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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)

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

Education Life

Best Sparkling Wine for Parties? Prosecco Superiore DOCG. Here’s Why.

Best Sparkling Wine for Parties

What is the best sparkling wine for parties? This question pops up each holiday season. Though perhaps this year it has special significance. After a slightly less than festive Christmas last year, I think we are all in the mood to celebrate…albeit in smaller groups than we once knew.

So, its time to pop some corks. Prosecco Superiore DOCG corks, to be more specific.

What is Prosecco Superiore DOCG?

Prosecco is a sparkling Italian wine produced in Northeast Italy. While many enjoy Prosecco as cheap and cheerful fizz, there are truly elegant wines to be had. Just look for the word Prosecco Superiore and the appellation mention Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (or DOCG) on the label.

As the name would indicate, Prosecco Superiore DOCG is the premium tier of Prosecco. These superior sparkling wines have finer effervescence, greater freshness, and persistence. Their discreet spring blossom and orchard fruit aromas are often heightened by hints of aniseed, ginger, or hazelnut.

What elicits this transcendent quality? A variety of factors, the most important of which is vineyard site. Basic Prosecco DOC is produced from large swathes of largely flat, high yielding vineyard sites. In contrast, Prosecco Superiore DOCG hails from just two, unique hillside locations: Asolo and Conegliano Valdobbiadene. The latter is the historic heart of Prosecco winemaking.

The hills stretching northwest from the town of Conegliano to that of Valdobbiadene rise sharply in altitude, providing a cool, yet sunny climate. These conditions allow the grapevines to ripen more slowly, developing greater aromatic complexity, while preserving high natural acidity.

Here, larger vineyards give way to small plots of, often, terraced vineyards. The steepest sites are laboured by hand, a practice dubbed Viticoltura Eroica (heroic viticulture). Yields are far lower than on the valley floor, giving grapes with more concentrated flavours.

What Makes Prosecco Superiore DOCG the Best Sparkling Wine for Parties?

Great sparkling wines are being made across the globe in a variety of styles. There are countless options to choose from. However, when it comes to the best sparkling wine for parties, Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG has several key assets.

The quality price ratio is very attractive. Prosecco Superiore generally retails for little more than the DOC tier, and far less than most other premium bubblies. The precise production methods (and lack of significant vintage variation) also results in strong consistency from one bottling to the next.

Prosecco Superiore DOCG possesses a crowd-pleasing taste profile. At four bars of pressure, its bubbles are softer and smoother than traditional method sparkling wines (which can reach five to six bars). It is fresh and light, with subtle, amiable flavours.

Finally, and potentially the clincher as best sparkling wine for parties, Prosecco Superiore DOCG is low in alcohol. The majority weigh in at just 11% to 11.5% by volume. This makes for a lighter alcohol option, with no compromise on flavour or quality.

The Finest of Prosecco Superiore DOCG Wines

If buying the best sparkling wine for parties means seeking out the very top, look for words like Rive or Cartizze on a Prosecco Superiore label. These mentions are linked to the choicest terroirs of the appellation.

Rive essentially means single vineyard. These sites have been identified as having exceptional vine growing conditions. Wines from designated Rives can indicate the term, followed by the name of the vineyard, on their labels.

Cartizze is Prosecco’s one and only Grand Cru. It is the name of one specific vineyard area on a hill at the highest point of the appellation. The grapes here ripen slowly and fully giving very ripe, structured, voluptuous wines with bright, tangy acidity.

Proseccco Superiore wines from Cartizze are traditionally made in the dry style. However, the majority have such vibrant acidity and rich, fruity flavours that the sweetness is well balanced thus barely perceptible.

Finally, for those looking to go off the beaten track, there are the Sui Lieviti (otherwise known as Col Fondo) wines. Today, Prosecco develops its effervescence from a secondary fermentation in closed tanks. However, the earliest Proseccos were bottle fermented. A small cohort of producers is reviving this historic custom.

