February 28 Roundup: Low-Priced Libations, Tour de France Blockades, and Wine Auction Adventures

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.
***Who doesn’t love a bargain? This week it’s my top picks for wines under ten bucks.***
Sip It!
Cavallina Grillo Pinot Grigio IGT 2014

LCBO #: 123166 | 750 mL bottle | $8.35 (Purchased for $0.30 less)
Alcohol: 12.0%
Sweetness: Off-Dry
Wine Type: White
Rating: 

My slightly snobbish tendencies often lead me to dismiss Pinot Grigio; after all, on the surface, they’re the most ubiquitous of Italian whites, finding themselves onto almost every wine list at cookie-cutter chain restaurants. In need of a cooking wine, I picked this up moments after a failed attempt to talk me into a dreadfully overpriced Moscato that tasted a little too much like a high-end soft drink. On the palate, this light, lively, fresh little wine tastes much like it smells–like a summer fruit salad of citrus and exotic fruits. The balance between aspiring minerality, and smooth finish makes this an unusual find for under $10, but don’t drive all over town looking for it; I feel like any other run-of-the-mill P.G. will do the trick.

About the Wine: Hailing from Sicily, the Duca di Castelmonte winery in the heart of Marsala boasts “superb table wine,” and produces the Cavallina Grillo label.

Skip It!

Pocketwatch Sauvignon Blanc 2014

LCBO #: 187039 | 750 mL bottle | $8.95
Alcohol: 13.0%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: White
Rating: 

Fondue weekends are few and far between these days, but I generally buy a budget wine, since a good cup to cup-and-a-half of vino finds its way into the pot of melted cheese. (The obvious price handicap means you’re not exactly in the vicinity of mind-blowing.) Respectable, this water white wine with its pale straw tint did present with a remarkably aromatic bouquet — a combination of Meyer lemon zest, passion fruit, asparagus, and even dew-kissed grass. Disappointingly, though this wine was crisp, but totally lacking in complexity; the short finish was blah. “Textbook flavours” of Sauv Blanc were all discernible, augmented by a perceptible honeyed sweetness, but far from impressive or unique.

About the Wine: The Pocketwatch Sauvignon Blanc label, made by Robert Oatley Vineyards, is a multi-vineyard blend, harvested from across South-Western Australia. The wines are fermented in stainless steel “to create an appealing, fresh, fruit-driven dry white wine.”

Sip It!
Haycutters Shingleback Sauvignon Blanc Sémillon Blend 2014
LCBO #: 207365 | 750 mL bottle | $9.45 (purchased at $8.95)
Alcohol: 13.0%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: White
Rating: 

The Sémillon (49%) is undoubtedly what tips the scales in this otherwise average wine’s favour, taking it from a “Skip it” to a “Sip it” recommendation. A classic Bordeaux blend made of Sémillon sourced from the Adelaide Hills and of Sauvignon Blanc from McLaren Vale, the Sémillon adds sweetness to this zesty citrus and powerfully herbaceous wine. I detected notes of lemongrass, and perhaps even a faint nutiness. Though this was also a fondue wine, I could see it pairing nicely with a creamy shrimp linguine, or with Thai take-out. If you see it on a shelf, grab it for Friday movie night, or for a weekday evening food delivery accompaniment.

About the Wine: Family owned since 1959, the Davey Estate’s Shingleback wines are “hand-crafted” and “made in a style that expresses the essence of McLaren Vale.” According to the winery’s website, these wines are “lush, fruit-forward and food-friendly, both appealing on release and worthy of cellaring.”


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

Wine Auctions

Dressed like I could afford Petrus (but only bidding on ’05 Beaucastel), I popped into my first-ever fine wine auction this weekend. A long-time “creeper” of Waddington’s online fine art auctions (where I almost bid on an absolutely darling still life), and frequent attendee of their Women of Waddington’s events, I eagerly arrived with no other intention but to observe.Whether it’s art or wine, I am plagued by a chronic indecisiveness: to bit or not to bid, that is the question? Upon arriving, and lingering noncommittally at the registration desk, a sudden and uncharacteristic boldness overtook me, and I exchanged my name and mailing address for a numbered card. (After all, I was reminded of my friend’s advice earlier in the week when I mentioned that I was taking the plunge and Waddington’s fine wine auction: “Of course you need to register,” he said, “You don’t want to look like you’re just there to keep warm!”)

Auctions are almost as old as recorded history, where goods, and sometimes services, are sold to the highest bidder in a competitive market, in a process involving gradually increasing prices (which, is what the Latin word auctio, means). [1] According to Ursula Hermacinski, the earliest auction occurred in Babylonia around 500 B.C., but it was the Romans who relied most heavily upon auctions as a mechanism to sell off their imperial plunder, which included lots of jewelry, artwork, and wine–at this time a most valuable commodity. [2]

The transition of wine from commodity to collectible took centuries, and was a development of early modern European improvements to the storage and cellaring of wine. The more widespread production and application of glass bottles, the replacement of glass stoppers with corks to help stabilize wine, and the eventual use of wine casks for aging were all responsible for the gradual shift. Perhaps one of the most significant changes was in the unit of measurement for wine: where, before, wine’s trade unit was the “cask,” the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the introduction of the term “case,” referring now to the wooden boxes that held a fixed quantity of bottles.[3] In Europe in the eighteenth century, where auctions were already commonplace, and a stylish society event attended by the most affluent strata of society, wine auctions were growing in number. In fact, in London, “by the middle of the 1700s, when wine bottles started taking on modern form, there were at least fifty registered auctioneers” in the city, including Sotheby’s and Christie’s, whose auctions today enjoy a global reach.[4]

In North America, the history of wine auctions is far shorter; in New York, they only became legal in 1994, decades after Chicago (1969) and San Francisco, though it took only a few years for the Big Apple to “[bypass] London as the core of the global fine and rare wine market. According to a 2012 Barclay’s survey, about one-quarter of high net-worth individuals around the world have a wine collection which represents approximately two per cent of their wealth. Investment demand remains strong among this segment of the population, which has helped spur the rise of alternative investment portfolios, including the emergence of wine funds. Unfortunately, I’m in a whole other snack bracket: wine funds, and the hoarding of blue-chip Bordeaux is slightly outside my means, but, as an ever-growing wine enthusiast, I was nevertheless delighted by my weekend outing.

