Musings on Wine

What’s the Deal with Vintage Quality?

We often hear the words, 'it was a great vintage' or 'it was a poor vintage' when thinking about which wines to purchase. It's typically an all or nothing evaluation of a growing season in a particular wine growing area and I wonder how accurate and useful that really is to the average consumer?


The fact is not all regions should be assessed the same for vintage quality. In some regions of the wine world like Niagara, vintage quality is bordering on useless information because of the huge range of wine styles we make.  In other areas, like Burgundy where only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are of real significance, you'd be crazy not to research the various years available before spending your hard-earned dollars on a bottle. The way I like to think of it is if a wine region has 2 or more important grape varieties planted, then one all-encompassing vintage assessment is simply not adequate. 

In Niagara, we grow an astounding number of very different grape varieties. These are mostly vitis vinifera, or native European wine varieties, but also some French Hybrids such as Baco Noir and a smattering of indigenous varieties used for grape jelly, such as Concord but these are beyond their best days. For the sake of this discussion, let's focus on the vinifera grapes examples of which include Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc. 2007 was the best vintage we'd ever seen according to the media and yet we rarely heard mention of our most important white varieties, Riesling and Chardonnay, from that vintage. Why not?

Each of the aforementioned vinifera varieties grows differently from the other. Each is on a different schedule for bud break, flowering, veraison and harvesting not to mention different sensitivities to winter cold, extreme heat and aridity, spring and fall frost, humidity and various resulting viral and fungal diseases. Each grape will yield different crop sizes too which is another important consideration of vintage quality assuming that making a lot of good wine is generally considered a better outcome than making a little good wine! Good wine can be made from Chardonnay in a range of weather conditions which is why it's the most ubiquitous white variety on the planet. In order to make top notch Pinot Noir, however, a very specific set of circumstances must be provided by Mother Nature. Pinot Noir likes temperate, relatively dry growing conditions over a long time period in order to benefit from the all important 'hang time'. Ripening Pinot Noir suddenly with extremes of heat and lack of rain yields a very different, and less interesting wine with low acidity, higher alcohol, less complex flavours dominated by baked fruit and often hard, coarse tannins. This was generally the case in 2007, even though it was heralded the vintage of the century. Compare that to ripening it slowly over many months, including a dry, warm fall when the all important flavours develop and tannins soften and ripen. This was essentially the case in 2009 and 2011 and yet we rarely hear of the quality of these vintage because they had their share of challenges including plenty of moisture and cool periods. In the end, several  grape varieties ended up making adequate wines at best. In those rare years in Niagara when heat and aridity combine to permit the complete ripening of Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon, everyone gets pretty excited, but what about Riesling and Pinot Noir in those same vintages? All too often, the whites and delicate reds are flabby and lack structure and longevity in the very same vintages where these big bold reds are juicy, full and powerful.

Further, in every vintage, their are producers who make decisions that are different from the majority. Perhaps its a case of picking earlier, or later, or maybe it's a winemaking decision such as less oak, or a different blend. You can pretty much count on the fact that in every vintage, their will be exceptional wines, average wines and downright disappointing wines. Great producers tend to make very good wines in all years.

Given all these possibilities, how does one establish whether it's a good, poor or excellent Niagara vintage? Simply put, you can't unless you are prepared to source a different evaluation for each variety, which is rarely provided. When critics get excited about a Niagara vintage, it likely means it was a hot, dry year. When their annual reviews, however, are lukewarm it might mean it was a cooler, damper year. The question you must ask yourself is which variety do you like most, in what style and align your choice with the vintage characteristics and producers that suit your taste rather than pay too much attention to one panacea vintage.

Fer Servadou

Fer means iron in French. Servadou sounds like something I promised my wife when we got married. Together they are the name of an interesting red grape in southern France. The AOC of Marcillac is located in south central France just north west of the famous village of Roquefort (land o' stinky, wonderful blue cheese). It's not exactly famous wine country these days, but the delicious and historic reds from the AOC of Marcillac pair beautifully with the herb-scented and rustic local cuisine and they have a nice story to tell all of their own. At the heart of these reds is a little-known grape known as Fer Servadou. I recently opened a very reasonably priced bottle from the excellent 2010 vintage, produced by the local cave-cooperative there. It was the reserve bottling from Les Vignerons a Vallon.

