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After “somewhereness” comes “soulfullness”
A few weeks back, I was speaking at a fund raiser and towards the end of my speech, I asked people to do two things when shopping for wines - give special attention to wines made with grapes that are grown organically, and to buy wines that come from “somewhere.”
Pushing organics is easy. The wine industry uses far more pesticides, fungicides and herbicides than they have to. So while I maintain that there is a qualitative difference between grapes grown “well” organically, and those which are raised on a diet of chemicals, from a purely environmental and vineyard worker’s health standpoint, organics make sense. I am aware that not every winery who grows organically puts that info on their label, but if more consumers demand it, then maybe more will certify.
My second point confused and one person confronted me afterwards and asked what I meant.
“All wines come from somewhere, don’t they?” she asked.
Of course they do. I explained that some wines don’t reflect where they come from, or are simply blends of grapes taken from anywhere and made into a wine which is designed to please a certain palate rather than reflect where they come from. When you are talking to over a hundred people, many of whom are just getting into wine, I figured not to get too complicated. So by making the beginner simply aware of appellation, or of “place,” is a good way to start.
“So how do I know if a wine reflects a place?” was her next question.
Okay, not so easy to answer this one. All I could come up with was that until she had tasted enough wines from a particular place, she had to trust those who have. Those of us who taste a lot of wine, and travel to many of the world’s wine regions, begin to have certain expectations about the wines of a particular place.
For example, when I taste a Chablis, I look for the wines to show a steely freshness, minerality and with just enough “fat” from the chardonnay grape to coat the mineral core. There must be a balance between the natural richness of the chardonnay grape and the acidity that one should find in a grape grown so far north.
This quality in a wine, whether you call it “terroir driven,” or “somewhereness,” a term coined by Wine Spectator’s Matt Kramer, happens when a wine shows a certain uniqueness, a certain accent that, even if you can’t place it, strikes you as being a texture, aroma or taste that you have never experienced before.
But then I got hit with the inevitable questions, and the ones that are the most difficult to answer for any one who recommends a wine.
“So how do you decide which wines to recommend? Is it because some wines reflect a place more than others?”
Uggh. My immediate response was that some wines seem more authentic or genuine than others. I could see by her expression that this wasn’t cutting it and I was going to be asked what I meant by that. So I promised that I would think about it and get back to her.
So here is your answer Miss. The wines that I recommend and enjoy drinking are those which I deem have “soul.” Now let me explain.
Four years ago, I held a tasting of Cru Beaujolais where my panel blind tasted wines from four different appellations - Morgon, Fleurie, Moulin A Vent and Brouilly. Our goal was to define, if possible, the “somewhereness” in each of these Beaujolais appellations.
We tasted wines over a number of different vintages, from the same producers, to see if we could find certain commonalities between wines of the same appellation. Some of these winemakers used conventional farming and wine making techniques, while others were from the school of what are referred to as “natural” winemakers, those who use little sulphites and indigenous yeasts. In short, as few additives and manipulations as possible.
The most striking result was that the winemaker became far more apparent than that of the appellation. And as I marked down my preferred wines from each flight, they tended to be from the same people, those who worked more naturally.
They were not always the “most perfect” wines. Some showed a number of small degrees of “faults,” which was a turn off for a few of the panel members. But those wines where I happily gulped back the rest of my glass, were, while challenging at times, showed that uniqueness and energy that I look for in a wine.
So do these more naturally made wines better reflect the land that they were grown, because they were less manipulated? Logic tells me yes, but maybe what I look for in a wine has more to do with winemaking practices and grape growing. Maybe by doing less, and allowing for the grapes of a place to make a wine that reflects all that is both good and bad about the vintage and the land, comes across as more genuine and authentic.
I’ve said many times that “la beauté c’est dans le défaut,” that true beauty is found in imperfection, and not how close it comes to being perfect. That is as much a statement about people as it is about wine. If what separates wine from other beverages is that it is a reflection of a culture, of a place, of a time, then it should as well reflect all the imperfections that can be found in each.
