March 20 Roundup: Que Syrah, Syrah; London to Bordeaux Direct; and a Treat from the Archives

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.
***Vacation Alert: Faithful Readers, next week I’ll be taking a much-deserved break to celebrate Easter. So, expect some content from the archives (we’ve also had to pull something out of our files for this week’s essay – sorry). We’ll be back to regular posting in April.***

Sip It!

Les Montgolfiers Reserve Syrah 2012

LCBO #: 341479 | 750 mL bottle | $11.50 (purchased for $6.95)
Alcohol: 12.5%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: Red
Rating: 

Deep ruby-purple and bursting with ripe red fruit flavours of tart cherry and raspberry, this medium-bodied wine is richly textured for a low-end table wine. On the palate, it exudes oak, mushrooms, smokiness, and touches of herbaceous greenery. A brightening acidity lifts this wine on the finish, which lingers on the tongue. Notes of cloves and tobacco help round out this surprising buy for under $10.

About the Wine: Made by Thierry Boudinaud, this Syrah comes from the south of France. The wine’s name is a tribute to Boudinaud’s anscetors, Etienne and Joseph–the famous pair behind the hot-air balloon.

Skip It!

Porcupine Ridge Syrah 2014

Vintages #: 595280   | 750 mL bottle | $14.95
Alcohol: 13.5%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: White
Rating: 

This is one of those deceptive wines that sets you up for profound disappointment. An inky, opaque purple, this wine boasts an intense bouquet of stewed plums, dark cherries, seared meat, licorice, and forest floor, which suggested to me a wine that would be deliciously fruit-forward, full-bodied, and complex. One sip, and I knew this wasn’t for me. The assertive tannins and mouth-puckering acidity were mildly off-putting. Flavours of mint, tobacco, and oak were offset by a sweeter vanilla, but I would definitely pass this by again because of the lack of balance. Upside: cute label.

About the Wine: According to the producer, “the Syrah is solely sourced from Swartland, renowned for its small berries and un-irrigated vineyards.” The wine is matured in older French oak barriques, and “reflects the sunny climate and warm shale soils of the Swartland region.”


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

Canada

United States

  • President Obama slams Donald Trump’s wine this week, saying, “Has anybody bought that wine? I want to know what that wine tastes like. I mean, come on. You know that’s like some $5 wine. They slap a label on it. They charge you $50 and say it’s the greatest wine ever.”

International


FROM THE ARCHIVES
THIS WEEK: WINEMAKING TECHNIQUE

Let’s get “toasty”…with wood, of course!

I’m a history nut. What attracts me to wine isn’t just the tasting and appreciation of the grapes, the wine-making processes and the terroir — it’s also the evolution of wine-making over centuries, and how vintners arrived at the processes they’re using today.

One of the most ubiquitous images associated with wine production is the barrel. Most Google image searches will at least pull up a dozen photographs of cellars lined with the pride and joy of talented coopers practicing a craft honed over millenia. But how far back does the use of barrels in fermentation and aging of wine actually go?

I assume it’s quite well known that most Old World wine-making and the vitis vinifera that enables it owes its thanks to the Romans, who not only consumed wine in excess, but as an alternative to water, which was often unsafe, particularly for travelling armies. Unlike the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians who used palm wood barrels to store and ferment wine, despite it being notoriously difficult to bend, the Romans favoured storage in clay amphorae (bet that didn’t impart those luscious flavours of vanilla and spice!). It wasn’t until the Romans encountered the Gauls, with their use of wooden barrels in the storage and transport of beer, that the vessel we all know and associate with wine production was adopted.

Barrels can be used in wine-making to impart flavour and colour, as well as help mellow tannins and vary texture, and the type of wood use matters immensely to the end product. Whether it’s proper barrels or wood chips floating in stainless steel tanks, wood has its own phenolic compounds and characteristics that can encourage evaporation and oxygenation, as well as alter the taste profile of a wine.

