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.


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

United States

International



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…

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