I remember tasting wines with Maurice Barthelmé, of Domaine Albert Mann in Alsace, and asking him how they always seem to make an interesting wine, even in tough vintages. His response was “if you are honest and listen, the land will always tell you what the wine will be.” Not all terroirs are created equal, not all places, every year, can produce wines of pure fruit and perfectly ripe tannins. Sometimes the wines have notes of green or rough tannins that require age to iron out. Sometimes when you allow grape juice to become a wine, the results are not exactly what you want or expect.
It is not easy quantifying “like,” which is why this is such a difficult question to answer. In a recent article, Kramer wrote that great wine is a product of winemakers who are willing to pursue ambiguity, to seek to make 2+2=5. That striving for perfection through manipulation and control can only get you so far. And while he doesn’t answer where that “extra 1” comes from, I would say that maybe, what separates the great from the good, might be allowing the innate imperfections of a time and place, which is maybe what “soul” is, to have it’s rightful place in the final wine.
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I get asked a lot for wine suggestions. Here’s a conversation that I had a few weeks back with a good friend.
Carrie: Bill, there’s a sale at the SAQ this weekend and we want to buy a few cases of wine to bring with us out to the country. We’re there for three weeks and I don’t want to stress about wines when we are up there. Can you suggest a few Summery wines?
Bill: What’s a Summery wine? You mean like white wines?
Carrie: You know I don’t like white wine that much. You keep forcing them on me and yes, I am starting to like them a bit more but that’s not what I am talking about. You know- summer wines.
Bill: No, I have no clue what you are talking about. You mean rosés? Most people only drink those in the summer.
Carrie: I’ll get a few, sure. But that’s lunch and afternoon drinking. I need good reds.
Bill: Summer reds? You mean as opposed to winter reds? I didn’t realize that wine was seasonal. What are you eating?
Carrie: How would I know, we aren’t even leaving until the second week of July. Stop messing with me, you aren’t being any help at all. You’re Mr. sommelier wine critic.
Bill: (Pause) So really what you are asking me is if I were to take two cases of wine with me to the country, and that’s all I could drink, what would I bring? It’s like that desert island question where if you could only drink one wine for the rest of your life, what would it be? I always answer JJ Prum’s Wehlener Sonnenhur Kabinett Riesling. You should bring lot of those.
Carrie: That’s your German wine. Didn’t we drink some a few weeks ago? That was yummy. How much was that?
Bill: Hey you remembered! It’s close to $40, but there is good stuff around $20 that will do the job. It’s great pre-dinner wine when you are cooking and when you eat spicy shrimp and other seafood.
Carrie: $40 is way to steep, keep them around $20. Are they good for fish too? We eat a ton of fish.
Bill: Nah. Save them for spicier meals. I would bring a few drier whites. Maybe something light and zippy like a sauvignon blanc for trout, and something fatter if you cook some Walleye or other richer fish. A chardonnay would work.
Carrie: Like salmon?
Bill: No, you get to drink a red with that. Pinot noir would be best.
Carrie: Okay, so four rosés, four of your German wines and 4 other whites. Now get to the important wines, the reds.
Bill: Oh yes, the summery reds. Barbecue wines you mean.
Bill: You need a few Burger wines. You guys eat Hamburgers don’t you?
Carrie: Of course.
Bill: Sounds strange but you need a red that goes well with ketchup. A rosé with some torque will do the job, or fruity red with not too much tannin. A red that you can chill a bit and crank it back. A Barbera, a Languedoc, Beaujolais, something like that. i would stay Euro with these but you two like oaked-up wines, so maybe a lighter shiraz.
Carrie: You will write these down for me won’t you?
Bill: No problem. This is actually fun. So now a few wines to go with barbecue sauce- ribs, chicken pieces, pork chops, stuff like that. I would go new world here - California, Australia. Wines with loads of oak and lots of fruit, alcohol sweetness, especially if your sauce is a little spicy. Zinfandel, shiraz, they would all work. Oh and if you do white meats with herbs, bring some Loire cabernet franc. It’s made to be chilled a bit and the green pepper flavour works well with the herbs. Killer with a Greek salad as well.
