France > Crozes-Hermitage > M. Chapoutier Les Meysonniers

M. Chapoutier Les Meysonniers

Country: France
Region: Crozes-Hermitage
Producer: M. Chapoutier
Grape variety: 100% Syrah
Vintage: 2009
Found at: Co-op Wines and Spirits, Willow Park Wines and Spirits, Superstore (or see Liquor Connect and enter your postal code)
Price: $21.99

About the region: Although Syrah aka Shiraz is most commonly associated with Australia these days, its origins reside in the Rhone valley, where (most likely) it descended from several indigenous, wild grape varieties. The Northern Rhone valley in particular has been known for its high-quality Syrah as far back as Roman times. Over the centuries it became so popular that other regions (most notably Bordeaux and Burgundy) even used small portions of Syrah from the Northern Rhone to boost their wines during difficult years in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Some of the best Syrah in the world comes from a particular hill, towering over the town of Tain on the bank of the Rhone river, called Hermitage. Due to its fame, wines from Hermitage will set you back at least $100 (and considerably more than that for most). So if we want to get a a sense for Syrah’s character from vineyards where this grape was first grown, we have to travel down the hill and consider the flatter lands around the hill. This region of the Northern Rhone valley is Crozes-Hermitage. Less prestigious than Hermitage, but much more affordable.

A quick note then about Australian Shiraz vs Northern Rhone’s Syrah: Australian Shiraz is known for being soft and full-bodied with lots of dark, ripe fruit characteristics. Syrah from the Northern Rhone on the other hand tends to be closer to medium bodied with higher tannins, showing a more complex combination of black fruit, spicy (peppery), and earthy characteristics. These differences can be explained by differences in climate and soils, as well as in vineyard and winemaking practices. Although there is clearly variation within each region as well, the general characteristics of Syrah/Shiraz across the two regions provides a great example of how the same grape variety can produce wines with rather different characteristics.

About the wine:

At age 24, Michel Chapoutier went to have a chat with his grandfather, who at that time still owned a majority stake in the Chapoutier wine business. Even though he had only been working in the family business for a few years, he had come to realize that the quality of the family’s wines (made by his father at the time) was well below their potential. He indicated to his grandfather that he would leave the family business unless he could have a majority stake in the business (including his father’s minority stake) and thereby, control in the winery. His grandfather agreed, which resulted in a new beginning for the Chapoutier business (as well as Michel and his father not talking for quite some time).

Over the next 10 years, Michel vastly improved the quality of the Chapoutier wines while buying additional vineyard land and tripling production. Historically, wines from the Northern Rhone had been blends from different vineyards in each appellation (sub-region). Michel’s vision was to start producing “pictures of the terroir” instead; that is, wines that reflect the unique characteristics of each of the individual vineyards. His single-vineyard bottlings have since become some of the Northern Rhone’s most renowned wines. The mention of L’Ermite, Le Méal, and Le Pavillon are enough to make any Northern Rhone fan’s mouth water (as a side note, if anyone is still looking for a belated birthday present for me, the L’Ermite is only $450…). Meanwhile, Michel continues to hold strong opinions about wine making, whether it pertains to Riesling’s characteristic whiff of petrol or the natural wine movement.

The Meysonniers comes from south-facing, gentle slopes. It’s hand harvested and matured in concrete tanks (so it doesn’t touch oak). So there are no oaky or vanilla-y aromas to be found here. Instead, earthy and peppery notes dominate, which makes this wine such a good example of Syrah from France’s Northern Rhone region. There are notes of red cherry and blackcurrant. The acidity makes this wine very food-friendly (think nicely-peppered steak).

In Susanne’s words: It’s okay.

For an interesting experiment, pick up a bottle of your favorite Australian Shiraz and the Meysonniers, open both up, and taste them side by side. Both are made from the exact same grape variety, so will have characteristics in common, but you will find that both are very different in some aspects as well. Cheers!