These cloudy, bone-dry, lees aged Prosecco Superiore DOCG are currently rare, but with the rise in interest for pétillant naturel wine styles we are sure to see more in years to come.

Best Sparkling Wine for Parties, Parting Tips

Prosecco ranges from bone-dry to slightly sweet, an important point to keep in mind. The sweetness level is indicated on the label, but the terms used are slightly confusing.

  • Extra-Brut is the driest, most linear style, at zero to six grams/ litre (g/l) of residual sugar
  • Brut is still very dry, though slightly broader on the palate, at six to 12g/l
  • Extra-Dry actually refers to fruity, subtly off-dry styles, at 12 to 17g/L
  • Dry is another oxymoron, referring to fuller-bodied, semi-sweet styles, at 17 to 32g/l

For the greatest aromatic expression, Prosecco Superiore DOCG wines are best served chilled between six and eight degrees Celsius, in a large, tulip shaped glass.

This “Best Sparkling Wine for Parties” article was sponsored, and photos were provided, by the Consortium Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG. Cover photo credit to Adobe Spark stock images.

Education Life

Jura Wines: A Primer & an Upcoming Travel Film…

Jura Wines

Jura wines are sommelier favourites around the globe. Yet, this tranquil corner of eastern France between Burgundy and the Swiss border is one of the smallest of French wine regions. In fact, it represents less than one percent of French wine, in terms of total vineyard acreage. 

Since my days in Burgundy, I have been a great admirer of fine Jura wines and have watched the region’s rise to (wine bar) fame with growing interest. This past summer, I decided that it was time to investigate and took a camera crew along to document my adventures.

Stay tuned for my Jura wine travel documentary coming out soon. Follow me on Instagram for more.

A Fascinating History

The Jura has some pretty impressive claims to fame. The Jurassic period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, was named after the Jura mountains. It was here that layers of limestone rock from the period were first identified.

The Jura was also home to renowned French chemist Louis Pasteur, who we can thank for the rabies vaccine, but also for his ground-breaking experiments on microbial fermentation, carried out on Jura wines in Arbois. Pasteur’s work propelled the winemaking world forward.

Alongside its impressive diversity of French wine styles, the Jura also prides itself on its gastronomic delights. Comté and Morbier cheeses, Bresse chicken, and Montbéliard sausages are just a few of its highlights.

Prime Terroir

The vineyards stretch across a narrow 80-kilometre undulating expanse in the foothills of the Jura mountains, in an area called the Revermont. While many lump Jura wines in a high-altitude, “mountain wine” category with Savoie, Jura vineyards rarely surpass 400 metres in altitude.

The Vineyards of Château Chalon

Over the course of the Mesozoic era, loose clay and limestone rock deposits accumulated, forming the major subsoil of the Jura. Today, the range of marl (lime-rich, clay, and silt mudstone soils), clay, and limestone soils, alongside the numerous vineyard orientations, and altitudes allows for multiple grape varieties to thrive here.

The Jura has a largely continental climate with cold, often damp winters and warm, dry summers. Spring frosts, hail, mildew, and rot can all wreak havoc on the vineyards as the 2021 growing season unfortunately displayed. This is a challenging place to grow grapes.

Despite this, the Jura is one of the most organic wine regions of France. Almost a quarter of the region’s vineyards are certified organic or biodynamic, and the number is increasing steadily. Natural winemaking has also taken hold strongly in the Jura, with an abundance of high-quality examples of low intervention Jura wines.

Jura Wines: Diverse & Distinctive Styles

The multiplicity of grapes and winemaking practices is a major part of what makes Jura wines so fascinating.

Dry white Jura wines from Chardonnay and Savagnin grapes are made in ouillé and non ouillé styles. Ouillé refers to the process of topping up wine barrels to avoid oxidative reactions. Ouillé white wines are often referred to as Les Floraux locally for their floral, fruity appeal.

