration in the same vein as South Africa’s former Swartland Revolution.

Tasting the 2020 vintage of La Grange Tiphaine Wines

I could happily have tasted every wine in Damien’s wide range of estate and négociant wines but alas the church bells were soon to ring, calling us away. Instead, we focused on a handful of the 2020 vintage wines, starting with the parcels we had walked, and ending with a study of Montlouis Chenin Blanc from sparkling to late harvest.

The majority of cuvées have names with musical connotations. While wine is one of the couple’s great passions, music is certainly another equally important love. Damien plays clarinet and Coralie is an accomplished singer. In fact, she was in the process of recording an album during our visit.

La Grange Tiphaine “Quatre Main” Touraine AOC 2020 – 91pts. PW

Estate Sauvignon Blanc with intriguing smoky notes mingling with lemon, yellow plum, and elderflower hints on the nose. The palate is crisp, juicy, and amply proportioned with concentrated flavours of apricot, exotic spice, and fresh cut herbs. Finishes fresh and dry.

La Grange Tiphaine “Bécarre” Touraine 2020 – 92pts. PW

The Cabernet Franc vines for this cuvée are grown on a southwest facing plot of red clay and flint soils. Initially restrained, with aromas and flavours of violet, dark cherry, and smoked meat developing with aeration. The palate is brisk and moderately firm, with fresh, chalky tannins on the long, minty finish.

La Grange Tiphaine “Clef du Sol” Rouge Touraine 2020 – 94pts PW

This is the red counterpart to the estate’s flagship white; a blend of 65% Côt and 35% Cabernet Franc. The vines are situated in a cooler area to the Bécarre, with more clay-rich soils. The nose is seductive with its complex array of earthy, dark plum, cassis, and peony aromas. Firm and full-bodied, with prominent tannins – ripe, and ever so slightly grippy. Already harmonious, but still youthful. Will benefit from a few years’ cellaring.

La Grange Tiphaine Côt Vieilles Vignes Touraine-Amboise 2020 – 94pts PW

This Vieilles Vignes cuvée richly merits its name, with vines up to 140 years of age gracing the blend. This is a pure Côt, inky purple in colour and equally dense and brooding on the palate. Heady prune and cassis aromas overlay hints of eaux-de-vie, truffle, and balsamic notes. A ripe, muscular wine balanced by lively acidity that lengthens the finish nicely. Another red for the cellar, with a very long life ahead (10 years +).

La Grange Tiphaine “Nouveau Nez” Pétillant Originel Montlouis-sur-Loire NV – 92pts PW

I have enjoyed many a pét-nat for their light, lively, easy-drinking charm but have rarely found much complexity in this category. This Chenin Blanc was a revelation, with its fragrant baking spice, stone fruit, and floral aromas. The palate is similarly styled, with a rounded, creamy mid-palate, vibrant mousse, and fresh finish. Lip-smackingly good!

La Grange Tiphaine “Clef du Sol” Blanc Montlouis-sur-Loire 2020 – 95pts. PW

The 2020 vintage didn’t disappoint. Notes of chamomile, ripe lemon, and yellow apple are lifted by an underlying core of savoury, subtly nutty nuances. The palate is initially nervy and taut, but swiftly broadens, giving way to a textural, layered mid-palate. Finishes dry, with lingering lemon, yellow fruit, and earthy notes.

La Grange Tiphaine “Les Grenouillères” Blanc Montlouis-sur-Loire 2020 – 93pts. PW

A medium sweet iteration of late harvest Chenin Blanc with intense aromas of raw honey, white flowers, and spice. The palate is suave and rounded, with juicy apricot and yellow peach flavours, that lingers on the finish well balanced by lively acidity.

La Grange Tiphaine “Buisson Viau” Blanc Montlouis-sur-Loire 2020 – 94pts. PW

Opens to the same perfumed notes as Les Grenouillères, but this later harvested cuvée raisins on the vine, giving a fullness and opulent sweetness that sings against the vibrant citrussy acidity. Stone and tropical fruit flavours linger, underscored by earthy bass notes.

What does VW, PW, LW mean in my scores for La Grange Tiphaine wines? Check out my wine scoring system.

To purchase La Grange Tiphaine wines in North America, inquire with agents/importers: Vins Balthazard (Québec), Context Wines (Ontario), VineArts (Alberta), Jenny & François (USA).

Education

Portuguese Wine Sales are Booming. Here is Why…

Frederico Falcao

Frederico Falcão is a man on a mission : to spread the gospel of Portugal’s diversity of high quality wines from the Douro to Alentejo and beyond.

After studying agronomy and oenology, Falcão worked a winemaker for 18 years before becoming the youngest ever president of Portugal’s Instituto da Vinha e do Vinho (Institute of Vine and Wine). In his current role heading up Wines of Portugal, Falcão has ambitious plans.

He shared his vision with me yesterday over a cool glass of Vinho Verde at the bustling Wines of Portugal trade fair in Montréal.

Frederico, with so many terroirs and grapes, how do you explain Portuguese wines to newcomers?

We call ourselves “a world of diversity” because it is the only way to sum up our rich mosaic of wines. You go to Vinho Verde, you have granite soils, cool temperatures, a rainy climate. Then you drive just one and a half hours, and you are in Douro, with its schist slopes. It is hot and very dry. The grapes are different, everything changes. You go to Dão, Bairrada, Alentejo, they are all completely different.

