Sunday, 19 August 2012

Braving the Mistral Winds

The Northern Rhone often manages to steal the limelight from its counterpart to the South.  And, indeed, with prestigious appellations like Hermitage and Cote Rotie, this isn’t much of a surprise.  Other than Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the appellations of the Southern Rhone are often forgotten or forgettable.  But who can afford to drink Hermitage and Cote Rotie every day?  (Actually, I don’t know when I can afford to drink Hermitage and Cote Rotie, period.) That is where the Southern Rhone shines (it is also the hotter of the two), in producing affordable red wines that offer terrific value.  This is highlighted in the latest Vintages release through the LCBO, which features the Rhone Valley (both its high-end and low-end).  One such latter wine is the 2010 Cuvée Les Trois Soeurs by Domaine Les Grands Bois (Cotes du Rhone AOC). 

The Cotes du Rhone AOC is the lowliest AOC designation in the Rhone, and can apply to wines from both the North and South.  However, the vast majority come from the South.  Like many Cotes du Rhone AOC wines, the Cuvé Les Trois Soeurs is predominantly Grenache based: 60% Grenache, 15% syrah, and 20% carignan.  The latter, carignan, is often considered the ‘workhorse’ grape of the Southern Rhone, rarely producing wines of outstanding quality on its own. 

The Cuvée Les Trois is sourced from mature vines, ranging in age from 30-60 years.  The fruit is hand harvested, and is sorted in the vineyard before it comes to the winery.  The fermentation lasted ten days at controlled temperatures. 

This purple coloured wine is full-bodied, with subtle, but firm, tannins.  The weight of the wine is balanced by lively acidity, which gives the wine an overwhelming freshness.  The aromas and flavours are typical of the Southern Rhone: liquorice, first and foremost.  But there are gobs of fresh blackberry and red currant, alongside pencil lead and herbs.  Indeed, a lot of complexity – and even elegance – for the modest price.  Overall, a great introduction to the Southern Rhone for those who have not yet braved the mistral winds.   

Available at the LCBO through Vintages for $16.95. 

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Joseph Cattin's Crémant d'Alsace

Crémant d’Alsace Brut NV, Joseph Cattin ($16.95)

Produced from Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Chardonnay in the traditional method.  Aged for at least 12 months on the lees; no disgorgement date listed.

Lemon-green, with a fine, persistent bead. A toasty nose indicative of having been aged on its lees, accompanied by candied orange peel and lemon.  The mousse almost floats on the palate, with smooth, gentle bubbles that pleasantly envelop the mouth.    Dry, with plentiful acidity.  Gulpable.  A well-made traditional method sparkler; a real winner at this price.

Monday, 6 August 2012

The LG Wine Awards (Part II)

 Why do we care about wine competitions?  We care because it takes some of the risk out of purchasing a bottle or two of wine.  Rather than having to roll the dice ourselves, we leave the dirty work of sifting through the drabble to the ‘experts’.  And we hope that what settles in the pan is a good – maybe even exceptional – bottle of wine.  Yes, we care about the winners.
So, how do wine competitions decide which wine is a gold medal winner?  To begin with, it depends on which wineries took the initiative to submit their wines.  A wine competition doesn’t go out in search of the best wines.  Rather, it selects the best of what is submitted.
In the case of the 2012 Lieutenant Governor Wine Awards (LGWA, for short), 73 Ontario wineries submitted a total of 258 bottles of wine.  This meant the group of judges had to – in just one day– taste 258 wines.  The wines were split by variety or wine style.  So, Riesling was tasted with Riesling; sparkling wine was tasted with sparkling wine.  The wines were on an even playing field.
The judges (or adjudicators, as they were referred to as by the Lieutenant Governor’s office) were split into three panels.  This meant that each judge would only have to taste 100 or so wines.  The panels would come to a consensus on their favourites from each category, selecting the wines that would make it to round two.  Some flights saw no wines move on, others saw two or three.
By the end of Day 1, 58 wines had been deemed worthy of going forward.  On Day 2, the judges had to select from those wines a maximum of 12 that would be given the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Ontario Wines.  The 11 wines they ended up selecting can now be found on the Lieutenant Governor’s website at   
And, indeed, the judges did select some truly exceptional wines.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

The LG Wine Awards (Part I)

From July 3-5, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the ‘Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Ontario Wines’ (thankfully abbreviated on Twitter as the #LGWineAwards).  This was my first experience behind-the-scenes at a wine competition.  And what an experience it was. 

