November 26th, 2012
About a dozen years ago I was lucky enough to go to Spain on a week long vacation/wine tasting adventure. To my mind it is important to visit the wine producing areas of the world, that way the enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for a particular area and it’s wines, are real and do not come from looking at pictures, or purely having tasted through a bunch of the wines at a big trade tasting.
I arrived in Madrid, mid June, and it was hot, 42 degree Celsius in the early afternoon kind of hot. After a few days in Spain’s most populated city we left for a circular tour of three of the countries’ most renowned wine producing areas … Ribera del Duero, Navarra and Rioja. I had done my homework in Canada and had arranged a couple of visits with some producers in each area. The heat wave had subsided as we reached the midpoint of the trip and were visiting a medium size winery in the area of Navarra, which is probably best known by its proximity to the city of Pamplona, where every year a few Spaniards with insufficient foot speed get smaller or larger injuries while evading agitated bovines.
Navarra is in the north east of Spain, less then 80km away from the French border, and the climate is heavily influenced by the Atlantic just to the north of the vineyards… as such the reds that are produced never quite had the weight of the other hotter regions of Spain, but were mostly known for rose wines for the domestic market.
The winery we had an appointment with was a large land owner, consisting of 8 wine growing families, who had pooled their resources and build a production facility, but it shall remain nameless. The wines were soundly made and well priced, of the all the usual suspects, which included Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tempranllio (which is Spain’s national grape) and Chardonnay and Viura for the export markets that demanded a white option.
But before we tasted the wines with the Sales Director, he had driven us around the hilly property, and shown us the lay of the land. We looked at the trellised vineyards of Merlot and Tempranllio from the jeep, an impression that could have been anywhere in the vinous world, but what stood out were these small plots of free standing bush vines which had grown on the property for over 50 years… these in fact were old vines Grenache and they made my favourite wine of the entire Iberian trip.
Grenache originally comes from the south of France, and is known especially as the main constituent of Chateauneuf du Pape, the standard bearer of the southern Rhone Valley.
The resulting wine from these old bush vines from winery x was lovely: medium bodied, with the colour of Pinot Noir, fragrant and silky with soft raspberry aromas and flavour, turning more towards dark plums on the long finish. In short, a great wine and very well priced. I bought a bunch of it.
I had in fact almost totally forgotten about my visit to Navarra, and my love of the Old Vines Grenache, until one day I saw a very familiar bottle in the arsenal of a wine importer in early 2012.
Could it be my favourite Spanish bottle of so many years ago? In fact it was, same winery, same Old Vines Grenache, some bottle shape…I was excited to taste it …it was like seeing a long lost friend.
The agent opens the bottle and pours the wine. Instantly something is wrong.
The colour is much darker then I remembered it. It could have been any full bodied red from anywhere in the world. Then the sniff test… much more punch and a slight whiff of alcohol, dark macerated raspberries. And finally a taste: huge, dark fruit, astringent tannin and alcohol, no balance… the fragrance and silkiness of my memory gone. I did not buy a single bottle.
What had happened?
A beautiful medium bodied red had become an international coca cola wine…made to appeal to a palate which appreciates weight and sweetness more then fragrance and subtleness.
The recipe for his change is easy, lots of new oak barrels, let the grapes hang until they shrivel and pump the fermenting must over lots to extract colour and tannin. If the wine is not oaky enough after the requisite slumber in its wooden enclosure, more oak flavours or tannin is added by way of powder or liquid. This is how all coca cola wine is made.
Wine is entirely subjective. I just hope years from now there is still the demand for beauty in wine.
July 30th, 2012
In the eastern interior of France, just north of Lyon, lies one of the most underrated wine regions of the world, but many wine lovers would not know that.
This has mostly to do with the horrible reputation that the area has obtained through its one brilliant marketing stroke ‘Beaujolais Nouveau’. The idea behind this wine was fully realized by the George Duboeuf winery (the biggest producer in that part of France) as a quick way to get rid of excess grape juice and to realize cash flow as the grapes of ‘the new Beaujolais’ are harvested in September and are on store shelves in late November. This recipe hardly makes for exceptional, thought provoking wines… but rather slightly alcoholic grape juice meant to be quaffed - as quickly as possible.
The grape of Beaujolais is Gamay Noir… lighter bodied, red fruited and relatively high in natural acidity, not to mention rather lower alcohol levels. This is at the basement level of the Beaujolais hierarchy but when you taste the same wine from old vines and from one of the better sites of the area, and if you were able to match that with a good vintage (2009/2010 came to mind) a totally different wine emerges… red and black fruit, medium weight with a sense of savory tension that would match a number of foods: roasted chicken, grilled pork or mushroom dishes.