Carrie: What about steak? We eat a lot of steak.
Bill: Steak wines. You can go wherever you want. I mean any wine with some good tannin that has done some time in oak will do. (Pause) But nothing too serious. Okay I see what you mean now by summer wines. I wouldn’t go Bordeaux, Rioja or Barolo or anything like that. I would go with wines that have less tannin and earthy notes and instead, more fruit. So if you want your oak and jam, this is California or Australian cabernet sauvignon. Rhone reds are great as well, been drinking a lot of those recently, especially syrah from the northern Rhône.
Carrie: Okay perfect, you will write everything down.
Bill: Not everything. I’ll give you a few specific wines and for the rest just find wines you want to try in the same style. But bring an ice bucket, hopefully it will be hot.
Carrie: We keep the whites in the fridge.
Bill: No, it’s for your reds. If it’s hot out, make sure it is always handy so you can dunk your bottle in it to keep temperature down. Hot red wine is gross, and you always serve your reds too warm.
Carrie: You are such a snob. You make me nervous every time you come over.
Bill: Okay, I won’t bring my own glass with me this time if it makes you feel better.
Carrie: Such a total snob.
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Taburno 2011, Falanghina Del Sannio,Fattoria La Rivolta
Italy white, $19.25,SAQ #11451851
Leaner than last vintage. Lemony, and add some pear juice as well. That’s the extra bit of body right there. Get’s saltier as it warms. You don’t really notice the minerality at first but the more you drink, the more it takes up space. It’s almost oppressive. Only almost. Bottle gone.
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Understanding Biodynamics in Alsaceby bill zacharkiwI was chatting with wine maker André Ostertag next to his vegetable garden in his vineyard in Epfig. We were discussing how his vision of biodynamics had evolved since we had last seen each other three years ago. He suddenly stopped talking and with a note of frustration in his voice said, “you know, when I go to Japan and I explain what I am doing, they get it immediately. Most North Americans just think we are crazy.”I must admit that even though I’m very sympathetic to it, biodynamics can give the left side of the brain a bit of a work out. The biodynamic approach to grape growing has become one of the more controversial issues within the wine industry. The skeptics, who are many, see it as an incredible waste of time and money. For some, it is pure quackery, an affront to science and modern thinking.But what began in the early 1990s has developed into a movement whose practitioners include some of the world's best winemakers, producing some of the world's most unique wines. Many are their respective region’s best producers and the list of those wineries who are either biodynamic or in the process of converting is impressive: Pingus and Clos Martinet in Spain, Clos Jordanne in the Niagara, Joseph Phelps and Opus One in California, Castagna in Australia and Oregon’s Beaux Freres.
French adherents include the Rhône's Chapoutier, Burgundy's Domaine Leroy, Comte Armand and Leflaive. In the Loire, there is Muscadet’s L’Ecu, Nicolas Joly and Domaine Huet. Other high-end producers such as Drouhin and Romanée Conti have parts of their vineyards farmed biodynamically.
But there is one region which surpasses all others in terms of sheer numbers of biodynamic wineries, and is considered by many the spiritual home of the movement: Alsace. The list is a "who's who" of the region's best: Domaine Marcel Deiss, Zind-Humbrecht, Weinbach, Réné Muré, Kraydenweiss, Bott-Geyl, Pierre Frick, Josmeyer, Rolly Gassman and Ostertag to name but a few. In all, over 30 different wineries are biodynamic.
Why is Alsace such fertile ground for biodynamics? The reasons are rooted in the region’s cultural and political history, and how these influences manifest themselves today are as complicated as biodynamics itself. But first, what exactly is biodynamic agriculture?