The more traditional white winemaking method for Jura wines is to deliberately abstain from topping up barrels, allowing subtle oxidation to occur and a layer of yeast for form; a technique called sous voile. This process brings savoury, nutty, exotic spice flavours to the wines that increase in potency the longer wines are aged. The most famous of sous voile Jura wines is the region’s iconic Vin Jaune.

Rosé and red Jura wines are produced from native varieties, Poulsard and Trousseau, as well as Pinot Noir. The Jura also makes excellent Crémant du Jura, Vin de Paille (straw wine), grape brandy called Marc du Jura, and a liqueur wine called MacVin du Jura.

Jura Wines: The Appellations of Origin

The Jura has seven appellations, or AOCs, for its wines – four are geographic and three are related to specific Jura wine styles.

Map credit: Comité Interprofessionnel des vins du Jura

Arbois is the most historic, and among the largest, of Jura wine geographic appellations. It was one of the very first French wine regions to achieve AOC status back in 1936. All styles of Jura wines are made here but the area’s red wines are particularly prized. The sheltered slopes of Arbois’ best vineyards produce more than two-thirds of the Jura’s red wines.

The Côtes du Jura is the region’s other large appellation. It is a region-wide, covering the area north of Arbois all the way to the Jura’s southern vineyard limits. Like Arbois, all Jura wines styles can be produced from Côtes du Jura AOC vineyards. Chardonnay – which accounts for over 40% of the Jura’s plantings – covers much of the southern Côtes du Jura slopes. 

Château-Chalon is the smallest area, with approximately 60 hectares of vineyards, but it is hugely significant. It is the birthplace of Vin Jaune. The appellation is named for its picturesque medieval village, which is perched atop the hillside vineyards. Vin Jaune, which is made exclusively from the Savagnin grape, is the only wine produced here.

The Étoile appellation is also diminutive in size but highly prized for its limestone soils and its racy, mineral-driven Chardonnay wines.

Among the style-related appellations for Jura wines, Crémant du Jura is the most prolific. These elegant, traditional method sparkling wines make up a quarter of the region’s wine sales.

Making a Jura Wines Movie!

My tour through Jura wine country included visits to three of its top-quality estates. At Domaine André and Mireille Tissot near Arbois, I caught up with Stéphane Tissot to discuss biodynamics and the rise of single vineyard Jura wines.

In Château-Chalon, I learned the secrets of Vin Jaune production from the master himself, Laurent Macle of Domaine Jean Macle. I also checked in on the younger generation at Domaine Baud in the Côtes du Jura town of Le Vernois, to taste some bubblies.

Drinking crémant with Clémentine & Bastien Baud

Of course, no tasting of Jura wines is complete without the right food pairings. Luckily, the Jura is home to Meilleur Ouvrier de France, sommelier Philippe Troussard. He took me on a tour of the Arbois market to chat classic and modern Jura wine pairings.

The Jura Wine Tasting Report

To get a larger sense of Jura wines, I also dropped in to the Vins du Jura wine trade association for a regional overview blind tasting. While sampling over 90 recent vintage sparkling, dry whites, and red wines, Vins du Jura director Olivier Badoureaux updated me on all things Jura wines.

A detailed Jura wines tasting report with all my top-rated Jura wines is also coming out soon. Jura wine lovers, watch this space, or watch for updates on Instagram.

Final Thoughts on Jura Wines

The ravages of Phylloxera, two world wars, and the Jura’s somewhat remote location took a toll on production. The vineyards that once spanned 20,000 hectares now make up a mere tenth of that area.

The demanding grape growing conditions here are not for the faint of heart. Violent frosts, hail, and extremes of temperature are more commonplace now as the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent.

The 2021 growing season was particularly hard hit. Laurent Macle showed me the gaping hole where an entire, terraced parcel of his Château Chalon vineyards was washed away by heavy July flooding. Producers across the region estimated 50 to 85% crop losses, notably in organically farmed sites.

Despite these hardships, the passion and ambition of the Jura’s best growers is unmistakable. Their unwavering commitment to sustainable grape growing, low interventionist winemaking, and high-quality wine overall has led to a rapid rise in global demand.

