Archive for March, 2013


March 27, 2013

I was surprised to see a wine column recently where the writer stated that “almost all red wines can benefit from up to 5 years of aging.” That was one statement I couldn’t resist…and hence this blog!

But even before I thought about writing, my memory drifted back to an actual event that dealt with this very same proposition. Years ago, a friend of wine – a decent “wino” in his own right, with his own medium sized cellar – had been invited over for dinner at a new acquaintance’s house. He had heard that the man was interested in wine and, sure enough, it didn’t take long before he asked my friend if he wanted to see his wine cellar. Excited, my friend followed him downstairs.

They reached a locked door and the owner carefully slipped the key into the hole. After turning it, he opened the door, turned on the light and gestured for my friend to follow him inside. Once there, the owner spread his arms proudly and said “here they are!”.

My friend looked around, at first impressed by the rows of wooden shelves, filled from floor to ceiling with wine. But then, when he had a closer look, he realized they were all from Chile – and in the $10 – $12 range. Not only that, many of them were over 5 – 10 years old. My friend, being a good guy, didn’t have the heart to tell the owner that most of the whites were probably close to being oxidized and the reds mostly dried out (as 99.9% of any wines in that price category will be after 5 or more years).

The moral of this story – and subject of this blog post – is that while any wine can keep for 6 months to a year, the vast majority of wines are made to be consumed as soon as you bring them home. In fact, if have seen numbers as high as 95%! Will they last longer? Perhaps. But will they get any better? The frank answer is…no!

The other key part of this post is to point out that even the 5% of wines (overwhelmingly red) that can be cellared end up tasting quite a bit different over time. And note that I said different – not necessarily better!

Many times I have seen the look on people’s faces when they taste a “mature” wine for the first time. At first it is quizzical, and then – usually – disappointed. That’s because as a wine ages, the fruit slowly fades and is overtaken by secondary aromas and flavours that include herbs and wood. And for someone used to lots of ripe fruit, that can be quite a shock.

For my tastes, the wines from France’s northern Rhone (Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas), southern Rhone (Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas) and Piedmont in Italy (Barolo, Barbaresco) are the best for aging, because they still retain much of their fruit and don’t get overtaken by the wood. Personally, I don’t like older Bordeaux for that very reason, and the same goes for most Burgundy as well. California and Australia can produce some wines which I like as they get older, but even I miss the preponderance of fruit when they were young.

How can you tell if you should age the wine you buy? Well, first, try and find an older version of that wine and see if you like it. If you don’t, there is no point in aging it. If you do like it, then find a wine reviewer you trust and age based on their recommendations. Finally, buy more than one bottle of each wine. That allows you to try the wine earlier and more than once. There I nothing worse than having one bottle of what you thought was a special wine, opening it, and finding it is dried out or – worse – gone off.

So as to the question “to age or not to age”? I think the answer is – don’t ask it! Instead, first find out if you like wine when it is older. If you do, then invest in a few bottles and go from there. But if you don’t, then don’t waste your money. Buy the wine you like now, and drink it!


What’s in a wine label?

March 21, 2013

I saw an interesting column this week about what to look for on a wine label and thought I would “weigh in” as well.

I spend a fair amount of time in wine stores, and can’t believe how many times I see the same thing – someone looking at a bottle of wine, turning it over and over, trying to figure out whether to buy it or not! For me, the key – like anything in wine – is knowing what style you like and then building off of that to understand what is on the label (and therefore in the bottle).

What do I mean by that? Well let’s see…

Starting with white wines, a couple of key questions:
• Do you like your whites bone dry or a touch sweet?
• Do you like oaked wines or not?

For the first question, if the answer is “bone dry”, then you probably want to avoid the German/Alsace varietals – Riesling, Gewurtztraminer. Most of the best of these wines are finished at least a little bit sweet. They will usually be rated a (1) on the shelf marker. Really ripe white wines – like Viognier from North America – you might also want to avoid, as their incredible fruitiness can come off as sweet even when it isn’t.

For the oak question, if the answer is “yes”, then go for oak aged Chardonnays, Semillon/Sauvignon blends, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. The label will say there is oak aging on the back, so it is easy to find out. If the answer is ‘no’ to oak, then go for un-oaked versions of the above. Many – in particular Chardonnays – will say “un-oaked” right on the label, and/or talk about being aged in stainless steel (like Chablis from Burgundy).

And what about reds? There are three questions to consider about the style of wine that you like:
• Do you like oak or not?
• Do you like your reds more “fruit-forward” or with more herbs and wood flavours?
• What is the alcohol level?

The first question is the same as for whites, although maybe even more important for red wines! Oak impacts red grapes in vastly different ways, which can also really change the style of the wine. For Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz, it can give a wonderful vanilla overlay and/or a cedary, woody flavor. The same for Pinot Noir. Interestingly, the impact can be even greater on Malbec and Grenache, taking much of the overt fruitiness away from these wines. Almost all wine labels – on the back – will talk about how much oak is used, so that can be a guide for you.

If you don’t like oak, you either need to look for the few red wines without it…or those that don’t seem to show the influence very much. For the former, Malbec is a great bet (the unoaked kind, of course) and can be a great deal. For the latter, wines from the Cotes du Rhone (Syrah and Grenache-based), as well as many Italian wines (like Chiantis, Brunellos, Barolos, and Barbarescos) are good choices. Ironically, many of these are more expensive alternatives and/or quite tannic when young, so look for the lower end Chiantis and Cotes du Rhones.