I don't know about you, but warm climate wines that offer jammy fruit and nothing more bore me to death. I want structure; I want refreshment; I want terroir and I want reasonable levels of alcohol.  Mostly I want an interesting wine from an interesting little known region to stimulate me in a way other wines from other places don't (and can't). In Marcillac, I get all of these things for, more often than not, a very reasonable price (LCBO 714162 $15.95). This particular bottle combines the attractive green-herbs note of Cabernet Franc with the boisterous dark and red berry fruit of Gamay Noir. Add to that the scent of the local 'garrigue' (the smell of the land where the grapes grow) and a nice cedary-resinous lift and you've got a gorgeous little package of yum. Alongside this particular bottle, which I served lightly chilled as I would Cru Beaujolais, I made a fresh sauce with some of my garden tomatoes, zucchini, garlic, basil, oregano and fresh, sweet virgin olive oil (not from my garden). I tossed in a little fresh mozzarella at the end and let it get melty and gooey and then served it on spaghetti with some nice garlic toast on the side. Acid levels were happily aligned while the green herbs and zucchini picked up the fresh green notes in the wine and the ripe berry fruit was a nice parallel to the sweet tomatoes, lightly caramelized garlic and fresh olive oil. Not exactly regional cuisine, but I only had to walk 300 meters in my bare feet to harvest 80% of the ingredients!

Try finding this bottle and wander off the beaten track often in search of more wines like this. Like the t-shirt says, life is too short to drink the same wines twice.


Future Wine Blends

Barbera & Gamay Blend = Bamay or Garbera?

Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara

Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre

Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc

Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Cao, Touriga Francesa

Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier

etc. etc. etc.

Although respnosible for some very fine wines, this list of great blends from around the world is still a relatively short one as many of the truly important wines are still defined by one major grape variety. Rioja is Tempranillo. Red Burgundy is Pinot Noir. Schloss Vollrads is Riesling. Kremstal is Gruner Veltliner. Barolo is Nebbiolo. Tuscany is Sangiovese.

While the Semillon - Chardonnay blend didn't stand the test of time, the Australians turned heads some time ago with their ingenious blend of  Cabernet & Shiraz  (even though these grapes were already blended together in some Provencal reds) but aside from that, what innovative blends have emerged from other corners of the wine world? Has everything been tried and there simply aren't any good new partnerships possible? Why aren't winemakers trying different combinations and if they are, why aren't we hearing about them? Pinot Noir & Gamay Noir have been blended together for ages in Burgundy as Passetoutgrains and in western Switzerland as Dole in the Valais, however these wines are hardly grabbing the headlines of the Wine Spectator or Decanter magazine. Why not?

What about Riesling - Gewurztraminer, a popular duo here in Niagara? Syrah - Merlot maybe (certainly Merlot needs something to help it become great)! Is the great Spanish white grape Albarino bound to remain the hidden gem of Galicia until we find a more famous dance partner for it? What about Viognier?

I enjoy having multiple bottles of wine open chez moi and will often blend varieties just to see what the resulting concoction will smell and taste like. There's nothing wrong with doing this is there? I recently blended some leftover Lodi Zinfandel with some leftover Douro red wine and the result was really quite nice. A little more jammy fruit and booze, but still the mineral character and structure of the Portuguese red. I'm also a fan of helping some light, sour reds that I find disappointingly mean with a little creme de framboise to give them a little more richness and sweet fruit, but that's entirely different.

Have you tried any innovative blends recently and if not, what grape varieties do you imagine blending well enough together than they could become the next big thing? Try blending some wines at home that you feel might help the overall flavour character, structure, complexity and balance. We aren't professional winemakers, but nothing is stopping us from pretending we are.


A Tale of Two Toro’s (Without The Bull)

Recently I enjoyed two wines from the Spanish region of Toro. One was quite delightful, whilst the other left me wanting and I was reminded of a valuable lesson from the experience.

The Spanish DO (protected region) of Toro is located at the countries western border with Portugal. If one continues west from Toro along the Duero River in northern Spain, one arrives in the more famous Port wine region whose picturesque slopes themselves tumble into the locally named Douro River. Starting in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains at La Rioja, the Duero then Douro flows west from its source to Vila Nova de Gaia where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. At 765km, it is the second longest river on the Iberian Peninsula (second only to the Ebro). Not surprisingly, the powerful reds of Toro are not unlike the the magnificent, fortified reds of the Port wine region, save for the sweetness and seriously elevated alcohol levels.

Although Port wine is typically made from a blend of many regional varieties, one of the major grapes is named Tinta Roriz. Arguably the grape variety with the most synonyms, Tinta Roriz is the well-known Spanish variety, Tempranillo but has countless other names which one discovers when travelling throughout the Iberian Peninsula. In Penedes, it's called Ull de Llebre; in La Rioja Tinto Fino; in Ribera del Duero, it's called Tinto del Pais and in Valdepenas Cencibel.  Tinta de Toro is its name, conveniently, in the Toro DO. The wines produced here are both dark and extremely powerful and can offer remarkable value in some cases.

Considering one can easily spend more than $100 on the top wines of the region, I was pleased to find two inexpensive wines which I consumed recently. They included Sabor Real 2008 ($15.95) and Eternum Viti 2008 ($13.95). Sourced from 70 year old estate vines, the Sabor Real is a real beauty. Loaded with dark berry, warm earth, spice and elements of ground espresso, this wine really packs a punch with dense but smooth tannins and 14.5% alcohol. The Eternum Viti, on the other hand comes from 40 year old vines and finishes at 14% alcohol. Slightly heavier with overripe fruit notes of raisin and prune, the nose also offered anise, warm dark chocolate and subtle bay nuances.

