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

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

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

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.”

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


United States


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


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.


One thought on “January 24 Roundup: Chardonnay, the Low Alcohol Wine Craze, and La Rioja

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