Its very complex because it is not one single grape, one single style of wine, but that is what makes Portuguese wine so fascinating.

Wine lovers must agree because your international sales are booming! I recently read that Portuguese wine exports grew by 8% (to over 925 million euros) in 2021; doubling the growth seen in 2020. What is driving this trend?

Twenty years ago, people didn’t know that Portuguese wine existed. It was only Port. And in many cases, they didn’t even realize that Port wine came from Portugal. It was like a brand, a style of wine, and not a Portuguese appellation (PDO). We have been working hard to promote Portugal in the past twenty years and I think we have done it well.

Portugal is becoming very trendy when it comes to tourism. A lot of people are visiting. When they travel to Portugal, not knowing much about the country, they are always surprised – with the food, the wines, the landscape, the people, with everything.

Wines in Portugal are not expensive. In Canada, an everyday wine costs 10 dollars minimum, closer to the 15 – 20 dollar mark for a good wine. In Portugal, you can buy well-made wines for 4 euros. The quality available for such inexpensive prices is a surprise for a lot of tourists. So when they go back home, they start buying more Portuguese wine.

Portugal is the leader in wine consumption per capita in the world. We drink a lot of wine! But it is not only the Portuguese, its also the visitors. People are getting fed up with just drinking Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. Portugal has grapes you won’t find anywhere else, that are reasonably priced, and great quality.

As you say, international audiences have only discovered Portugal’s table wines relatively recently. Have you seen a big improvement in the quality of these wines over the course of your career?

Absolutely. I have seen a dramatic improvement in the style of wine and in winemaking.

There is a younger generation of winemakers now who travel outside of Portugal, who taste wines from around the world, and compare their wines with their peers. My generation were the first to do this. Beforehand, winemakers never left their regions.

Twenty years ago, most wineries were making wines for the domestic market. Now they are making wines that are easier to appreciate for international consumers less familiar with Portugal.

We have a huge range of grape varieties and an equally large diversity of grape growing terroirs. It gives us so much scope to experiment, to innovate, and to improve the quality of our wines.

How is the Portuguese wine industry working towards greater sustainability?

The Porto Protocol was an important kick-off to get the wine trade talking more seriously about climate change and sustainability. Many of our wineries have strong sustainability practices in place, not only environmental, but also social, and economic, but there wasn’t a structure in place.

Alentejo has established their own certification system, but before we ended up with 14 regional programs, we decided to create one national certification through ViniPortugal (Wines of Portugal). We are very near the end of the process, so it is an exciting time.

Our goal is to have all of Portugal’s wineries certified in our program and really be leaders in this domain.

If you could send one message about Portugal to international wine lovers, what would it be?

With Portuguese wine, you get more than you pay for. You can taste this in our 15 dollar wine, but it is equally true of our 50 dollar wines. The value is there at every quality level. It really is worth exploring our diversity of grapes, wine regions, and styles.

After our chat, I spent some time tasting through a wide range of wines and Frederico Falcão’s words rang true. At every price point and in every wine style, I found fresh, balanced wines that are definitely in tune with an international palate.

The wines photographed above are just a small sampling of favourites from the tasting.

Portuguese Wine Fast Facts (source: Wines of Portugal):

  • Portugal boasts over 250 native wines grapes
  • The top five red grapes are: Aragonez, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional,  Castelão, and Trincadeira
  • The top five white grapes are:  Fernão Pires, Loureiro, Arinto, Síria (aka Codega), and Alvarinho
  • Wine styles range from still whites, rosé, and red, to sparkling wine (vinho espumante), to fortified wines: Port, Madeira, Moscatel
  • Total vineyard area is: 192 028 hectares (2.7% of world’s acreage)
  • There are 31 DOC appellations and 14 Vinho Regional areas in Portugal
  • DOC wine production is: 59% red wine, 24% white wine, 7% rosé
  • Major wine production regions include: Douro, Lisboa, Alentejo, and Minho (Vinho Verde territory)
Education Reviews

How to Buy More Sustainable Wine? Consider the Packaging.

HOW TO BUY MORE SUSTAINABLE WINE

Making eco-responsible purchasing decisions is a daunting task. I can’t count how many times I have found myself frozen, deer-in-the-headlights style, mid-aisle of a grocery store or wine shop pondering competing green claims.

Where wine is concerned, buying certified organic might seem like the obvious solution. However, there is quite a lot more to consider when looking for the product with the lowest possible carbon footprint. Scroll down to the end for a short form video version of this article. 

According to International Wineries for Climate Action, wine packaging and transport to market account for over 40% of their member wineries’ climate emissions. Environmental impact studies from retailers, wine regions, and researchers across the globe agree that these two areas are by far the biggest contributors to a wine’s carbon footprint.

Most wine is packaged and shipped in glass bottles. Glass wine bottles have been used for thousands of years. They are sturdy, transparent, inert, and neutral. These latter two qualities make glass the preferred vessel for fine wines, as it best preserves wine aromas and flavours over time. Glass bottles are also reusable and infinitely recyclable.

Photo credit: iStockphoto.com

But glass has a few major problems. New glass bottles are incredibly energy intensive to manufacture. Sand melts to form glass at a whopping 17 hundred degrees Celsius (the same temperature a space shuttle reaches as it re-enters earth’s atmosphere). The energy source for most of these furnaces is natural gas combustion.