And these wines can age; they will become, in 6 to 8 years (in a cool cellar), perfect imitations of red Burgundies (their slightly northern cousins made from Pinot Noir). There are numerous of the best producers in Beaujolais who have in their cellars, wines that are 20, 30 or even 50 years old, and they are perfect examples that the Gamay grape ages impressively well. But as opposed to having paid $30 to $50 for the Burgundies, first class Cru Beaujolais will only have cost roughly half of that.
So what is this ‘Cru Beaujolais’? At the top of the Beaujolais pyramid are the ten Crus. These are the best areas, with mostly old vines, perfect sun exposure, the best soils and a proven track record. The wines are almost entirely made in the traditional way, with some aging in oak. The best of the ten are Moulin a Vent, Morgon and Brouilly… and they would be labeled as such: the best producers never put Beaujolais on their labels. Below the Crus, comes Beaujolais Village, then Beaujolais Superior, then just Beaujolais, before finally ending with the ‘Nouveau’.
At the lower levels of the Beaujolais pyramid the wines are made with a technique know as carbonic maceration… which makes overtly fruity wines with no oak influence. These are the wines that people most often identify as ‘real’ Beaujolais. Sometimes these wines are fun to drink, but they certainly do not possess the nuances and/or gravitas of the traditionally made wines, which are aged in mostly older barrels… and these are mostly the Cru wines.
In summation, here is one of the real red wine bargains of the Old World and if a light to medium bodied food wine is required, and in addition one that has a reliable record of aging, the Beaujolais Cru wines are a great option with lots of versatility.
April 21st, 2011
The question always arises… where and what do you buy for value in the Vinous world? This question could automatically be the lead for a question from my side: “What is your perception of value? For some individuals $12 is their threshold. For others who have wines worth $100’s of dollars in their cellar, $25 bottles are their Monday night house wine, so that becomes their “value” wine for the week.
I will, instead, answer the question in a slightly different way, namely focusing on wines which punch above their weight at a number of price points. You can drink a very good $15 wine and that could be a great value, or, conversely, you could invest $30 and buy a wine which holds up favorably to a $60 wine, making this a great buy as well.
I believe the first thing that wine lovers will have to get through their heads is that there is no direct correlation between the prices on pays for their bottles, and the quality of the wine therein. For example a $40 bottle is not twice as good as a $20 wine. The prices that are set for certain wines by the producers sometimes do not reflect of the quality of the wines. A classic example of this has always been Napa Valley; this region has been notorious in overpricing most of its wines for more then the last decade.
This was because the wines were big, exuberant examples of a fruit driven, highly alcoholic style, which scored well in blind tastings, were easy to understand by consumers who were relatively new to wines and were easy to pronounce at the shrines of North American hospitality.
As such, demand was high but supply was initially finite, causing prices to become increasingly unrealistic. After you add winery one-upmanship
(My wine is better/bigger than your wine, so we will sell it for $120, instead of our competitor x at $100) things increasingly spiraled out of control. It has to be said, though, that because of the current economic climate the pricing for all California wines has become a lot more civilized. And that is especially apparent for the higher end Napa Valleys labels.
So if the above is definitely not undervalued, then what is? Well, one region which is definitely not overpriced is the region of Beaujolais, in the eastern part of central France. No, I am not talking of Beaujolais Noveau, which was conceived as a marketing gimmick in the 1950’s by the largest local producer. But, instead, one should support serious wines made from the Gamay grape from the best sites, using traditional vinification in a good year. That could mean wine from one of the 10 Cru’s, such as Morgon, Moulin a Vent etc. in 2009, one of the best vintages ever for that region.
But even in an average vintage the Beaujolais Cru wines make lovely light to medium bodied drinking wines that go perfectly well with a variety of foods. Contrary to their Noveau cousins they can stand to age for a few years (up to 10) in a cool cellar, emerging thereafter to become replicas for pricey Burgundian Pinot Noirs at double the price. The price of admission for these wines is $ 15-25, which given their quality is most definitely undervalued.
