Varietals by Region or Name

It is usually quite easy to identify the varietals contained in new world wines, such as those from Australia, North America or South America, and some European countries such as Germany.  These producers often display the varietal or blend as part of the label.  On the other hand some countries and regions, such as France and Italy, do not follow the same practice. 

In France the wines are usually identified by the region in which they are grown.  The same is true for some German, Italian and Spanish wines. This can make it very confusing for you when trying to find a certain type of wine for your drinking pleasure.  The good news is that both France and Italy label their wines in a consistent fashion so once you understand their naming conventions it is easier to determine the varietals the wines consist of.  The effort to understand these naming conventions, which are buried deep in their wine making history, will be well rewarded as it will provide you with great drinking pleasure for years to come.

 In both France and Italy the grapes grown are unique to each geographic region.  By taking note of which regions are renowned for the type of grapes you enjoy, you will be able to select one of these wines with more certainty than by just grabbing a bottle off the shelf randomly, or worse yet, avoiding them altogether.  From there you may find a particular winery or two or ten that you have a craving for.

In the weeks ahead I will tackle unravelling the mysteries many of the European wines and decipher the meaning of what appears on their labels.

Happy exploring!

Sláinte mhaith

Selecting Canadian Wines

A number of countries, including parts of Canada, provide consumers with a guide to assist with the selection of a quality wine.  You have probably seen the black and gold VQA emblem on the label or neck of many wines produced in Ontario and British Columbia.  VQA is the acronym for Vintners Quality Alliance.

VQA Logo

The VQA is a provincial regulating body in Ontario and British Columbia.  VQA oversees winemaking and labelling standards through origin verification, extensive laboratory testing and tasting by an independent expert panel, as well as comprehensive label reviews.

It is not required that all wines produced in these provinces adhere to the VQA standard.  For those who choose to be VQA certified, the wines must consist of 100% fresh grapes – concentrates are not permitted.  The grapes must meet a quality standard and no water can be added during the winemaking process.  All wines, except sparkling wines, must be vintage dated and adhere to vintage requirements.

Once the vintner has determined the wine is ready for consumption it will be evaluated by an expert taste panel and a laboratory analysis, which must meet minimum quality standards before being released.  Regulations dictate that the origin, style and type of wine must contain 95% of grapes originating from the specific region identified on the label, and 85% must come from the vintage stated on the label and be of the varietal indicated.

What is found on the wine label of a VQA wine:

  • Producer’s name
  • The year the grapes were produced, known as the Vintage Year
  • Vineyard Designation (optional) – 100% of the wine came from this vineyard
  • Varietal name, for example Riesling, Cabernet Franc, etc.
  • The appellation where the grapes were grown, such as Niagara Peninsula, Okanagan Valley
  • Mandatory product information (required by federal legislation) including:
    • Alcohol strength (the percentage per volume)
    • Country of origin
    • Winery’s location
    • Producer’s common name

Depending on the preference of the particular producer, they may choose to include the information on the front or back label of the bottle

What does this mean to you?  The VQA designation does not guarantee that the wine will be to your liking, but it does stack the odds in your favour. 

Non-VQA wines in Ontario and British Columbia are less likely to provide a consistent taste experience.  This is because the wine may not contain the same composition of grapes from one batch to the next or one year to another.  The grapes don’t even have to originate from the same country!  As a result each bottle, even though it has the same label and even the same year, may provide a totally different experience.  I guess you could think of it in the same manner that Forest Gump considered a box of chocolates … each one can be a new surprise.

Inconsistency doesn’t necessarily make non-VQA wines bad.  One advantage that they sometimes do have is that the cost per bottle is usually less than a comparable VQA wine. 

The second advantage is that producers of non-VQA wines are not as susceptible to poor growing seasons.  For example, if there is an unusually cold and/or wet summer in Ontario resulting in reduced Cabernet Franc production, non-VQA producers can obtain suitable Cabernet Franc grapes from elsewhere in the world, thus making Cabernet Franc wine more readily available and at a relatively lower price.

