Argentina’s Bonarda Grape

Bonarda grapes are pretty much unique to South America’s Argentina, where, after Malbec, it is the country’s most produced varietal.  It was first introduced in Argentina in the 1800s.  It is not the same grape as the Bonarda from Italy.  The Argentinian varietal is actually named Douce Noir, which originated in Savoie, France.

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It was initially used to add colour and a fruity flavour to Argentinian-produced blends.  However, it has since been found that it can stand on its own as a single varietal.  The key to using Bonarda on its own is to use grapes only from the more mature vines. There are plantings that are over 100 years old.

Bonarda grapes mature well in oak barrels and the resulting wines are characterized by complexity and spice with great structure and medium-full body.  The wine will have hints of plum, cherry and fig.  The colour is deep and dark. There is a medium level of tannins which allow it to be cellared for five to ten years, though it is ready to drink when it is released from the winery.

Bonarda will pair well with grilled pork, roast chicken or even grilled salmon.

If you haven’t tried it before, Argentina’s Bonarda is worth seeking out at your local liquor store.  Who knows, it may become your next favourite medium-bodied red wine.

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Wine Barrels

A wine barrel has become one of the most recognized symbols associated with wine. As a society we have romanced the wine barrel to the point where we have turned it into tables, benches, planters and candle holders.  Case in point, I have two barrels in my wine cellar as leg supports for a table and I have a candle holder made from a barrel rib on my bar.

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The Romans discovered that oak could be more easily bent into the traditional barrel shape than palm wood; the oak only needed minimal toasting and a barrel could be created much faster. Oak was also the most abundant in the forests of continental Europe and its tight grain made it waterproof.

The Romans learned that oak has a tendency to soften and smooth the flavour of wine and provide it with a more complex taste.  Slight toasting of the wood added scents such as cloves, cinnamon, allspice or vanilla, as well as flavours such as caramel, vanilla or even butter.

Today wine barrels are made from a variety of materials; European oak (often referred to as French oak), American white oak, stainless steel, aluminum and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) plastic.  These barrels typically come in 3 standard sizes:

  • Bordeaux type – 225 litres
  • Burgundy type – 228 litres
  • Cognac type – 300 litres.

Barrel aging is the main element of what is referred to as the élevage process, which is a French term meaning “raising” or “upbringing”. This is what occurs to the wine between fermentation and bottling.  The wine’s élevage can last for a few months to many years, during which time the wine’s flavours integrate and mature.

The winemakers’ choices during the aging process include how long to age the wine for and how much to manipulate it. which has a major impact on the taste of the finished product. One of the most important choices is what type of barrel to age the wine in.

When oak barrels are manufactured they are toasted over a fire to either a light, medium, or dark toast level. New barrels with a light toast will give lots of vanilla and caramel notes, while a darker toast will give smoky, roasted aromas.

An oak wine barrel’s age and size affect the amount of oak flavor that will be transmitted to the wine. Smaller barrels impart more oak flavor because they allow more contact between the wood and the wine. Oak barrels lose their flavour compounds with use so they must be replaced every few vintages.

In addition to adding oak flavours, new oak aging changes the tannin structure of red wines. Tannins from the wood barrel transfer into the wine, giving it a stronger structure. This contributes to a wine’s aging capability, or longevity in the bottle. The wood also helps stabilize the tannins from the grape skins, giving them a silkier texture.

After a few years of use, the oak will no longer provide flavour or tannin to the wine. The older barrels still allow for slow oxygenation, so they can be used to age wine that needs to mellow without the addition of oak flavouring.

Oak influences both red and white wines by adding the aroma of:

  • Vanilla
  • Caramel
  • Baking spices like cinnamon, clove, nutmeg
  • Coconut (especially from American oak)
  • Dill (especially from American oak)

Red wines may also present additional aromas of:

  • Smoke
  • Chocolate
  • Coffee
  • Toffee
  • Burnt sugar

Steel barrels, on the other hand, add no flavour to the wine.  Steel simply stores the wine for a few months while it stabilises and the grape flavours integrate. Steel barrels also don’t let any oxygen come into contact with the wine. This kind of aging helps wines retain the fresh fruit aromas that disappear when exposed to oxygen.