Starting with recycled glass obviously lowers carbon footprint substantially, but glass recycling temperatures are also very high. And, while glass recycling rates are impressive across much of northern Europe, many of the world’s most populous nations, like the US, have disappointing track records.

According to a 2018 US Environmental Protection Agency study, only a quarter of glass containers used for consumer goods in America are recycled. The majority end up buried in landfills. This shortcoming is attributed to poorly designed, single stream collection systems in many states, resulting in improper sorting, mixing of glass formats, and glass shatter.

Glass wine bottles are also very heavy. Over the past decade there has been a growing move to lighter weight bottles, with major retailers like the LCBO, championing the cause. However,  many producers still feel compelled to package their best wines in bottles weighing up to a kilo or more.

Graphic source: LCBO (Lightweight Glass Bottle Program: mandatory  for wines under $16 retail)

The weight of glass bottles, and their shape (tapered at the neck, meaning lots of wasted space in packing), equate to high carbon emissions during marine and overland transport.

At the 2020 Porto Protocol Climate Change Conference, climate change expert Dr. Richard Smart cited Australian studies on wine carbon emissions from the vineyard to the end consumer. The research indicated that, “export of wine in glass bottles, their transport and limited recycling had the largest carbon footprint (68%)”.

So, what is an eco-conscience wine lover to do? Well, if you live in Sweden, you drink your wine from a box.

In a recent Master of Wine packaging sustainability seminar, Ulf Sjödin MW, head of category management at the nation’s wine retailer Systembolaget, indicated that 59% of their wines are now sold in bag-in-box.

The format has long been popular in Scandinavia, notably for its convenient size and shape but also for its eco values. A joint lifecycle assessment analysis commissioned in 2010, and updated in 2018, by Sweden, Norway, and Finland’s liquor monopolies, revealed that wines in boxes, pouches, and tetrapak cartons have the lowest carbon footprint and least climate impacts per litre.

Graphic source: Alko (boxed wine not featured but calculated at 70 g CO2 e/L)

Wine boxes, pouches, and PET bottles require far less energy to manufacture than glass. They are also significantly lighter formats. An empty PET bottle weighs up to ten times less  than the same volume glass bottle (of 560 grams). Formats like wine boxes, cartons, and pouches are very compact, another integral aspect in lowering their carbon footprint during transport. Finally, these formats are far less breakable than glass, limited product waste.

I realize that the idea of buying wine in a box, a plastic bottle, or a can may seem like sacrilege to many. Environmental benefits aside, wine quality in these formats hasn’t been that great historically. The wines were generally mass-produced, uninteresting wines with very limited shelf lives.

Improper filling of bag-in-box wines often led to premature oxidation issues. Previous generation PET bottles suffered high oxygen ingress levels and were thus dosed with far higher sulphur levels (than glass bottle wines) to ward off spoilage.

Happily, both the quality of wines packed in alternative formats, and the technology of these containers, have come a long way. PET bottles are now multi-layered with oxygen barriers and scavengers. Sulphur additions have come down dramatically and shelf life is much higher (up to 18 months, depending on the initial wine quality).

Aluminium cans are energy intensive to produce, like glass, but they are highly recyclable. More importantly, of beverage containers, they are reported to have the highest recycling rates world-wide. Most aluminum cans in circulation today are made from significant levels of recycled content. In the US, the average can has 73% recycled content.

The topic of sustainability in wine packaging and transport is a tricky one, with countless variables to consider, and no perfect answers. Today’s bag-in-boxes, pouches, and PET bottles are recyclable, but only to a limited degree, with loss of quality over time. End of life disposal and ensuing micro plastic pollution continues to be a significant concern, though advances in bio-PET and other sustainable materials is on-going.

Glass bottles remain the best way to preserve wine flavour and freshness over time. However, for everyday wines you plan to consume shortly after purchasing, it might be worth considering other wine packaging options.

PET, pouches, and cans make great outdoor wine serving options and many boxed wines will stay fresh for four to six weeks after opening so are great for sipping overtime.

As a parting thought, if you can’t find the wines you love in these alternate formats, try to at least buy lightweight glass bottles. Heavier bottles do not equate to better wines. They are unnecessary and unethical.

If you live in Québec, try this:

C’est dans le Sac, Vin Rouge Bio du Rhône, Pont du Gard IGP (Cave des Vignerons d’Estézargues)

Packaged in a 1.5 litre wine pouch, this red blend from the Rhône Valley has enticing ripe dark plum and cherry aromas interlaced with subtle baking spice notes. The palate is smooth and generously warming, with velvety tannins. Serve slightly chilled. Stays fresh after opening for six weeks.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($29.95)

Life

The Long Awaited Master of Wine Ceremony

Master of Wine Ceremony

The phone call came on a balmy day in late August of 2020. I had been waiting for weeks. In truth, I had been waiting for years. My dream of becoming a Master of Wine began over a bottle of 1982 Château Léoville-Las Cases. This prized bottle from my father’s cellar was opened to celebrate my imminent departure for Burgundy to pursue my first wine degree.

It was 2004. My father, a great wine lover, beamed at me across the table and declared that this was just the start; that one day I would achieve the title held by the authors of his favourite wine books. I scoffed at the notion, but as the years past the idea kept rattling around in the back of my mind like some pesky pebble in my shoe.

