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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 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 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

Life Reviews Wines

Instead of Dry January, Drink Less but Better!

Drink less but better

December is, typically, a month of excess. We make rich holiday meals. We indulge in sweet treats. We knock back more cocktails. Then January arrives and our hardwired need to repent kicks in. Gyms and dieting companies rub their hands in glee as we rush to erase all evidence of our fling with gluttony.

For a growing number of people world-wide, new year’s resolve now includes a period of alcohol abstinence. First launched in 2012 by Alcohol Change UK, the Dry January initiative has gained global adherence in recent years.

Dry January serves an important role in destigmatising the choice of soft drinks over beer on a night out. For those with problematic drinking tendencies, Dry January can be the first step in identifying, and hopefully breaking, dangerous habits.

After all, it is a well-known fact that heavy drinking is bad for you. Excessive alcohol consumption can cause liver damage, heart disease, and increase the probability of developing certain cancers, to name just a few major health concerns; and these are only the physical risks.

But how much booze is too much?

At-risk drinking is hard to quantify. Age, gender, genetics, general health, and physical condition must all be factored in. The duration of the excessive drinking pattern is also a consideration.

According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction, regularly consuming more than two standard drinks (5 oz / 142mL) per day, or ten drinks per week, is considered high risk for women. For men, over three daily drinks or 15 per week is cause for concern.

Following that logic, amounts under these thresholds fall into the low-risk category. What if, outside of the odd party and the revelries of December, you don’t regularly overindulge. Is a full month off alcohol really necessary?

We cut things out of our diet, and our lives, that are bad for us. Ergo, by abstaining from alcohol, we are labeling it as harmful in our minds. And, for most moderate drinkers, that is an erroneous association.

Numerous studies show that moderate alcohol consumption (by healthy, physically fit individuals) has no significant adverse effects to health. In fact, some researchers indicate that the antioxidants in red wine may be good for the heart and help ward off type 2 diabetes, among numerous other benefits

Turning alcohol into something to be banished from our lives creates powerful negative connotations. Just like overly restrictive diets, this all or nothing approach to alcohol can lead to cravings that weren’t previously there. For others, it can cause feelings of guilt or regret when later imbibing.

In other cases, a month away from alcohol is simply a dietary measure. This can indeed be effective. However, if you are replacing your alcohol units with soft drinks or juice as an alternative “special” drink on a night out, you can kiss all calorie savings goodbye.

I always find January a bit dreary. The sun is long gone by the end of the workday. The weather is frosty. The air of revelry has faded. The last thing I want is to deprive myself the pleasure of a nice glass of wine at the end of the day. I don’t need it, but I do enjoy it.

To reset after the holiday excess, my new year’s resolution is a return to moderation. Sure, #ModerateJanuary isn’t as sexy a hashtag. And yes, it lacks the simplicity and dramatic sense of achievement of Dry January. For me though, it is a more sustainable choice.

I try to stick to one, maximum two glasses of wine on the nights that I crack open a bottle. And I make sure to slot in dry nights each week. The most enjoyable way to drink less, is to drink better. As with most people, when I spend a bit more money on a special bottle of wine, I tend to drink it more slowly and mindfully. When enjoyed over a few days, a $30 bottle of wine is no more expensive than a daily $10 tipple.

With that in mind, here are a few special bottles that have caught my fancy in recent months.

Domaine de Montbourgeau L’Etoile 2018 (Jura, France) – 91pts. PW

This 11-hectare Jura estate is located in L’Étoile. This tiny limestone-rich appellation is prized for its racy, mineral-drive Chardonnays. Now managed by the fourth generation of the Deriaux, the estate practices sustainable viticulture.

This is fantastic example of the traditional, oxidative style of Jura Chardonnay. Aromas of bruised apple and eaux-de-vie mingle with hints of exotic spice and roasted hazelnut on the nose. The palate has a sharp, dry bite that acts as an exciting counterpoint to its ample structure and layered texture. Savoury notes linger on the finish. Definitely a food wine, this L’Etoile Chardonnay is a great match for roast chicken.

