Archive for January, 2010

Shiraz vs. Syrah – The best of both worlds!

January 31, 2010

One of the great things about having a wine cellar is not just being able to try great wines, but also being able to compare different styles of wines as well. And, boy, did I get a great experience with that this weekend!

Saturday it was the 2004 Laughing Magpie from d’Arenberg (a Shiraz-Viognier blend) from Australia. What a gorgeous wine…made in honour of the famous Cote Rotie blend in the north of France, this one is easily picked out as Australian by its incredibly ripe, rich fruit.  But it is restrained a bit, not too jammy (must be the Viognier!), with a wonderful touch of licorice on the finish. Truly a great experience…and at under $30, an amazing cellar value…it will last for 5 years easily!

And tonight…the real McCoy! A 2005 Crozes-Hermitage La Guiraude from Alain Graillout, one of the stars of that northern appellation and 100% Syrah.

Oh, my…Syrah may be my favourite grape, and this is a classic. Still beautiful dark red, but a classic French Syrah nose of earth, meat (it smelled like the beef stew I served it with) and bacon. Medium body and lean — so different from the lush, full bodied Laughing Magpie — it is amazing in the mouth with its mix of herbal, peppery black fruit. This is fifteen years old and in perfect shape; a privilege to drink!

So two great wines, same grape, is one better than the other?

The answer, of course, is no; both are great, but for different reasons. You would think that is a “no-brainer” answer, but I never ceased to be amazed that some people — including respected critics — will actually come out on one side or another. It tends to come from French wine lovers/haters or their counterparts from the new world.

Seems silly to me. Appreciate a wine for where it came from, how it was made and — ultimately — what it tastes like. That way, you can literally enjoy the best of both worlds.



Cabernet Sauvignon – How can the same grape taste so different from different countries?

January 28, 2010

My wine tonight was from Italy, the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon by Di Majo Norante.  I have had this wine before and it is pretty reliable;  more on the earthy/peppery side (rather than fruity) but fairly complex and enjoyable (especially on a rainy night!).  And at under $15 it is still a great deal.

In trying it, I was reminded of an amazing thing about wine — the fact that the same grape can make wines that taste so different!

And Cabernet is the perfect example. In California and Australia, you get the classic flavour profile of blackcurrants and vanilla (from the oak). But in Bordeaux, the flavours move more towards wood (cedar and oak, without the vanilla) and herbs. And in some parts of Italy — like tonight’s wine — you get a third style, more earthy and peppery.

So why is this? Well, part of it is climate — California and Australia are hotter, on average, so the fruit can get riper and fruitier.

Another factor might be what some call “terroir” — the local character of the soil and climate (and how the winemaker uses them). This is a controversial issue (some think it is a pile of you know what), but you can’t deny that some wines taste more “Italian” or “Californian” in style.

Finally, technology can also play a role. Computers can now be programmed to create certain “styles” of wine, whether it is from a certain region or even a wine reviewer (sounds like sci fi, but it is true…check out the book The Accidental Connoisseur by Lawrence Osborne, recommended to me by my friend JH for more on this and terroir).

Personally, I don’t care what the reason is for such variation…I think it is great to get more options! Know what you like — in terms of style — as a guide, but then venture out and try a different style of Cab (like tonight’s wine). Either way, it will be an experience!


January 28th, 2010 – Great BC Cabernet and Knowing When its Time to Drink A Wine

January 25, 2010

Just a beautiful BC Cabernet tonight — the 2005 Township 7. This wine would easily pass for a mid level California Cab (reminds me a bit of the Beringer Knights Valley), but at half the price! Great nose of blackcurrants and vanilla, and really intriguing flavours of blackcurrants, chocolate and a touch of oak. Right at the peak of maturity, as the wood is just starting to take over a bit from the fruit. Glad it was my last bottle.

So you can guess the topic of today’s blog…how to know when it is time to drink a wine in your cellar.  Well, the first trick is by more than one bottle – nothing you can do if you just buy one and try it, only to find it isn’t ready.  I usually buy two or three, which allows me to track the progress.

But how do you know when the wine is ready to drink?

As is the case with most things wine-related, it depends a lot on what you like.  For me — with my preference on fruit flavours — it is when that balance between wood and fruit starts to tip over. I like when the fruit loses a bit of its “grapiness”, because that adds some complexity. For me, that means the wine is at its perfect state of drinkability!

 But when I start to smell and taste almost as much wood as fruit, that is the sign — for me — that it is time to drink up!

But to give you an example of how it is all about your personal style, I give you Rioja Grand Reservas from Spain.  They are aged so long in oak — before they are released — that they come out oaky right away.  But those who like that style, love them, driving prices into the $100’s of dollars.

So it is up to you, depending on what you like.  But once you taste that a wine is there, drink it before it dries up.