Spain > Rias Baixas > Paco & Lola Albariño

Paco & Lola Albariño

Country: Spain
Region: Rias Baixas
Producer: Bodega Rosalía de Castro
Grape variety: 100% Albariño
Vintage: 2010
Found at: Co-op Wines and Spirits, Willow Park Wines and Spirits (or see Liquor Connect and enter your postal code)
Price: $21.99

About the region: I realized we hadn’t paid a visit to Spain yet, so since Spain is best known for its red wines, I was going through some of Spain’s main regions for reds. While doing so, Paco & Lola’s Albariño suddenly came to mind: a beautiful white from Spain’s Rias Baixas region I tried a few weeks ago. So instead of visiting Rioja, Ribera del Duero, or Priorat (all of which will get their turn!) we’ll start with one of Spain’s “less typical” regions on our first visit

Rias Baixas is located in the Northwest corner of Spain, just above Portugal. Due to its proximity to the ocean, the weather is cooler and wetter compared to many other of Spain’s wine regions (which especially inland are hot and dry). From a grape growing perspective, it’s characterized by small-scale production: the average grape grower owns less than 1.5 acres of vines. They use the grapes either for making wines for their own personal consumption, or sell it through one of the cooperatives or to one of the 181 bodegas (wineries). Most wineries purchase their fruit from grape growers as opposed to growing their own grapes, which is very common in Spain.

Although several other grape varieties are allowed in Rias Baixas, the vast majority of the wines that are produced here are 100% Albariño.

Galicia, the region of Spain which Rias Biaxas falls under, is known for its good food, in particular fish and shellfish. So it’s no surprise that Albariño from Rias Baixas pairs fabulously  with a wide range of fish and shellfish.

About the wine: Albariño typically is intensely aromatic and (despite being light-bodied) quite flavourful, often hinting towards exotic fruit aromas and flavours. Virtually all Albariño from Rias Baixas is aged in stainless steel tanks for a short period of time without any exposure to oak, which provides it with a clean, fresh flavour profile.

Due to its small-scale production, marketing their wines has often been a challenge for winemakers in Rias Baixas. In response to this, a group of viticulturists and winemakers joined forces in 2005 to capitalize on their vineyards by creating a brand that would appeal to audiences worldwide and to younger audiences in particular. They succeeded: Paco & Lola is currently available in more than 20 countries and has been receiving great reviews. The venture currently brings together over 450 growers, who are supported by a team that fulfills the daily activities in the winery, ensuring strict quality controls from the vineyard to bottling.

The wine is indeed quite aromatic, showing lemon and apple compote aromas, and hints of apricot. There’s a nice weight to the palate, balanced with solid acidity to keep it fresh. Here we find green apple and lemon peel notes, as well as hints of mango. The finish lingers nicely. Wonderful.

United States > California > Bonterra Cabernet Sauvignon

Bonterra Cabernet Sauvignon

Country: United States
Region: California (Mendocino and Lake Counties)
Producer: Bonterra
Grape variety: 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Petite Sirah, 7% Syrah, and 3% Carignane
Vintage: 2009
Found at: Costco, Co-op Wines and Spirits, Real Canadian Liquorstore, Willow Park Wines and Spirits  (or see Liquor Connect and enter your postal code)
Price: $16.49 – $21.09

About the region: We’re back in California. Last time we enjoyed what’s considered California’s “own” grape variety, Zinfandel. However, the grape variety that put California on the map and that forms the basis for some of California’s most famous (and expensive) wines is the Cabernet Sauvignon: it was the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that beat all of the French wines at the Judgment of Paris in 1976, building credibility for California’s red wines.

California is far from a homogeneous wine growing region: climate and soils vary greatly across the state. Close to the coast, the weather can be too cool to grow grapes while inland the weather can be unsuitable for grape growing due to the heat. In between lie many different micro-climates, each different and each better suited for certain grape varieties than for others.

The general rule that applies here, as well as for wine growing regions elsewhere in the world, is that the more specific the indication of the wine’s origin, the higher the presumed quality of the wine. For example, the “Napa Valley” indication on a wine label denotes a much more specific (and prestigious) designation of origin than the more generic “California”. In turn, the “Rutherford” indication denotes an even more specific designation of origin, which indicates that the wine comes from one of Napa Valley’s most famous sub-regions. There are exceptions to this rule (e.g., Penfold’s Grange), but as a general rule of thumb it can prove to be quite helpful.

This particular Cabernet Sauvignon hails mostly from Mendocino County, which is the north-eastern most region in California’s wine country. It can be divided into two parts: the areas East and West of the coastal mountain range, whereby the West is quite cool due to the influence of the Pacific Ocean, while the East is shielded from the ocean’s influence by the mountain range and as such is much warmer. The fruit for this wine is clearly sourced from the Eastern part of Mendocino county, since Cabernet Sauvignon needs warm conditions to ripen.