Where to Buy: $29.30 at the SAQ (code: 11557541)

Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay 2019 (Auckland, New Zealand – 94pts. PW

This pioneering estate has built up a solid reputation as one of New Zealand’s premier Chardonnay producers, and for good reason. The Estate cuvée is their house blend sourced from six different vineyards of mainly clay and sandstone soils.

It is a superlative wine, with exquisite reductive balance. Layers of ripe lemon, apricot, lightly buttered toast, and subtle flinty struck match notes seduce on the nose. The palate is initially crisp and taut, giving way to a creamy, concentrated core of bright fruit. Smooth and dry, with perfectly integrated spiced oak hints.

Where to Buy: $41.25 at the SAQ (code: 10281184)

Domaine David Duband Bourgogne Rouge 2019 (Bourgogne, France) – 95pts. PW

David Duband took over his family’s Hautes Côtes de Nuits estate some twenty years ago. Since then he has garnered worldwide acclaim for his very pure, understated, organic wines.

This Bourgogne Rouge might be on the pricier side given the “humble” nature of the appellation, but it is worth every penny. In fact, I enjoyed this red more than many more prestigious red Bourgogne appellations tasted last year.

Duband manages to combine the ripe, fragrant aromatics of this warm vintage, with a fresh, silky, lightweight palate that just oozes finesse. Vivid red berry flavours, laced with subtle spice, and earthy nuances linger on the finish.

Where to Buy: $38 at the SAQ (code: 14814785)

Dalrymple Pinot Noir 2019 (Tasmania, Australia) – 90pts. PW

The Pipers River region of northeast Tasmania is greatly admired for its production of cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Cool winds flow in from the Bass Strait, moderating the sunny climate and providing a long, even growing season.

Dalrymple has been making wines in the area for over thirty years. The estate Pinot Noir is a mix of several sites of mainly volcanic soil origin. A heady fragrance of stewed rhubarb, crushed strawberry, and baking spice graces the nose. The palate is medium bodied and velvety smooth, with vibrant red and dark berry fruit.

Where to Buy: $45 at the SAQ (code: 14727201)

Pierre Gaillard St Joseph “Clos de Cuminaille” 2019(Rhône Valley, France) – 93pts. PW

Pierre Gaillard is a long-established Northern Rhône producer with vineyards stretching from Côte Rôtie to Cornas. Planted in 1981, Gaillard’s “Clos de Cuminaille” vineyard in St. Joseph yields concentrated, flavourful old vine grapes from its sandy, granite slopes.

The 2019 vintage is still in its infancy, but already drinking beautifully with seductive notes of violet, black plum, and hoisin sauce. The palate is weighty yet fresh, with fleshy tannins that are already remarkably approachable. Decant an hour before serving. This wine paired beautifully with a subtly harissa spiced lentil & cauliflower dish I threw together last week.

Where to Buy: $42.27 at the SAQ (code: 11231963)

This Dry January/ Drink Less but Better article was originally written for Good Food Revolution. Want to learn more about artisanal food, wine, beer and spirits.? Check out their excellent website.

Reviews Wines

Brunello di Montalcino 2017 Vintage Report

Brunello di Montalcino 2017

This January, the Brunello di Montalcino 2017 vintage will be released, alongside the 2016 Riserva wines. The date is no arbitrary decision by local winemakers. It is a precise ageing requirement set down in the region’s controlled and guaranteed denomination of origin (DOCG) regulations.

Brunello di Montalcino is made exclusively from the Sangiovese grape. These premium quality Tuscan wines are considered amongst the finest reds Italy has to offer. For an overview of the region, its terroir, wine styles, and so forth, click here.

The Evolution of Brunello di Montalcino

In the thirty years that Montalcino has held the top-tier DOCG status, much has changed in the region. Once home to a few dozen vintners, with most estates operating as polycultures, Montalcino now counts over 200 wineries devoted to the craft of fine winemaking.

