100 wines

Buying a bottle of wine you haven’t tried before can be a risky business. Its not like buying new shoes, which you can try on to see what they feel and look like before you buy them. You won’t know what a wine tastes like and if you’ll like it until you’ve paid for it, taken it home, and popped it open.

Too often it’s just easier  to stick to the same types of wine or even the same bottles. But then we run the risk of missing out on finding out about so many other great wines! To address this first-world problem, my goal is to post a wine pick each day over the course of 2015.

The wines were picked based on providing good value for money (though some are rather expensive, since certain regions or types of wines can be a bit pricy) and providing a good representation of their region or type. The order in which the wines will be posted is completely random.

A trip around the world in 100 winesThe wines will cover 100 different types of wine from across the world. To keep track of the ones you’ve tried, you can download an overview here.

 Cheers!

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:

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!

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!

Tuscany vs Napa

The line up of Tuscan and Napa reds

Last week, Susanne and I attended a great tasting and dinner at Catch, organized by Thirsty Cellar Imports. It featured 5 courses with 11 wines from 4 different wineries, 2 from Napa (St. Supery and Rubissow) and 2 from Tuscany (Michele Satta and Tolaini). Each course came with one of the wines from Napa and one from Tuscany, providing a great opportunity to compare and contrast the wines from these two regions.

Since I generally prefer Old World wines, I figured that I would much prefer the Tuscan wines over those from Napa. However, I must confess that I was pleasantly surprised by the wines from the Napa valley, even though my favourite wine of the night was a Tuscan. Note that all the Tuscan reds fell into the Super Tuscan category (see the post on Villa Antinori for some background).

The specific pairings can be found below, but for those who just want the Coles Notes, here are some overall observations:

  • In general, the Napa wines were softer and drinking wonderfully now, while several of the Tuscan wines could use a few more years of bottle aging. This put some of the Tuscans at a disadvantage now, but for those willing to wait a few years, their patience will be rewarded. After these wines have a chance to mellow and balance out somewhat, they will gain in complexity and drink beautifully.
  • In several cases, the Napa wines showed better before the food arrived, while the Tuscan wines showed better with food. Personally, I would prefer to open most of Napa wines later in the evening with a good movie, while the Tuscans were great dinner companions.
  • Our favourite wines then:

The nitty gritty details:

Cocktails: 2011 St. Supery Sauvignon Blanc showed a very interesting contrast between the nose and the palate. The nose was very fruity, showing intense passion fruit and lychee. On the palate, vegetal notes dominated with canned asparagus and gooseberry.

First course: St. Supery Virtu vs Michele Satta Costa di Giulia.

  • The Virtu is a blend of 51% Semillon and 49% Sauvignon Blanc, showing smoky/toasty notes combined with apple and melon. It has some nice weight and acidity and is very well balanced. It seemed to win this round before the food arrived.
  • The Costa di Giulia is a blend of Vermentino and Saivignon Blanc. It shows ripe pear, lemon, and melon. It’s lighter-bodied than the Virtu and has higher acidity, which went well with the Thai coconut green curry scallop. So combined with food, it took this round.

Second course: 2010 Lola Kay Red vs 2008 Tolaini Al Passo.

  • The Lola Kay is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot. Wonderful, bright fruit: black cherry and raspberry combined with herbal notes (sage) and slight peppery notes.  This round’s winner.
  • The Al Passo is 85% Sangiovese and 15% Merlot. Oaky notes dominated on the nose with red cherry and redcurrant notes on the palate. Well made, but not as interesting as the Lola Kay.

Third course: braised short rib ravioli, pork belly, and parsnip puree.

Third course: 2007 St. Supery Cabernet Sauvignon vs 2006 Tolaini Valdisanti.

  • The St. Supery Cabernet Sauvignon is 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot, and 1% Malbec. Blackcurrant, raspberry, black pepper, and hints of smoke. Medium-plus acidity, medium-bodied, and low, soft tannins. Well-balanced and quite elegant for a California Cabernet Sauvignon. This round’s winner.
  • The Valdisanti is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Sangiovese. It’s rather subdued at the moment, showing some blackcurrant and black cherry fruit, but the tannins dominate, so this needs time to balance out. It’s showing great potential though (thankfully, since I have several bottles of this in the cellar, which are going to stay there for at least another 2 to 4 years still).
    • Interestingly, we had just drank a bottle of the 2003 the weekend before, which was showing much better than the 2006 since it had had a chance to mellow for a few more years. I looked up my tasting notes on that bottle: “wonderful, dark fruit (blackcurrant and black cherry), black pepper, slight cigar box, medium acidity, and soft tannins. Very well balanced.”. So promises lots of good for the 2006  in a few years from now.

Fourth course: 2006 Rubissow Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon vs 2004 Michele Satta Piastraia. (my favourite match up of the night)

  • The Rubissow is 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 3% Malbec, and 1% Petit Verdot. It’s intense: blackcurrant, plum, black pepper, and cedar notes. A bit hot, but has good acidity to hold it up. Medium-minus, soft tannins. Well-balanced and a great example of what NapaValley Cabernet Sauvignon is all about. This would have won any of the other rounds, had it not been paired against the Piastraia …
  • The Piastraia is made up of 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 25% Syrah, and 25% Sangiovese. At 8 years of age, it’s starting to show the complexity and character I love about wines that are made to age in bottle for at least a few years. There’s blackcurrant, leather, black tea, and hints of forest floor on the nose. On the palate, there’s blackcurrant, red cherry, and medium-plus though soft tannins. My favourite of the evening.

Fifth course: 2011 St. Supery Moscato vs 2008 Tolaini Picconero.

  • The Moscato was a wonderful surprise. Fruity, with passion fruit, orange, and peach notes. Medium sweet with enough acidity to keep it vibrant. A beautiful wine to go with dessert. This round’s winner.
  • The Picconero  is comprised of 65% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Petit Verdot. I had heard much about this wine, but had never had the chance to try it. Similar to the Valdisanti, it’s showing tons of potential, but is much too young now. There is some blackcurrant and red cherry fruit, but the tannins and the acidity dominate at the moment. It needs at least another 3 to 5 years and will last for the next 10 to 15 years.

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.