The length of time spent in a barrel depends on several factors, including the varietal, the winemaker’s preference, and rules surrounding a region or country’s wine-making. Take for instance Spanish wine laws that dictate barrel time: for example, a Crianza, depending on where it is made, can spend as little as 12 months in the barrel, while a Gran Reserva can spend upwards of three years. (I kind of love this animated video explaining wine aging. The cartoon barrel cracks me up!)

Depending on the species of oak, flavour intensity imparted can also vary tremendously. French oak has long been the preferred wood for barrel aging as it imparts flavours of spice and textures of satin and silk (like Pouilly-Fuisse), whereas American oak can produce more intense wines with creamier textures (think oaked California Chardonnay). Italian winemakers often use Slavonian oak, which lends subtler flavours and softer tannins, while lower-end French and Hungarian winemakers source oak from a region proximate to the Black Sea, which is known for its “more elegant and sweeter aromas.”

What else can I possibly say on barrels, except that sizes vary, too, with Bordeaux barrique and Burgundy styles leading the charge with holding 225 L (59 gallons) and 228 L (60 gallons) respectively.

So, the next time you taste a wine, look for the hints of oak and how the wine’s tannins, flavours and texture might be coming through based on the time it spent inside this venerated vessel.

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March 13 Roundup: Two “Skip-Its,” What Wine Was Served at the White House, and Our First Guest Blog

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.
***Faithful Readers, this week’s wines reviewed are a tip of the hat to our first guest blogger, who singles out both Australian and Chilean wines as two go-to buys. I’ve thumbed through my tasting book for two fairly recent wines from both countries tasted and recorded; unfortunately, they were both…well, you’ll see…***

Skip It!

Mitolo Jester Shiraz 2013

Vintages #: 659607 | 750 mL bottle | $22.95
Alcohol: 15.0%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: Red
Rating: 

The Mitolo Shiraz was tough for me to love–it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t spectacular either. Regardless of the reviews (some of which put this in the 90+ range), I wasn’t bowled over.  The trouble with this wine was that the incredible bouquet didn’t translate to the palate. Bright, luscious, bursting aromas of blackberry, black cherry, mint, and roasted coffee made me salivate. The muscular tannins, toasty notes, and prominent tobacco flavours competed with the fruitiness, and flavours of bitter chocolate, and for some reason, the balance was just off for me. The wine had a good, full-bodied mouth-feel, with a decent acidity to round out the finish which ended on a slightly sweet note. Try it, for sure, since many seem to really like this wine (except your resident blogger).

About the Wine: According to Mitolo Wines, the 2013 vintage was outstanding, producing bright, fresh wines with “excellent tannin structure.” The Shiraz vineyards are in the Willunga district, in the south of McLaren Vale. Grapes are grown in a loamy-sandstone-clay soil, and in a maritime climate. Mitolo Wines recommends pairing this with a “Bistecca alla Fiorentina cooked over charcoal.”

Skip It!

Maycas del Limarí, Quebada Seca 2013

LCBO #: Special Order | 750 mL bottle | $30 (but purchased for $21 on Black Friday)
Alcohol: 14.0%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: White
Rating: 

This is a 90-95-point wine that Decanter describes as “a complex, unique Chardonnay,” but oh man, did I have a hard time getting into this wine. On the nose, the aroma of oak was overpowering for me, cloaking some of the other scents I managed to pick up (but not without a struggle!), including brioche and blanched asparagus and butane (but I think the professionals use the more sophisticated descriptor, “flinty”). On the palate, heavy oak dominated, but an upstart citrusy-acidity vied for attention. The buttery mouth-feel, matched by a spritely minerality, was not at all unpleasant, but overall, not to be repeated (and I still have two more bottles!).

About the Wine: Located 400 km north of Santiago in the Limarí Valley, the Maycas winery produces typical Burgundian varieties, including Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The Chardonnay, grown at the Quebrada Seca Vinyard 190 m above sea level in calcareous and clay soils, is exposed to optimal growing conditions: sunny days, close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, and a cool- to moderate-climate.