During this time, the wine styles have evolved quite significantly. A move to smaller French barriques, and lavish use of new oak has come and gone. Most producers now favour a mix of mainly used barrels and the large, traditional Slavonian casks.

Tannic structure has also shifted dramatically, according to Italian wine expert, Susan Hulme MW. Once powerfully firm and somewhat coarse in certain sectors, there has been a marked shift towards more refined, approachable tannins. Hulme suggests that this is linked to improved vineyard management, optimized harvest dates, and greater restraint in the cellars, in terms of extraction and ageing.

Brunello di Montalcino 2017 Vintage Conditions

The Brunello di Montalcino 2017 vintage was a nail biter for many growers. Following a warm, dry winter and early spring, vines budded two weeks early across Montalcino. A cold snap later April led to frost damage in certain areas.

The months of July and August were hot and very dry, causing hydric stress and shrivelled grape berries in some parcels. Sites with clay-dominant soils faired better, due to their great absorption and holding of the scattered, late spring rains.

Thankfully, cool nighttime temperatures throughout the late summer allowed for good acid retention. This, coupled with some timely rains and more moderate temperatures early September, allowed hopes for a fine vintage to rise again.

An ensuing period of warm, sunny weather extended the growing season well into October in many parts of the appellation. While not up to the loft heights of the 2016 vintage, the Consorzio (grower’s association) gave the Brunello di Montalcino 2017 vintage a very positive, four-star rating.

Tasting the Brunello di Montalcino 2017 Wines

I recently travelled to Montalcino, to participate in Benvenuto Brunello. The region’s annual unveiling of the new vintage gives media, sommeliers, and other wine aficionados an exclusive preview of the wines before they hit store shelves.

The event took place at the beautiful, medieval Sant’Agostini cloisters atop the village square. Lines of impeccably attired sommeliers stood to attention around the tasting tables, ready to fetch requested wines at the raise of a taster’s hand.

The list of samples was extensive, covering the Brunello di Montalcino 2017 wines of Consorzio members, as well as their single vineyard bottlings, 2016 Riserva cuvées, and a smattering of 2018 and 2019 Rosso di Montalcino bottlings.

While I wasn’t able to taste every wine – many bottles of the highly rated wines ran out as the day wore on – I did get through over one hundred samples. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on the Brunello di Montalcino 2017 wines.

On the whole, the vintage yielded vivid wines with complex, well-defined aromatics. My notes regularly mentioned perfumed aromas of red berries and cherries, orange peel, floral nuances, and balsamic hints. Lively acidity was also a common feature.

Beyond fragrance and freshness, the similarities waned. In terms of structure, the Brunello di Montalcino 2017 wines ranged from light and silky to weightier, more voluptuous offerings – often a function of vineyard altitude and orientation.

Tannins were also highly varied across the wines. The best offered chalky to fairly grippy, yet ripe tannins. Many will require a few years to unwind but should prove to be good moderate term cellaring wines offering Brunello lovers a lot of pleasure. There were, however, many cases of green, astringent tannins marring otherwise pleasant Brunellos.

Brunello di Montalcino 2017 Tasting Notes

MY TOP 20 WINES

Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino 2017

A powerful, aromatic wine redolent with a myriad of ripe red fruit, exotic spice, and citrus oil.  The palate is weighty, yet well defined, with diffuse, chalky tannins and a beautifully fresh, hugely persistent finish. 96pts.

Lisini Brunello di Montalcino 2017

The perfumed, Pinot like nose gives way to an ample, firmly structured palate with impressive depth of red fruit, nutmeg, blood orange flavour. Grippy tannins frame the finish. Very complete; needs 3 – 4 years to soften. 95pts.

Sesti Brunello di Montalcino 2017

Highly complex, with pomegranate aromas underscored by dried orange peel, incense, and rose. Very concentrated on the palate, with a layered texture and vibrant freshness to counterbalance the firm, faintly bitter tannin. 95pts.

