Each week I review two wines with my “Sip It!”-or-“Skip It!” recommendation, a rating of one to five corks, and an overall summary based on the [Hugh] Johnson System (abbreviated HJ). All Vintages and product numbers refer to the LCBO.
I don’t usually provide context for the wines that I review, but if you haven’t already noticed, there’s at least some loose linkage between the two bottles, be it the colour, varietal or wine style. Before I got serious about this whole wine thing, I was about as educated as your average LCBO-go’er (for my non-Ontario readers, that’s the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which regulates alcohol sale through its provincially controlled stores), purchasing the same limited varieties or labels I knew, and never venturing into the Vintages section. After upping my game, one of the first sweet wines I encountered was the oh-so-delicious Sauternes. I introduced Thanksgiving dinner guests to it this weekend, some of whom were divided in their opinions due to the concentrated sweetness and viscosity.
Sauternes is located on the Left Bank of the Bordeaux region, on the Southern tip of Graves. (I realize the map I procured from Wikipedia is probably quite small, but the cherry-red area right near the bottom is Sauternes, just below a light pinky place called Barsac, which I will discuss in a moment).
The region’s proximity to the Garonne and Ciron Rivers, coupled with the hilly aspect, both contribute to the the ideal growing environment for Semillion, Sauvignon and Muscadelle grapes. In fact, the lingering mists in the region’s unique mesoclimate are what help Botrytis cinera, or “noble rot,” thrive. This mould sucks moisture out of grapes, “raisining” them, so that the natural sugars are concentrated. Some sources credit the Dutch, who took an interest in Bordeaux white wine production in the 17th century, with introducing German winemaking techniques to the region, among them a process which helped the production of wine from botrytis-affected grapes.
The regional appellation consists of five communes: Barsac (which is often considered its own appellation and, in the above map, is depicted that way), Preignac, Bommes, Fargues and Sauternes. These wines can fetch a pretty price, often the result of the high production costs and the lack of reliable annual yields. The Premier Cru Supérieur estate of Château d’Yquem is something of the “Cadillac” (no pun intended) of the Sauternes world, though more affordable wines produced in the same style can come from the neighbouring regions of Monbazillac, Cérons, Loupiac and Cadillac.
While I served Sauternes as a dessert wine alongside pumpkin and sweet potato pie, it can also be a delicious aperitif, or paired with its classic mate, foie gras, although I can see it working well with pungent cheeses, like Roquefort, Cambozola or other tasty blues.
Château La Tour Blanche (Sauternes (Bomme), Bordeaux, 2011)
Vintages #: 296319 | 375 mL bottle | $49.85
Sweetness: Sweet (or, as the LCBO describes it, “lusciously sweet”)
Wine Type: White
Prominent apricot aromas stand out against subtler notes of citrus peel. Unlike the Château Doisy-Védrines reviewed below, this had a slight acidity to cut through some of the sweetness. A pale straw yellow suggests a more youthful wine, while the gentle acidity is matched by a slight earthiness that I’d probably describe as wet autumn leaves. On the palate, some hints of oak and vanilla add to the complexity of flavours and aromas, while a slight nip rounds out the finish.
HJ System Scoring: 4 [wee dessert wine] glasses (it tickled my fancy!)
Château Doisy-Védrines (Sauternes (Barsac), Bordeaux, 2003)
Vintages #: Not found (Did I buy the last one back in September?) | 375 mL bottle | $36.95 (I think…)
Wine Type: White
There’s almost little point in comparing two Sauternes of different vintages and ages. In contrast with the La Tour, this Sauternes had a pronounced yellow- (bordering on old-) gold hue, indicating (of course!) that it’s far older than its ’11 cousin. On the nose, aromas of sweet brown sugar, floral-honey and nuttiness assault you in an absolutely delicious and tantalizing way. The wine is thick, dense and deeply textured, tasting of stewed stone fruits, carmelized pineapple and butterscotch. The finish is quite long and accompanied by a slight alcohol burn.
HJ System Scoring: 1 bottle (means thorough satisfaction!)
Dispatches from the world of wine – a roundup of blog and news articles of the week.
- Are you feeling “Thirstie”? A new drinks-on-delivery phone app is launching in Toronto and Ottawa, allowing you to enjoy #winewednesdays without leaving the house!
- Okanagan winemakers welcome a smaller, albeit “exceptional, vintage.”
- Despite droughts and wildfires, California finished its earliest harvest on record, which, while it might be small, is rumoured to be of high quality, especially for Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Actress Diane Keaton launches her own red wine blend, The Keaton, which “people [can] enjoy, with or without ice.”
- Walter Schug, “champion” of Sonoma County’s Pinot Noir, passed away this week at the age of 80.
- At a blind tasting competition in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Spain took top honours.
- Back on the topic of harvests, it seemed that higher precipitation in August saved Germany’s, though the 2015 wines might be lower in quality and higher in alcohol.
- Georgia recently signed an export agreement with China to sell, among various things, wine. Whether this will satiate the country’s strong appetite for luxury brands is yet to be seen…
- Australian winemakers, get ready to reclaim your market share! With the U.S. economy rebounding, more and more people might be ready to pony up for premium wines.
Wine world miscellanea – from varieties to regions, and from vine to bottle.
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.
THE ONE-MINUTE WINE TUTOR
Formerly the “WSET Study Buddy,” I’ve decided to tweak this section in order to cover off a greater range of information and approaches to educating oneself about wine beyond the WSET curriculum, and, hopefully in a minute or less. (I think the section should take about 60 seconds to read.) Here you’ll still find reviews of books, videos, podcasts and articles, but more geared towards enhancing one’s knowledge of how to approach studying wine. Think about it this way: instead of learning about the Chardonnay grape, it’s more about where to find information to learn about the Chardonnay grape.
For those who follow me on Twitter, you’ll no doubt have seen the photos of my aroma kit efforts. After investigating these kits on Amazon and being astonished by the price (one was almost $500 for 88 scents!), it seemed like something I should try to put together on my own.
I really like Wine Folly’s suggestions around combining spices to see how they interact in the glass, and Wine Tasting Demystified’s groupings of common wine flavours. What I’ve actually begun doing is getting those weekly pill bottle containers from the drug store (you know the plastic ones that let you organize your meds from Sunday to Saturday…?). I then take the wine I’m going to be tasting, pull some of the reviews I find online, and match as many of the scents in my pantry, or, if some advanced planning is required, add those fruit and vegetal-aroma items, to my grocery list. This way I have an aroma kit that closely resembles the wine’s profile.
Take a 2009 Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir, and this tasting note plucked off CB’s website:
“Vibrant red in colour, Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir 2009 displays a nose that is both pure and complex revealing aromas of strawberries, earthy fresh mushrooms and smoky spice. The palate is finely balanced, with a vibrant core of red fruits clad in a silky, luscious lining. A subtle textural chalkiness and fine grained tannins indicate a wine that will develop beautifully in the bottle over the next 7-8 years.”
Easy enough to match, right? Strawberries and other red fruits (maybe raspberry, red cherry?), earthy fresh mushrooms (you can grab those at Galen’s place) and “smoky spice” (for this I’d probably start sniffing the cumin, smoked paprika, liquid smoke and other things in my pantry). Toss them together in your pill box, a glass, or other receptacle and enjoy comparing it with your libation of learning choice! Now, off you go and enjoy!