Calgary Wine Life: Pierre Sparr Tasting @ Cassis Bistro

3 02 2017

Can there be any major French wine region more overlooked and underrated than Alsace?  It has all the frozen-in-time charm of Burgundy, with picturesque centuries-old villages dotting rolling hillsides of vineyards, and all the stately history of Bordeaux, but without the matching dose of self-importance.  Add in a dash of international conflict (the region has passed back and forth between France and Germany many times in the course of modern history) and a pinch of consumer friendliness (unlike almost anywhere else in France, Alsatian wines are all varietally labelled so everyone can easily see the grape that’s in the bottle) and you’d think you’d have a sensation.  But perhaps due to its location, tucked away in the northeastern corner of France, or to its primary focus on white grapes and prevailing Germanic influence, Alsace doesn’t get the hero’s welcome internationally that its fellow French stalwarts do, often left unexplored and misunderstood by New World consumers.  Thankfully, Bernard Sparr and others are out to set things right.

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Maison Pierre Sparr, 9th generation.

Bernard is part of the NINTH generation of the Sparr family that it carrying forward the legacy of Maison Pierre Sparr, the Alsatian house named after his grandfather but rooted in a winemaking family going back to 1680 (there’s that history I was talking about).  Pierre persevered through the ravaging of his domaine and vineyards in World War II, expanding the business and passing on a thriving enterprise to his two sons.  Bernard is the son of one of those scions, Rene Sparr, learning the rigours of blind tasting and the rhythms of the family winery from an early age.  Now he is helping expand the profile of the domaine overseas, settled in Quebec and taking on the role of North American ambassador for Pierre Sparr.  He is almost continually on the road, but despite the weariness of travel and an unfortunate cold that sapped his sense of smell, he was a warm and gracious host on Wednesday night, leading a cozy group through a lineup of French wines whose unifying trait was show-stopping value.

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In addition to directing international sales for the family domaine, Sparr also arranges for a small portfolio of like-minded tiny-production French producers to find their way into North America.  A few of these joined him for his visit to Calgary, so to accompany an absolutely marvellous five-course meal at Cassis Bistro, we were treated to a mixture of Pierre Sparr classics and intriguing finds from other regions, starting with a rosé with a distinct connection to a PnP favourite…

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2015 L’Opaline Rosé ($22 retail)

The small Provençal producer who makes the pink wine with which we started our meal makes one other rosé…which is, amazingly, the Pure Provence rosé that won my Tournament of Pink last week.  What are the odds??  Like the Pure Provence, L’Opaline is a blend of Grenache (65%), Syrah (20%) and Cinsault (15%).  Unlike the Pure Provence, it is so pale in the glass that you almost can’t tell it’s a rosé at all, a barely pigmented colour that I’ve heard referred to as “onion skin”.

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Onion skin.

The wine arrived at this barely blushing hue through very careful contact between grape skins and juice: only 5-6 hours of maceration before the liquid was bled off to continue fermentation solo.  The result is a pink wine that is clean and pure, almost alpine, a whiff of icing sugar melting the austerity of the white grape, jasmine, pear and lime flavours.  Strangely Alsatian for a wine from Provence; very different from its pink winery sibling, but highly compelling and almost as impressive.

90-91 points

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2013 Pierre Sparr Riesling Grand Cru Schoenenbourg ($35)

After the aperitif course we jumped directly into the heavy hitters.  Bernard Sparr (rightly) called Riesling “the king of the Alsace grapes”, and Schoenenbourg is royalty among Alsatian vineyards, a mixture of altitude, aspect (on a south-facing hill) and centuries of viticultural history.  And unlike Burgundian Grand Crus, you can actually afford to try the Alsatian versions – at $35, this may be one of the better Grand Cru values I’ve ever come across.  Alsatian Rieslings tend to be richer and drier than their German counterparts, and this one fits the mould at 12% abv and only 6-7 g/L of residual sugar.  It is classically Riesling on the nose, smoky and tropical, candied ginger and pineapple accented by a hint of diesel.  Then things get a little wild on the fleshy, round palate, where a clear streak of sweet red fruit (redcurrant? strawberry? raspberry marshmallow candy?) runs through an otherwise taut and mineral profile, completed by streaks of ripping acid and a lengthy finish.  Fascinating.

91-92+ points

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2015 Domaine des Echardieres Le Becassou ($20)

Another interlude away from Alsace, this time to the Loire region of central France and the vineyards surrounding the town of Touraine, which is quite well known for Chenin Blanc (think Vouvray) but also grows some lighter red grapes.  I would have guessed from the location that this would be a Cab Franc, but I would have only been 15% right:  it is a predominantly Gamay blend (70%), with the remaining non-CF portion rounded out by…Malbec?  To further boost the intrigue, the Gamay was put through what Bernard Sparr described as “semi-carbonic maceration”; whether completed or not, the carbonic approach definitely showcased itself in the friendly swirl of dill-tinged banana Runts, strawberry jam and rosemary aromas that turned lean and racy as soon as the wine hit the tongue.  Rhubarb, raspberry and rocks rode powerful waves of acid over surprisingly dense tannins in a way that laughably overshoots this bottle’s frugal price tag.  If you’re ever looking for a Beaujolais alternative, track this down.

88-89 points

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2014 Pierre Sparr Pinot Gris Reserve ($24)

I am a massive fan of Alsatian Pinot Gris, because it is one of those wines that doesn’t smell or taste like it could come from anywhere else.  It is the most distinctive presentation of the often-depressing Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio world, and this is a tremendous example of it, a wild deep golden elixir emitting equal parts honey, apple-cinnamon, lychee, gingerbread, wild mushrooms and tree bark.  Remarkable acidity dances through the wine’s round, sweet-laced, fuzzy-textured mouthfeel but doesn’t fully dissipate the languidity and meandering nature of the wine, almost as if it’s forcing you to take your time with it.  And you should:  this is the global epicentre of Pinot Gris, and elevates the grape to dramatic heights.

91-92 points

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Pierre Sparr Cremant Brut Reserve NV ($26)

Cremant, the legal term for French sparkling wine made in the same way as Champagne (with the secondary fermentation taking place inside the bottle itself) outside of that famed region’s borders, wasn’t really on Maison Pierre Sparr’s radar until 1971, which may seem like a long time ago until you remember the winery started almost 300 years earlier.  Bernard Sparr’s father Rene started making Cremant d’Alsace just for the heck of it, and it has since exploded, now comprising three different labels and 35% of the winery’s exports.  This NV Brut Reserve is the backbone of the sparkling lineup, distinguishing itself from Champagne both by its use of Pinot Blanc (80% of the blend, with the remaining 20% featuring the Champagne-approved Pinot Noir) and by its price tag, a major reason for Cremant’s recent market insurgence.  Its fine mousse and round yet biting palate carry toasty pear, malt, anise, butterscotch and mineral flavours all the way through a long , drawn out, mouthwatering finish.  We had it with dessert, but I would opt to pair it with something savoury (sushi?) if given the choice.  Thanks to Bernard Sparr, Maison Pierre Sparr and Cassis for an apt reminder to get more Alsace in my life.

89-90 points

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