Get the groundhog to pick out the wine

balcony dinner preparation plates napkins wineglasses cutlery ice bucket

Photo of the day time. What's missing from this photo? Don't say a sharper focus because this is the look I was going for.

I believe I took this picture in summer 2002 as I prepared yet another meal in my kitchen which would be taken out and eaten while perched atop the balcony. There's something magical about wining and dining on Montreal balconies -- the combination of sun, wrought iron, conversation and a nice bottle of vino. It almost can transport you to Paris in springtime.

But as I look at this image I see a gaping black hole in the ice bucket where the bottle should be. That's worrisome. I guess it was still in the fridge at the time. So this photo, one of my favourites, holds something back from the viewer. It's not exactly like this induces a sense of anticipation, like a magnum of champagne about to burst its cork, but rather conveys a cool austerity. A bit like looking out my window right now and seeing the freezing drizzle coat the leafless, lifeless scene. I look at this photo now and think of the groundhog emerging from its blackened hole precisely 45 hours from now. When, oh when, can I give this little summer scene the rosé that it is calling out for?

Doktor Weingolb, like the above bucket, hasn't been holding up many bottles for review lately. That is about to change in February. I have accumulated a stack of notes and will try to review 2 or 3 wines a week. No point in keeping good wine all to yourself.

Which is the other thing missing from today's photo. Friends to share with.


The tchin tchin investigation chugs along

toast to the saq tchin tchinIci, on parle français au sujet des vins: A big "Santé!" to the French media. While all of the English press seems to have totally forgotten about the SAQ scandal (click the image for all the news, served up fresh en français), important findings and analyses are continually being put on the record by French papers and broadcasters. Here's to that.

And here's to writers like Marc André Gagnon. Gagnon, in my mind, is shaping up to be the definitive local voice on wine in Quebec. He maintains a blogue -- which is a French blog -- on the province's wine scene. Packed with even more information, including reviews and an attractive searchable archive, is Vin Québec, an über-site for local wine enthusiasts. At the moment, Gagnon appears to be the main contributor, and a valuable one at that, to the online magazine, which has an interesting Outaouais perspective. This means that the site is a solid source of news on the Ontario market as well as the Quebec one. I really encourage readers to check it out.

Back to "ici"... When did Ici, that little alternative weekly, get its own wine column, penned by Raymond Chalifoux? Perhaps it was sometime around the same moment that the pack-leading Voir stopped running the Stéphane Émond column on wine, which is quite unfortunate since the larger paper had a comprehensive section on living that included food, restaurants and wine. For some reason, neither of these regular Montreal-based chronicles ever get posted online via their newspaper's sites, and they really should. At Ici the wine column is available but you have to download a PDF that comprises the entire publication. How do you say "a minor grumble" in French?


A vintage of a different kind

Taylor Fladgate 2000 Late Bottled VintageSolera Cream Montilla Moriles
Wine blogs, even beer blogs, have found their place on the Internet. Where, I ask, are the port posts and sherry sites?

As a real wine fanatic, it can be hard to devote some attention to the grapes that are vinified into a higher alcoholic concoction. The grapes used to make fortified wine are usually riper and make the resulting cuvée sweeter and headier, often due to the addition of brandy or some other spirit. It's not an everyday uncorking, at least not for me.

The two fortified wines pictured above have routinely found a way into my glass over the course of the last year. They are Taylor Fladgate 2000 Late Bottled Vintage and the non-vintage Solera Cream Montilla Moriles, a sherry, respectively. The port is, of course, Portuguese, while the sherry, also known as Montilla Moriles, is from Spain.

I find it amusing that the reason I embrace the Fladgate port so much is because it reminds me of my favourite red wines -- rich and velvety with a palpable tannic astringency. At dessert, this is not a cloying overly sweet drink. I think of it more as a touchy-feely espresso to cap off a meal. A hint of bitterness nestled in a smooth and luxuriant package. 20%.

If the Fladgate appeals to me because of its kinship with wine, the Alvear turns me on for exactly the opposite reason. This stuff is like liquified dessert. Crème brulée in a bottle. If you've ever had Canasta, it is a bit like that but more refined. It's got eau-de-vie in it! Ultimately the cream is superbly balanced making this a real treat to savour. 18%.

Tomorrow's news today! French tennis stylist Amélie Mauresmo reduces Belgian mighty mouse to a FORTIFIED WHINE...

In Saturday's women's final at the Australian Open, Mauresmo outclassed and outpaced the talented but ultimately feeble Justine Henin-Hardenne, giving up only 1 game in 52 minutes. Pummelled by fantastic shotmaking and a wicked and unyeilding top spin, Henin-Hardenne redefined the Belgian waffle by retiring -- an unprecendented move during a Grand Slam final in the modern era -- for apparently unknown reasons. It seems she was a tad out of breath. Or perhaps knowing that she could not win the title was enough to make her sufficiently sick and throw in the towel only four games shy of match completion. At least when Belgian countrywoman Kim Clijsters faced Mauresmo in the semis, she had the decency to roll an ankle for the crowd.

So concludes this wineblog's coverage of the start of the 2006 tennis season. Since Nicolas Kiefer lost his semifinal match, I join the rest of the free world and move to football this weekend. Amélie, you deserved to win this title and your first Grand Slam trophy. Congrats, and enjoy that 1937 Château d'Yquem!