Stainless steel aging is used for wines that would not benefit from the addition of oak flavours or the softening effect that oak has on tannin. It is used for white wines not having tannins to manage. Stainless steel is the usual choice for aromatic and semi-aromatic white grapes including:

  • Albariño
  • Unoaked Chardonnay (often aged in oak as well)
  • Gewürztraminer
  • Grüner veltliner
  • Pinot grigio
  • Riesling
  • Sauvignon blanc

For red wines, stainless steel is a good choice for lower tannin, fruity grapes such as:

  • Baco Noir
  • Gamay
  • Grenache

Red wines aged in stainless steel are straightforward and juicy, with no oak flavours obscuring the flavours of the grapes.

Stainless steel aging is significantly less expensive than using oak because unlike oak barrels, steel barrels can be reused indefinitely and are much easier to clean. Stainless steel aging also takes less time than oak aging which saves winemakers crucial space in the wine cellar.

Since oak barrels can be used only two or three times for the purpose of adding flavour to the wine, the cost of buying new barrels is built into the higher prices of oak-aged wines. Some producers try to mimic the flavours of oak aging by adding less expensive oak chips to wines that are aged in stainless steel vessels. Oak chips add vanilla and spice notes but have no effect on a wine’s texture like oak barrels do.

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Tastings and Rankings

Although the subject of my writing today is on whisky, the same thoughts apply to wine reviews as well.  The beverage is different but the prejudices, influences and considerations remain the same; food for thought.

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Taste is subjective; remember the saying “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure”?  My own opinions as to preference will vary within reason depending on my mood.  I suggest treating these articles as a curiosity and entertainment, not as gospel.   I read some of the reviews to see how the writer’s opinions may compare to my own.  For the article to have any kind of validity, the author needs to reveal what selections were sampled and how that list was determined.

Before assessing the writer’s results, you need to be aware of any bias the person may have.  If comparing peated whisky with non-peated whisky, the writer may allow a personal bias of whether they are a fan of the smokiness of peat be an influence.  On the other hand, if a group of whiskies were being ranked based on the sweetness and/or peatiness, without comment as to personal preference, that can be valuable to a reader in matching their personal preferences.

Double-blind tastings where the reviewer is unaware of what whiskies are being sampled, as well as the order in which they are presented is best.  That way personal prejudice may be better avoided.   For example, Zach Johnston of was quoted during his review, Scotch Whiskies Tasted ‘Double-Blind’ And Power Ranked, “I had no idea what this was (Johnnie Walker Blue Label). I do feel that had I known it was in the lineup, I’d had sussed it out and ranked it higher. So, this is a pretty good example of how double blinds really push the envelope.”  This is a good example of how a whisky’s reputation or price point can bias opinion on how good a whisky is.

Should price be a consideration?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  In the example above, Johnnie Walker Blue was ranked 6th of the 8 whiskies tasted. It carries a price tag in excess of $300.  The 5 whiskies ranked higher ranged from $100 to slightly under $300.  However, the whisky that ranked last was also by far the least expensive, priced at under $85. 

It is important to make sure that the reviewer is comparing apples to apples.  It hardly seems fair to compare a simple 10-year-old malt with a price point in the $80 range with a 25-year-old that was aged in an ex-bourbon or ex-sherry cask, in the $250 and up price range.  After all, for a difference of $200 or more, there should be a differentiating factor, otherwise why would you pay the extra money?

Finally, if the reviewer is from outside of Canada, the selection list isn’t often completely relevant.  Many of the whiskies are often not available to try.  Therefore, from a practical standpoint, a comparison or ranking of a good sampling of whiskies may be reduced to a comparison of only 2 or 3, depending on accessibility.

However, after all is said and done, reviews do provide a new perspective for consideration and thought.

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Dinner for the April Long-Weekend

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With COVID restrictions lifting, friend and family gatherings are once again permissible.  In the event you are planning to host a spring celebration, here are some of the standard menus that have been paired with complimentary wines.

Roast Beef

The reds from Bordeaux France are a good match for the robust flavour of roast beef.  Bordeaux consists of a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and often lesser amounts of Petit Verdot, Malbec and sometimes Carmenère.  Chianti or Cabernet Sauvignon will also pair well.  Younger wines will have more tannins and fuller flavour so they will be better suited for to stronger cuts of beef.

Baked Ham

Pinot Noir is typically paired with glazed baked ham as its supple flavour will not overpower the ham while its fruitiness will offset the saltiness of the meat.  Smoked ham will pair well with a Grenache, French Syrah, or even a California Zinfandel.