A faithful reader of this blog, known for his often wry, but always supportive comments, accompanied me — and hopefully didn’t bid on any Lafite when I went to the restroom! Turnout was moderate — perhaps less than I would have expected — and the gender composition only came to my attention when, removing my snood and coat, a woman seated on the opposite end of the row I had chosen remarked: “Oh, thank goodness! Another woman!”

For those interested, the lots are still available for perusal on the auction’s website. You’ll note the preponderance of French wine, including several small vertical and pseudo-horizontal collections, and mixed lots, with Bordeaux, of course, dominating the catalogue. Before I arrived, I had thumbed through the offerings on my mobile device. I sighed longlingly at the Domaine Armand Rousseau Chambertain Clos de Bèze 2010, imagining how incredible it would look in my yet-to-be-purchased dual climate-controlled wine storage unit, and I got positively giddy at the sight of so much Rothschild on a single page!

As the auction got underway, and the flurry of online, telephone, and in-person bids flared, I got wrapped up in the energy–the rapid-fire competition between aggressive bidders, and the sometimes deliberate nonchalance of a seasoned collector, smoothly raising their hand a fraction of an inch to indicate their agreement to the latest price on offer. I mustered the courage to get in the game, and soon, I was positively out of control, whipping my hand up at the “cellar starters” affordable to a neophyte like me: some CdPs, a magnum of 1999 Frescobaldi Brunello (Faithful Readers will no doubt recall my rave review of a ’10 half-bottle last week), and two little darlings from the Côte de Nuits. I came so close to walking away with a La Parde de Haut-Bailly 2009 double magnum, but was outbid–and quite dramatically–by a gentleman seated in front of me. (In fact, this crushing disappointment was preceded by him turning around to glance at me before he raised his placard! The nerve!)

Sadly, I walked away empty-handed, but I am determined to approach future auctions more strategically. Although my last-minute bids, if successful, would have delighted me to no end, a more rigorous approach to building my cellar is in order, especially as my thoughts turn to centralizing my existing collection (currently divided between two different locations in a very complicated baby-sitting arrangement), and providing a more hospitable climate to my ’14 Bordeaux purchases, due to arrive next year, the lovely ’10 Meursault I am aging, two high-end Tuscan wines, and my ’99 d’Yquem. Inspired, I also just registered for WSET 2, beginning this spring.

—–
Notes:[1] Ursula Hermacinski, The Wine Lover’s Guide to Auctions: the Art and Science of Buying and Selling Wine (Square One Publishers, 2006, 9).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 10.
[4] Ibid., 11.

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February 21 Special Edition: Vini della Toscana

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 week it’s an Italian wine spectacular! Tasting notes galore from both LCBO-stocked wines, and some exotic imports purchased on my trip to Italy last year. Enjoy!***
S(k)ip It!

Barone Riscasoli Rocca Guicciarda Riserva Chianti Classico 2011
LCBO #
: 943613 | 750 mL bottle | $24.95
Alcohol: 13.5%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: Red
Rating: 

A reliable producer, this Riscasoli is hard for me to comment on because my bottle was ruined by the presence of cork taint! That’s right – the telltale smell of wet cardboard, and musty basement ruined what would otherwise have been a very respectable wine. (Don’t believe me? Monica Larner of erobertparker.com gave this bottle 92 points.) Trying to get past the flaw, the ruby-garnet wine was medium-bodied, with sour red cherry, and earthy, forest-floor notes, underpinned by the subtle presence of phenol, and toasted wood. I would probably give this another try given how fruit-forward it would otherwise have been. Unfortunately, I have to give this two corks because of the flaw.

Skip It!
San Leonino Governo All’Usso Sangiovese 2013

LCBO #: 409144 | 750 mL bottle | $19.95
Alcohol: 14.5%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: Red
Rating: 

According to The Globe and Mail, the Italian word “governare” refers to the addition of raisined grapes to the first wine of the harvest — a technique that kicks off a second fermentation that enhances the body of the wine, while adding flavour and texture. This medium-bodied wine is, however, only so-so in my opinion, despite several reviews suggesting that it tastes well above its price point. I found the acidity a bit too biting, and the red fruit flavours a little too tart to make this wine easy-drinking. The body is sufficient to have this wine stand up to a hardy tomato sauce dish, but its powerful toasty-tobacco notes overpowered a delicate ricotta ravioli with oven-roasted cherry tomatoes.

Sip It!
Tenuta Torciano B
artolomeo Rosso Toscano IGT San Gimignano 2011
750 mL bottle | $63.69
Alcohol: 13.5%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: Red
Rating: 

Among the wines I ordered and had shipped from Italy when I visited last year, this red Super-Tuscan blend from the hilly region around San Gimignano is exceptionally complex. Opaque, inky-purple on the nose, the wine is sharply alcoholic, with mingled aromas of forest floor, toasted wood, tobacco, and spice box. Aged in oak and chestnut wood, the luxurious full body and weighty mouth feel is pleasantly married with flavours of powerful oak, tart red cherries, and red plums. It’s reminiscent of a left bank Bordeaux with classic notes of a Cab Sauv pitted against the sometimes aggressive acidity of a Sangiovese. What’s odd, and yet quite interesting about this wine, is how it seems quite brawny, and yet, going down it’s almost velvety, with a long finish. Not the most elegant or refined wine, it’s a fascinating drink, but far from quaffable, if you catch my drift.

