January 24 Roundup: Chardonnay, the Low Alcohol Wine Craze, and La Rioja

TASTING NOTES
Each week I review a wine with my “Sip It!”-or-“Skip It!” recommendation. All Vintages and product numbers refer to the LCBO.
Sip It!
Franciscan Chardonnay, Napa, California, 2013

Vintages #: 496125 | 750 mL bottle | $24.95
Alcohol: 13.5%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: White
Rating: 

Slightly mature, lightly oaked, golden-hued Chardonnay without the robustness of an overly aged, overly oaked white. Medium- to full-bodied. Faintly aromatic on the nose, with pronounced spice notes of nutmeg, cloves, and stone fruits. Flavours of peach, dried apricot, lychee, pineapple, and caramel make this a delightful Chard. It didn’t blow my mind, but it was a solid performer on my palate.

About Franciscan Estate: Producing wines for over three decades in the heart of Napa Valley, Franciscan Estate grows Bordeaux varieties on a 240-acre parcel of land in loam and gravel soils. Dry-farming techniques are used to yield “smaller, concentrated fruit, which build good structure, body, and texture.” Chardonnay thrives in the cooler vineyards on a 17-acre estate vineyard proximate to Napa; the resulting grapes, from clay and gravel soils, have “astounding structure and minerality.”

Sip It!
Fleur du Cap Chardonnay, Cape Coastal Region, South Africa, 2014

LCBO #: 358960 | 750 mL bottle | $12.95
Alcohol: 14.0%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: White
Rating: 

The price is right on this bright, easy-drinking Chardonnay. On the nose, subtle notes of green apple, lemon, tart yellow grapefruit, and tropical fruits conjure up images of summer picnics or beach vacations. Pronounced flavours of passion fruit, and a tickle of vanilla help add complexity to this medium-bodied, minerally (but not textural) wine. I served it with seafood, and it was the perfect accompaniment: not overpowering, but imparting just enough acidity and flavour to help revive the palate.

About Fleur du Cap: Widely regarded as one of South Africa’s most well-known labels, Fleur du Cap wines are made from Bordeaux and Rhône varieties grown in the Cape Coastal regions, and based on environmentally friendly wine-making practices. “…Each step of the intricate winemaking process has to be gently and sensitively handled to produce wines that express their terroir and varietal character.”


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SPOTLIGHT ON THE WORLD’S WINE REGIONS
Putting that graduate degree in history to use…looking at wine through the ages.

THIS WEEK: RIOJA

It never ceases to amaze me just how old grape cultivation in some parts of the world really is. As I began researching La Rioja, I bumped into those familiar Phoenicians, and those not-so-familiar Celtiberians (obviously they’re a Celtic-speaking group that hung out around the Iberian Peninsula towards the tail-end of the “BC years”). These dudes (and maybe dudettes?) are said to have grown and vinified grapes in this region before recorded history. Awesome, right?

If you haven’t been noticing a pattern to the history of wine in the Old World, monastic orders were among the most committed and enduring grape-growers throughout much of the Middle Ages. In fact, Rioja is part of the Camino de Santiago (which I’ve always wanted to walk), and pilgrims are said to have been offered wine during their stay in monasteries along the way.

The first written record of viticulture in La Rioja appears in the “Carta de población de Longares” (Letter to the Settlers of Longares) in 1063. Legal recognition of the wine followed some fifty years later with the King of Navarre and Aragon recognizing Rioja wines for the first time. From about the 16th century, wine production in Rioja developed rapidly, aided by a 17th-century pseudo-designation-of-origin decree protected the quality of the region’s wines.

Berry Bros. & Rudd call Rioja “a Burgundy wine with a Bordeaux history,” owing to its French influences and connections. “Geographically,” they write,”Rioja is located closer to Bordeaux than Madrid, encouraging a historical link between the two areas.” This is evidenced in many ways, not least among them the 18th century application of Medoc cask-aging practices to the region by oenologist Manuel Quintano, and the introduction of Bordeaux grape varieties in the 1850s. (You really should just read the entire Berry Bros. blog.) To this day, the wines share some of the signature aromas and flavours of Bordeaux wines, largely imparted from aging in oak barriques. (Many Rioja producers lean towards American oak, but a mixture of both American and French is also common.)

Rioja is arguably Spain’s most famous wine region, next to Jerez. Located in northern Spain, on the Ebro River, the region has approximately 64,000 hectares under vine, and is made up of three sub-regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja, each producing its own distinctive wines. The geography and micro-climates across the three areas vary considerably, from cooler temperatures at higher elevations that result in shorter growing seasons, to more Mediterranean climates where the wines produced are deep and rich. While wine from Rioja will commonly share bright red fruit aromas and flavours, and the telltale signs of oak, the terroir in the subregions will often come through–from Rioja Baja’s minerally, floral wines with bright acidity–to Rioja Alta’s “full body…earthy notes and expressive dark fruit flavours.”

Wine production in the region is dominated by red, which accounts for over 80 per cent of total output. While Tempranillo is the dominant variety used, Garnacha Tinta (a.k.a. Grenache), Mazuelo (a.k.a. Carignan), and Graciano are also permitted in the region’s red wines. Rioja Blanco (for those of you who don’t speak Spanish, “blanco” means white) is made from Viura (a.k.a. Macabeo), and is typically blended with Malvasia and Garnacha blanca.