A total of 268 wines were entered, from which the judges (ahem, adjudicators) ultimately selected only 11 winners.  I was glad to not be a judge.  The level of quality, on the whole, of these Ontario wines was quite high.  There easily could have been upwards of twenty winners. Unfortunately, according to the parameters of the competition, a maximum of 12 winners could be chosen. 

Each category of wines had their standouts.  But, in my view, the categories that were most consistent were no surprise: Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Icewine, and Sparkling.  These are some of the grape varieties (and wine styles) that have proven to be most successful in Ontario. 

The list of winners will be announced in the coming weeks, all of which are exceptional.  (There will be no leaks from me!)  I am proud to know that these wines will be representing the Ontario wine industry.

In Part II, I hope to provide an in-depth view of what happens behind-the-scenes at a wine competition.

Friday, 2 March 2012

An Evening of 'Natural' Wines at the SAT Food Lab

I had the opportunity to visit SAT’s Food Lab last night.  This fun Montreal restaurant-meets-cafeteria is run by two former Laloux chefs: Seth Gabrielse and Michelle Marek.  The menu changes weekly(-ish), with this week’s menu happening to be a vigneron theme.   However, it wasn’t for the food that I made my way downtown during a bizarre March blizzard.  (Fine, blizzard by Niagara standards.)  Rather, the wine list (crafted by La QV and Oenopole wine agencies) emphasized only ‘natural’ wines.  These are the type of wines that you rarely get a chance to purchase at your friendly government monopoly liquor stores.

I won’t dive into the intense, and almost downright nasty, on-going debate on natural wines.  All I will say is that these wines were made from grapes grown according to organic and biodynamic viticultural standards, with the resulting wines having little to no chemical additions.  That means, by and large, these wines are a product of wild (or natural) fermentations, then bottled without fining or filtering and little (or no) sulphur addition.  The goal is to craft a wine that is a true expression of terroir.  (Whether natural wines are a true or ‘better’ expression of terroir is another story.)

These are the five wines I tried:

(1)  ‘Epaulé Jété Blanc’ 2010, Domaine Catherine and Pierre Breton, Vouvray

100% Chenin blanc (I believe).  Organic, biodynamic viticulture; hand-harvested; wild fermentation; non-filtered; little to no sulphur addition.  A simple, clean, crisp wine with minerality, green apple, and peach.  A non-descript wine that, if tasted blind, could have been any number of varieties.  This is very much a food wine. 

(2)  ‘Les Amandiers’ 2009, Chateau La Tour Grise, Vin de France

100% Chenin blanc.  Organic, biodynamic viticulture; wild fermentation.  This is not AoC accredited.  The first thing that immediately jumps out at you is the colour: its deep, golden-brown.  And the first taste confirms that, yes, this is oxidized.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting wine, as it turned out to be one of our favourites of the evening.  The wine has bright acidity, with nutty minerality and apple.

Nothing that I could find on the producer’s website indicates that this wine was purposefully oxidized.  This leads me to think it’s just one of the potential consequences (benefits?) of low (or no) sulphur additions.  It’s interesting now, but I don’t know if that’ll be the case in a year.

(3)  Pinot Noir 2009, Domaine Meinklang, Burgenland

This producer does not have a website.  The nose provides an initial whiff of smokey bacon.  I found the smokiness to dissipate over time, and was replaced with cherry and blackberry fruit.  Overall, a decent wine.  My comment at the time was, “This tastes like a Pinot that costs $18.”  (I was a little off; La QV lists it at $25.)  For me, though, there was something missing – as is so often the case with Pinot at this price range.