While we can expect to see lower export levels given the small harvest, Jura wines are most definitely worth seeking out. For my palate, they are among the most distinctive and exciting wines on the market today

Tasting old vintages with Domaine Macle

*** This Jura 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 Reviews Wines

Organic Wine from New Zealand: Why it’s Worth Seeking Out!

Organic wine from New Zealand

Organic wine from New Zealand is a growing phenomenon, with many of the country’s major wineries leading the way. What sets New Zealand’s organic wines apart and where can you find good examples? Read on to find out more.

Sustainability is the new buzz word for conscientious wineries. This is not to say that sustainable viticulture and winemaking is a recent development, just that messaging to consumers has become far more pervasive.

This upswing in sustainable wine talk, while laudable, has also created a certain amount of confusion amongst wine lovers. Organic, biodynamic, sustainable… where does one practice end and the other begin?

Unfortunately, there are no simple answers. There is also a fair amount of overlap. Many sustainable wineries practice organic viticulture, and numerous organic producers also farm biodynamically or observe certain biodynamic principles.

Thankfully, certain wine regions have taken pains to clarify matters; New Zealand is a fantastic example.

New Zealand is a leading light in wine industry sustainability. The country’s wineries first made sustainable wine headlines when they announced their ambitious plan to be net carbon zero by 2050. New Zealand was also the first to develop a nation-wide sustainability certification programme: Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand™ (SWNZ). Today, a whopping 96% of New Zealand’s vineyard area is SWNZ certified.

New Zealand is a leading light in wine industry sustainability with ambitious plans to reach net carbon zero by 2050.

At the producer level, sustainability means crafting quality wine, in an economically viable and socially responsible manner, while protecting the environment for future generations. Organic and/or biodynamics comes into play when we consider this third, environmental pillar of sustainability.

Organic viticulture starts with the elimination of all synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. The organic conversion process takes three years for producers seeking certified organic status. Organic wine from New Zealand is championed by grower-led organization, Organic Winegrowers New Zealand (OWNZ).  

“Organic producers are careful co-creators with nature,” explains the OWNZ. “We build healthy vines by building healthy soils, and by nurturing a diverse, rich community of plants, soil, insects, and microorganisms”.

Photo credit: Felton Road, cover crops

To date, a little over ten percent of New Zealand’s wine producers hold organic certifications, mainly from the country’s largest organic certifier, BioGro. This may not seem like a significant figure now, but the demand for organic wine from New Zealand is rising steadily, driving more and more producers to convert.

The demand for organic wine from New Zealand is rising steadily, driving more and more producers to convert.

“Since 2018, there has been a big surge in organic wine from New Zealand ” affirms Jared White, Audit Manager and wine industry liaison for BioGro. “Of the 2,418 hectares currently farmed organically, 18% are currently in conversion”. While most organic producers have smaller vineyard holdings than the national average, major producers like Pernod Ricard New Zealand, Yealands, and Villa Maria are making increasing organic inroads.

Villa Maria has converted over 100 hectares of their company-owned vineyards to organic winemaking. They aim to be entirely organic by 2030. “We are motivated to further enhance the health of our soils and environment so we can reap the rewards of beautiful fruit for years to come” explained Villa Maria’s viticulturalist, Hannah Ternent, in the The Drinks Business.

But what does organic wine production look like in practice? In the Central Otago, where an impressive 25% of vineyards are farmed organically, top wineries are keen to share their wisdom. From precise canopy management, to carefully selected cover crops, to organic composts made from winery waste, the team at Felton Road employs a wide variety of techniques to boost vine and soil health. They also limit their water usage by using mulches and monitoring soil moisture levels.

In the Central Otago, an impressive 25% of vineyards are farmed organically.

Organic production does not stop at the winery doors. In organic certifications, winery additives like cultured yeasts and sulphur are carefully controlled, and genetically modified organisms are prohibited. Using only native yeasts and minimal sulphur is a point of pride for many organic producers. Marlborough-based estate, Seresin, feels that their organic vineyard cultivation, and low interventionist winemaking, are integral factors making their wines “uniquely expressive of their origins and their vintages”.