Navigating wine labels can always be a challenge, especially if you head out to the LCBO near Bloor and Royal York Road where a special wines of Spain section will leave you scratching your head. Words like “joven,” “crianza,” “vino de la tierra,” and others may seem cryptic to those delving into Spanish wine for the first time, so here’s a quick primer on the labels:

  • The name of the wine and wine-maker should be pretty self-explanatory. The back of the label has your typical details, including tasting notes, optimal serving temperature, and information about how the wine was made. That’s the easy bit.
  • As you may know, whether you drink French, Italian, or pretty much any other wine, there is generally a quality classification system that distinguishes things like table wine, regional wine, and quality wines. “Vin de Pays,” “vino da tavola,” and “vinho de mesa” have their Spanish equivalents in “vino de mesa” (table wine), “vino de la tierra” (regional wine), and “vino de calidad” (quality wine.
  • Then there’s the time spent in barrel and bottle, which ranges from “joven” (relatively young wine that has spent a very short period of time in oak), “crianza” (wines aged for a minimum of 12 months in oak and 12 months in bottle), “reserva” (wines aged for about a year in oak and two years in bottle), and “gran reserva” (aged for a minimum of five years in total, with at least two in oak). While there are a few intermediate classifications between joven and crianza, these really are your most common. (I think this YouTube video summarizes it well.)
  • Finally, there’s Spain’s denomination of origin system, the regulatory classification system similar to France’s wine appellations. Rioja enjoys Denominación de Origen Calificada (or D.O.Ca.) status which is the “highest category in Spanish wine law, reserved for regions with above-average grape prices and particularly stringent controls. Rioja  was the first Spanish region to be awarded DOC status in 1991.”

 So, there you have it: Rioja in a nutshell. I hope you’re feel like a trip to the wine store now that you’re equipped with some knowledge to select a great bottle.

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January 17 Roundup: PX Sherry – The Last Frontier, Submarine Technology, and George of the Wine Cellar

Faithful Readers, This is the last week of our sherry reviews from “Tapaspalooza 2015.” Since introducing the new content and format, I’ve received feedback from some of our more engaged audience members, with one particularly vocal reader expressing “deep discontent” over the cutback in wines reviewed. It seems the preference remains for at least two wine reviews per week at a minimum, so I’ll be reverting to our old format for tasting notes. I’ve yet to receive any comments, positive or negative, on our two new “essay” sections, though some have remarked in passing that the blog has become more whimsical (not to mention lengthy!). In an effort to keep the populace satisfied, we’ll be introducing a new approach to the editorial calendar: the first week of the month we’ll be time travelling back in time to explore the history of wine, the second week we’ll be reviewing learning aids (books, videos, or podcasts), the third week we’ll explore a wine word in depth, and the fourth week we’ll take a look at a wine region. A new mainstay of the weekly blog will be grape varieties in 250 characters or less. This will also help me manage the workload demands of the blog as this week, having been on a northern Ontario sojourn, I wasn’t really able to turn my attention to Sip It or Skip It until today. 😦 I imagine if anyone is dissatisfied with this latest update, I’ll find out about it!


TASTING NOTES
Each week I review a wine with my “Sip It!”-or-“Skip It!” recommendation. All Vintages and product numbers refer to the LCBO.
Sip It!
Alvear Solera 1927 Pedro Ximenez Montilla Mor Sherry

LCBO #: 383422 | 375 mL bottle | $19.95 (now reduced to $15.55 as it’s discontinued)
Alcohol: 16.0%
Sweetness: Sweet
Wine Type: Sherry
Rating:  

The Alvear family has been making wine since the 18th century. Over generations, the family acquired land and vineyards, as well as contracts to ship wine commercially. According to the Alvear website, “throughout its 284-year-long histry, Bodegas Alvear has managed … to combine and put into practice the extensive experience of a privileged land and a dedicated family in order to produce exceptional wines.” Today, Alvear distributes its wines across Spain, and abroad to more than 25 countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, and Australia.

You can pick this PX up at the LCBO or at Harrods 🙂 — though right now it’s on sale at the LCBO at a huge bargain. This is a delicious, albeit super sweet wine, that would be mind-blowing with blue cheese or fig ice cream, but I’d suggest limiting yourself to a thimble-full. Deep nut brown, this wine smelled of stewed plums or even plum buttery, with those luscious jammy notes, punctuated by rich floral-honey. On the palate, this is syrupy to be sure, texturally similar to maple syrup, but with crisp, brightening acidity: citrus notes of tangerine linger on the finish. Brown sugar and molasses also come through, but surprisingly absent for me was the nuttiness and salinity that I was expecting.The PX grapes, once harvested, are raisined in the Spanish sun, and pressed to “deliver intensely rich must.” The solera system for this wine was first developed in 1927. Buy it, save it, serve it, gift it, you can’t go wrong with this tasty sweet sherry — just make sure to serve it cold (between 10-14° C).

 

 

 

 


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WINE CASK TIME MACHINE
Putting that graduate degree in history to use…looking at wine through the ages.