Work, life, travel, love, the prospect of motherhood. I kept finding reasons to postpone my studies. Until, in 2014, after a four-year struggle with infertility, it was time to make some radical changes.

I finally applied to the Institute of Masters of Wine, started planning a move back to Canada, and of course, promptly found out that I was pregnant. And so, the course for the next six years of my life was set.

No photo description available.
Me attempting to study for the MW with young children at home…!

To say that I was incredibly nervous and intimidated upon arrival at my first Master of Wine student seminar is a colossal understatement. Showing up five months pregnant did little to help matters. The week took place in Rust, Austria. Every morning, my fellow 50 students and I did practice tasting exams and every afternoon we learned more about the growing, making, packaging, bottling, shipping, and selling of wine around the world.

I came away buzzing with new ideas, new friends, and acquaintances, but also awestruck at how much there is to learn about wine. Books like Stephen Skelton’s Viticulture and David Bird’s Understanding Wine Technology became my bedtime reading.

Over the next few years, I studied like a have never studied before. I rocked my baby in his little chair with one foot while blind tasting. I spent weekends learning about rootstocks and soil pH. I made dozens of recordings so that I could listen to theory notes while walking the dog or chopping onions for dinner. I bought a coravin so I could taste wines again and again.

My studies took me to wine regions across the world, and to study centres in California and England. All the while, my network of Masters of Wine and MW student relationships grew. And so did my family. A second pregnancy with a due date uncomfortably close to the second stage exams meant that I had to defer for a year. I spent 2017 fretting that I would forget all the knowledge I had worked so hard to cram into my recalcitrant brain.

I failed the tasting portion of the exam not once, but twice. My ego was badly bruised, and I started entertaining the fear that maybe I lacked some innate talent or skill and would never make it across the finish line. Perhaps all the time, the money, the stress had been for nothing?

Recovering from a blind sparkling wine tasting.

They say that pride comes before a fall, but I think it depends on its form. When I thought back to my father’s pride at that dinner table so many years before, and that of my mother and husband, who championed me every step of the way, I knew I had to keep going.

I finally passed all parts of the second stage Master of Wine exams in 2019. My sense of relief and joy was immense, as was my trepidation for the next requirement of the study program: a lengthy academic research paper.

Finding a worthy topic that can contribute to the body of knowledge on the subject, that that there is enough material to study but hasn’t already been studied to death, that meets the approval of the Institute, that you feel you can do justice to, and that actually interests you is no easy feat. At least it wasn’t in my case.

When I had found the topic, done the research, and started analyzing it, another challenge presented itself… a global pandemic! So, there I was, with three and five-year-old boys at home all day and a 10,000-word paper to write. The weight of those lonely late night writing sessions was enough to make me want to give up all over again.

Fast forward five months, and the long-awaited phone call. On the other end of the line was Adrian Garforth, Executive Director of the Institute of Masters of Wine.  After some polite chit chat, nearly drowned out by the shouts of my rowdy boys, Adrian laughed and said, “your children seem excited, which is good since there is so much to celebrate”.

Covid restrictions meant that we had to limit the festivities to our small family circle but that didn’t stop us from popping Champagne corks and dancing around the kitchen in wild abandon. It was a magical evening, with the even more exciting prospect of traveling to London for the graduation ceremony.

After 19 long months of covid variant upon loathsome variant, we were finally able to travel to London last week. The event takes place at Vintner’s Hall, the birthplace of the Masters of Wine study program nearly 70 years ago. It is a beautiful old building on the banks of the Thames, all dark wood panelling, plush carpets, and regal portraits.

Liveried trumpeters played as we made our way into the hall, to the applause of our families, friends, and fellow MWs. Though I had had many months for the news to sink in, I still found myself overcome with emotion as I made my way to the stage to receive my diploma. Knowing that my husband, mother, brother, and sister were all there to share the moment filled me with gratitude.

The Bollinger flowed freely as everyone mingled and caught up after the ceremony. Looking across the sea of happy faces it was hard to imagine the distanced, masked, isolated existence we had so recently traversed, and perhaps will again.

The memories of that night will surely stay with me for many years to come. As will every exhausting, exhilarating, overwhelming, terrifying, and jubilant step along the way.

To learn more about the Masters of Wine program, check out the video below.

Education Reviews Wines

3 Chardonnay Wines That Blew Me Away in 2021

Chardonnay Wines - Kumeu River Maté's Vineyard

My mother hates Chardonnay wines. Won’t drink them… unless I trick her (which I love to do). Because who could just sweepingly reject a grape with so many fascinating permutations of style?

My years in Burgundy, in the mid 2000s, entrenched my love for Chardonnay. Trained as I was, on this racy, tart fruited, mineral-driven form, I will admit to turning my nose up at the lush, vanilla-heavy iterations coming out of the Languedoc, Australia, and California at the time.

With this outdated notion of Chardonnay in mind, I can see how one might not be a fan. But much has changed in the past 15 years. Thrilling, crisp, and complex Chardonnays are now being made around the world.

Chardonnay is often referred to as the winemaker’s grape. Climate and terroir are indeed major factors in determining aromatics, acidity levels, and body, but the choices made in the winery often define its final character.

Chardonnay is often referred to as the winemaker’s grape…the choices made in the winery often define its final character.

