Value Burgundy Battle: The NEW Cellar Direct

20 10 2016

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]


Cellar Direct Does Burgundy.

Conscientious readers may remember this post from over a year ago where I introduced Cellar Direct, an Alberta-based online national wine club featuring subscription-based access to a specially-curated selection of non-interventionist natural wines.  Thirteen and a half months later, Cellar Direct is still doing its thing, but under a revamped and significantly more flexible business model.  Now, instead of paying a fixed amount per month for semi-recurring shipments of pre-selected wines, you simply keep an eye out for regular wine offers (generally to be unveiled weekly on Saturdays) and then place an online order for as few or as many bottles as you want, which are shipped to you shortly afterward in temperature-controlled trucks to keep your wines in cellar-like comfort during transport.  This simpler, less demanding offer-based approach is a boon to buyers in the tighter economic times in which we currently find ourselves in this province, and Cellar Direct’s streamlined e-commerce interface allows them to keep prices reasonable even while offering highly researched, quality-focused wines from traditional producers that truly pop and that you won’t see at your neighbourhood wine store.  If any of that piques your interest, you can sign up for the club’s offer newsletters and find out more info at

Cellar Direct’s first online offering under its new and improved structure was the excellent  Senorio de P. Pecina Rioja Crianza that I have already gleefully tried.  The next offer is due out this Saturday and tackles what is often considered (including by me) to be the biggest oxymoron in the world of wine:  value Burgundy.  Wines from Burgundy can make the toughest weep and turn the deepest skeptics into lifelong followers of the vine; unfortunately, they can also empty your wallet with shocking efficiency and leave you feeling underwhelmed and disappointed.  It can be exceedingly difficult, especially at lower price points (which for Burgundy can mean anything under $50ish), to know what you’re going to get in any given bottle, and finding anything $30 or less that properly showcases the region can be a massive challenge, especially when you’re not sure where to look.  Cellar Direct’s upcoming offer this week, as well as a further offer coming in mid-November, try to be your map and compass to this frustrating yet enchanting region of legend.  Let’s see how they do, starting with a bottle due to hit your inbox in a few days… Read the rest of this entry »

2013 Emiliana Novas Gran Reserva Carmenere/Cabernet Sauvignon

13 10 2016

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]


Chile: home of Carmenere and inexpensive quality.

If you were starting up a wine venture today and were looking to maintain high quality but stretch your viticultural buck as far as possible, you would almost certainly go to Chile.  While braver souls are now starting to venture to the more extreme climatic and geographical parts of the country in search of cutting-edge lands and the flavour potency and complexity that can come with them, those who stick to Chile’s warm central valley find themselves in something close to a grape-grower’s paradise:  warm, mild, consistent growing seasons, refreshing cooling breezes at night off the surrounding mountains and a relative lack of vineyard pests.  Since the Southern Hemispheric nation is fairly segregated from the rest of the world’s vineyard (with its closest main viticultural neighbour, Argentina, walled off by the Andes), it has managed to keep itself free from the devastating vineyard louse phylloxera, which has ravaged vines almost everywhere else and has required the bulk of the world’s wineries to graft their vines onto resistant North American rootstocks to allow their crops to survive.

What does all that mean from a commercial perspective?  It means that you can have a vineyard with a lot of beneficial, normally highly costly or dangerous features — organic viticulture, no pesticides or herbicides, own-rooted vines — without the associated price tag or risk of crop loss.  That allows you to make bottles like this one, a single-vineyard wine from 25 year-old vines planted on their own rootstocks, farmed organically and then hand-harvested, and then sell it to export markets at a shade over $15 a bottle.  That combination of price and input quality is basically impossible in the majority of the wine world. Read the rest of this entry »

2014 Henry of Pelham Old Vines Baco Noir

5 10 2016

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]


Welcome Baco.

I admit to approaching this bottle with a slight sense of foreboding.  One benefit of learning about wine is that it helps you pinpoint rare or obscure high-quality grapes or regions that are under-appreciated, and thus underpriced, by the market.  However, one drawback is that it can stratify your thinking about what quality looks like and give rise to unwitting prejudice about varietals or areas that aren’t always known for it.  Baco Noir, like all hybrid grapes, falls within the latter category.  But this bottle is proof that wine prejudice can be overcome.