Sip It!
Tenuta Torciano Poggioaicieli Vernaccia
di San Gimignano 2013
750 mL bottle | $44.47
Alcohol: 13.0%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: White
Rating: 

From the only white DOCG in Tuscany, this clear, light, pale lemon wine has a lively bouquet of canied ginger, crisp citrus, and floral notes. The dryness of the wine is nicely offset by a pleasant, albeit subtle, minerality, and flavours of Granny Smith apples, Meyer lemons, and a muted herbaceousness. I would have appreciated a longer finish, but it’s a solid wine. Not, perhaps, worth the steep price point, it did pair well with cheese and other antipasto.

Sip It!
Tenuta Torciano Vin Beato Vino Liquoroso (Dessert Wine)

750 mL bottle | $42
Alcohol: 16.0%
Sweetness: Sweet
Wine Type: Dessert
Rating: 

I felt remarkably on trend for 2015, when I uncorked this bottle at Christmas. After a barrage of Twitter tweets proclaiming orange wine as “in,” it seemed time to open my only bottle, which had been sitting around, waiting for its moment since early May. The amber-orange wine appealed to the Sauternes-haters who appreciated the more moderate sweetness. On the nose, aromas of brown sugar, honey, candied orange, and mulled spices were quite pronounced. The wine was medium-bodied, with a creamy-smooth finish. It paired delightfully well with amaretti cookies, which were imported from Italy for the occasion — just the way I had tasted the wine in San Gimignano!

Sip It!

Frescobaldi Castelgiocondo Brunello di Montalcino
LCBO #
: 650432 | 375 mL bottle | $26.95
Alcohol: 13.0%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: Red
Rating: 

For those who have hung in until the bitter end, I’ve saved the best for last. Craving a late-night snack and a wee tipple on a cold weeknight in Sudbury earlier this month, I stumbled across this half-bottle at the LCBO on La Salle. What a find! Opaque, dark ruby, full-bodied, and heavy, the sweet smell of cherries were remarkably inviting–the perfect prelude to a velvety wine. On the palate, the wine exploded with robust fruit flavours of stewed plums and blackberries. The lightly toasted wood notes were the perfect punctuation to a lovely, lingering finish with just the right balance of acidity. The wine spends three years in cask and at least six months bottle aging. The full bottle retails for $49.95; if you’re in the mood to splurge, then I wouldn’t hesitate to snap it up!


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WINE REGION SPOTLIGHT

Under the Tuscan Sun

In his definitive volume on Italian wine, Joe Bastianich calls Tuscany “the Centre of the Italian Wine Universe,” arguing that while “some people rank the wines of Piedmont higher…from a commercial standpoint, there is no comparison–Tuscany’s brand recognition is far greater” (J. Bastianich and David Lynch, Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy, Clarkson-Potter, 2002: 200). Indeed, the home of such iconic wines as Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino invariably make Tuscany the Bordeaux of Italy.

According to Berry Bros. & Rudd, Tuscany is not a “heavyweight in terms of quality.” Bastianich certainly suggests that Piedmont “outdoes Tuscany in terms of enological complexity,” but its most famous grapes, including the ubiquitous Sangiovese, make some of the world’s most well-known wines, and, when you stumble on some quality finds as I have, it’s hard to resist the allure of a region that draws tens of thousands of tourists each year, and is one of the most scenically breathtaking areas in the entire country.

It’s rare that I can weigh in on the regions that I write about, but, in this instance, I’ve actually visited Tuscany and toured the Chainti wine region, where I stopped at Fattoria Poggio Alloro, an organic farm and winery; strolled through the medieval city of San Gimignano; and enjoyed an expansive tasting at Tenuta Torciano, a winery just over thirty minutes outside of Florence, and whose wines are featured prominently in my tasting notes this week.

I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t know much about Italian history, save for a bit about the period of city-state fragmentation pre-dating unification, and even then I’m stretching the depth of my knowledge, but Chianti is really a wine historians dream come true where some of the oldest wineries in the country still exist today, and where, in 1716, Grand Duke Cossimo III de’ Medici created the first legislation governing wine production in the region.

Tuscany’s hilly terrain, aside from being a delight to navigate, have a moderating effect on the region’s maritime-influenced mesoclimate. Tempering the summer heat, vines are typically planted on the higher hillside elevations, but for the “sun-loving Sangiovese,” as Oz Clarke calls it, can concentrate the heat as well, helping the grapes to ripen.

While Sangiovese gets a lot of exposure (after all, it has over a dozen sub-varieties, including Brunello di Montalcino and Prugnolo Gentile di Montepulciano, and is the backbone of so many Tuscan blends), Trebbiano is the dominant white, and together these two varieties are not only the most planted in Tuscany, but also the most planted in all of Italy. Vernaccia (mostly grown around San Gimignano, and arguably the most famous of Tuscan whites), Malvasia, Vermentina, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon (which has risen to prominence thanks to the ascent of Super Tuscan wines), Merlot, Syrah, Canaiolo, Sauvignon Blanc, and Grenahce are also planted in varying quantities, and find their way into myriad blends.

The Chianti DOCG is arguably the most famous, and has over forty thousand acres under vine. Its many sub-zones, like Rufina, east of Florence, or Montespertoli, east of Pisa, produce wines of varying quality, with Rufina widely regarded as the most consistent. No doubt many of you have seen the name “Chianti Classico” on labels and simply “Chianti” on others; Chianti Classico refers to the original region identified in Cosimo de’ Medici’s edict, well before the region was delimited in 1932, and expanded a few decades later. For trivia buffs, shortly after Italian unification, a nobleman named Bettino Riscasoli (second president of Italy, and whose family name is on the first bottle of the wine I reviewed this week) concocted the “recipe” for Chianti reds, which has since been amended to drop the Malvasia.

