Monday, May 04, 2009

Birthday Meal

Marsannay 2002, Saint-Jacques, Pinot Blanc, Fougeray de Beauclair

Aged, expensive wood and caramel. Apple cider with unsweetened brown sugar. All the signs of oxidization were on the nose, thankfully, and not in the mouth. Rich, buttery, ripe with a definite move towards old pear compote,with just a note of caramel to sweeten it up. Long and still pretty fresh. Probably should have been drunk a year or two ago but much better than I expected for a 7 year old Burgundian Pinot Blanc.

Vosne-Romanee 2002, Au Dessus de la Riviere, Christophe Perrot-Minot
Tender and powerful. Some sort of creamy red fruit with it’s green top, sweet earth and a liquified rose. Enticing to no end. You stick your nose in the glass, you want to get closer but there is a thin veil of tannin and acid that keeps you away. It is why we drink Burgundy, to on one hand be given a glimpse of perfection, only to be denied by the other.

Riesling 2001, Spatlese, Rauenthaler Baiken, Rheingau, Kloster Eberbach
Good. But just good as opposed to exceptional, as other bottles have been. The minerality has morphed into an almost wooden veneer, with pineapple and guava slopped onto it. That is all fine, it’s just the acidity has decided to curl up in a ball somewhere, leaving you with a touch of unrequited sugar. The cork was fine. Hmmm.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The '76 Wynns!

Cabernet Sauvignon 1957, Coonawarra Estate, Wynns
Tried two bottles with both showing definite signs of getting tired with life. Tannins have almost disappeared, but there is still just enough pretty red berry fruit to make it am interesting drink. It’s lightweight, yes, and it’s dying, but it’s looking good on it’s decline.

Cabernet Sauvignon 1962, Coonawarra Estate, Wynns
Wonderfully fresh and with remarkable complexity. First sniff is a mix of sweet red berries, a touch of dried spice and earthier notes mixed with a hint of bitter chocolate. But after 15 minutes, it turns to white tobacco, dried spice, and a bit more chocolate. Great depth, and a pleasure to drink.

Cabernet Sauvignon 1976, Coonawarra Estate, Wynns
By far the winner of the tasting. Blackberry, dark plum but moving towards earthier, mintier notes. You can taste the terra rossa, that red soil that is all over the Coonoawarra region. It’s in the wine, giving a sanguine, iron-laden, iodine feel. The texture is regal, with the accent on length as opposed to largesse. It just keeps on getting fresher. Remarkable.

Cabernet Sauvignon 1988, Coonawarra Estate, Wynns
Still some solid tannin, and fruit that seems not sure whether it wants to be red or black. The acidity seems a touch out of balance with the rest of the wine, giving it a delicate, sour fruit character while the tannins would lend themselves better to a bigger wine. It’s just not sure what it wants to be. Will it ever? Good wine, but I doubt that it will achieve the greatness of the ’76 and ’62.

Cabernet Sauvignon 1994, Coonawarra Estate, Wynns
Stewed blackberry and plums, vanilla and herbed spice. Lacks a touch of finesse as the fruit is a bit chunky, it comes at you as a block. Is this in a weird phase or simply a case of the modern Australia sacrificing longevity for immediacy.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dinner with Lou, Early Spring

Fleurie 2006, Yvon Métras

Bizarre nose of beet juice and cabbage leaf, infused with geraniums. The fruit is there, it is a Beaujolais after all. The fruit is red, a bit tart on the finish and totally refreshing. After 7 or so vintages of faithfully drinking Metras at happy occasions, I am not any closer to understanding the wine, able to foretell what it will taste like, or even explain why I love it so much. I just wish that I could share a glass of it with every person out there who truly loves wine. Just received my 07’s.

Cabbage stuffed wi
th Braised Cabbage, Bacon, Shrimp. Salmon too.
Arbois 2004, Traminer, Ouillé, Tissot
Savagnin, non oxydized, because Stephan Tissot chose to top up the barrels. That is “ouillage.” Such a complete bouquet: grilled almonds, covered with honey and rubbed with ginger and lemon rind. It smells as if bees made this wine, after feeding on lemon flowers. Fresh, rich, quite extraordinary.

Osso Bucco
Barolo 2001, Dardi Le Rose, Bussia, Poderi Colla
I still feel bad about opening this up, just as it is about to enter adulthood and all. It’s just starting to get that beautiful Barolo “thin-ness,” when ripe Nebbiolo is not overly extracted, gobbed with wood, and allowed to develop some bottle age. It has finesse, bright cherries, red plums, cloves and essence of cola on the finish. Long, and not large, would be the best way to describe it. Best days are still ahead of it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bloody Wine

Gaillac 2004, Renaissance, Domaine Rotier

An interesting wine to watch as it morphed from a pretty and delicate fruitiness to this raw piece of meat. Huh? Act 1 - It starts with ripe red cherries and cassis. Act 2 - Tannins soften, flavours get redder as the cassis fades into something red, iron-laden. Act 3 - Fine, polished tannins, and the curtain falls with an image of a wild boar, or some other beast, dead and bleeding in a field of grass. Very good. A bit strange, but very good.

Tannat 2005, Reserva Familiar, Leonardo Falcone

Watch out, Bullwinkle! There is a wine here that wants you served up on a plate with mushrooms. Tannat, the grape of France's Madiran, often produces dark and dense wines that need years in the cellar to tenderize. While this Uruguayan version is much more forgiving, it is still not for everyone. Its bouquet made me think of meat, raw meat, laced with the juice of black olives and mint. If purple were a flavour, it might be this. But it grows on you, despite its sanguinary references, like falling for a pretty vampire.