Two Toros

To my surprise, the two differed vastly in one important aspect - freshness. The Sabor, although slightly more alcohol, was the more alive, juicy and really satisfying of the two whereas the Eternum seemed heavy, brooding, bordering on tired. It's not uncommon to come across wines of this sort in the world's driest, hottest wine regions. Barossa Shiraz can differ in this way with one defined by the freshness and pristine condition of it's fruit expression where the other is dominated by stewy, cooked even lightly oxidative notes. It's impossible to tell which you will encounter from label alone, even though you might be tempted to select by alcohol levels alone which can vary by as much as 1.5 or 2.0%.

Some may wonder whether food can save a Toro from exhaustion, and I would suggest it may be possible to assist, but there is another useful and very simple solution for wines of this sort - correct service temperature. I was reminded that had I chilled the Eternum Viti slightly, perhaps down to 60 degrees F or so, rather than serving it straight off the counter at 80 F, it might have coaxed a little more life and fruit from the wine. Even though the Sabor Real was just fine at the warmer temperature, perhaps there was an even more remarkable wine in my glass had I served it at the appropriate cellar temperature. It is very unlikely chilling it would have done anything to harm the wine.

Tonight I'm eating braised short ribs which have been cooked for 8 hours in Toro and beef stock with black olives, garlic, Tamari sauce and red onions. I'm hopeful that this robustly flavoured, umami-rich stew might bring out the best of both wines, which are both resting comfortably in my 'cool' cellar as I write this.


High Alcohol In Wines

Last night I enjoyed a delicious bottle of red Collioure from the Roussillon region of France. It contained 15% alcohol and it reminded me of how often I hear fellow wine lovers saying how they hate high alcohol in wines. Many of them would have avoided buying this bottle altogether, based purely on the number on the label. They are, however, more than happy to drink fortified wines with 20% or more? What's up with that?

I'm of two minds on this subject. There is such a thing as too much alcohol in wines, just as too much acid, too much tannin, too much sweetness, or indeed too little alcohol can be considered a fault in an otherwise good bottle. If the alcohol is in balance with all other elements, it can soar into the high teens or low twenties and still be the right amount. On the other hand, there are only so many wines made that can tolerate such high levels of booze. Any wine whose calling card is finesse, delicacy or vivacity would suffer with levels much above 13.5% or so. Wines such as Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc just don't have the stuffing (or need) for the burn of 14 degrees or more of spirit. There are, however, plenty of wines that count on such high levels of alcohol to achieve the kind of impact they are most famous for. Barolo, Zinfandel, Grenache-based reds such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape or Priorat, wines from dried grapes such as Amarone and select others can handle levels consistently above 14% and be really, really delicous. An extreme example would be a Port wine with 20% alcohol. As a fortified wine, one expects the alcohol to be high, however few complain when a perfect bottle is poured for them where this elevated level of alcohol seems right at home with the rich sweet fruit, magnificent complexity of flavour and strong (especially when youthful) tannins. Why shouldn't non-fortified table wines be considered with the same respect? I remember with great fondness, the first time I had a Turley Zinfandel.

It was in the mid-90's when I was the sommelier at a restaurant in Vancouver. Helen Turley was arguably the most famous female winemaker in California and she was churning out some monster Zins. We managed to get our hands on a few cases of several single vineyard Zins that were imported in Canada. It was the Moore Earthquake Vineyard, as I recall, with its 17.3% natural alcohol, that just blew my mind. It was an appropriately named wine - massive in all respects - from it's deep colour to its densely packed fruit and chunky tannins. Even with such a high level of alcohol, the wine was not hot, a term used to describe wines whose alcohol burns uncomfortably the nose and palate. The fact is, without looking at the label, one might never have guessed this wine had alcohol so significantly above the norm. It was a wine to savour with robust meat dishes, or alone to warm one up from the inside out, on a typical February Canadian night with vicious wind gusts blowing at the window seams.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a sublime single vineyard Biancospino Moscato from the star of the genre in Piemonte, Giorgio Rivetti of La Spinetta with its 4.5% alcohol, was the prettiest, most graceful wine that had ever pirouetted on my tongue. This was a wine to enjoy with the most delicate of fruit desserts or on a sunny Sunday morning with perfect eggs benedict with sauce Maltaise. Even though there is more than 12% alcohol difference between these two extremes (the standard level of alcohol in the vast majority of basic table wines in France) neither was out of balance. Bottom line is to be aware of the level of alcohol in a wine when making a purchase, keeping in mind that certain wines can accommodate high levels, however, before you become impregnated with bias and overly judgemental based solely on the label, taste the wine and give it a chance to tell you if its the right number or not.

Please, we really must know ...

We’re not entirely sure, but he likes to shake things up and he’s not exactly a conformist.

WineFoodMan says “Use Your Senses, Dammit!”