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

Canada

  • Oy! It’s not all good news about supermarket wine sales in Ontario – from $10.95 minimum prices, to all-Ontario wines, it could be more of a curse than a blessing. (Wine so close to everything you would need to make a cheese board, yet limited by geography. *Tear.*)

United States

International


THROUGH THE WINE GLASS
This week we have a special guest blog from a Faithful Reader, who reflects on his favourite wines and wine adventures. [Editorial comments sparingly added by Yours Truly. xo]

As the inaugural guest contributor, may I say how honoured I am for this invitation. I hope I can do justice to you, the loyal readers, and introduce you to what may perhaps be new perspectives. Unlike your regular columnist, I have a far less refined palate, and lack her descriptive powers and her fluency with wine terminology. I take a more Trumpian approach to these matters – I know what I like, and I tell it how it is. Even if I’m wrong.

So, where to start? OK. Yes. Whisk(e)y. As a Scot by residence (yes, I know, a very long time ago) I spent my childhood surrounded by shabbily dressed academics who would gaze for hours at a tumbler (alright, several tumblers) of Scotch, prattling on with decreasing coherence about the taste/bouquet (they didn’t call it that) quadrant into which malt whiskies are allocated. Some of them (yes, Laphroiag) really had few redeeming qualities, but it was as fashionable then (c. 1965) as now to worship the briny smell and taste of the Islay malts. Frankly, I find most of them quite vile and an appalling waste of money. My preferences were Singleton (difficult to get in Ontario), some of the older Glenfiddichs, Highland Park (I still remember the 25 year-old I was given as a farewell gift when I departed my last proper job), Oban, The (and it is “The”) Macallan and, usually, the darker, richer malts. Lately, though, I’ve strayed from the historical and snobby purity that scorns any whisky not from Scotland, and have been buying some of the alternatives. There are some excellent Irish whiskies (OK, not many) and an increasing range of offerings from the US, a few from Canada and, you’d never guess…..India! Yes, India. Amrut is one of the leading distillers there, and in blind testings they frequently beat out some of the noblest Scotches. [I’ve tasted this, and it’s not bad.] They’re not cheap – typically in the $70-$90 range – but dark, rich, delicious, with or without a splash of water and never, ever ice, which should be deployed only with the palest Islays. I’m still experimenting with bourbons, so will return to these in a later guest column. If I’m ever invited back.

Veering back on course, let me talk about wine. First off, your regular correspondent and I do not agree on ratings. I get the challenges of the 100 point scale, because, really, it’s finicky, deeply subjective, silly, and ultimately impossible. But nor does this cork system work. [Wow, someone can kiss that invitation back good bye…!] If you reduce the options to a maximum of four or five corks, you are grading wines in bands of 20% to 25%. However, I have to admit that I don’t actually have a better system. Or perhaps I do. The starting point is that wine that tastes horrible shouldn’t be marketed. Period. Once beyond that barrier, it’s a taste/price value proposition. If you spend below $10 a bottle, it’s just…wine, usually for a party, or for people who don’t know good from bad, or don’t care. Between $10 and $20, you need to enjoy it, but not to the point of over-thinking it, especially at the lower end of that range. But more than $20, the flavours must be distinctive, the bouquet powerful. Again, though, what matters is – do you like it? Of course, even if you like it, even if you really, really like it, the question soon becomes: is it worth it?