Grenache 2005, The Custodian, McLaren Vale, d’Arenberg
A bit shocking at first sip, as it is incredibly fleshy. There is a rawness to this wine, almost like a freshly killed animal: sanguine, fresh, pure. But once it opens up, there are cherries and other red fruits, earth, coffee grounds, and some oaked spice on the end palate. Very original, and if you like something off the beaten track, this is spectacular.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Growing Pains
Chablis 1er Cru 2005, Vaillons, Domaine Bernard Defaix
Sweet almonds with a dusting of "piment d'Espelette and a squeeze of lemon juice. The intense minerality that I tasted last year is morphing, slowly moving towards nuttiness, but caught at an awkward moment of adolescence. Its rich, mouth filling, but with a nervous acidity. This is a very good wine with some pimples. Still very likable, but far from beautiful.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Duck, duck, moose

I attended a tasting maybe five years ago of wines from the southwest of France. After an hour or so of tasting the reds, my gums started to ache, my teeth were purple and my mouth was as dry as the Gobi dessert. I hesitantly offered up my tasting glass at the next table and asked the winemaker- what do you guys drink when it’s hot out? He laughed and filled my glass with yet another beasty, purple wine and he stared at me intently as I swirled the wine around my glass. I stuck my nose in, gulped down a sip and did my best to find something more to say than, “wow, nice and dry.”

I think I might have been scarred from that experience because I honestly cannot remember the last time I actually drank a whole bottle of one of these wines. Granted, these are not the easiest wines to drink without food. These are big wines, often with lots of drying tannin. Rather than showing lots of bright fruit, they tend to be meaty, earthy and with hints of black olives and liquorice - not the the type of wines my fragile, white loving palate tends to gravitate towards. But in contrast, I love the white wines of the southwest - Jurancon, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh from the Madiran area, Gaillac, Irouleguy. Bring em on.

But what about these reds, and specifically two of the best known appellations - Cahors and Madiran. When I ran my own restaurant, I couldn't keep them on the wine list as they sold out so fast. When I help people navigate a wine list, they are often cited as examples of wines that they like. And a simple scan of the SAQ inventory here in Quebec reveals 50 different Cahors and 35 Madirans. I must say that I feel out of step.

So as I was organizing the samples that are sent to me to taste, I found that I had over 25 Cahors and Madiran sitting down there. I wasn’t surprised, there is not a lot of Chianti or pinot noir gathering dust down there. These are gibier wines, wines that are made to accompany rich and flavourful dishes, so with some duck cassoulet on the stove and a piece of venison on my plate, it was time to face the beast and see how these wines work at the table. But first, a little background on these two historic regions of France.


It’s a sign of how international wine has become that many wine lovers associate malbec, the grape of Cahors, more with Argentina than they do with France. But malbec, known also by the name cot or auxerrois in the south of France, is indeed very much French. And while the majority of the vines today are planted in the southwest, it has historic importance which touches the Loire Valley, and more importantly Bordeaux.

It only received the status of its own appellation in 1971, but Cahors is one of the oldest wine making regions in France, dating back to 50BC. It garnered it’s reputation as “the black wine of France” as early as the 13th Century where it was served at the tables of many of the kings of Europe.

Because of its dark colour and tannin, as well as its relative proximity to Bordeaux, during the 19th century it was sometimes blended into the wines of Bordeaux during poor vintages to add colour and structure to weaker wines. Malbec can still be found in very small quantities in certain regions of Bordeaux, though it is very much on the decline as the grape seems to appreciate the hotter summers of the southwest. As it is sensitive to rot and other humidity born diseases, the higher rainfall and humidity of Bordeaux also made it a difficult grape to grow.

Appellation rules state that malbec must make up over 70% of the final wine- with the other 30% allowing for either merlot or the grape of Madiran, tannat. In general, the less expensive Cahors that I tasted were those that had higher percentages of merlot in the blend, which added fruit and seemed to soften up the wine. But the biggest change that I noticed from the last time I did an extensive tasting of Cahor’s wines, was in the aromatics and texture in the more expensive wines that were either entirely, or close to 100% malbec. They were softer, even pretty. Go figure.

Malbec, despite its blackness and earthy nature, can show very pretty, floral aromatics. Mostly violets, I also found many of the wines much easier to drink than I remember. But the pure joy of Cahors is at the table where it matched up perfectly with both my duck cassoulet and deer steak. The liquorice notes seemed to blend in perfectly with the stronger flavour of these two flavourful meats. And like any self-respecting cassoulet, it’s loaded with fat which helped smooth out the tannins.


Located further south than Cahors, right next to Armagnac, is Madiran. If Cahor’s wines can be at times astringent and strong flavoured, Madiran’s wines can be downright burly and incredibly tannic. The grape here is tannat, and that wine that I was swirling at that tasting when I had my oral breakdown was in fact a Madiran.

Madiran’s wine making history rivals that of Cahors, though it is a much smaller appellation. But if Cahor’s initial fame and importance was tied to it’s relationship with Bordeaux, Madiran’s addition to the world of wine making goes beyond it’s wines, rather it is a wine making technique that is rather controversial - micro oxygenation.

Developed in the early 1990’s by Patrick Ducourneau of Domaine Mouréou, the technique involves injecting small amounts of oxygen into the wine as it ferments or while it ages. By doing so early in a wine’s development, micro-ox can speed up the polymerization of tannins - which means that those little tannin molecules bind together into longer chains and makes the wine feel less astringent. It effectively gives the wine a tannic structure of a wine that has bottle age.

Not everyone has jumped on board, as many wine makers feel that the technique alters the texture of the wine and trade off wine of long term ageability for short term ease of drinking. While this debate is worthy of an entire article, there is no doubt that it has made certain wines of Madiran easier drinking at an earlier age.

However, it s not the only way to make Madiran. The undisputed leader of the appellation is Alain Brumont, whose Chateau Montus and Bouscassé are the best wines I have tasted from the region (see tasting note for the 2002 Bouscassé below). Brumont believes that a long maturation in new oak barrels is the best way to treat the tannat grape, followed by a certain amount of patience. While his wines do require some cellar time, they have an elegance and depth that can rival some of the world’s best wines.