Picked at marginal ripeness, Chardonnay has a subtlety of aroma and flavour, coupled with overall vibrancy and finesse that make it an ideal candidate for traditional method sparkling wines. Just look at premium sparkling wine regions across the globe, and you will always find Chardonnay in a starring role.

Vinified in stainless steel, still Chardonnay wines can range from the bracing, taut, earthy Chablis style that screams out for briny food pairings, to soft, rounded, stone, or tropical fruit-laden charmers.

Fermented with wild yeasts, in neutral oak, with minimal intervention, Chardonnay wines often take on a savoury character, and an almost mealy texture (which may not sound attractive, but trust me, it can be). If you have ever had the Cuvée Dix-Neuvième Chardonnay from Pearl Morissette, you will know what I mean.

In the Jura region of France, the traditional oxidative, flor-influenced expression of Chardonnay is inciting renewed interest from sommeliers world-wide. Vivid lemon, apple aromas mingle with nutty, exotic spice, baker’s yeast tones on these intricate saline wines.

In fact, the Jura pretty much sums up the diversity of Chardonnay wines in one tiny vineyard area. Elegant Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs Crémants are made here, alongside the aforementioned oxidative styles, and classic (ie. non-oxidative) Chardonnay produced in inert vessels or regularly topped up barrels.

When it comes to barrel maturation, Chardonnay is – arguably – the variety with the greatest affinity for oak. Chardonnay wines with sufficient body, depth, and natural acidity can stand up to even lavish amounts of new French oak – though most of today’s top Chardonnay producers tend to use more second and third fill barrels, than new.

Chardonnay wines with sufficient body, depth, and natural acidity can stand up to even lavish new French oak use.

In short, the winemaker has a vast array of tools in their belt when it comes to Chardonnay. Depending on climate and desired style, they can block malolactic fermentation for brisker acidity, or encourage it to soften a wine and add tempting buttery nuances. For a creamier, more satiny texture, they can stir the fine lees more frequently, they can play around with ageing duration, and so forth.

I have been fortunate enough to drink a number of spellbinding Burgundian Chardonnays and Champagnes over the years. While they remain a cherished benchmark, many other Chardonnay producing regions are turning my head these days.

Here are three Chardonnay producers that really stood out for me in 2021:

Kumeu River Wines (Auckland, New Zealand)

Kumeu River 2018 vintage

I first discovered Kumeu River wines at a Master of Wine tasting seminar. The estate’s owner and winemaker, Michael Brajkovich, is a Master of Wine. His wines rank among the highest echelons of Chardonnay coming out of New Zealand today.

In 2014, British importer Farr Vintners pitted top Kumeu River bottlings against revered 1er and Grand Cru Bourgogne wines in a comparative blind tasting for the local wine cognoscenti. The results were conclusive. The Kumeu River wines scored equally well, and in some cases outshone, their Burgundian rivals.

The sustainably farmed 30-hectare estate is located just 25-km northwest of Auckland, on New Zealand’s North Island. The proximity of both the Tasmanian Sea and Pacific Ocean result in a temperate maritime climate, with abundant sunshine and cooling sea breezes. The soils are mainly clay, with underlying sandstone.

My most recent Kumeu River tasting was of the 2019 vintage – from the Estate to the top-tier cuvées: Maté’s Vineyard and Hunting Hill. The 2019 vintage was described as, “an exceptional vintage of unsurpassed quality” due to its warm, dry, sunny conditions. And indeed, all of the wines displayed impressive harmony and purity of fruit.

At each quality level, these wines over-deliver for their price. The 2019 Estate Chardonnay is vibrant and glossy, with just a whisper of toasty oak, and pretty ripe lemon, yellow orchard fruit, wet stone aromas. The Hunting Hill and Maté’s vineyard are hugely concentrated, textural wines with hauntingly vivid aromatics and stylishly integrated oak.

At the time of tasting, the 2019 Maté’s Vineyard was slightly more restrained and tensile, with tangy citrus and flinty nuances, giving way to richer, riper tones with aeration. The Hunting Hill was comparatively opulent and generously proportioned, with honeyed stone to tropical fruit nuances, though still with that thrilling acidity and flinty expression that make all of Kumeu River’s wines so balanced and breathtaking.

Domaine André et Mireille Tissot (Jura, France)

Stéphane Tissot Chardonnay Tasting

Long-time readers will know that I spent some time in the Jura last summer filming a wine travel documentary (which really is coming soon, despite the long wait!). Over the course of a delightful afternoon, Stéphane Tissot showed me around several of his prime vineyards and poured a wide selection of his wines. The highlight was a comparison of his best Chardonnay wines, to understand the difference between the limestone vs. marl soils.

Stéphane Tissot is the son of André and Mireille Tissot, founders of their eponymous Montigny-les-Arsures winery. Stéphane and his wife Bénédicte took up the reins in the 1990s, growing the property to its current 50 hectares and converting its vineyards to organic and biodynamic viticulture.

Under Stéphane and Bénédicte’s stewardship, the estate became known for its diversity of terroir-focused wines. Previously, the Jura was best known for its appellation-wide, blended approach. Tissot was one of the pioneering figures of this new movement, which aims at demonstrating the region’s soil, climate, and topographical diversity in the bottle.

To illustrate his theory, Tissot poured me three Chardonnay wines: Les Graviers 2018, La Mailloche 2018, and a decanted Tour du Curon 2006. While they all shared a lively, initially taut character, giving way to impressive depth on the mid-palate, each wine was distinctive in its flavour profile and texture.