Talenti Brunello di Montalcino 2017

Earthier in character, with sun-dried tomatoes and dried herbal notes mingled with tangy red fruit flavours. The palate is powerfully structured, with a broad, fleshy mid-palate tapering to fine-grained tannins. 95pts.

Lisini Brunello di Montalcino 2017, Vigna Ugolaia

Fragrant macerated red and dark fruit, with hints of almond essence and dried floral notes emerging upon aeration. The palate is full-bodied, with a suave, chiselled structure. Pleasantly warming, with intriguing peppery nuances. 94pts.

San Polo Brunello di Montalcino 2017

Very intense and enticing nose, with typical 2017 tangy red fruit, blood orange, potpourri notes, with underlying exotic spice. The palate is dense and highly concentrated, with ripe, yet imposing tannins. Needs time to harmonize further. 94pts.

Castello Romitorio Brunello di Montalcino 2017, Vigna: Filo di Seta

While the nose is somewhat muted at present, the palate is powerful and polished with impressive depth. Notes of almond essence, red cherry, sweet tobacco, baking spice, and smoke linger on the firm, layered finish. 93pts.

San Polino Brunello di Montalcino 2017

Aromas of stewed red fruit overlay fresh leafy notes and hints of graphite. The palate is weighty and ample, with well integrated cedar spice nuances and firm, fine-grained tannins. Finishes with a pleasing, lifted freshness. 93pts.

Scopetone Brunello di Montalcino 2017.

Initially muted, with savoury, nutty nuances emerging alongside red fruit, citrus, and floral tones. Very harmonious on the palate, with lovely freshness, a sinewy, medium-bodied structure, and well-defined, chalky tannins. 93pts.

Tenute Silvio Nardi Brunello di Montalcino 2017.

Fragrant notes of sweet dark fruit, crushed raspberry, peony, and exotic spice leap from the glass. The palate is bold and grippy, with well integrated toasty, cedar hints. A big, warming wine that needs 4 – 5 years to harmonize. 92 – 94pts.

Le Chiuse Brunello di Montalcino 2017

Highly perfumed, with intense red cherry and berry aromas, over notes of violet and talc. The palate medium in body and satiny smooth, with an abundance of tangy red fruit flavours. Very elegant though still quite tightly knit. 93pts.

Castello Tricerchi Brunello di Montalcino 2017, Vigna: AD 1441

Pleasing, Pinot-like nose with very pure red berry fruit aromas and flavours. A fresh, silky attack leads into a layered mid-palate offering notes of almond, graphite, and tangy red cherry. Bright fruit tempers the firm tannins on the lengthy finish. 93pts.

Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino 2017, Vigna Nastagio

Intense notes of loose-leaf tea, almond, dried citrus peel, and red cherry impress on the complex nose. The palate is dense and highly concentrated, with muscular tannins. Tightly wound; needs time to unfurl and reveal its full potential. 93pts.

Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino 2017

Attractive aromas of almond essence, red and black cherry, and crushed strawberry on the nose. The palate is firm and weighty, balanced by mouth-watering acidity. Harmonious hints of sandalwood and sweet tobacco mingle with bright berry fruit on the finish. 93pts.

Pian delle Vigne Brunello di Montalcino 2017.

Very tempting, with its aromatic blood orange, tangy red fruit, and fresh herbal notes. Initially broad and amply proportioned, with vibrant fruit flavours interlaced with graphite and tobacco. Becomes more tightly wound and grippy on the finish. 92pts.

Altesino Brunello di Montalcino 2017, Vigna Montosoli

Very floral, with underlying notes of pomegranate, citrus peel, and talc. The palate is full-bodied, fresh and well-defined, with its sinewy tannins. Tangy red fruit, earthy, and savoury flavours linger on the finish. 92pts.

Fornacina Brunello di Montalcino 2017

Ripe, rich flavours of red and dark fruit are heightened by nuances of nutmeg, peony, and incense on this complex red. The palate is bold yet retains a certain lightness of bearing, with citrussy hints lifting the fruit. Very elegant, with firm, chalky tannins. 92pts.