My tasting showed exactly that. While the Cahors tended to be juicier, richer and have a wider range of flavours, Madiran’s wines were much more elegant and finessed. They all required at least an hour in carafe, but especially with the deer steak, covered in a blueberry sauce, they really were an exceptional match.

So I have a new found respect for these historic wines, they just need the right food. While I tested the wines with wild meats and duck, any very flavourful meat or recipe will do the job. I guess the next time I go to one of these tastings, I will have to set up a picnic somewhere in the corner of the room. Cassoulet anyone?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Madiran 2002, Vieilles Vignes, Château Bouscassé
Seven years of age, and the oak and tannin are still slowly integrating into the whole, but this is already a pleasure to drink. It's heading towards silkiness, and once full balance is achieved - watch out. But even right now, there is leather, there is coffee, at least a hint of red fruit, and an unaggressive and long smoked spice finish. Got a cellar?
Cahors 2005, Le Combal, Cosse Maisonneuve
Big Cahors, authentic and made for the hunter-gatherer in you, with black licorice and meat. There is some animal that is "pheasanting" in the bottle, covered in rose petals and mint. Big, burly tannins. This a wine for the true Cahors lover. Bring on the cassoulet! Biodynamic.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Two Greek

Vin de Pays de Tégéa 2005, Cabernet/Merlot, Domaine Tselepos
A bouquet of the sweetest, floral and prettiest part of the plum, cherry and cassis, with a touch of spinach-type greens in the background. The rest of the fruit is waiting for you in the glass, gathering intensity and flesh as you work your way through the bottle, and all held together by finely grained, spicy tannins. Nothing overtly complex here, just an exemplary, unique and honest interpretation of two well-known grapes, and made by a man who seems to want to show what his land can offer. Sure, it’s yet another cab-merlot blend, however that’s the only mundane thing about it.

Vin de Pays D'Epanomi 2007, Domaine Gerovassiliou
Creamy lemon lime on the nose, focussed mineral notes, with a muscat type floral kick. The acidity keeps it fresh on the attack but this has a remarkable richness and length to it. The grape is assyrtiko with a small percentage of malagousia. I drank this over two days and on the second day it got more exotic, and even a spicey note. Buy 6 and try and keep a few until summer.

Monday, March 02, 2009


Bierzo 2005, Pittacum
This is either a powerful wine that drinks delicate, or the other way around. Whatever it is, it is mineral, there are olives, a hearty earthy component, and lots of delicious fruit. There is definitely some good tannin, but I don’t think quite enough for a big steak. I guess pleasant is the best way to describe the wine, maybe even fun to drink, but you could serve it at an important business meeting. I really like the mencia grape, but it confuses me.

Bierzo 2004, Crianza , Mencia, Tilenus
Light but not at all wimpy. Underneath that fruity exterior, it has a bit of a mean streak, if something so easy drinking can possibly be mean. Dark, mineral laden plums and black cherries, dipped in rose water is about as close as I can describe this. Sure, there are some decent tannins, but they have evolved, giving the wine just enough structure to keep the fruit going for a little bit longer. It’s different, very good, and really fun to drink.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Hey dude, that wine stinks!

I vividly remember the first Château Pradeaux I tasted. This mourvèdre-based red from the region of Bandol in France's Provence had the distinct odour of a horse-filled barn. When I served the wine to a friend, he looked up, smiling, and pronounced his judgement: "This smells like s--t."

But he drank his glass, as did I, and once the initial shock wore off, we both kept going back for more. We even planned a Bandol party, replete with steaks, shiitake mushrooms and lots of smelly blue cheese. Call it "sado-aroma-masochism." While for some people wines such as my bottle of Pradeaux may be considered "aromatically challenged," these aromas have become a quality in a wine that I appreciate more and more. But what makes a wine, made with grapes, smell like a saddle, or a mushroom, or a horse-filled barn?

People, meet Brett

This is not an easy question to answer; even experts are not clear as to how these odours find their way into a wine. Some say it's the way the wine was vinified, others say it's because of vineyard sites, others will talk about temperature and ripeness. But we will focus this discussion on the most controversial suspect - a wild yeast nicknamed Brett.

Its real name is Brettanomyces. The single-celled fungus is found in old barrels, in the chais where they make the wine, and, in some regions, on the grapes themselves. While it is not clearly understood how it enters the wine, or whether the odours found in a wine are even a result of high levels of Brett, the smell is very particular. It's perhaps best described as a sweaty saddle, or even a horse; if you get a whiff of this in your wine, there is a good chance that you have some Brett in there.

While this may sound a bit gross, there is a debate as to whether or not this yeast in fact spoils a wine. Many people actually appreciate small levels of this aroma in their wines, and some of the most sought-after and reputable wines in the world are known for their "Brettiness." These include many expensive Bordeaux, Burgundies, Côtes du Rhône, Bandols and Riojas.

I recently toured an Internet tasting board where an older vintage of a famous Châteauneuf du Pape, made by Beaucastel, was reviewed. I was amazed by the difference of opinions on the wine. For some, it was the model of complexity and elegance, while for others, the more animalistic nature of the bouquet was a turnoff. The people on this board seemed to be serious wine collectors, so this is not simply a case of more educated palettes vs. the uninitiated.

Another case in point: Last week I was at a tasting of the latest wines to hit the shelves of your local SAQ, and at my table were a number of local wine critics. One of the wines, a Spanish blend of tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon from Vallformosa, became the subject of some discussion (you can read my review in this week's suggestions). The first bottle was decidedly stinky, and we asked for a second bottle to be opened, which was pretty much like the first. While a couple of the tasters had that "yuck" look on their faces, I wrote "nice and stinky" in my notes. "Must be old barrels," remarked Jean Aubry from Le Devoir (and he was right). Jean and I just shrugged our shoulders at one another. I assume he liked the wine as well, but I'll let him cast his own judgment.