Another region, or, country in this case, which is producing wines that are of relative value, is Portugal. The country was a relative backwater of even decent wines in the 70’s and 80’s but, since then, it has made huge steps in producing great wines made with indigenous grape varieties at very fair prices. One caveat - and this is an issue that a lot of countries that are going through a vinous learning curve are going through: some producers’ ambitious use of new oak barrels is sometimes totally construing the real flavour and nuances of the wine. If the bouquet of the wine smells like a vanilla milkshake, then what is the use of promoting your own, very special grape varieties, like Touriga National if one can buy Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile or wherever, that smells exactly like that?
However, there are a number of great wines coming out of the Dao or Douro regions of Portugal which are not over extracted and over oaked. These wines are made with old vines of local grape varietals which have been grown in ancient vineyards for 100’s of years. Some of these wines are made with field blends, jumbled vines which are not found in neat little rows of single grape varietals. Over the years these vineyards have been replanted randomly, as vines die off or become unproductive resulting in a mishmash of grape varieties such as Touriga National, Touriga Franca, Jaen and Tinta Roriz(which some might know to be Tempranillo the most famous Spanish grape) all in the same vineyard rows. Wines produced from these vineyards almost always result in complex and interesting blends, where all of the grape varieties play an important role within the confines of the final result.
Portuguese red wines typically are of medium to full body, with a little acidity and sometimes a fine streak of tannin. They sometimes remind me of Italian wines, so they definitely reward the consumption alongside food. The prices paid for a majority of these wines is very reasonable, given a direct comparison with their Italian cousins (this of course cannot be a straight up comparison between the actual grape varieties… but rather an intrinsic assessment of the fruit, body and balance of a wine). If I were to generalize, a $15 bottle from Dao, an ancient predominately red wine region in central Portugal, a lot of times equals a $25 bottle from Tuscany.
The secret, really, to finding your own values in the big world of wine is going out there and being adventurous, but here I have given you a good start.
July 16th, 2010
There are two wine regions in France which traditionally have had the upper-hand over all of the other wine producing areas, and those are Bordeaux and Burgundy. This little article focuses on the differences of the two regions: Burgundy located between Dijon and Lyon, in the eastern part of central France and Bordeaux- which is a much larger area in the south-western part of France, located alongside the Atlantic coast.
Burgundy is the ancestral home of two of the world’s most important vinferra grapes, chardonnay and pinot noir. They have been grown in these parts for over 1000 years, and as such the domaines know every small plot and every corner of every vineyard innately. The whole main area of Burgundy, also known as the Cote d’Or runs roughly in a north-south direction and is approximately 70 km in length, but only a few kilometers wide. The best vineyard sites are on the hills facing the east, and not the flatlands which make up the highest percentage of the total vineyard area. In turn the very best of the hillside sites are the ones located mid-slope…they are sheltered from the cold winds coming from the west, receive enough water running of the top slopes and are perfectly situated to get the most sunlight and heat in a kind of amphitheatre. These best sites are known to the burgundians as grand cru vineyards, the vineyards surrounding the grand cru vineyards up and down slope are known as premier cru sites. After that the hierarchy continues with village vineyards, and after that there is regular “Bourgogne” which is theoretically a blend of wine of various sites within the Cote d’Or.
The differences between Burgundy and Bordeaux are numerous; the winery owners in Bordeaux live in grand chateaux and spent half of the year in Paris.
They wear expensive suits and never get any dirt under their fingernails. They produce white, red and sweet wines. The reds are mostly blends made with the “Bordeaux” varieties- cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, but they can include carmenere, petit verdot and malbec. For the whites, who generally do not receive the same admiration, the wines are usually blends as well… the grapes are sauvignon blanc, semillion and muscadelle…and can include a little sauvignon gris. As an aside a little sweet wine is made as well, using the grapes mentioned above and a thing called botrytis, or noble rot. This is done primarily in the appellation of Sauternes in the southern part of Bordeaux, and is totally unfashionable… but can be very expensive to buy.
Most of the chateaux make two or three wines, usually two reds and maybe one white. The reds are “le grand vin”, so their best wine, and then their “second” wine, which are all the barrels which are not deemed good enough to go into their best wine. These are mostly from young vines, or depending on the growing season and the weather from grape varieties which were not as ripe as they needed to be. The vineyard plots are located surrounding the chateaux, mostly in one continuous piece. Depending on the size of the Chateaux they will make into the 10’s of thousands of cases of these wines…but they do not want you to know this as they want to create the image of these wines as exclusive and hard to get. You will not be able to purchase any of these wines at the chateaux itself, neither will you be able to visit and taste, unless you have great connections and/or are possibly in the wine trade
The best wines of Bordeaux used to be quite tannic and therefore required a considerable time in the purchaser’s cellar to soften. Today, because of the general trend to easier, more fruit driven wines worldwide, the Bordelais are using more merlot in their blends and they softened their extraction to produce softer, more generous wines which are accessible pretty much upon release. The great thing about these blended wines, is that each grape variety adds something to the total composition… cabernet sauvignon provides the frame of the wine, and with its tannin ensures age-ability, merlot fills the wine out with fruit and softens it and cabernet franc adds a lovely herbaceous touch. With bottle age the flavours meld and become one: that is why the best Bordeaux wines are absolutely stunning with 10 or more years in the cellar and become very expensive, into the 1000’s of dollars at auction.