THIS WEEK: ON WORDS AND WINE – GEORGE SAINTSBURY

I felt a nice conclusion to our in-depth exploration of sherry this month would be seeing what other long-time drinkers thought about it in all its varieties. That’s how I stumbled upon George Saintsbury, whose Notes on a Cellar should find its way into everyone’s wine library. As much historical record as autobiography, George Saintsbury’s notes, first published in 1920, are delightful, amusing, educational, and quite germane to our January tasting adventure.

I didn’t know who George Saintsbury was before this week when I started reading his Notes, but it seems the Oxford-educated literary scholar had a penchant for the humble vitis vinifera plant as well. A prolific literary critic, his seminal works on French literature put him on the map as an authority on the subject when they were first published in the 1880s. He is no less respected for his insights into English literature, among them a series on “English Men of Letters,” and a work on minor poets in the Caroline period. 

 Despite his fame in literary circles, he is arguably best remembered today for his reflections on wine and wine drinking. His thoughts on sherry were especially interesting to me. He writes:

“Although I am myself no lover of modernity, I do not think there is, or was at any rate a short time ago, quite so much bad sherry about as there used to be. I remember in the middle of the [eighteen] sixties, when Sunday lunching places in London were rare  and I had as yet no club, being driven to feed with an Oxford friend at a small tavern or chophouse in Piccadilly. The scorch and the twang of what they miscalled “Vino de Pasto” abide in my palate’s memory to this day. And it was made all the more wicked because Sherry is plenteous in quality and singularly various in kind.” (Notes on a Cellar, University of California Press, 2008: 53)

George, I couldn’t agree more! In fact, you’ll note a similar observation in my primer on Sherry from last year. Delving into Sherry types, he goes on to observe:

But some of the finer kinds [or sherry] are really supernacular–the best Tio Pepe,” for instance. Only he who indulges in them must remember that they are an exception to the general rule that “Sherry improves in the decanter. When they are opened, the finer ones especially, they must be drunk. I have known a bottle of Tio Pepe become appreciably “withered between lunch and dinner.” (54)

Faithful Readers, you will recall the Tio Pepe from two weeks ago, which we reviewed–a dry white wine which, unlike its Palo Cortado or PX cousin, must be drunk within the same short, subject-to-early-spoilage window as most of your light white wines.

From Fino to our exciting PX, George (who looks a lot like Gandalf, no? See below) covered it all in his cellar notes, colouring his tasting experiences with memories from Oxford, and adulthood in Edwardian England. Of all of Saintsbury’s books, Notes on a Cellar has “never been out of print or  out of favour”; in fact, according to the London Review of Books, “first editions are highly valued in the antiquarian book trade, and [this book] alone has sustained Saintsbury’s reputation into the 21st century.” Aging, ailing, and in his mid-seventies when he wrote it under contract with Macmillan, Saintsbury had been “under doctors’ orders to limit his alcohol intake,” but his ledger–a book he had kept for some three decades–“used to organise his wine cellar and to memorialise what had passed through it and, subsequently, through him,” was a vital resource for inspiring the reflections of this charming tome. I don’t think I could say it better than Tim Patterson, who writes:

…the Notes are a marvelous window into an important era in the history of wine, the period at the turn of the 20th century. At that time rich and/or educated Brits like Saintsbury–well, nobody was quite like Saintsbury–had appointed themselves arbiters of the world’s wines, and were busy establishing Bordeaux as the reference point for fine wine, sorting out the Ports and Sherries, crowning the Mosel, and establishing the idea of well-aged wine as the Holy Grail. In broad terms, the opinions of Saintsbury’s cohort are the conventional wisdom of today’s wine world–and here we see them being created.



VINUM VERBA
Each week we explore the exciting language of wine, deciphering those cryptic wine reviews, and helping consumers expand their libation lexicon.

Lees. You’ve likely seen it on the back of labels that say a wine has been aged on them, but what the heck are they?

If you’re a beer drinker, you may be more familiar with the term, which, like in wine, is a fermentation process in which the wine or beer is aged for a time on the dead or residual yeast, as well as any other particles that find their way to the bottom of the fermentation vessel. You’ll often see many wines, in particular Chardonnay, Muscadet, and Champagne aging for a time sur lie (on the lees), while, in the making of Valpolicella Ripassos, the lees from Amarone are often added to enhance flavour. A Falanghina I enjoyed this weekend was aged on the lees, imparting a yeasty smell. The wine had the butteriness you’d hope for from malolactic fermentation, but none of the heavy oakiness from aging in a cask or with wood chips. The yeast notes were subtle and pleasant to the nose and taste buds. So, there you have it–another wine-making technique under your belt. Until next week, Faithful Readers…

January 10 Roundup: Sherry Redux, Working on a Grape Gang, and a Wine-Grammar Lesson



TASTING NOTES
Each week I review a wine with my “Sip It!”-or-“Skip It!” recommendation. All Vintages and product numbers refer to the LCBO.
Sip It!
Lustau Almacenista Vides Palo Cortado de Jerez 

LCBO #: 431940 | 500 mL bottle | $37.00
Alcohol: 15.0%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: Sherry
Rating:    

In my crash course on sherry last year, I called Palo Cortados the “unicorns of the sherry world” for their reputed rarity. Far from a Fino, which is how it would have begun its fortified wine life, Palo Cortados have the “aromatic refinement of Amontillado [sherries] combined with the structure and body of an Oloroso.”

