A trip around the world in 100 wines

Century_Wine_ClubI came across the Wine Century Club this past week. If you’ve tasted at least 100 different grape varieties, you qualify to become a member. They describe themselves as “consumers and promoters of uncommon wine grape varieties”. I love the idea behind this club: it’s all too easy to keep going back to the same bottles, so we all (myself included) can use some encouragement to continue to try different bottles and discover new gems.

I’m finding that there are a few challenges with the Wine Century Club’s particular approach though:

  • Quite a large number of grape varieties are mostly used (and best used) as blending grapes. That is, they are used (often in small proportions) to fill out a blend of different grape varieties. As an example, the grape variety Clairette produces wines that are high in alcohol, low in acidity, and tend to oxidize easily. As such, it rarely forms the majority in a blend, let alone it being used to produce a single-varietal wine. So in order to claim that you have tasted this grape variety, you will need to try a wine like the Chateauneuf-du-Pape Vieux Télégraphe Red, which contains a minuscule amount (<5%) of Clairette in its blend.
  • Focussing on different grape varieties doesn’t allow for trying out the same variety across different regions, which I find one of the most interesting things about wine. A Pinot Noir from Burgundy tastes distinctly different from a California Pinot Noir; the same “ingredient” produces a very different end-product, which is part of what makes tasting different wines such a fun adventure.

A trip around the world in 100 winesSo mulling this over, I came up with a slightly different approach; one that focusses more on the world’s different types of wines and wine regions than on different grape varieties. This approach moves away from the highly obscure and instead provides a glimpse of the wide variety of wines being produced across the world. You can download the overview here.

You’ll notice that the overview doesn’t provide specific wines to try. There are two main reasons for this:

  • What wines are available in each market varies widely. As such, the best approach is to find a good wine store in your community and ask them for recommendations for each of the types of wines / regions. This will ensure you get a good wine within your price range, which leads to the second reason…
  • It provides some flexibility in terms of your budget. That said, two points:
    • I would strongly recommend spending at least $15-$20. For more info on why, check out this article.
    • Although for most regions you’ll be able to find great wines for under $25, there are a few that are expensive. Save those for a special occasion and enjoy!

For the wine geeks out there, let me know if you have any feedback on the list. What regions do you feel should be added and which ones could be removed to keep the list at 100?

The end of the Champagne flute?

Last Thursday, Decanter magazine published several excerpts from their interview with Maximilian Riedel, the chief executive of glassmaker Riedel, on their website. He made several interesting comments about Champagne flutes, most notably that “flute-shaped glasses present Champagne as one-dimensional, flooring drinkers’ ability to appreciate the full range of aromas and taste profiles on offer” and “it is my goal that the flute will be obsolete by the day that I pass away”.

When the man in charge of the world’s most prestigious glassmaker advocates for the abolition of Champagne’s most popular type of glassware, it gets attention. A significant portion of the wine folks I follow on Twitter have referred to the article over the past few days, including one of my former teachers, James Cluer MW:

So Susanne and I figured it was time for a little experiment: let’s open a bottle of bubbles and try out a few different types of glassware to see if (in our humble opinion) there is any truth to Maximilian Riedel’s view on the traditional Champagne flute.

Before getting into the setup of our experiment, just a quick note on the wine we used. Opening up a bottle of Champagne on a regular basis adds up pretty quickly, so these days we resort to Cremant for our bubbles. My go-to bottle at the moment is Langlois Chateau Crémant de Loire Blanc Brut, which shows a nice mix of fruit flavours (green apple and peach) and bread dough notes for half the price of an entry level bottle of Champagne (it usually sells for just over $20).

On to the setup of our experiment then; we tried out three different glasses:

P10408291) A traditional Champagne flute

2) A white wine glass

3) A Pinot Noir / Nebbiolo wine glass

The differences in tasting from the three different glasses was quite remarkable:

  • The white wine glass was the first one to drop out out of the race. Compared to the other two glasses, the wine’s aromas were much more subdued in this glass and on the palate it showed more acidity and less of the fruit and secondary flavours.
  • The Pinot Noir / Nebbiolo wine glass showed similar intensity on the nose as the traditional Champagne flute, but the aromas and flavours somehow seemed less integrated; the fruit aromas seemed sweeter and the bready characteristics seemed disconnected. Also, perhaps not surprisingly, the bubbles disappeared quicker in this glass.
  • In my opinion, the winner is still the traditional Champagne flute. It best reflected the different dimensions of the wine in a well-balanced manner.  The green apple and peach flavours came out most clearly and were well balanced by the secondary characteristics.

I would be very interested to know what shape of glass Riedel proposes would perform better than the traditional flute, since the post on the Decanter website is somewhat short on those details. I’m open to further experimentation and considering the interest this topic has sparked, I’m hoping  we’ll hear more about it.