In Burgundy the “Domaine” is housed within one of the small villages, with the vigneron’s apartment in the top of the building, and the cave or cellar stuffed with barrels. They have one or two employees (perhaps family members), but they themselves are the ones who are on the tractor during the year, tending their vines. Because the holdings have been passed down from generation to generation, their vineyards are scattered within their village and will probably include some plots in the adjacent villages. But these plots are tiny, a row of vines here and four rows here…that’s why the domaine will make a dozen wines or more, but they will have only a little to sell of each. For a lot of the vineyards there are numerous owners, who all make wine that for instance will be labeled Chambolle Musigny “Les Charmes”. But the quality of the pinot noir or chardonnay can be sublime in the case of the best producers, and horrible in the case of the worst. The problem is that the average consumer will not now who the good producers are and focus on the name of the village or the vineyard, i.e. there is great Chambolle Musigny and really mediocre Chambolle Musigny, depending on who made the wine. In addition the really great domaines will charge extremely high prices, as they do not have very much wine to sell and there is usually a waiting list from around the world.
If you are invited to taste in the cellar of a good burgundian producer, you will taste out of barrel- this is one of the most interesting things that a wine lover can do during their lifetime journey of wine exploration. Because one is tasting pinot noir (or chardonnay), out of the same type of barrels, from the same vintage made by the same method, by one winemaker( who is also the viticulturist), BUT from different vineyard sites you will be able to taste “terroir”- that mythological French term for sense of place. So if one pinot noir comes from the village of Chambolle Musigny it is usually a little lighter and more sensual then one that comes from the town of Nuit St. Georges, which produces brawnier and more fruit driven wine. That is because the soils in Chambolle Musigny, contain more limestone and the soils in Nuit St. Georges contain more clay. These differences have been like that for 100’s of years and are consistent from vintage to vintage.
So, Burgundy or Bordeaux, you really cannot loose…
May 20th, 2010
The above title leaves open a lot of room for interpretation… but I should really have called this little article “Professional Wine Travel” and “Touristy Wine Travel”. The difference for the reader is perhaps not obvious, but all will be revealed.
As an aside I consider the touring of wine regions one of the most important activities that an individual who works professionally with wine needs to accomplish. He /She needs to see where the specific product comes from. This understanding is invaluable in explaining the liquid to your guests: pictures and books are nice, but actually having been in the vineyard and talking to the vigneron who actually made the wine in the barrel cellar adds a dimension that cannot come from theoretical knowledge.
There is also a difference between the “old world” wine experience and the “new world” wine route starts with the duration of your visit. If you are on the touristy wine trail in the new world, you are talking to the tasting room staff in a room full of t-shirts, wine glasses and other related merchandise, and you better not be inundated with an arriving bus tour of thirsty travelers; if you are, things are going to get a lot louder and very cozy.
The tasting room staff may or may not know what they are talking about (wine related) and you might pay (this depends where you are in the new world) for your samples. If you are traveling Hwy. 29 in Napa you will pay dearly for any tastes received, unless you go to the big wine factories where you will receive 3 or so inexpensive samples for free, but if you would like to taste any premium product it will cost you. I should in fairness add that if you do purchase a bottle, some wineries will waive the tasting fee. These individual vineyard visits, can with some small amount of planning, yield up to a half dozen wineries a day, depending on your constitution and your designated driver.
The old world experience is quite different from the frenzy above. First of all, there will be a number of wineries that will be closed to the casual visitor…closed unless you have the right connections. And if the winery is accepting visitors, you will need to make an appointment and you can count on a couple of hours slipping by for the winery tour. There will be no t-shirts, no marinated olives in cute jars and no Riedel glasses for sale. If there is a tour/tasting you will most likely be led around by a member of the family (and perhaps by the one whose English is the best). There will be no fancy tasting room, but instead you might just taste out of the barrel in the cellar, like in Burgundy. If you are tasting at Domaine Weinbach in Alsace (one of the best producers in that part of France) you are entertained in a tiny reception room in a good size Manor House, stuffed full of antique furniture, and the bottles to be tasted are brought into the room one by one, throughout the duration of the visit, just like they are revealing Christmas presents. If you are in Bordeaux, and you‘re tasting at a famous chateau they will, after a cellar tour, give you two or three wines to try, and then tell you that you cannot buy any of those wines at the chateau itself. That is… if you have the right connections and are welcome in the first place.
