Wine Myths and Facts

There are quite a few myths about wine that although often widely believed, are not true.  Below are some of the more common myths.

Only expensive wine is good

Blind tastings consistently disprove this myth. There is virtually no connection between how much a wine costs and how much people like it. In fact, a study of over 6,000 blind wine tasting comparisons found the correlation between price and overall rating to be insignificant.

The price of wine is not an indication of quality.  It is mainly supply and demand rather than actual quality that determines the price. Demand for a specific wine is influenced by things such as advertising, press coverage, and even association with celebrities. The perception of quality includes tradition, fad, and many other factors. 

For more in depth information see my June 8, 2019 blog entitled “Does Wine Have to be Expensive to be Good?”.

‘Reserve’ wines are superior to other wines

Producers may consider some of their wine to be superior and label it ‘Reserve’ or another term in order to distinguish it from their other wines and to command a higher price.

Blind tastings of regular and ‘reserve’ wines from the same producer and year have failed at being able to distinguish between them.  Of those who correctly identified the ‘reserve’, only about half preferred it over the non-reserve wine.  The reserve labels were generally much more expensive than the non-reserve wines.

Corks are better than screw caps

Long-term research has proven that in fact the opposite is true; screw caps are far superior to corks in protecting wine.

Some experts believe that about one of every ten to twelve corked bottles of wine suffers ‘cork taint’. Cork taint causes the wine to smell like wet newspapers or a damp basement. It is caused by trichloroanisole (TCA) bacterium.

I must admit that my own experience has shown a much lower percentage of tainted wine.  However, I believe the statistic is as high as it is because cork taint is contained within the cork itself.  Thus it is most likely that all of the corks produced from a specific cork tree or section of a tree, will be defective thus potentially ruining many cases of wine all at once.

Some wineries, like Australia’s Peter Lehmann, use screwcaps exclusively, except for wines being exported to the United States. The majority of the world’s notarized wines are bottled with cork, but that has more to do with perception than science.

Only red wine has health benefits

The health benefits associated with moderate wine consumption comes from the alcohol. Some research finds red wine provides greater health benefits. Other research reports that any wine provides benefit. Other studies find that beer is best. Yet other studies indicate that distilled spirits are the most beneficial. However, most research has found that it makes little or no difference. The most beneficial ingredient in alcoholic beverages seems to be the alcohol itself and the health benefits are substantial.

Organic wines have no sulfites

The fact is all wines contain sulfites as they are a natural result of fermentation. Sulfites are also commonly added to prevent oxidation, help preserve and to stabilize the wine. Organic wines have no added sulfites as stated on their labels. 

For additional information see my August 8, 2020 blog “Organic Wine”.

Wine improves with age and aged wine is better than young wine

There’s no reason to age the vast majority of wines. About 90% of wine is produced to be consumed when purchased. Further aging may change the taste, bouquet, and finish of the wine, and not in a good way.

Also, aging with the hope of improving a wine’s defects is impossible. Defective wine will always be defective. Organic wines deteriorate much quicker than other wines as they have no added sulfites to help preserve them.

There is a perfect time to drink any wine worth cellaring.  Most wines, even cellar-worthy ones, are delicious upon release. The better wines will age well for up to a decade. Occasionally some wines will need a decade or more to reach their peak. However, it is always better to drink a wine a year too soon than a day too late.

See “Drink or lay down and how to cellar those you keep” from August 24, 2019 for additional details.

Wine legs are a sign of quality

It’s sometimes said that ‘the thicker the legs, the better the wine’. Wine legs are the “tears” that flow down the inside surface of a wine glass after it has been swirled. Contrary to myth, legs are not an indicator of quality. 

They are created by the alcohol content of the wine and the effects of surface tension, adhesion and evaporation. The alcohol, because it has a lower surface tension, tends to crawl up the glass. At the same time, it evaporates faster than the water in the wine because of its lower boiling point. As more alcohol evaporates, the water concentration increases. The greater surface tension of the water causes the wine to pull together into a teardrop that then runs down the inside of the glass.

Smelling the cork reveals if the wine is bad

Smelling a cork won’t give any information about the quality or condition of the wine. Smelling the wine itself tells whether or not it has spoiled.

Red wine should be served at room temperature and white wine should be served ice-cold

You’ve probably heard the idea that red wine should be served room temperature while white wine should be served ice cold. In reality, though, if the wines are good, you’ll achieve the best results if both red and white wines are served in between ice cold and room temperature. If white wine is served too cold, you won’t be able to taste the nuances in its flavor, and if red wine is served too close to room temperature, it could taste flat. When it doubt, chill your wine but be careful not to make it too cold. 

Red wine should be served at about 18 degrees Celsius whereas white wine should be served at a temperature between 10 and 13 degrees Celsius.

