Monday, October 30, 2006

A Really Great Wine

One of the reasons that I do what I do are the wine tastings. I used to revel in these moments, looking forward to each with the anticipation of a kid running home Halloween night with a bag full of candy… oh, which one will I gobble down first?

But more and more my bag is overflowing with the same candy. Recent tastings have left me wondering wether those harbingers of doom (me included) were right; we are moving with giant steps towards a uniformity of taste, adorned in Chairman Mao grey sporting both little hats and stars.

But then there was Tissot. The Jura has been able to resist for the moment the group goose step. No one talks of Parker’s influence here and Michel Roland doesn’t have a consulting gig. Perhaps the wines are just too weird to begin with, or perhaps it’s a confidence that’s rooted in tradition and heritage. Jura wines are always distinctive, and often very good.

One of these is Stephan Tissot’s 2004 Traminer. First tasted with Beau at last year’s Salon des Vins, I finally got an opportunity to drink a bottle.

Arbois 2004, Traminer, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot (vins alain belanger ....$25)

Made with gewürztraminer related savignan, this is an Arbois for all. Responsible for the somewhat eccentric Vin Jaune, a sherry like white which often scares the uninitiated away from the region for good, the savignan here is treated differently. Where the vin jaune is matured for 6 years and 3 months under an oxidizing film forming yeast called a ‘voile,’ this savignan is vinified with ‘ouillage.’ Ouillage means that the casks are continually topped up, replacing the evaporated wine which prevents the development of the voile, thus preserving the fruity character of the wine.

I don’t often go for tasting notes but the aromatics of this wine blew me away. I spent a good 15 minutes swirling and sniffing, as did a number of us at the table. Blue-haired Joe said it reminded him of October in an apple orchard on a cool, dewy morning. I found at the core ripe Santa Clara plums, along with sweet honey-suckle. The acidity balanced a formidable richness to perfection that makes this a wine with a host of possible pairings (I kept thinking oysters Rockefeller).

In this age of so much sauvignon, and shit loads of Chardonnay, it is always refreshing to have an alternative. As Beau put it, find it and snatch it up right away.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

What Was Said....

-Wall Street Journal Oct 23, 2006

'... holistic...'
-Wall Street Journal Oct 23, 2006

'.... practical...'
-Wall Street Journal Oct 23, 2006

'... better than CATS!'
-somebody else

So how cool is that? Monday's Wall Street Journal mentioned my little blog alongside Pinotblogger, Avenuevine, Wine Sediments , Everyday Wine Pairings, and Mag's little irreverent ode to boisson, Wine Offensive. With this benediction brought thousands of new visitors and hundreds of new subscribers. So to all of you who are new readers, welcome!

Of course this means that I now have full licence, and perhaps even an obligation, to rework some favorite posts of the past year (yes, I am slack but what do you expect for free!). So , in honor of the WSJ, here is one of my faves...enjoy and welcome aboard.

Stop Drinking (bad) Corporate Wine!

Tom pointed to an ‘interesting’ article written by Jennifer Rosen defending ‘corporate’ wine. Defending it against whom I am not sure but the crux of her argument posits that this inexpensive ‘corporate’ wine, which is as familiar and as regular in quality as toothpaste, brings more drinkers into the marketplace. In the same breath, she seems to characterize those drinkers who expect more from their wines as neophytes and epiphany seekers, while the ‘clueless masses’ seem to want some sort of ‘bland’ drink that is as ‘reliable and cheap’ as Coke (quality notwithstanding). To paraphrase a paraphrasing blog buddy, her logic seems to suggest that to make wine accessible we must have more shit wine available.

Oh those poor, stupid, taste-deficient masses.

Well, wine is not coke. Unfortunately, there seems to be some underlying sentiment amongst certain in the industry to treat it as such; just another spoke in the wheel of the beverage industry. Perhaps I am being nostalgic and sentimental, but I still want my wine to be made by someone who grew and pressed his own grapes, and whose wine ultimately carries his signature and some sense of place. It might be quaint but there is more often than not a measure of authenticity about the final product that differentiates it from the yellow tails, little penguins, and other mass-produced, ‘brand’-oriented wines that fill supermarket shelves. Rosen makes the point that many of these more ‘artisanal wines’ are ‘perfectly dreadful,’ I agree, some of them are. But on the whole I find most of these wines more interesting, and at least not disgusting.