You will most likely not pay for a tasting in the Europe, but it is assumed that you will purchase a couple of bottles to take along your travels. The whole process is of course slightly different from producer to producer and country to country, and that’s what makes this type of tourism so interesting, if you are the foodie or wino type.
Professional wine travel is a little different still, as the sommelier is gladly seen in almost every winery. But it helps if you are already dealing with the distributor/agent for the producer. Not surprisingly the more important you are as a client, the better your treatment at the winery will be.
The above is best illustrated by the following example:
Domaine X is a good size producer in the south of France, with a large export business.
Lunch or dinner is offered as a courtesy, either at the winery itself or at the fanciest place in town, which conveniently has all of Domaine X’s wines on their large wine list.
Domaine X’s sales manager and the visitor will have jumped in the vineyard’s workhorse Suv, for a tour of the hilly vineyards and to look at fabulous vistas. Thereafter and before dinner, there would have been an exhaustive tour of the winery itself with an in-depth description of the bottling line (the most expensive single piece of equipment in the winery!). Then there would be a grand tasting of all the wines that Domaine X makes, with suggestions made that this wine, or that wine, would fit perfectly as a by the glass pour in your establishment.
And after dinner and because you are already an important client (or are thought to become one) the Domaine has offered to put you up in the guest house on the estate, overlooking the Mediterranean … life is pretty good.
August 31st, 2009
The idea for the Trinity wines started with a desire to create something special; something unique that the Taboo food and beverage team would be proud to present to its discerning clientele.
It is quite common for Ontario wineries to provide “Relabels”, i.e. finished wines in bottle, which are then relabeled to the purchasers’ specifications. We clearly did not want to go this route. We were very interested in creating our “own” wines, unique in the marketplace and just another factor that set’s Taboo apart from its’ competition.
The decision was made to approach Cave Spring Cellars, in Jordan/Ontario to work on a partnership which resulted in the Trinity Private Label. Based on prior common projects by the sommelier and Cave Spring, a very good working relationship had already been established. There was much to be gained by working with one of the pioneering Niagara Peninsula vintners, who have had an outstanding track record since 1985.
Another positive factor was the availability of parcels of unassembled red wines lots from the 2007 Niagara vintage that were aging in the cellars of CSC. This red wine vintage was by far the best ever for the Ontario wine industry, based on the almost perfect growing conditions of 2007 and the increased vine age of the vineyards. Another relatively recent positive development is the gained experience and knowledge of the Niagara vignerons, as they had gained a better understanding of their local terroir and winemaking with the other two other recent exceptional Ontario red wine years of 2002 and 2005.
The Taboo Trinity Chardonnay is a blend of parcels from the 2008 vintage which in the opinion of many is a much more typical Niagara vintage for white wines, showing more “Cut”, i.e. acidity and structure which is demonstrated with a certain liveliness of the finished wine.
The wines were assembled in two sessions: one in Jordan in February and a secondary one in Toronto in April. The “tasting panel” consisted of Angelo Pavan, the highly regarded winemaker at Cave Spring, Tom Pennachetti, Director of Marketing and Sales for CSC and a member of the founding family, Andrea Young, Director of Food and Beverage at Taboo Resort (International Sommelier Guild Level 1) and Markus Carl, Sommelier at Taboo.
The 2007 Taboo Trinity Red blend was established with a 50% stake of Merlot, 30 % of Syrah and a 20 % part of Cabernet Franc. The Merlot provides the soft accessibility of fruit; the Syrah adds structure and spice on the finish and the Cabernet Franc contributes a certain earthiness and very pleasant ripe herbaceous aspect to the finished wine.
The 2008 Taboo Trinity Chardonnay is actually a blend of 4 grape varieties, 80% Chardonnay, 10% Chardonnay Musque, 5% Auxerrois and 5% Sauvignon Blanc. Just as in the red blend the mélange of grapes each contributes to the total: the Chardonnay provides weight and body, the Chardonnay Musque adds a flowery, almost Muscat like fruit overlay, the Auxerrois (Old Vines) makes itself known with a low acid lushness and the Sauvignon Blanc is present for an aromatic lift of flavour on the finish.