Brett likes the heat

There are a number of theories as to why Brett decides to show itself in certain wines, and sometimes just in certain vintages. What is known is that it's found more often in red wines than whites, and often in wines that have relatively low acidity. This usually means riper grapes, so it is not surprising that it is usually associated with hotter grape-growing regions.

It is also possible that certain grapes are more prone to Brett infection than others. Mourvèdre, which is the most planted grape in Bandol and is also a primary component in Beaucastel, is often associated with these aromas. Tempranillo, the main grape of Rioja, also can show saddle-type aromas. I have also tasted a number of merlot-based wines that have made me wonder whether there was Brett present.

One of the comments I have heard of the 2005 Bordeaux vintage, a year that was extremely warm, is that the merlot-based wines have shown a certain amount of Brettiness. In her appraisal of the vintage, wine writer Jancis Robinson wrote, "With acidity levels notably low, especially in many of the riper merlots, the Brettanomyces yeast was another threat. On quite a number of wines I smelled a telltale trace of sweaty animal hide."

This theory was backed up by Bordeaux winemaker Jean-Pierre Amoreau of Château le Puy. I have tasted a number of his wines, and the '03 was decidedly gamey. Amoreau told me that when his merlot grapes became over-ripe, a different yeast strain came into play. While he wouldn't use the word Brett, I am assuming that is what he meant.

Kill Brett?

Marc Perrin refused to acknowledge that his Beaucastel owes its aromatics to Brett infection, saying that it is the "terroir." There is an association of Brett infection with poor sanitary practices in winemaking facilities. While this may be true in certain cases, especially in older cellars with lots of old barrels, there is another possible reason for why many more wines don't have these odours.

One thing that Château le Puy and Beaucastel have in common is organic farming practices in the fields and a commitment to using fewer sulphites in their winemaking. Because the Brett yeast thrives only when there are sugars and other "nutrients" left over in the wine after it is vinified, winemakers who choose to add less sulphur, which is used to kill any remaining organisms in the wine, risk creating a Brett-friendly environment.

Aside from sulphur additions, many winemakers practice a technique called sterile filtration, which also eliminates any micro-organisms still alive in the wine. One of those organisms is Brett. The problem with this is that many winemakers believe it strips a wine of its nuance.

The end result is that if a winemaker strives for a more "natural" wine, he or she must be willing to live with the possibility of Brett. This leads to the question: Is Brett a natural part of wine or is its presence a defect, like too much oxygen (oxidized) or high levels of TCA (cork taint)?

The answer is, well, it depends. For those winemakers and consumers who want their wine to taste of fruit and oak, and only that, Brett is an uninvited guest. However, there are probably as many who believe it adds complexity and in small doses can make a wine better.

A Californian winemaker once told me that if he could harness and control Brett, he would love to have small amounts in some of his wines. But in the end, the risk of having it run uncontrolled was too much, and therefore he chooses to eliminate it totally.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Veal Chop

Bandol 2000, Château Pradeux

Shitake-infused purple fruit with a distant bouquet of dried garden herbs. Dark, gaining intensity and power as it opens up. Tender tannins, enough to give structure but not getting in the way. Getting to that last glass now, the mystery fruit gains complexity- it's growing on some sort of rock, in a well kept barn, filled with fresh mushrooms. Bordeaux of the south? Perhaps the comparison works, but this is maybe a touch more generous.

Scallop Entrée

Jasnières 2004, Calligramme, Domaine de Bellivière

Red apples and green grapes, just starting to brown, giving the fruit an aromatic sweetness, but it is very dry the mouth. Around halfway through the bottle, soft, white and yellow flowers, perhaps chamomile, seem to come out of nowhere, giving depth, pretty perfume. Much like a crescendo, each sip gains amplitude in the mouth , only to finish on a fine, focussed point of minerality. last bottle, damn.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Can't hold the sulphites?

There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding organics and wine, and especially about the role of sulphites in organic wine. But why are they there? Are they dangerous? If so, for whom? And if they are necessary, then what are acceptable levels?

Sulphites refer to the family of sulphur-based compounds - those most commonly used in winemaking being the gas, sulphur dioxide (SO2), and the powder, potassium metabisulphite. Sulphites are naturally produced by many organisms and found in such food items as grapes, oranges and chicken eggs. They are even produced by our own bodies, close to a gram per day.

Because of their antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, they are used as preservatives for a number of foods, including dried fruit, shrimp, fruit juice, potato chips and a variety of fresh vegetables. Ultimately, they keep our foods fresh-looking and give them a longer shelf life. And wine is no different.

How sulphites get in your wine

All wines contain sulphites. They are a naturally occurring by-product of the fermentation of grape sugars by yeasts. The amount is minimal, generally under 10 mg/L, but that means a sulphite-free wine does not exist. But adding extra sulphite has become an accepted and, for most, a necessary part of modern winemaking's battle against the two enemies of wine: bacteria and excessive oxygen.

They are used to clean winemaking equipment, like barrels, which assures that spoilage bacteria like brettanomyces do not become a problem in the winery. They are added directly to the uncrushed grapes as they come in from the field, which helps prevent unwanted wild yeast strains and other bacteria from taking control.

During fermentation, some winemakers will add sulphur to protect the future wine from contact with oxygen. Because it is a yeast killer, it is sometimes added to stop a fermentation if the winemaker wants to leave some residual sugar in the wine, as with German Rieslings. Perhaps the most significant addition happens at bottling, where a final dose of SO2 is added to protect the wines while they are being shipped around the world. Even more importantly for wines that are to be cellared, sulphite additions are used to prevent oxidation, assuring that the wines will reward those who stash their bottles away.