Gravier is the French word for gravel.  This cuvée is so named as it hails from a selection of sites with limestone scree soils over clay sub-soils. Flinty, smoky notes abound on the nose, and the palate has a beguiling silky freshness.

La Mailloche is sourced from vineyards with heavy, clay-based soils. It is fuller in body, with an attractive savoury rusticity that Stéphane explains is typical of the region and terroir. Refreshing bitter hints linger on the finish.

The Tour de Curon is a walled parcel of just 15-ares, sitting high atop a limestone-veined outcrop looking down over Arbois. Intense aromas of grilled hazelnut, flint, ripe lemon, and earthy nuances unfurl in successive waves. The palate is powerful yet immensely elegant. A true “tour” de force.

On Seven Estate Winery (Niagara, Canada)Kumeu River 2018 vintage

Photo credit: On Seven Estate Winery

In 2019, I interviewed celebrated Canadian wine writer, Tony Aspler, about Ontario’s potential to develop a global fine wine identity. He enthused about Chardonnay and insisted I try the wines of a new Niagara-on-the-Lake producer called On Seven. I purchased a bottle of the 2017 The Pursuit and have been an admirer of the winery ever since.

The name On Seven refers to seven acres of land acquired by Vittorio and Sula de Stefano in 2009. After extensive uprooting, site analysis, and planning, five acres were planted in well-draining, calcareous soils. No expense was spared. After a lengthy wait, de Stefano was able to procure top rootstocks and clones directly from Burgundy’s highly respected Mercier nursery.

Under the guidance of veteran viticultural consultant, Peter Gamble, On Seven proceeded to produce very low yields (1 – 2 tonnes per acre) of certified organic wines of impressive complexity and finesse. My recent tasting of the 2018 vintage The Pursuit and The Devotion cuvées definitely reinforced this impression.

The quality here is all the more noteworthy given the location of vineyards. Niagara-on-the-Lake is home to many of the warmest vineyard sites of the peninsula. Most vintners head for the benchlands, in the Niagara Escarpment area, to make cool climate Chardonnay.

On Seven’s Chardonnay wines offer an intriguing balance. They are generously proportioned, with ripe, yellow fruit flavours, backed by a chiselled structure, hints of salinity, and lip-smacking acidity. The Pursuit is slightly leaner, racier, with more delicate oak spice, whereas the top wine, The Devotion, is glossier with a wonderfully creamy texture and lingering, toasty nuances.

Given the boutique size of the winery and lengthy ageing (three years from harvest to bottling), it is not always easy to get your hands on a bottle. If you live in Ontario, I highly recommend getting on their mailing list for future releases. In Québec, we should be seeing some small allocations coming into fine dining restaurants within the year.

This Chardonnay Wines article was originally written for Good Food Revolution. Want to learn more about artisanal food, wine, beer and spirits? Check out their excellent website.

Education Life

7 Stellar Red Wines to Drink with Hamburgers

Wines to Drink with Hamburgers

The idea that someone might even ponder which red wines to drink with hamburgers may seem surprising. After all, aren’t we supposed to be washing down our burgers with super sized soft drinks or cold beers?

If you are just picking up cheap take out, why not. But, if gourmet hamburgers are more your speed, then the right wine pairing can take your dinner to the next level. Trust me. I am married to a hamburger fanatic. We have tried every beverage pairing. There is nothing like a well-chosen red wine to cut the richness and lift the flavours of a juicy burger.

I read somewhere that we consume a whopping 50 billion burgers each year. Since the global expansion of America’s fastfood chains since in 1950s and 1960s, the humble hamburger has risen to become of the world’s most popular meals.

Though today, much has changed. We have moved way beyond the simple beef patty on a cheap bun formula that once defined the burger. Countless delicious plant-based hamburger options exist now. And classic beef burgers range from lean, veggie-loaded styles to decadent, bacon and cheese adorned two handers.

The flavour differences can be immense and there definitely isn’t a one-wine-fits-all solution. To help determine what wine will work best, consider these factors:

  1. Keep it simple (unless its not): if you are just grilling a pre-made patty and slapping a kraft single slice on it, you don’t need a grand cru wine. Always pair to the level of complexity of the food.
  2. Stay in your weight class: match the weight and intensity of the wine to the heartiness of the dish. A lighter, plant-based or lean beef burger will be overwhelmed by a dense, powerful (or heavily oaked) wine.
  3. Lively wines lighten rich food: a greasy burger, loaded with fried veggies, bacon, or slabs of cheese is heartburn waiting to happen. Wines with lively acidity can cut through the fat, making the dish feel lighter on the palate.
  4. Save the big guns for the big burgers: highly tannic wines create a drying, astringent sensation on the palate which can clobber delicate flavours. They are best served with weightier, beef burgers. Tannins bind with the proteins in meat, intensifying its rich, savoury flavours and, in turn, softening the wine.

With these principles in mind, I decided to test out different hamburger wines from around the world, to suit the lightest to heaviest of burger styles. Below are three of my current favourites, with drink alike options that may not taste identical, but have similar weight, acidity levels, and structure.