All that being said, personally I still search out VQA wines.  Unlike Forest, I am not a big fan of surprises, in either chocolate or wine.

Nova Scotia has chosen not to follow the VQA guidelines.  Instead it has elected to follow the spirit of France’s Appellation d’Origine Controlee, which is the subject of an upcoming discussion.  Nova Scotia is focused on encouraging their winemakers to produce a product with qualities and characteristics that will be uniquely identified to their region.

Nova Scotian wines are not always easy to obtain, depending on where you live, but in my travels to Nova Scotia I have had the pleasure of drinking some of these wines and found them to be most enjoyable.

Sláinte mhaith

The Mighty Grape

I am sure it is no surprise that the varietal (type of grape) a wine is composed of has the most significant impact on taste.   Generally speaking, white wines are much more subtle and delicate in flavour compared to reds, which are bolder and richer in flavour.

There is also a range of flavour and intensity, as well as sweetness within each of the whites and reds.  The depth of flavour and sweetness of the grapes is impacted by where the grape is grown and to a lesser extent, the characteristics of each individual growing season, whether it being warmer, cooler, wetter, and/or dryer.

The warmer the climate, the more intense the flavour of the grapes.  This is because warmer climates have longer growing seasons, thus giving the grapes more time to develop and enhance their flavour.

There are micro climates within regions as well, which have a comparative effect on the flavour and richness of the wines produced.  For example, within Canada, wines grown in British Columbia will generally have a bolder flavour than those grown in Ontario.  This is because the Okanagan Valley where the bulk of B.C.s grapes are grown is a warmer location with a longer growing season than the wine regions of Ontario.

Wines will sometimes be categorized by dryness while other times they are assessed based on the intensity of their flavour, sometimes referred to as “body”.  Retailers will typically display ratings based on dryness, that is, the amount of natural sugars present in the wine.

Dryness or sweetness does not always relate directly to whether the wine has a bold or mild flavour.  The body or boldness of the flavour will be more dependent on the type of grape, the amount of tannin and acid in the wine, as well as the region the grape was grown in.  For example, an Australian or Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon will most likely have a much more intense flavour than a similar wine from France or Canada.

The more tannin and alcohol content in a wine, the fuller the taste.  The reverse is true for the level of acidity within the wine; the higher the levels of acidity, the less bold the taste of the wine.

Since darker coloured fruit usually has more intense flavour, the darker the colour of the wine, the more intense the flavour will be.  The colour of a wine doesn’t help though when purchasing a wine from a merchant since the bottles are usually coloured preventing you from seeing the natural colour of the wine.

Light bodied wines are considered to be those with an alcohol level of 12.5% or less whereas medium bodied wines have alcohol content between 12.5% and 13.5%.  Finally, any wine with an alcohol level of 13.5% or above is considered full bodied.

The grape content within a wine is not always easily identifiable by simply reading the label.  In France for example, wines are identified only by the region in which they are produced, such as Bordeaux or Burgundy.  An upcoming article will discuss how to identify the varietals contained in wines that are only identified on the bottle only by region or type.

Sláinte mhaith

Does Wine Need to be Expensive to be Good?

The perception is that wines must be expensive in order to be good.  However, that is not necessarily the case.  I spend much of my time seeking out the diamonds in the rough, those wines that are good but not expensive.  Finding such wines is not as difficult as you might think.

There are lots of good wines in about every price point, whether you are comfortable spending $1,000, $100 or $17 there are good wines waiting to be discovered.

Personally, I tend to stay away from wines produced en masse and instead, seek out ones produced in lower quantities by estate wineries.  The reason for this is large wineries often purchase grapes from a variety of grape growers, often resulting in varying quality in the grapes and as a result, in the taste of the wine.

Small estate wineries tend to grow their own grapes and if they do need to supplement their inventory with purchased grapes, those grapes are selectively chosen.  This helps to ensure a consistent quality in the wines they produce.

So if there are good inexpensive wines available for as little as $17, why are there such variations in price point, with some ones fetching thousands of dollars?  There are business and economic factors, such as the fixed production costs, packaging, shipping, and duties on imported wines. 