Having attended a recent wine auction with your regular correspondent (and she was indeed dressed as if she could squander thousands on a single bottle of Petrus, although there was some muttering about the propriety of her distinctive shade of lipstick [it was “classic red,” thank you very much!]) I saw people pay up to $3,000 for a bottle of claret. [Note: I say “saw”, but the high rollers invariably bid through an agent, or by phone, because if you have that sort of money, you aren’t going to spend a Saturday morning in the company of folks who get squeamish about paying more than $20 a bottle [or, as he actually remarked, people who wouldn’t deign to sit in the cheap chairs]]. What went through my mind was this: how can a Petrus be worth 150 times what you’d pay for a perfectly decent bottle of, say, a Chilean Malbec? It might taste a bit better (even a lot better) and the taste sensations will no doubt go on for longer, but that can’t come close to justifying these prices. Which leads to these conclusions: people pay these prices because they are investing, not collecting, and because they can and want others to know that they can.

This blog is of course about what to drink and not drink. I intend to point you in the right direction, but won’t be giving any specific recommendations. I’m not a big fan of French wine [sacrilege!]; and I don’t know much about Italian wine beyond what a friend of mine once told me – stick to those that begin with a B [in a pinch, I guess, but there are some other very exciting wines that don’t begin with a B – the Vs are quite remarkable, for example]. And I find that Californian wine, especially the reds, is just too and in some cases ridiculously expensive. My last such indulgence was a Schafer Merlot, at more than $50. It was…nice. I subsequently saw that it was reviewed with a score of 89, so go figure.

The best values are Chilean [no disagreement here – in fact, you can check out my blog on the wines of Chile from last year]. Nice, crisp whites, And stunning reds. Anything that gets 90+ points in the Vintages catalogue, buy it, and drink it in the next year [disagreeing – see this week’s tasting notes above]. And then of course we have Australian, of which I’ve been an avid fan for decades, when I made my first trip to the Hunter Valley. It started inauspiciously. My host drove me the two hours from Sydney, and as we were about to pull up for lunch at Freds’ Resto, he suddenly swerved back into traffic, declaring that he wasn’t prepared to patronize an establishment whose owner didn’t understand where to place the apostrophe, and was rear-ended by a Holden station wagon. As we waited for the tow truck, we had a glass of Saxonvale Chardonnay  at Freds’, and I was hooked. I returned to Toronto with a case of Rosemount Cab Sauv, and never looked back. You can spend a lot on Aussie reds (D’Arenberg Dead Arm, still available at Vintages, for over $50, is wonderful) but you don’t need to, as there are many selections in the $20-$25 range (Cabs, Shiraz) that are way better than any French nonsense [hey now!] at multiples of that, and which need little if any cellaring.

I must end with a confession. I did make a purchase at a wine auction last year. An Australian Shiraz, from the Mollydooker winery. (There are two meanings of this expression, one harmless, the other stereotypically vulgar). It cost $160, plus buyer’s premium, and HST. I plan to drink it this year, and will send a review for inclusion in this blog.

March 6 Roundup: Crazy About California, Spain Dominates Global Wine Sales, and the Other Grüner

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!

Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

LCBO #: 996405 | 750 mL bottle | $49.95
Alcohol: 13.9%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: Red
Rating: 

Stags’ Leap comes with a price tag. To drink the iconic California wine that kicked some serious French derrière in ’76, you can’t help but wonder: Is this really better than Bordeaux? Deep red-garnet, semi-opaque, and slightly purple around the edges, this dry, dense Cab is quite full-bodied, youthful, and just a tad too tannic. Black cherry, black current, vanilla, and jammy notes are off-set by pronounced tobacco, and earthy flavours. Pleasantly herbaceous, this wine was solid, not out-of-this-world, but also a classic expression of an Old World Cab. It would do well with a bit of aging, perhaps, and a nice hunk of grass-fed steak.

About the Wine: Stags’ Leap is one of California’s earliest wine estates. Founded in 1970, and achieving international recognition at the 1976 Judgment of Paris, this Napa Valley first-growth has a signature style that, according to the winery, has often been described as “‘an iron fist in a velvet glove,’ a reference to the artful balance between ripeness and restraint, softness and structure, that yields wines of exceptional beauty and long life.”

Skip It!

