WHAT WINE REVIEWERS MEAN WHEN THEY SAY…

October 4, 2017

Okay, I have written about this before, but a couple of recent media articles made me think I should do it again.

The topic? Wine recommendations in general…and specifically some of the verbiage that is used. It may sound great, but what do wine dweebs like me really mean when we use the following terms?

  1. A food wine

This is the description I hate the most…and, personally, one that will cause me not to buy a wine! By saying a wine is a “food wine”, reviewers are essentially saying it will taste better with food. Hogwash! If I wine doesn’t taste good on its own, that means it is either too young, or just not good enough. It shouldn’t need food to make it better. So avoid like the plague!

  1. Old world style red wine

Another one to be careful of! This usually means not a lot fruit in the wine…more wood and herbs instead. If you like that style, then great. But if not…watch out!

  1. Chocolate, coffee and mocha flavours

This is another moniker for little or no fruit. You usually see this with reviews of Merlot-based wines. Again, if you like this style, that is great. But if you are expecting plummy, ripe fruit, you probably won’t get it.

  1. The Fruit will Develop over time

Hogwash again…straight and simple! Red Burgundy is the most regular example of this kind of review. But the fact is, if you can’t taste the fruit in the wine when it is young, there is little chance it will be there when it is older. So, if you like fruit, be careful!

  1. Drinks beautifully now, but will evolve for 10+ years

Last is the most complicated one. I buy wines for my cellar based on them developing over an 8 – 10+ year period. That usually means they are tannic when young, and need time to soften. But when I see this kind of review, I wonder…will the wine really drink “beautifully” in 10 years? In this case, I recommend buying a bottle and trying it…if it is tannic but fruity, okay. If only fruity…be careful.

There you go…five wine reviews to think about before you buy!

SB

www.sbwinesite.com

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Ripe, Jammy and Sweet – the Difference!

September 20, 2017

I have had some very nice wines in the past month or so, and from looking at my tweets   it occurred to me that there was enough for a blog!

A constant in many of my wine recordings and tweets is the word “ripe”. To me, that means the fruit in the wine is pure and really comes through – currants and cassis (for cabernet sauvignon), black and red cherries (for Syrah and Grenache), and so on.  It seems to me that the riper the fruit the more delicious the wine. Make sense? Wine is made from fruit, fruit needs to be ripe…and so on!

 

And then there is the word “jammy”. I use it mostly for Aussie Shiraz, and both in a positive and negative way. Done right (in my opinion, anyway), jammy blackberry fruit can also be super ripe and pure – like the preserves you put on toast in the morning. I love it in Old Vine Shiraz! But done wrong…it can be cloying and sweet…watch out for not only some of the “animal” label Aussie wines, but also some of the California wines that are becoming popular with some palates these day.

 

Finally, there is the word “sweet”. I reserve that term for a wine that is supposed to be sweet in the traditional sense. Usually that means a German Riesling or a dessert wine from Portugal, France or somewhere else. But it has to be balanced – not cloying or over the top, but with good acidity as well.

 

So three words…very similar, but very different…at least for me!

 

SB

 

www.sbwinesite.com

OAK – WHEN, WHY AND WHY NOT?

August 3, 2017

Is there a more controversial topic in wine – at least for wine dweebs like me – than oak?

 

I have written about it a number of times, and it is tough to try and stay balanced. Most people know what they like when it comes to oak, and they tend to really like it…or really hate it. But this week’s experience with a couple of wines made me think of another potential angle to this controversy.

 

First, though, let’s back up a bit. What is oak used for anyway?

 

Well, at the most basic it is what many wines are aged in. That as been the case for hundreds if not thousands of years. A whole area of France  – Limousin – built up an industry producing wood for wine barrels. And others followed in other countries

Why? Well, oak barrels can impart some very specific, and popular, flavours, textures and colours to wines as they age. Wood flavours to begin with – cedar – as well as herbs. But also vanilla, butter, butterscotch and even caramel notes from the wood, depending on how new the oak barrels are and how long the wine is kept in them. Colour too – golden yellow in white wines can be a sign of oak aging. And texture, especially in reds – the oak can help soften the harsh tannins that sometimes dominate in “big” red wines.