Closing thoughts

Wine myths continue to fool us. They are perceptions, not reality.  However, as is often said, perception is reality.

Sláinte mhaith

The Wines of Mosel Germany

The Mosel (aka Moselle) River begins in France and flows into Germany where it flows 250 km and disperses into the Rhine River. It is along this winding river gorge that most classic Riesling wines in the world are situated.

So what makes the Mosel Valley so special for this wine and grape? It’s a combination of geology, geography and history (Riesling was first recorded in Germany in 1435) that makes the Mosel wine region unique.

Although over 60% of the grapes grown are Riesling, Elbling; Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Kerner and Auxerrois are also grown. There are some Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the region as well, often used in Sekt–German sparkling wine.

Mosel Riesling ranges from bone-dry to sweet.  The wines start out with a pale straw color and become deep yellow as they age.

Young wines have medium-intensity aromas of lime and honeydew, sometimes with slightly reductive smells of plastic or mineral notes. As the wines age, they reveal high intensity aromas of honey, apricot, lemon and petroleum. The smell of gas might be off-putting to some but it is a classic indicator of German Riesling.

Riesling has intensely high acidity, usually balanced with some level of sweetness. Wines that taste bone-dry will usually have around 6 to 10 grams per litre of residual sugar and wines that taste barely off-dry may have as much as 30 to 40 grams per litre of residual sugar. Generally, Mosel wines have low to medium low alcohol ranging from 7.5 to 11.5%  alcohol per volume.

German Riesling is known to age well. A wine by a quality producer from a great vintage will last up to 40 years. Even modestly priced wines can age for 5 years and develop a deep golden hue with aromatics of honey and petroleum.

The first level for identifying quality in Mosel’s wine is classification, of which there are 3: Qualitatswein (QbA), Pradikatswein, and VDP.  These are explained in detail in my August 11, 2019 post “Germany’s Quality Standards”.

The second level to finding great quality in the Mosel is understanding the variations from one vintage to the next. Cool climate wine growing regions, which the Mosel Valley is one, tend to be more susceptible to variable weather conditions. It’s possible that great producers will still make great wines in less favorable years, but the vast majority often suffer.

As a general rule, great vintages offer amazing wines at all price points, whereas less-awesome vintages require some buying finesse and a little bit of luck.  Here is a quick rundown of what the experts said about the past decade of releases:

Legend

  • 10: Purchase without hesitation with great cellaring capabilities.
  • 9: Purchase without hesitation as wines are very enjoyable.
  • 8: Purchase as wine is drinkable but not very noteworthy.
  • 7: Only the best producers made decent wine that year.

Vintage

2018 – 10 – Largest yield in the past decade; expecting to be of outstanding quality.

2017 – 8 – Difficult growing season.

2016 – 7 – Tough vintage. Lots of rain and insect problems.

2015 – 10 – A fantastic year.

2014 – 9 – A cooler vintage overall, leading to wines with more acidity. These wines may age quite well.

2013 – 8 – Great producers did well but others didn’t because of rain and rot problems.

2012 – 7 – Inconsistent grape bunch development meant only the best producers made out.

2011 – 9 – A great vintage; the wines have awesome structure and depth.

2010 – 8 – A challenging vintage for ripeness but some producers expect these wines will last for decades.

2009 – 9 – A long warm vintage that produced rich wines.

2008 – 9 – Great producers produced age-worthy wines.

Finding Great Mosel Wines by Sub-Region

The third layer of finding great quality Mosel wines is understanding the geography of the region. Not all of the vineyards here are created equal. The northerly latitude means longer days during the growing season, but only certain vineyards are situated to receive these sunshine hours.

Areas that face south receive up to 10 times more sunlight during parts of the year than those facing north. Also, vineyards located on slopes receive even more sun than the flat lands. 40% of the vineyard acres in the Mosel are located on steep slopes and the best vineyards typically face south.

The steepness of the vineyards makes the use of tractors or mechanical harvesting impossible; farming and harvesting on steep slopes requires as much as three times more labour than more level vineyards.

The 6 sub-regions of Mosel all offer different expressions of Riesling. While the most planted sub-region of Bernkastel attracts the most attention, other regions, including Saar and Ruwertal, make great wines as well.

Final Thought

Riesling is definitely the most renowned varietal in the Mosel.  There is no true comparison to these wines anywhere else in the world.  If you enjoy Riesling and have never experienced any from the Mosel, then you owe it to yourself to experience it.  I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Sláinte mhaith

Wines for the Holidays

To say that this year has been unique would be an understatement, and though the holidays may not be the same as other years, there are still opportunities to celebrate even if only to reward yourself on navigating through these trying times.

Wines such as Amarone or Châteauneuf-du-Pape would be a wonderful gift for a wine enthusiast or add elegance to any holiday dinner.  However, keep in mind that for a wine to be worthy of gift giving or dinner presentation, it need not be expensive.  If you would like some guidance for gifting or dinner pairing, your local wine merchant can be most helpful at providing suggestions in all price ranges. 