Biodynamics, not organics
Biodynamics is often lumped together with organic farming however there are some important differences. While both rely on organic materials for enriching the soil and do not use synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides, biodynamics embraces a much more holistic perspective. Unlike both chemical and organic agriculture, biodynamics is not just concerned with the nutrients a plant needs to grow.
|Maurice Barthelmé of Albert Mann|
Those who practice biodynamics view the health of the vine in a more unified ecological vision. They are not simply concerned with the plant itself, rather they believe that the health of the vine and the ultimate quality of the resulting wine is dependent upon the health of a number of life forces - the soil, the vine, the people who work in the vineyard, and all the other plants and animals that are a part of the eco-system. Biodynamics is concerned with the subtle manipulation of these life forces, or energies, and aims to work in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
On a practical level, biodynamic farmers use homeopathic doses when treating their plants and the soil. Some of the oft-lampooned "interventions" are compost energizers made from plants fermented in animal bladders and bones, or spraying ground-up quartz on the vine to increase the luminosity of the sun. Leaf sprays, used for treating and re-enforcing the vines, are made from the juice of ground-up flowers, dried plants and other natural sources.
Biodynamics also has its astrological influences. Many biodynamic winemakers will add compost, spray their plants, work and weed the soil, and ultimately pick their grapes and bottle their wine following a calendar that is loosely based on the position of the moon, the stars and the constellations. As British wine writer and scientist Jamie Goode put it, "biodynamics sees the farm in the context of the wider pattern of lunar and cosmic rhythms."
The spiritual father of the biodynamic movement was an early 20th-century Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner. While he knew little about wine, his musings gave birth to anthroposophy, a spiritual philosophy or spiritual science that attempts to bridge the gap between science, art and religion. It espouses a principle of "human respect" for the community at large and the belief that every individual has a unique destiny. Aside from biodynamics, the Waldorf school network, which includes close to 2,500 schools worldwide, uses a holistic approach to teaching that is based on these principles.
What this has to do with wine, and why Alsace?
Looking east from the vineyards in Alsace you see the Black Forest, and the border with Germany. Because of this proximity, throughout its history Alsace has bounced back and forth between French and German control, leaving it with distinct ties to both. Many still speak the regional dialect, which sounds German but is loaded with French vocabulary.
|The Deiss man|
When I asked Jean-Michel Deiss about what made Alsatians in particular so open to biodynamics, he cited the marriage of these two cultural influences, but what each brought was not what I had expected. There is a tendency to look upon the French as the romantics, with the German influence bringing a more dogmatic, logical way of looking at the world. But it is in fact the opposite.
“The German spirit,” he told me, “is all about a unity. It’s a romantic sensibility and it’s mythology is tied directly to religion and nature. The French spirit,” he continued, “is much more rational, it is a spirit of logic.”
A quick study of the two country’s past and present support Deiss’ assertions. many of the great French philosophers and thinkers, such as Descartes and Pascal, were rationalists. The world was understood through logic, through observation. What could be deduced was via a certain scientific rigour. Across the border, German poet Goethe, was considered one of the philosophical world’s most important writers of Humanism. One of the tenets of Goethe’s teachings was that the individual, to realize his or her own full potential, must develop their individuality to their fullest, and only by doing so can they fully experience their own humanity, and thus be at one with all humanity, including the natural world.
The reality of these influences can be seen throughout the social and political sphere today. The most telling example is that it was in Germany, and not in France, where the Green Party gained significant political power. Deiss mentioned “look at German politics, it is full of religion.” And while consumer demand for organic produce is growing across Europe, it was in Germany, and not in France, where this demand started. Back in 2000, according to The Journal of Agrobiotechnology, “Germany was the leading country in terms of organic production and consumption with 28% of the EU market.”
But it was in France, and not in Germany, where biodynamic wine production took hold. A reason for this might lie with the French fascination with the concept of terroir. The majority of the wine makers I talked with believe that is through biodynamic agriculture that the subtle expressions of soil and climate can be best transferred to their grapes. As he reached down to pick up a handful of earth, Jean-Baptiste Bott, from Bott-Geyl, told me “ if you want to get down to the primary, most elemental part of terroir, you can’t use chemicals. You have to work with nature, and not against it if you want to express it fully.” Réné Muré went even further, “you can’t make truly great wine without biodynamics.”