 

So what’s the problem, then? Its the fact that some people believe certain wines should taste a certain way based on history, style, personal preference. Red Bordeaux, for example, is supposed to have cedar, herbs and led pencil overtones. California Chardonnay has a reputation for vanilla, butter and even caramel flavours.

 

And that is what got me thinking when I had two different BC wines from the same producer this week. Both were recommended by a reviewer that I respected, so I thought I would give them a try.

 

The first was a Syarh/Mourvedre blend. Now, Syrah from France typically does not show very much oak influence at all (regardless of whether it is aged in oak or not), particularly in the Northern Rhone. Either does Mourvedre, a blending grape from the Southern Rhone often mixed with Syrah and Grenache in Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas and other wines.

 

So it was with surprise, and disappointment, that I opened the wine and, upon smelling it, picked up the vanilla notes right away! That followed in the mouth – smooth, vanilla covered cherries. It was lovely to drink – my wine loved it – but it didn’t taste at all like what I thought Syrah/Mourvedre should taste like!

 

Fast forward to tonight, same winery, but a wine that was 100% Syrah. Open it up and – boom! All pepper, black cherries, earth – a Northern Rhone clone! I loved it!

 

So that got me thinking…with oak, like a lot of things in life, it is about expectations and familiarity. I know what I like in different wine styles – give me a butter California Chardonnay any day, a Spanish Rioja with vanilla covered cherries, or a Cali Cab with vanilla and cassis. But Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache…nope…I want the style from France that I like, because that’s what I like!

 

The lesson here? I’m still note sure…but it has something to do with expectations, and managing them!

 

SB

 

www.sbwinesite.com

Style or Terroir?

July 25, 2017

A bit of a “wine dweeb” blog tonight…I was trying a Syrah (one of my favourite grapes) from Greece (which I had never had). It was good, very good, tasting similar in style to the North Rhones I love so much.

But that got me thinking of a conversation I had last year with the owner of a wine shop in Tacoma. We had been talking about BC’s wines, and which were the best. I was making my case for Syrah (for reds), and one of the reasons was that the style was so similar to Northern Rhones. I was surprised when he disagreed – not with the wines, but the idea.

In his opinion, a wine region needs to find its own style based on its local attributes – something the French call terroir. So in BC, that mean finding our own style of Syrah, for example.

I was polite, nodded my head, bought some wine (which I was going to by anyway), but left thinking I didn’t really agree with him.

And after drinking the Greek Syrah, I still don’t agree with him!

For me, I know the style of wines that I like. I look for them, and if I can find that style made in different places, all the better!

Are there variations? Of course. Take Syrah…I find when it is grown in some parts of California and Washington State, the level of ripeness of the grapes is higher, meaning the wine tastes riper as well. Not jammy – it is not Shiraz. Just riper. Personally, I like that.

But some of the key elements are still there – pepper, black cherries, good acidity, little or no oak. Make a Syrah like that, and I will like it, no matter where it is made!

Compare that to Syrah from, say, some that are made in South America, South Africa, or even Italy. Some of those – some, mind you, not all – add elements which may represent local characteristics, but which I don’t enjoy. Herbs, brambles, and oak…the wines may still be good, but no longer in my style.

But does that make them better because they have their own style, perhaps unique to their area?

Some – including my wine shop friend – may say yes.

But for me, it is moot point. Because I don’t like them…because of that style.

I want wines – whether Syrah or anything else – that I like to drink.

So regardless of whether they are “unique”, I don’t care.

Just open the bottle and poor!

SB

www.sbwinesite.com

Summer Wine Musings

July 19, 2017

Back from holidays in Eastern Canada, so a few holiday wine musings (in no particular order):

Rose

We love it in summer! I’ve written in the past how I like a touch of sweetness in Rose, but we had a number of bone dry Provence versions while away, and they were outstanding in the heat!

Red wine in Summer

Most people stay away from reds in the summer, especially the ‘big ones’.  But we had some great, full bodies reds in restaurants! Chateauneuf, Languedoc, Brunello…they were amazing in an air conditioned environment. And they were great with some of the French food in Montreal and Quebec City.