Photo credit: Seresin Estate, compost preparation

Of course, New Zealand is far from the only wine-producing country with a growing commitment to organic wine. When asked what sets them apart, BioGro’s Jared White was quick to reply. “There is a lot of support and information sharing here. OWNZ also offers a mentoring program, and they do in-depth research, providing a wealth of data for growers”.

One such research project was an organic conversion study, following selected vineyards through the process in three growing areas (Marlborough, Central Otago, and Hawkes Bay). OWNZ undertook regular soils analyses and pest and disease monitoring, among many other parameters measured. The findings from these projects are invaluable tools for new producers looking to embark on the process.

Continuous improvement, a central tenet in sustainability circles, is also at the heart of the organic wine movement in New Zealand.

Continuous improvement, a central tenet in sustainability circles, is also at the heart of the organic wine movement in New Zealand. A requirement to demonstrate biodiversity enhancement – currently only enforced in Canadian organic standards – is in the works.

The sector is also moving towards national regulations. This will allow producers to access equivalency arrangements with organic wine programmes abroad. At present, organic wine from New Zealand must meet organic regulations in the country of export.

Here in Canada, if an organic wine from New Zealand, certified by BioGro, doesn’t also satisfy the guidelines set out by the Canada Organic Regime, they cannot market their wines as organic.

Seeking out organic wine from New Zealand is worth the effort though. The environmental benefits are numerous and, according to Villa Maria’s Hannah Ternent, there is another advantage. “Wines made from organically grown grapes have more intense flavours… you can taste the care put into the soil, the careful handling of the fruit, and the respect for our relationship with the land”.

Looking for organic wine from New Zealand, available in Canada? Here is a list of OWNZ accredited members with wines regularly available across the country:

Fully Organic (producing all/most of their wines solely from organic or biodynamic grapes)

Carrick, Churton, Clos Henri, Dog Point Vineyard, Felton Road, Quartz Reef, Rippon, Seresin, Supernatural Wine Co., Two Paddocks, Burn Cottage Vineyard, Neudorf Vineyards, Pyramid Valley, Te Mania

Partly Organic (producing some wines from organic or biodynamic grapes and/or vineyards in conversion)

Amisfield, Babich, Giesen, Loveblock, Pernod Ricard New Zealand, Villa Maria, Wither Hills, Yealands

*** This Organic Wine from New Zealand article was originally written for Good Food Revolution. Want to learn more about artisanal food, wine, beer and spirits.? Check out their excellent website. ***

As part of their organic wine week, I was sent a small selection of organic wines from New Zealand to sample (and a tasty treat 😉). Sadly one bottle was out of condition, but reviews for the others are given below.

Pyramid Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Marlborough – 93pts. PW

Sourced from biodynamic vineyards in Marlborough’s Waihopai and Omaka Valleys. Vinified in large neutral oak casks with native yeasts. Aged for six months on its fine lees.

Attractive lime, gooseberry aromas are underscored by white floral and peppery hints on the nose. The palate is electric; a vibrant yet balanced display of racy acidity, lithe, taut structure, and tangy green fruit that linger on the long, peppery finish. Very elegant, harmonious Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

Where to Buy: Inquire with winery

Milton “Te Arai Vineyard” Chenin Blanc 2019, Gisbourne – 90pts. PW

Estate Chenin Blanc produced in organic and biodynamic certified vineyards. Fermented and matured in a mix of large neutral oak casks and stainless steel tasks, on its fine lees.

Heady aromas of yellow plum, lemon, and raw honey feature on the nose. The palate is fresh, broad, and rounded, with excellent depth of juicy yellow fruit tapering to honeyed nuances. Slightly off-dry on the finish, well-balanced by lively acidity and intriguing spiced notes.