The name “Trinity” was chosen to represent the three grape varieties in each blend, even though it is a slight misnomer for the finished Chardonnay Blend. We decided to bottle both wines under screwcap to keep the wines vibrant and to preserve the fruit character of the respective blends.
The wines are meant to go with a wide variety of food, and while perfectly delicious as young bottled wines will begin to shine in the next couple of years, as bottle age harmonizes their flavours.
July 16th, 2009
In the interest of wine exploration a lot of wine aficionados never commit themselves to the cause of a mature, complex wine. That could be for any number of reasons, perhaps including the following:
a) They only invest in single bottles and drink them within a short time of purchase… or perhaps because b) they only prefer young, fruit forward wines or c) they simply have never been exposed to a mature wine.
And often when a novice wine drinker is served an older wine, they do not know what to make of it: here is something which does not at all resemble the wines they normally would enjoy…where are the heavily extracted fruit flavours, where is the sweetness and where is the fullness of weight that the new wine drinker is used to? Regardless of personal taste, it is important to try the same wine in its different stages, just to get an understanding of the aging process.
If the reader is seriously interested in wine and what happens to it as it ages, it is crucial that more then single bottles are acquired … a minimum purchase of three, better six bottles is recommended. When one consumes a single bottle, it is a snapshot into the life of that liquid…if you are consuming a bottle of red wine it in it’s infancy it will be full of fruit, vibrant and maybe a little unyielding; in its’ middle age the primary fruit will start to fade but there will now be very delicious secondary flavours, which complete the wine: there might also be a little tannin left which adds a little crunch to the finish, some structure which holds the fruit in place. An older wine will be mellow, harmonious and soft; there are no tannins left, the fruit is a mélange of secondary flavours sometimes difficult to pinpoint. The colour will have faded from a purple as a youngster to a lighter shade of red as a senior, maybe even showing some signs of transparency.
It should be noted though, that every wine needs to be drunk, and that it will not necessarily get better and better as it proceeds through old age. This is an evolution that is different from wine to wine: the aging process takes two years for an Italian Pinot Grigio and it takes 50 years for a Vintage Port wine from Portugal. For other wines it could be anything in between.
It is important to aid this aging process by providing decent storage conditions, i.e. the kitchen cupboard on top of the stove will not do. To outline the above in any amount of detail would take another column, however it can be said in short that less then ideal circumstances will age the wines in question at a faster rate, so in fact one is turbo charging the maturation process…which is fine as long as the bottles are consumed sooner rather then later. It is also widely accepted that severe temperature fluctuations are worse for a wine then a constant, be it warmer then ideal temperature.
The other possible shortfall in the possibility of obtaining enough mature wines at a reasonable price (one can always buy mature vintages, at a much higher cost) is of course that the consumption rate is too high.
The solution to this problem is that the wine drinker buys three categories of wines:
A. The Tuesday night wines are the inexpensive wines which are brought out for informal meals, early in the week. These are wines which could be bought as cases and in fact act as your “house wines”. This is also the wine category which is in play when large groups of friends assemble at your domicile for social purposes.
B. The Friday night wines are a category up and are more special wines which are pulled out on the weekend: here a 3 to 6 bottle purchase is probably worthwhile. These mid priced bottles will age nicely in a cool environment, and this is the price range that provides the best value wines.
C. The Sunday night wines are up another level, and in fact are special occasion wines. These hopefully could still be purchased in 2 or 3 bottle lots. These are wines which are consumed on birthdays, anniversaries and other significant dates with special reverence.
The wine drinker should not consume the Friday night wines on Tuesday night and the Sunday night wines on Friday night.
A bit of ironclad resolution is needed to accomplish the above but the readers’ wine collection is destined to grow and with that the number of more mature bottles.
June 22nd, 2009
Let’s talk about terroir. Terroir is this magical concept, which the wine writer Matt Kramer has described as ‘sense of place’. The French have for 100’s of years championed it as the secret to their success. It includes the soil, weather and how a particular vineyard is situated in its given location. Typically the wine from a given site should taste roughly the same year after year, if the wine making stays the same. The obvious exception to this is the weather of the vintage year… hot years with lots of sunshine produce bigger, more opulent wines and visa versa, rainy harvests result in washed out, more dilute wines. One could of course go into all kinds of permutations regarding the growing season.
