Archive for March, 2010

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – Tuscany’s Other Great Wine

March 25, 2010

Oh, what a wine tonight…the 2000 Vino Nobile di Montepluciano Reserva from Cerro. Deep, deep purple, earth, pepper, leather, black cherries, still fairly tannic…a real mouthful of wine with at least another five years in it. Wow!

Not enough people know about Vino Nobiles…when you think about Tuscany, it is all about Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino.  Both of those are great wines, and I love them (and have a bunch in my cellar).  But for a lot less than the average Brunello — and even less than a lot of Chianti Riservas — you can get Vino Nobiles that provide the same flavour profile and aging ability.

Unlike Brunellos, Vino Nobiles are made from a mix of grapes (all very obscure, so I won’t list them).  But that mixture produces some amazing complexity and longevity. Interestingly, that quality is recognized in Italy, as the wines get the same designation — Denominazione di origine controllata — as Brunello, Chianti and Barolo. Yet you don’t see the same recognition, or prices, in Canada or North America.

There also aren’t as many. In Vancouver, there are maybe 2 or 3 available at any one time.  And at $35 – $40, they still aren’t anywhere near what I would call cheap.

But if you are seeking a good value for the cellar (compared to $6o Brunellos), they can be a good bet; particularly if you are looking for an Italian wine that will age and develop for 8 – 10+ years.

Look for producers like Cerro and Fassati, particularly in good years.  I think you will be impressed!


Nk’Mip Cellars- a First Nations Operation Making Great Wines

March 23, 2010

Last night I tried one of the new releases from Nk’Mip Cellars in B.C. — the 2008 Pinot Noir.  Although a little bit leaner than in the past, it was still bang-0n varietally, with dried cherries, just a touch of oak and a little bit of herbalness.  For under $20, this is still a really nice wine.

For those who aren’t familiar with this winery, I encourage you to try out some of their offerings.  It is North America’s first Aboriginal owned and operated winery, which is something in its own right. But the big news is the quality of its wines, which — for many of them — can compete with any in B.C., Canada and even around the world.

Nk’Mip makes two levels of wines — regular and the Qwam Qwmt (or reserve) lines. There are whites and reds in both, and I have had the privilege of following their progress for a number of years now, with some fabulous results.

On the white side, the Chardonnays (both regular and Qwam Qwmt) stand out both in terms of quality and value. They are made in a traditional oaked, California style and the Qwam Qwmt, in particular, can be amazing, picking up the butterscotch, caramel and hazelnut tones you only usually get from $50+ wines south of the border — for half the price!

For the red wines, the regular Pinot is the best value, although the Merlot can also be very nice. But it is the Qwam Qwmt Pinot Noir and Syrah that really standout.  The first is just gorgeous, a blend in style of California and Burgundy with ripe cherry fruit, a nice cloak of vanilla (from the oak) and some earthy, herbal nuances. I am testing this one in the cellar to see how it may age, but I wouldn’t be surprised at 5+ years.  All that for $30! The Syrah is newer to the portfolio but shows good promise, with classic earth, pepper and black cherries.  It will need a few years in the cellar to round into form, but at $35 is competitive with some of the other reserve Syrah’s from B.C.

So if you get a chance, try some of Nk’Mip’s wines.  All are at least good, and some can be truly outstanding!


An Ode to Rioja

March 19, 2010

To Spain last night, a Rioja Reserva from the cellar — the 2001 from Roda II.  The review said a “mix of old and new styles” and it was right, as there was the traditional toasty oak covered dried cherries, but the fruit was also brighter and fresher than usual, bit more Californian in style.  At almost 9 years old, this wine is in great shape with a number of years ahead of it.

Rioja is a bit of a conundrum for wine drinkers and wine lovers alike.  At one time, this was “the region” in Spain, producing that country’s greatest wines.  The reds are made from a mixture of grapes, predominantly Tempranillo and Garnacha; the whites from Viura, Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca. In style, there was always lots of oak used and very evident, particularly in the Reserva and Gran Reserva wines (to the point where the latter wines — particularly the white ones — sometimes tasted overly woody and somewhat oxidized).