Sherries age in one of two ways: biologically or oxidatively, the former occurring under a blanket of indigenous yeast called flor, and the latter the result of air contact over time in the cask. Sherrynotes.com explains it well:

…a Palo Cortado would originate as a Fino that started to deviate: unplanned yeast activity, specific characteristics of the grape juice, a slightly off-beat cask or certain ambient conditions that influenced the flor. These casks would then be taken out of the Fino solera: its Fino mark, a vertical line or palo, would then be crossed or cortado by a diagonal line. Its flor would be killed by fortifying the wine to 17-18 degrees and it would continue its life as a barrel that ages oxidatively.

This inexplicable switch from biologic to oxidative aging is what makes Palo Cortados so rare: there is no guarantee of the result and, as such, it is estimated that fewer than 10,000 bottles of authentic Palo Cortado are sold each year. “Commercial” Palo Cortados, on the other hand, are the skillful blend of Amontillado and Oloroso sherries

Lustau is a great entry- and mid-level producer for authentic sherry. Founded in 1896, and relocated to the historic quarter of Jerez de la Frontera in the 1940s, the label began exporting its sherry in the 1950s, though the market was dominated by British tastes for sweeter fortifieds. Decades of innovation and expansion followed Lustau’s initial export market entry and, aided by a resurgent interest in more authentic Spanish sherry, gained increasing market share in the 1980s

Nestled amidst the limestone “albariza” hills of Jerez, Lustau’s two vineyards–Montegilillo and Las Cruces–grow traditional sherry grape varieties for production of both dry and sweet wines. Palomino, Muscatel, and Pedro Ximénez grapes are exposed to an average of 3,000 hours of sunlight, and relatively heavy rainfalls, helping the ripening process

Bodega_La_Emperatriz._Lustau.jpg
Lustau’s Bodega in Jerez de la Frontera (from Wikipedia)

Made from Palomino grapes, Lustau Almacenista Vides Palo Cortado de Jerez is a light amber-coloured wine that, when poured, recalls the appearance of light maple syrup. Aged in American oak in the traditional solera system, the product notes describe “nuances of vanilla, coffee and dark chocolate,” though I only picked up the vanilla. Instead, my nose detected aromas of brown sugar, short pastry crust, and cinnamon–the smells you associate with the baking of a great apple pie. On the palate, nutty warmth, a saline-minerality, toasted almond, and warm baking spices were intense and luxurious. Not exactly a fan favourite with guests, though it was preferred to last week’s Fino, I rather enjoyed this for the unique playfulness of the myriad flavours. Lustau recommends serving this between 14-15° C (which I did), alongside consommés, game soups, cold and smoked meats, foie-gras, and many spicy Asian dishes (none of which I tried, the cold, smoked meats excepted).


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WINE CASK TIME MACHINE
Putting that graduate degree in history to use…looking at wine through the ages.

THIS WEEK: REIGN OF TERROIR – WINE AND THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

I was racking my brain this week, wondering what to blog about. I had fun with my last post (one that a faithful reader called “whimsical”)–though, truth be told, I’m wondering how much mileage I can get out of this before the so-called well runs dry on this mash-up of history and wine.  There I was, sitting in a Starbucks, puttering away on my other big writing project this week, texting with Faithful Reader and long-time friend, Dean, when I mused (in less than 160 characters): Isn’t there a part in A Tale of Two Cities where a cask of wine spills onto the streets of Paris? It’s been over a decade since I’ve read Dickens’ tragic tale of love, death, and betrayal in revolutionary France–in fact, I think I read it in the seventh or eighth grade, when I went through my “French Revolution phase,” lapping up novels like The Scarlet Pimpernel (and the film adaptation, with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour, of course, not the remake a few decades later), but I digress…This weekend, I dug up the copy I’d read back then–the Penguin edition from 1971, now with yellowed pages, dog-eared and worn since I was not the first reader. I wasn’t up for doing the whole cover-to-cover thing, so I opted for thumbing through to the chapter called, “The Wine Shop,” in search of the passage I remembered. There it was on page 60, the cask of red wine that “stained the ground of the narrow street in the suburb of Saint Antoine…where it was spilled,” a metaphor for the savage, unrepentantly bloody revolution that France would wage on the existing social order. All this got me thinking, if the French Revolution was so fundamental in altering the political, economic and social structure of the country, what was the deal with wine?

T2C,_Fred_Barnard,_The_Wine-Shop_in_St._Antoine
A Tale of Two Cities, The Wine-Shop, Gaspard, Madame de Farge, and her publican husband, by Fred Barnard.” (Another Wikipedia “labelled for reuse” picture.)

Grape cultivation across France, as in most of Europe, predates recorded history. The Celts, Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, and others travelling to and from what is now present-day France, whether temporary sojourners or permanent migrants, cultivated the humble Vitis vinifera plant. At the height of the Roman Empire, when demand was arguably at its peak, vines were planted throughout Gaul (areas that now make up the present-day Loire Valley, the Paris Basin, Champagne, and Brittany). As the Roman Empire crumbled, and the region fell prey to invading Germanic tribes, grape cultivation entered a quasi-Dark Age, only to be reinvigorated by the Carolingian Renaissance, and the rise of the medieval wine trade. 