Get it while the going's good! Or buy it this weekend when it's reduced to clear

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of tasting the 2001 Morgan Chardonnay from Monterey, California. It was passed its peak and I was thrilled. Finally a wine in decline that didn't originate from my own stock or my friends' cache. If you are a big fan of this oaky and modern wine, picking it up for about $34 instead of the usual $45 might interest you. Sorry to turn my review into a disclaimer, but this as well as most of the products in the SAQ's Inventory Sale seem to come with a little bit of an asterisk. They are not marking them down for nothing. But the range of items that are being cleared out is so vast and varying that the sale is worth checking out before Sunday, when it ends. He who hesitates though. This morning I arrived the Beaubien SAQ Sélection right at 9.30 am, when the store opens its doors. Before I could survey all the marked-down bottles, a couple of priced-to-sell racks were already bare. Some people really know what they like. Why not get out there and be one of them, sale or no sale.

I predicted it, but I had no idea it would be so dramatic. All the Wolf Blass flowing in Melbourne must have gotten Nicolas Kiefer into the rallying fury that won him this amazing five-set encounter with Sébastien Grosjean during the quaterfinals of the Australian Open on Wednesday. Kiefer, 28, is from Holzminden, a town in East Germany, which is where the legendary Wolf Blass migrated from before launching into his successful career in the Australian wine industry. Now the Blass brand is the official wine of the Open, along with many other glittering events. If Blass is at the pinnacle of his career, Kiefer is nearing the top of his. A Grand Slam semifinal is likely the best result in Kiefer's history. Beating Roger Federer to enter this weekend's championship match would beyond a doubt be his greatest achievement ever. The semi starts in the wee hours of the morning tomorrow, so I wish him luck now. Go Nicolas!


New Science is an ass

piece of cheesecheese wheel      italian cheese flavour wheel
There are a few things that really irritate me about the nature of that recent scientific investigation into wine and cheese pairings. It's like The New Scientist studied a small wedge within the world of the foodie but went on to publish sweeping generalizations. Click on the small piece of the cheese wheel pictured above for their limited findings (which, could be summed up to "All cheese ruins your ability to appreciate wine"). Then click on the full wheel of Emmenthal cheese for a nuanced and more complete report (thanks to the consultation of a sommelier). Then at the end of the row, which I consider to be a little evolutionary chart on this wine-cheese conundrum, click on the flavour wheel. Personally, I think this diagram conveys more useful information than the details presented in The New Scientist. Even though the wheel only tries to represent Italian cheeses, you get a feeling that cheeses on opposite sides of the wheel possess very different characteristics -- yes, in fact, the world of cheese can be viewed through more than one single category labelled "cheesy".

But cheesy says it all in The New Scientist report. A cheese is a cheese is a cheese. Mild or strong, soft or hard, from the milk of a cow or the milk of a yak, it's really all the same to a wine drinker. Really? If the purpose to this investigation was to announce that dairy will change the way you taste your wine, then they should've called me. I could've saved them time and money by pointing out that eating ice cream while drinking claret is like a ticket that takes your palate on a trip to a parallel universe. We all know that. We've all been there.

And no one knows this more than professional wine tasters. You never see wine competition judges with a Ritz-Bits travel pack in their pocket. And I can't seem to recall Jancis Robinson packing string cheese for her ventures into Château Petrus. Obviously these people want an unbiased and level playing field when they make their critical judgments on a wine. Which is exactly what differentiates them from the audience this report seems to have been written for: us everyday wine drinkers. The people who don't get paid for sipping. The fact is everyday folk open a bottle of wine for enjoyment. That's part of the reason we don't spit it out after we taste it. We are not going to rate its structure, balance and complexity. We're going to savour it. And I'll be damned if The New Scientist has uncovered my palate's displeasure when I combine goat's cheese with Cabernet Franc. On contrary, this is a wine-cheese combo that proves itself worthy time after time.

It's obvious that some wine and cheese pairings don't produce as much harmony or pleasure. But some are quite exquisite combinations, no matter how many fatty molecules "bind" to the wine or whatever "proteins" dull the tastebuds. This is why tasting is an art and the guy in the lab coat doesn't get it. I like to nibble on a little bread and cheese when I have my favourite wines because it just makes everything around me seem right. Maybe there is some documented logic for why wine and food produces my happy place, but for now, all I can say is that until science disproves the fireworks that go off when I eat chevre with my Cab Franc I'm going to continue assuming that this study doesn't really say much about my wine pairing habits.

So now it's off my chest. I detest this report and the effect its had on the wine blogging community -- not only for a message that gets misdirected to the wrong wine-drinking audience, but also for its sweeping generalizations. Oh poor cheesemaker! Your craft has been reduced to a cartoon-like orange wedge that sits atop a mousetrap. In reality, there is a vibrant and full gamut of unique and individual cheeses out there. Take Schabzieger as a random example. Now here is a cheese that features no milk fat at all. So was The New Scientist speaking on its behalf when is smackdowned the entire cheese-producing industry? In parts of the world that are dominated by French culture, there are uncountable names for types of cheese. Why? Because they are all so different, each one with its own special characteristic. It's like snow and people who live in igloos. There are over a dozen ways that the Inuit convey the idea of "snow". Not because these northern dwellers are especially wordy types but because they've been around snowy stuff enough to distinguish a plethora of notable attributes. Same thing applies for cheese. It's too vague a term to convey much meaning. Especially if you're trying to be scientific about something. Yes, I'm talking to you Mr. New Science.


Aussie rules: football and other wine competitions

This is the time of year when wine blogs go sporty. Why not? The Super Bowl is a chance for a big party and a great reason to uncork some easy-drinking, crowd-pleasing wine. But, since I'm Canadian, I had the Grey Cup -- the championship of the CFL (Canadian Football League) -- back in November. It was an amazing title match, decided in overtime. For me, all this Super Bowl hype gets redistributed to my focusing on the Australian Open. Hence my discovery yesterday that tennis star, Conchita Martinez, Open finalist in 1998, is a tremendous wine lover.