Given that 2020 has been very challenging for local businesses it has been suggested to pair wine that is being gifted with cheese, crackers, nuts or fruit from a local merchant, or a gift certificate from an area butcher or favourite restaurant.  If this idea interests you, people have been sharing their thoughts at #PairitForward.

Below I have provided a list of wines that have caught my interest this season, a number of which are on my own personal shopping list.  To help you decide whether any of these wines are best for you, I have included some of the reviewers’ comments and rankings.

White Wines

Domaine Chanson Les Chenevottes Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru 2014 – Burgundy, France ($89.95). This wine contains flavours of apple, lemon, pastry and honey.  It was rated 93 by Bruce Sanderson of Wine Spectator.

Fess Parker Santa Barbara County Chardonnay 2018 – California ($21.95). There are light tropical notes, lemon confit, tangerine and mint.  It was rated 90 by Antonio Galloni, vinous.com.

Lundy Manor Chardonnay 2016 – Niagara, Canada ($25.95). It has hints of vanilla and caramel.  It was rated as 89 by Michael Godel, Wine Align.

Stoney Ridge Excellence White Meritage 2017 – Niagara, Canada ($22.95). There is an array of flavours of grapefruit, guava, passion fruit, lime and vanilla. This is the first time this wine has been offered for sale beyond the winery.

Tawse Limestone Ridge – North Estate Bottled Riesling 2017 – Niagara, Canada ($21.95). This wine is just off dry and well balanced between acidity and sweetness.  It was scored a 93 by David Lawrason, Wine Align.

Whitehaven Greg Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2019 – New Zealand ($23.95).  There are hints of pear and tropical fruit.

Red Wines

Borsao Berola 2016 – Spain ($18.95). This wine has hints of cherries, other berries and herbs are prevalent.  I have had this one before and am looking forward to buying it again.  It provides great value for the price.  It was rated a 90 by James Suckling. 

Faust Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 – California ($59.95). This is a medium to full bodied wine that should be drunk from now until 2030.  It was rated 92 by James Suckling.

Il Molino Di Grace Chianti Classico 2015 – Tuscany, Italy ($19.95). The solid tannins suggest that this vibrant cherry-like wine will age well.  It can be enjoyed today or kept for up to 15 years.  It was rated 92 by Bruce Sanderson, Wine Spectator.

Luce Brunello di Montalcino 2015 –Tuscany, Italy ($150.95). Enjoy the aroma of berries, cherries, flowers, black truffles and black tea.  It is full-bodied with great tannins.  It scored a perfect 100 from James Suckling.

Montecillo Gran Reserva 2010 – Spain ($29.95). This wine presents silky tannins that will keep it drinkable through to 2025.  It was scored a 91 by Decanter.

Mission Hill Family Estate Reserve Meritage 2018 – British Columbia, Canada ($29.95). This wine consists of a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot.  It has a classic French style structure.

Nicolas Père & Fils Le Jardin Du Pape Châteauneuf-Du-Pape 2016 – Rhône, France ($55.95). It is a blend of 60% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 20% Mourvèdre.  Big acidity and tannins provide great aging potential.  This is one of the wines on my list to purchase this holiday season.  It was ranked a 95 at the 2018 Decanter World Wine Awards.

Pieropan Vigna Garzon Amarone Della Valpolicella 2015 – Veneto, Italy ($63.95). With plummy prune aromas, sweet spice and cherries, the drinking window is now to 2030.  It was rated 94 by Michaela Morris of Decanter.

Queenston Mile Pinot Noir 2017 – Niagara, Canada ($40.00). It contains hints of cranberry, currants and cedar.  This wine is full of flavour.  It was rated as a 90 by David Lawrason, Wine Align.

Redbrooke Estate Cabernet/Merlot 2016 – Australia ($39.95).  There are flavours of cassis and red berries.  It was a gold medal winner at several Australian wine competitions and was scored a 95 by James Halliday, Wine Companion.

Sparkling Wines

Featherstone Joy Premium Cuvée Sparkling 2014 – Niagara, Canada ($34.95).  It is crisp and fresh with hints of lemon, apple and pear.

Gardet Cuvée Tradition Saint Flavy Brut Champagne – France ($47.95). There are flavours of baked apples, croissants and almonds.  It was rated a 90 by David Lawrason, Wine Align.

Graham Beck Brut Sparkling – South Africa ($18.95). With notes of apple and marmalade it will pair well with either turkey or ham.  For the price it can’t be beat.

Wines to Cellar

Ascheri Barolo 2015 – Piedmont, Italy ($49.95). There are notes of roses and tar and is available at an excellent price.  It has been rated a score of 93 by Bruce Sanderson, Wine Spectator.

Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut Champagne – France ($91.95).  It has hints of orange peel, freshly baked bread and honey.  It shouldn’t be uncorked until 2022 but can remain cellared until 2035.  Rated with a score of 91 by William Kelly, Robert Parker.

Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Riesling 2018 – Niagara, Canada ($27.95). This dry Riesling should remain in the cellar until 2022 but should be consumed by 2028.  It was rated a score of 91 by David Lawrason, Wine Align.

Roche de Bellene Curvée Réserve Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2018 – Burgundy, France ($22.95). There are hints of cherry and raspberry.  It is best consumed from 2022 to 2025.  David Lawrason, Wine Align scored it 89.

Tawse Quarry Road Pinot Noir 2017 – Niagara, Canada ($35.95) It contains notes of black cherry, pepper spice and cloves.  It was rated a score of 91 by Sara d’Amato, Wine Align.

The Chocolate Block 2018 – South Africa ($79.95). This wine is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Cabernet and Viognier. The drinking period is from 2022 to2035. It scored 92 points by Neil Martin, Vinous.  The good or the bad is that it is only available in a 1,500 ml. bottle.

Final Thoughts

During these difficult times and trying to minimize interaction with others, I have become a fan of online shopping through the LCBO.  My overall results have been favourable and my selections are not limited to the products available at one particular store.

Sláinte mhaith

Greek Wines

Wine has played a part in Greece’s culture from as early as the 8th Century BC according to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  Wine is also a part of Greek mythology by way of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, who appears in legends from every part of Greece.

Due to Greece’s turbulent history, dating all the way back to the 4th Century, it has always fallen well behind Italy in the development of wine.  This has impacted its influence in the modern wine world.  However, since the late 20th Century, Greece has been revitalized by motivated wine producers who are focusing on quality and are adopting modern wine making techniques.

Today Greek wine combines the traditional with the modern. Native Greek grape varieties such as Assyrtico, Agiorgitiko and Xynomavro are found alongside such international varieties as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

Greek wines are truly European in provenance, style and quality. They are a part of the premier European wine league and in belong to the same class as Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German and Austrian wines.

The basis of Greek wine production is the family-owned boutique winery. All vineyard practices, from planting to harvesting are carried out entirely by hand. The manual work done in Greek vineyards allows for greater attention to detail and the ability to select only the best grapes.

There is a rich heritage of vine growers and winemakers. However, the use of innovative practises and cutting-edge technology embellishes and highlight the arduous work carried out in the vineyard.

Like the rest of Europe, Greece’s grape growing areas are now organized into appellations.  Regions of historical significance were among the first to be granted appellation status.  Conditions were imposed on the grape varieties to be used in the making of wine and often on the altitudes required for cultivation.

The Onomasia Proelefseos Anoteras Piotitos (OPAP) and Onomasia Proelefseos Eleghomeni (OPE) are the two principal designations for the quality of wine in Greece. They cover dry and sweet wines respectively.

There are over 300 varietals of grapes grown in Greece, ranging from the traditional to standard European varieties to the most rare that are specific to Greece.   Included in this vast number of varieties are the four traditional ones.  They are:

Assyrtiko

Assyrtiko is a rare white grape that originated from Santorini (Assyrtiko-Santorini) but now can be found throughout Greece.  In terms of quality it is one of the most important native varietals. It is used to produce mainly dry white wines, some of which are aged in oak. However, a number of sweet wines are made from sun dried grapes.

Assyrtiko is made for people looking for unconventional, intense styles of whites that have texture and density. It pairs exceptionally well with grilled fish and seafood. All Assyrtiko wines, can age well for five or even ten years, sometimes significantly more.

Moschofilero

The Moschofilero grape is reddish or grayish in colour but is almost exclusively used to create dry whites and some sparkling wines. It is also used to create rose wines and is also often blended with other grapes.

Agiorgitiko

Agiorgitiko is a red grape variety that has freshness and intensity of aromas and flavours. It is used to produce a large range of styles, from refreshing rosés to concentrated sweet wines. However, the most common styles are as a young, unoaked wine or as a matured in oak for at least a year.

A young Agiorgitiko is a wine with a moderately deep purple red colour, intense aromas of fresh red fruits, medium acidity and soft tannins. The oak aged examples are deep in colour, while the nose suggests concentrated and complex aromas of red fruits. It is a variety that can produce other styles of wine, such as rosé or dessert wine. It is sometimes referred to being like the Italian Sangiovese grapes, which are the basis of Chianti wine.

Xinomavro

Xinomavro grapes are used to create reds, dynamic rosés, aromatic sparkling wines, and even sweet wines.  They are also blended in dry wines. 