Restaurant Wine

On average, the wine lists were just okay…not a broad selection, pretty expensive and the wine by the glass was pretty pedestrian. So I brought my own most of the time!

But at the Gypsy Tea Room in St. John’s, Newfoundland – what a list! Quality and price. They had the ’05 Cote Rotie Brune et Blonde by Guigal for $120…a 95 pt wine for cheaper (by half) than what you could by the ’14 in BC stores. Had to buy it…and it was stunning!

Riesling

What a great go to wine, even on the plane! Is it a touch sweet sometimes – yes. But refreshing, nice acidity, never worse than good!

Wine Across Canada

Finally, it was interesting to compare wine – selection, price, stores. In general, I was quite impressed with prices, as they were lower on average than in BC, even in the government stores. Selection was both different and surprising – not as many Chateauneufs and Barolos, for example, but the selection of Languedec and other South of France wines was very impressive! And hats off to the Vintages Store in Ottawa – downstairs from the regular store, and had more fine wine than I have seen anywhere in BC!

SB

http://www.sbwinesite.com

 

 

 

 

A “Wine” Road Trip!

May 18, 2017

Coming to you tonight from Revelstoke, BC on our way to Okotoks, Alberta for the 65th Wedding Anniversary of my father-in-law’s sister. Going for the right reason – taking my aging father-in-law – but also an opportunity for a “wine road trip” to Calgary (about 45 minutes north)!

As self proclaimed “cow-town” you wouldn’t think that Calgary is a great wine city, but you would be wrong! When the government privatized the liquor industry a couple of decades ago, they created a true open market, where the same wine can be a different price in two different places.

And with lots of oil money, the wine selection – and the private stores that sell it – exploded!

Twenty years ago, the price difference was so significant (compared to my home province), that the savings paid for the cost of a return flight from Vancouver and a rental car!

Alas, post-911 you can’t bring wine on board anymore, so that ended. But we are driving…and the almost empty trunk literally beckons for wine!

It looks like there are still at least a dozen high quality wine stores to look at during my one free day…and while I won’t be able to get to all of them, even a selection will be worth it from the look on their websites.

I’m looking for my “cellar retirement wines” – Southern Rhones (Chateauneuf, Gigondas, Vacqueyras), Northern Rhones (Hermitage, Crozes Hermitage, Cornas, Cote Rotie and St. Joseph), Piedmont wines (Barolo and Barberesco) and Tuscan treasures (Brunello’s and high end Chianti Riservas). Plus, maybe a smattering of Washington and Cali Syrah and Grenache.

What actual wines to buy? My rules are simple:
• be rated over 90 points by Parker;
• at least a decade of aging potential (meaning I drink them when I retire in my early 60s); and
• be a maximum of $60 a bottle

Also, I won’t forget to stop at Costco (which sells wine in Alberta) and the Real Canadian Superstore Liquor Store. The latter is hit and miss, but the prices can be ridiculously low – including on special Cognacs (up to $50 less than in BC).

So think of me on Saturday morning – the stores open at 10 am, and I will be there. Watch for my tweets…and next week’s blog for my purchases!

SB

http://www.sbwineblog.com

HOW OLD IS TOO OLD…AND HOW DO YOU KNOW?

April 19, 2017

Age and wine…it is a big issue, both for wine dweebs like me and even the average wine drinker. For the former, it is all about trying to find the optimum time to drink a wine – not too young and tannic, not old and dried out, but just right! And for the latter – I want to drink it right away, is that okay?

I am generalizing, of course, and apologies to all – in both camps – who are offended! But the basic question is the same – how old should a wine be before I can enjoy it at its best?

I decided to write about this topic after my buddy Jim texted me to come over and taste a 2004 La Frenz Merlot the other day. At almost 13 years old, any Merlot from BC (and most from anywhere) should be dead…dried out, no fruit. But this one (I of course raced right over!) was stunning – still lots of fruit, interesting touch of vanilla and licorice and mint…simply stunning!

Back to the questions, then…but before I answer (and add some additional considerations), a few qualifications.

First, we are talking about red wines here, not whites. While a few white wines can age (sweet, Rieslings, some Burgundies), the vast majority don’t age well and should be consumed within a year or so of purchase.