But Tuscany is much more than Chianti. The diverse wine-producing region is home to over forty DOC and almost a dozen DOCGs, including the renowned Brunello di Montalcino appellation that abuts the medieval city of Siena, and Vino Nobile de Montepulciano (not the grape of the same name, by the way), a wine made from a sub-variety of Sangiovese and a “papal favourite” since the 14th century. In recent years, several coastal appellations, such as Morellino di Scansano or Val di Cornia, Montecucco, Monteregio di Massa Marittima, Montescudaio, Capalbio and Sovana, are being put on the map, and the Vin Santo appellations, which produce a well-known dessert wine, are all worthy of mention. Of course, I’m giving the wines of this complex region short shrift, but I hope this primer, as short as it has been, has encouraged you to explore the wines of Tuscany on your next trip to the LCBO.

Above: The streets of San Gimignano, vineyards in Chianti Classico, and my lunch at Tenuta Torciano.

 

 

February 14: Game of Rhônes, Stage Play Goes “Sideways,” and Carignan: The Come-Back

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.
Oh, Faithful Readers – I’ve lapsed in my resolution! This week I’m reviewing French wines again. I know I promised to be more adventurous in my selections this year, but I couldn’t help myself as two of the Côtes du Rhônes below were in the “Clearance” section of the LCBO. Have I ever resisted a sale?
Skip It!
Parallèle 45, Côtes du Rhône AOC, Paul Jaboulet 2013

LCBO #: 332304 | 750 mL bottle | $12.25 (Discounted)
Alcohol: 13.5%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: Red
Rating: 

Break my heart! This Grenache-Syrah blend excited me beyond description as I poured it into my tasting glass. Deep ruby red with hints of violet around the meniscus, I was tickled pink by the aromas of bright red fruits, including mouth-watering hits of raspberry and cherry, offset by a slight smokiness, charcoal, and the comforting smell of toasted wood. But, oh, the disappointment! A little too acidic, a little too short on the finish, and muted herbaceous notes all made for an underwhelming wine that just seemed too young for my taste buds. This was crushing because Maison Paul Jaboulet makes some of the most incredible wines. (Hermitage La Chapelle, hello!!) In the end, I used it in my chicken cacciatore.

About the Wine: Jaboulet is one of the Rhône Valley’s most reliable wine-makers, and has been producing wine since 1834. With vineyards spanning over 25 appellations in Hermitage, Crozes Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, Cornas, Saint-Péray, and Côte Rôtie, according to Berry Bros. & Rudd, “the wine regularly rivals Bordeaux 1st Growths for its array of flavours – fruity and enticing when young but acquiring complex leathery and gamey overtones with age.”

Sip It!
La Domelière Rasteau 2013

LCBO #: 358960 | 750 mL bottle | $15.95
Alcohol: 14.0%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: Red
Rating: 

In contrast to the Jaboulet, this is a definite sipper. The GSM-blend is well-balanced, medium-bodied, with a lovely silky mouth feel. Although the finish isn’t as long as I’d like, the powerful notes of green bell pepper, dewy cut grass, and forest floor nicely offset a perceptible sweetness of ripe red fruit notes. I enjoyed the mild astringency, and the complex bouquet of stewed red plums, and cocoa. Overall, this was a deeper, richer alternative to the above. Worth the price tag.

About the Wine: According to Winesearcher.com, Rasteau is a parish in the southern Rhône Valley, a stone’s-throw from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. “The village and its vineyards are perhaps best known for their sweet red vin doux naturel, but they also produce dry wine (red, rosé and white). For a long time, the parish’s dry wines were made under the Cotes du Rhone Villages Rasteau appellation but these highly regarded wines were promoted to full, independent AOC status in July 2010 and are now also sold as ‘Rasteau.'”

Sip It!
Perrin Nature Côtes du Rhône 2014

LCBO #: 10363 | 375 mL bottle | $9.95
Alcohol: 13.0%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: Red
Rating: 

Hands down, the best of the bunch! The Grenache is the obvious star of this blend, but strongly supported by a powerful, peppery Syrah. A beautiful bouquet of sweet summer plums, spicy anise, licorice, and herbaceous aromas translate to the palate in a subtle, yet rich way. The wine isn’t powerful so much as it is elegant, with firm tannins, and a bright acidity that lends balance to the velvety texture. The finish is slightly astringent, spicy, and underpinned by a fleeting alcohol burn. The half-bottle was perfect for a single Sunday-night serving. I can see this working impeccably well with braised lamb or roasted root vegetables.

About Famille Perrin: According to Berry Bros. & Rudd, Domaine Perrin is a négociant brand created in 1997 by François Perrin and his brother Jean-Pierre. The Perrin family own the famous (and outrageously pricey) Châteauneuf-du-Pape estate Château de Beaucastel. “Entry-level wines,” including some of the La Vieille Ferme label (you’ve probably seen it in the LCBO — it’s got a pair of roosters on the label) are typically quite good for the price point. All the wines are made from appellations next to CdP, like Vacqueyras and Gigondas, and are all based on the typical Southern Rhône blends. Worth picking up a bottle.


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MEET MR. GRAPE
A monthly focus on a wine grape variety.

THIS WEEK: CARIGNAN…MAKING A COMEBACK!

I have been trying to find more Carignan blends for the last little while aside from the exceptional La Clape I reviewed last year, but haven’t had much success. According to Jancis Robinson, it can be a “pretty tough” wine, with “rough tannins” and an acidity that she finds produces a “rank bitterness in many…red blends too dependent on high-yielding Carignan.” One of the Telegraph‘s wine critics writes:

Carignan is a red grape with a lowly reputation. No, I’ll go further and say that carignan is usually spoken of as though it were a smelly guard dog that makes a lot of noise and takes a lot of clearing up after, but whose company is tolerated because it performs a useful task, rather than as a vine of any great note. It has a tendency to bitterness and even nice Oz Clarke in his Pocket Wine Book concedes that carignan is “responsible for much boring, cheap, harsh wine”.