I have tried these price-point wines on a number of occasions. I am usually unimpressed, sometimes horrified and rarely surprised. My most recent foray into what Ms. Rosen refers to as ‘corporate wines’ was a tasting of Southcorp (Foster’s) ‘Little Penguin.’ The Chardonnay reminded me more of coconut tanning lotion than white wine, and the Shiraz was closer to Robitussin (without that excellent muted buzz). But this is a question of personal taste. I neither buy nor drink these penguin wines, as I won’t most of the cheap wines presently on the market. This is not because they are made by some massive, unfeeling corporate monolith, it is simply because they taste bad.

But, as children who were raised to believe that garlic-flavored popsicles are good, Rosen claims her ‘blandies’ expect nothing more than the ‘Tzatziki pop’ of wine and are thus happy and comfortable in their ignorance. This is bullshit. It is rare that I have not been able to take a person who has drunk only cheap wine and showed them that, for a few dollars more, there is a better option. And the majority of the time, they can taste the difference. Ultimately it is a question of priorities. It isn't that different from spending that extra 20% on organic produce, for it too is often better than the cheaper industrial produce which fills the aisles of your local supermarket.

It just so happens that these super-cheap wines, which are made affordable because of the economy of scale, are often below the threshold of what smaller wineries can afford to produce. I will not even get into how they are made. But for a few dollars more (at least here in Quebec), there exist a plethora of interesting wines from the world over, many made by co-operatives and good, independent winemakers. By supporting these smaller producers, we are supporting diversity, independence, and frankly they need the cash more than the big corps.

The reality of the modern wine industry is that there are fewer and fewer independent winemakers. Cheval Blanc, Etude, Ornellaia, Yquem, Penfolds, Coldstream and a vast majority of the better wine producers worldwide are now part of corporate portfolios. Like in any industry, there are good corps and bad ones. Those which recognize and continue to support the ‘artistry’ of winemaking and have not become complacent with quality deserve our continued support. Ms. Rosen’s characterization of corporate wine as cheap wine is an insult to many of the better corporations which continue to produce great wines. Her article should have been entitled ‘in defense of cheap, mass-produced wine,’ but even then, I don’t agree.The real danger of the big corps with large alchohol and wine portfolios lies more in the distribution end of the industry. It is here where smaller producers and distributors face increasingly difficult challenges and it is here that they need our support. So get off the kangaroo, seek out the independents and ultimately tell your friends to spend a bit more for their bottles, you will be doing both the industry, and your friends, a lot of good.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Sommelier Experience

Ordering a bottle of wine in a restaurant can be an intimidating task. The food is ordered, and all eyes shift to you as you leaf from page to page in what you see as an unnecessarily long wine list, quietly hoping to come across a bottle that you recognize. Where’s that Brouilly or Yellow Label when you need it? As befuddlement becomes desperation, the sommelier arrives.

As a sommelier, my job is to demystify wine. In the few minutes that I spend at your table, I have to assess what style of wines you like, what you are willing to pay, and walk that fine line between what you want and what I feel you need. With a point of my finger and a nod, I can make you a hero with the right choice, or I can be your scapegoat if everyone hates it.

But who are these people, why should they be trusted?

The Dinner Table Maestros

I admit to having forgotten the year that my daughter was born, though I remember wines that I drank 10 years ago, with whom, at what temperature, and with what. I am the Rain Man of the food and beverage world. While the majority of sommeliers have arrived at their present occupations via some sort of wine schooling, I have never taken a course on wine. My education was in the kitchen, the tasting room and at the table. It is this equal reverence for both food and wine that separates the wine connoisseur from the best sommeliers. We don’t make either, but we have to understand both. In this sense we are like maestros, trying to create harmonies between what the chefs create and the wines we have at our disposal.

Spit or Swallow?

But we are first and foremost experts on wine. To that end, when I am not working the floor, placing orders, hucking cases, taking inventory and updating my wine list, I am tasting wines. This is the most romanticized aspect of the job, but as much as I try (often in vain) to get some sympathy, the reality is that it is still work. If I taste thousands of wines every year, there are only a few hundred that I actually order. The number of times I have had to smile with red tainted teeth, my mouth as dry as the Sahara, and find something nice to say about yet another wine that I know I will never order.