(4)  Epaulé Jeté Rouge 2010, Domaine Catherine and Pierre Breton, Chinon

100% Cabernet Franc.  This is a textbook Chinon: herbaceous with cherry, raspberry fruit.  I picked up a slight minerality on the palate and, interestingly, a little tar on the nose.  Perhaps it would have been better appreciated when paired with food.  

(5)  Method Traditionelle Rosé 1999, Chateau La Tour Grise, Saumur

Blend unknown; I assume some combination of Cabernet Franc and Chenin blanc.  I cannot believe that this from the 1999 vintage.  The colour (albeit the lightning wasn’t ideal) shows no indications of aging, and the wine is incredibly clean and fresh. Bright acidity, fresh strawberries, and beautiful creamy texture.  This was completely unlike the 2009 ‘Les Amandiers’ we tried from the same producer.  Overall, by far, my favourite wine of the evening.

And what did I learn?  A natural wine does not ipso facto make a good wine; but natural wines can be great wines.    

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Tasting Session #3

Tasting Session #3

For our recent third tasting session, we made the leap from whites to reds.  The theme for the session was affordable Italian reds.  The two winners of the evening, in my opinion, were:

(1) Folonari Valpolicella Ripasso Classico ($14.95)

            Easily recognizable as a Ripasso: rich, extracted dark fruit flavours (black cherry), with a smooth, silky texture.

(2) Matervitae Negroamaro ($9.85)

            Both the nose and palate were dominated by barnyard characteristics.  A simple, but enjoyable wine.

Negroamaro is a variety that I had not been exposed to before this tasting.  It is found primarily in southern Italy, where it is grown in both the Salento and Puglia regions (it is the dominant grape variety in the latter region). 

Oz Clarke describes it as a “rather odd-tasting grape” with farmyard and medicinal flavours.  It is often blended with Malvasia Nera to produce a higher quality wine.

Negroamaro is certainly a grape variety that I look forward to trying again in the near future.  The LCBO carries approximately twenty Negroamaro wines, all of which are under twenty dollars.     

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Tasting Session #1

The first tasting for our as-of-yet untitled tasting group occurred this evening.  The theme was Sauvignon Blanc.  On the docket were three wines that we hoped would give a good introduction into this distinctive variety:

(1) Le Courlis 2009, Sauvignon Touraine, Clos du Porteau ($14.95) [Loire Valley, France]

            An understated nose of cut grass that led to mineral and tropical fruit notes on the palate.

(2) Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Marlborough, Mount Riley ($15.95) [New Zealand]

            A wine that exemplified the variety New Zealand has made famous: cut grass, peach on the nose that carried over to lychee and herbaceous notes on the palate.  

(3) Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Sonoma, Et Cetera ($14.95) [California]

            A wine completely out of balance by its high alcohol content (14.2%): what little fruit the wine offered was completely dominated by the alcohol. 

Of the three, the crowd favourite was split between the wines (1) and (2).  Wine (1), perhaps, lacked the varietal characteristics that are often most associated with Sauvignon Blanc.  Other than the faint aroma of cut grass on the nose, it lacked any herbaceous qualities. The tropical notes, however, were an interesting surprise for a wine from the cooler Loire Valley region.  It was, in my opinion, the most elegant of the evening with well-balanced acidity and alcohol.

The Mount Riley Sauvignon Blanc substituted the minerality of Le Courlis for more pronounced herbaceous qualities.  It was an equally impressive wine, but one with a noticeable alcohol presence at 13.5%.  Based on my tasting experience, it was a wine very typical of many New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs at this price range.

The third wine was selected to give an example of a Sauvignon Blanc from a warm climate region.  Its high alcohol content, however, completely dominated the wine.  The alcohol heat was evident on the nose, with only a modest amount of fruit coming through.  The herbaceous flavour of the wine came through on the tip of the palate, but was soon easily dominated by the alcohol on the back.  Overall, it was the group’s least favourite wine.  It was telling that, with the bottles of the first two wines empty, this third bottle was still over half full.