What a recommendation, eh? Unfortunately, I haven’t had much exposure to bad blends– the Gérard Bertrand alone would be my basis for recommending that everyone try Carignan — but, thankfully, it isn’t all bad press for this finicky grape. In Languedoc-Roussillon where it has previously been used to churn out pretty awful bulk wine, wine-makers are diligently working to “reclaim the joy of old-vine carignan” as they “[rediscover] the gnarled old vines, with their more concentrated, complex fruit flavour…” In the New World, Chilean wine-makers in Maule are rescuing old-vine Carignan from farms that produced the grapes for low-quality jug wines. But what gives Carignan such a bad rep?

Also known as Mazuelo, Bovale Grande, Cariñena, Samsó, and Carignane, depending on where it’s grown, Carignan is rarely made as a single varietal wine for all the reasons Jancis and Oz already mentioned. It’s thick, dark skins, and tendency towards high tannins and high acidity, can be a welcome addition to aromatic wines lacking body and depth of colour, but only if well-made. Jancis Robinson cites its high yields as the reason for its ubiquity in the South of France (Carignan pops out up to four times more hl/ha than a decent Cab Sauv), and, in California’s Central Valley, Carignan has been the backbone of considerable jug wine production. These are not the characteristics of a respectable pedigree. In Spain, where Carignan’s lineage can be traced to Aragon, Carignan goes by the name Cariñena (both a grape and an appellation!) in the Priorat region, and Mazuelo in Rioja (which you should read all about in my post last month), where it is used to add complexity to blends of Garnacha and Tempranillo. In Sardinia, it’s also widely planted, and is the second most important red variety grown on the island.

Old-vine Carignan is really the key: the grape is something of a late-bloomer, imparting exceptional flavour and rich aromas after a few decades on the vine. The only trouble with Carignan is its tendency towards rot, powdery mildew, dewy mildew, and grape worms, so organic versions of the wine are likely tough to find for those of you who seek that sort of thing out.

International Carignan Day is this month, by the way — February 29, in fact — so, if you’re game for trying some, you might have slim pickings at the LCBO, which only carries a handful. The two that piqued my interest were the Morandé Edición Limitada Carignan 2011 ($27.95, how could you go wrong with Morandé, especially given Carignan’s renaissance in Chile?), and the classic Southern French blend – Le Cirque Grenache Noir/Carignan/Syrah 2013 ($16.95).

February 7: Viognier and Blend, Drones Help California Winemakers, and the Perils of Prohibition

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!
Route du Sud 2014 IGP

LCBO #: 405936 | 750 mL bottle | $6.25 (Discounted)
Alcohol: 13.0%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: White
Rating: 

It may seem strange that I’m pairing my “Sip It” recommendation with a rating of two corks, but the wine is decent, although quite unexceptional. I wouldn’t be embarrassed to serve it to guests, or even purchase it as a quick hostess gift, but it certainly isn’t complex or exciting. This light- to medium-bodied Viognier is pale straw in colour tickled with a soft lemon-yellow tint. A summery bouquet of honey, underripe pear, and fresh-cut grass pleasantly greets the nose. On the palate, I’d say that this wine has an aspiring minerality–yes, “aspiring,” like it’s trying to attain a better threshold of quality, despite having the odds stacked against it. It’s not as bright as I would hope, and the finish is a disappointingly short, though the slight yeastiness, exotic and stone fruits, and hit of ginger make it an easy, quaffable weekend wine.

About the Wine: Pays d’Oc spans approximately 200 km of coastline across four departments of the Languedoc-Roussillon. Soils made up of limestone, clay, and sand, are matched by a temperate Mediterranean climate producing fruit-forward, and easily drinkable wines, like Route du Sud.

Skip It!
Signos de Origien, La Vinilla, D.O. Valie, Casablanca, Chile, 2014

LCBO #: 358960 | 750 mL bottle | $19.95
Alcohol: 14.5%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: White
Rating: 

I don’t even know where to begin, but I suppose it ought to be with a disclaimer. My palate finds heavily oaked wines revolting. I absolutely cannot bring myself to even enjoy wines that are so steeped in obscene toasted flavour notes on an intellectual level. Rightly or wrongly, I think the hallmark of great wines is balance, and that even goes for the presence and flavour of oak. Yes, some heavily oaked reds can be appealing, but they’ve got that whole acidity-tannin-weight thing going on to help manage an otherwise unpleasant assault of wood and tobacco-like tastes. All this to say, my review is about to make a whole lot more sense.

Signos de Origien’s blend of Chardonnay (68%), Viognier (13%), Rousanne (12%) and Marsanne (7%) is impressively aromatic. On the nose, an intense floral bouquet dominated by lilies, citrus, petrol, and a rich nuttiness is, at first, inviting. But that’s as far as this goes. The full-bodied, water-white wine is creamy and smooth, yet minerally but missing the refreshing acidity that I would hope for. All I was able to taste was oak, oak, and more oak. I suppose if you like that kind of wine, this might be your thing, but it just didn’t do it for me.

About the Wine:
Chile’s Casablanca Valley is well-known for being an ideal region for white wine varieties owing to its temperate climates and maritime influences. The grapes for Signos de Origien are hand-picked from organic and biodynamic vineyards;  the alluvial soils yield “aromatic and fruity wines with expressive flavors.” Once the grapes are transported to the winery, where they are sorted, selected, and pressed, the must is decanted and the clean juice is fermented, first in stainless steel barrels, then in French oak barrels, and finally, sur lie, for at least four months.