It should come as no surprise that one of the key forces driving wine production during this period was the Catholic Church (as an example, see my post on Châteauneuf-du-Pape from 2015). However, viticulture and wine-making was predominantly a small-scale, monastic affair–think of the Cistercian order in Burgundy, or the Benedictine monks in the Rhône Valley. There is some dispute over how much of a role the Church played in preserving the tradition of viticulture from the Roman period, with one camp arguing that private enterprise, as permitted, for instance, under the Carolingians, was responsible for shepherding vine cultivation through the Dark Ages.

Ancien régime blues: Something rotten in the state of France

Dickens famously begins his novel, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” but, for the peasants of France, it truly was the worst of times; there was absolutely nothing remotely redeeming about the ancien régime. A contemporary Frenchman witnessed the plight of the peasant first-hand:

Certain ferocious animals are to be seen in the rual districts, males and females, swarthy, livid, and sunburnt, and attached to the soil, which they dig with indomitable stubborness. They have something like articulate speech, and faces resembling those of human beings; and, in fact, they are men. At night they retire to dens, where they live on black bread, water and roots. They save other people the trouble of sowing, ploughing, and reaping, and thus deserve not the lack of bread which they themselves have produced. (La Bruyère, quoted in R. H. Dabney, The Causes of the French Revolution, 86-7.)

Indeed, it sucked to be poor in pre-revolutionary France. Another account, a century earlier, perhaps fortelling the consequences of abject poverty, recalls the “signs of a growing misfortune; all the dismal indications of an overwhelming calamity. [France’s] fields were uncultivated, the villages unpeopled, the houses dropping to decay.” By the eve of the revolution, the resulting stagnation from an indigent populace saw almost a quarter of agricultural land laying fallow, wages of those fortunate to count themselves among the labouring popuation dropped to below-susbsistence levels, and taxation, both direct and indirect, was the greatest source of popular discontent. 

Taxation was a real bummer. According to R. H. Dabney, approximately 53 per cent of the income earned from the peasant’s farm was absorbed in direct taxes. After paying the government, another 14 per cent was slated for the seigneur (or landlord), and another “to the tithe-owing clergy.” When everyone had been paid, the peasant proprietor had about 19 per cent of that remaining for himself and his family. But we’re not done yet. As if the state hadn’t bled the poor peasant dry, he and his entire family had to pay indirect taxes, too, on salt, as an example, and wine–“one of the most heavily taxed commodities by the end of the ancien régime” according to Noelle Plack, senior lecturer at Newman University College in Birmigham, UK (N. Plack, “Liberty, Equality and Taxation: Wine in the French Revolution,” Social History of Alcohol and Drugs 26: 1 (2012), 9). Get this – even gifting a bottle of wine to someone, like a sick relative, was a punishable offence, and the state could, at any time, demand to see a wine-grower’s inventory to determine how much he was permitted to drink before taxing the balance of his cellar. Outrageous! It’s no wonder that, when the Estates General–the last-ditch effort to save the unravelling social and (soon enough) political order–was convened to review the grievances expressed from French people across the country, tithes and other taxes from both Church and state were raised as the most crushing.  

The times – they are a changin’…

I think we pretty much know what went down, from the Bastille to the guillotine, without going into gruesome detail. Taxation, though recognized as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, was not immediately abolished by the National Assembly, despite their recognition that the approach to collection, as well as the steep amount, needed to be changed. Riots ensued, revolts sprung up, and havoc was wreaked by those refusing to pay anymore taxes. By May 1791, taxation on a range of consumer goods, including meat, tobacco and wine, had ended (through through a more complex series of reforms than I am able to describe in this blog post). According to Plack:

 On this day [April 30-May 1, 1791] there were prolonged and exuberant celebrations in Paris and throughout France, which commemorated the event with much fanfare. Carts filled with barrels of wine and other goods lined up on the roads outside the Capital, waiting for the stroke of midnight to pass through the customs barriers free of charge. According to the journalist, Camille Desmoulins, 431 wagons filled with wine and over 270,000 livres worth of brandy (eaux-de-vie) entered Paris along with 1600 chickens, 1672 turkeys and 90 cattle during the night of April 30-May 1, 1791.1 Desmoulins estimates that these goods would have carried a value of 3,568,254 livres of which two million would have gone to the General Farm in the form of indirect taxes. (Plack, “Liberty,” 5.)

Perhaps this is how the cask of wine in the pages of Dickens’ famed novel got to Paris–in the overnight transport of tax-free goods from country to city? 

A new vino order… 

An interesting by-product of the rhetoric of wine and revolution was increasing demands of the flattening of wine prices, regardless of quality. In the spirit of égalité, it was argued that “affordable wine was a right of the people and that they should have access to it wherever they lived… ‘It is deplorable,’ [a] winegrower deputy lamented, ‘that in a free nation, the poor should pay as much tax for their mediocre wines as the rich pay for their bottles of Burgundy or Champagne'” (Plack, 16). According to Plack, moderately priced wine was a “tangible outcome” of the revolution, though it’s certainly not the only change affecting French wine into the next century.