Second, even with reds, over 90% are good to go on release. That way you get the freshness of the fruit, which is what wine is (or should be) all about.

So what about it, then? How old should it be…and what is too old?

The first question? That is a matter of taste, for the most part.

Young red wines have more fruit to them – some would say “obvious” fruit, but there is nothing the matter with that. They also can have a lot of tannin, which makes them mouth puckering and difficult to unpleasant to drink. So it depends on what style you like the best.

Interestingly, because more and more wine drinkers won’t wait to age a wine these days, even the most expensive wines can drink very well upon release.

But what about the other question – how do you know if it is too old?

This, of course, excludes wines that are oxidized and/or spoiled. Aromas and flavours of vinegar, tea, etc. mean the wine is bad, and should be avoided.

But aside from that, it turns out the answer to the question is almost the same as the first time – it depends on the style you like the best!

Most people like their older wines to still have some fruit in them. It may be more dried fruit – dried cherries, cassis, and plums in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone wines, Barolo, Barbaresco, etc – but still recognizable as fruit, none-the-less.

However, there are folks that actually like their wine almost completely dried out – oak, cedar, other kinds of wood! The stereotype is “the English”, who apparently had a tradition of aging their Bordeaux and Burgundy so long that it literally had no fruit left in it. Not my style, but if that’s what you like…

So, as usual, it all depends on your taste.

But make sure you know what you like in advance! The last thing you want to do is wait for a wine to age…and find out that you don’t like that style.

SB

http://www.sbwinesite.com

HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH…FOR A BC WINE?

April 5, 2017

A slightly different approach to my yearly rant against the rising prices of BC wine…this time, I want to talk about “how much is too much” for a bottle of BC wine.

As usual, I want to emphasize that I have no problem with a wine’s price if it sells. I may not be able to afford it – see California Cult wines, most Barolos, Hermitages, etc – and I may not like its style (see Bordeaux), but if the market will bear the price – then go for it!

But I remain curious about the logic around the prices of some of the recently released BC wines. One winery, in particular, has its new “artisanal” wines priced at…wait for it…$90, $115 and $125! And they were being promoted by a local BC wine writer.

Sorry, but that just doesn’t compute with me.

First off, it is a brand new winery, with no track record…who in their right mind would spend that kind of money when there is no history of what the wine will taste like?

Second, assuming that the wines are meant to age…there is also no track record of that either! What if in 3, 5, 8 or more years, you open them up and your “investment” tastes like a glass of toothpicks!

Third, if you really want to spend that kind of money on wine (and, to be clear, I don’t), a quick check of the BCLB website shows you have a lot more reputable options. How about the 2014 Saint Joseph le Clos by Chapoutier for $119 (97 points by Parker)? Or the 2010 Barbaresco Sori Paitin for $105 (also 97 points by Parker)? Even the 2014 regular Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon at $115 (and 94 points). All of these wines have years (if not decades) of pedigree, so if you like the style, there is virtually no risk.

Fourth, who exactly is going to buy these wines? Not your average wine drinker, of course…and not even wine dweebs like me. Not restauranteurs, as they have to mark them up 2 – 3 times. So is it tourists, wanting to take something back with them? But how many of them will spend that much money on a BC bottle of wine?

Finally – and I realize this is the toughest, most subjective argument – how can these wines be good enough to charge that kind of price? Personally, I won’t spend that kind of money on any wine, let alone a BC wine (except in a restaurant, of course, where the cost has been at least doubled). And that’s because I just don’t think wine is worth that much money.

Okay, enough ranting by me for this year! But one last dig…I bet if you go looking for those wines a few months from now, they will still be available…and there will be lots of them!

SB

http://www.sbwinesite.com

MANAGING EXPECTATIONS – WITH WINE, LIKE IN LIFE

March 30, 2017

I opened a wine tonight and, as I did, I realized I had expectations – high expectations – for what was to come. And then – as my Twitter post said – it was just…okay. Not bad, but not great, but not what I had hoped.

Hence the title of this blog!

There are lots of leadership gurus out there these day who say that one of the keys to business and life success is managing expectations. And as I tasted the wine tonight, I realized it was the same with wine.

So what was going on tonight…and how to manage it?