And to answer that most asked question, most of the wine I am served ends up in the spittoon, except for the really good ones where I sometimes go back for seconds.

The Language of Wine

While we sommeliers know a lot about wine, we do tend to speak our own particular dialect. The language of wine aims to find a way to compare one wine with another. It uses flavours, smells, textures and colors that we find in our glass to references found in our day to day lives. But these associations often don’t resonate with the majority of people who can’t find the ‘dark cherries, summer truffle nor the leather’ that we so cleverly found with a snort and quick swirl of our tasting glass.

Most people have a hard time communicating what they like in wines. The best way of letting me know is by remembering the names of some of your favorite bottles that you drink at home, but most people don’t and end up citing ‘Château … something.’ That must be the best selling bottle worldwide.

In an effort to bridge the communication gap and reach out beyond these staid and conservative descriptions, I have been known to compare certain Californian wines, for example, with the stereotypical beach bimbo (or the male ‘mimbo’ version); easy to like, the first glass is great but lacks the depth to be interesting in the long run. It is remarkable how many clients know exactly what I am talking about.

The ABW and the Curse of the Blue Nun

So now that we know where each other is coming from, it’s time to make our choice. The first thing I must establish is if you are part of the ABW (Anything But White). As a devoted white wine drinker, I am constantly amazed by people’s reticence to quaff a bottle of white.

It’s not your fault. I blame it on Blue Nun and other cheap white wines. If cheap red can be a heady proposition, inexpensive white can be near fatal. We have all had misadventures resulting from drinking one glass too many of some dubious white. It can be a Sisyphean task to battle against such distasteful memories, especially when one considers that the majority of foods work better with white.

Aside from finding the perfect Australian red for your lobster, there is one other thing that I can’t do. I don’t set the policy on pricing and while I understand your frustration that the bottle you want is two and a half times the SAQ price, as much as I would like to, I am not here to negotiate.

Getting the Most out of Your Sommelier

Here’s a hint, when a sommelier says that you should drink what you like, what he or she is really saying is that the wine that you want doesn’t go at all with your choice of menu. I am always amazed how people will give ‘carte blanche’ to the chef to create their dishes as they see fit yet can be relatively narrow minded in their choice of wines. So if you are lucky enough to have a sommelier at your restaurant, come with a sense of discovery, get out of your comfort zone and try something new.

I fear no client more than the wine collector who loves to list every wine he has drunk or the entire contents of his cellar. Nobody likes a snob and we sommeliers are a difficult lot to impress. Wine and the way it works with food can be fascinating, but it must be put into context. I see wine as a spice, a luxurious accessory to complement our meal. But in the grand scheme of things, that we can spend a couple of hours worrying over such ephemeral pleasures should remind us about what is really important.

That we are indeed very fortunate people.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Look What’s Growing in Our Own Backyard

Modern winemaking in Europe dates back hundreds of years. California and Ontario’s first vines were planted in the late 19th Century. Here in Québec, our viticultural history takes us back only to the early 1980’s. With age comes experience, each generation passing down to the next not only more mature vines, but of even greater importance, the know how which only comes from the trial and error of experimentation.

As a wine buyer, my job is to be a ruthless critic. With so many wines on the market it is easy to be swayed by prejudice, damning an entire group of wines due to a couple of bad experiences and never returning. I admit to having relegated Québec’s wine industry to that scrapheap of mediocrity. I was wrong and am here to make amends.

At the root of this bias are the grapes themselves. Grapes like chardonnay, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon are of European decent, varietals of the Vitis Vinifera family. Our harsh winters and relatively short growing season once limited our options to the hardier, though often less interesting hybrids. But things are changing. Global warming has proven to be a blessing for Quebec winemakers as the extended growing season and milder winters have allowed for not only riper hybrid grapes, but an opportunity to grow chardonnay and other classic Vinifera species.

I recently toured a number of wineries in the Eastern Townships and was shocked by not only the quality and diversity of the wines being made, but by the passion and dedication of a number of our winemakers. Here are the stories of four of the best.