Almost all of the quality wine grapes in the world, including all of the varieties you can list within 5 seconds of reading this sentence (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, etc.), belong to a grape species called Vitis vinifera, widely (and accurately) known to be the best of the many families of grapes in the world for wine production.  A hybrid grape is a cross between different species of grapes; in wine-speak that usually means a cross between a vinifera grape and a non-vinifera grape.  These crossings almost always arise out of intentional experiments by people looking to combine the flavour, quality and structure of vinifera with non-aesthetic desirable characteristics of the other species, usually ability to withstand weather or disease, ease of ripening or size of yield.  Spoiler:  they usually don’t accomplish all of these goals. Read the rest of this entry »

2015 Alvear Alange Tempranillo

28 09 2016

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]



Some bottles immediately grab your attention for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on.  Other bottles grab your attention by screaming strange Spanish words in 128-point font.  Alvear’s Alange (sorry – ALANGE) is an example of the latter.  Its minimalist / maximalist label and Beetlejuice-like neck pinstriping are designed for the visually primed North American market, as is the consumer-friendly bottle indication of the grape inside (100% Tempranillo), a rarity on Old World wines.  It is a daring display from one of the older family-run wineries in the world, but it serves its purpose well, making you pause for that split second and linger over the bottle; after that, its price tag (a shade over $15) and the quality of the juice inside does the rest.

Alvear is truly a dynastic estate, now on its 8th generation of family winemaking.  The Alvear bodega was first constructed nearly three hundred years ago, in 1729.  Since then, it has not only stayed in the family but is now handled in all aspects by Alvears — there are currently over 50 members of the extended family involved in some capacity.  Alvear is known primarily for sherry, made in the region of Jerez in Spain’s arid southwest corner, but it is also gaining traction as a table wine producer, growing estate grapes due north of Jerez in the Ribera del Guadiana sub-zone of Extremadura.  To say this is an under-the-radar global area for red wine would be a marked understatement, but it’s places like this where values are often found.  Ribera del Guadiana is known primarily for scorching hot summers, freezing cold winters, reddish clay soils and an obscene array of planted grapes: while Tempranillo takes up the most acreage, the area is home to a crazy mix of red and white indigenous and international varietals, from Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir (!) to Pedro Ximenez and Graciano. Read the rest of this entry »

Calgary Wine Life: Washington Wine Tasting @ Bricks Wine Company

16 09 2016

If you have been sucked into the vast and wonderful world of wine at some point in your life, I guarantee there will be distinct moments that you can remember with shocking clarity, a series of epiphanies around particular bottles that made you go:  “I didn’t think wine could be like that.”  You form loyalties around those bottles, the producers that created them and the regions that birthed them.  You seek them out, and those like them, and you try to find out everything about them.  They shape what you look for in wine going forward, but they also increase your awe and appreciation of wine in general, and by doing so they give you an incredible gift, a passageway into a realm that bridges art and science, sensuality and precision.


I’ve had maybe half a dozen such bottles in my life.  One of them was the 2009 Walla Walla Syrah from Gramercy Cellars, which opened my eyes to the remarkable potential of Washington State wine and made me a lifelong proponent of the area, the winery and even the grape.  I’ve discovered since that it wasn’t a fluke:  Washington is filled with a shocking amount of top quality wine, and an array of producers pushing the envelope of what a young New World region should be able to accomplish this soon.  Even the large producers and the entry-level wines of the state come to play, somehow bypassing the plonk basement that consumers of most other areas have to wade through.  Despite all this, the gospel of Washington has been slow to spread, partly due to familiarity (“there’s world class wine WHERE?”) and partly due to price (no $14 slam dunks to be seen, at least in this market).