Fruit forward or not? California, Australia and certain BC wines are more fruit forward, meaning the fruit should be more prominent than the wood influences (whether vanilla or cedar). For Cabernet Sauvignons, that can mean vanilla-covered blackcurrants; for Merlots, super ripe plums, and for Shiraz jammy blackberries. Bordeaux and Burgundy go to the other style, meaning you will get more wood and herbal flavours in your wine.

Finally, alcohol level. Assuming your wine isn’t sweet (like Port), the higher the alcohol, the fruitier the wine, as the ripe fruit has more sugar which is turned into more alcohol. Sometimes the wine can also seem unbalanced because of the alcohol, but if done right these are the epitome of what fruit-forward wine drinkers are looking for.

So there you go! Know your style, and then look for the clues on the label to tell you what is there. Do that, and you will have an easier time understanding the bottle you are looking at in the store.



March 13, 2013

It’s almost spring – at least that’s what the calendar says – and that means new wine releases are just around the corner (or have already started!).

Here is a quick list of the ones I am looking forward to this year in BC.

1. Kettle Valley – well, they have already been released (and I bought them for my wine club), but the 2010 Reserve Pinot Noir and Hayman Pinot Noir are a great way to start the year off! Always two of the best – if not the best – Pinots from the province, this year is the added bonus of the Hayman being designated as “John’s Block” after the recently departed BC wine legend John Levine.

2. Eau Vivre – this Similkameen winery has also already released its 2010 Pinot Noir, which hopefully follows on the footsteps of its incredible 2008 and 2009 (the latter was a Lieutenant Governor Award winner).

3. Nichol – the 2010 Syrah was just released late in 2012, so it will be a bit of a wait for the 2011, but that will no doubt be worth it for what is the best Rhone-style Syrah made in the province.

4. Blue Mountain – ah, the Striped Label/Reserve Pinot Noir! This was the first great BC wine I ever tasted (the 1996, I believe) and it continues to challenge the Kettle Valley wines each year for Pinot supremacy. Look for the 2010 sometime in April or May.

5. La Frenz – there is no argument among wine dweebs like me: La Frenz is the best overall winery in BC (and Canada, for that matter). May will bring the release of most of their 2012 white wines (the Small Lots Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Semillon are all the best made here, and at about $20 ridiculous values). Also released at that time will be the 2011 Merlot (also the best in BC) and – hopefully – the 2012 Rose, which is perhaps the greatest adult guilty pleasure there is out there! And then the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon in July, again the best fruit-forward Cab in the province.

6. Cassini Cellars – a relative newbie on my “best list”, look for the 2012 Merlot (maybe the best red wine bargain in BC at $18), the 2010 Syrah, 2011 Pinot Noir Reserve and 2010 Chardonnay Reserve, all to be released in May.

7. Howling Bluff – another relatively new addition, their Pinot Noir and Sauvignon/Semillon blend have been amazing (and garnered many awards). Look for the 2011 vintages this spring.

8. Marichel – another Syrah specialist, I can’t wait to taste Richard’s 2010 in the bottle (it was amazing in barrel last summer).

9. Moon Curser – the former Twisted Tree Vineyards, I have really liked the quality of their Syrah and Border Vines (a Bordeaux blend), as well as the unique Rhone white blend Afraid of the Dark. Look for the 2011 vintages of the former and the 2012 of the latter in late spring.

10. Mt. Lehman – last, but not least, my friends from the Fraser Valley who make amazing wine at great prices. Look for the 2010 versions of the Reserve Pinot Noir and Syrah, as well as the 2011 Viognier, all sooner rather than later!


March 8, 2013

Another year, another Vancouver International Wine Festival! And, as usual, I have a few reflections on the event.

1. Boy, California still makes great, ripe, fruit-forward wine…

I didn’t have time to taste through all the California wineries (who were featured at this year’s Festival), but those that I did…what ripe, fruit forward wine! California certainly still “gets it” when it comes to bringing out the fruit in wine. If only their Bordeaux compatriots would take that lesson…

2. But California wines are also really expensive!

While I liked the quality, I was even more struck by prices of many California wines. It seemed like many of the “regular” Cabernet Sauvignons, for example, were in the $60 – $70 a bottle range, with Reserve bottlings at $100 or more! Now, I know that can be considered cheap compared to many French wines, but boy…they are out of my snack bracket!

3. And where are the newer “boutique” California wineries?

Aside from a small handful, I was also surprised how many of the participants were virtually the same as was the case 10 or even 20 years ago! Now, good for them…but what about the newer wineries? I’m not sure whether their production is too small to do Festivals or they weren’t approached/didn’t want to come, but every time I read the wine mags, I see all these wineries I have never heard of before getting really high ratings. It would be great to see them as well.

4. More evidence that the 2010 vintage in the Rhone was amazing…

Not as many French wineries this year, but the wineries from the Rhone that were pouring 2010 vintages showed really, really well. Many of these are on the shelf right now, but more are coming and judging from the quality, people should stock up! And with France the feature country next year, we could be in for a real treat.

5. More BC wineries…but even more would be better!

It was great to see Blue Mountain and NkMip there, as well as a number of others, but there are so many other BC wineries out there…it would be great to see them! I realize that the smaller wineries don’t have the marketing budgets (or quantity of wine) needed, but people are really not getting a good idea of what the “Best in BC” is all about.

That’s it for this year…congrats again to the Festival and I can’t wait for next year!