According to Julian Hitner, reflecting on the work of eminent wine gurus Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, “the single greatest change that the…Revolution in France made to the ancien régime of wine was to dispossess monasteries and the Church of their enormous holdings.” Nowhere was this perhaps more significant than in Burgundy, where, Hitner reviweing several secondary sources writes, “Clos de Vougeot…established by the Cistercians around 1100 CE and  [covering] about fifty hectares, was confiscated [in 1791 as part of the Biens Nationaux, the nationalization of monastic lands] and divided into sixty privately-owned properties with about one hundred owners.” 

In southern France, according to the scholarship of Noelle Plack (you can tell I was totally enthralled by her work – does she have a fan page?), the privatization of common land, to which no individual had previously held property right, gave peasants “land for the vineyards that transformed wine production in the nineteenth century,” helping pave the way for the “viticultural revolution” taking place in the region in the nineteenth century into the next century.

Still with me? I know, this was an exceptionally long entry this week (even my proofreader got tired!), but hey, informative, n’est-ce pas? In the end, the French Revolution played a pivotal role in democratizing wine, from the system of vineyard ownership to the affordability and access to it by the general populace. Indeed, more than the social order underwent a profound and enduring transformation. 



VINUM VERBA
Each week we explore the exciting language of wine, deciphering those cryptic wine reviews, and helping consumers expand their libation lexicon.

Do you have a favourite variety…or is it a varietal? Is it a single variety wine or a blend of several varietals? Variety, varietal, shmariety, schmarietal — I often see these two terms used interchangeably, though, like any grammar enthusiast, I know there is both a correct, and an incorrect usage. This week, I set the record straight, with a little help from our trusty friend Google.

Va•ri•e•ty / vəˈrīədē/
noun

  1. the quality or state of being different or diverse, the absence of uniformity, sameness, or monotony.
    “Variety is the spice of life.”

  2. a taxonomic category that ranks below subspecies (where present) or species, its members differing from others of the same subspecies or species in a… blah, blah, blah. Varieties are more often recognized in botany.
    “Sauvignon blanc is a variety of the vitis vinifera plant family.

Va•ri•e•tal / vəˈrīətl /
adjective

  1. (of a wine or grape) made from or belonging to a single specified variety of grape.
    “A varietal wine made from Pinot Noir.”
  2. (in botany and zoology) of, relating to, characteristic of, or forming a variety. 
    “Black berries and thin skins are characteristic of the varietal.”

“Variety” is the noun, “varietal” is the adjective. When describing the wine, opt for “varietal”; when describing characteristics of grapes, opt for “varietal”; but if you’re identifying the grape without any attributive qualities, “variety” is the best choice. So, when you pick up that GSM blend for your next dinner party, you can confidently state that you’ve selected an excellent varietal wine for your host, made from Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre varieties.

January 3 Roundup: New Year, New Blog, New Wines


Happy New Year, Faithful Readers! Best wishes for a healthy, joyous and prosperous 2016! As I mentioned last year, I intended to start the January blog by piloting new thematic content. In the internet age where information is only a Google search away, I figure you can probably wade through the myriad sites–reputable and otherwise–discussing wine regions and grape varieties without me adding nothing new to a factual overview of Maipú or Melon de Bourgogne. As a result, I’ve decided to eschew these staples of wine knowledge, and replace them with a slightly more interesting, and arguably more value-added, approach that focuses on exploring the wines I drink in greater depth, looking at the quirky side of wine in historical context, and exploring the often challenging (and occasionally impenetrable) lexicon that surrounds what we drink. So, pop a cork, unscrew a cap, or just sit back and enjoy!  (As always, comments welcome!)


TASTING NOTES
Each week I review a wine with my “Sip It!”-or-“Skip It!” recommendation. All Vintages and product numbers refer to the LCBO.
***This month we’ll be featuring Sherry, so, if you haven’t read our primer on Spain’s most famous fortified wine, you probably should!***


Tío Pepe Extra Dry Fino Sherry

Those who know me and my palate will no doubt be surprised by my recent departure: a New Year’s Eve tapas party featuring a trio of sherries and Cava to ring in 2016. What can I say other than I was getting a jump-start on my resolutions, one of which includes drinking far less French wine. (I know, I’m crushed, too!) In order to make good on this promise, I’ll spend the month of January delving into the sherries sampled at “Tapaspalooza 2015”: the producers behind these delightfully complex fortifieds, the types of sherry they represent, and my overall impressions and pairing suggestions. 

S(k)ip It!(?)
Tío Pepe Extra Dry Fino Sherry
LCBO #: 231829 | 750 mL bottle | $16.90
Alcohol: 15.0%
Sweetness: Extra Dry
Wine Type: Sherry
Rating:   

Oh, the indecision! Do I encourage you to sip it–an exciting, unconventional (though perhaps not easily quaffable), and unique-tasting wine–or do I encourage you to skip it–especially if you are anything like my party guests, who scrunched their noses and left their glasses half-full, wondering why I hadn’t served anything more “mainstream,” like a Burgundian Chardonnay or an Ontario Riesling. The fact of the matter is that Fino is likely a bit of an acquired taste, particularly if you haven’t grown up with it, or spent long, indolent summers in the bodegas of Jerez. This said, if you’re willing to experiment, and keep an open mind, then I wager you’ll find your first Fino, at a minimum, a fascinating experience.