Climate factors can have an influence, whether the growing season was particularly hot, cold, wet, or dry. 

However, the wines with the highest prices are often those produced by prestigious wineries or vintners; rare vintages; those produced from exceptionally old or historic vines; or those wines consisting of varietals that are not in abundant supply.

So to find wines you will enjoy start by searching within the price point you are comfortable with.  Next, the taste of a wine will be influenced by the varietal or blends the wine is composed of; so if you know which types of grapes you enjoy, search for those.  Another variable is the geographical area in which the grapes were grown; generally the hotter the climate the more intense the flavour.

Information will often be provided by the seller.  Look for information in brochures, catalogues, or stock cards that may be available in the store or on the merchant’s web site. 

The wine bottle itself may reveal helpful information.  Don’t forget to look at the label on the back of the bottle, as well as the one on the front.

Finally, many wineries have their own web site which may provide detailed information pertaining to the various wines they produce, including such information as the varietal(s) contained, how the wine was aged, tannin content, acid levels, etc., all of which impact the flavour.

The impacts of varietals and geographical regions on the taste of wine will be discussed in an upcoming article.

Sláinte mhaith

Finding a Good Wine

The best way to determine if a wine is to your liking is to taste it.  However, that is not always a practical solution given that your local wine merchant probably doesn’t offer sampling bottles similar to the way cosmetic counters allow shoppers to lather on skin cream. However, if you have the opportunity to visit a winery they will often offer a selection of their wines for sampling and purchase.

According to the experts, wine tasting is an art in itself that should be conducted in a very particular fashion.  This will be the subject of a future post.

Given that tasting wine is not often a viable solution we often rely on the opinions of those who have tasted the wine or the vintner who made the particular wine.  Vintners do not rate their wine but they will provide insight as to how the wine was produce, the type and percentage of the various varietals used, etc.

It is important to keep in mind that wine evaluations are very subjective.  There is nothing scientific about them and there are a number of studies and articles backing that claim.  Complicating matters further is the fact that there is no standard method or scale for reviewing wines.  Each expert has their way of ranking wines, some score out of a maximum 100 points, while others rank from 1 to 5, some rank based on 1 to 4 stars, while still others rank based on 1 to 3 wine glasses.  The reader is left to their own interpretation of how a 91 compares to 3.5 stars or 4 out of 5, or 2 out of 3 wine glasses.

In situations where a wine is reviewed by individuals using the same scoring system, the results may be vastly different.  Reviewers conducting a blind taste test provided a wide range of ratings for the same wine. 

What I often find more informative than the rating number is the accompanying comments.  At least then you can read what they think and draw your own conclusions about whether this may be an enjoyable wine for you.

My own experiences suggest that enjoyment of a wine can vary depending on a variety of external factors, such as your mood, stresses and other variables.  On several occasions I have noticed that I have had two identical bottles of wine on different days where I found I enjoyed one immensely and found the second rather blah.

There are other factors that can influence your perception of a bottle of wine.  These include food pairings, which can physically influence your taste buds, thus providing a different taste sensation depending on the type of food being eaten alongside of the wine.

Studies have also been conducted indicating how people’s appreciation for a wine can be influenced by distractions such as background music, the colour of the wine (darker wines are perceived to taste better), and the price of the wine (more expensive wines are expected to be of better quality).  Keep in mind these are perceptions, not necessarily realities.

One final sobering thought.  As we continue to age our tastes and preferences change.  A wine that you find enjoyable today may not be so 10 years from now.  The opposite is also true.  This may be the result of our taste buds becoming less sensitive as we grow older.  Also some people become more sensitive to wines containing higher levels of acid or tannin.  Whatever the reason, I recommend keeping an open mind and occasionally make a point of trying wines you may not have been wowed by in the past.  You never know what you might discover.

So how do you find a good wine?   I don’t believe there is a sure fire way.  My recommendation is to keep a mental or written note of your wine explorations and when you come across a wine you like make a note so you can look for it again.

Sláinte mhaith