In Susanne’s words: It smells sweeter in the flute. The ‘breadiness’ burns off too quickly in the Pinot glass.  The white wine glass was just meh.

Lastly, a quick note on food pairings: my favourite is still Ruffles regular chips. Close second is Oka (a surface-ripened, semi-soft cheese from Quebec).

Investing in Wine

I was asked this week about investing in wine, so I jotted down some thoughts. The question was whether buying wine in the hope that it will appreciate would be worthwhile.

1) Does investing in wine provide good returns?

Between 2005 and 2008, prices for higher-end (i.e., investment-grade) wines increased substantially driven by continued demand from North America as well as China starting to show interest. There was a slump at the end of 2008 as the crisis hit, but soon after that demand from China really picked up and prices continued to increase. The market peaked in the middle of 2011, at which point China’s economy started to show signs of slowing down and its fascination with higher-end Bordeaux showed a few signs of fatigue. This caused prices to come down and then stabilize at the end of last year.

In summary: we all should have bought crap loads of high-end wine a decade ago (or even better yet, two decades ago). For now, the fine wine market seems to be have stabilized and we should probably expect single-digit growth (at best) for the next few years, unless the economy really starts to pick up again.

2) How does investing in wine work for most of the world?

Fine wine investing is mostly centered around Bordeaux. While the wines are still in barrel at the Chateaux, you can buy them as futures (aka “en primeur”) and they will be delivered to you 2 to 3 years later (see http://www.bordeauxforsale.com/ for example). The prices for buying wine as futures are generally a bit lower than when they actually hit the shelves 2 to 3 years later, but not always. To illustrate:

  • When I bought 2009 d’Angludet as futures in May 2010, I paid $32.83 per bottle (their initial release price). When I ordered some more in June 2011 (still as futures), the price had gone up to $36.64. By the time they were delivered to me a few months ago and put on store shelves, they were selling for $52.49.
  • In June 2011 I also bought some bottles of 2010 d’Angludet for $44.95 (their initial release price) and that’s where its price is sitting at today still. I highly suspect that when those bottles are delivered to me in a few months and are put on store shelves, they won’t be much more expensive than $44.95, since that’s all the market can bear at the moment.

So ideally, you buy wine as futures, they’re then worth more already by the time they’re delivered to you (2 to 3 years later) and then you store them for a decade or so, at which point they’ve hopefully appreciated even more. At that point you offer your wines to be sold at auction and you cash in on the increase in value.

3) What’s the challenge with doing this in Canada?

First of all, our climate can be somewhat unforgiving. In order to store bottles for a decade or so, you will need a space that has:

  • a constant temperature of around 11 to 14 degrees Celsius;
  • at least 60% humidity (preferably 70%);  and
  • no vibration (so a regular fridge won’t do).

As such, you’ll need to invest in building a cellar or buy a wine cabinet that’s build for cellaring wine.

Secondly, and more importantly, there are no wine auctions in Canada (other than those for charity for which people have donated bottles from their cellar). So there is no place to sell wines here in Canada after you’ve cellared them (at least that I’m aware of). You could ship your wines to an auction in the US or Asia, but then you’re looking at the cost of shipping, which will eat into your return, as well as the fact that wine prices in Canada (even for futures) are genarally higher compared to the rest of the world, so what you might get for your bottles at an auction in the States or overseas could be quite disappointing.

Another challenge that’s not unique to Canada is that there is the possibility that the high-end producers in Bordeaux will be withdrawing from the futures system in the near future. Chatau Latour announced this step last year (2011 was their last vintage that will be offered en primeur), so the question now is whether any others will be following their lead.

In summary, investing in wine is risky (the market fluctuates considerably) and there are some significant complications with the process in Canada. So my advice would be to buy a wine cabinet that holds 100 to 200 bottles, stock it up over the next few years, and then enjoy drinking and re-stocking that unit for many decades to come. Or, in James Suckling‘s words:

Port confessions

I confess: I love Port. There is always a bottle of Tawny open and some bottles of LBV waiting to be opened at our house. But I’m getting ahead of myself. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of enjoying Port before, here’s a quick introduction.

quintavargellasAll Port comes from the Douro region in Portugal. Port has around 20% ABV and is sweet, which makes it a great companion to many strong cheeses (especially blue cheese). If there’s a cheese plate accompanied by Port on a restaurant’s menu, chances are highly likely (read: it’s a virtual certainty) that’s what I’ll be ordering.

The grapes for Port are grown on the steep banks of the valley along the Douro river. The banks are so steep that historically the vines have been planted on narrow terraces with only up to 3 rows of vines per terrace (see the picture above). Needless to say, most work gets done by hand in these vineyards, since getting any machinery to these vines would be somewhat of a challenge. Over 80 grape varieties are allowed (though only (!) 29 are recommended), so we won’t get into that here.

