Monday, November 13, 2006

New Languedoc, Old Carignan and Deep Purple

It is home to over one third of all vines planted in France. Yet, how the Languedoc adjusts to world glut in grapes will have a profound effect on its future. Once responsible for massive amounts of low quality grapes, growers in the France’s south have had to make a choice as competition from other countries have made this a less viable business.

Faced with the option of simply pulling out vines, a new generation of winemakers have chosen to make higher quality wines. While lower yields have improved the wines, putting more emphasis on more marketable grapes like Syrah and Grenache have no doubt made them more attractive to today’s varietal conscious consumer. However, this second decision has come at a price.

The Carignan grape, indigenous to the south, has suffered as many growers have switched to Syrah and Grenache. Carignan can do wonderful things if given the opportunity, adding color, structure, depth, as well as dark cooked fruits, licorice and earthy aromas. However, since it is often relegated to the more fertile plateaus where it over produces, it can become rather innocuous.

At a recent tasting of Languedoc wines, the bottles that had appreciable levels of well-grown carignan were the ones that stood out. If you place a value on the importance of regional ‘distinctiveness,’ look for those Languedoc wines with higher percentages of this grape.

Coteaux du Languedoc 2001, Mas Jullien
One of my favourite producers is Olivier Jullien. His estate, Mas Jullien, is spread out over 15 acres around the village of Jonquiers, just north of the Mediterrean coast and the city of Montpellier. I have already reviewed his Mas Jullien Blanc, a six grapes blend that includes Grenache Blanc, Viogner and Chenin Blanc, and to my taste is one of the most distinctive and interesting whites in France that requires years of cellaring to reach it’s apogee.

His red, a blend of Carignan, Syrah and Mourvedre, is no less interesting. Like many carignan based wines, it requires a couple of years of cellaring to iron out some of the rougher edges, but it rewards patience like few wines from the region. This was my fourth bottle (I still have two left).

Drunk to the tune of a big juicy steak.

Deep purple in both color and style. Like Richie Blackmore’s guitar playing, Jullien combines virtuosity with power, beauty without being very pretty. It smells and tastes of dark plums, marinated in licorice and sweet spices. Rich and concentrated, the tannins melted away to a dense, powerful and harmonious finish. This is not the new dulcimer Blackmore, but the Richie of Old.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

WBW27… Frozen Wine

Vin de Glace 2004, Marechal Foch-Ste. Croix, La Roche des Brises ($ the vineyard)

The one thing that Quebec has it’s fair share is cold. And lots of it. Bone chilling frostiness. Wow, I can’t wait. While this has made producing ripe, good quality dry table wines a challenge, it has been no impediment to making great icewines. Led by Marathonien’s victory at the recent Okanagen Icewine Competition (where it’s Vidal bested perennial champions from Ontario), the Quebec wine industries future might be tied to the production of this style of wine.

To vinifera or not to vinifera is the question facing many of Quebec’s wine producer’s these days? While small scale wineries can afford to bury the vines each winter, larger operations have seemed to pin their future on working with hybrids. Well, if you doubt that hybrids can make a great wine, then you haven’t tasted the latest offering from La Roche des Brises. Unique in that it is Quebec’s first “red” icewine, this Foch and Ste-Croix assemblage combines the aromatics of a black Muscat with the delicate flavours of a Niagara Cabernet Franc. With only 147 grams of residual sugar, it isn’t too sweet so it can work with a host of desserts. We, a table stocked with sommeliers, drank it last night with a chocolate fondue, and it worked superbly. It’s caramelized , nutmeg infused plum and fig flavours, when overlayed with the chocolate was as you can imagine, deliriously good.

And again, made in Quebec.

Thanks to the kitchen chick for well, doin it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What do you want to know about the wine you drink?

As a full-on info glutton, I am often frustrated about the lack of information available about many of the wines that I drink. Labels, which the rest of the food and beverage world use to list ingredients at their very best will list percentages of each varietal used in making the wine. More often than not, they are dedicated to drawings of small animals or are poorly written tomes describing how ‘x’ wine is a perfect accompaniment to anything from dry turkey to grandma’s overdone roast. They should at a minimum be forced to write this stuff in ‘haiku.’

But what should be written on these labels and what info should be readily available to the interested consumer? The demystification of wine begins with knowing what grapes we are drinking and where they are grown. If the Napa Cabernet I’m drinking in reality contains“x” percentage of another grape, is in part sourced from a different area, or blended with wines from previous vintages, then why is this reality not reflected on the label.

And what about the processes, ingredients and other details about how a wine is made? Aside from a warning that the wine contains sulfites, which is relevant to but a small percentage of the drinking population who have such intolerances, little is divulged. When I have questioned people in the wine industry, the response has been that nobody really wants to know about this stuff, or that “chemical sounding names” will just scare people off, or my favourite, that they are ‘trade secrets.’ Coke and twinkies don’t reveal everything, do they?

Bullshit. I have read enough tech sheets and talked with enough winemakers to know that wineries are happy to divulge lots of info about their wine. Maceration time, the duration, temperature, and type of fermentation, wether they use whole bunches, the type of press used, yields, the list goes on and on. But ask them about the use of colorants, or the addition of tannin, tartaric acid, sugar, water, or wether it’s been de-alcoholized, and they are much more retiscent. If you are one on one with the winemaker, perhaps you will get a hushed response.

These manipulations are as important in making a wine as much of the above mentioned processes that they are willing to talk about. I am not out to embarrass people, I just want to know what went in to making the wine I am drinking.

And to those winemakers who embrace this technology, let me taste the wines with the full knowledge that they are products of these manipulations. If they are as good as the rest, I’ll buy them and tell others to do so as well. Their silence just perpetuates the sceptic in me.

This type of disclosure, wether it be on the label or on the wineries website will just serve to educate the drinking population. The best winemakers use intuition and instinct to make their wines. It is an art form and even if Picasso told you all about the exact color mixes he used, few people would be able to copy him. And those who could, wouldn't. Where the problem lies are are the Enologix type of winemakers who follow recipes, to create wines which match flavour profiles using whatever technology that is available to them. I see this as a threat but that is a topic for another day..