Free and combined

One of the peculiarities of sulphites is that they are constantly being ingested by the wine, reacting with oxygen and other chemical elements. These are referred to as "combined" sulphites. Once ingested, they have little or no preservative effect on the wine.

Free sulphites are the uncombined sulphur compounds that remain in the wine and protect it from oxidation and other potential problems, such as an unwanted fermentation that can result from the combination of having live yeasts and residual sugars in the wine, and storing the wine at too high a temperature (above 14C).

I remember a case of vouvray I bought a couple of years back that had no added SO2. When I bought it, it was demi-sec, meaning that it had some residual sugar in it. During the winter, when my cellar temperature hovers around 10C, the bottles were fantastic. But as summer arrived and the temperature rose in my cellar, because the wines still contained live yeasts, my wine started fermenting. The result? My slightly sweet white transformed itself into a dry bubbly. It was still okay, but not what I paid for.

Sulphites and your health

I spent the better part of a week looking at whom, in fact, the "contains sulphites" warning is for. Not very many of us, apparently. Studies seem to point to two groups: people who suffer from sulphite oxidase deficiency (under one per cent of the population) and asthmatics. In the case of asthmatics, reactions only seem to occur when sulphites are near the maximum allowable levels (over 300 mg/L). There is little evidence that they are bad for the rest of us.

What about the classic "red wine headache" after an evening of revelry? Sulphites are usually blamed, but red wines usually have the least amount of sulphites, because they already contain natural antioxidants that come from the skins and the branches of the grapes. White wines and rosés, which aren't macerated with the grape skins, require more. Sweet wines have the most, because the SO2 combines so readily with the sugar. It seems that headache comes from other elements of a red wine - perhaps histamines.

In the European Union, the maximum sulphite level for red wine is 160 mg/L. The limit for whites and rosés is 210 mg/L, and for sweet wines it's 400 mg/L. In the U.S. and Canada, the maximum level is set at 350 mg/L. While organic certification agencies are specific to grape growing, certain agencies (like the biodynamic certification agency Demeter) do impose limits on the maximum amount of sulphites allowed in wines made with biodynamic grapes, which is usually half of "conventional wines."

When I asked the SAQ laboratory about its policy on sulphite levels, the response was that while they check to assure a wine is under the maximum allowable levels, they don't have a specific amount that they want to see in a wine. If they judge it necessary, however, they will ask winemakers to increase sulphite levels. Their primary concern, like most retailers, is shelf life. This means that many of our wines probably contain more sulphites than necessary. I have talked with a couple of organic winemakers who add extra SO2 to satisfy their export markets, even though they feel their wine doesn't need it.

So why hold the sulphites?

If the health issue is not very important, why even be concerned about sulphite levels? My concern is a qualitative issue. Sulphur dioxide smells like a freshly struck match. Studies show that most people can detect the odour at over 40 mg/L, though some sensitive noses can detect it at lesser levels.

Marcel Lapierre, Beaujolais winemaker and one of the gurus of "natural winemaking" (wines without added sulphur), told me that sulphur alters the aromatics of his wine. I would concur. I drink lots of these wines, and they have a purity of fruit in their bouquet that one does not find in more conventionally made wines. I know many wine makers who only add at bottling as they believe that earlier sulphite additions have a negative effect on the fermentation process, again , especially for the aromatics.

On the other hand, I have had a number of these wines that went the route of my vouvray. While certain winemakers have theories as to how to almost completely reduce the need for sulphites, I am happy with those who try to use the minimum.

Back to being bitter about modern wines next article.

Friday, February 13, 2009

My Sweet Clemence-wine

Devoté of Michel Rolland, Dauriac's Clemence has garnered a reputation as one of the better 'new' properties in Pomerol. I love to hate what Rolland does, and usually I find good reason to do so. Not so for the 2003 and 2006.

Pomerol 2003, Château La Clemence
Dark, ripe plums, slightly sweet, hint of licorice, with fresh vanilla bean. For such a hot vintage, where so many wines were excessively tannic, Michel Rolland's strategy of micro-ox seems to have worked- the tannins are firm, but round and mouth coating. Wonderfully complex, though very much on the fruit rather than the earthier notes, you really don't want it to stop. Sure, lots of oak, but there is enough substance to handle it.

Pomerol 2004, Château La Clemence
Goopy, sticky, sweet fruit. Lacking acidity. Not lacking oak. Very forced. Many people did a great job in 2004, not here.

Pomerol 2005, Château La Clemence
Very chocolaty, which at first sip reminded me of Nestle's Quick. But with a few swirls of the glass, it opens up, with expresso, licorice and some sweet fruit, and stifling oak. Not the most comfortable wine to have in your mouth except for the cool menthol finish. Interesting, though not particularly fun to drink, at least for the moment.

Pomerol 2006, Château La Clemence

Good, though very young, modern Bordeaux. A refreshing acidity, just a hint of chocolate, and very intense red fruit. The sweetness here is infers a perfect ripeness rather than excessive hangtime. While it is still oak-laden, it seems to have a better balance than the 2005. I have more hope for this in the long run than the 2005, despite the reputation of the 2005 vintage.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Science of Smell

Dear Caveman:
When I read your wine descriptions, I find intriguing expressions such as: “Smells like a Mediterranean-style vegetarian pizza. Sun-dried tomatoes, black olives and herbs, with a touch of cherry vanilla." Where do these aromas come from? If they are actually the by-product of fermentation of crushed grapes in an oak barrel, then aren’t these conclusions about “sun-dried tomatoes, black olives and herbs, with a touch of cherry vanilla” socially constructed and ultimately subjective?