Wine and tennis have in fact been on my mind a lot lately, and not just in the context of January sports parties or Conchita Martinez. I saw a stunning movie called Match Point on the weekend. In it, Londoners work on their forehands but never miss a moment to enjoy a drink, courtside or off the grounds. Never having been to Wimbledon, I wished I could've been there with movie's characters, sharing their expensive tastes.

The movie was set among upper-crust Londoners, which probably isn't my kind (or my wallet's). Naturally, I turn to thoughts of the wine scene at the Australian Open, assuming that Down Under, wine would be much more affordable and approachable, if slightly more commercial. Turns out I am right. The tournament has a well-known wine company as one of its sponsors. So quiz time once again, is it that winemaker:

  1. Jacob's Creek

  2. Wolf Blass

  3. Rosemount Estates

  4. Lindemans

The answer is (b) Wolf Blass. Upon further investigation, I realized this should come to no surprise to anyone. Wine conglomerate Beringer Blass has been mixing sport with wine for a long time running, sponsoring Aussie Opens and Aussie Rugby Unions. After a little googling, it seems like Wolf Blass is the sporting wine of choice hands down Down Under. The company promises that this alignment is a winning combination, giving their product exposure to a key demographic, and one that for the tennis fortnight in Melbourne "tends to attract white collar viewers and are not necessarily male or female oriented". Or so says this article. Interesting marketing. And here's another way Wolf gets to the sheep.

In fact, Wolf Blass product placement goes beyond Australia, as it did just last week in Los Angeles for "GDay in LA" week, where "one of America's great ... sporting institutions, UCLA, [was] taken over by Australians on January 15 with the Wolf Blass Aussie Festival ... On one of UCLA's sporting fields, the Swans and Kangaroos [played] an AFL sanctioned exhibition game..."

Regardless of their winning approach, brands like Wolf Blass do not end up winning me over. I remain fixed on French wines, which for the most part supply me with plenty of value for my money. But if the money was on the line tonight, I would overlook my fondness for French and, like Wolf Blass's roots, look to a German. An East German man, not wine, to be specific. That's because Germany's Nicolas Kiefer will be playing France's Sebastien Grosjean in the quaterfinals at the Open. I do prefer the French for their wine but for tennis, I have to go 100% German.


"Drinking good wine makes me want to talk about it; talking about it makes me want to drink it"

The quotation that makes up the title of today's post is almost as delightful as those now-ubiquitous bons mots uttered by Madame Lilly Bollinger, modern-day matriarch of the Bollinger Champagne brand.

(You know the one that goes: "I drink champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty.")
big blue question mark quiz
Such witty eloquence is not surprising when it comes from an industry perfectionist like Mrs. Bollinger, who, due to fuel shortages during the Second World War, took to her bicycle in order maintain her vast 100- to 90-percent rated champagne vineyards. But when I read that a diet-conscious top-flight athlete uttered today's quote, I gained a whole new level of respect. Which accomplished champion said this? Was it:

  1. Conchita Martinez

  2. George Foreman

  3. Laffit Pincay Jr.

  4. Marcus Allen

  5. Roman Šebrle

Answer revealed behind the question mark above.


Kissed, like strangers on a train: Umani Ronchi Jorio 2002

Umani Ronchi Jorio 2002
It's a bit intriguing to me to compare my tasting notes with those taken by other drinkers. The Umani Ronchi Jorio 2002 is a Montepulciano varietal from Abruzzo -- or more simply and traditionally phrased, a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo -- and its reviews are easy to find splattered across the Internet. Wine of the Week describes it as an "Old World wine made in a succulent new world style". The Entoria Winecellars site provides tasting notes like "soft, rich, fruity bouquet of berry fruit and spice... these aromas are mirrored on the palate with added flavours of plums and liquorice." Agreed and concurred.

You see, there's also a online reference to Doktor Weingolb, which last December encouraged readers to get out a buy this "very rich and delicious red" -- a lusty wine, juicy with fruit, endowed with tones of rosemary and licorice, and possessing both finesse and savoury dryness on the finish to spare. Okay, quoting myself is a new low, but I padded it with some fresh material there. The point is I do find it interesting that the few notes I did take down about the Jorio are reflected throughout cyberspace. Specifically its richness and succulence, its réglisse, and its lengthy and lovely dry finish. Sentiments echoed everywhere from the blogosphere to the deepest bowels of my memory. This wine deserves such a legacy.

I don't recall what I ate with this memorable wine. However I do know that it was drunk on a train, and maybe in part that's why I didn't record as much information as I usually do. What is definitely clear: this kind of wine is killer with hearty meaty pastas. It's "often drunk with the regional Vincisgrassi [shown at right] pasta," says Mount Carmel Wines & Spirits. I didn't know what that was till I googled it. And now I can see why. Just looking at it makes my tastebuds ready for this divine match made in heaven. And there are even more stomach-rumbling ideas here.

Perhaps now you're asking why I would do a naughty thing like take the Jorio, which I purchased from a state-controlled commission like SAQ, and open it to share with others on a government-administrated utility like Via Rail Canada? I guess everyone's got a little libertarian in them. Passionate wines like this one are sure to help you find it.

Osimo, Italia. 13%.


Quebec monopoly investigates itself after claims of price-fixing

toast to the saq cheersThis week is shaping up to be bigger for news on the SAQ scandal then previously thought. In addition to the tidbit I introduced yesterday about American wine prices being affected, the president of the government agency has announced the launching of an investigation into weird wine pricing initiatives.