Xinomavro wines are usually for sale when they are at least two years old, having spent a significant proportion of that time in oak. These wines tend to rise to prominence with aging and are bright red in colour, with firm tannins and bright acidity.  The bottle aging potential of these wines is excellent.

This wine is an ideal companion to foods with intense and rich flavours such as meat stews, grilled steaks, sausages, game, roasted lamb, coq au vin or even wild mushroom risotto with Parmesan, wine-flavoured cheeses, aged Gouda or Cheddar.

European Grape Varieties

In addition to the unique Greek varietals there are several standard European varieties grown as well.  White varietals include Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and the reds include Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier.  Because of Greece’s warm Mediterranean climate, varieties such as Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, or Gamay are not commonly grown in Greece.

Retsina Wine

One type of wine that is unique to Greece is Retsina. The resinated wine style is said to have developed when pine resin was used as an airtight sealant for wine storage vessels. Today Retsina is made by choice rather than necessity, through the addition of pine resin during fermentation.

Final Thoughts

So far the 21st Century has been a tumultuous as all the past centuries for Greece.  The ‘Greek Tragedy’ continues with political instability and an enormous debt crisis that has threatening the entire economy of Europe.  However, despite the continual turmoil, Greece produces both unique and excellent wines.

If you have never tried Greek wine or have not had any in recent memory, then it is time for a new discovery.  To fully embrace the Greek experience I suggest ignoring the common European varietals and try one or more of the traditional Greek wines.

Sláinte mhaith

The Wines of Tuscany Italy

Because of the romantic glamor of its endless rolling hills, cypress-lined country roads and hilltop villages, Tuscany is often considered to be the most famous of the Italian wine regions. Tuscany has a magnificent reputation for its iconic wines – Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

Situated in central Italy, Tuscany’s neighbors are Liguria and Emilia-Romagna to the north, Umbria and Marche to the east and Lazio to the south. Its western boundary is formed by the Tyrrhenian Sea. As is the case with almost all of Italy’s 20 regions, Tuscany has a long wine history.

Today, Tuscany is one of the most famous wine regions in Europe. Its vineyards produce an array of internationally recognised wines in various styles. These go far beyond the well-known reds, and include dry whites such as Vernaccia di San Gimignano and sweet wines, both white (Vin Santo) and red (Elba Aleatico Passito). The region’s top wines are officially recognised and protected by a raft of DOC and DOCG titles. (For explanation see my post on Italian Quality Standards August 31, 2019)

The climate has been a vital factor in its success as a wine region. It has warm, temperate coastal areas contrasted by inland areas where increased temperature variation helps to maintain the grapes’ balance of sugars, acidity and aromatics.

The Sangiovese grape is the mainstay variety in almost all of Tuscany’s top red wines. Its long history and broad regional distribution means that it has acquired various names. In Montalcino it goes by the name Brunello, whence Brunello di Montalcino. In Montepulciano, it is known as Prugnolo Gentile. Under the name Morellino, it is the grape used to make Morellino di Scansano.

Sangiovese is also the main grape in Chianti.  Modern Chianti can be made of 100% Sangiovese but also can include percentages of the native Canaiolo and Colorino grape , as well as Cabernet and Merlot.

I have a yearning to one day, when we are free to travel abroad once again, to sit under the Tuscan sun and enjoy a bottle of Chianti.

Sláinte mhaith

The Wines of Vento Italy

Veneto is an increasingly important wine region, located in the northeastern corner of Italy. The wine style represents a transition between the alpine, Germano-Slavic end of Italy and the warmer, drier, more Roman lands to the south.

Veneto is slightly smaller than the other main wine-producing regions of Italy but creates more wine than any of them. The southern regions of Sicily and Puglia were for a long time Italy’s main wine producers.  However, this balance began to shift north towards Veneto in the latter half of the 20th Century. Since the 1990s, Veneto has developed and improved the quality of its wines.  More than 25 percent of the region’s wine is made and sold under DOC/DOCG titles. (For explanation see my post on Italian Quality Standards August 31, 2019)

From a red wine perspective, Amarone has the most intense flavour.  This is in part due to innovations such as drying grapes prior to fermentation, which develops greater depth, complexity and concentration in the wines.

Production of the fruity red Valpolicella uses the ripasso technique, in which the  wines undergo a second fermentation and are “re-passed” over used Amarone skins, enhancing the colour, body and texture of the wine.

The other red wine unique to Veneto is the sweet wine, Recioto.  The region also produces some wonderfully refreshing white wines, such as Soave and sparkling Prosecco. 

The Veneto region can be roughly split into three geographical areas, each distinguished by its topography and geology. In the cooler, alpine-influenced climate in the northwest, the foothills of the Alps descend along the eastern edge of Lake Garda and fresh, crisp whites are made under the Bianco di Custoza and Garda titles, as well as Veneto’s lightest reds.