The short answer is that while the naming of these aromas may be subjective – in that each of us has our own “aroma and taste memory” and thus associates certain aromas with different things – there is a scientific explanation as to how a wine made only with grapes can evoke such un-grapey smells.

The sources of many of these aromas are volatile aromatic compounds. Some come from the grapes themselves or are by-products of the fermentation of the grape’s juice. But the ones that Ricardo was referring to are results of the aging of the wine, both in an oak barrel and in a bottle. This is still an area of wine that is not completely understood, but research is happening on a number of different fronts, so here is the science.

Aroma vs. bouquet

Émile Peynaud, a French oenologist considered by many to be the father of modern winemaking, drew a distinction between aroma and bouquet. For Peynaud, “aroma” is used to describe what we smell in a young wine – those grapey and fruitier aromas that result from the pressing of the grapes and the fermentation of the grapes’ sugars. If you have ever been in a room where a wine is fermenting, you will never forget the smell – ripe, juicy fruit mixed with a blend of alcohol and yeast. Open any bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau and you will have a good idea of what I am talking about.

Peynaud said “bouquet” is the result of aging a wine, which is where many of these non-grapey aromas can result. While the subtle chemical interactions are not completely understood, these new odours result from the interaction between those primary aromatic compounds and outside influences like oak barrels and oxygen.

It starts with the grape

So everything starts with those primary aromas, and thus the grapes you bring in from the field. The Chinon referred to by Ricardo evoked sun-dried tomatoes, black olives and herbs. I took a look at some other reviews I had done of wines made with the same cabernet franc grape, and I found one that described the wine (Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgeuil 2005, Les Mauguerets-La Contrie) as smelling of “green peppers and violets … (and) a mix of raspberry and charcoal.” Why the difference?

Two University of British Columbia researchers, Steven Lund and Joerg Bohlmann, recently published a study that examined how a number of different factors affect primary aromas. They refer to the assortment of chemical compounds that cause aromas as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). How and where a grape is grown will ultimately affect the degree to which these grapes will show such things as varietal character as well as “the dozens to hundreds of chemical compounds that have yet to be discovered and characterized.”

So the same grape grown in different soils, in different years, will smell different. And the amount and proportion of these compounds to one another will ultimately affect the bouquet as a wine ages.

The molecules of scent

Lund and Bohlmann have broken down a wine’s aromatics into component compounds. So if your Gewürztraminer smells of flowers, it is in part due to “monoterpene compounds, chiefly geraniol and citronellol.” And if your Sauvignon Blanc tastes slightly grassy, the compound is part of the “methoxypyrazine family, specifically 2-methoxy-3-isobutylpyrazine,” which develops during the green stages of the grape but gets metabolized as the grape ripens. If your Sancerre tastes like freshly cut grass and your white Bordeaux doesn’t, although they are both made with Sauvignon Blanc, that is because the Bordeaux is often riper, so it will have less 2-methoxy-3-isobutylpyrazine.

How about black pepper in Shiraz? Rotundone is the chemical compound responsible for that one. A study done by the Australian Wine Research Institute of different vineyards in Australia showed that shiraz grapes showed different levels of this compound depending on the clones used, soil types and climate.

And what about the sun-dried tomatoes in my Chinon? According to Jamie Goode, “cis-3-hexenol is the prime culprit,” although cabernet franc also has the same leafy 2-methoxy-3-isobutylpyrazine as the Sauvignon Blanc I mentioned.


So as a wine matures and its bouquet develops, much like great cuisine, its odour becomes the sum of its component parts. Many of these VOCs are in a sense dormant when the wine is young. As VOCs react with one another, as well as with oxygen and alcohol, they will begin to show themselves.

A good example of this is oak. In a young, freshly bottled wine, the oak is often very pronounced, and in fact the wine has a distinct smell of wood. But as the wine ages, the vanillin – which is an oak-derived VOC and part of the family of aldehydes – will react with oxygen to give an odour of vanilla. Oak barrels are also a source of many of the cooking spices we find in wines, like cinnamon, coriander and nutmeg. Every barrel, depending on the wood source, will offer a different aromatic cocktail to the wine.

So this is why a grape can ultimately smell like “sun-dried tomatoes, black olives and herbs, with a touch of cherry vanilla.” But why doesn’t everyone smell that? Well, there is the cultural factor. If you have never smelled a sun-dried tomato, the name you give to such an aroma might differ. But there is also sensitivity: All noses are not created equal. Many VOCs are in such small concentrations that people with highly sensitive noses might pick up on elements that others miss.

But for the majority of us, it is simply a question of working our aromatic memories. Because wines can be complex, they often do not make us think of one particular aroma. This is why I sometimes will mention situations, like walking through a cool forest in the fall after a rain. How do you develop this memory? The first step is to load your memory with as many smells as possible.

So, as the proverb goes, stop and smell the roses – or the pizza, in my case.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Newer Franc

Chinon 2006, l'Huisserie
, Domaine Philippe Alliet
Next to Joguet's Chene Vert is Alliet's new baby
vineyard, filled with young vines. For you fans of Alliet, this is just plain weird- very ripe, sweet fruit, soft tannins, very little complexity, just fruit, fruit, fruit. But it works. This was not meant to be cellared, this is supposed to be guzzled. I would like to send a bottle of this to every fruit bombing winemaker. Don't over extract young vines. New oak does not a great wine make. Stop putting lipstick on 12 year olds.

Anjou Villages 2005, Clos Médecin, Domaine de Brizé
Strawberry sorbet, cherries, with a pinch of green pepper, cilantro, maybe even some cabbage. Strange mix when you think about it. The ensemble finishes on a spicy, juicy, peppery note. Easy drinking wine. Serve slightly chilled. Goes well with Tatziki.

Chinon 2004, Vieilles Vignes, Clos de la Dioterie, Charles Joguet
It's a summer meal in a glass, dessert and all. It's a piece of meat, cooked blue, covered in red berries and tarragon. The fruit then gets redder and sweeter, with a lime-like freshness. Your espresso is there as well. I am sure one day this will all come together.