January 23, 2010 – Aussie Grenache and How do you know when a wine is “off”?

January 23, 2010

The wine from the cellar tonight? The 2002 “The Steading” from Torbreck. An Aussies Grenache that is ripe and smooth, it is a jammier version of a Chateauneuf du Pape; not as much of the Provencal herbs, but the extra ripeness makes it jucier. Gorgeous!

This wine is “only” 8 years old, but in opening it I started thinking about when a wine is “off”, meaning it is no longer pleasurable to drink. That can be because there is a problem with the cork (either the dreaded “cork disease” or just a defect that lets too much air in), the wine has been open too long (i.e. the cork has just been stuck back in it) or the wine just gets too old.

So how do you know? Well for me, I can tell right away when I take my first sniff. The aromas I get ar of tea or dried leaves…inevitably, that is followed by either dried out or really awful tasting wine.

So look for these kind of tell tale signs. It won’t usually hurt you to drink wines in these states, but they won’t be very enjoyable.


January 20th, 2010 – Check those ratings carefully!

January 20, 2010

When I went wine shopping on the weekend, I noticed some “markdowns”…including the 2006 Cape Jaffa Shiraz (marked down from $26 to $18).  So I bought it and opened it tonight…it was okay, pretty standard jammy blackberries, a little bit lean for an Aussie Shiraz, but at $18 it was okay (but not at $26).

But the interesting thing about this wine was the “shelf talker” that said it was rated “92 – 93 points by Robert Parker at  the Wine Advocate”.  Now, that’s my wine expert, so I thought — when I first saw it – that even at $26, that’s a great deal if it was built to last. So I looked it up on my on-line Wine Advocate and….couldn’t find it! The review never happened.

So that is the topic of this column.  Whether it is done on purpose — or simply a changeover in vintages (i.e. rating was for a previous vintage, not for the current one) be careful out there!  It is always a bit dangerous to buy just based on a review, but if you are going to do it — whether you have a good history with the reviewer or want to take a chance based on price — it is a good idea to check it out first.  Most of the government wine stores carry the Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate, so you can ask to see it to confirm. Alternatively, if you have a subscription to one of these publication, you can get the “on-line” version and access via your blackberry or smart phone (that’s what I do; just enable Java to do it).

Wine is expensive enough as it is; make sure you double check that the review you are reading is actually for the wine you are buying before you buy it!


January 18th, 2010 – How do you define “value”?

January 18, 2010

When I buy wines to drink during the week, I try to “average” out at $15/bottle. I figure given all the factors — inflation, the wine industry, our taxation system on alcohol in BC — that I should be able to find pretty decent wines for that average price.

But to meet the price point, it usually means buying wines that are both less and more expensive. Add in the fact that it is nice to try more expensive wines, and what I really look for are those “cheap” gems that help me average the price down.

Tonight’s wine is a great example.  The 2008 Negromaro Salento by Mezzomondo (from the south of Italy) is nothing fancy, but offers lots of wine in the mouth. Peppery, earthy with dried cherries, no oak and lovely juciness, it is a great everyday wine. And at $8.99 (yes, you read that right), it is a fabulous value!

But “value” is a relative term. It can mean “cheap and good”, like today’s pick.  But it can also mean a good buy relative to others in its category.  A $25 California cabernet, for example, is a good buy compared to the array of $30 and $40 wines you usually see there. Similarly, a $40 red Burgundy looks great compared to those that are usually $60 and above.

And it also depends on what you like.  If you have a taste for homemade wines, you will see $2 bucks a bottle as a good deal (and have a problem with anything above that). 

The final part of value is even more subjective — how much you are even prepared to spend on a bottle of wine (which equates to how much value you place on it as a commodity).  This can help temper things when it comes to the more expensive wines.  For example, a $60 Bordeaux, to me, is still not good value, because I think that is too much to spend on a bottle of wine.

So value wines, like other things in life, are up to the individual.  Like your preference in style, you be the judge. Its your taste (and your money!).


January 16th, 2010 – Two BC Pinot Noirs and What Makes a “Burghound”

January 17, 2010

Dinner with some friends tonight, one of whom is a huge Pinot Noir fan.  More on that later but first the wines — the 2004 Blue Mountain Reserve and the 2006 Averill Creek.  

Now, going in, I expected the Blue Mountain to be the better wine…it is one of the two best Pinots in B.C. (along with Kettle Valley Hayman Vineyard) and capable of aging and developing into a truly incredible experience! I decanted it 30 minutes before serving to let it open up a big. But while it was certainly very good — classic ripe cherry/strawberry fruit with some earthy overtones — it was lighter than normal, perhaps because 2004 was a bit of a rainy year.