BONUS REVIEWS: VALENTINE’S DAY WINE PICKS

***For all those celebrating with someone special…or not — after all, there is absolutely nothing shameful about proudly and independently pulling a Bridget Jones and downing a few glasses while belting out the lyrics to “All By Myself” –here are my under-$20 recommendations for something red, something white, something rosé, and something fizzy.***

Cheval-Quancard Reserve Bordeaux Blanc (LCBO#: 40160, 750mL, 12.0% alc., $13.90)
A lovely pale straw colour with a fragrant floral-honey bouquet, this wine boasts an exuberant minerality, with complex notes of melon, stone fruit, and citrus. Pair with seafood, green salads, and cheeses. Remarkable for the price point.

Tiger Horse Syrah-Mourvèdre Blend 2013 (LCBO#: 354613, 750 mL, 14.5% alc., $6.95)
This South African wine from the Western Cape is a delightful surprise. Medium- to full-bodied, with aromas of stewed plum, and sweet sugar beets, the wine is impressively layered with pepper and spice, vibrant black cherry, a mild oakiness, and tobacco. I would have bought a case of this discontinued wine had I known I’d enjoy it as much as I did.

Muga Rosé Dry (Vintages #: 603795, 750 mL, 12.5% alc., $13.95)
Rioja always impresses, particularly the exceptional value at sometime surprising price points. This light-bodied blend of Garnacha, Tempranillo, and Viura is chock full of exotic aromas of jasmine, papaya, pineapple, and soft citrus fruits. On the palate, summer fruit flavours explode. I see this pairing well with fish and seafood, chicken, or just a DVD and a blanket.

Villa Jolanda Asti Dolce DOCG (Vintages #: 426015, 200 mL, 7.5% alc., $4.95)
Suitable for two, this water white, light-straw-tinted sparkler is astonishingly fragrant, with strong gardenia and other floral notes. A tad too sweet for my liking, though others seemed to prefer this over dry sparkling wines, the slightly heavy mouthfeel is replete with flavours of honey, lilac, baked apples, and apricot. Oysters, cheese, chocolate – who cares! Pair it with anything that tickles your fancy on Valentine’s Day.


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

THIS WEEK: SPEAKEASIES, BOOTLEGGERS, AND WINE BRICKS – OH MY!

In 1919, the U.S. Congress passed the National Prohibition Act, more informally known as the Volstead Act after the House of Representative member who introduced it. The law, arguably one of America’s most famous (and the subject of yet another Ken Burns documentary), prohibited the production, sale, and transport of “intoxicating liquors.” Though President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the bill, it was overturned by the House of Representatives the same day, and the U.S. Senate a day later, ushering in a thirteen-year period where the criminalization of alcohol production and distribution forced inventive approaches to circumvent the law.

Like any good piece of government legislation, there were loopholes. For instance, grapes grown for the purposes of consumption were permitted; so were grapes grown to make juice concentrate. Wine consumption for medicinal and religious purposes was kosher (pardon the pun). Section 29 of the Act also allowed private households to make their own wine, up to an annual maximum of 200 gallons, or approximately 1,000 750-mL bottles. (That’s certainly more wine than I can drink in a year!) It’s this last combination of juice vine_gloconcentrate and home wine-making that opened the door to the production of new wine “starter” items, like Vine-Glo and wine bricks, which paved the way for crafty grape growers to somewhat weather the storm of the legislation that many thought would never be passed.

In Iain Gately’s Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol, we are introduced to an early grape juice concentrate called Vine-Glo. The Californian Vineyardists Association, organized in 1926 to produce and sell grape juice concentrate, had permission from Washington to market a product that, according to advertisements at the time, allowed consumers to make a “fine, true-to-type guaranteed beverage” in their own homes in nine varieties: “Port, Virginia Dare, Muscatel, Angelica, Tokay, Sauterne, Riesling, Claret, and Burgundy.” According to Gately:

Americans wishing to enjoy some “true-to-type” port or claret could purchase by mail order or through pharmacies. They were delivered a five- or ten-gallon keg by [the CVA’s subsidiary] Fruit Industries personnel, who would add water to the concentrate, start fermentation and return in sixty days to bottle the product and return the keg.

The commercial success of Vine-Glo inspired numerous knock-offs–and just in time, too. The “authenticity” of Vine-Glo, despite its consumer popularity, was met with vehement opposition by Dry forces, who pressured the government to forbid its sale; by 1931, Vine-Glo had been discontinued. Thankfully, in its stead, wine bricks were alive and well.

According to VinePair, wine bricks were completely legal to produce. Consumers could purchase and dissolve the grape juice concentrate in water and, in theory, ferment it in order to make their own wine. For consumers who many not have known how this process worked, instructions on the packaging, “masked as a warning of what not to do with the product” directed consumers thusly: “After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine.” Oh, the horror! Obviously, everyone heeded the instructions and ensured that the liquid was never placed in a jug, and certainly never for twenty days. Everyone was faithfully consuming grape juice, without question.

According to a charming little blog called A Smile and a Gun, Chicagoans were among the most ill-behaved (or well-behaved, depending on how you look at it): in 1923, a Tribute columnist estimated that Chicago residents produced approximately 12.5 million gallons of wine in their home that year alone, or “about twenty gallons for every family in Chicago.” Not bad, eh? Although homemade wine-making was alive and well among immigrant families, it seemed that Prohibition was turning everyone into an amateur vintner.

Prohibition was, however, devastating for serious U.S. wine-makers, and, in particular, for Napa Valley, which was already making a good portion of American wine by the time the legislation was introduced. In fact, on the eve of Prohibition, as many as 2,000 wineries were actively engaged in grape cultivation and wine-making–wineries that had, according to the Napa Valley Register, “survived a phylloxera epidemic in the 1880s, financial upheavals in the 1890s and even the San Francisco earthquake that destroyed warehouses full of wine.” By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, there were fewer than 100.

