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.

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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!

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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.

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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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The Variable Health Benefit in Red Wine

A recent study of 16 wines from Australia and New Zealand has found levels of healthy antioxidants in red grapes decreased significantly over time.  Researchers say the compound called trans-resveratrol that is found in red wine is proven to have cardiovascular, anti-inflammatory, and anti-diabetic effects.  The more you consume of this compound in your food or beverages it is believed to better improve your health. 

When comparing younger bottled wines to mature red wines as the wine ages the concentration of this important bioactive compound decreases by about 75% over a 16-month period.  This is a significant decrease in the concentration of this health-benefiting compound.

The study published in the Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research found the concentration decreased in some wines by as much as 96%.  Irrespective of which winery the red wine came from or which variety it was, the loss was the same.

The popularity of younger red wines has increased greatly as millennials show a preference for younger wines than their parents do.  The younger generation’s philosophy is buy now, drink now or in a casual situation in a bar or bistro, drink by the glass.

The over 55 age group still consume a lot of full-bodied reds compared to the younger generations who want something that’s vibrant and fresh, not old and with a higher alcohol content.  The increased popularity of younger wine is due to a generational change rather than for health benefits.  The popularity of these wines has grown dramatically in the past 10 years.

However, being a member of the 55 plus crowd, I am a big fan of full-bodied aged wines that have had the opportunity to mellow and become silky smooth in a way that only time can achieve.  I am not saying I don’t like young fresh wines; I just don’t want a steady diet of them.  For example, if I am having food paired with a Pinot Noir, such as salmon or roast chicken, I want to experience the fresh lively taste.

On the other hand, if I am having roast beef, rack of lamb, Boeuf Bourguignon, or lasagna, there is nothing better than a well-aged Cabernet Sauvignon or Barolo.  In certain situations I am willing to sacrifice the health benefits in favour of flavour.

If I am simply having a glass of wine to sip on, I equally enjoy a young fresh red and a mellow aged one. Case in point; we had friends over recently with whom we share an equal appreciation for the Niagara region’s now defunct Coyote’s Run Winery (see my May 26, 2019 post, “The Passing of an Old Friend”). We enjoyed a cherry-red 2015 Cabernet Franc, as well as a smoky dark 2010 vintage of the same varietal. Both were very enjoyable. 

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The 2020 Ontario Wine Awards

The 26th edition of the Ontario Wine Awards was scheduled to be held back on June 4th.  However, due to COVID-19 the event was postponed.  For the previous 25 years the entries were assessed blind by panels of accredited wine judges from the wine writing and teaching community. The criteria for judging the entries not only required an appreciation for wine, but also necessitated knowledge and expertise of wines from the Ontario region. Included amongst the winning categories; Ontario Red, White and Sparkling Wines of the Year, Ontario Winemaker of the Year, and the Ontario Journalism Award, which recognizes the best article published on the Ontario wine industry.

The award winners left to right in the order presented below.

The 2020 COVID-19 version of the awards finally took place on August 28th A small group gathered at Kew Vineyard, at Beamsville, Ontario, as the awards were presented in front of a small, socially-distanced gathering.  Unlike previous years there were no judges and no formal tastings for the four main awards.  Instead the Awards Committee reached out to judges who had participated in the last three years of the competition and asked them to nominate their top three white, red and sparkling wines they had tasted during the year. Based on those responses the top scoring wines were tabulated.

In addition, the judges were asked to vote on whom they considered should be honoured with the title “Winemaker of the Year”.

The Ontario Wine Awards results for 2020 are:

The Allen Red Wine of the Year Award was awarded to Prince Edward County’s Rosehall Run for its 2018 ‘JCR Pinot Noir Rosehall Vineyard’. I was lucky to obtain a few bottles on my recent trip to the County and heartily concur.

The Quench Magazine White Wine of the Year Award went to the 2017 ‘Charles Baker Riesling Picone Vineyard’ from Niagara.

The Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College Sparkling Wine of the Year Award was awarded to the 2014 ‘Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Carte Blanche Blanc de Blanc’ from Niagara.

Finally, the Quench Magazine Winemaker of the Year Award went to Philip Dowell of Niagara’s Angels Gate Estate Winery.