|Andre Ostertag and his fave tree|
The biodynamic continuum
Depending on which wine maker you talk with, you see a blend of these seemingly contradictory influences of French rationalism with Germanic mysticism. My first question to each of the wine makers was “What attracted you to Biodynamics?” The responses were varied, but clearly reflect this cultural duality. “I am a student of Pascale and Descartes,” proclaimed Réné Muré. “For me, biodynamics is logical,” was Josmeyer’s Christophe Ehrhart’s response. However, get Jean-Michel Deiss or André Ostertag talking about the subject and the reasons are much more a desire to be in a sort of communion with the earth and their vines. Deiss sees logic as a roadblock. “Sometimes I don’t know why I do certain things, I just feel the urge to go out and till certain field, because I have to.” Olivier Humbrecht, who seemed to walk the line in between the two camps, was more direct, “Organics just didn’t go far enough.”
I asked Humbrecht to give me an example of what is so logical about some of his biodynamic treatments and he had no shortage of examples. “Take stinging nettle for example,” pointing to a tea-like liquid that was sitting in a plastic container in the corner of his equipment room. “We spray it on the vines because nettle, no matter what the weather conditions, will always produce the same amount of flowers. We are teaching the vine how to deal with vigour”
So plants can learn from other plants. A number of wine makers reiterated this same principle though Ostertag tied this belief in with one of the larger principles of Anthroposophy. Biodynamics is not only concerned with the health of the plant, but the health of the individuals who work with these plants. “In the modern industrial system,” said Ostertag “the place of each individual is written down. Man becomes machine. Biodynamics allows people to exist as human beings.” I asked him how this approach makes for better grapes. “Plants are receptive, and not just to what you feed them. The whole concept of the ‘green thumb’ is based on being receptive to what a plant needs, and when they need it.”
Réné Muré and Christophe Erhart believe that biodynamics will be shown experimentally that it works. Deiss and Ostertag see this type of approach as unnecessary, that the proof is in what you see in your own vineyard. In fact each wine maker I talked with has his or her own vision as to what it is. “Biodynamics is about evolution and personal reflection,” said Maurice Barthelmé of Domaine Albert Mann. “It is about adapting and preparing the plant.” Olivier Humbtrecht, from Zind-Humbrecht, remarked that “there is a danger to being too dogmatic, like the person who refuses a transfusion out of principle.”
But the real lesson here is that we still have much to learn about the subtle interactions in the natural world. It might be due to that Alsace is one of the more densely populated areas that has made so many Alsatians so concerned about their land. Deiss made the point that, “maybe that has forced us to be more attentive to our environment.” But whether their approach was more scientific or more romantic, each of the wine makers talked about making not only wine, but nature even better.
They all mentioned in one way or another what I believe is the real importance of biodynamics. It lies in a crucial paradigm shift, from humans behaving as masters of the natural world to that of participants. Biodynamic agriculture is about healing and protecting the life forces that sustain the Earth rather than simply consuming its resources. In light of much of the evidence pointing the finger at humans as being the culprits behind climate change, dead or sick water systems and putrid air, maybe this shift is essential if we are to confront these problems.
Albert Einstein once said that "the religion of the future will be a cosmic religion...It should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, and a meaningful unity between the two." When Ostertag told me that not only the Japanese understood the essence of biodynamics, but us North Americans seem so resistant, I wonder why we are so hesitant to embrace a different reality, how are so attached to proof and logic. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from what is happening in Alsace.
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Riesling 2011, The Dry Dam, Fleurieu Peninsula, D'Arenberg
Australia white, $18.95, SAQ # 1115788
Drunk cold, it's great, but hides the slight imbalance. As it warms, the minerality shows, but the sugar seems to float on top of the wine. So you start sweet, finish sour. Perfect balance in riesling is tough - this one almost has it. Could have been just a touch leaner, but for the price, I'm being overly picky. Might just need time.
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Corse Figari 2010, Clos Canarelli
France red, $36.50, SAQ # 11794521It took two days so lazy folks move on. Opened it Saturday, poured a glass, had that reductive stink of a rodent's hovel. Put the cork back in and left it outside in the rain and cold until tonight. Okay I forgot about it but whatever. Now incredibly intriguing. Animal is there, but now more alive. The spice element is so complex- sandlewood, cinnamon, nutmeg. Very pure plum. Absolutely rocked my couscous with merguez. Sexy dirty. Wish I had more.