Mastrojanni Brunello di Montalcino 2017

Heady notes of red cherry, baked tomato, provençal herbs, and potpourri play across the nose and palate, with savoury nuances emerging over time. The palate is brisk and moderately firm with a sweet, sappy quality to the fruit. Highly muscular tannins. Needs time. 92pts.

San Polo Brunello di Montalcino 2017, Vigna Podernovi

Very appealing floral nose, with intriguing hints of pumpkin spice, tea leaf, and red fruit. Brisk acidity gives way to a dense, yet layered palate. Mouthcoating tannins frame the finish. Needs 4 – 5 years to soften. 92pts.

Caparzo Brunello di Montalcino 2017, Vigna La Casa

Initially fruity, with ripe red cherry aromas. Overtime aromas and flavours of black truffle, graphite, and sweet tobacco develop. The palate is very fresh with a broad, fleshy mouthfeel that gives way to powerful tannins. Needs time. 92pts.

OTHER HIGHLY RECOMMENDED WINES:

Regular cuvées from: Agostina Pieri, Barbi, Canalicchio di Sopra, Caparzo, Castello Romitorio, Castello Tricerchi, Castiglion del Bosco, Col d’Orcia, La Fornace, Poggio di Sotto, Tenuta di Sesta

Vigna cuvées from: Castiglion del Bosco “Campo del Drago”, La Fornace “Vigna Origini”

This Brunello di Montalcino 2017 article was originally written for Good Food Revolution. Want to learn more about artisanal food, wine, beer and spirits.? Check out their excellent website.

Photo credit for all pictures goes to the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino.

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François Lurton Chacayes, Tale of a Vertical Tasting

François Lurton Chacayes

When I first started tasting Argentinian Malbec many moons ago, jammy was a description that oft crossed my lips. Their soft, rounded acidity, plush texture, and velvety tannins more closely resembled Californian Zinfandel than any French iteration of the grape I had ever tried.

But change was already afoot. Ambitious winemakers were leaving the sundrenched flatlands east of Mendoza in favour of cooler, higher altitude climes. And thus, the Uco Valley, once considered too far from the city to warrant major interest, became Mendoza’s fine wine haven.

The Uco Valley twists and turns around the Tunuyan river and its tributaries. It follows a north-south orientation for 115 kilometres. The towering Andes Cordillera (mountain range) form its western border. To the east, lie a series of lower elevation mountains, still rising well above 1,000 metres.

The valley is roughly organized around its three municipalities: Tupungato, Tunuyan, and San Carlos. Highly prized vineyard sites are dotted throughout the area, each with their distinctive attributes. For the Lurton family, it was the gravelly soils in the Andean foothills west of Tunuyan that drew their gaze, establishing their estate here in 1996.

Perched at 1,100 metres altitude, Los Chacayes has an extreme, desert-like climate with warm summers and cold, snowy winters. The hot, dry Zonda wind regularly buffets the area and hail is a common hazard.

Lurton Chacayes vineyard

Photo credit: François Lurton Chacayes Vineyard, Bodega Piedra Negra

The site’s high elevation brings two of its defining features: marked diurnal variation and increased sunlight intensity. Day time highs in the summer regularly surpass 30°C, however at nightfall the temperature plummets, reaching lows of 10 – 12°C on average. This, coupled with high UV levels, allows for optimal day time photosynthesis, with an abrupt slowdown at days’ end, preserving high natural acidity.

The high solar radiation also results in increased polyphenol production. The grapes produce thicker skins to protect themselves against the hot sun. Thus, grapes grown here produce more deeply coloured, tannic wines.

The Lurtons selected two plots of land and set about planting variations of the Malbec grape. They decided to grow both traditional Argentinian Malbec clones, and a clonal selection of French Côt.  According to Lurton, the Côt is “slightly more tense and austere… it brings freshness” and a nervy tension to the more fruit-forward, open-knit Argentinian Malbec.