Looking forward to 2021, we can only hope that life will return to a more semblance of normal.  However, at this point it is anyone’s guess.

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Day Trip to The County

On the first anniversary of my hemorrhagic stroke I wanted to get away from the ‘scene of the crime’ so my wife suggested taking a day excursion to Prince Edward County.  The County is often compared to France’s Burgundy region in both climate and the grape varietals grown.

The County was officially designated as a VQA appellation in 2007.  It is separated from the mainland by the Bay of Quinte at Belleville and is completely surrounded by Lake Ontario.  The soils and microclimates of the County, coupled with a limestone base, provide an ideal growing environment for cool-climate grapes such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  This island setting is now home to over 40 wineries, a dozen craft breweries, fine restaurants, cheese producers, farmers’ markets and other local food purveyors.

I hadn’t visited the county for a few years and had lost touch with what is going on there.  So to prepare for our journey I checked out the latest reviews of the County wineries, which I combined with some curiosities of my own and developed a list of destinations.  My list consisted of 7 wineries, 6 of which were considered as the County’s movers and shakers of 2020 and the 7th was one that I had an interest in.  The wineries included Closson Chase, Devil’s Wishbone, The Grange, Hinterland, The Old Third, Rosehall Run and Waupoos.

The day didn’t exactly play out as I had planned, at least partially due to COVID-19.  Both Devil’s Wishbone and the Old Third were closed and a number of the others had a very limited wine supply.   For example, at the Grange, in order to purchase the only red they had in stock, I had to buy two 375 ml bottles of their Merrill House 2016 Pinot Noir as they had no 750 ml bottles left.  However, having now drank one of the bottles, my wife and I agree it was a good purchase at the equivalent price of $37 for a 750 ml. bottle.

However, as it happened, our last stop made the day worthwhile.  At the very end of Greer Rd. lies Rosehall Run, one of the original wineries established in the County.   Among our finds there was their 2018 JCR Pinot Noir, which in August was awarded the ‘Red Wine of the Year’ at the Ontario Wine Awards.  This wine has the potential of being one of the greatest and longest-lived Pinot Noir they have produced. Even though the wine may be enjoyed now it can be laid down for the next 5 to 7 years to reveal the purity that will evolve with time.  With a price point of $42, it is good value.

Our second find was a 2016 Merlot which was the result of them being able to secure a couple of tonnes of Merlot planted at Prince Edward County’s Huff Estates which resulted in Rosehall Run creating their first and only County Merlot.  The wine was barreled down in their underground cellar for 18 months. New French oak was utilized in preparing this small lot.  There is only a small quantity left and with its price of $35 a bottle, it will be gone soon.

Overall I have always found the offerings of Prince Edward County to be on the expensive side compared to similar offerings in Niagara and especially at the LCBO.  For a big part it is a factor of demand and supply.  The County VQA region is much smaller than Niagara and thus the quantity of grapes available is less and this is reflected in the prices.  There are some good value wines to be found for sure but you just need to be prepared to make the effort to search them out.   There are a couple of wineries, such as Sandbanks, where you can always count on finding a good selection and good value.

Given the climate of the region it is important to keep in mind that the mainstay varietals are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Baco Noir.  To expect to find a lot of other locally grown varietals, such as Cabernet, is not realistic. 

Given that the County has so much more to offer besides wine, a trip there is well worth the time.         

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France’s Champagne Wine Region

The Champagne region is located 145 kilometres northeast of Paris and is one of the world’s most northerly fine-wine regions. It is generally divided into three parts – the Montagne de Reims, the Vallée de la Marne and the Côte des Blancs.

The region contains 75,000 acres of vineyards. It’s interesting to note that most and the greatest vineyards of Champagne are not owned by great landowners but by thousands of growers, often working part-time.

The vineyards are situated on deep chalk soils, part of the same great basin that forms the famous white cliffs of Dover in southern England. The chalk serves as a natural moisture regulator, providing good drainage and reflects the sunlight and its heat.

Regulations dictate which of the three permitted grapes may be planted where.

The slopes of the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs provide the best vineyards. The greatest concentration of villages designated as Grand and Premier Cru are found in these two areas.