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Yes, I have a pretty good job. I get to taste lots of wine, but the best part is the opportunity to travel the world’s wine regions. Being on the ground is essential to understanding more profoundly what the wines are all about. It’s about meeting winemakers and grape growers on their turf.
But wine travel is not always easy. Winemakers tend to be a festive group — wine writers can be as well — and love pouring their wines. Once they get you in their grips, they will pour and pour. These trips are a constant battle with staying on schedule, avoiding excess and, most importantly, trying to get enough sleep.
My partner used to give me that “yeah, right” look when I would arrive home from one of these trips and would need a few days to recover. That was until I brought her along on one of them. After Day 1, she said I would never be allowed to complain again. After Day 2, she was only tasting half the wines poured during the afternoon visits. By Day 3, she didn’t even want to put a glass to her lips.
So what’s it really like? Right now, I am in France’s Loire Valley. What follows is a typical “Day 1” — from winemaker to winemaker, one glass to the next.
Sunday, Sept. 9
7:50 p.m.: Plane is taxiing and leaving on time. It’s packed. I’m in economy, hoping to sleep as I have to hit the ground running tomorrow morning.
Monday, Sept. 10
8:10 a.m.: Six-hour flight and a six-hour time change. That’s the problem with the overnight flight — there isn’t enough overnight. Managed almost three hours of sleep, so not bad.
9:15 a.m.: Cleared customs in Paris and have my luggage. Looking for my taxi driver.
9:26 a.m.: Found her. My driver, Inès, says we have a minimum 2½-hour drive to get to Sancerre, the easternmost appellation of the Loire Valley. I need a coffee in a bad way, and haven’t eaten anything aside from a poor excuse for a muffin on the plane.
10:15 a.m.: Stuck in Paris traffic. I was hoping to sleep, but Inès loves to chat. Turns out we have a common challenge: raising a 12-year-old daughter.
10:48 a.m.: Finally cruising down the autoroute. Coffee stop No. 1. Automatic espresso dispenser at the gas station. That will have to do. We’re late. I knew I wasn’t going to make the first winery visit of the day at 9 a.m., and now I will have to miss the second. We are going directly to a restaurant in Sancerre, where I am to join up with my travelling mate, Toronto sommelier John Szabo, who arrived a day earlier.
12:30 p.m.: I arrive at the bistro, on time, to meet John and a woman named Hélène who works for the local wine syndicate, which handles the promotional and communications needs of the Centre Loire (the regions of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and other neighbouring areas). She will be driving us — making sure we arrive sort of on time — over the next two days. John and Hélène aren’t here, but I get an espresso and sit in the sun and wait.
eing poured. We step in. Like most French, they love to chat with Quebecers.
3:30 a.m.: Finally get to bed. Need this. We leave in four hours. Five wineries, one winemaker lunch and a dinner on the schedule.
1:05 p.m.: They show up late, but that isn’t a shock. It is rare that a winemaker doesn’t open one last bottle of something special just before you are supposed to be leaving. I am just happy to have some food and wine. Four bottles are open. One great white from Tinel-Blondelet, the tasting I just missed, and a great red from Chotard. Good to have a glass of wine and eat some crottin de Chavignol, the famous goat cheese of the Sancerre region.
2:15 p.m.: Next tasting is scheduled for 2 p.m., which means I’m late for it. The little village bistro where I’m eating is not big on speedy service. “The dessert is coming,” says our waiter. It gets there 10 minutes later, and after another espresso, we are off.
2:40 p.m.: Arrive at Pascal Jolivet winery, which was luckily only a 10-minute drive from the restaurant, 40 minutes late. Quickly lay out the game plan for the visit with the people at the winery: 30-minute vineyard tour with the vineyard manager to learn about soil types. Interesting guy with 30 years of grape-growing experience. Lots to talk about: organic conversion, the different soils found in the region. Thirty minutes becomes 60.