East of the lake and north of Verona is Valpolicella and its sub-region Valpantena.  Here 500,000 hectolitres of Valpolicella are produced each year. In terms of production volume, Valpolicella is the only DOC to rival Tuscany’s famous Chianti.

Immediately east of Valpolicella is Soave, home to the dry white wine that now ranks among Italy’s most famous products. Beyond that, Gambellara serves as an eastern extension of Soave, both geographically and stylistically. Garganega and Trebbiano are the key white wine grape varieties grown there.

In central Veneto, vast quantities of wine are produced, but only the better quality wines from more elevated areas have gained DOC status. International varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir (known as Pinot Nero in Italy) and Carmenere have proved successful here, as well as white Pinot Grigio and Tocai Friulano.

In the northeastern corner of the region, sparkling Prosecco is produced. Still wines are also made here, such as Lison, Lison-Pramaggiore, Montello e Colli Asolani and Colli di Conegliano. The common factor that unites almost all viticultural zones in northeastern Veneto is the Glera grape and the foaming spumante and semi-sparkling frizzante wines it creates.

I was introduced to Valpolicella wine by my wife many years ago.  We would sometimes venture out for a series of tapas on a Friday night which on her recommendation, we would complement with a glass of Valpolicella.  Delicious!

Sláinte mhaith

Grapes and Wild Fires

Smoke has caused a lot of damage to the 2020 grape harvest in California, Oregon and Washington during the past few weeks.  In some cases production has been reduced by over 80.  The smoke can be absorbed right into the grapes’ flesh giving them the flavour of a wet ash tray.

Atmospheric smoke has blocked the sunlight that is essential for the grapes to properly ripen. Poor air quality is slowing harvesting as fieldwork hours are being limited and particle-filtering masks are in short supply due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Wineries were already facing great financial strains due to the reduction in restaurant traffic and smaller crowds visiting vineyards for tastings.  Many tasting rooms remain closed due to fire and smoke risks, while grapes may be damaged or totally ruined.

Oregon, Washington and California together produce about 90% of all U.S. wine. The true impact on the $70 billion industry will not be known for months as crop damage can vary greatly.

Smoke has blanketed much of the U.S. West as fires have charred some 2 million hectares.

Laboratories that test grapes for smoke contamination are being overwhelmed with some taking up to a month to return results, instead of the normal week. Vineyards need this data to determine whether or not to harvest their grapes.

Winemakers and scientists are still learning how smoke can affect wine grapes and how the effects can be mitigated.  Australia has been at the forefront of the research, but studies at American universities have ramped up over the past five years.

The Australian Wine Institute has come up with a few practical ways to manage smoke-exposed grapes.  These include:

  • Hand harvest fruit to minimize breaking or rupturing of skins
  • Exclude leaf material to limit smoke-related characteristics
  • Maintain integrity of harvest fruit, avoiding maceration and skin contact
  • Keep fruit cool to extract less smoke-related compounds
  • Whole bunch press to reduce extraction of smoke-derived compounds

If corrections cannot be made, smoke taint will add two distinct compounds to wine: guaiacol (commonly called Creosote) and 4-methyl guaiacol.

White wines are often more susceptible to smoke than reds. Low levels of smoke can mask the fruit and give a dirty finishing flavour and higher levels negatively affect the smell and taste ashy.   Washing grapes with water might help get ash off the grapes but it does not reduce smoke compounds in the fruit.

It is too soon to judge how the wildfires will impact 2020 vintages but harvested grape supplies are expected to be much smaller.  With smaller harvests winemakers are expected to buy bulk wine from the 2019 season for blending with what is available from this year.

The reduced supply will most likely increase prices making U.S. wines less competitive in the international wine market for the next couple of years.

Sláinte mhaith

The Wines of Piedmont Italy

Piedmont, located in northwest Italy, is the home of more DOCG wines than any other Italian region. (For explanation see my post on Italian Quality Standards, August 31, 2019.)  Among them are such well-known and respected names such as Barolo, Barbaresco, and Barbera d’Asti. Although famous for tannic and floral red wines made from the Nebbiolo grape, Piedmont’s greatest recent success has been sweet, white sparkling Moscato d’Asti.

Piedmont, which literally means ‘at the foot of the mountains’, is situated at the foot of the western Alps.  The mountains are credited for the region’s favorable climate.

Foreign winemaking technologies have been a great contributor to Piedmont being viticulturally advanced compared to other Italian regions. The region’s proximity to France also plays a part in this.

Piedmont has been referred to as the “Burgundy” of Italy, as a result of its many small-scale, family wineries and a focus on quality that has sometimes been known to border on obsession. What Burgundy does with Pinot Noir, Piedmont does with Nebbiolo, the grape that has made the largest contribution to the quality and reputation of Piedmont’s wine. Nebbiolo is the varietal used to produce four of Piedmont’s DOCGs – Barolo and Barbaresco (two of Italy’s finest reds), Gattinara and the red wine from Roero (minimum 95 percent Nebbiolo).

