Archive for October, 2012


October 24, 2012

How many times have you seen the following expressions – “That wine will last for years”; “it will develop nicely in the cellar”; “after a few years, it will be much better”. I know I have. Heck, I use some of them myself in this blog!

They all, of course, refer to aging wine. But what does that really mean and – more importantly – is the end result going to be something you like?

But before we get to the answers to these questions, let me first emphasize that we are talking almost exclusively here about red wine, not white wine. Very few dry whites benefit from any aging at all (Sweet whites, and reds, are a whole other story). German and Alsace Rieslings and Gewurztraminers, white Hermitage from the northern Cotes du Rhone, and a few Burgundies (like Chablis) are the exceptions. But if you cellar the vast majority of white wines, you run the very real risk that the oak that most of them are originally made in will quickly overpower the fruit, leaving you with a mouthful of vanilla flavoured wood.

For red wines, the main reason for aging them is to mellow the tannins, which come from the grapes’ skins and stems. They are what can make a young red wine “pucker” your mouth, a sensation similar to when you drink tea that has been steeping too long. Over time, the tannins in wine break down and soften, combining with the fruit to produce secondary aromas and flavours, and increasing overall complexity.

Now, over 99 percent of red wine doesn’t have to worry about this. It doesn’t have a lot of tannin and is best drunk within a year of release.

But the big problem with the rest is that while they taste different as they get older, they doesn’t necessarily taste any better! The main reason for this is a tradeoff – as wines age, they may get softer, but they also lose their fruit. And many people – including yours truly – like the taste of fruit (currants, cherries, plums and the like) in wine. After all, it is made from grapes, which are fruit!

As a result, older, mature red wines can be a very different experience indeed! The fresh fruit is replaced by more herbal and woody characteristics, as well as mushrooms, earth, pepper and other spices. More complex, yes…but more enjoyable? Well, that depends on your tastes!

I will never forget a Burgundy event I went to years ago. We were tasting what were supposed to be some very good red wines from the 1969, 1970 and 1970 vintages, all of which were over ten years old. But as we went through them, one by one, it was obvious the crowd was growing restless. Finally, when it was time for questions, one guy boldly said “These don’t have any fruit in them at all; they taste like %$&^@!”

The poor host tried to explain, without being condescending, what older wines taste like, how complexity was a good thing, but with little success, as most of the audience seemed to share the questioner’s perspective.

Personally, I find this a particular problem with Cabernet (Sauvignon and Franc) and Merlot-based wines. The wood seems to really take over in many of them. My nemesis, of course, is Bordeaux, where this is seen as a positive quality by many (don’t get me started again about Bordeaux…). Offered wines from California and Australia made from the same grapes, I would take the latter every time, even when they age. The fruit just seems to stick around longer!

There are some dry red wines that I enjoy when they are older. The big ones form the northern and southern Rhone (Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas and Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas, respectively), as well as the “two B’s from Piedmont (Barolo and Barbaresco) and a few Chianti Classico Riservas, Interestingly, none of those show their wood even when older – the fruit is so powerful, you end up with complexity without “slivers”. I also enjoy Shirazes from Australia and Cabs from California as they age because – as I mentioned earlier – there seems to be more fruit and it sticks around longer.

But enough about me – what should you do when it comes to aging, or drinking, old wine?

Well, the best advice I have is taste some before you invest in more than a few bottles. Many liquor and wine stores carry older versions of some wines – you can often find 6 – 10 year old wines. They may be pricey, but better to buy one now and find out if you like it, rather than start collecting and then find in ten years that you don’t like what you end up with!

So, like so many times before, this isn’t a case of “good vs bad”. Instead, it’s a matter of taste. Find out if you like older wines. If you do, feel free to buy them young – and cheaper – and keep them a while. But if you don’t, there is lots of great wine out there that doesn’t need any longer than the trip from the store back to your home!


How Can it Be the “Best in BC Release”…When It’s Not the Best in BC?

October 15, 2012

This week’s blog topic was an easy choice…as soon as I walked in the BC government liquor store and saw the “Best of BC Release”, I didn’t even really need to look at the brochure. Given past history, I almost knew that the best wineries – and wines – in the province weren’t represented and, surprise, surprise, I was right.

Mission Hill, Inniskillin, Jackson Triggs…the regular suspects were there, along with the likes of Painted Rock and Laughing Stock. Whereas the wineries that most wine dweebs like me recognize as the best in BC – old stalwarts like La Frenz, Nichol, Blue Mountain, and Kettle Valley, together with newcomers like Marichel, Howling Bluff, Moon Curser, Cassini Cellars, Orofino and Eau Vivre – were nowhere to be seen!

Now why the latter weren’t there isn’t actually that much of a surprise. Most of those wineries either don’t make enough wine to need to get listed in the government stores, or else they sell out at their winery and have no need to go that route. Interestingly, I noticed that Moon Curser has a couple of wines listed right now (the red Border Vines and white Afraid of the Dark), which are, ironically, better than the almost all of the others in this release.

And, when I think about it, I guess it doesn’t take much to figure out why the wineries and wines offered in the Best of BC Release are there. They are the biggest, with the largest marketing budgets and production levels. Money, as they say…well, you can finish that sentence.

