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!)

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

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.

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


United States


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…


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.

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? 

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/

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. 





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