Posts Tagged ‘style’

Style or Terroir?

July 25, 2017

A bit of a “wine dweeb” blog tonight…I was trying a Syrah (one of my favourite grapes) from Greece (which I had never had). It was good, very good, tasting similar in style to the North Rhones I love so much.

But that got me thinking of a conversation I had last year with the owner of a wine shop in Tacoma. We had been talking about BC’s wines, and which were the best. I was making my case for Syrah (for reds), and one of the reasons was that the style was so similar to Northern Rhones. I was surprised when he disagreed – not with the wines, but the idea.

In his opinion, a wine region needs to find its own style based on its local attributes – something the French call terroir. So in BC, that mean finding our own style of Syrah, for example.

I was polite, nodded my head, bought some wine (which I was going to by anyway), but left thinking I didn’t really agree with him.

And after drinking the Greek Syrah, I still don’t agree with him!

For me, I know the style of wines that I like. I look for them, and if I can find that style made in different places, all the better!

Are there variations? Of course. Take Syrah…I find when it is grown in some parts of California and Washington State, the level of ripeness of the grapes is higher, meaning the wine tastes riper as well. Not jammy – it is not Shiraz. Just riper. Personally, I like that.

But some of the key elements are still there – pepper, black cherries, good acidity, little or no oak. Make a Syrah like that, and I will like it, no matter where it is made!

Compare that to Syrah from, say, some that are made in South America, South Africa, or even Italy. Some of those – some, mind you, not all – add elements which may represent local characteristics, but which I don’t enjoy. Herbs, brambles, and oak…the wines may still be good, but no longer in my style.

But does that make them better because they have their own style, perhaps unique to their area?

Some – including my wine shop friend – may say yes.

But for me, it is moot point. Because I don’t like them…because of that style.

I want wines – whether Syrah or anything else – that I like to drink.

So regardless of whether they are “unique”, I don’t care.

Just open the bottle and poor!



STYLE 101 Part 2: That Damned Merlot!

April 23, 2015

Ah, Merlot…what a wine! Its popularity took a hit because of the movie Sideways a decade or so ago, as Myles continually expressed his hate for it. I’m not sure what the impact actually was on sales, as it still remains a popular pick for many people.

It is also another red wine that shows how important a particular wine-making style can be. Because while the name may be the same on the bottle, many Merlots could not be more different!

To start, the differences are similar to those of Cabernet Sauvignons. Fruity or more woody/herbal – that is a fair generalization. Similarly, California tends to produce more of the former style, while Bordeaux focuses on the latter, often at great expense (Chateau Petrus from Pomerol is one of the most famous – and expensive – wines in the world).

Now, I may be wrong about Petrus, because I have never tasted it, and probably never will. But that actually isn’t the style difference that if find most interesting and, in fact, frustrating, about Merlot.

My beef is with coffee, mocha…and chocolate!

Now, not the hot beverage (which I like) or the sweet (which I also like, but doesn’t like me very much, at least in terms of putting on weight). I mean the flavours.

Look at the wine reviews or descriptions of many Merlots and you will often see reference to coffee, mocha and/or chocolate aromas and flavours. For some, that may be a good thing. But for me, it is a big warning sign!

Because, at least to my palate, coffee + mocha + chocolate mean even less fruit flavour than your straight woody/herbal Merlot. Something just seems to happen when they all come together, and as a result I often cannot find any fruit at all!

Case in point, a BC winery (whose name I will keep to myself) that used to make maybe the best Merlot in the province (at a good price too). It was full of ripe – but not sweet or jammy – black plums, a touch of vanilla, and some licorice/mint. Never very tannic, it was just brilliant to drink.

And then the owners sold the winery, and the new proprietors started to make the Merlot (and all the red wines) in a more Bordeaux style. And that’s not my style. So my cellar – and recommendations – went from full to, now, almost non-existent.

Interestingly, most of the California Merlots I can afford to try (many are now out of my spice bracket) have kept to the fruity style. And there are a couple of others up here – La Frenz and Perseus – that still go in for the fruit-first style.

Since that is my style, that’s what I go for –at least in wine. Coffee, mocha and chocolate? That I will keep those for breakfast and dessert.