Of course one wonders how far an internal venture will go to satisfy the angry cries of the public or the die-hard defenders of privatization. Me myself, I'm voting for the cute "tchin tchin" image at left as the official logo of the 2006 SAQ price-fix self-probe.

In any case, as a result of these developments, I updated the post that I published in yesterday's space and, in addition, point readers in new directions today by offering the late-breaking news stories below:

  • CBC report

  • CBC business feed

  • 940 News indicates that those involved have been singled out

  • Marc André Gagnon gives more details on that (in French)

  • The Gazette brings up bilious voices on a separate policy, just for good measure:

  • "In 1998, the agency authorized the sale of regional alcoholic products at agricultural fairs and in public markets where farm produce is sold. That provision, regularly renewed, was liberally interpreted until someone tried to sell Quebec wine in a Magog supermarket ... complainants said that there were two sets of rules in play because producers were able to use intermediaries at the markets ... When it was time to renew the regulation, changes were made to ensure that it was clear that Quebec producers or their employees had to be involved in the direct sale of the products and in a market other than a grocery store ... If the licensing agency maintains its position, she may have to lay off eight of her 22 employees ..."


Feb 1: WBW vs SAQ

wbw wine blogging wednesday logoIn this corner, wearing the mono-colour magenta shorts, province-wide controller of wine supplies...saq Société des alcools du Québec logo the SAQ (Société des alcools du Québec). And in this corner, wearing the good ol' red, white and blue, with a hint of purple around the rim, in its 18th bout on the circuit, champion of the blogosphere ... WBW (Wine Blogging Wednesday).

On February 1, 2006, these two title-holders duke it out in a metaphysical fight. It will be then that the SAQ retail monopoly will uniformly roll out to each of its stores across the land its new discounted prices on European wines, potentially easing the recent spate of calls for the agency to privatize. Meanwhile, the current installment of WBW encourages wine lovers everywhere to publish reviews of their preferred local wine merchants who with their uniqueness and individual flair make wine shopping a rich and personable experience.

It's hard to think of this as a simple coincidence. For the past month, Quebec vinophiles and economists alike have been railing against the state-controlled management of the SAQ, specifically in regards to reports of attempted price fixing. Many Quebeckers want a merchant with more vivacity, a business that competes in a unregulated market for the customer's dollar (as well as his loyal WBW affection). Many of these people desperately want a chance try on WBW 18 and see how nice choice feels.

Dr Vino, host of this upcoming blogging event, has aimed for inclusiveness in the way he has organized this freedom-to-choose theme. (It's great having him around because he does do nice work, like this fair and balanced monopoly forum he houses on his site.) He couches the WBW topic, which revolves around the fruits of the free-market system, in idioms like "feelin' the love". I think that's quaint. I could nominate some wonderful SAQ wine counsellors who have assisted me more than once and I probably will; I can patronize whatever SAQ location I want to encourage their traffic within the province-wide network and I routinely value that decision. I guess that's called feeling the love. Except because there's no real consumer choice involved -- not in cellar selection, not in price policy, not in client relations, and not in management style -- a lot of folks around here are feeling the love like they feel a hot hate. They're pissed, even when the SAQ actually offers them plenty good on a day-to-day basis.

So sure, I could blog about the positive experience I had when I procured my favourite bottle at the Cours Mont-Royal SAQ. But ultimately, I'm out in right field waiting for a ball drop near me as the other winebloggers show off at shortstop and score a triple play. Viewed from Quebec, WBW 18 will be just be fuel for the fire in our ongoing debate.

Speaking of, last week I said I would follow developments arising from the initial story of alleged SAQ corruption. For most part, the outrage has passed and shoppers in Quebec have been assuaged by the promise of reduced prices for the bottles they most often purchase. Yet another price cut has been announced this week by the SAQ -- about 5% more shaved off prices on American wines as a result of the strong Canadian dollar. This will certainly continue to placate shoppers to the point of forgetting all about the contentious control with which this agency governs.

As I promised, here is what people have been saying lately. It's a bit of an anti-WBW 18 in tone -- a collection of articles from the last week that explain a bit about what it means to not have the ability to shop at the merchant of your choice:


Jancis to unveil her third wine companion very soon (hope it's me!)

jancis robinson com
Wine writing doesn't get any better than when Jancis Robinson picks up her pen. To me, she is the ideal wine writer. She answers questions and she asks them, and I think that's what sets her above the crowd. She's curious like you or I sitting in our own kitchens wondering about wine, grapes and winemaking. Unlike most of us, she then finds the right person to answer the question (and she is unafraid to delve into controversial issues with industry bigwigs, often getting answers outright, which I respect). It's a simple formula for success.

Simple, once you've gotten yourself into the equation. Obviously Robinson has oodles of accomplishments to her name which allows her access to a wealth of resources. The other day I pored over her summary of the 2004 southern Rhône vintage, a summation of some 220 individual wine analyses she conducted during a recent visit to the region. That's not a wine tasting but a staggering responsibility. Some might say she is privileged to have such a pass into the world of wine (she's undoubtedly earned it through immense study and natural talent), but in all seriousness I think I might throw in the towel after Vacqueryas number 19. Let's be honest. We're talking enormous commitment here.

Content aside, Robinson reports in a manner that is at the same time true to the material and demystifying. She seems at ease conveying complicated processes, intricate ideas, and heavily detailed information. This makes her simply a pleasure to read. But best of all, her prose is transparent. Nothing gets in the way of the point she aims to convey. She is a sound conduit of knowledge.

I can't forget to mention that Robinson goes beyond the role of wine journalist when appropriate. She possesses a singular voice and can express her own personal opinions. Like a pinot nestled in the Côte D'Or, you can very often tell where she's coming from. A favourite moment of mine in which she demonstrates this happens in episode four of her Wine Course. Profiling the Sauvignon Blanc grape, her least favourite variety, she signs off the show admitting her lack of attraction to the grape before tipping into her glass and smirking "...but it is a darn fine refreshment on hot summer's day. Ahhhhh."