It was perhaps because of that style that Rioja has been almost eclipsed in the last twenty years by other wines and wine regions, especially those from the Ribera del Duero, which featured more international grapes (including Cabernet Sauvignon for the reds).

But while prices have also gotten a bit ridiculous (way to0 many $40+ wines!), if you are careful there are still still some wonderful wines to find.  And the style, when done right, might represent the best management of oak use that I know of. I have had some Reservas and Gran Reservas that are almost voluptuously smooth and full of vanilla and herbal flavours. Not a lot of fruit, but a very complex wine drinking experience.

The whites, on the other hand, are definitely an acquired taste. More on those in another blog.

So try a red Rioja and experience the old — and the new — of wine.


Riesling – the Rodney Dangerfield of White Wines

March 17, 2010

Had yet another fabulous Riesling the other day, this one from B.C.  The ’08 Dry Riesling from Quail’s Gate (their best white wine, and not far behind their Foch as their best wine period!).  Gorgeous is the word for it…bone dry, but bang on varietally, with that touch of minerals/petrol you get on the nose, medium body and lovely, crisp citrus fruit.  And still under $17!

I don’t know why people in North America don’t drink more Rieslings, because they have so much going for them. They go with an incredible variety of food (including hot and spicy dishes like Thai or Indian curries); have low alcohol levels (some of the German ones are below 8%!) and can even last for decades (a real rarity for white wines).

Perhaps one reason is that people have this stereotype in mind when it comes to Riesling; you know, those awful German wines we all tried and/or saw commercials for growing up (remember Black Tower and the beautiful blond on television promoting Hochtaler?). No doubt about it, those were truly awful wines.

The other might be that Rieslings often do finish with a touch of sweetness, even the so-called “dry” versions. But even that is a bit ironic, as research has shown that many people actually like a bit of sweetness in their wines.

But perhaps the biggest reason is the mind-boggling — and often unpronounceable — names of German Rieslings.  Due to a combination of the wine laws, regions and just the German language, you often get a four or five word name for a wine that is quite intimidating even for wine geeks — Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Spatlese by Selbach Oster, anyone ? (It’s a great wine, by the way).

But whatever the reason, don’t let it stop you from trying a Riesling or two, particularly as Spring approaches and the weather starts to get warmer. And not just from Germany — the Alsace region of France makes some beauties, as does the U.S. (Washington State), Australia (these ones are bone dry) and, increasingly, B.C. (where some feel it may be the province’s best white grape, given our climate is so similar to that of the wine growing areas in Germany).

So when the sun looks enticing, buy a couple, chill them down and try a glass or two sitting in your lawn chair. I think you will be pleasantly surprised…and will give Rieslings the “respect” they deserve!


Finding the Same Kind of Wine for Half the Price

March 16, 2010

This past weekend I had a bottle of the 2000 Coudoulet de Beaucastel, the Cotes du Rhone from the makers of the prestigious Chateau de Beaucastel (one of the great Chateauneuf du Papes).  It was in beautiful shape and — while it wouldn’t be mistaken for its bigger brother — it could easily pass for mid level Chateauneuf. And at a fraction of the price (about $30 compared to over $70), it was a great deal.

But it was also more than a great deal; it was another example of how it is possible to enjoy a certain style of wine without breaking the bank.

The main grape in most Chateauneufs is Grenache, followed by Syrah, Mourvedre and a number of others. And it turns out that is the same combo that goes into most Cotes du Rhones.  So it is no surprise that the flavour profile — while generally lighter and less intense — is the same as well. Hence, the chance to have the same kind of experience without the hefty price tag.

And if you happen to get really good producers in a great vintage — like the 2007 that is out right now — you can actually have almost the same wine experience.  By coincidence, I picked up the 2007 Coudoulet in the wine store the other day for my cellar and while it has gone up a bit in price — $34.95 — it is also very highly rated (92 by Parker) and expected to age/get better for 10+ years! Compare that to the Chateau de Beaucastel, which is rated 96 but i expect will be over $80 when it comes out later this year.