The idea of terroir is primarily an old world one, as vines have been planted in Europe for over 2000 years, whereas the new world time frame is very much shorter. As such the ability to compare vintages of wines from a specific site in the old world has been an ongoing concept for 100’s of years. The same simply cannot be said for a newly planted vineyard in Niagara on the Lake for instance.
There are certain grape varieties which seem to transmit terroir better than others. I believe one of the best is the Riesling (pronounced Reezling) grape, grown throughout the old and the new world, but arguably the most important German contribution to the vinous planet. The grape has grown alongside the major southern German rivers, Rhine and Mosel for 2000 years, first planted by the Romans, and since the middle Ages has produced outstanding, age worthy white wine…all except for a rough patch in the 1970’s, where in order to meet an increased demand for sweeter style wines, standards were dropped by less scrupulous wineries.
Young German Riesling is traditionally characterized by it’s off dry or even sweet nature, balanced by a healthy dose of acidity on the finish. This interplay between sweet and tart flavours is an amazing sensation if the wine maker gets the balance right; it’s like walking on a knife’s edge.
The acidity comes in part from the marginal cool climate where the vines are grown, as this is as far north as any ‘serious’ wine is made in Europe. That the best vineyards are located on the big rivers is also not a fluke, as the flowing water moderates the cold spikes of the growing season.
The wine itself displays flavours of apple, pear and citrus fruit and it is never vinified in new oak. Charred wood would kill the delicate fruit aromas that are present, and that is one of the most charming things about the young Riesling wines. However there are some producers which instead of using the standard stainless steel aging tanks, use older neutral oak tanks, that hold between 1000 and 5000 litres of wine. The tanks are up to 50 years old and impart no flavour of oak at all, but instead change the texture of the high acid wine into something that is softer, with a slightly rounder mouth feel.
The soils of the specific growing areas mark a sense of minerality, or a perceived “stoniness” of the wine. This happens especially along the Mosel River. The best vineyards are always on steep slate, so steep that special vineyard equipment has to be used to do a lot of the maintenance of the site throughout the year. The wines consequently result in a liquid that recalls a wonderful mix of wet rock, sweet stone fruit and lemon tartness.
Wines from the most famous German river, the Rhine however are quite different. The area is much warmer, with heavier loamy soils and even though the grape is the same, the wines will be bigger, with slightly more alcohol and a perceived roundness to the wine that comes as a result of the different terroir. The flavours will lean more towards peach and sometimes apricot, versus the stone fruit and citrus of the Mosel. The whole aspect of a perceived minerality is also missing from a lot of the wines.
As of late, numerous German producers have been championing drier Rieslings, in part due to the fact that a lot of the domestic German market is now more interested in dry wines, and the fact that global warming is providing riper grapes with higher sugar levels, thus making it easier to produce drier wines with lower acidity.
The above new wave of German Rieslings is certainly commercially successful, but for my taste the most authentic and enticing is in the off dry style, which have had a long ‘terroir driven’ history.
June 12th, 2009
Not a lot of people know that 150 years ago German sweet wines were more costly at the London wine merchants than Bordeaux Grand Cru wines. At that time the consumer preferred sweeter wines to the best age worthy red wines that were available. But when you compared these reds to their current vintage today there is a noticeable difference: the colour of the wines a century and a half ago would be like a Pinot Noir would be today, and the alcohol levels would be very restrained. It was and still is called Claret by the English wine trade, referring to the “transparent” nature of the red wine. But if you looked at today’s Bordeaux wines they would look like all the rest of the Cabernets from around the world, deep red or purple with teeth staining powers.
Even the Napa Valley Cabernets, of the late 70’s and early 80’s would only have 11-12.5% alcohol which at that time would be perfectly respectable, as compared to now where if the wine does not have at least 14.5% no critic or ‘serious’ aficionado would even take a look at it. The most esteemed wine that the highly regarded Napa Valley producer Shafer made a few vintages ago weighed in at 16.5% which is at an alcohol level which years ago was reserved solely for sherry or port wines -both of which are fortified wines, i.e. wines to which alcohol has been added for more weight and/or to arrest the fermentation.
The above two paragraphs illustrate that just like everything else wine is constantly changing, even aside from the surfacing of new grape varieties and/or regions. There are various factors at work which determine a large amount of that change.
The first and perhaps most influential factor in the development of today’s wine consuming public would be the emergence of the über critic, both from the American side of the 49th parallel, notably the Wine Spectator Magazine and Robert Parker JR.
