Musings on Wine
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.
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.
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.
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.
The question I most often get asked about wine is how long a particular bottle will age. It's a difficult question to answer but these hints might help. More and more wines are made to drink upon release. Technology has provided winemakers with the tools they need, such as micro-oxygenation, to create wines full of fruit in youth with mellow tannins and softer acidity and seeing as wine drinkers today aren't as patient as their wine drinking ancestors, more and more wines of this style are being offered. Winemakers can now manage tannins and acidity in such a way that wines are delicious younger however these same wines often deteriorate faster than their predecessors would have if kept too long . This is especially true in younger wine regions such as the hotter, drier parts of South Africa, Australia, South America and California. There are, of course, many exceptions as you move up the price and quality scale and find yourself in cooler wine growing areas where acidity and tannin are naturally more robust.
Ten things I find very useful when judging wines for age ability.
- Wines must give you the impression of balance with some degree of complexity regardless of how young they are. In a young wine, fruit character may be hidden behind tannins that coat and dry your mouth or acidity that bites a little, however if the shy fruit can be found somewhere in the nose or mouth, you have to decide whether or not it will reveal itself in time. If the tannins strike you as too chewy and bitter, or the acidity green and sharp, they may never disintegrate enough regardless of how long you age the wine. The fruit will fade long before the tannins and acidity in wines such as this.
- Although alcohol serves to strengthen and preserve some wines such as Vintage Port or old dry Madeira allowing them to age for decades, a dry table wine with very high alcohol will still need adequate acidity, tannin and complexity to benefit from long cellaring. If a wine is obviously too boozy in youth but soft and round, it might be one to enjoy on the younger side.
- A wine that smells neutral and closed can become more expressive with aeration or aging. This applies to both young and aged wines. I find this to be especially true in cooler wine regions with mineral-rich soils. I recall opening a very expensive and rare bottle of already 10 year old Grand Cru Chablis only to discover it was surprisingly simple. What a disappointment! Luckily I kept two ounces of the wine in my glass as I proceeded through the dinner only to discover two hours later that the wine had finally emerged and was everything I'd hoped it would be. Good thing I didn't dump those final two ounces.
- In a related story, if a younger wine improves with aeration and warming as it sits in your glass, it is likely an excellent candidate for a long, slow maturation in a proper cellar where an even greater spectrum of aromas can develop.
- Wines destined to mature well will only do so if aged in a proper cellar. Although we don't all have cool, dark stone-walled rooms in our basements, the closer to that scenario you can get, the better. Aim for a steady 15 -18 degrees C, dark but safe and humid. Humidity can be accomplished by putting a large bucket or plastic pan of fresh water on the ground to allow the necessary evaporation to happen in too dry conditions. Keep in mind the biggest enemy of wines is severe fluctations in temperature and humidity.
- Don’t save wines for the special occasion that may never come. Drinking good wines when they are ready to drink is special occasion enough. Remember, the world is full of great wines and you've only got so much time to drink as many of them as you can!
- You are more likely to enjoy a wine consumed too young more than one consumed too old.
- As a general rule, good quality dry, white wines with adequate fruit and acidity can benefit from a minimum of 2 years and up to 8 years of aging. Good quality dry, red wines with adequate tannin and fruit will age well for at least 5 years and often as many as 12-15 years. Only in very rare cases do wines taste and smell better after 20 or more years.
- Ask yourself, do you like bright fresh fruity wines that might bite a little or are you willing to sacrifice some of the exhuberant fruit and vivacity for softer tannins, more polished acidity and additional tertiary aromas of dried fruit, leather, mushroom and old spice? Decide where on that scale your taste falls and drink what you like, when you want to drink it.
- Food will always change the way a wine tastes, generally for the better when properly matched.
A collection of passionate, seasoned wine lovers get together once a year to sample 'gems' from their respective cellars. These so-called gems might be expensive, or rare, or very old, or special in some other way, but in order to be considered gems, they must be amongst the most special bottles in our respective collections. We taste them double blind and we postulate what we think they might be - country of origin, grape variety and region with a rough idea of vintage. Some even go as far as guessing producer (and are correct from time to time) and others choose to 'pass' if a wine completely confounds them. Those who guess correctly are expected to share the wisdom of their insight with the rest of us making this not only a very enjoyable and humbling evening but an educational one also. Each particpant typically brings one or two bottles and some food to match in order to ensure our stomachs maintain a reasonable balance of alcoholic liquid and solid matter. The excellent food this year included home made water buffalo pastrami, fresh Pacific and Atlantic oysters on the half shell, smoked pork on ciabatta rolls, home made beef jerky, Asian noodles with bbq'd duck, Moroccan lamb sliders and a selection of excellent cheeses. The evening was a tremendous success, with perhaps the most impressive lineup of wines to date. I will let the list speak for itself...
- Benjamin Bridge Brut 2004 - Nova Scotia
- 13th Street Grande Cuvee Blanc de Noirs 2006 - Niagara
- Etude Chardonnay 2009 - Carneros
- Chateau Carbonnieux 2007 - Pessac Leognan
- M. Lapierre Morgon 2009 (1500ml) - Beaujolais
- Domaine Cortochet Lavaux St. Jacques 1er Cru 1999 - Gevrey Chambertin
- Domaine de la Janasse 2001 - Chateauneuf-du-Pape
- Terre del Barolo Riserva 1980 - Barolo
- Mayacamus Cabernet Sauvignon 1975 - Napa
- Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 1985 - Napa
- Chateau Reynella Basket Pressed Shiraz 1995 - McLaren Vale
- Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1977 - Napa
- Cune Imperial Gran Reserva 1999 - Rioja
- Kanonkop Pinotage 1994 - Stellenbosch
- Torbreck The Steading GSM 2005 - Barossa Valley
- Penfold's St. Henri Shiraz 1987 - South Australia
- Banfi Poggia Alla Mura 1998 - Brunello di Montalcino
- Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe 1989 - Chateauneuf-du-Pape
- Masi Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone Classico 1978 - Valpolicella
- Qupe Hillside Select Syrah 1999 - Bien Nacido