Old Franc

Chinon 1996, Clos de l'Olive, Couly-Dutheil
Remarkably youthful. On opening it tries to say too much at once, having been bottled up for over a decade. But the aromatics were staggering from the first pour. Subtle bell pepper as a base, layers of spring flowers, comfrey, camomile, and on top of the pyramid, a sweet and perfectly ripe red cherry-plum. The mouth kicked in after an hour, when the wine attained something reasonably close to perfection. Drunk with ossobuco, with olives.

Chinon 2003, Theleme, Pascal et Alain Lorieux
After two hours in a carafe, this still has a remarkable vibrancy and youthful vigour. Those who believe cabernet franc cannot produce great wine (aside from Cheval Blanc) should decant a bottle of this, and revel in the sheer intensity and richness of the fruit - dark, serious, sanguine. The tannin is solid, and the acidity is just enough to maintain an exceptional freshness. Bordeaux lovers, take note: This is really good.

Friday, February 06, 2009

An Unfashionable Grape
I Love Cabernet Franc

I had just finished writing my tasting note. Giving the remaining wine in my glass a good swirl, I took a deep, pensive whiff, and reread what I had written. Strawberry sorbet, cherries, cilantro, green pepper and cabbage - yes, they were all there. But then I thought, "Who is going to buy a wine that combines strawberry sorbet and cabbage?" While it made total sense in my glass, I can't see Dairy Queen making this its flavour of the month.

The wine in question was a red from France's Loire Valley, made entirely with cabernet franc. While this is one of the wine world's most important grapes - in that it is the sixth-most grown grape in France and plays a part in some of the world's greatest wines - more so than any other, people tend to love it or hate it.

This goes beyond the traditional New World vs. Old World schism. Yes, Robert Parker rarely reviews wines that are made entirely with cabernet franc, and its herbaceous quality is off-putting to many of you "fruit-forward" types. But I also know a number of sommeliers and wine freaks with very classic, European tastes who simply don't like cabernet franc.

I think it gets a raw deal. Many of the best examples are relatively inexpensive, complex and flavourful wines.

While it can make some fantastic wines, cabernet franc's most important contribution may be the grape that it helped parent: cabernet sauvignon. Recent DNA profiling has shown that one of the world's most illustrious varietals is in fact a cross of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc.

Cabernet franc is vinified on its own, most notably in France's Loire Valley and other cooler climates, such as right here in Canada. Its major role, however, is in blending, especially alongside cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Depending on where you are in Bordeaux, for example, it can make up to 75 per cent of the final wine. On the left bank, in such hallowed communes as Pauillac and St. Estèphe, it is used by winemakers in small doses to "soften" cabernet sauvignon, as it adds both red fruits as well as signature aromatics - tobacco, flowers and its herbaceous quality.

On Bordeaux's cooler right bank, cabernet franc plays an even more important role. Many of the most celebrated wines of Pomerol and St. Emilion have significant proportions of cabernet franc in the blend. The most famous of these is the legendary Cheval Blanc, the St. Emilion Grand Cru whose recipe is generally two-thirds cabernet franc, one-third merlot.

Even you Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon fanatics may have been unwittingly drinking some cabernet franc. Many of California's top cabs have small amounts of cabernet franc in the blend, and more and more acreage is being devoted to growing the grape. These plantings are generally limited to cooler growing areas like Napa and Sonoma, where it can be positively juicy - showing sweet red fruits like raspberry and strawberry, and floral notes like violets.

But the controversial wines I am talking about here are those from the Loire. They come from such appellations as Chinon, Saumur-Champigny, Bourgueil and Anjou Villages. The styles can vary, from light and delicate summery wines to bigger wines that can age with grace and elegance, particularly those of Chinon and Saumur-Champigny.

Now back to strawberry and cabbage sorbet in my glass, which I have refilled since starting to write this. There is no doubt that herbaceousness is a quality in wine that is derided by a number of popular mags and their writers. It is definitely not fashionable. While I would agree that a wine with excessive herbaceous notes can be disagreeable, I really appreciate the subtle notes of peppers and other greenery found in this style of wine when it is done right. Aside from the flavour, I love its uniqueness.

This Anjou Villages in my glass is great. It was served slightly chilled, as an apéritif. Dinner was classic Greek: chicken brochettes, lots of oregano, basil and garlic, feta cheese. The wine never took control; its vegetal notes just supported the oregano and basil that perfumed our plate, the fruit and acidity refreshing the palate, cutting through the garlic and feta. It drank with ease.

The world of wine is incredibly diverse, and we are fortunate to live in a place where we have so much choice, where it is so easily accessible. Yves Saint Laurent said that "fashions fade, style is eternal"; let's hope the future of wine remains more style than fashion.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Two-faced Venice

Soave 2007, Classico, Inama, Italy white. There is such beauty in restraint. Subtle notes of peach, browning apples, maybe a touch of a bay-leaf type herb. But this is about drinkability- creamy, expansive, fresh and mineral. One of those wines that can be drunk with almost anything, at any time, and you never realize how much you liked it until after you reach for the bottle to refill your glass, only to find it empty. Drink now-2011.

Veneto Igt 2004, Cabernet Sauvignon, Marion, Italy red. Marion is the junior member of the Freaks of Veneto club led by Dal Forno and Quintarelli. This is Amarone meets Napa Valley cab, and most probably unlike any wine that you will have tasted. Massive, and lacking anything close to nuance for the moment, but you can sense that it is coming. Wait a while for this to come around. Drink 2011- 2017.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The white wine apologist

Perhaps it’s because winter has decided to get nasty that I am feeling rambunctious. I will not take this lying down, Old Winter Man! Throw your ten feet of snow at me, let the thermometer outside my window drop 2 feet below the freezing line. I don’t care. I will still play outside, I will turn your snowy evenings into romantic couch and fireplace parties, and I will, despite you, continue to drink white wine.