All of this is why I was so thrilled to attend a Washington State wine tasting at Bricks Wine Company last night.  Bricks is the newest entry into Calgary’s impressive boutique wine scene, nestled in a historic old brick (natch) building at the start of trendy, funky Inglewood, but despite being in the process of establishing a foothold in the market, it hasn’t held back on inspired and daring wine selections, including one of the best arrays of Washington wines in town.  Regions like Washington need wine-savvy guides to take people by the hand and point them to the great wines nestled where they never thought to look; Bricks is the type of shop equipped to do just that.  And that showed in spades in the lineup of wines we tasted through, an array of luminaries that erased any questions about Washington State’s ability to stand with the elites of the wine world. Read the rest of this entry »

2012 Fox Run Vineyards Reserve Chardonnay

8 09 2016

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]


The ultimate value Chardonnay? Quite possibly.

Casting my eyes on this maroon label sends me back down memory lane, to what seems like forever ago but was really only about three and a half months.  In May I was lucky enough to pay a visit to the beautiful and unspoiled Finger Lakes region in central New York State – you may remember this because I basically wrote a Lonely Planet book about the area on this site when I got back.  Our very last winery on that winery-intensive voyage was one I already knew well thanks to its expanding presence in the wine scene in Calgary some 3,600 km away:  Fox Run Vineyards, which has acted both as a gateway drug and as a proud brand ambassador for the Finger Lakes in Alberta.  They have taken to this role so well that one of their whites was an official bottle of choice at the Calgary Stampede this year; can’t get much more YYC than that.  

Fox Run is made up of 50 acres of estate vineyards due south of Geneva, New York, on the western shores of Seneca Lake, the largest and deepest of the long, thin Finger Lakes.  The site was previously a long-time dairy farm, but grapes were first planted there in 1984, with a winemaking facility following in 1990.  Present owner Scott Osborn took over in 1993 and has been a fixture since, and the crazy thing is that he isn’t even the biggest example of the winery’s clear commitment to continuity:  vineyard manager John Kaiser was responsible for first developing the vineyards back in 1984 and is still there today – I met both men when I was there.  Winemaker Peter Bell is 21 years into his Fox Run career, and Sales Manager Dan Mitchell, who is more or less a permanent resident of Canada at this point after forging a successful new northern market for the FLX over the past few years, has been there for 12.  They are a family at this point, and it shows.     Read the rest of this entry »

Luigi Bosca: 2013 Malbec Value Tiers

1 09 2016

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]


Now THAT’S a label rebrand. Thing of beauty.

Once you dive deep into the world of wine and start devoting more time and money than most people deem sane into bottles and glasses and books and storage systems, it can be a challenge sometimes to maintain a sense of discovery about larger-production brands, the workhorse wines you see on the liquor store shelves.  In part that can be valid:  some of them aren’t very good, a fact thrown into stark relief after you’ve learned about production differences and downed a quality bottle or three.  But others have found a way to keep that quality and that sense of vinous wonder despite stepping up in scale and availability, and the best of these manage to do this at an easily accessible price.  It may be as hard to create a well-made, interesting, varietally accurate bottle of 100,000-case $20 wine as it is to create a small-production luxury showpiece bottle at $100.  I’ve been able to try a few different Luigi Bosca wines over the past couple years, and they are making the former happen on a consistent basis.

I say this a lot and apologize for repeating myself, but if you want to learn about a grape or a producer or a region, buy a representative bottle and pay careful attention as you drink it.  If you REALLY want to learn a lot MORE about that grape, producer or region, buy TWO different representative bottles, drink them side by side, and note the similarities and differences.  Comparative tasting is probably the biggest educational gift you can give yourself…plus you also get to open two bottles at once, which can never be bad.  Tonight’s comparative tasting should be particularly illustrative because so much about the two Luigi Bosca Malbecs sitting in front of me are alike:  same producer, same grape, same vintage (2013), same general region (Mendoza, Malbec capital of the New World in Argentina).  What’s different?  Price points ($18 vs. $35), site specificity (general regional wine vs. single-vineyard wine from quality subregion) and grape-growing/winemaking techniques.  What shines through – the similarities or the differences? Read the rest of this entry »