About the wine: Bonterra is best known for its organic vineyard practices. This entails that they avoid the use of synthetic pesticides in their vineyards, which are under constant attack of many different pests and diseases. Instead, they rely on integrated pest management strategies to stave off these attacks. These strategies include attracting bluebirds and swallows which consume unwanted insects, free-roaming chickens which thrive on cutworms and insect pests, and keeping a colony of honeybees which pollinates flowers in the vineyard and helps attract beneficial insects.

To clarify, organic vineyard practices does not mean that no additives are used in the winery. Sulfites in particular are still used at organic wineries to preserve the wine’s freshness and to prevent it from oxidizing and turning into vinegar prematurely. Most organic producers will try to minimize their use of sulphites, but this can be said for most high-quality wine producers.

Do organically grown grapes produce better wine? Opinions are divided. My two cents is that organic vineyard practices don’t produce better wines per sé, but that organic practices (and biodynamic practices for that matter) require a substantial amount of extra diligence in the vineyard to monitor the condition of the vines and deal with any signs of pests or diseases right away. Vineyard managers simply don’t have the luxury of noticing an issue a few days late and then resolving it by spraying it with synthetic pesticides. This diligence to guard the vineyard’s health often translates into higher quality fruit, which in turn translates into higher quality wine.

So how does this Cabernet Sauvignon stack up? It’s showing the hallmark characteristics of a California Cab: ripe, dark fruit (blackcurrant, plum, and cherry), white pepper, hints of oak, soft tannins, and medium acidity.

Note as well that, as discussed in last week’s article (“To blend or not to blend“), even though the wine is labelled as a Cabernet Sauvignon, it contains  9% Petite Sirah, 7% Syrah, and 3% Carignane, which you won’t find being mentioned on either the front or the back label, but adds some balance and character to the wine.

In Susanne’s words: It was good.

Italy > Chianti Rufina > Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi Nipozzano Riserva

Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi Nipozzano Riserva

Country: Italy
Region: Chianti Rufina
Producer: Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi
Grape variety: 90% Sangiovese / 10% Others (Malvasia Nera, Colorino, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon)
Vintage: 2008
Found at: Costco, Co-op Wines and Spirits, Real Canadian Liquorstore, Willow Park Wines and Spirits  (or see Liquor Connect and enter your postal code)
Price: $17.99 – $21.69

About the region: A few weeks ago, we visited Tuscany and described the rise of the Super Tuscans in response to stringent wine legislation and below-par quality standards in Chianti. Thankfully, practices have improved drastically in Chianti over the past several decades. In the vineyard, grape growers started looking for Sangiovese clones that would provide higher quality as opposed to higher volumes. Legislation also changed to allow any red grape variety to be added to the blend (at up to 20%) and local white varieties are now no longer allowed in the blend. In the winery, modern winemaking equipment was introduced.

Since so many different grape varieties are allowed to make up 20% of the blend, Chianti comes in a wide variety of styles. Winemaking practices contribute to the variety of styles as well: some producers still use the large, old wooden casks (known as botti), which are usually made of Slavonian oak, while other producers that are looking for a more modern, concentrated style are using smaller (225 litre) barrels made from French oak (known as barriques).

Most Super Tuscans display an international style of wine: that is, many aren’t necessarily an expression of Chianti’s unique qualities, but instead show characteristics that we find across the globe. Chianti, carried by 80-100% Sangiovese, will typically show blueberry, cherry, and savoury flavours with high acidity and tannins.

About the wine: The Frescobaldi family initially made their fortune in banking, after having moved to Florence at the end of the 11th century. Around 1300, the Frescobaldi’s inherited some vineyards and started producing wine, which soon got picked up by England’s royal family and others belonging to Europe’s upper echelon. Over the course of the next several centuries, the family continued to combine their winemaking business with other commercial activities, which ensured a distribution network that included the pope, Henry the VIII, King of England, and Donatello (the artist; not the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle).

The Castello di Nipozzano was built in 1000 as a defensive fortress, but at the start of the 16th century the Frescobaldi family converted it into a residence and winery, where it produces and cask-ages its red Chianti Rufina wines even until the present day.

The Chianti Rufina Riserva is one of those wines. It’s made in a modern style, spending 24 months in barriques and another 3 months in bottle before being released. There is blueberry, red cherry, black pepper, and cedar notes. Well-balanced, with some solid acidity holding it up and smooth tannins. It receives rave reviews year after year and regularly appears in Wine Spectator’s Top 100.

In Susanne’s words: I have loved this wine for years.