BEST FOR LIGHTER PLANT-BASED BURGERS (think chickpeas, lentils, black beans…)

Photo credit: Consorzio Tutela Vini Etna DOC

Wine choice: Etna Rosso (Italy)

What is it? Red wine produced from indigenous Italian grapes; predominantly Nerello Mascalese blended with up to 20% Nerello Cappuccio. As the name suggests, the vineyards grow on the slopes of Mount Etna, in eastern Sicily. This rich, volcanic terroir produces lithe, elegant red wines that are sometimes compared to Piedmont’s Nebbiolo – in a riper, lighter, less tannic style.

Why I chose it: Etna Rosso wines are generally light to medium bodied. Their vibrant acidity and tangy berry flavours enhance lighter food pairings, while their wet stone mineral notes match the earthy flavours of legumes (like pea and bean proteins). They have fine chalky tannins that provide structure without drying out the wines. Oak, if used for ageing, is generally very discreet.

Try these Estates: Tenuta della Terre Nere, Tornatore, Piano dei Daini, Planeta, Tascante, Torre Mora

Drink alikes: Gamay (Beaujolais, Niagara), Pinot Noir (lighter Bourgogne styles, Ahr, Jura)

BEST FOR LEAN BEEF BURGERS (or “faux meat” alternatives)

Photo credit: Bierzo Designation of Origin Regulator Board

Wine choice: Mencia, Bierzo (Spain)

What is it? Red wine from the Mencia grape, grown in the mountainous region of Bierzo in northwestern Spain. Bierzo has a maritime-influenced climate that is cooler than many of Spain’s more inland red wine regions, giving more refreshing acidity and lower alcohol. The slate and granite soils here are said to impart a mineral tension to the wines. Mencia from Bierzo can be similar to Priorat red wines, in its fruit profile, but is leaner and more angular.

Why I chose it: Mencia is typically medium-bodied, with moderately firm tannins. Its umami undertones compliment the burger’s meaty flavours, while its juicy red and black fruit and fresh acidity provide a high note to lift, and lighten the pairing. Many producers use older oak casks for ageing, giving only a subtle toasty, spiced patina to the wines.

Handy Tips: Different tiers of Bierzo reds exist. Crianza wines are more youthful and fruit-driven, ageing for two years before release, with a minimum of six months in oak. Reserva wines have greater oak influence and more tertiary flavours (ie. earthy, leather, tobacco, dried fruit) from their mandated three years ageing; with one year minimum in oak.

Try these Estates: Descendientes de J. Palacios (Alvaro Palacios), Raul Perez, Dominio de Tares, Pittacum, Peique, Bodegas y Vinedos Paixar

Drink Alikes: Loire Valley Cabernet Franc (Chinon, Saumur-Champigny)

BEST FOR BIG, BOLD BEEF BURGERS

Guigal Côte Rôtie vineyards

Wine choice: Northern Rhône Syrah (France)

What is it? The vineyards of the Northern Rhône Valley span a 100km stretch from just south of Lyon, to the city of Valence in eastern France. The climate is temperate continental with cool winters and warm summers, moderated by the fierce Mistral wind that regularly howls down the valley corridor. Syrah is the only red grape authorized on the mainly granite slopes here.

Why I chose it: Northern Rhône Syrahs are full-bodied, with lots of freshness and finesse, which both complements and contrasts the richness of a hearty burger. Their dark fruit and floral aromas are really enticing on the nose. They have firm, structuring tannins and black pepper flavours that pair well with red meat. Oak flavours are generally subtle.

Handy Tips: If you are willing to splurge on the wine, Côte Rôtie is an excellent choice. Wines from this appellation often have distinctive smoky bacon flavours that pair perfectly with decadently meaty burgers. For a good value alternative, try a St. Joseph, which has a similar flavour profile though slightly less intensity.

Try these Estates: Jamet, Burgaud, Ogier, Rostaing, Guigal, Coursodon, Courbis, Gaillard, Gonon, Chave, Jaboulet Ainé, and so so many more!

Drink Alikes: Hawkes Bay Syrah (New Zealand)

Education Reviews Wines

What makes High Altitude Wines So Intriguing?

High altitude wines

It might seem obvious that high-altitude wines have livelier acidity. After all, if you have ever climbed a mountain, you will know how important it is to pack a jacket for the upper slopes. And, if you have ever tasted fruit grow in cooler areas, you will be familiar with their tangier flavours.

In the early 1990s, Nicolás Catena Zapata was on a mission to craft Argentinean wines with greater freshness and finesse. Fearing the frost risks associated with the cooler reaches of southern Mendoza, Catena Zapata decided to set his sights higher.

While most of the region’s vineyards were, and still are, situated between 500 and 1000 metres above sea level, Catena Zapata selected a high-altitude site in Gualtallary, within the Tupungato sub-zone of Mendoza’s Uco Valley. Perched at a lofty 1500 metres, the bodega’s new site was christened the Adrianna vineyard.

After several years, the winemaking team were able to compare the high-altitude wines from the Adrianna vineyard with those from lower lying plots. The differences were striking. The high-altitude wines were not only lighter and brighter, but they were also more deeply hued, with greater aromatic intensity, complexity, and more defined tannins.

The same phenomenon has been observed in other mountainous wine regions. Central Otago Pinot Noir is significantly darker in colour and more fragrant than its counterparts from other regions of New Zealand.

So, what does high altitude mean and how does it affect so many different aspects of a wine’s character?

According to the European Centre for Research, Environmental Sustainability and Advancement of Mountain Viticulture, vineyards over 500 metres are considered high altitude. Of course, it is important to factor in latitude (ie. proximity or distance from the equator) when determining the cooling effects of altitude.