The Pioneer- Charles-Henri de Coussergues and Orpailleur
1086 Route 202, Dunham

Québec’s first and best known winery, Orpailleur represents the old guard of Quebecois winemaking. When one talks with other winemakers, there is nothing but respect for what de Coussergues has accomplished. While he sees an opportunity in planting vinifera grapes like chardonnay, he continues to concentrate on the tried and true, with large plantings of hybrid white grapes seyval and vidal, seyval noir and marechal forch in red. The wines are also classic interpretations of the varietals; crisp whites and red berry laden reds and rosés. Of exception is his La Part des Anges, a fortified wine which was inspired by the wines of Maury in France’s southwest (see tasting notes at end of article).

Aside from running his vineyard, he is working to create a regulatory body similar to VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) which presently overseees the wines of Ontario and British Columbia. The VQA works as a regulatory body whose aim is to create standards of quality, auditing winemakers to assure that what is written on the label matches what is in the bottle. An auditing system such as this would assure, for example, that the grapes did indeed come from Quebec and were not brought in from outside the province.

The Ice Master – Jean Joly at Le Marathonien
318 Route 202, Havelock

Gold medals and awards are nothing new for Le marathonien. Most recently, Le Marathonien was the highest scoring ice wine at the prestigious 2006 Okanagen icewine festival in British Columbia, besting even the fabled icewines from the Niagara.

To make icewine, a winemaker needs an extended period of minus12C temperatures. While the milder winters of the last couple of years are causing headaches for many of Ontario’s icewine producers, the combination of riper grapes and our province’s frigid winters are ideal for the production of icewine. At least in the short term, this just might be the style of wine which might win worldwide recognition for our wine industry.

Le Marathonien is a converted apple orchard. Joly’s vines are planted in the gravel and rock that 12000 years ago was a part of lake Champlain. His approach to winemaking is rigorous, scientific and patient. While many of his colleagues are experimenting with different grape varietals and vinification techniques, Joly, like de Coussergues, is sticking with what has proven to work

Joly produces classic dry whites and reds, including a superb off-dry white made with a riesling hybrid called geisenheim. But Marathonien is all about sweet wines. And if Icewine is a bit rich for your palette, Joly is one of the few Quebecers to produce a Late-Harvest wine, which is in fact a second press on his icewine grapes.

The Cradle of Invention– Mike and Veronique at Les Pervenches
150 Boulais Road, Farnham

‘Who says Vinifera doesn’t grow in Québec,’ beams Mike Marler with as he rips away some leaves, revealing a beautiful cluster of chardonnay. Talk with Mike about his grapes, or how the various soil substructures found in his vineyard can produce subtle differences in aromas and flavours, and one gets a deeper understanding of the relationship a winemaker has with his vines.

The biggest impediment to growing many Vinifera grapes in Quebec is not the length of the growing season but the damage caused by our cold winters. Many point to Mike’s work with testing different materials and methods of winter protection as advancing the possibility of chardonnay in Quebec, and as proven by his medals and other accolades, this possibility has become reality. He is also presently in pre-certification with Ecocert, an international organic accreditation body, which will make Les Pervenches one of the few certified organic vineyards in Québec.

His wines mirror his experimental approach, and as we tasted barrel samples from last years harvest, one gets the sense each blending season is all about possibility and experimentation, not following a recipe. He is presently testing which grapes work best with American and French oak barrels, how the seyval grape reacts to different yields, and trying unique blends like in his award winning chardonnay-seyval, and one of my favorites, a light red blend of hybrid grapes frontenac and de chaunac with chardonnay.

A True Modern Winery - Léon Courville and Domaine Les Brome
285 Brome Rd, Lac Brome

Ex-President of the Banque Nationale, Léon Courville began planting his vineyard in 1999. Domaine Les Brôme is a well financed, modern winery and is on the cutting edge of Québecois viticulture. With over 40 000 vines planted which include proven hybrid grapes as well as chardonnay, pinot noir and reisling, Courville seems to be well en route to proving that Québec can produce high quality wine which can compete on an international level.