When the law had come into force, grape growers wanting to stay in business could obtain permits to make sacramental or medicinal wines, while others could produce grapes for commercial consumption or for making wine juice concentrate. Many growers abandoned their businesses, while others, including Julio Gallo, “ripped out old grape vines yielding respected varieties such as Zinfandel or Semillion, and replaced them with Alicante Bouschet, a grape that many vintners rank slightly above ragweed for horticultural pedigree.” (Alicante Bouschet is invasive and high-yielding, and its overplanting quickly created excessive supply that outstripped demand.)

Although the acreage of California’s vineyards doubled between 1920 and 1925 alone, poor quality grapes replaced more noble varieties. As the UC Division of Agriculture had estimated in a 1919 report:

one-half million tons of grapes valued at $9,000,000, represents the loss to grape growers of California if the National Bone Dry Amendment goes into effect. The loss will be total. … Only one solution can, to any extent, save the calamity. That is the manufacture of grape syrup.”

It’s no wonder that Vine-Glo and Bacchus bricks were the fallback for an industry devastated by punitive laws. When the legislation was repealed in 1933, California had the Herculean task of rebuilding. Initially, wines of extremely poor quality flooded a market in which there was almost no demand for table wine. It wasn’t until the ’60s that demand was rebounding, and the American palate was acquiring a taste for more than sweet fortified wines and beer. Decades of arduous work lay ahead for vintners, but by 1976 they were competing with their Old World counterparts. Next time, a piece on the Judgment of Paris seems apropos.

Until next Sunday, Faithful Readers…

January 31 Roundup: T.O. Wine List Blitz, Bordeaux Copyrights, and Currency Conundrums

