Israel’s Wines

Israel is located in the Middle East at the very eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. The modern Jewish state’s famously controversial borders were created at the conclusion of World War II. Its wine industry has its roots in the late 19th century, but has largely developed in recent decades. 

A number of ‘international’ wine grape varieties have proven to be successful in Israel. Among these are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chardonnay and even Gewurztraminer.  Several members of the extensive Muscat family, which retains its historic links with this part of the world, are also to be found here.

Although small compared to most modern wine-producing nations, Israel’s wine production has attracted attention from all across the wine world. This is not only due to the development of new cooler-climate terroirs such as the Golan Heights, but also to the quality-conscious approach of the nation’s wine producers.

Many parts of Israel are too hot and dry to be a reliable producer of high quality wine. However there are some suitable microclimates that are either well established or showing good potential.

Throughout much of the 20th century, wine production was focused on Kosher wine to be exported around the globe. These wines were generally sweet and made from high yield vineyards. Carmel Winery was the first to produce a dry table win, as late as the 1960s. Today sacramental wine accounts for only about a tenth of Israel’s wine output.

The revival in quality winemaking began in the 1980s. This was aided by an influx of winemakers from France, Australia and the USA, and a corresponding modernization of technology. The 1990s saw a marked rise in the number of boutique wineries. By 2000 there were 70 wineries and by 2005 this number had doubled.

Today Israeli wine is produced by hundreds of wineries ranging in size from small boutique enterprises to large companies producing over ten million bottles per year.  In 2011, Israeli wine exports totaled over 26.7 million bottles.

It has been observed by several wine authorities that Israel’s approach to winemaking has evolved from being an Old World producer to developing into a stylistic New World producer.

The demand for kosher wines throughout the world has reinforced the development of the Israeli wine industry over the past few decades. However, not all wine made in Israel is kosher.  Modern Orthodox Jews believe that for wine to be considered truly kosher, the wine should only be prepared by Jews. Some Jews consider non-Jewish wine (known as yayin nasekh) to be kosher if it has been heated; the reason being that heated wine was not used as a religious libation in biblical times and its consumption is therefore not sacrilegious.  Therefore, mulling, cooking and pasteurizing wine renders it kosher in the eyes of many Jews.

The modern Israeli wine industry was founded by Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, owner of the Bordeaux estate Château Lafite-Rothschild. Today winemaking takes place in five vine-growing regions: Galilee, Shomron, the Judean Hills, Samson and Negev. Some of the Israeli defined wine-growing regions, such as the Judean Hills, refer to areas that are largely Israeli-occupied territories. Because of this the definition of wines produced in such areas are subject to legal contention abroad.

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Beaujolais

Beaujolais is located at the southern end of Burgundy, France.  It produces more than three-quarters of the world’s Gamay wine. During the past number of years Beaujolais has improved beyond just producing Beaujolais Nouveau, fruity wines made specifically for early consumption, to now include high-quality yet affordable red wines.

Beaujolais Classifications

Beaujolais Nouveau

It continues to be the most recognizable type of Beaujolais.  It is bottled and appears on store shelves just a few weeks after being harvested. The phenomenon was started by vineyard workers as a way to celebrate the end of harvest. Gradually the wine began appearing in local cafés and eventually even in Paris. Today, tens of millions of bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau are distributed to more than 100 countries in time for its official release date of the third Thursday of November.

Beaujolais Nouveau is young and simple with a very low tannin content and high acidity.

Beaujolais AOC

This is the most basic level of Beaujolais. Wines are light bodied, with plenty of fresh fruit flavours. The majority of wine produced in this appellation is sold as Beaujolais Nouveau.

Beaujolais Villages AOC

There are 38 designated villages in the region that can make Beaujolais Villages wines. The majority are red wine but there are also small amounts of white and rosé wines. Producers have the option of adding the name of the village to the label if the grapes come solely from a specific location, but most of the wines that fit the criteria are destined to be classified as Cru Beaujolais, leaving the villages themselves with little name recognition.

Beaujolais Villages wines are smooth and balanced, with ripe red and black fruit flavours.

Cru Beaujolais

Crus Beaujolais offer wine with unique character and history. Though highly regarded, wines from this quality level only account for 15 percent of the region’s total production.

Beaujolais wines are available in a variety of body types, depending on the cru from which they come.

Light and Perfumed

  • Brouilly: The largest cru totaling 20 percent of the Beaujolais Cru area.
  • Chiroubles: Home to vineyards located in the region’s highest altitudes.

Elegant and Medium-Bodied

  • Fleurie: The most widely exported to Canada and the United States and a good vintage that is age-worthy up to 10 years.
  • Saint-Amour: The most northerly cru which is known for its spicy character and ability to be aged up to 10 years in a good vintage.
  • Côte de Brouilly: Sits within the Brouilly cru, with vineyards on higher slopes of the extinct Mont Brouilly volcano.