Where to Buy: Inquire with winery

Te Whare Ra (TWR) “Toru” 2020, Marlborough – 91pts. PW

A field blend of mainly Gewürztraminer, with Riesling, and Pinot Gris grown in certified organic vineyards, many of which are also biodynamically farmed. The grapes are handpicked, with some parcels seeing extended skin contact before co-fermenting at low temperatures in neutral vessels. No fining or filtering.

Highly aromatic, with notes of white grapefruit, jasmine, lychee, and exotic spice fairly leaping from the glass. The palate is medium in body, with bright citrus and off-dry tropical fruit flavours. A rounded, textural mouthfeel gives way to refreshing hints of bitterness on the finish.

Where to Buy: Inquire with winery.

Felton Road Pinot Noir “Calvert” 2019, Central Otago – 94pts. LW

Estate, biodynamic Pinot Noir from the Bannockburn sub-region of Central Otago. Vinified in a gravity flow cellar, with 25% whole clusters, and a long pre-fementary cold soak to preserve and enhance delicate aromas. Aged 16 months in 30% new French oak barrels.

Perfumed nose featuring dark cherry and berry fruit, heightened by floral notes and subtle oak spice. On the palate, brisk acidity lifts the ample, fleshy frame and provides thrilling definition to the dense core of ripe, black and blue fruit. Finishes with velvety tannins, nuances of cigar box and spice.

Where to Buy: SAQ ($84.75), LCBO ($95.00; 2018 vintage)

Education

Snapshots from the 2021 French Wine Harvest: Frost, Hail, & Relentless Rain

the 2021 French Wine Harvest

It was supposed to be a hot, dry summer in France. The sort of growing season that makes the arduous task of grape growing worthwhile. A boon after a hard winter of Covid-related lost revenues and confinement. A promising 2021 French wine harvest.

But the long-range weather forecasts were wrong.

The season started off on a terrible note the week of April 5th. Brutal frosts ravaged vineyards across the country, from the Southern Rhône to Chablis. Since then, conditions have gone from bad to much, much worse.

Hail. Tornadoes. Flooding. Cold, wet weather. Rampant attacks of downy and powdery mildew. The reality of the 2021 French wine harvest is being described by the local wine trade as nothing short of un cauchemar. A nightmare.

The latest reports from the French Agricultural Ministry’s statistics department suggest that the 2021 French wine harvest will be down 24 – 30% (vs. 2020). The situation is being called a national disaster, with 2021 drawing comparisons to the notoriously poor 1977 season.

In Vouvray, hailstones the size of eggs fell in a devastating, 3-minute storm on June 3rdAt Domaine des Cormiers Roux, losses were estimated at 95%. And the terrible irony is that the vineyards that incurred the worst hail damage were those spared by the April frosts.

Throughout the month of June, brief yet violent hailstorms caused damage in vineyards as far flung as the Minervois, Ardèche, the Côte d’Or, and the list goes on.

And while July brought drought, hydric stress and withered, yellowing leaves in Provençal vineyards, the rest of France was plunged into a dreaded Goutte Froide. This meteorological phenomenon occurs when high-altitude cold air masses collide with warmer temperatures on the ground. The result is unseasonably cool weather and heavy rains.

Much of Western Europe was impacted, with devastating floods in the Ahr wine region of Germany. While the floods weren’t quite so dramatic or deadly in France, the vineyard impacts were acute in certain areas. In the Château-Chalon appellation of the Jura, the force of the downpours caused massive soil erosion ripping out huge swathes of terraced vineyards.

What’s more, the sheer relentlessness of the July rains has led to a far larger problem for French grape growers. Virulent attacks of downy mildew have stripped vineyards bare, with the threat of powdery mildew and grey rot on the horizon.

The Vallée de la Marne and parts of L’Aube in Champagne are hard hit, with growers ready to forgo the 2021 harvest all together. Between the frost and the fungal pressure, “we’ve lost more than half of the harvest,” said Maxime Toubart, Deputy Chairman of the Champagne industry lobby CIVC, in a recent Reuters interview.

