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.