Why Don’t I Like Spanish Reds as Much Anymore?

January 14, 2015

Okay, it happened again last night. I opened up a Spanish wine from my cellar – highly rated (95 points) – and the description by the reviewer was full of “fruit” references (which I love).

But then when I opened it…not much on the nose, more wood than fruit in the mouth. Reminded me of Bordeaux. Not my style!

And I know it isn’t a bad bottle…because these things have been happening for a couple of years now.

So what’s up?

Only a few years ago, Spanish wines were a key part of my cellar. Riojas took the lead, as they could age beautifully and the oak would never really overpower the fruit. Tempranillo based wines from other regions were there as well (Pesquera is still one of my favourite wines), as well as Mencia based wines (very Zinfandel like). Lots of fruit, not jammy, nice mix of herbs and earth.

But since then, everything seems to have changed.

It started with Garnacha (the Spanish version of Grenache). I quickly learned that one of my favourite grapes from the Rhone tasted way different when made into wine in Spain! Oak was part of the reason (made the wines too woody), but even the un-oaked ones seemed to lack fruit/have too much herbs and wood.

Then I started to notice a similar trend in some of the Rioja Reserva wines. After 5 or so years (when I normally start drinking them), there seemed to be less fruit than before, and – again – -more wood.

And then it seems to have been extended to just about all other Spanish reds (although I haven’t tasted a new Pesquera recently).

So what gives?

Probably two – related – answers.

First, the style of wine making may very well have changed overall. Bordeaux remains the reference point for many in the wine world, which means less fruit focus and more emphasis on wood, herbs and other flavours. So it could well be that Spanish winemakers are going more in that direction

The other reason is that my tastes – and maybe even my taste buds – have probably changed! Age does many things to people, and it should be no surprise that both what I taste (and what I like) has changed as I have gotten older.

The one thing that I am pretty sure it isn’t is that Spain is making bad red wine. Too many reviewers that I respect continue rate many of the wines highly for that to be the case.

But it shows, once again, how important individual style and taste is, and how those can change over time. The good news is there is lots of other wine out there for you – and I – to enjoy!



May 21, 2014

I was in a wine store the other day looking for some wine for someone in my wine club. I knew exactly what I wanted – had seen that it was on the store’s website – but it quickly became evident that the wine wasn’t there. So I asked some advice.

And that is what generated the idea for this column.

The salesperson asked only how much I wanted to spend, and then quickly began to rattle off recommendations. She started with the most popular wineries, but they are the ones whose style of wines I don’t like much. When I referenced that, she just looked at me – and kept going. Finally, after a few minutes, I found a way to politely excuse myself from the store.

The point here wasn’t that the salesperson wasn’t trying to be helpful. It was – at least in my opinion – she was giving me the wrong kind of help.

When someone asks for wine advice, the first thing I always ask is – what style of wine do you like? Dry or sweet? Fruity or more herbal/woody? That then can lead me in the direction of wines that I think the person will like.

But what normally happens is the exact opposite. “This winery makes a great Cabernet, that winery makes a great Merlot”…that is what I hear. Nothing about what it tastes like, or whether that matches with what you like to drink.

For me, it is no problem – I know what I like, what is available, and I can just walk away. But for someone who is actually looking for advice, that person can – and usually probably does – walk out with something that he or she won’t like when it is opened.

So why don’t wine salespersons asked the right questions? I haven’t asked, but I bet it is lack of training. Or the fact that the so-called “big wineries” are the easiest to recommend, since they carry name recognition.

But if they really wanted to sell more wine – and have repeat customers – they would ask the simple question about style. And, assuming they knew the products they were selling, that would end up with a happy (and probably repeat) customer.

Last, but not least, is how do you take wine advice, whether you are a wine dweeb like me, or someone actually looking for it?

Politely, of course, is a good answer. It is never a good idea to insult anyone.

But it is also okay to ask questions and reply if what is recommended isn’t something you like. A good salesperson should respond to that (unfortunately mine didn’t in the example above).

The best way to respond to wine advice is the simplest – ask “what does it taste like?”. If the salesperson actually knows, he or she will tell you. If the salesperson doesn’t – or can’t – well, maybe it is time to find a different wine store!


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.


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.