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.

 

 

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

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!
Franciscan Chardonnay, Napa, California, 2013

Vintages #: 496125 | 750 mL bottle | $24.95
Alcohol: 13.5%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: White
Rating: 

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
Rating: 

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.”


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SPOTLIGHT ON THE WORLD’S WINE REGIONS
Putting that graduate degree in history to use…looking at wine through the ages.

THIS WEEK: RIOJA

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.

January 17 Roundup: PX Sherry – The Last Frontier, Submarine Technology, and George of the Wine Cellar

Faithful Readers, This is the last week of our sherry reviews from “Tapaspalooza 2015.” Since introducing the new content and format, I’ve received feedback from some of our more engaged audience members, with one particularly vocal reader expressing “deep discontent” over the cutback in wines reviewed. It seems the preference remains for at least two wine reviews per week at a minimum, so I’ll be reverting to our old format for tasting notes. I’ve yet to receive any comments, positive or negative, on our two new “essay” sections, though some have remarked in passing that the blog has become more whimsical (not to mention lengthy!). In an effort to keep the populace satisfied, we’ll be introducing a new approach to the editorial calendar: the first week of the month we’ll be time travelling back in time to explore the history of wine, the second week we’ll be reviewing learning aids (books, videos, or podcasts), the third week we’ll explore a wine word in depth, and the fourth week we’ll take a look at a wine region. A new mainstay of the weekly blog will be grape varieties in 250 characters or less. This will also help me manage the workload demands of the blog as this week, having been on a northern Ontario sojourn, I wasn’t really able to turn my attention to Sip It or Skip It until today. 😦 I imagine if anyone is dissatisfied with this latest update, I’ll find out about it!


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!
Alvear Solera 1927 Pedro Ximenez Montilla Mor Sherry

LCBO #: 383422 | 375 mL bottle | $19.95 (now reduced to $15.55 as it’s discontinued)
Alcohol: 16.0%
Sweetness: Sweet
Wine Type: Sherry
Rating:  

The Alvear family has been making wine since the 18th century. Over generations, the family acquired land and vineyards, as well as contracts to ship wine commercially. According to the Alvear website, “throughout its 284-year-long histry, Bodegas Alvear has managed … to combine and put into practice the extensive experience of a privileged land and a dedicated family in order to produce exceptional wines.” Today, Alvear distributes its wines across Spain, and abroad to more than 25 countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, and Australia.

You can pick this PX up at the LCBO or at Harrods 🙂 — though right now it’s on sale at the LCBO at a huge bargain. This is a delicious, albeit super sweet wine, that would be mind-blowing with blue cheese or fig ice cream, but I’d suggest limiting yourself to a thimble-full. Deep nut brown, this wine smelled of stewed plums or even plum buttery, with those luscious jammy notes, punctuated by rich floral-honey. On the palate, this is syrupy to be sure, texturally similar to maple syrup, but with crisp, brightening acidity: citrus notes of tangerine linger on the finish. Brown sugar and molasses also come through, but surprisingly absent for me was the nuttiness and salinity that I was expecting.The PX grapes, once harvested, are raisined in the Spanish sun, and pressed to “deliver intensely rich must.” The solera system for this wine was first developed in 1927. Buy it, save it, serve it, gift it, you can’t go wrong with this tasty sweet sherry — just make sure to serve it cold (between 10-14° C).

 

 

 

 


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

THIS WEEK: ON WORDS AND WINE – GEORGE SAINTSBURY

I felt a nice conclusion to our in-depth exploration of sherry this month would be seeing what other long-time drinkers thought about it in all its varieties. That’s how I stumbled upon George Saintsbury, whose Notes on a Cellar should find its way into everyone’s wine library. As much historical record as autobiography, George Saintsbury’s notes, first published in 1920, are delightful, amusing, educational, and quite germane to our January tasting adventure.

I didn’t know who George Saintsbury was before this week when I started reading his Notes, but it seems the Oxford-educated literary scholar had a penchant for the humble vitis vinifera plant as well. A prolific literary critic, his seminal works on French literature put him on the map as an authority on the subject when they were first published in the 1880s. He is no less respected for his insights into English literature, among them a series on “English Men of Letters,” and a work on minor poets in the Caroline period. 