Now don’t get me wrong, I would love to drink the Beaucastel as well…it is just out of my snack bracket. I sometimes can find it in half bottles (my rationale there is two wines for the price of one, as I can drink them separately) but that is about it. So instead, I am content to look for wines like the Coudoulet which can deliver a similar experience for a much lower price tag.


California Pinot Noir – Yes, you can find value there!

March 11, 2010

Tried the latest vintage of the Mirassou Pinot Noir last night — the 2008 — and was once again impressed! While not as complex as the 2007 (which won a bunch of wine awards), this is still a luscious wine to drink, with classic California Pinot Noir flavours of superripe red cherries and toasty oak.  And for under $14 (and $10 in the US) it is quite a value.

A lot of wine dweebs like me have a love/hate relationship with California Pinot. On the one hand, the fact that the warmer climate means — on average — riper wines, means you avoid the one of the big problems with Burgundy (which is that green, stemmy flavour from grapes that just didn’t get enough sunshine). On the other side of the equation, though, that same ripeness can sometimes make the fruit turn jammy or even candy-like, meaning not a lot of complexity and even a touch of sweetness in the finish. And the prices…well, while that is a bit of a saw-off with Burgundy…jthere are certainly more $100+ wines in Burgundy (that I will never get to taste!!!), but also too many California Pinots in the $50 + range that are not worth the money.

As with anything in wine, the answer is to understand the style you like and be selective in the wines you buy. There are relatively inexpensive values out there — like the Mirassou — although not many (I can’t actually think of another one off the top of my head). But you can get some very complex wines, ones that are very “Burgundian” for a fraction of the cost of their French cousins. And given that price/value differential, they can be considered values as well for those will to pay the price.


Trying New Wines – Aglianico del Vulture!

March 10, 2010

I went for a glass of wine with a friend last night before a concert and ended up at one of the newer wine bars in Vancouver — Uva Wine Bar, which is part of the Moda Hotel. Italian place, as you can probably guess by the name, and full-on Italian wine list.

It was an interesting experience on a couple of fronts.  It was the first time in a long time that I looked at a wine list and recognized few, if any of the wines by the glass! The varietals were familiar, yes, but not the producers. It felt  strange but exciting!

As a result, I had to take a chance on a wine…not a big chance, since it was by the glass (although that turned into a couple of glasses, but anyway), but a chance all the same.  So I picked an obscure wine I had heard of but actually never tried — Aglianico del Vulture from southern Italy. And my choice paid off!

It was dark purple and, while a little cold (out of one of those fancy wine preservation systems), a series of complex aromas began to arise out of the glass — earth, pepper, black fruit, and some herbs.  That was followed by a big wine in the mouth, still fairly tannic, but with lots of earthy, meaty, black cherry flavours. Very, very nice indeed. I wish I had written down the producer (although I haven’t seen any Aglianicos in the stores in Vancouver).

The experience was a reminder that restaurants can be relatively safe, inexpensive way to take a chance on new wines. The worst case scenario is that you are out $10 on something that is average…but the upside is the discovery of a new wine experience!


Cava vs. Champagne – and from B.C.!

March 8, 2010

Was my wife’s birthday this past week, and she loves sparkling wine. So a chance to try two different wines from the two different sparkling wine traditions — the “cava-style” popularized in Spain and the more traditional Champagne-style from France. And both from B.C.!

The first was the Brut from Blue Mountain in the Okanagon, which we had at the Teahouse Restaurant (a great deal at $49 on the wine list!).  This one is the classic Cava-style, crisp, dry, light and fruity, no oak at all. Very nice! The second was from my cellar — the 2006 Brut Natural from Venturi-Schulze on Vancouver Island.  This one was much more “Champagne-like”, with toasty, yeasty aromas and flavours, bigger body, but also finishing dry and crisp.

Style is so important in sparkling wine. Everyone has heard of Champagne, of course, and probably tried some of the cheapter stuff (or else the Spanish or California versions).  But whenever I get asked for a recommendation, I always check if they have actually tried real Champagne, particularly the vintage kind. That’s because the aromas and flavours — particularly the yeasty component, which comes from the secondary fermentation process that is part of the “method de champagne” — is quite different. In fact, a lot of people don’t like it at all, preferring the lighter, fruitier Cava style.  The latter is also cheaper and a better bargain.