In southern Alsace, mildew, grey, and brown rot are running rampant. Biodynamic producer Domaine François Schmitt detailed the results of the exceptionally heavy rainfalls in July. He described the heartbreak of “withered foliage, covered in large brown spots and dried out bunches with just a few grapes”. He compared it to conditions not seen since the 1920s.

Organic viticulture is rising steadily in France. According to France’s major organic wine trade fair, Millésime Bio, the number of certified organic wineries grew by 20% from 2018 to 2019, and the surface area of organically farmed vineyards expanded by 23%. And this is not counting the large contingent of non-certified organic practioners, and holders of exacting sustainability certifications like Terra Vitis and Haute Valeur Environmentale (HVE).

But while the will to eradicate chemical vineyard treatments is increasingly strong in France, one has to wonder how the 2021 French grape harvest will impact this organic trajectory? I have heard more than one tale of growers, either pondering or, undergoing organic conversion, who shelved their plans in a desperate attempt to save their harvests.

Faced with water-logged soils rendering vineyards impenetrable, with incessant rains, and the worst mildew ravages in decades, farming without chemical fungicides is a heroic commitment. One to be applauded, but also a decision not to be taken lightly.

As I write, from my home away from home in the Auvergne, August is off to a timid start. Each day brings rainy spells, with the sun making rare guest appearances among the heavy clouds. I would check the long-term forecast, but that hasn’t proved to be much use. It is time to pray to the weather gods for dry days to come, abundant sunshine, and a more hopeful end to this downtrodden vintage.

*** This 2021 French Wine Harvest 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 Reviews Wines

Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Terroirs & How They Differ

Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon AVAs

Tasting a broad cross section of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon terroirs is a fascinating experience. The region boasts a remarkable diversity of meso-climates, altitudes, vineyard orientations, and soil types. This equates to markedly different expressions of the grape from one AVA to another.

A few months back, I moderated a Napa Valley Vintners seminar exploring this subject. As a follow up, Silverado Vineyards kindly sent me wines from three separate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon terroirs. They all hail from the same vintage and were vinified in a similar fashion.

Before we dive into the tasting, let me give you a bit of context on the Napa Valley.

A Broad Overview of the Napa Valley

The Napa Valley is situated 80 kilometres (km) north of San Francisco and 55 km inland from the Pacific Ocean, in northern California. While global regard for its wines is high, the region is actually very small. Napa accounts for just four percent of California’s annual output.

According to Napa Valley Vintners, there are 475 wineries in Napa, of which 95% are family owned. Over 30 different grape varieties are grown here in vineyards spanning some 18,600 hectares. Cabernet Sauvignon is the undisputed star, with over half the Valley’s plantings dedicated to this late ripening variety.

The Unique Geography of the Napa Valley

The Napa Valley is nestled between the Mayacamas Mountains to the west and the Vaca Range to the east. Vineyards range in elevation from sea level to over 800 metres in altitude. The valley floor is almost 50 km long, but only eight km wide at its maximum width.

Due to its varied topography, among a myriad of other differentiating factors, the Napa Valley has been separated into 16 sub AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). These are sometimes referred to as “nested AVAs” as they fall within the broad Napa Valley AVA designation. In order to use a specific sub AVA on a wine label, a minimum of 85% of the grapes must come from the area in question.

The soils of the Napa Valley have both marine and volcanic origins. The valley was formed by tectonic plate movement dating back over 150 million years, culminating in the San Andreas Fault. This system provoked volcanic activity, with its resultant magma forming a new type of bedrock in the region.

Subsequent erosion and intermingling has led to three major soil categories: fluvial, alluvial, and mountain. The valley floor is made of deep, fertile silt and clay deposits from the river banks (hence fluvial). The benchlands are alluvial fans of gravel, sand, and silt washed down from the mountains to the valley. Finally, the shallow, rocky, nutrient-poor mountain soils are derived from decomposed primary bedrock.