3:40 p.m.: Begin tasting with the head winemaker and the vineyard guy. Fifteen wines on the table in front of us, each from a different vineyard site. Talk centres on the difference between Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. In the end, there isn’t that much of a difference.
4:24 p.m.: Powering through the wines. Next visit is with Alphonse Mellot, a legend in the region, scheduled for 4 p.m. He said not to be late. He won’t be surprised that we are, as many winemakers will say this just to make sure we aren’t really, really late.
4:37 p.m.: Only around 40 minutes late; Mellot is there and full of energy. It’s cloudy and hot. Coffee buzz has worn off. Starting to feel really tired.
5:19 p.m.: Mellot loves to talk. Been tasting wines from last year’s vintage from barrels for the last half-hour. Haven’t even started tasting bottles yet. There is a lot of action in the facility, as harvest starts in two weeks and the barrels and grape presses need to be cleaned.
5:41 p.m.: I need air, so we take the tasting outside — on the street of this tiny village. Mellot leaves and comes back every 10 minutes with a new wine to taste. I sit on the curb, spitting into the street drain. Lose track of how many wines we’ve tasted.
6:15 p.m.: My third wind kicks in; I am feeling more energetic. Four Austrians show up to taste, then Nadine, the assistant maître d’hôtel at a local restaurant. Yan, a friend of John from Ottawa, shows up out of nowhere.
6:28 p.m.: Haven’t moved from my spot on the curb. Mellot keeps coming back with more and more wine. Locals passing by stop and join in. This is becoming a street party wine tasting.
6:54 p.m.: Really need to check in to my hotel, and desperately need a shower. Mellot brings a bottle of white, no label, and wants to play “guess the vintage.” The wine is still fresh; the colour is getting golden. Something tells me it’s a 2002. I am right. I ask for my prize and I get a big hug from Mellot.
7:10 p.m.: Really want to go now. Have a dinner with a winemaker in less than an hour. Mellot now wants us to try a white wine that has spent 24 years in barrel. I stay. Tastes like sherry.
Originally published in The Montreal Gazette, September 23, 2012
7:40 p.m.: Hélène finally drives me to the hotel. John has stayed with Mellot and said he will meet us there. Just time for a quick shower and a change of clothes. A bit dizzy now from the tasting, trying to synthesize all this new information under a lack of sleep.
7:55 p.m.: Hurry downstairs and meet Hélène, who is waiting to drive to the restaurant to meet Sophie, winemaker at Eric Louis winery. “Where’s John?” she asks. “Dunno,” I reply. “Probably still with Alphonse.”
8:10 p.m.: Late again, trying to find John in the maze that is Mellot’s wine cellar.
8:15 p.m. Find him, and hurry to the restaurant.
8:25 p.m.: Make it, though our initial reservation for five has grown to seven, as we have invited Nadine and Yan to accompany us.
11 p.m.: Dinner almost finished. Have tasted maybe 15 Sancerres and Châteaumeillants (a new appellation that grows gamay and pinot noir on granite soils). Coffees all around. Feeling good. We decide to take the 15-minute walk back to the hotel. John grabs a bottle. “Just in case,” he says.
12:30 a.m.: As usually happens, I don’t really feel tired now — even though I haven’t slept in what seems like days. Jet lag has officially kicked in, and from experience I know that the key is to stay up as long as possible. John, Yan and I end up sitting on a curb having a nightcap, catching up. It’s a beautiful night in a tiny country village, though I go through waves of fatigue.
1:30 a.m.: Finally moving back to the hotel. Come across a small bar, the Ramparts. Typical of the French, Champagne is being poured. We step in. Like most French, they love to chat with Quebecers.
3:30 a.m.: Finally get to bed. Need this. We leave in four hours. Five wineries, one winemaker lunch and a dinner on the schedule.
Each winery has its own story. My job is to take all these stories, and all the information culled from these visits, and turn them into a portrait of the region. In a few weeks, I will do my first article on the Loire. After I catch up on some sleep.
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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.
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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.
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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 with 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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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?
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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?
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