There's an approachability to her body of work and her attitude, which is always positive. For example, I didn't expect a personal response to my online query -- certainly not within the day -- but there it was, arriving directly from her desk anyway, full of encouragement and zest. (You yourself can ask the expert).

Now I see her Books webpage has been updated and news of a 3rd edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine is out. I think this teaser was just published last week, in a sinister mention-in-passing kind of way. In any case, it is great news. The new version will update the previous effort from 1999, a volume I've thumbed frequently but held back on purchasing because a revision was due. And since it's set for a late summer release, people like me will have to wait only a little bit longer. A huge recommendation and summer reading to look forward to!

Now if I could only get an answer as to what exactly is sitting in the purple wineglass sketch shown behind her on the website masthead.


A Consumer Guide: Once bitten by the Asian ladybug, but not shy

asian lady beetleYou win some, you lose some. I'm sure the winemaker has often thought these words. In the world of wine there is always a gamble. So much of viniculture depends on Mother Nature, unpredictable for the most part and not interested in the future cuvée we've all got in mind. But I would suggest that win some/lose some doesn't end with producers. I'm of course thinking of the wine consumer here. Why? Because I'm one (and apparently a selfish one at that). But also because of the following factors:

Exhibit A: Corks. Typically, cellar dwellers and wine collectors see natural cork, the most prevalent wine stopper around, as risky business because it is susceptible to a certain kind of mould. This can turn wine storage into a game of Russian roulette. When cork breaks down like this, the ageing wine takes on undesirable corkiness in taste and smell. In the case of old expensive bottles, it's like an aces-high poker hand has suddenly lost its nerve. Poof! A fine investment becomes money thrown away. Pity there's no agreement you signed with the cork farmer when you purchased the product. So you lose that one, and pray that the rest in the cellar won't be as unlucky.

Exhibit B: Mother Nature, back for more. Even when the vintner has decoded the climate and conditions to produce a successful vintage, Mother Nature can still come back to haunt you. That wine, finished though perhaps still waiting for its drinking peak, continues to play victim to acts of God like the flood that swamps your basement wine cellar or the heat wave that busts your air conditioner. A bottle that is cellared amid poor surroundings will not develop as it should. Havoc will reign. For instance, heat will age a wine in unnatural, unsubtle ways. Sometimes this can eventually spoil the contents of the bottle. But if you keep your head about you this one is very much yours to win.wine harvest scourge

Exhibit C: Your own mind. Doo-doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo [Twilight Zone theme music] ... doo-doo-doo-doo. The Asian ladybug infestation of 2001 in Niagara should be grouped with the worries of the vintner: its taint forces wineries to pull affected wine from store shelves. But the fact is the taint situation is not very black and white -- the degree of contamination floats across a wide range of grey, so unfortunately, it's still very much out there to haunt you. How to deal with it? Clearly the onus has often been put on the consumer to seek out replacement for wine they deem damaged by the insect. The problem is that so many wine buyers, though certain that their wine does not taste right, are not confident enough to return wine to the point of purchase. At the end of many an evening, drinkers may have suffered through the green potato flavours of a tainted wine when they could've gotten their money's worth instead. Use your head.

So you win some, you lose some. On Saturday night, a winning night, we were treated to Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon. It was a 1991 and had a tragic past. By any guess, it could've rightly been ruined based on its storage history. But it was fantastic. The cork had not failed either. The world was a just place. We were treated. Tremendously fruity and rich aromas emanating from the decanter; the epitome of structure and balance as we sipped this 15-year-old wine from the glass.

However luck was a ladybug last night. The bottle was the Hillebrand Showcase Glenlake Vineyard 2001, a gift I had been looking forward to opening. Alas, it was from the year of the infestation, and being a Cab Franc varietal, even more fallible. tainted ontario wine 2001I detected the taint immediately but only arrived at the judgment that the wine was ruined a glass or two later. It's a fine line. Some have considered this release "marred", others have claimed it is a naturally occurring flavour compound. Tony Aspler went on record saying that if this bottle was from a botched batch then the signs would be irrefutable. He was satisfied. Konrad Ebjich was definitely not, giving it only one star out of five. It was toward Konrad I was leaning. This was drinkable but off-putting -- a resin of unsophisticated bitterness hinted at in each taste. Not satisfying, especially considering it's $40 a bottle. So I won't be shy about taking it back.


...so then Pinot Noir goes to Grenache: You bring me downstream

Cave de Rasteau, Côtes du Rhône-Villages 2003Laroche Pinot Noir Vin de Pays D'Oc 2003
Here we have a wine made from Pinot Noir and a Côte du Rhône wine. I'm putting them in the same review because, like a Sancerre to goat's cheese, there's an interesting relationship going on. The Sauvignon Blanc in a Sancerre is said to complement goat's cheese with its high acidity and contrast it too by adding something in the herbal department. It's a nice dynamic and my putting these two wines together attempts something along those lines. Like the shared acidity in the above equation, each wine possesses a common denominator in climate: They were both rendered out of the Midi in the late summer of 2003. And as for contrast, what could establish a greater gap than comparing the humble descriptive record of Grenache to the storied accomplishments of Pinot Noir. In my mind, placing these two bottles back-to-back would surely be enlightening. Where do varietal characteristics end and terroir influences begin? And though these were not cultivated from the same vineyard, they do share a certain regional profile. And I wanted to investigate that profile by tasting the wine grape I least respect right after the one I most revere.