Both of them emerged in the early 1980’s and have gained a very strong foothold in wine related commerce, mostly because of their use of the 100 point scale and their combined love of full, high alcohol, up front, fruity concoctions which have unfortunately shaped the public’s taste and perception to a unhealthy degree. I feel that this is in a large part a North American issue as the Old world has been drinking wine for centuries as a daily custom and as such is insulated to the new consumer habits of judging a wine like a term paper. There is a saying in the wine trade, which goes like this “ if you have an 80 point wine you cannot sell it, and if you have a 90 point wine the consumer cannot buy it”- as it is sold out.
The positive side to the dominance of the American wine press is that in their formative years, i.e. the 1980’s there was an urgent need for some rigorous wine criticism as the business end of the wine trade and wine writing was done in a lot of cases by the same individuals, resulting in a lot of insecurity for the average wine buyer. “Is this a good wine? …or are you just writing about it in this wine magazine because you are also selling it?” There were horror stories (of mostly British) wine writers who would pull up to the back doors of French chateaus, and watched while their car trunks were being loaded up with cases of wine, for positive reviews in publications.
Robert Parker, a one time Lawyer from Maryland, became the Ralph Nader of the wine trade, at a time when it was crucial for the industry: The Wine Spectator, a wine and lifestyle magazine from NYC followed shortly thereafter, further popularizing the new “Wine Lifestyle”.
Currently, with the importance of the internet as a information source, including the wide availability of both professional and amateur wine blogs, and a myriad of other wine related information on the net, the whole wine world has become more democratized, which given the power accumulated by Parker and Friends over the last 2 decades, is probably a good thing.
When in doubt trust your own palate, as just like art, music or literature, wine is entirely a subjective endeavor.
May 21st, 2009
In anticipation of the upcoming warmer summer months I have decided to offer my insights and/or opinions on a few wines which are available for your summer wine adventures. So when the hot days finally get here, you will have some ideas as what to serve your family and friends as you are entertaining on your deck. The approach in this column is to lure you away from the obvious and entice you to try something new, because you can always go back to your old favorites. Remember variety is the spice of life…
As you are serving small snacks or appetizers, a celebratory sparkling wine might be in order. May I suggest a Prosecco from north-west of Venice to start before the grill gets fired up. Prosecco typically offers a little more elegance than your average Spanish Cava and is very good on its own as an Aperitif. As a bonus it will go very well with a variety of foods and the bubbles will provide refreshment well into the late afternoon. Just do not expect the same minerality or complexity as Champagne. (Or price for that matter) .
If you are considering grilled fish and/or vegetarian options for the food portion of the event, the wine possibilities are numerous. However one of my favorites is Vino Verdhe, which is a Portuguese white from the cool northwest of the Iberian Peninsula. It literally means green wine, is very refreshing and crisp, provides easy drinking and is a pleasant choice for any number of patio pursuits. Just make sure that you get the newest available vintage, as this is a wine which is most charming in its youth.
As a general rule I do not like to consume heavily oaked, monster whites outside in the summer month as they become tiresome after the first glass and the refreshment factor begins to decline at a rapid pace. So your trophy Napa Valley Chardonnay is out. Also the serving temperature is of vital importance, cold is good, freezing cold is bad. When your teeth are chattering as you are tasting your Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, it means that your are not fully appreciating the complexity that the wine has to offer: the temperature is numbing the flavours and frankly you are not getting your full bang for the buck.
For red meats, lighter to medium bodied reds do better in the summer than those heavy blockbusters, because the higher alcohol levels are even more pronounced in the summer heat, making that 14.5% alc. Shiraz taste very soupy. Also the lighter reds are very versatile with all kind of grilled meats…pork chops, chicken, hamburgers even sausages. Chianti, Rioja and Beaujolais from the old world all work well here. From the new world I would encourage readers to choose from cooler climate regions, and to go for lighter grape varieties as these generally do not have the same alcohol levels as your average desert grown Australian Cabernet Sauvignon.
Also, there is nothing strange about putting that bottle of red in the fridge for 10 minutes, because the wine will certainly appear fresher and fruiter, and will also provide a refreshment function.
Lastly I would urge any interested parties to try a dry Rose from the south of France and/or Spain… no this is not pink zinfandel and thus it is perfectly suited to all kinds of grilled gourmet cuisine. The best ones are usually made with the Grenache grape, have a delightful, very light reddish tinge and are fruity without going over the top. Once again it is worthwhile buying the most recent vintage, as this is a wine which is best enjoyed young. Chill it down and give it a whirl.