Roast Lamb

The stronger flavour of lamb will overwhelm the gentler wines so it is better suited to bolder reds such as a Spanish Tempranillo, South American Malbec or Australian Shiraz.


The oily richness of salmon needs to be complimented by a wine containing sufficient acidity. One of the most classic pairings for salmon is Pinot Noir or a French red Burgundy wine.  However, Grenache, French Beaujolais, Chardonnay, French White Burgundy, Torrontés, Sauvignon Blanc or Dry Rosé will work equally as well. 


Turkey has been traditionally served with white wine, however there are some reds that will compliment your dinner equally well.  If you choose a white, a dry Riesling will work well.  The alternative is to select a Pinot Noir or a French Burgundy.  All of these wines have enough acidity while not overpowering the turkey.

Final Thoughts

No matter what you are serving on the holiday weekend, most importantly take this opportunity to enjoy the company of friends and family as we don’t know what new COVID variant and restrictions lurk around the corner.

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Cooking with Wine

Cooking with wine was first introduced by the Romans but it is French chefs who have been credited with refining the techniques.  Even though other cultures have used wine in cooking, it is the classic French methods that have prevailed.  These include braising, deglazing, marinating and poaching.

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Braising with Wine

Braising will help to take a modest cut of meat and make it become extra special.  You can use simple cuts such as beef, lamb or pork shoulder, beef or lamb shanks, chicken thighs, beef brisket or various stewing meats. You can even use this process with vegetables.

Braising meat in butter or oil sears it to create a dark golden flavourful crust.  Wine and stock are then added and the meat is then left to simmer.  The acidity of the wine tenderizes the meat while the alcohol cooks off.

Bold flavourful red wines such as Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon are best for braising as they will provide good flavour, complexity and richness to your dish. 

Deglazing with Wine

Deglazing a pan with wine is one of the easiest ways to make a sauce. Start by pan-searing chicken, pork, beef, lamb or even eggplant to brown them as described in braising above.  Once seared, add wine to the pan to loosen the caramelized brown bits.  The wine reduces and becomes concentrated in the hot pan.  In addition to helping to make a tasty sauce it helps to clean the pan.

Deglazing works best with meats and vegetables that are thick enough to brown before becoming overcooked.  Be careful not to rush the process in order to prevent charring.  A generous amount of oil in the pan will help with the browning.  Any excess can be poured off prior to adding the wine.  To give the sauce more length and flavour, stock, cream, chilled butter, sour cream, water or jam may be added.

Depending on what’s on the menu, either red or white wine may be a suitable choice.  When selecting a red however, it is important to select one with lower tannins.  Otherwise, when the wine is concentrated it will become bitter. A Pinot Noir or Gamay is always a good choice.

Marinating with Wine

Wine will infuse flavour into whatever meal you are preparing. The acidity in the wine will break down meat tissue and tenderize it.

Marinades usually consist of an acid (wine, lemon or lime juice or vinegar and oil) as well as flavour additives, such as maple syrup, soy sauce, brown sugar, herbs, spices, sesame seed oil or mustard.

The wine to use in the marinade should be selected in the same manner as you would when pairing a wine to enjoy with the dinner itself.  The meat, fish or vegetable being prepared should determine the wine selected for the marinade.  For darker meats like beef or lamb, red wine will complement their flavour.  White wines are better suited for fish, poultry or vegetables.

That being said, keep in mind that the wine needs to have enough acidity to tenderize the dish.  Either the description on the wine label or the store shelf should provide the necessary information.  If not, the store staff should be able to assist you in making the appropriate selection.

Poaching with Wine

Poaching simmers delicate foods like fish and poultry in a flavourful liquid.  The acid in wine, lemon or lime juice or vinegar helps cook the food and enhances its flavour.  The poaching liquid needs to be well seasoned and the food is often served with a sauce to give additional flavour.  The food being poached should always be simmered and be completely submerged to ensure it cooks evenly.

In order to avoid discolouration of what is being cooked, white wine is usually recommended when poaching.  Suggested grape varietals include Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.

Final Thoughts

When pairing the wine with what you are preparing, select a wine of the same colour and similar characteristics. Lighter dishes should be paired with a lighter bodied wine while heavier dishes should be combined with medium or full-bodied wines.

No matter what you are preparing and how you are preparing it, keep in mind that you will also want to drink it.  Most recipes don’t require an entire bottle of wine so what’s left should be something that you will enjoy drinking.

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