Tío Pepe, my label of choice, has a reputation for being the world’s best-selling Fino. Established in the first half of the nineteenth-century under the name González-Byass, the earliest dry Fino sherries were exported for sale by a London wine agent, and met with remarkable commercial success–a surprising phenomenon as most sherries exported at the time were of a sweeter style.

tio pepe.jpg
The Tio Pepe sign in Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Spain. (Source: Wikipedia)

According to De Long Wine, “Fino means fine in Spanish and…the greatest expression of a Fino (or Manzanilla) sherry is very delicate, light and elegant.” It’s true – Fino is quite light, straddling the line between a light- or medium-bodied dry wine. Pale yellow in colour, the alcohol content hovers around 15 per cent mark–that borderline between a light wine and a fortified. Fino is produced in a special Designation of Origin area in Andalusia, and is subject to the country’s regulatory classification system, used primarily for wines, cheeses, and other foods produced according to “specific local traditions.”

Tío Pepe’s Extra Dry Fino Sherry retails for under $20, so it won’t hurt your pocketbook, whether you wind up liking it or not. The wines are gently pressed into a must called “yema,” and are fermented for four years, using the solera system. The result is a clear, pale-lemon yellow wine, surprising to those accustomed to imbibing Harvey’s Bristol Cream. On the nose, it has the warm nutty fragrance typical of aged sherries, including toasted almond, and enhanced by aromas of marzipan, honey, sultanas, and subtle dried apricot. The flavour is perhaps, at first, jarringly dry, and seems a bit disconnected from the sweet smell. The finish is short and slightly aggressive, the alcohol burn restrained only by a brightening citrus-acidity and a salinity that was (oddly enough, at least to my palate) reminiscent of smoky bacon. Aging in American oak barrels comes through prominently, but does not overpower the wine.

Fino should be serve chilled. I’d suggest somewhere around the medium/full-bodied oaked white serving temperature of 10-13º C, though I know most will encourage serving it colder (but hey, it’s winter!). Unquestionably, this is a wine that needs to be paired with food. It tasted great with cured meats, olives, hard cheese, and marinated mushrooms.


WINE LINES
Dispatches from the world of wine – a roundup of blog and news articles of the week.

Canada

United States

International



WINE CASK TIME MACHINE
Faithful Readers, As promised, this is one of our new sections. No, John Cusack or Rob Corddry won’t be guest-blogging – try to rein in your disappointment. Instead, we’ll examine wine in historical context, offering you a glimpse into more than just the tasting world…

THIS WEEK: COLONIAL AMERICA’S LOVE AFFAIR WITH MADEIRA

A few years ago, like palazzo pants and Luke Perry, Madeira tried making a comeback, but it didn’t seem to catch on beyond the Cradle of Liberty. Famous Philadelphian and unrepentant booze-hound Benjamin Franklin once declared that “he’d prefer being immersed with his pals in a cask of Madeira to [dying] an ‘ordinary death.’” (A fate that George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, reportedly met with after being convicted of treason.) While Benny met with a less dramatic end, he was hardly understating his affinity for the wine–a wine that, over 250 years ago, was as American as Budweiser.

Madeira features prominently in American historical narratives, often as part of celebrations and milestone-marking. George Washington, another fan of Madeira, regularly ordered pipes of it from his London wine merchant (a “pipe” being approximately 126 gallons). During his eight years in office, it is estimated that Thomas Jefferson spent the equivalent of $42,000 US (in today’s dollars) on Madeira. It’s little wonder why then, in 1776, the Founding Fathers are said to have toasted the Declaration of Independence’s signing with a wee tipple of the Portuguese fortified wine. Similarly, at the 1803 ratification of the Louisiana Purchase by France, Spain, and the United States, each country celebrated the occasion with its national wine: France toasted with Champagne, Spain with Malaga, and the U.S. with Madeira.

John_Hancock_painting.jpg
Picture of John Hancock, “American merchant, smuggler, statesman and prominent patriot of the American Revolution,” courtesy of Wikipedia. Hancock’s sloop, Liberty, was seized by the British after he had allegedly unloaded 25 pipes of Madeira illegally. This seizure led to a riot by the people of Boston. (Wikipedia: “Madeira Wine.”)

By the eighteenth century, America had become the largest consumer of Madeira, purchasing nearly a quarter of all wine produced. Why, you might be wondering? Colonial Americans were fortunate to enjoy a special purchasing relationship with the wine-producing islands: upon the marriage of Portuguese Princess Catherine of Bragança to Charles II of England in the first half of the seventeenth century, the British monarch granted Madeira exclusive trading rights with the British Colonies, allowing it  “to sell the island’s wines directly.” (It also helped that Charles restricted exports from competitors, thereby allowing Madeira to gain a virtual monopoly in British North America.) 