Then came the Averill Creek and…wow, what a difference! Granted, 2006 was a warmer summer, but this wine fairly exploded with ripe fruit! Rich, complex and full bodied, it was clearly the better wine. Kudos to Andy Johnson, wine maker in Duncan on Vancouver Island!

Now back to the beginning of this post…what makes a Burghound (which is Pinot Noir/Burgundy talk for a “lover of Burgundy”)? Perhaps no wine elicits more fanaticism — or disappointment — than Pinot Noir. Incredibly expensive in France, often overpriced, thin and disappointing, or so fruity it almost tastes like candy (from California, in particular).

But when it is good…oh my! Pinot Noirs with enough ripe fruit that can age 6 – 8+ years can take on this amazing complexity. The smell is earthy with a touch of what lovers call “barnyard” (actually a positive thing, which I say smells more like ripe mushrooms).  And in the mouth, the mix of cherries, strawberries and herbs blends into just an unbelievable experience.

The problem, though, is this kind of an experience is very, very rare.  But once you have had it once….it is so entrancing that you keep coming back in the hope of finding it again. That, then, is what makes a Burghound.


January 15th, 2010 – Chateauneuf du Pape and How to Choose Your Favourite Wine

January 15, 2010

Ah, Friday…and back to the cellar after a long week! Time to pick a favourite…Chateauneuf du Pape. In this case, the 2000 Domaine de Beaurenard. Oh my…it is a classic! Still good dark red colour; an explosively powerful nose of earthy cherries that is dominated by provencal herbs…same mix of fruit and herbs, medium body and still some tannins. It will easily last another five years.

You have probably guessed by now, but Chateauneuf du Pape is one of my favourite wines (if not my favourite). But it got me thinking about how that happened.

Now stick with me…it is more complicated than you think! Because when building my cellar, I didn’t have the luxury (or money) to try most of the wines before adding them. I picked a wine reviewer I trusted — in this case Robert Parker — and found those that provided a balance between value (less than $40), high scores (88  and above) and longevity (able to evolve for at least 5 years).

The result, for me, was a lot of Chateauneuf du Papes, starting with the 1989/1990 vintages.

I was quite pleased with this, building up the cellar with all these highly rated wines.  But then one day, it dawned on me…I had never actually tasted a Chateauneuf du Pape!

What if I didn’t like them? What would I do?

Luckily, this wasn’t a problem…I loved them, although they are not for everyone (that provencal herb taste — called garrigue by the French — can be a bit overwhelming to some).

So the lesson I learned was to try wines before building up a cellar. I would recommend the same to everyone else in the same position before they end up with a cellar full of wines they might not like.


January 14th, 2010 – A Glass of Wine after a long day

January 14, 2010

First the wine of the day — the 2007 Seven Poplars Chardonnay, a B.C. wine I “discovered” last summer during my trip to Naramata. It is a classic California style Chardonnay, with vanilla, citrus and nice texture to it. Very nice!

Now the topic — for me, nothing is more pleasurable after a long, hard day than a nice glass or two of wine. I wonder why that is?

Part of it may be the alcohol, as that seems to help in the relaxation process. But that isn’t most of it (or some other drink would fit the bill just as well). And it is not quantity drunk — two glasses, with food, is it (or else you know what happens).

For me, I think, it is the taste, particularly if the wine comes from my cellar (which is built around my tastes). The flavour, ripeness and overall experience of wines that I “like” just really help me unwind and put things into perspective.

Now, that is probably not scientific, but that is the best way I can explain it. Good wine tastes even better after a long, tough day. Period.


January 12th, 2010 – Alcohol levels in wine

January 13, 2010

This is a favourite topic of mine, and one that I was reminded off by a column in the Globe and Mail this morning.

The issue is the rising alcohol levels in many red wines, particularly those from California and Australia.  Many are now in the 14% range, and some even go as high as 15% and 16%!  They tend to be associated with incredibly ripe and fruity wines.

The column this morning took the contrarian — and increasingly popular — view that there is no need for this trend, it makes it harder to drink the wine (as you can’t drink as much) and that these wines lack complexity.

Well, I just don’t agree.  High alcohol generally means there was more (natural) sugar in the wine, which means the fruit was riper. For me, that should be a good thing — you are drinking a beverage that is made from something that was “ripe and ready”, so are tasting it in its purist form.

As for not being able to drink as much…how much do you need to drink before you get drunk anyway? Two glasses per day for men is what everyone has heard is okay; and even at 14%, if you have it over dinner, that shouldn’t be a problem. Any more than that — regardless of the alcohol — is a problem.

Personally, I have tried way too many thin, acidic, “green” (from lack of ripeness) wines, that end up tasting like wood, for one, don’t want to go back to those kind of wines.  Wine is made from fruit, and you should taste the fruit when it is ripe.

So keep going, California and Australia (and B.C., as well)!