Rich and Full-Bodied

  • Juliénas: Named after Julius Caesar and said to be one of the first wine producing areas of Beaujolais, dating back more than 2,000 years.
  • Régnié: It is the newest cru, being recognized in 1988.
  • Chénas: The smallest cru in Beaujolais (under one square mile of vineyards).
  • Morgon: Earthy wines with a deep and rich Burgundian character that can age up to 20 years.
  • Moulin-à-Vent: The most likely cru to use oak witch adds tannins and structure. Wines from this cru are the boldest in the region.  In good vintages they can age up to 20 years.

Beaujolais Food Pairings

Beaujolais pairs well with traditional French foods such as Brie or Camembert cheese, or with a rich pâté. Given its low level of tannins, Beaujolais is also a great partner to lighter fare like grain salads or white fish.

Medium-bodied Beaujolais will pair well with a barbecued burger or a veggie-loaded pizza.

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Wine Bottle Profiles

Have you ever noticed the variety of shapes and colours of wine bottles?  Have you ever wondered whether there is any rhyme or reason for this?  The differences in wine bottle shapes are purely regional variations that have more to do with glassblowing techniques than the flavours of the wine.  

The Pinot Noir or Pinot Gris bottle shape differs from a Cabernet Sauvignon or Sauvignon Blanc bottle shape.  Bottles are deliberately shaped a certain way in order that the region of origin may be identified.  Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay are presented in a Burgundy shaped bottle with less pronounced shoulders that slope downward. On the other hand, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot are presented in a Bordeaux shaped bottle, which has distinct, high shoulders and a deep punt on the bottom of the bottle.

There’s no scientific reason why you couldn’t put Pinot Noir in a Bordeaux bottle, but vintners around the world still use the traditional wine bottle shapes for the region with which their wines are associated. For most, it’s simply a matter of tradition. But it also makes it easy for people to identify different types of wine by sight. Bottles are colored differently for the same reason.

While there are innumerable varieties of wine available in the market, the bottles themselves generally fall into a few specific shapes. There are 12 basic shapes of wine bottles.

Bordeaux

It’s the most common shape of bottle and as the name indicates, it originated in Bordeaux. It has straight sides and distinct shoulders. The bottle is generally dark green or brown for red wines and light green or transparent for white wines.  There is a good reason for the colour difference.  The coloured glass protects red wines from the sun’s rays, and a transparent bottle improves the colour of white wines.

This type of bottle is used for a variety of grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Semillon and Sauternes.

Burgundy

The burgundy bottle was introduced in Burgundy around the 19th century, before the Bordeaux bottle. This bottle has sloping shoulders and the colour of the glass is green. The grape varietals stored in a burgundy shaped bottle include Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Nebbiolo and Pinot Gris.

Albeisa

This bottle originated from Langhe, Piedmont, Italy. It was first used near the beginning of the 18th century. It looks similar to the Burgundy bottle and is used for the great red wines of Piedmont, such as Barolo and Barbaresco.

Côtes de Provence

The shape of the bottle is a mix between a Greek amphora vessel and a bowling pin. It’s the typical bottle for the wines of Côtes de Provence, which includes a variety of rosés and reds. In Italy, it’s used for Verdicchio wine.

The glass for this type of bottle is typically transparent or light green in the case of Verdicchio wines.

Alsace

Alsace bottles are taller and thinner in shape compared to the other bottles.  They have gently sloping shoulders. The colour is green for German wines and brown for French. The main grape contained in this type of bottle is Riesling.

Champagne

Champagne bottles are unique because they need to withstand up to 90 psi of pressure of the sparkling wines contained within them. It’s also heavier and thicker, with a hollow bottom. The shape looks similar to the Burgundy bottle. The colour is usually varying shades of green, ranging from light to dark.

Tokaji

This shape is used for Hungarian Tokaji and it has a capacity of 0.5 litres. The glass is transparent.

Port

A Port bottle is typically used for Port, Madeira and Sherry wines. The bottle has a bulb in the neck, which is intended to trap excess sediment during the pouring. The colour of the glass can be varying shades of green or brown.

Marsala

A Marsala bottle looks similar to the Port bottle but it is higher and thinner. It’s used for Marsala wine. The glass is typically dark brown or black in colour.

Clavelin

This bottle is short, stocky and heavily built. It’s the only bottle authorized for Vin Jaune. Its capacity is 0.62litre.  Vin Jaune (French for “yellow wine”) is a special and characteristic type of white wine made in the Jura region of France. It is similar to dry fino Sherry.

Bocksbeutel

Bocksbeutel is completely different from the other wine bottle shapes; it is a flattened ellipsoid. The glass is a dark green colour.  It’s used for the red wines of Germany’s Franconia region, some Portuguese wines, and Italy’s Orvieto wines. This particular shape is protected under the European Union.

Chianti

This is the old bottle of Chianti wine which is no longer in use. The bottle gave a rustic aspect to the wine. It was round, so it required a basket to allow it to stand upright on the table. The capacity was about 2 litres.  Once empty these bottles were often used as candlesticks.

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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.

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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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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.

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