The Montagne de Reims is planted mainly with Pinot Noir. The Montagne is a forested plateau south of Reims. Its wines give the great champagnes their backbone – their weight and richness.

Along both banks of the River Marne is the Vallée de la Marne. This zone produces the fullest, ripest wines, predominately from Pinot Meunier, and to a lesser extent Pinot Noir grapes.

Extending south from Epernay for about 21 km. is the Côte des Blancs. This area produces fine Chardonnay that give freshness to the blend and provides the sparkle to the wine.

The Côte de Sézanne is a relatively new region. It is planted almost exclusively with Chardonnay.

The classification system in Champagne is based by vineyard and is established by the Comité Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne (C.I.V.C.). The land is given a grade based on its suitability for growing white grapes or black grapes. A grade of 100% percent has been given to the 17 Grand Cru villages. The 38 Premier Cru villages have grades from 90 to 99%. The rest have a grade ranging from 80 to 89%. Champagne houses use the average percentage rating of the grapes used in their blends to establish the quality of their raw materials.

The Wine

The richness of champagne wines is largely due to the cold climate of northern France. The bubbles in champagne are a natural phenomenon.

Three grape varieties are used to make Champagne — Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Pinot Meunier is the most prevalent, making up about 40% of grape production.  It is easier to grow and is less prone to frost damage. Pinot Meunier makes up the base wine for all but the very finest champagnes.

Pinot Noir makes up about 35% of the blend. It is responsible for the depth of fruit and longevity of the wine.

Chardonnay accounts for the remaining 25% and adds lightness and elegance to the blend.

The lack color in most champagne is the result of a gentle pressing, so as to extract the juice but not the color of the dark grape skins.

The main difference between the various Champagne brands or houses, is in the making of the cuvéee, or the blend. A house builds a reputation based on the particular style of blend of its non-vintage wines. So each year the wine must be consistent. The large houses store millions of gallons of wine from various vineyards and grapes for blending purposes. As a result, once you find a house style you like, it will be available year after year as long as that house exists.

In especially good years, some vintage champagne is produced. Some feel that the extra depth in taste is well worth the extra cost of these wines. Eighty percent of the contents of vintage champagne must contain grapes from the declared year.

Champagnes are labeled based on their sugar content; Extra Brut, Brut Sauvage, Ultra Brut, Brut Intégral or Brut Zéro.  These wines are bone dry with less than 0.6% of residual sugar per litre. This wine is rarely made.

Brut

This is the most popular style of champagne. The best blends are always reserved for the brut and is the mainstay of the business. It has less than 1.5% residual sugar and is very dry.

Extra Dry, Extra Sec

Sweetened with 1.2 to 2% residual sugar per litre, it is still dry and goes well with desserts .

Sec

Although it means “dry” in French, it means “moderately dry” or “slightly sweet” as it pertains to champagne. It has 1.7 to 3.5% residual sugar per litre.

Demi-Sec

This style is distinctly sweet or medium. It contains between 3.3 to 5% residual sugar per litre.

Doux

This is the sweetest style of champagne. It is very sweet and is more of a dessert-style wine. It has a minimum of 5% residual sugar per litre.

Blanc de Noirs

Occasionally you will find Blanc de Noirs. This style is made entirely from black grapes but is white. It offers a wine that is fuller than those with Chardonnay in the blend.

Blanc de Blancs

This wine is made exclusively from the Chardonnay grape and is the most delicate of champagnes. Since only 25% of Champagne is planted with Chardonnay grapes, it is generally a more expensive option.

Final Thoughts

COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on Champagne’s economy.  With weddings and other celebratory events being cancelled or postponed all around the world there has been a massive reduction in demand for the famous bubbly.

However, keep in mind that Champagne is not just for toasting and celebrations; it is much more versatile.  Brut pairs well with fish and seafood, or moderately spiced Asian cuisine.  The sweeter varieties make an excellent choice to serve with desserts, such as fresh berries.  Champagne can also be served on its own as a pre-dinner drink or for no particular reason at all.

Now may be a good time to discover/rediscover Champagne.  Prices may never be better and you could develop a new appreciation for this magical bubbly.

Sláinte mhaith