First, tonight. The wine was from the Northern Rhone from a famous producer. Not one of his top wines – i.e. a Hermitage – but still a prominent name, from a very good vintage, and 8 years old. So that was one reason for high expectations.

Second, it was highly rated – 90 points by a reviewer I respect and have followed for over 25 years, one whose style of wines seems to match mine. So another reason for high expectations

Third, it was from my cellar…which are wines that are supposed to be special and get better with age. Another reason.

The final reason was what I expected from that style of wine. Now, I love Rhone wines from the North and the South. But I also know that the southern wines (like Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras) can be flashier, with the predominantly Grenache-based wines sometimes exploding with garrigue and ripe but not jammy red cherry fruit.

But I also know – and love – Syrah from the northern Rhone. Yes, it is leaner, but the peppery black cherries, touch of licorice and lack of any wood at all can be breathtakingly smooth, particularly as the wines age and develop secondary aromas and tastes. So that was my expectation.

And what did I get?

Well, the style was bang on, for sure. Black pepper, black cherries, and lean…for sure. But the flavour just never really went “kapow”…it just kind of started…then stopped. Good, but not great…that was it.

So that’s what happened tonight. But what did I learn…and what to do about it in the future?

Well, I’m not sure I have an answer for that, to be honest.

I am always going to expect great things from a wine that is supposed to be great. And I will try to manage them by remembering the style of the wine, so I don’t confuse those expectations.

One thing I can do differently is to enjoy what I have in my glass as much as I can. As long as it isn’t “off”, there is still some enjoyment to be had.

The other – a longer term thing – is to remember if it happens with the same kind of wine more than couple of times. That may indicate that my tastes are changing…and that I should change my cellar strategy in order to avoid more disappointments in the future!

SB

http://www.sbwinesite.com

A MERLOT “PRIMER” – KNOW BEFORE YOU DRINK!

March 22, 2017

Of all red wine grapes, Merlot seems to have become the most controversial.

A number of years ago, it became the “fashionable” red wine to drink…leading to many people campaigning against it (similar to what happened to Chardonnay). Then there came the movie Sideways, and lead character Myles’ absolute reversion to the grape (and the wine). After that film, Merlot consumption dropped significantly in the United States! And then, in our local paper last week here in Vancouver, there was a wine critic extolling Merlot’s virtues!

But, like any other kind of wine, it isn’t really about “good or bad”…it is all about style and, in particular, knowing – or finding out – the style that you like. So here is a bit of a “Merlot primer”!

Until Merlot started to be made as a stand-alone wine in California, it was primarily a blending grape in Bordeaux. There, it could be a relatively small component of Cabernet-based wines or – in regions like Pomerol – the main attraction, including in Chateau Petrus, which is almost 100% Merlot, and considered by many one of the greatest wines in the world (as well as one of the most expensive).

Now, I have never been rich enough to taste Petrus or even some of the other Merlot-based Pomerols. So I can’t comment personally on their style profile.

But I have tried many Bordeaux that have Merlot as a smaller component – which is probably what most people will get a chance to experience – and those flavours are usually a mix of wood (cedar/oak), herbs and (if you are lucky) cherry/plum fruits. The overall impression is not “fruit forward”. That flavour profile is consistent with Bordeaux-style Merlots in other countries, including in my home province of BC, as well as Chile and Italy.

The opposite end of the style spectrum comes from California. There, possibly because of the ripeness (and no doubt the winemaking style), fruit is more important. Cherries and plums, laced with vanilla (from oak aging) are what you get in the best wines, with wood, herbs and tannins in the background. Shafer Vineyards makes a couple of great (but now very expensive) Merlots that are – for my taste – pure heaven! And I am proud to say that La Frenz in my home province makes a wonderfully fruity, but complex Merlot, with bits of mint and licorice mixed in.

An in between flavour in some Merlots is mocha or coffee. For me, this doesn’t work very well – takes away from the fruit, adding to the herbalness. You see that in many wines from Italy, Chile, Washington State and BC. But some people love it.

So next time you see – or want to taste – Merlot, just remember the different styles of that wine. Go with what you like, or at least go in knowing what you are probably going to experience!

SB

http://www.sbwinesite.com