 Despite his fame in literary circles, he is arguably best remembered today for his reflections on wine and wine drinking. His thoughts on sherry were especially interesting to me. He writes:

“Although I am myself no lover of modernity, I do not think there is, or was at any rate a short time ago, quite so much bad sherry about as there used to be. I remember in the middle of the [eighteen] sixties, when Sunday lunching places in London were rare  and I had as yet no club, being driven to feed with an Oxford friend at a small tavern or chophouse in Piccadilly. The scorch and the twang of what they miscalled “Vino de Pasto” abide in my palate’s memory to this day. And it was made all the more wicked because Sherry is plenteous in quality and singularly various in kind.” (Notes on a Cellar, University of California Press, 2008: 53)

George, I couldn’t agree more! In fact, you’ll note a similar observation in my primer on Sherry from last year. Delving into Sherry types, he goes on to observe:

But some of the finer kinds [or sherry] are really supernacular–the best Tio Pepe,” for instance. Only he who indulges in them must remember that they are an exception to the general rule that “Sherry improves in the decanter. When they are opened, the finer ones especially, they must be drunk. I have known a bottle of Tio Pepe become appreciably “withered between lunch and dinner.” (54)

Faithful Readers, you will recall the Tio Pepe from two weeks ago, which we reviewed–a dry white wine which, unlike its Palo Cortado or PX cousin, must be drunk within the same short, subject-to-early-spoilage window as most of your light white wines.

From Fino to our exciting PX, George (who looks a lot like Gandalf, no? See below) covered it all in his cellar notes, colouring his tasting experiences with memories from Oxford, and adulthood in Edwardian England. Of all of Saintsbury’s books, Notes on a Cellar has “never been out of print or  out of favour”; in fact, according to the London Review of Books, “first editions are highly valued in the antiquarian book trade, and [this book] alone has sustained Saintsbury’s reputation into the 21st century.” Aging, ailing, and in his mid-seventies when he wrote it under contract with Macmillan, Saintsbury had been “under doctors’ orders to limit his alcohol intake,” but his ledger–a book he had kept for some three decades–“used to organise his wine cellar and to memorialise what had passed through it and, subsequently, through him,” was a vital resource for inspiring the reflections of this charming tome. I don’t think I could say it better than Tim Patterson, who writes:

…the Notes are a marvelous window into an important era in the history of wine, the period at the turn of the 20th century. At that time rich and/or educated Brits like Saintsbury–well, nobody was quite like Saintsbury–had appointed themselves arbiters of the world’s wines, and were busy establishing Bordeaux as the reference point for fine wine, sorting out the Ports and Sherries, crowning the Mosel, and establishing the idea of well-aged wine as the Holy Grail. In broad terms, the opinions of Saintsbury’s cohort are the conventional wisdom of today’s wine world–and here we see them being created.



VINUM VERBA
Each week we explore the exciting language of wine, deciphering those cryptic wine reviews, and helping consumers expand their libation lexicon.

Lees. You’ve likely seen it on the back of labels that say a wine has been aged on them, but what the heck are they?

If you’re a beer drinker, you may be more familiar with the term, which, like in wine, is a fermentation process in which the wine or beer is aged for a time on the dead or residual yeast, as well as any other particles that find their way to the bottom of the fermentation vessel. You’ll often see many wines, in particular Chardonnay, Muscadet, and Champagne aging for a time sur lie (on the lees), while, in the making of Valpolicella Ripassos, the lees from Amarone are often added to enhance flavour. A Falanghina I enjoyed this weekend was aged on the lees, imparting a yeasty smell. The wine had the butteriness you’d hope for from malolactic fermentation, but none of the heavy oakiness from aging in a cask or with wood chips. The yeast notes were subtle and pleasant to the nose and taste buds. So, there you have it–another wine-making technique under your belt. Until next week, Faithful Readers…

January 10 Roundup: Sherry Redux, Working on a Grape Gang, and a Wine-Grammar Lesson



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!
Lustau Almacenista Vides Palo Cortado de Jerez 

LCBO #: 431940 | 500 mL bottle | $37.00
Alcohol: 15.0%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: Sherry
Rating:    

In my crash course on sherry last year, I called Palo Cortados the “unicorns of the sherry world” for their reputed rarity. Far from a Fino, which is how it would have begun its fortified wine life, Palo Cortados have the “aromatic refinement of Amontillado [sherries] combined with the structure and body of an Oloroso.”