Italy > Tuscany > Villa Antinori

Villa Antinori

Country: Italy
Region: Tuscany
Producer: Marchesi Antinori
Grape variety: Sangiovese (55%), Cabernet Sauvignon (25%), Merlot (15%), Syrah (5%)
Vintage: 2008
Found at: Costco, Co-op Wines and Spirits, Real Canadian Liquor Store, Willow Park Wines and Spirits  (or see Liquor Connect and enter your postal code)
Price: $17.99 – $22.99

About the region: Wine is grown all over Italy: from the top of the boot to the tip of its toe. Annual production sits at nearly 5 billion litres, so it’s no surprise that local wine stores usually carry a generous selection of Italian wines. The Italian wine landscape can be difficult to navigate though: instead of the more common international grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz, we are served with hundreds of native grape varieties like nebbiolo, corvina, sangiovese, and primitivo (if they are even mentioned on the label). This is also what makes Italian wines so exciting though: they’re often unique and will taste different from wines you find anywhere else. Their uniqueness can be further explained by winemaking methods varying widely across different regions, often based on centuries of winemaking traditions.

Those traditions have not always benefited the quality of Italian wines though. A classic example is Chianti, in Tuscany’s heartland: in 1872 Barone di Ricasoli noted that Sangiovese (Chianti’s principal black grape variety) would be more drinkable when blended with local white grape varieties. As an influential winemaker, this then became common practice, which meant that when wine regulations were put in place in 1967, these honoured the local winemaking tradition by stipulating that in order for a wine to be considered Chianti, it had to be a Sangiovese-based blend plus 10-30% white grape varieties. In reality, the large amount of white grape varieties further diluted an already less-than-stellar wine, since many winemakers were simply trying to produce as much Chianti as they could to meet demand, without paying much attention to quality, resulting in some pretty horrible plonk.

In the 1970’s, a group of winemakers came onto the scene, who were more quality-focussed than their predecessors. They were faced with a rather large dilemma though: make sub-par wines within the current regulations and be allowed to call the wine Chianti (which despite its declining quality still had some remnant of a brand name), or ignore the regulations and no longer be allowed to refer to the wine as Chianti: ignoring the rules meant that the wine would have to be marketed as a simple “table wine” without any reference to the region it came from. That dilemma brings us to the producer of today’s wine.

About the wine: In the late 1960’s, Piero Antinori started tinkering with the traditional Chianti recipe, which in 1971 led to his Tignanello being blended with Cabernet Sauvignon instead of the required white grape varieties. This in turn led to a visit from the local wine regulators, who made sure that there were no references to “Chianti” anywhere on the wine label, so Antinori had to market his wine as a simple “table wine”. His wine became an instant hit with wine critics though, who soon started to coin the term “Super Tuscans” to describe this category of wines that Antinori (and others who soon followed suit) produced. As a result of its popularity, Tignanello steadily increased in price over the following decades and now usually retails for just over $100.

Thankfully, Antinori also produces an entry-level Super Tuscan, which is the Villa Antinori. Similar to the Tignanello, the Villa Antinori was originally produced using the classic Chianti recipe (starting in 1928), but in 2001, Piero Antinori increased the percentage of international grape varieties, thereby moving it from the Chianti to the Super Tuscan category. It’s a beautiful wine, the 2008 being somewhat fuller bodied than previous vintages, with lots of dark fruit, well-integrated oak, some spice notes, and medium acidity. Very well balanced, making you want to come back for more.

Note that the wine regulators came around eventually and created a new category for these wines, now known as “Toscana IGT”, which explains why Villa Antinori’s label is able to reference this designation.

In Susanne’s words: goes really well with dinner.

Australia > Eden Valley > Yalumba Viognier

Yalumba Eden Valley Viognier

Country: Australia
Region: Eden Valley
Producer: Yalumba
Grape variety: Viognier
Vintage: 2010
Found at: Willow Park Wines and Spirits  (or see Liquor Connect and enter your postal code)
Price: $22.49

About the region
: In the past 25 years, Australia’s wine exports have sky-rocketed, resulting in Australia now being the world’s 4th largest wine exporter (behind France, Italy, and Spain). Good value-for-money, crowd-pleasing styles, and clever marketing have all contributed to its surge in popularity. In recent years, other New World countries (Argentina in particular) have become more serious competitors though, which has been putting pressure on Australia’s competitive position in the market.

The Barossa Zone in South Australia is mostly known for it’s dark, full-bodied, fruit-forward Shiraz (which we’ll come back to in a later post). Toward the eastern end of the zone lie the mountain ranges of the Eden Valley, with vineyards at 400 to 600 metres. Due to the higher altitude, the Eden Valley is considerably cooler than the Barossa Valley, which makes it ideal for white grape varieties, in particular Riesling and Viognier.