Penfold’s Bin 2 Shiraz-Mataro 2013

LCBO #: 468629 | 750 mL bottle | $24.75
Alcohol: 14.0%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: Red
Rating: 

Fans of Australian wine will no doubt be outraged by my assessment of this Penfolds Shiraz blend. Mataro is another name for Mourvèdre, and, according to some sources, this wine is “a brilliant example of Australia’s proficiency with Rhône varieties.” It wasn’t bad, but it was just OK, and those are always the hardest wines to score. What makes it two corks versus three? Generally, for me, is whether I’d drink it again, and sadly, this one’s a no. It reminds me of those young, assertive, and slightly too nippy Côtes du Rhônes. Although chock full of sweet black cherry, cloves, vanilla, cocoa, and jammy notes, the slightly bitter finish is what did this wine in. Where the Stags’ Leap earned four corks (I’d drink it again, it was rich, and flavourful), the finish was the spoiler here. If you do happen across a bottle, or are gifted one, I imagine this would pair well with flavourful lamb stews or with herby beef tenderloin dishes.

About the Wine: Established in 1844, Penfolds has a reputation for quality in many circles (though some vociferous critics claim that it’s overpriced). The vineyards are located primarily in Southern Australia–Adelaide, the Barossa Valley, the Clare Valley, Coonawarra, Limestone Cost, and McLaren Vale. Penfolds owns and leases its vineyards, in addition to sourcing grapes from over 220 vineyards and independent grape growers.


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

United States

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

THIS WEEK: SYLVANER – THE OTHER GRÜNER

When I hear the word “Grüner,” I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking “Veltliner”–the peculiarly spicy, and excitingly flavorful variety grown predominantly in Austria, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. But, did you know that that Sylvaner (alternatively spelled Silvaner) is often known as “Grüner Silvaner,” which I suspect, in both instances, references the grape’s rich green colour.

I haven’t drunk any Sylvaner, but then I haven’t really looked for it in the wine store. From what I can tell, it’s a boring sort of grape, not predisposed to any exciting aromatic surprizes, like Gewürtztraminer, or any palate-tickling excitement, like a Syrah that exudes the terroir in which it was grown. According to Jancis Robinson, dismissing Silvaner, like I just did, would be evidence of a “very superificial acquaintance with this historic grape variety,” and though it has its enthusiasts, they appear to be far and few between, and limited to the most sophisticated of wine-drinkers and regional growers who praise its versatility.

Though Silvaner is grown in varying quantities in several pockets of Central Europe, its home is really Germany, despite a recent resurgence in Alsace. In total, Silvaner covers just over 12,000 acres, making it the third most-grown white wine grape variety after Riesling and Müller-Thurgau; it’s predominantly grown in Rheinhessen and in Franken, where Robinson points out that Silvaner can produce some of the region’s finest wines.

Although the cultivation of Sylvaner became widespread in the 19th century, it is thought that the variety first came to Germany after the Thirty Years War as there is recorded evidence of it being planted in Franconia in 1659. By the middle of the 20th century, it became the most important grape variety planted in Germany, but, since then, has declined significantly, now standing at around five per cent of overall land under vine. Sylvaner was also planted in Alsace in large quantities after the Second World War, and, more recently, the variety has seen a revival. In 2006, Zotzenburg Sylvaner became the first to be designated Alsace Grand Cru.

For those curious to try this variety out, pickings may be slim. Ontario residents appear to be restricted to two choices: the Alsatian Pierre Sparr Reserve 2013 ($13.95) and the Dopff & Irion Crystal d’Alsace Sylvaner ($13.95, with five bonus AirMiles until March 26…obviously, I’ve made a note). The tasting notes for both wines seem subtle, delicate, and restrained, with light fruit and floral notes–the ideal pairing for seafood dishes that shouldn’t be overpowered–I’m thinking oysters (which I don’t really like), clams (which I’m also not crazy about), and scallops (which I tend to stay away from).