The Cave de Rasteau, Côtes du Rhône-Villages 2003 is composed mostly of Grenache grapes. That's really my problem, not the wine's. Because Rhône appellations enforce vintners to include at least 40% Grenache in their reds, I end up a tough sell. On top of that, I tend to avoid shopping for Rhônes because it seems someone has always brought one out to dinner anyway. I guess when I get right down to it, Grenache, in general, is not a variety I harbour great affinity for. I sometimes detect a sweetness there that unfortunately reminds me of the sweetening agent in children's cherry medicine. But that is personal reaction and of course it doesn't apply in every case. I suspect I'm drawing my stereotype from low-end Rhônes. And I hate to say I dislike Grenache because it really is simply not true. Once in a while I'll be transported by a Grenache-led blend. This happens more often when I spend $20-plus, like in the wonderfully smooth case in point provided by the 2000 Antique Senimaros from Cave de Cairanne. For about $5 more than this Rasteau here, you will be invited to experience the difference that a higher-end Rhône can carry. And it's a difference that my money is on. Because it may be my palate is too temperamental -- a slight bit too much in the cherry department (something that so many of my friends encourage) just comes off as cloying to me. It sends my wine appreciation meter exponentially low. I hazard that's what you would call a classic case of dislike.

So needless to say this Rasteau had a lot to live down. But it manages quite well for itself. It enchants with its hearty balance and richness, neither characteristic overly fruity. Not fruit-bomb-y -- perhaps that's more to the point. Vaucluse, France. 14%.

Surprisingly, my tasting notes mark very similar reactions for the Pinot. The Laroche Pinot Noir Vin de Pays d'Oc 2003 is juicy, round and refreshing. It delivers bracing cherry notes in a way I would expect a Rhône to, but with much lighter body. An aroma of ripe blueberry tells you that you are not dealing with Grenache anymore. Its nose is good; its balance, not subtle, is punctuated by firm tannins. It's the depth that is most lacking, but quite fine as an everyday selection. Great with roast beef too. Béziers, France. 12.5%.

Conclusion: This potential odd couple share a ripened fruitiness that transcends the different grapes varieties of which they are made.

It's seems like Montreal newspapers are covering their tracks. The leads they had with their liquor board price fixing story are quickly being replaced by newer articles clearly driven by SAQ press releases. So with that in mind, here is the original item that started it all (in French) and here is a comparable piece about the story written in English. In yesterday's space the CBC story did a fair job summarizing the whole conundrum. This one does okay too, but it really does feel shadier than a palm grove walking into an SAQ lately. I still want more brought to light regarding this one. A great -- if opinionated and French -- resource for a whole history of unyielding criticism towards the SAQ is found at this blogue. I'll be watching it and hoping for more in the meantime.


Government-run should be pro-people

I wasn't going to post today since I am merging two wine reviews into one big entry tomorrow. But since there is a scandal at the provincial liquor agency here in Quebec, I thought I should point to it now. This news article from La Presse follows up on the story they broke on December 28 and is in French. The scoop: our government-run monopoly on booze allegedly attempted to fix prices in the face of a devalued Euro against the strengthening Canadian dollar. For shoppers at the SAQ (Société des alcools du Québec) that fluctuation would to translate to huge savings since European products are the vast majority of wine sold in the province. Now we hear that only about half of the economic gains seen by the SAQ as a result of dealing with European suppliers will be passed along to the consumer. Read a shorter summary in English from the CBC; and here's how the English paper covered it in The Gazette.

If I was a cynic I would say that their releasing news of this half-assed price decrease on the day a New World wine sale starts is a bit rich. Talk about deflecting the issue. But a wine sale is a wine sale, so I'll take what I can get for now and wait for Old World wine savings later. The Trumpeter Malbec Vistalba 2004 from Mendoza, Argentina is my big recommendation at $12.85 and sure to sell briskly for the next 10 days. Other than that, it is mostly buyer beware. Routinely at this time of year releases from new producers enter stores. Add to that the fact that southern hemisphere wines usually get a jump on the authoritative critics with their earlier growing season and you've got a lot of unknown quantities: labels are new entirely, or even more deceptive, well-known but hiding fresh new vintages, which are often marked in unassuming small type. The unaware shopper can be preyed upon when this happens. But that's the jungle for you. I see even the LCBO is currently promoting their new Latin releases. Unless you have a trusted winemaker who puts out good wine consistently, be sure to sample the wares before diving in. SAQ stores will be sure to have many bottles open for tasting during the sale. I've also seen private tastings on demand so don't be shy. There's most likely MORE than an 8.5% chance they'll respond favourably.


Finding a mustier Muscadet

new york times wine column muscadetHave I fallen through the hole in NYTimes.com that leads to an alternate universe? One where the Wines of the Times team sip vintages of Muscadet from the eighties and earlier? Whachou talkin' about Florence Fabricant? Her biweekly Pairings column is not a mistake. Check out Eric Asimov's intro to this week's multimedia tasting notes or read his article here.

I like the fact that even Mr. Asimov admits that an aged Muscadet is news to him. Makes me feel a little better for not having any knowledge on the subject myself. It turns out that old bottles from the mouth of the Loire are nothing new. Wine Spectator wrote about how good Muscadet -- usually the product that comes from one of the three specific appellations rather than the general "Muscadet" one -- can slumber like the legendary Riesling.

Still, I'd like it if my wine supplier was more aware of this, be it new to me or not. I see that at the LCBO in Ontario, you can buy Le Master De Donatien Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine 1996. No such opportunities in Quebec, except perhaps in my fridge, where I'm happy to say the 2000 Master Donatien is in supply and all of the sudden in no rush to get opened. That is good news for someone who thinks almost every aspect of his wine collection is "drink now".