But when it comes down to it, my problem is actually how the whole thing is promoted. “The Best of BC Release”? I don’t think so. And that is not fair to folks who don’t know that much about BC wine.

Maybe if it was “the biggest wineries in BC trying to sell their $35+++ wines”, then that would be a fair title.

But not the Best in BC.

And, by the way, those “1 bottle limits” for some of the wines? I expect those will be lifted very soon, otherwise there will be the embarrassing situation of the “Best in BC” sitting on the shelves, not selling.


It’s “a Great Vintage” – But Does That Really Mean Anything?

October 11, 2012

This week, the topic is the term ‘vintage’, and what it does — and doesn’t mean – when it comes to buying wine. More specifically – how important is the vintage when it comes to quality?

The idea to write about the vintage, while seasonally appropriate (with the 2012 grape harvest well under way in most western wine regions), was actually brought on by three independent events. The first was the latest Bordeaux release (yet another ‘vintage of the century’ according to some pundits and winemakers). The second reason was recent coverage of BC’s current grape harvest which, interestingly, some are calling ‘the best ever’. And the third was personally drinking yet another value-priced wine from the 2010 vintage in the south of France, in this case a Minervois from the Languedoc that was amazing for less than $15!

So where to start…well, how about from a logical perspective?

Since the quality of every vintage is mostly determined by the weather and, by its very nature, weather is variable (temperature, rain, frost, etc), it makes sense that vintages would vary in quality from year to year in most areas. Even in warmer regions like California and Australia you get weather differences.

But how great are the impacts of these variations? And how much can they be generalized across all wines in a certain year?

The first one is the easier question to answer. After a colder, rainier year, for example, almost anyone can taste a lack of ripeness in the wines that are made, particularly the red wines. Green, tart flavours (like biting into an under-ripe apple or green pepper), an excess of woodiness (from oak barrels overpowering the unripe fruit), and even an overall impression of the wine being light or diluted (like frozen juice made with too much water).

At the other end of the spectrum, you can also usually tell a “good year” from the ripeness of the wines. Again, biting into a sweet, ripe cherry or berry is something we are all familiar with. And that experience can translate into wine as well when the weather conditions have been excellent.

But even if we agree that there are noticeable impacts in so called “good and bad” vintages, can you generalize them across all the wines made that year? Are all wines from a poor year thin and diluted? And are all the ones from a good year ripe and worth buying?

My view is, in most cases, “no”. Both winemaking, and style, also play a major role in the quality of a wine regardless of the vintage. I have tasted many examples of wines from a good year that I don’t enjoy, sometimes because of the style, but also sometimes because they just weren’t very well made. The same happens in poor years, although it can be a lot harder to find good wines if the weather was very bad.

The other factor to consider is price, especially in the so-called good year. Unfortunately, many wineries tend to jack up their prices if the vintage is supposed to be an excellent one. When that happens, you have to also consider the whole concept of value, regardless of how good the wine may taste. Is, for example, a wine that normally sells for $15 now worth $20 just because it is from a good year?

The other side of the argument is even more difficult, because very rarely do wineries drop their prices in a bad year. So does that mean their wines are still worth buying even if the quality is lower?

I’m not sure what the “lesson” is here. But what I do is, in so-called good years, is try more of the cheaper wines. If the vintage is really that much better, that is where you should be able to experience it the easiest (and cheapest). And in poor years, I tend to stick to those wines I have enjoyed for many years. The rationale there is that if they generally have good winemaking, that gives them the best chance to make at least a decent wine even in a poor year.


White Bordeaux – My Dry and Sweet Mea Culpa!

October 3, 2012

Okay, I ‘fess up…there are some Bordeaux that I do like! After last week’s “anti-Bordeaux” blog, I felt the need to come clean and talk about my love of white Bordeaux, both dry and sweet.

First, the dry. They are from the Graves region and are made from a mix of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, bone dry and with varying amounts of oak depending on the style. At their best, they can be full of grassy aromas, citrus fruit like grapefruit, and a lovely coating of vanilla. And, interestingly, they are one of the few white wines that can get better with age.

The price? Well not cheap, especially for the more prestigious wines. But certainly cheaper than their red cousins. And there are still a number in the $20 – $40 range.

The sweet wines of Bordeaux – also from Graves – I also like! They are called Sauternes or Barsacs and made from a mix of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. Their sweetness comes from a fungus called botrytis cinerea, or “noble rot”, which attacks the outside skin of the grapes, causing them to shrivel up. That, in turn, concentrates the sugar and creates the sweetness. It’s about the only kind of rotting process I know of where the end result is so good! And they can, literally, last almost forever – the best wines/vintages for 20+ years.

Price here, unfortunately, is little better than with red Bordeaux…except that Sauternes and Barsacs are often offered in half bottles! And you can get a number for $25 – $40 – not cheap, but given you don’t need very much at a dinner party (a couple of ounces is enough per person), it can actually be a reasonable part of your cellar or dinner party.

So if you are going to try Bordeaux, my suggestion is “white rather than red” – it may save you a lot of money, and be more enjoyable as well.


PS Despite my protestations, I noticed that the 2009 red Bordeaux were virtually sold out in two days, even at the exorbitant prices. So much for any influence I have!