Wines produced from Nebbiolo grapes are known for their “tar and roses” bouquet, and the pronounced tannins that can make them undesired as a young wine but an excellent wine for cellaring. The grape is known as Spanna in the north and east of Piedmont, and is used in at least 10 local DOCs including Carema, Fara and Nebbiolo d’Alba.

Barbera, a dark-skinned variety, is Piedmont’s workhorse grape and the region’s most widely planted variety. It is long been used to make everyday wines under a number of DOC titles, but is now behind a growing number of superlative wines in a range of styles and approaches of oak maturation.

Piedmont’s best Barberas are sold under the Barbera del Monferrato, Barbera d’Asti or Barbera d’Alba titles. These are classically Italian in style: tangy, sour cherry-scented reds with good acidity and moderate complexity. Less astringently tannic than their Nebbiolo-based counterparts, Barbera wines are enjoyably drinkable within just a year or two of vintage, giving them a competitive edge in today’s fast-paced, impatient wine market.

Dolcetto is the third red grape of Piedmont. It has one DOCG (Dogliani), and several DOCs devoted exclusively to it; the top three being Dolcettos d’Alba, d’Acqui and di Ovada. Dolcetto is usually used to make dry red wines.

The Brachetto grape is used in the production of the sweet, sparkling reds of the Brachetto d’Acqui DOCG. So, too is Freisa, with its broad portfolio of sweet, dry, still and sparkling red wines made in Asti and Chieri.

Although Piedmont is known mainly as a red-wine region, it produces several well regarded white wine styles. The most prominent is Moscato d’Asti and to a lesser extent the Asti Spumante. Both of these are made from Moscato grapes grown around the town of Asti.  The former is sweeter, more lightly sparkling and generally of higher quality.

The Piedmont white of the connoisseur is made from the Cortese grape; a variety which struggles to produce wines of any aromatic complexity anywhere else.  It now faces serious competition from the aromatic Arneis varietal. Although not as prestigious, the Arneis is increasingly popular for its delicate, exotic perfume. A final white worthy of mention is Erbaluce, which has benefitted from the 300 percent increase in Piedmont’s white wine production over the past thirty or so years.

With more DOCGs and DOCs than any other Italian region, and about 40 percent of its wine produced at DOC/G level, Piedmont is challenged only by Veneto and Tuscany for the top spot among Italian wine regions. Overall, Barolo is my personal favourite Italian wine.  Though it tends to be sold at a higher price point than other types of Italian wine, I find that it is cost justified.

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Wine Clubs

From time to time I have toyed with the idea of joining a wine club, whether it be one associated with a specific winery or an independent one.  Both have their pros and cons.

According to the so-called experts, the best wine clubs give you key features including access to unique, curated wines for special occasions, last-minute gifts or simply to satisfy your own palette.

Wine clubs can help take the guess work out of deciding what to buy or drink, but more importantly a wine club can introduce you to new wines.

There are lots of clubs to choose from and most are accessible online.  At any given time there are as many as 20,000 Ontarians subscribed to wine clubs.  With over 200 wineries in Ontario and an additional 300 across the rest of Canada, as well as several independent wine clubs, it’s good to know all the facts first.

Most Canadian wineries have wine clubs although   there is difference in how the various club subscriptions work. So it’s important to understand things like frequency (when you’ll get your wine) and quantity (how much you’re getting) and what their rules are for opting in and out.

Things that are important to take into consideration are variety of wines on offer, exclusivity, early-access, value and quality.

It is beneficial to join a club that offers its members exclusive and early-access deals. Check to see if there are any savings from purchasing through the wine club versus through your local liquor or wine store, the quality of the wine being offered (award-winning, sommelier tested, etc) and the guarantees provided to its members regarding satisfaction with the product and service.

Some of the largest wine clubs (Peller, Hillebrand, Jackson-Triggs, Inniskillin, Great Estates of Niagara) are a good place to begin your investigation, but some of the smaller, boutique wineries should not be ignored.

Clubs, like kwäf’s ClubK, are not tied to just one winery, but instead offer an array of quality wines, providing the opportunity to enjoy the wines of many wineries. They work with top sommeliers to offer the best wines. Kwaf is Ontario based and curates the best of Ontario wine and delivers it directly to your door.

The Exchange is a wine club that offers wines beyond what is available through your local liquor or wine store.  The Exchange will provide a curated, mixed case of top quality wines directly to your door. They work with top Ontario wine agencies to find jewels for Exchange members. All the wines are rated at 90 points or more and have been carefully selected by their panel of critics for quality and value.

