Archive for September, 2013

When a wine(maker) changes style

September 25, 2013

I was in a VQA store recently and asked the proprietor what was new and good in his store. One of his recommendations, surprisingly, came from one of the “big” BC wineries, based on the fact that it had changed winemakers. (Note: I am not going to “name names” in this blog…it isn’t needed to prove my point).

So I took his advice and bought a bottle to try (it helped that the wine was on sale for less than $20). And, by complete coincidence, I had been given another bottle by the same winery – although a much higher end one, and from a vintage with the old winemaker. So I tried them back to back (one day after another) and – the guy was right!

The older, more expensive wine was way more Bordeaux in style, more herbs and wood than fruit – not bad, just not my style.

But the newer, 2010 model, while cheaper, was…amazing! Super ripe, really fruit forward, I couldn’t believe it was from the winery. It was easily the best wine I had ever had from that winery, and even had lots of fruit left the next day.

This got me thinking of a similar experience from a few years ago now. A different BC winery (again, no names), used to make some of my favourite red wines – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Really California in style, with ripe fruit, they were amazing, and really well priced.

But then ownership changed, and so did the style. Again, way more Bordeaux aromas and flavours, with cedar, herbs, tannin and not a lot of fruit. I was so disappointed, even asking a couple of times “why”? But the tasting staff just shrugged.

This just demonstrates how “style” is so important in wine, and what an influence it can have on the wine itself. In both cases, the grapes were still from the same vineyard. But a deliberate decision had been made to make them into a different style of wine. Why? I don’t know…and probably never will.

My point here isn’t “good vs bad”. Rather, that the approach to winemaking can have such a huge impact on what a wine ends up tasting like.

Most importantly, though, is to know your style and constantly be on the lookout for it. And that means even in wineries – and wines – who you may have previously “written off” because they didn’t make your style of wine.



September 11, 2013

“This wine will develop and be at its best in 5 to 10 years.”

How many times have you read that – or something similar – from a wine dweeb like me in a review of a wine? But what does it actually mean…and, most importantly, what can you expect a wine to taste like when it “develops”?

The latter is a great question, and one that came home to me a few years after I got into wine. I was at a Burgundy tasting put on by a wine club. It was of ‘69 and ’70 reds – both great vintages – and the wines were from good producers. But as the tasting proceeded, I could sense…unease in the crowd, many who were also relatively new to wine and used to those from California.

It all came to a head during the Q&A, in the very first question. A very well dressed gentlemen stood up and, in not so many words, said “these wines are dried out; where’s the fruit?” The nodding heads and applause showed many people in the audience agreed with him (as did I). But I felt badly for the “experts” up on the stage as they stammered and stuttered, trying to explain what old wine tasted like.

So what does it taste like? Well, it depends on the wine (more on that in a second). But one thing, in general – the fresh fruit aromas and tastes go away. And that can be a shock to most people – including myself – who love that fruit forward style of wine. The fruit becomes more delicate, dried out a bit, with more secondary characteristics like herbs, smoke, and wood.

And the tannins — those astringent, mouth-puckering things that give the sensation of tea that has been left sitting too long — also fade over time and soften, making the wine softer and easier to drink.

But what the wine actually tastes like differs from wine to wine. Bordeaux and Burgundy, for example, definitely get woodier, especially Bordeaux. Softer, yes, silkier, yes, but you have to like wood (oak, cedar, etc.) to like older versions of these wines.

Older Grenache-based Rhones (like Chateauneuf du Pape) are earthier, with wonderful Provencal herbs (called garrigue) and dried – but not dried out – fruits. Syrah based wines from the same part of France are have more pepper, smoke and licorice to them.

Barolo and Barbaresco from Italy can take on a wonderful port-like richness over time – almost overripe fruit and herbs – I love those wines at 15 years old!

And California Cabernets – compared to their mostly Cabernet-based Bordeaux cousins – retain more of their fruit for a much longer time. I have had ten and even 15 year old Cali Cabs that were stunningly fresh!

But the ultimate question, of course, is do these older wines taste any better?

Well, first off, it’s important to emphasize that the examples above represent less than 5 percent of all wines. The other 95% should be drunk in their first year or two of life for their freshness; they won’t get any better, instead getting dried out.

Also, I am talking about red wines here. Aside from some German and Alsace wines, very few whites get better with age.

But those that can age – do they taste better?

Well, I think the answer is, instead, that they taste different – and sometimes radically different. They can definitely be an acquired taste, and I completely understand why many people don’ t like old red wine.

My advice is therefore to buy an older wine and try it first before investing in a bunch of younger wines that you are going to save for later. Although more expensive, you can often find older bottles to try, and they will give you a sense of what age tastes like.

If you like that style, then by all means buy some and put them in your cellar (although buy more than one, so you can check out the development over time). But if you don’t – that’s all right too! Enjoy the fruit of a younger wine, as it is just as legitimate an experience as an older wine.



September 4, 2013

I experienced a bit of a “conundrum of manners” this past weekend, one that caused me to ponder it for a while – so I thought I would share it with you.

With my wife and daughter away at the Taylor Swift concert – and teenage son otherwise engaged – I thought I would take the opportunity to go check out what was happening at some of the Fraser Valley wineries. But at all three of them, I ran into wines that weren’t bad, but just not my style. At each of them, however, the pourer asked me “what do I think?”

Each time, I hesitated. Partially, because even after 25+ years of wine tasting, I still wonder sometimes whether I actually know what I am talking about. Mostly, though– whether because I am Canadian or just a nice guy – I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.

The result, each time, was that I was “careful” in my assessment. “A little thin” was one comment…”made in a different style” was another. Those kinds of comments were able to get me, mostly, out of trouble.

But then I also wanted to tweet my tastings. And tweets, partially because they are so short, don’t lie.

At first, because tweets are electronic, it thought I was safe. None of them were horrible – after all, none of the wines were “off”. But the reds were more Bordeaux in style, which isn’t what I like, and the whites just didn’t have enough fruit. So that’s what I said.

It was with a bit of horror, however, when I saw that a couple of the wineries retweeted my “least insulting” tweets!?!

On the way home, I thought about what a wine critic could – or should – say. On the one hand, if people are following my advice, I owe them the truth. On the other, however, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

So what to do?

In the end – and after considering what I had actually done and said – I came up with a solution.

Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis knows I am a big fan of ‘style’. It’s not about good and bad wine, just about the style of wine that you like. And that was how I had both talked, and tweeted, about all the wines. It was honest, but not hurtful.

So that is what I will continue to do. I will make sure people know the style of wine I like. If wineries make that style – and the price is right – then I will talk about it favourably. If not, then I won’t necessarily criticize it, but I will say it isn’t my style.

Hopefully that is the kind of compromise that will produce a review that is truthful but not hurtful to the winemaker!