Sherries age in one of two ways: biologically or oxidatively, the former occurring under a blanket of indigenous yeast called flor, and the latter the result of air contact over time in the cask. Sherrynotes.com explains it well:

…a Palo Cortado would originate as a Fino that started to deviate: unplanned yeast activity, specific characteristics of the grape juice, a slightly off-beat cask or certain ambient conditions that influenced the flor. These casks would then be taken out of the Fino solera: its Fino mark, a vertical line or palo, would then be crossed or cortado by a diagonal line. Its flor would be killed by fortifying the wine to 17-18 degrees and it would continue its life as a barrel that ages oxidatively.

This inexplicable switch from biologic to oxidative aging is what makes Palo Cortados so rare: there is no guarantee of the result and, as such, it is estimated that fewer than 10,000 bottles of authentic Palo Cortado are sold each year. “Commercial” Palo Cortados, on the other hand, are the skillful blend of Amontillado and Oloroso sherries

Lustau is a great entry- and mid-level producer for authentic sherry. Founded in 1896, and relocated to the historic quarter of Jerez de la Frontera in the 1940s, the label began exporting its sherry in the 1950s, though the market was dominated by British tastes for sweeter fortifieds. Decades of innovation and expansion followed Lustau’s initial export market entry and, aided by a resurgent interest in more authentic Spanish sherry, gained increasing market share in the 1980s

Nestled amidst the limestone “albariza” hills of Jerez, Lustau’s two vineyards–Montegilillo and Las Cruces–grow traditional sherry grape varieties for production of both dry and sweet wines. Palomino, Muscatel, and Pedro Ximénez grapes are exposed to an average of 3,000 hours of sunlight, and relatively heavy rainfalls, helping the ripening process

Bodega_La_Emperatriz._Lustau.jpg
Lustau’s Bodega in Jerez de la Frontera (from Wikipedia)

Made from Palomino grapes, Lustau Almacenista Vides Palo Cortado de Jerez is a light amber-coloured wine that, when poured, recalls the appearance of light maple syrup. Aged in American oak in the traditional solera system, the product notes describe “nuances of vanilla, coffee and dark chocolate,” though I only picked up the vanilla. Instead, my nose detected aromas of brown sugar, short pastry crust, and cinnamon–the smells you associate with the baking of a great apple pie. On the palate, nutty warmth, a saline-minerality, toasted almond, and warm baking spices were intense and luxurious. Not exactly a fan favourite with guests, though it was preferred to last week’s Fino, I rather enjoyed this for the unique playfulness of the myriad flavours. Lustau recommends serving this between 14-15° C (which I did), alongside consommés, game soups, cold and smoked meats, foie-gras, and many spicy Asian dishes (none of which I tried, the cold, smoked meats excepted).


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

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

THIS WEEK: REIGN OF TERROIR – WINE AND THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

I was racking my brain this week, wondering what to blog about. I had fun with my last post (one that a faithful reader called “whimsical”)–though, truth be told, I’m wondering how much mileage I can get out of this before the so-called well runs dry on this mash-up of history and wine.  There I was, sitting in a Starbucks, puttering away on my other big writing project this week, texting with Faithful Reader and long-time friend, Dean, when I mused (in less than 160 characters): Isn’t there a part in A Tale of Two Cities where a cask of wine spills onto the streets of Paris? It’s been over a decade since I’ve read Dickens’ tragic tale of love, death, and betrayal in revolutionary France–in fact, I think I read it in the seventh or eighth grade, when I went through my “French Revolution phase,” lapping up novels like The Scarlet Pimpernel (and the film adaptation, with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour, of course, not the remake a few decades later), but I digress…This weekend, I dug up the copy I’d read back then–the Penguin edition from 1971, now with yellowed pages, dog-eared and worn since I was not the first reader. I wasn’t up for doing the whole cover-to-cover thing, so I opted for thumbing through to the chapter called, “The Wine Shop,” in search of the passage I remembered. There it was on page 60, the cask of red wine that “stained the ground of the narrow street in the suburb of Saint Antoine…where it was spilled,” a metaphor for the savage, unrepentantly bloody revolution that France would wage on the existing social order. All this got me thinking, if the French Revolution was so fundamental in altering the political, economic and social structure of the country, what was the deal with wine?