My search of the SAQ site results in no Muscadet aged more than five years while the '76, '89, and '93 vintages of powerful Rieslings are all readily stocked. It's no wonder that this story is a bit of an eye-opener. Now to get my hands on some of these bottles...


Etchart beats a path to your wine shop: Etchart Rio de Plata 2003

Etchart Rio de Plata Merlot 2003
Etchart is probably Argentina's most dependable wine producer. They are one of the most established too. From its wine pressed from the white Torrontes grape to that of Cabernet Sauvignon -- the more well-known resident of the Cafayate Valley atop the Salta region -- budget-minded folks are rewarded by returning to this producer year in and year out. Michel Phaneuf has routinely recommended the full gamut of their products in Quebec for the last three vintages running.

From the region of Mendoza comes the Etchart Rio de Plata Merlot 2003. While the 2004 is now the release most stocked on shelves and is ready to be drunk, the 2003 is still full of richness and character. International in style, this Merlot excelerates alongside roasted food. At first it seemed to be calling out for accompaniment, but this low pricepoint purchase is more substantial than you think. It builds up notes of chocolate and hyperripened berry fruit. So much so that I began to believe that for $10 more I might've gotten a similar punch out of a Barbaresco. Rio de Plata has a strong nose and the big chewy tannins that you might expect from a Merlot varietal. It's definitely no Conti Brandolini d'Adda Vistorta, but it doesn't aim to be either.

With this particular bottle I proved to myself that a container of appropriate size with a good seal can keep leftover wine in good drinkable condition for up to a week. Obviously not all wine will gain something or sustain itself after recorking, but so many bottles I open do, especially from the 2003 vintage (being mainly an Old World wine consumer has something to do with that since European harvests were so spectacular that year). Regardless, this Mendoza is another case in point: treat your leftovers with respect and you'll be repaid for it. Three evenings after its initial opening, the wine was every bit as enjoyable. But what is fine on the first day will be oxidized the next if you allow air to take up space in your bottle. Minimize the amount of air space that remains in your mini-bottle. This will also reduce the surface area of the wine, which is important. Screw-top mini-bottles are even better for this since you don't have to guesstimate for the displacement of an inserted cork.

Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina. 13%.


Making your finest Bordeaux walk the plonk plank

What do you do when you've opened six past-peak bottles within six weeks? Cry a little. Or a lot. And then figure out why good wine has gone bad.

In my case, only three of the six spoiled bottles were from my cave. The other three came from a cellar that had some known maintenance issues. Bye-bye Barolo 1993. Margaux 1990 down the drain. Sad how they had practically turned to vinegar. A bottle of port from 1986 stands trial as I write this.

I myself don't have a real cellar. I have a wine refrigerator. Except it hasn't been delivered yet so I have to hold off on buying any Bordeaux futures or other wine investments of this ilk. I am relieved. I know I am not laying waste to any major purchases as yet another sweltering, humid summer passes through my unairconditioned apartment. Or so I thought, quite glibly, until I started uncorking faded wine after faded wine.

It started just recently. I wanted to create a Waiting To Uncork list (idea provided by Water to Wino) while I waited for friends to get past their alcohol-free fads, their head colds, and their extended vacations out of the country. I knew I had about a half-dozen serious bottles that I had collected, mostly within the year, and which I knew were for special occasions. What I didn't know was how much other everyday wine I had lying around in dark corners gathering dust and not much else of value (especially internally). You see, the provincial liquor board here was on strike at this time last year. It lasted from the end of November until almost spring. "Hoard" mentality took over and I grabbed and stored as many bottles as I could locate. Most were not fancy, some I didn't even particularly like that much, but when your freedom to step out to pick up a bottle is impeded you end up stockpiling a small juke joint in your dining room. Well, at least I did.

A year later I see some straggling bottles are limping along, trying to get to the table. A Paul Jaboulet Aîné from 2002 (not the best of vintages) called Les Traverses eventually succeeded. It was very much on the edge (of its drinking life -- not the edge of the table or else I might've given it a nudge). Though the winemaker's site says you could open in 2012(!), it probably should have been drunk before I even purchased it -- like in 2003 or 2004. Which makes me go hmmm... Unsold wine that is not meant for ageing often gets discounted. I may have been shopping as a bargain-hunter, not a proper wine-enthusiast when I found these Midi vintages -- Les Traverses as well as the two Languedoc bottles that I blogged up and down about, wondering how to describe the particular characteristics best known as simply past-it. It was naive of me to even give these two careful consideration at all. But until this month, I had never really tasted wine that was past its best-before date. Now I know what to look for.

Not that I want to look for that in my wine collection. I want to hide from it. The thought of my cases of wine housing the biggest reserve of vinegar on the block makes me shudder. But that's paranoid. Last night was reassuring. I took one of the stronger candidates for forgotten wine status and found that it was just as good as I remembered it. I likely will still create a list entitled "DEFINITELY NO MORE Waiting To Uncork" and try to drink with greater peace of mind. In the meantime, while I wait my personal wine cellar to arrive, I'm researching some different databases that will better allow me to keep my stock in order. I will report back on this effort once I fully realize how much this wannabe wine captain has lost control of his ship.


It's that time of year when...

It can be hard finding a drinking buddy. New Year's resolutions are still fresh from the oven and more people than usual want to swoop in for a roll on the wagon. Maybe that's my perception. I have been unrelentingly focused on wine lately. Any abstain-from-drinking developments are bound to seem more pronounced to me than they really are. Whatever the case, I feel I may be destined to move to pubby Ireland. When the dryness is this palpable I have to say less is definitely not more.