I am a fanatical white wine drinker and I while I’ll admit that I do tend to drink more red in the winter, for me that means it is an even split- half red, half white. But I am rare, and I feel marginalized.

Many wine drinkers seem to look upon drinking white wine as a chore. When I work as a sommelier, I can’t tell you the number of times that I have pleaded with clients to at least give white wine a try. “It’s a scallop, sir, they taste of nothing,” I would say as I tried to explain why his adoration of Australian shiraz does not necessarily make it the right wine for this occasion. I could understand if it were chicken, or veal. There you have options, you could go either way. But scallops and other seafood require a different approach, something a red wine simply wasn’t made to do. I mean, both hammers and screwdrivers are useful tools, but hardly interchangeable. It’s the same thing for wine.

And I guess that’s my point. I look at wines as if they were tools, accessories to what’s sitting on your plate. While I have a penchant for white wine, I have no problem drinking red. I don’t really care. I am non-partisan, every wine has it’s time. The only thing I can say in favour of whites over reds is that most of my most memorable bottles have been white wines. And when I have served people in a restaurant, it’s often the pairings with white wines that have turned people on the most. Am I better working with white wines? Maybe, but a white wine’s subtler flavours combined with it’s higher acidity tends to integrate better with foods, and allows for more of the nuances of a well constructed recipe to show themselves.

But why am I talking about white wine now? I can hear some of you murmuring out there, “take a look outside Bill, aren’t things already white enough for you!” Exactly my point. If having to coerce people into drinking white wine by guilting them into some sort of obligation to the wine and food pairing gods- if that bums me out- then listening to people relegate them to cocktail parties and pool-sides on hot summer days pushes me over the edge. White wines can be more, so much more.

You can’t hate what you don’t know

A couple of summer’s ago, I put together two tasting menus at the restaurant where I was working as a sommelier. The clients had a choice- 5 different glasses of white or 5 reds. There was no substitution, no mix and matching. Well, despite that the split in wine consumption in Quebec is roughly 70-30 in favour of red wines, more than 60% of the clients chose the white menu.

While a few mentioned that they chose white because it was summer, the number one reason was that most people said that they simply don’t know white wines, and it had been years since they had drunk them. My theory is that most people started drinking wine with whites, and usually cheap bottles. We all remember those head-ache inducing, sweet, depanneur-purchased Liefraumilch. But as they started to buy more expensive bottles, for some reason they went red and all that most people remember about white wines are the headaches. Even the most experienced wine drinkers, who can speak volumes about their favourite reds, often have a tough time talking about white.


I can tell you that putting together that white menu was far easier than the red. Why? The range in styles in white wines is far greater than reds. While red wines move between less tannic to more tannic, less fruity to more fruity, white wines can be so many different things. From high acid to rich and buttery, delicate and floral to nutty and spicey, completely dry to very sweet, still to bubbly.

This translates into more options at the dinner table. Aside from certain meats, either strongly flavoured game or very fatty cuts, there is always a white wine for the job. Seafood and most fish are obviously the domain of whites. Even the most subtle red tends to overpower these delicately flavoured dishes. And in terms of the type of flavours to harmonize with seafood, think of what almost always accompanies these plates - a wedge of lemon. Red wines are built along darker fruits or earthy notes, while white wines often have citrus flavours.

Buy beyond the seafood stuff, which even the most hardened red wine drinker will agree to drink a white wine, there are many other dishes which work as well, or better with white. Last week I talked about cheese, and how the salt in cheese can turn red wines bitter will amplifying the fruit in white. I know many people who are cooking more and more with Asian spices. Coriander, mint, cumin - all these spices work better with the more aromatic whites. And with mouth burning chile peppers? A slightly sweet wine will appease the nastiest habanero that you can find.

Then there are the white meats. When I choose a wine, I look at the sauce. Darker sauces will mean that I will choose a red, but if I am cooking with herbs, cheeses or cream sauces, I like white. A classic pork roast, served with apple compote is a natural with a rich chardonnay that often has the same apple flavours. Guinea Hen, and other slightly stronger tasting fowl is a natural mix with the nutty whites of the Jura.

And it doesn’t stop there. One of my favourite pairing tricks is white wine and steak tartar - nothing matches up like a honey-textured white. Great tartar is rich, spicy but subdued. White wines made with grapes like roussanne, grenache blanc or an aged chenin blanc combine richness with freshness, and display certain fruit overtures like browning apples and figs that seems to add more to the dish than a red, and make a better harmony in terms of texture.

Breaking down the prejudice

Now I am not suggesting that you should stop drinking red in favour of whites. All I am asking is that you give white a chance. When they are obviously the appropriate choice, drink white rather than red. Get to know and understand them, much like many of you gleefully explore the world of red wines. So as a start, let’s break down certain misguided myths about white wines.

myth: White wine should be served cold.
reality: Most whites should be served between 8C-12C to maximize its flavour and texture.
myth: White wines are wimpy, tasteless wines that are only good as a pre-dinner drink.
reality: White wines can be as complex, and at times more powerful than reds.
myth: White wines are acid and give you heartburn.
reality: While whites do have a touch more acidity, if you are sensitive to acidity there are a whole host of whites that have less total acidity than red wines.
myth: White wines don’t age
reality: My cellar is packed with white wines. While they tend to age faster than red wines, to fully appreciate most whites requires that they, like reds, spend a little time in a cool dark place.
myth: White wines give you headaches.
reality: While white wines usually have more sulphites than red wines, unless you are part of the under 1% of the population that is sensitive to sulphites, you have more of a chance to get a headache from the histamines in red wines.