As observed in Club Oenologique, 500 metres is high in Europe. Few of the continent’s vineyards are planted above 1000 metres due to year-round snow. Whereas, in Argentina’s Mendoza region, the lowest lying vineyards start at 500 metres.

Photo credit: Bodegas Catena Zapata

The Catena Wine Institute is a research centre for high altitude viticulture in Argentina. It was established by Catena Zapata’s daughter, Dr. Laura Catena, in 1995. The institute defines high altitude vineyards in Mendoza, as over 1000 metres. Regions like Altamira, Eugenio Bustos, El Cepillo and Gualtallary are cited as reference points.

The growing conditions in these cool, mountain sites can be explained thusly. As we climb, the atmosphere gets thinner, air molecules expand, and temperatures plummet. For each 100-metre rise there is an estimated 1°C decrease. However, this thinner atmosphere also equates to greater intensity of sunlight. 

Bright, plentiful sunshine allows for optimal photosynthesis meaning that grapes ripen easily and fully. Though still warm during the growing season, daytime temperatures are comparatively cooler than sunny, lower lying sites. These more moderate conditions slow down the rate of sugar accumulation, allowing more complex flavours to develop.

It is at night that the real temperature difference of high-altitude vineyards can be felt. Once the sun sets, the thermostat readings plunge, in some areas by 15°C or more. This effectively shuts down vine ripening overnight, allowing acidity levels to remain elevated.

This balanced, ripe fruit character and increased freshness was readily understood by the bodega and the Catena Wine Institute. However, they also observed that the grapes in their high-altitude vineyards had markedly thicker skins.

With more intense sunlight from the thinner atmosphere comes greater exposure to Ultraviolet-B (UVB) rays, the main cause of sunburn. In a collaboration with PhD students from the Mendoza University, the Catena Wine Institute carried out research into the effect this UV-B sunlight on high altitude grapes. Their work exposed a correlation between higher sunlight intensity and increased concentrations of grape skin tannins.

According to Dr. Catena, “this natural adaptation occurs because the grapes develop thicker skins at high altitude to protect the seeds from the sun—a sort of natural sunscreen”. These thicker skins – a barrier against increased UV-B light – contain higher levels of aromatic and polyphenolic compounds.

The best way to comprehend the uniquely ripe, yet refreshing, bold yet elegant style possessed by the best high-altitude wines is, of course, to taste them. A few months back, I sat down to a tasting of three top tier high altitude Malbecs from Bodega Catena Zapata.

Catena Zapata high altitude wines tasting

Catena Alta Malbec “Historic Rows” 2017

This cuvée is a blend of Malbec grapes from four of the estate’s prime terroirs, extending upwards from the 920 metre Angélica vineyard in the Maipú region, to the Adrianna vineyard. The 2017 vintage was very cool overall, with heavy frost in the spring resulting in lower-than-average yields.

Each vineyard plot was harvested individually and fermented separately to allow the unique characteristics of each site to develop. Ageing lasted 18 months in 50% new French oak barrels.  

Attractive notes of stewed dark plum, cassis, and dark chocolate on the nose, with roasted nutty undertones developing over time. The palate is brisk and juicy, lifting the weighty, plush textured mid-palate nicely. Layers of cedar, spice, mingle with tangy dark fruit on the long, fresh finish. 93pts.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($51.25), see North American vendor list below

Catena Adrianna Vineyard, Fortuna Terrae 2017

Fortuna Terrae is a five-hectare plot within the 120-hectare Adrianna vineyard. The name, meaning luck of the land in latin, refers to the deep loamy alluvial soils here, which give lush vegetation and incredible biodiversity.

This certified organic Malbec is fermented 50% whole cluster and spends 18 months ageing in mainly second and third use French oak barrels. The cuvée spends two years in bottle before release.

Initially discreet, with aromas unfurling in successive waves. First cocoa, black pepper, and hints of nutmeg, then ripe dark fruit begins to emerge, and finally, a crescendo of fragrant fresh-cut violets. The palate is at once mouth-wateringly crisp, satiny smooth, and ample in depth and proportion. Finishes dry, with lingering tart black fruit, cocoa, and spice. 10 years+ ageing potential. 95pts.

Where to Buy: see North American vendor list below

Catena Malbec, Argentino 2018

The Argentino cuvée is a more powerfully structured Malbec. It is a blend of old vine plots with sandy soils, from the Angélica vineyard, and a 1095 metre vineyard called Nicasia, in the Parae Altamira area of the Uco Valley. The former site is said to give black fruit flavours, while the latter offers marked florality.

The 2018 vintage was classic for Mendoza, with warm dry conditions, and no frost. Like the Alta cuvée, the gapes were individually harvested and fermented before 18 months ageing in French oak, followed by one year bottle ageing before release.

An array of baked red and dark fruit aromas feature on the nose, underscored by hints of mocha and spice. The palate offers quite firm acidity and a dense, muscular structure rounded out by bright mixed fruit and mocha flavours. Very tightly knit and crisp on the finish, needs three to four years further cellaring to soften. 92pts.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($117.25)

Other vendors in North America:

CANADA: Québec: Noble Sélection, Ontario: Noble Estates, Western Canada: Trialto Wine Group, Atlantic Canada: Innovative Beverages

USA: The Winebow Group