Or is it? Some people who are laying off the vino know what they are doing. Like the Quaffability people, who are quite smart. They organize a leave of absence from drinking right about now. This is a wise idea and I know from personal experience that taking a bit of a timeout can nourish your appreciation of wine in the long run. So those people aren't really on the wagon. They're climbing up on it only so they can take a better plunge. It's like they've got a little sidecar temporarily attached to it. Eventually they figure they've had enough of the ride; they take the pin out of the preload slot and spin off onto the shoulder. (You know that these types of people are so smart they have a bottle ready with them when this happens -- they'll be gleefully uncorking it in plain view of the passing wagon... yeah. Smart.)

Aside from vacation from the drink, there are vacations, period. This is yet another reason why I don't see people drinking: I just don't see them at all. A good friend of my bottles, Jane, went off to Cuba for the holidays. She finally was back in town last night. It was a long wait for a toast to the new year with her scampering all around Santiago and Havana, dulling her appetite for wine all the while. I suspected she was now on vacation from the sauce, but no, not really. That's just what Cuban wine can do to you. While my holiday trip to Niagara was in part organized so I could drink more wine, take a jaunt to the Caribbean and you'll learn to start avoiding the stuff. Or go glass half-full and redirect your palate to something the locals are more apt to specialize in, like coffee. Jamie Goode has taken time to do that. Thanks to a Cuban coffee souvenir, Jane has allowed me to do that too. (Too bad she missed out on my Niagara souvenir on New Year's Eve, Thirteenth Street's Funk Blanc de Blancs 1999, which I received from my sister in exchange for a Bandol from Chateau Pradeaux.)

Mmm... Bandol. I'll skip that coffee appreciation night. On top of all of the teetotaling types above, the time is ripe for running into the people with sore throats and stuffed-up noses. Partaking in anything wine-related is a total waste when you've got a cold. So there's yet another potential drinking partner down the drain. I haven't had a cold yet this season. In publishing that, I may have summoned the kiss of death. Ruinous! No matter: I shall pretend to carry on as usual and not be too hasty. Here's the current haul I revere in expectancy of that special moment with friends:

  1. Barbi Brunello di Montalcino 1997

  2. Château de Chamirey Mercurey 2002

  3. Domaines Barons Rothschild Réserve Spéciale Pauillac 2001

  4. Pascal Bouchard Vieilles Vignes Chablis 2000

  5. Karly's Ten Point Buck Zinfandel Armador County 2001

  6. Hillebrand Estates Glenlake Vineyard Merlot Niagara Peninsula 1995

  7. Château de Parenchère Cuvée Raphael Bordeaux Supérieur 2001

  8. Vineland Estates St Urban Riesling Niagara Peninsula 1994 (John please save me one to buy!)


New sensations for '06: Domaine de Torraccia Porto-Vecchio 2000

Domaine de Torraccia Corse Porto-Vecchio 2000 Sciacarellu.
I thought I'd start out the new year on the right foot. I redesigned things a bit around here, especially the sidebar which now features an index of all my posts. This offers easy access to the topics I touch upon. Then for an inaugural review in 2006, there's the Domaine de Torraccia Corse Porto-Vecchio 2000. A rare and truly unique find and in fact the only wine sold in Quebec that carries the official Corsican appellation. This exotic specimen is composed mainly of the island's indigenous grapes. They are named Niellucciu and Sciaccarellu (please tell me how to pronounce them -- I wish I knew). In this bottle they are blended with Grenache and Syrah. So it makes for an interesting mix of traditional grapes and international varieties.

There's something resinated about this Porto-Vecchio and I noticed it immediately. It reminded me of Retsina, but please don't let that scare you away from an enchanting new thrill. It is also spicy, with light-to-medium body. It is made quite alluring by lots of nose and gentle tannins. Well-structured and a pleasure going down, it went beautifully with veal T-bone steak in a mushroom sauce, Brussels sprouts and red onion relish. I would say that it's a classic food wine. On the second night, I matched it with broiled pork chops done in lemon garlic and oregano. The overtones of resin seemed to add to the depth of the wine. Its zinginess didn't so much produce a flavour as it did mouthfeel.

This is by no means a full-bodied wine, but in my mind it's complex. The harmony of candied notes range from cinnamon to cream soda to lavender, and it also offers the mysterious myrtle. Or so I am lead to believe. Myrtle, which is new to me in 2006, is also known in the plant world as periwinkle. It imparts a flavour that is a cross between rosemary and bay leaf. The producer's webpage notes both their cuvée Oriu, another Porto-Vecchio red, and this one, by expounding at length about myrtle: Drinkers are encouraged to whip up a pigeon in a myrtle sauce if they want something to best accompany the wine. Maybe it's a Corsican thing but I was simply dumbstruck.

I find that when you don't know what an herb is or if you can't place a flavour, wines and the quaint descriptions on their labels can seem like they are from another planet, or at least an exotic far-off land, which I am sure Corsica is. The strange effect is amplified when the label translation shows signs of regional idioms. For example, pigeon, though a common French term, might be better worded in English as Cornish hen. More appetizing too. Myrtle then... what to say? Well, I guess in North America, that just conjures up images of the elderly woman who's a friend of your grandmother. But in the end, these are all foods and flavours that most people with any kind of sense of adventure could embrace and enjoy. As I said, this promises to be a wonderfully food-friendly wine, so no matter whether you've got the right fowl in the roasting pan, you'll likely react as I do: with amazement that there aren't more Corsican wines on the market. Especially those with the unique regional grapes called Niellucciu and Sciaccarellu. I can't imagine yummier flavours or a more alluring wine.

Lecci, Corse, France. 12.5%.