T2C,_Fred_Barnard,_The_Wine-Shop_in_St._Antoine
A Tale of Two Cities, The Wine-Shop, Gaspard, Madame de Farge, and her publican husband, by Fred Barnard.” (Another Wikipedia “labelled for reuse” picture.)

Grape cultivation across France, as in most of Europe, predates recorded history. The Celts, Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, and others travelling to and from what is now present-day France, whether temporary sojourners or permanent migrants, cultivated the humble Vitis vinifera plant. At the height of the Roman Empire, when demand was arguably at its peak, vines were planted throughout Gaul (areas that now make up the present-day Loire Valley, the Paris Basin, Champagne, and Brittany). As the Roman Empire crumbled, and the region fell prey to invading Germanic tribes, grape cultivation entered a quasi-Dark Age, only to be reinvigorated by the Carolingian Renaissance, and the rise of the medieval wine trade. 

It should come as no surprise that one of the key forces driving wine production during this period was the Catholic Church (as an example, see my post on Châteauneuf-du-Pape from 2015). However, viticulture and wine-making was predominantly a small-scale, monastic affair–think of the Cistercian order in Burgundy, or the Benedictine monks in the Rhône Valley. There is some dispute over how much of a role the Church played in preserving the tradition of viticulture from the Roman period, with one camp arguing that private enterprise, as permitted, for instance, under the Carolingians, was responsible for shepherding vine cultivation through the Dark Ages.

Ancien régime blues: Something rotten in the state of France

Dickens famously begins his novel, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” but, for the peasants of France, it truly was the worst of times; there was absolutely nothing remotely redeeming about the ancien régime. A contemporary Frenchman witnessed the plight of the peasant first-hand:

Certain ferocious animals are to be seen in the rual districts, males and females, swarthy, livid, and sunburnt, and attached to the soil, which they dig with indomitable stubborness. They have something like articulate speech, and faces resembling those of human beings; and, in fact, they are men. At night they retire to dens, where they live on black bread, water and roots. They save other people the trouble of sowing, ploughing, and reaping, and thus deserve not the lack of bread which they themselves have produced. (La Bruyère, quoted in R. H. Dabney, The Causes of the French Revolution, 86-7.)

Indeed, it sucked to be poor in pre-revolutionary France. Another account, a century earlier, perhaps fortelling the consequences of abject poverty, recalls the “signs of a growing misfortune; all the dismal indications of an overwhelming calamity. [France’s] fields were uncultivated, the villages unpeopled, the houses dropping to decay.” By the eve of the revolution, the resulting stagnation from an indigent populace saw almost a quarter of agricultural land laying fallow, wages of those fortunate to count themselves among the labouring popuation dropped to below-susbsistence levels, and taxation, both direct and indirect, was the greatest source of popular discontent. 

Taxation was a real bummer. According to R. H. Dabney, approximately 53 per cent of the income earned from the peasant’s farm was absorbed in direct taxes. After paying the government, another 14 per cent was slated for the seigneur (or landlord), and another “to the tithe-owing clergy.” When everyone had been paid, the peasant proprietor had about 19 per cent of that remaining for himself and his family. But we’re not done yet. As if the state hadn’t bled the poor peasant dry, he and his entire family had to pay indirect taxes, too, on salt, as an example, and wine–“one of the most heavily taxed commodities by the end of the ancien régime” according to Noelle Plack, senior lecturer at Newman University College in Birmigham, UK (N. Plack, “Liberty, Equality and Taxation: Wine in the French Revolution,” Social History of Alcohol and Drugs 26: 1 (2012), 9). Get this – even gifting a bottle of wine to someone, like a sick relative, was a punishable offence, and the state could, at any time, demand to see a wine-grower’s inventory to determine how much he was permitted to drink before taxing the balance of his cellar. Outrageous! It’s no wonder that, when the Estates General–the last-ditch effort to save the unravelling social and (soon enough) political order–was convened to review the grievances expressed from French people across the country, tithes and other taxes from both Church and state were raised as the most crushing.  