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.
***SPECIAL EDITION***
This week, we’re doing something a little different (and not just to appease those readers who think I don’t review nearly enough wines). I’d like to think it’s bold, interesting, and as subject to my own unique palate as everything else I’ve sampled. It’s always gratifying as a budding wine scholar to hate 93+-point wines, and rave about 89-point-or-under finds. So, this week, we’re doing a quick sweep of some wine lists and wines sampled at various restaurants and bars across the city. A culmination of my jaunts over the last few months, I’ll be recommending you to “Sip It” or “Skip It” based not only on the wines offered, but also what I tasted.
Trattoria Nervosa (Yorkville)
Serving classic Italian dishes including staples like Rigatoni al Pomodoro, and Margherita pizza, this moderately priced restaurant in the heart of Yorkville is something of a stand-out among local options competing in a crowded neighbourhood of continental European and American bistro fare. Steady streams of hungry diners seem to pour in regardless of the night of the week, sometimes making it a bit of a wait for a table, especially if you descend between about 6:30 and 8:00 p.m. Fortunately, a girlfriend and I snuck in just under the wire, snagging prime real estate as far as tables go–a wee two-seater right by the window with a great view of Yorkville Avenue.
Nervosa’s wine list is nothing to turn your nose up at, with its strong representation from every corner of Italy. Lazio, Piedmont, Alto Adige, Campania, Marche, Puglia, Umbria, Veneto, and the list goes on (pun intended), make strong appearances in the red, white, sparkling, and fortified wine categories; even Niagara finds a home in the Vini Bianchi family (but maybe a Tyrolean Riesling would have been more apropos?). 
I ordered the Risotto Nervosa ($25.49), which is deliciously described as Barolo-braised beef short rib, local field and porcini mushrooms, and fig-balsamic reduction. It was rich, creamy, and delicious; my only complaint was that the short ribs were every so slightly dry. I struggled with my pairing choice, intrigued by a Primitivo that boasted peaty-smokey tobacco-like aromas and flavours, and a full-bodied Negramaro. In the end, though, I landed on a deep purple Ripasso della Valpolicella La Dama, 2011 ($12.99/gls), with the weight, body, and complex fruit flavours we all love in young Amarones. The dark fruit notes, subtle hints of toasted wood, and warm baking spices tickled the taste buds and delighted the tongue. Without hesitation: Sip It!
Wine List: 
Wine 
Bar Volo (Yonge & St. Joseph)
A craft beer-lover’s paradise, this hipster-haven can easily be missed if purposefully striding down Yonge Street–after all, it’s not exactly a neighbourhood that I’m drawn to when looking for interesting restaurant choices. 
The ambiance is casual and fun, with banquet-style seating at long wooden tables. (Here’s a tip: in the winter time, stay away from the windows, or make sure their space heater is turned on.) The craft beer list is regularly rotated, and the selections are all jammed onto a few vertical wall-mounted chalkboards corresponding to a letter of the alphabet: X and Y are the only two wine options–typically an Ontario red and white “on tap.” (Obviously, you’re not going to go out of your way to try this place for its vino offerings.)
To match the order of spicy chorizo sausage, thinly sliced prosciutto, and homemade kettle chips, all pretty mediocre, I tried the Stratus Merlot 2012 ($13/gls). On the nose, bright aromas of candied cherry and rasberry are pleasantly accented by pine needles, forest floor, and dark chocolate, making for an aromatic bouquet. Disappointingly, I found the pronounced woodiness on the nose to translate to the palate in a drying way; the red fruits were nearly absent, eclipsed by flavours of mushrooms, and a slight smokiness. I enjoyed the body of the wine, but wouldn’t seek it out. 
Wine List: Doesn’t even qualify (one red and one white does not a wine list make)…
Wine 
Cactus Club Café (Bay & Adelaide)
How could I forget passing a place bounded by decorative flames (if there even is such a thing) before arriving at the location last Sunday night? The Cactus Club has a cute name, and a decent aesthetic when stepping into the first floor of its Financial District location. Bar seating is available on two levels, as are booths and high tables where drinkers and diners have an acceptable diversity of wines to try, alongside impressively crafted food. (The tuna stack was awesome! $16)
The wine list is alright, but it strikes me as a bit of a hodgepodge, with a lot of “name brands” in the sparkling section (from Blue Mountain to Veuve Clicquot to Tarlant), and not a great deal of experimentation in either the whites or the reds. Solid Ontario choices, like Flat Rock Cellars and Tawse, were paired alongside a more mainstream Pinot Grigio, and Vinho Verde. Some of the more unusual finds were a Greek Assyrtiko, and a Greco di Tufo, but I wasn’t bowled over. The red selection was equally disappointing: Malivore, Liberty School (which I love), and Barossa Valley Estate are paired alongside one or two interesting choices. 
The trouble with this establishment was the lack of knowledge around the wine list, and an inability on the part of the servers to make recommendations beyond the Cabernet Sauvignon, calling it a “good winter wine.” I was initially steered away from the Greco di Tufo because “it’s just average” (!?), and was encouraged, instead, to stick with a Pinot Grigio, no doubt of a similar middling quality. 
My first selection, entirely sans support, was the Norman Harding Cabernet Franc ($14/6 oz gls), a deep ruby wine, medium-bodied, and the absolute wrong pairing choice with the tuna stack. (This is what happens when I’m not a fan of the whites available.) Aromas of underripe red fruit, licorice, and forest floor are astonishingly subtle, yet complex. On the palate, the wine is abrasively acidic; tart notes of salty olives, bitter fruits, crushed violets, and tobacco smoke were slightly unappealing, though I did appreciate how bright and well-balanced the wine otherwise seemed. It was one of those instances where I could appreciate what I was drinking on an intellectual level, but it lost me on the taste, despite the flavours being classic Cab Franc. I’m sure professional wine critics will rave about this one, but it just didn’t grab me as a pleasant sipping wine.
My second choice was a Roussillon Syrah, which I was encouraged to stay away from because it was “too light” (!?), a Jaja Syrah 2013 ($10/6 oz gls). I was rather excited to try it, as there’s a certain curiosity for me surrounding wines from Languedoc-Roussillon, mostly because they tend to be excellent value for the flavour, complexity, and overall quality. Sadly, I have to report that this was not what I was expecting. Full-bodied, but flabby, this wine lacked acidity to balance out the otherwise bold flavours of dark cherry, plum, chocolate, grilled meat, and vegetal notes. Since wine is really meant to be paired, I have no doubt this would see infinite improvement if matched with game or red meat; but stay away from fatty things, like foie gras–this is missing the acidity to cut through it. 
Wine List:  
Wine  (Cab Franc),   (Syrah)
The Library Bar (Royal York Hotel)
If you were to ask me for my favourite bar in the city, it’s hands-down The Library Bar. Tucked away in a small corner of the Fairmont Royal York, the intimate space for fewer than fifty or so patrons reminds me of what a Manhattan lounge in the 1940s would have looked like with its crimson walls, heavy window coverings, and oddly accented animal-print couches. I’ve been coming here for years–enough times to watch them cycle through the gratis nibbles. (I was a big fan of the Japanese rice cracker mix with wasabi peas and cranberries several years ago. Not really digging the caramel corn, and garlic pretzels now.)
I expected more from the wine list: perhaps more unusual choices or more diverse ones. I was disappointed to find a humdrum offering of what I’d call red, white, and sparkling’s “greatest hits.” Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, and Piper-Heidsieck, with a Prosecco and a Niagara Blac de Blancs tossed in for good measure was the first pout-worthy section. The preponderance of Niagara white wines made me sigh, with only a New Zealand Sauvignon option (Kim Crawford!), and a Pinot Grigio (again, of all the whites available out there…) to offer diversity. What happened to new, exciting, and imaginative curation? Red fared only marginally better, but again, the old standards found their way onto the drink menu: Barossa Shiraz, Argentinian Malbec, and three California Cabs, one of which included Francis Coppola’s label. This calls for an emoticon: 😦
One of the things I do love about service at the Royal York is that it’s done properly–none of this pulling an already open bottle out of the bottom of the bar and measuring it first. (Goodness knows how long the bottle has already been open for!) Each wine, despite having been ordered by the glass, was appropriately brought to my table as a freshly opened bottle, which was first poured for me to sample, before the waiter eyeballed the six ounces. (This shouldn’t merit its own discussion, but fewer and fewer places are doing it properly these days.)
My first choice was B.C.’s Mission Hill Merlot 2012 ($16/gls), a decent but not exceptional choice, opaque red-purple, with a beautiful bouquet of dark plum, toasty wood notes, muted blackberries, and blueberries. I aerated quickly, though it wasn’t enough to get the true flavours of this wine to shine through, I think. The wine still seemed too closed, almost stifling the fruit flavours that should otherwise burst on the palate. Herbaceous notes of green pepper were prominent, a precocious acidity was refreshing, and, overall, I’d probably try this again, giving it an appropriate window of time to decant. 
When you follow the Merlot up with an exceptional Valpolicella, it’s almost an unfair comparison. The Valpolicella 2010 Delibori ($27/gls) was outrageously priced–a combination of typical mark-up and Royal York Hotel mark-up. Of course, you also get what you pay for and this was spectacular, even right out of the bottle. The inky-black wine has luscious aromas of stewed plums, sweet molasses, nutmeg, and cloves, reminiscent of an autumnal kitchen. On the palate, the full-bodied wine has a great balance of acidity and tannins, and a concentration of flavours from the dried grapes, which results in a lingering, slightly sweet finish. A steep price tag, I know, but a really great wine. 
Wine List:
Wine  (Merlot),   (Valpolicella)

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