With an Exchange subscription you become part of a cooperative consisting of hundreds of like-minded wine lovers to ‘Exchange’ a purchase of a full case of a single wine with a mixed case of twelve different wines. The Exchange does everything from the curation, ordering, purchasing, warehousing, repackaging and delivery. The curated case of high-quality wine is delivered to your door once every three months.

With any wine club you should be able to:

  1. Access exclusive discounts
  2. Save time
  3. Discover new wines
  4. Have flexibility
  5. Gain from loyalty and rewards

Before making your ultimate club selection you need to determine whether your drinking habits and style suits the terms of the club. The main things to look out for are to ensure that there are no contracts or obligation to purchase wines; that the company has a large selection and variety of wines; and their prices are less than the retail outlets.

If you are a wine drinker and like discovering new wines, then wine clubs are worth joining.

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The South African Wine Industry

The South African wine industry has faced many challenges throughout the 20th Century.  The South African Co-Operative Wine Growers Association (KWV) restricted the production of wines in such a way that innovation was near impossible and quantity was prioritized over quality. Yields were restricted and minimum prices set at a level which encouraged production of brandy and fortified wine. KWV’s control over the South African wine sector lasted until the 1990s, and still today the country’s industry is unusual for its high number of co-operatives.

South African wine fell out of international favour during the 20th Century.  It reached an all-time low when trade sanctions were placed on the country in the 1980s due to its apartheid policies. Nelson Mandela’s freedom in 1990 and his subsequent election as President reinvigorated the wine industry.

Up until the last 15 to 20 years most South African wines went directly to be distilled into brandy. However, today South African wines have emerged as both some of the best valued red and white wines and of the highest quality.

In 2016, South Africa had grown to be the world’s seventh largest producer of wine in terms of overall volume.  It accounted for 3.9 percent of global wine output. More than 300,000 people are employed in the industry.

South African Red Wines

Cabernet Sauvignon

There is a savory complexity to South African Cab, which makes it a delightful alternative to the more fruit-forward California Cabernets. The character of South African Cabernet Sauvignon is somewhere between the ‘new world’ and the ‘old world’.

The wine regions producing great Cabernet Sauvignon include:

  • Paarl & Stellenbosch
  • Franschhoek

Syrah

Syrah from South Africa is becoming popular due to its dark spiced fruit flavors with a chocolate like richness.  Syrah grows throughout South Africa, and therefore has a wide range of styles. You will find more savory wines from cooler regions such as Paarl and Stellenbosch and more richly intense wines from dry areas such as Robertson and Swartland.

The wine regions most noted for producing great Syrah include:

  • Paarl & Stellenbosch
  • Robertson
  • Swartland

Pinotage

Pinotage is unique to South Africa.  It is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault.  Pinotage offers juicy raspberry to blueberry fruit flavors with spiced chocolate and tobacco. The wines are much denser, higher in alcohol and typically more savory than Pinot Noir. Pinotage often gets blended with Syrah.

The wine regions most noted for producing Pinotage include:

  • Diemersfontein
  • Southern Right
  • Kanonkop

Merlot

Merlot is widely used as a blending grape with Cabernet Sauvignon. Still you can find several single-variety Merlots from the Coastal Region.

Other South African Reds

Several other red wine varietals are growing in South Africa, including Malbec, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Cinsault (spelled ‘Cinsaut’ in SA). While most of these varietals are blended, South Africa’s cooler climate regions  are making single variety Pinot Noir.

Other less known red varietals that are now being produced, but in small quantities include Hanepoot, Cornifesto, and Roobernet.

South African White Wines

Chenin Blanc

Most of the Chenin Blanc produced goes into brandy production but there is an increasing market for South African Chenin Blanc. It is a peachy and floral grape variety not unlike Alsatian Pinot Gris and Viognier.

The vintners and wine regions most noted for producing Chenin Blanc include:

  • Ken Forrester in Stellenbosch
  • MAN vintners in Coastal Region
  • Badenhorst in Swartland

Colombard

Known in South Africa as ‘Colombar’ this less used white wine grape from the central France is commonly used to add Sauvignon Blanc-like zestiness to Chenin Blanc based white wine blends. Still, a large chunk of the wine production goes towards brandy making.

Sauvignon Blanc

The flavors of Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa have a lot of similarities to those of New Zealand.  They are zesty, grapefruity and grassy and usually very inexpensive.

Chardonnay

As a cool climate variety, a lot of South Africa’s regions aren’t particularly well suited for Chardonnay. However, the coastline along the South stays cool. Look for Chardonnay from Walker Bay.

Other South African Whites

Other white varietals include Semillon, Riesling, and Viognier which are often used for blending, but are increasingly found in single-varietal boutique bottlings.

Generally speaking, South African wines provide good value at a competitive price.  I was introduced to these wines several years ago by a friend who had spent a good portion of his working life in South Africa.   There are red and white options available to satisfy any palate.

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