Part of Madeira’s commercial success also rested on its advantageous geographic position as the main port of call for ships sailing to the New World or to the East Indies. As a result, the fortified wine was able to rise swiftly in popularity throughout much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially as exports of sugar cane dwindled with growing production in the West Indies. 

Early Madeira was bitter, and of poor quality; as the wines were initially unfortified, they had a tendency to spoil at sea, so efforts were made to find ways of stabilizing it, such as though the addition of distilled alcohol made from cane sugar. According to Berry Bros. & Rudd, the discovery of how to produce Madeira was a happy accident when unsold wine was shipped back to its owners in Funchal, Madeira’s largest port city. The extended time and exposure to warm temperatures altered the composition of the wine: it was “noticed that [the] quality improved…The voyage of many days of warm weather gave in effect a gentle ageing to the wine.” Of course, Madeiran wine-makers had already been experimenting with fortification, and by the eighteenth century, the addition of brandy was the method of choice for helping to raise the alcohol content and extending the life of the wine in cask or in bottle. Well-made Madeiras are said to retain their quality for decades or even centuries; in fact, in 1980, bottles of Madeira, recovered from a ship that sank near Savannah, Georgia 140 years earlier, upon being tasted, were said to have preserved their flavour and richness.

By the nineteenth century, however, American tastes were beginning to change; while Madeira’s heyday was not yet over, demand was slowly dropping. Southern plantation owners, among the last remaining collectors of the sweet fortified wine in the United States, had helped keep sales steady throughout most of the first half of the nineteenth century. When the Civil War broke out, a Union blockade prevented further imports of Madeira, and the great Madeira cellars and stockpiles in Southern cities like Richmond, Atlanta, and Charleston, were plundered

Growers on the islands of Madeira and Porto Santo were experiencing their own difficulties with grape yields. Crops were attacked with fungus and louse epidemics a mere two decades apart, decimating the vine growths in the second half of the nineteenth century. While wine sales started to climb again by the start of the twentieth century, the Russian Revolution and U.S. Prohibition effectively closed two key fortified wine markets; after this, the wine never achieved the same popularity again, despite seeing a resurgence of fortified wine from the repeal of Prohibition to the late 1950s

Today, Americans consume an estimated 893 gallons of wine per year, or approximately 2.8 gallons per person. In 2013, 329 million cases of wine were sold, according to Impact Databank. Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, and Pinot Noir make up the five most popular varieties consumed, while red wine represents the majority of wines purchased. And fortified wines? Well, their consumption has never quite recovered its earlier market share. As Americans continue to demonstrate a preference for table wines, it’s unlikely that Madeira will ever see the same popularity it once enjoyed, but, who knows, maybe this blog will help foster its renaissance? 



VINUM VERBA
In this, our final tweak to Sip It Or Skip It, we’re trading in our “Grape Pourri” section for regularly 
decoding of the perplexing verbiage that finds its way into wine reviews. Ever wonder what “muscular wines” are? Me, too! And I’m sure they’re not pumping iron…

Mus•cu•lar / ˈməskyələr/
adjective

of or affecting the muscles
“regular exercise contributes to optimal muscular function”

having well-developed muscles
“the body-builders at my gym are ridiculously muscular” 

vigorously robust
“this young Cabernet Sauvignon is muscular and fruit-forward”

How many times have you come across this descriptor and wondered, What the heck is a muscular wine? I thought I could cobble together a fairly coherent definition from internet research, but was surprised by the paucity of information relating to the term. Is it so commonplace and easily understood that it doesn’t warrant clarification?

My first stop was  erobertparker.com’s wine glossary, a site I often consult when I stumble across some new anthropomorphic term to describe a Furmint or Fumé Blanc, but no dice: there was no entry for “muscular,” though it was included in the definition of “brawny.” Context helps: 

Val du Vino 2012 School House Vineyards Barbera (Sierra Foothills)

[Excerpt] This is a svelte but muscular wine with a deep red color, abundant black cherry and plum flavors and a rich, velvety texture… (88 points, Wine Enthusiast)

 

JCB by Jean-Charles Boisset 2012 N°10 Cabernet Sauvignon
[Excerpt] …A backward, muscular wine built for long-term aging, it is more structured and masculine than most 2012s. It was difficult to evaluate because of its massive structure. (90 points, Wine Advocate)

Peninsula Ridge Vintner’s Private Reserve Merlot 2006
A big, meaty, smoky, spicy nose with red and dark fruits. It’s a muscular wine in the mouth with firm tannins, layered fruits and spice… (4.5 stars, Wines In Niagara)
 

This is clearly a term reserved for full-bodied reds: vigorous, complex,  fruit-forward wines that have a great deal of structure and robustness. Powerful, flavorful, and capable of aging, “muscular” wines appear to be those heartier wines–those bold, wholesome, and substantial reds, like Toscano Rossos or California Cabs, that knock you off your feet and make you think, “Whoa, those tannins sure made their presence known!” These are not your easy-drinking Beaujolais or playful Pinots; these are your meaty Malbecs and your confident Carmeneres, or your red Bordeaux that need some time in the cellar to soften, and attain some balance. So, the next time you see this term applied to a wine you’re considering trying, you’ll hopefully have a better idea of whether to sip it or skip it, depending on your taste preferences.