The Climate Contrasts of the Napa Valley

The Napa Valley has a dry, sunny Mediterranean climate. Average summer daytime highs range from 27º Celsius (C) in southern Napa Valley to 35º C in the north. Night time temperatures are substantially cooler, notably in the southern parts of the valley. Thermostat readings can plunge to just 12º C here on especially cool nights. This is due to the proximity of San Pablo Bay to the southern vineyards, bringing cooling breezes and overnight fog.

This regular, dense fog is caused by hot air in California’s interior valley rising and drawing in cooler, moist air from the Pacific Ocean. The Chalk Hill Gap also brings patches of fog, and thus a cooler meso-climate to parts of Calistoga in northern Napa Valley. However, in general terms, the southern valley floor is cooler than the low-lying northern vineyards.

Altitude and vineyard orientation also play major roles in shaping a Napa Valley vineyard meso-climate. Temperatures in many mountain AVAs can be 5º C cooler than valley floor sites. That being said, higher altitude sites above the fog line do not experience the same diurnal variations so tend to have cooler days but warmer nights, making for more even conditions.

Finally, east vs. west facing vineyards can also show significant differences in climate. The eastern benches and slopes receive the slightly more timid morning sunshine, and are shaded from the afternoon heat. In comparison, western facing areas are exposed to abundant afternoon sun, giving riper, more opulent wines.

Comparing Three Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Terroirs

Silverado Vineyards Wines

Silverado Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville Station, 2016 – 90pts. LW

The vineyard for this cuvée lies on the western edge of the Oakville sub AVA, within the revered, gentle slopes of the To Kalon site. Oakville is a moderately warm growing area. Situated mid-way up the valley floor, the cooling effects of the coastal fogs are less dramatic here.

The 2016 Oakville Station has intense, ultra-ripe aromas of cassis and dark plum mingled with nuances of cedar, pencil shavings, and potpourri. The palate is full-bodied, with a mouth coating density, and a concentrated core of sweet dark fruits, mocha, cedar, and spice, ably balanced by fresh acidity. Ripe, rounded tannins provide a good framework. Finishes on a warming, sweet fruited note, with marked oaked flavours of cedar and spice.

Where to Buy: Inquire with agent Vinéo. Winery price: $90 USD.

Silverado Vineyards “Solo” Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District, 2016 – 94pts. LW

The Solo cuvée is named for the heritage clone of Cabernet Sauvignon used here. The Stags Leap terroir is separated from the rest of the valley floor vineyards by the Stags Leap Palisades, which form its eastern boundary. Brisk marine breezes flow through the area in the afternoon, tempering the heat generated by the sunny west-facing slopes and reflective shale soils.

The 2016 Solo cuvée has an alluring nose of ripe dark fruits and dark chocolate, with well integrated cedar spice and refreshing eucalyptus notes. The weighty, powerfully structured palate is lifted and lengthened by its vibrant acidity. Persistent flavours of dark chocolate, tangy dark fruit, and sweet tobacco adorn the finish. Drinking well now, though the freshness, depth, and fine-grained tannins suggest fine moderate term cellaring potential.

Where to Buy: Inquire with agent Vinéo. Winery price: $125 USD

Silverado Vineyards “Geo” Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville, 2016 – 92pts. LW

Among the more recently named sub-AVAs of the southern Napa Valley, Coombsville has significant overnight cooling from the San Pablo fogs. The “Geo” Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced from Silverado’s Mt. George plot, one of the oldest vineyard sites in the area. The area lies in an alluvial fan of the Vaca Mountains, giving deep, gravelly soils of volcanic origin.

Heady aromas of macerated red berries and black plum on the nose, with underlying tobacco, baking spice, and cedar notes. On the palate, the 2016 Geo has a similarly potent, yet lively character reminiscent of the Solo cuvée. However, here the dark fruit flavours are a shade sweeter and the oaked overtones more present. Ripe, muscular tannins structure the finish nicely. Needs a few years cellaring to knit together further and soften.

Where to Buy: Inquire with agent Vinéo. Winery price: $75 USD.

Cover photo credit: Silverado Vineyards