Personally, I love the Champagne style because of the complexity. I have said before that a very good, aged Champagne (and some can age for 10+ years in good vintages) is actually more like a red wine in character, given the full body and complex tastes and aromas.  But it is also very expensive and there are no such things as “bargains”.

I like the Cava style too, but go for the cheaper versions usually (less than $15).  That’s because it is harder to find the complexity in these wines, so why pay for them?

The other thing I want to point out is that both kinds of are made right here in B.C.! The Venturi-Schulze is a very nice example (although at $40+ it is a bit expensive for what you get).  Far better (quality and value) is the Township 7 Seven Stars Vintage Brut, whichis around $32. The next vintage is due out shortly!

As for B.C cava-style wines, a number of other Okanagon wineries also make them, but they tend to be in the $30+ range and — frankly — are not as good values as the $15 Cavas from Spain.  They are nice to try, but for my money too expensive to drink on a regular basis.


Dry White Bordeaux — the overlooked wine

March 5, 2010

Since my wife only drinks white wine, I went back to one of my “tried and true” values yesterday, the Charton La Fleur Sauvignon from Schroder and Schyler. This generic white Bordeaux is a classic from a varietal point of view — grassy, citrus fruit, light body, crisp and blanketed by a lovely cover of oak.  And with the 2008 vintage still under $14, it is definitely a value!

Trying this wine again got me thinking that dry white Bordeaux is really a lost soul.  The sweet kind — Sauterne and Barsac — get all kinds of press, and cost an arm and a leg (like their dry red cousins). But the dry whites never get very much focus.

Some of them are still ridiculously expensive; for example, Chateau Margaux makes a white call Pavillon Blanc that sells for more than $100! And a number of others are in the $50+ range.

But there are others under $40 that can represent good value, particularly because of their aging potential.  Usually a mix of both Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, it is not unusual for wines from a good proprietor in a great vintage to evolve and get better for 5+ years (something that is unusual for any kind of white wine!).

Even better for the Chartron La Fleur, in particular, is that it might be the best “generic” wine out there. Usually when you see that word — particularly when it is associated with Bordeaux or Burgundy — it is a warning sign, flashing ‘STAY AWAY”. In an article in Food and Wine this month wine writer Jancis Robinson makes reference to an “under $20 Bordeaux” tasting where all the wines were harsh, green and insipid…pretty much my experience as well.

But not the Chartron, which regardless of the vintage is pretty consistent and a good value.  I can’t say that for all white Bordeaux, but it does give you another option out there!


Looking for Value – its all about knowing the style you like

March 4, 2010

Interesting piece in the Globe this week on how to look for value wines.  The focus was on finding cheaper alternatives that deliver better value i.e. Chilean Cabernet instead of Bordeaux, Beaujolais instead of Burgundy, etc.

I agree in general with the idea, but would add an important point.  If you don’t factor in the style of wine you like, you won’t necessary appreciate the value you are supposed to be getting for your money.

Case in point is the comparison the article made between substituting Italian Primitivo for California Zinfandel.  The first is way cheaper than the latter ($10 – $15 a bottle), but it is also a completely different tasting wine.  The reason Zin lovers are loyal to their wine is because of what it tastes like, and who can blame them?  Blackberries, liqueur, a touch of brambles, no oak and smooth, smooth, smooth — often with an alcoholic kick to it. Primitivo, on the other hand, may be the same kind of grape but you don’t get that flavour profile (at least in my experience). Instead, it tends to be more rustic, with earthy, peppery flavours and aromas and less body/more chunkiness. Great value, but not the same wine at all.

The other obvious example is Cabernet Sauvignon. The “Chile for Bordeaux” substitution works because both make wine the same way — more on the herbal, woody side of the spectrum. If that is your style, the value proposition works great. But if you like California, Aussie and some BC Cabs, watch out — the style couldn’t be more different, as these are lush, fruit laden and lovingly cloaked in vanilla (can you tell my preference?).  

So the lesson is be careful where you go looking for value.  It is out there, but make sure you factor in the style you like best, otherwise you may find yourself wishing you had paid more!