The vineyards were planted at an impressive density of 20,000 vines/ hectare (double that traditionally used in high density French vineyards like Bordeaux or Burgundy). This, coupled with nutrient-poor soils and a generally dry climate, all combine to stress the vines. Yields are low, at roughly two bunches per vine, allowing for early ripening of intensely concentrated, flavourful grapes.

This week, I had the pleasure of sitting down to a vertical of six François Lurton Chacayes vintages. Produced in certified organic vineyards, the wines are vinified with indigenous yeasts, in a mix of new French oak barrels and concrete eggs, with an emphasis on long, gentle extraction.

One of the hallmarks across each vintage was the wines’ soaring acidities. It comes in stark contrast to their dense, weighty frames, and ripe fruit flavours. While each vintage is marked by its weather patterns, a bookending of lively acidity and refreshing, slightly bitter tannins was common.

Dating back to the 2002 vintage, the tasting amply displayed the range’s powerful, ageworthy nature. These are not wallflowers, but rather commanding, powerhouse wines that demand a decanter and hearty food pairing to show their best.

François Lurton Chacayes, Bodega Piedra Negra, IG Los Chacayes, Uco Valley

François Lurton Chacayes 2002

The 2002 vintage saw a good deal of humidity and marked temperature swings from day to night. The winery team considers this, their first vintage with exclusively estate-grown fruit, to be “one of the greatest vintages of Chacayes”.

Developed notes of prune, truffle, and dried leaves mingle with heady baked plum and allspice on the nose. Full-bodied and still wonderfully fresh, the palate displays a broad, supple structure, with dried dark fruit and savoury flavours. Drying on the finish. Drink now with hearty, earthy fare. 91pts.

François Lurton Chacayes 2003

After the deluge, the drought. The wet 2002 growing season was followed by one of the driest summers on record. Thankfully, optimal conditions throughout the autumn saved the harvest, though yields were low.

Remarkably youthful aromas of stewed red and black fruit overlay notes of milk chocolate, nutmeg, and sandalwood on the nose. The palate is a study in contrasts; fleshy and ample, yet brisk with tart red berry flavours. Firm, structuring tannins frame the dark chocolate, cedar nuanced finish. 90pts.

François Lurton Chacayes 2007

Dramatic shifts in seasonal weather patterns and the regular menace of summer storms made 2007 a nail-biter of a vintage. Despite this, the wines show particular elegance.

A fragrant medley of blueberry jam, violets, cocoa, and licorice plays across the nose and palate. This weighty Malbec, with its vibrant acidity, dense core, and fine-grained tannins, is the definition of an iron fist in a velvet glove. Attractive bitter hints provide lovely freshness on the finish. 95pts.

François Lurton Chacayes 2008

The 2008 harvest took place two weeks later than usual due to cooler-than-average temperatures, heavy cloud cover, and regular rainfall.

A dark fruit scented nose of cassis and plum, with intriguing undertones of hoisin sauce and cigar box. The palate is dense and spice-laden, with juicy fruit flavours, and ripe, chalky tannins. Warming cinnamon spice notes linger on the persistent finish. 93pts.

François Lurton Chacayes 2015

An El Niño vintage, marked by cool, rainy weather giving very pure, aromatic wines with a taut, high acid profile.

A floral, perfumed wine with youthful notes of crushed black cherries and berries, and peppery nuances upon aeration. The palate is brisk and tightly knit with a concentrated core of dark chocolate and ripe dark fruits, lifted by refreshing eucalyptus undertones. Muscular, somewhat astringent tannins, define the toasty, spiced finish. Needs three to five years further cellaring to soften and integrate. 92pts.

François Lurton Chacayes 2017

The 2017 crop was picked early to preserve balanced freshness after an exceptionally warm, dry growing season. This low yielding vintage “brought great concentration” according to the estate.

The nose is a heady array of plum jam, exotic spice, wildflowers, and mocha, lifted by hints of orange peel. This same generous yet lifted character plays across the palate, tapering to ripe, sinewy tannins. Finishes long with layers of spice, sweet dark fruit, dark chocolate, and sweet tobacco. 94pts.

*** This François Lurton Chacayes 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)