About the wine: Yalumba was founded in 1849 by a British brewer, Samuel Smith. While over the past several decades a large number of Australian wineries have been swallowed up by large, international wine companies, Yalumba stayed fiercely independent and is now run by the fifth generation of Smiths. As an independent, debt-free winemaker they are able to experiment, invest, and make wines that appeal to a wide variety of tastes.

The Eden Valley Viognier is sourced from 3 different vineyards and in terms of quality sits in between Yalumba’s Y series and their Virgilius. Compared to the Y series, the Eden Valley Viognier is sourced from better vineyard parcels and fermented in oak barrels (while the Y series only sees stainless steel). In my opinion, it is well worth the few extra dollars. The Virgilius is renowned for being one of the New World’s best examples of Viognier, so this winery has clearly shown they know how to handle this difficult-to-grow grape variety.

We tasted this one tonight and were yet again impressed by its weight and complexity. It’s got ripe fruit (apricot and melon), floral notes, lots of spice (cloves), and some almost bitter notes on the finish. It’s has a buttery texture which explains its weight, but enough acidity to keep it standing. So overall, it’s complex and intense, but still very well balanced. A bit over the $20 mark, but quite extraordinary.

Chile > Maipo Valley > Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon

Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon

Country: Chile
Region: Maipo Valley
Producer: Concha Y Toro
Grape variety: Cabernet Sauvignon
Vintage: 2008
Found at: Costco, Co-op Wines and Spirits, Willow Park Wines and Spirits  (or see Liquor Connect and enter your postal code)
Price: $15.99 – $21.69

About the region
: The Maipo Valley is almost completely surrounded by mountains. The best vineyards are located towards the East side of the valley, close to the Andes mountains, from which cool air then descends into the vineyards. This increases the difference between day- and nighttime temperatures, which is a hallmark of many great vineyard sites. The Puento Alto vineyard from which this wine is sourced is indeed located on the East side of the valley and experiences these benefits. The Maipo valley has a reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon that can often have a particular minty character.

About the wine: Concha Y Toro is Latin America’s largest wine producer, producing a wide range of wines. Along their whole line up, there is good value to be found. The Marques de Casa Concha line was launched in 1976 and was Concha y Toro’s flag bearing wine in its day (today this honour belongs to Don Melchor). The Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon consistently provides great value and receives great reviews year after year.

This 2008 is another great expression of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s fruit-driven with blackcurrant, black cherry, and raspberry fruit. There are hints of mint, chocolate notes, combined with well integrated oak, velvety tannins, and medium acidity.

France > Bordeaux > Sirius

Sirius Bordeaux

Country: France
Region: Bordeaux
Producer: Maison Sichel
Grape varieties: 65% Merlot and 35% Cabernet Sauvignon
Vintage: 2009
Price: $19.59 – $19.99
Found at: Willow Park Wines and Spirits, Co-op Wines and Spirits (or see Liquor Connect and enter your postal code)

About the region: The impact of Bordeaux on the wine world has always been and still is enormous. It is the home of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (and others), the birthplace of wine brands, and it produces some of the world’s most expensive and sought-after wines. Bordeaux reds are most often a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc with either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot forming the majority of the blend. Many can age for a decade; some even for several decades. Factoid: you can buy bottles of Bordeaux while it’s still in barrel at the chateau (see for example).

2009 was an excellent year for Bordeaux with hot, dry weather throughout the growing season. Unfortunately, this also meant that prices increased sharply again for higher end wines. Entry level wines were affected less by these price increases, so 2009 is an excellent year to shop for value wines.

About the wine: Maison Sichel owns a variety of properties in Bordeaux (including several high-end chateaux). Peter Sichel created the Sirius brand in 1985 to prove that it was possible to apply the same care and methods as for high-end Bordeaux to less prestigious vineyards to obtain a fine, fruit-forward, and rounded wine at an affordable price. The 2009 lives up to this ambition: it has tons of black cherry and plum character, as well as chocolate and cedar notes. The tannins are still fairly firm, so this will last for a good 5 years to come, though it drinks very nicely now already as well, especially after some decanting.

The 2002 Sirius made me realize that a wine can be more than “just a wine” and that Bordeaux is a region I should try more of. It’s not my intention to hype this bottle to such a degree that anyone who tries it will be disappointed, but I hope that each of us at some point comes across a bottle that stays with us and entices us to want to learn and try more, like this bottle did for me.

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