As one of the big winner’s at the recent Coupe de Nations de Quebec, which recognizes excellence in both local and international winemaking, I came to Les Brome intrigued and left astounded. Courville is so confident about his wines that he was not simply content to just have me taste his wines, he wanted me to compare them with classic French bottlings which were at times more than twice the price.

First up was an off-dry vidal, a grape which is almost always reserved for making sweet wines. I tasted it next to a pinot gris from Alsace and the similarities were remarkable. His cuvee Charlotte, a blend of seyval, geisenheim and chardonnay held it’s own against, and I am not kidding, a Meursault.

For those who doubt that Quebec can produce high quality, elegant red wine has not tasted the de chaunac reserve. With help from Madiran winemaker Alain Brumont, Courville has perhaps found a home for this French hybrid, a grape that was developed in the 19th Century. Still in barrel, I tasted both the 2004 and 2005 cuvées which were overflowing with sweet field berries, a touch of licorice and mineral notes, all supported by a delicate tannic structure.

The Problem

Never heard of these wineries? Don’t feel bad because neither have most Quebeckers. Small-scale winemaking is a costly proposition anywhere, and because of the extra work required to ‘winterize’ our vines, even more costly here in Québec. Unfortunately, the SAQ has done little to help our industry by employing the same purchase policy they use on wines imported from outside of Québec, nor offering preferential displays in the stores. This means that Quebec wineries must sell their wines at uncompetitive prices at the SAQ or lose thousands of dollars of much needed revenues. With no shop window except for at the winery, the majority of consumers don’t have access to these wines, thus hindering sales and ultimately the evolution of the industry here in Québec. It’s a case where everyone loses.

Tasting Some of Quebec’s Best

Seyval 2005, Orpailleur ($12) Reminiscent of a Muscadet, this is a classic interpretation of the varietal, combining mineral notes with a bright acidity and citrus flavors. It would work wonders with oysters, mussels, a light fish or a fresh goat cheese.

Rosé 2005, Orpailleur ($13) combines classic red berries with a hint of spiciness alongside a well-balanced acidity. Soft and delicate, it is a perfect apertitif wine or to accompany a light lunch.

La Part des Anges, Orpailleur ($13..200ml). My favorite from Orpailleur, this blend of unfermented seyval juice with Brandy is left in open casks for 6 years endures a cycle of baking in the sun and then sub zero winter temperatures. The result is a reminiscent of a sweet sherry with a sensual mix of hazelnut, fig, and caramel. Try it with a crème caramel or with a selection of stronger cheeses.

Cuvée Speciale, Marathonien ($11), an excellent white, off-dry blend of Geisenheim, Seyval and Cayuga. Aromatic like a Muscat, the touch of residual sweetness balances the acidity to make an excellent ‘vin de soif,’ perfect for a hot afternoon or any meal with exotic spices.

Vidal Icewine 2003, Marathonien ($50 for 375ml) His icewine undergoes a long, slow fermentation and is only bottled when Joly feels it is ready. Each sip of is a decadent explosion of apricot, peach, and apple smothered in honey. With a fois gras, it makes a wonderful home grown alternative to Sauterne.

Seyval-Vidal 2004, Les Pervenches ($14) A touch richer and with less acidity than the Seyval of Orpailleur, this oak aged Seyval would be perfect for a light fish or a cheese fondue. It should have even more body in the 2005 version as it will be blended with Chardonnay rather than Vidal.

Chardonnay-Seyval 2004, Les Pervenches ($20) A Macon style Chardonnay that combines nice mineral notes with apples and peaches, all backed with soft, unobtrusive oak. It would work well with any seafood, especially when served in a cream sauce.

Solinou 2005, Les Pervenches ($14), a bright and refreshing red that exudes fresh summer berries. Composed of frontenac, de chaunac, with a touch of chardonnay, serve it chilled as an aperitif, with cheese and pâtés or with a spicy vegetarian dish.

Vidal 2003, Domaine les Brome ($15) Floral and mineral notes, a hint of residual sugar and a rich, and delicate texture make it a perfect match for a nice spicy seafood dish, I kept thinking shrimps with a green curry sauce.

St-Pépin Reserve ($19) is an extremely elegant white that combines delicate floral and exotic fruit aromas with an almost Burgundy type richness that comes from being ermented and aged in new French oak barrels. It would be great with a seafood risotto.