The times – they are a changin’…

I think we pretty much know what went down, from the Bastille to the guillotine, without going into gruesome detail. Taxation, though recognized as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, was not immediately abolished by the National Assembly, despite their recognition that the approach to collection, as well as the steep amount, needed to be changed. Riots ensued, revolts sprung up, and havoc was wreaked by those refusing to pay anymore taxes. By May 1791, taxation on a range of consumer goods, including meat, tobacco and wine, had ended (through through a more complex series of reforms than I am able to describe in this blog post). According to Plack:

 On this day [April 30-May 1, 1791] there were prolonged and exuberant celebrations in Paris and throughout France, which commemorated the event with much fanfare. Carts filled with barrels of wine and other goods lined up on the roads outside the Capital, waiting for the stroke of midnight to pass through the customs barriers free of charge. According to the journalist, Camille Desmoulins, 431 wagons filled with wine and over 270,000 livres worth of brandy (eaux-de-vie) entered Paris along with 1600 chickens, 1672 turkeys and 90 cattle during the night of April 30-May 1, 1791.1 Desmoulins estimates that these goods would have carried a value of 3,568,254 livres of which two million would have gone to the General Farm in the form of indirect taxes. (Plack, “Liberty,” 5.)

Perhaps this is how the cask of wine in the pages of Dickens’ famed novel got to Paris–in the overnight transport of tax-free goods from country to city? 

A new vino order… 

An interesting by-product of the rhetoric of wine and revolution was increasing demands of the flattening of wine prices, regardless of quality. In the spirit of égalité, it was argued that “affordable wine was a right of the people and that they should have access to it wherever they lived… ‘It is deplorable,’ [a] winegrower deputy lamented, ‘that in a free nation, the poor should pay as much tax for their mediocre wines as the rich pay for their bottles of Burgundy or Champagne'” (Plack, 16). According to Plack, moderately priced wine was a “tangible outcome” of the revolution, though it’s certainly not the only change affecting French wine into the next century.

According to Julian Hitner, reflecting on the work of eminent wine gurus Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, “the single greatest change that the…Revolution in France made to the ancien régime of wine was to dispossess monasteries and the Church of their enormous holdings.” Nowhere was this perhaps more significant than in Burgundy, where, Hitner reviweing several secondary sources writes, “Clos de Vougeot…established by the Cistercians around 1100 CE and  [covering] about fifty hectares, was confiscated [in 1791 as part of the Biens Nationaux, the nationalization of monastic lands] and divided into sixty privately-owned properties with about one hundred owners.” 

In southern France, according to the scholarship of Noelle Plack (you can tell I was totally enthralled by her work – does she have a fan page?), the privatization of common land, to which no individual had previously held property right, gave peasants “land for the vineyards that transformed wine production in the nineteenth century,” helping pave the way for the “viticultural revolution” taking place in the region in the nineteenth century into the next century.

Still with me? I know, this was an exceptionally long entry this week (even my proofreader got tired!), but hey, informative, n’est-ce pas? In the end, the French Revolution played a pivotal role in democratizing wine, from the system of vineyard ownership to the affordability and access to it by the general populace. Indeed, more than the social order underwent a profound and enduring transformation. 



VINUM VERBA
Each week we explore the exciting language of wine, deciphering those cryptic wine reviews, and helping consumers expand their libation lexicon.

Do you have a favourite variety…or is it a varietal? Is it a single variety wine or a blend of several varietals? Variety, varietal, shmariety, schmarietal — I often see these two terms used interchangeably, though, like any grammar enthusiast, I know there is both a correct, and an incorrect usage. This week, I set the record straight, with a little help from our trusty friend Google.

Va•ri•e•ty / vəˈrīədē/
noun

  1. the quality or state of being different or diverse, the absence of uniformity, sameness, or monotony.
    “Variety is the spice of life.”

  2. a taxonomic category that ranks below subspecies (where present) or species, its members differing from others of the same subspecies or species in a… blah, blah, blah. Varieties are more often recognized in botany.
    “Sauvignon blanc is a variety of the vitis vinifera plant family.

Va•ri•e•tal / vəˈrīətl /
adjective

  1. (of a wine or grape) made from or belonging to a single specified variety of grape.
    “A varietal wine made from Pinot Noir.”
  2. (in botany and zoology) of, relating to, characteristic of, or forming a variety. 
    “Black berries and thin skins are characteristic of the varietal.”

“Variety” is the noun, “varietal” is the adjective. When describing the wine, opt for “varietal”; when describing characteristics of grapes, opt for “varietal”; but if you’re identifying the grape without any attributive qualities, “variety” is the best choice. So, when you pick up that GSM blend for your next dinner party, you can confidently state that you’ve selected an excellent varietal wine for your host, made from Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre varieties.