So how come then that Port is sweet and high in alcohol? What happens here is that in the middle of fermentation (the process whereby grape sugars turn into alcohol), the wine maker adds grape-based spirit to the wine (aka fortification), which brings the alcohol level to 20% and kills the fermentation process, which means there’s still quite a bit of sugar left in the wine.

After fortification, Port is matured in different ways, which explains the different styles of Port available on store shelves. Here’s a brief overview:

Reserve Ruby Port

Reserve Ruby Ports are matured in oak for up to 5 years and then generally blended with other vintages (years), the goal being that each bottle tastes the same, regardless of the year it came from. A favourite:

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)

LBV’s are sourced from a specific vintage and aged between 4 to 6 years. For a few extra dollars compared to Reserve Ruby’s, you get greater intensity and complexity. Within LBV there are two categories: modern LBV is filtered before bottling and then shipped to your local wine store, ready for drinking. Traditional LBV is not filtered before bottling and then aged in bottle for another 3 years before it is shipped to your local wine store. This style offers greater complexity compared to the modern style and often has the potential to benefit from additional cellaring. As mentioned, there are always several bottles of LBV waiting to be opened at our place. Some favourites:

Tawny Port

Virtually all Tawny Port available in Alberta has an indication of age; on the bottle you will see the numbers 10, 20, 30, or 40 in large font. Since Tawny Port is a blend of different vintages, this indication signifies the average number of years that the wine was matured in large (550-liter) casks. Because of the extended time spent in these large casks, Tawny Ports have a distinct nutty flavour and have less fruit-flavours compared to Ruby and LBV Ports.

A limited number of Tawny Ports, known as Colheita Ports, are sourced from a single year. You can get these from as far back as the 60’s (that I have seen). They are intense and smooth at the same time. Truly amazing.

The nice thing about Tawny Ports is that a bottle can stay open for 4 to 6 weeks after opening without spoiling, so you can have a glass every now and then without having to drink the whole bottle.

Some favourites:

Vintage Ports

Vintage Ports are only made in the best years: just these past few weeks, Port makers declared (i.e., deemed appropriately outstanding) the 2011 vintage, so look forward to those hitting the shelves over the next year or so.  Prior to 2011, the last vintage that was universally declared was 2007 (though some port makers declared 2009 as well). Vintage Ports are only matured for 18 to 36 months, after which they are bottled unfiltered and shipped to your local wine store. And then the wait begins: Vintage Ports can be cellared for decades. As an example, Cellar Tracker indicates that the drinking window for my 2007 Warre’s Vintage Port is 2025 to 2125, so it’ll be spending a few more years in the cellar still…

A few favourites:

So if you haven’t tried Port before, pick up a bottle and some cheese and enjoy! Cheers!

It’s that time of year

It’s the time of year where wine magazines publish their annual Top 100 lists. The most famous one among them is arguably Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list, which came out last Monday. Despite the large amount of critique that this list receives every year, in my opinion it’s a list with 100 pretty impressive wines. Are they the absolute best wines that were released this past year? Clearly not: a wine’s quality has certain objective components, but is also largely subjective, which means that my Top 100 list would differ from Wine Spectator’s, which in turn would differ from yours.

So the list reflects the opinions of Wine Spectator’s editors, using their criteria, which are:

  • Quality (represented by score)
  • Value (reflected by release price)
  • Availability (measured by cases made or imported)
  • The “X-factor”; the excitement generated by a rising-star producer, a benchmark wine or a significant milestone for a wine region

My main concern with the Wine Spectator Top 100 is that it contains several wines that I have come to enjoy quite regularly and which as the result of the widespread distribution of this list will now be harder to find or will jump up in price (or both!). Examples are the Descendientes de J. Palacios Bierzo Pétalos, which I have had a hard time tracking down since it made last year’s list, and the Calera Pinot Noir Central Coast, which used to cost $28 and now sits on the shelf for $40. In light of that, further propagating the list may not be the wisest move, but at the end of the day there’s some beautiful wines here that I can’t help but share.

All that being said, here then is a selection of wines on the list that are quite affordable and available in Alberta:

(Links will take you to Liquor Connect; by entering your postal code there you’ll be able to see where these wines are available near you)

You’ll notice that well-known regions like Bordeaux and California aren’t listed here. They are on the full Top 100 list (available here), but the wines representing those regions are somewhat more expensive than the above shortlist.

Cheers!

August Article: To blend or not to blend

What’s with Apothic Red and other red blends showing up everywhere? I’ve always been a fan of blends, so this month’s article features some thoughts on blends:

To blend or not to blend

July Article: What’s the scoop on aging wine?

After the success of last month’s article (Why spend more than $15 on a bottle of wine?), I’ve decided to use the first week of each month to post an article as opposed to featuring a specific wine. No worries: a new blog post about another wine is already in the making for next week, but I wanted to create some room for other topics that come up in conversations over the course of the month.

So for this month, here it is: What’s the scoop on aging wine?