Calgary Wine Life: Blaufrankisch Masterclass with Georg Prieler of Weingut Prieler

1 05 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne and Peter Vetsch

Austria is renowned for the fruit purity and fine minerality of its wines, and Blaufrankisch is the premier black grape of the region. Grown across Central Europe and going by various monikers (the wonderful “Kekfrankos” in Hungary, and the more prosaic “Lemberger” in Germany), Blaufrankisch is an early-budding, late-ripening variety sometimes dubbed the “Pinot Noir of the East”; its elegance and dexterity earns it that nickname, but its hallmark savoury mineral wildness forges an identity all its own.  Some grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Campania’s Aglianico are said to swamp or overshadow terroir with their sheer varietal character, while others are more protean and can serve as a lens through which the story of their soils and site and climate are reflected.  Blaufrankisch falls firmly into the latter camp, although through its various land-driven expressions one can commonly find dark berry aromas and flavours, vibrant acidity, a pronounced spiciness and that “other” wild rocky character that can set this grape apart.  We were extremely excited to do a specialized tasting of this varietal with Georg Prieler, owner and winemaker of Burgenland’s Weingut Prieler, a dynamic, charismatic, insightful winemaker who carries his family’s history with aplomb…and who might just make the best Pinot Blanc in the world.

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Georg Prieler, Weingut Prieler

Yes, Pinot Blanc. We both first came to know this producer by being absolutely floored by how stunning and utterly fascinating Weingut Prieler’s Pinot Blancs can be.  This particular grape rarely wins this sort of accolade and is often considered a paler, strait-laced shadow of Chardonnay, never fully given the opportunity to take a star turn in any region…except, as it turns out, in Burgenland, where Prieler exalts it among whites and where Georg calls it “the Riesling of the Burgundy varieties”.  That got our Riesling-loving attention, and Prieler’s single-vineyard Pinot Blanc which capped off our tasting held it,  transfixed.

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All that said, Pinot Blanc remains both the winery’s and the region’s “second most important” variety, according to Georg, as nothing in Burgenland knocks Blaufrankisch off its throne. Georg himself hails from (and still lives in) the village of Schützen am Gebirge, population ~1500, known for steely Pinot Blanc but also the sublime Goldberg vineyard, where Blaufrankisch might reach its pinnacle.  He closely oversees operations in both vineyard and winery, inheritor of a legacy that runs from his grandfather to father to sister and now, as of 2011, to Georg himself.  The family’s time in the vineyards predates their work in the cellar — the Prielers have been planting and tending grapes in Burgenland for 150 years, which perhaps is what leads Georg to immediately describe himself as “just a farmer who takes planes and drinks wine”.  After his inaugural visit to Calgary, and with the voice of his wines preceding him, it’s clear that this particular travelling farmer has a global reach. Read the rest of this entry »

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Ripasso and Appassimento in Niagara: A Virtual Tasting with Barclay Robinson, Winemaker at The Foreign Affair

15 04 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

As a wine lover, I often feel I am walking a tightrope of sorts between appreciation of bare-bones, terroir-driven wines of place on the one hand, and esoteric, funky winemaking techniques on the other. My allegiance gravitates implicitly to the former camp, populated by relatively pure expressions of soil and grape variety that eschew the muddying effects of various vinification tricks of the trade. Then again, I can be a sucker for the weird, particularly if there is true intent behind the decision to use a particular cellar technique: the careful realization of a particular vinous vision can be every bit as compelling as what results from a more hands-off approach. It turns out that in some cases, particular techniques are the tradition. And traditions, like other aspects of culture, are meant to be shared, applied to new contexts, and ultimately celebrated.

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Enter Barclay Robinson, winemaker at Ontario producer The Foreign Affair, who recently shared the story and results behind some of these techniques and traditions in a personal virtual tasting.  This was a lot of fun, Barclay being exactly the sort of guy I like tasting with: erudite yet down to earth, funny yet quick to impart knowledge. The winery, situated in the Vineland area of the Niagara Peninsula, is completely unique in the Canadian context. Founders Len and Marisa Crispino lived as expats in Italy, where they fell in love with the Amarone wines of Valpolicella. These burly concoctions are made using the the appassimento process, in which the grapes are dried after harvest for to up to 6 months, typically resting on bamboo racks or straw mats, or alternatively strung up from the ceiling where air can circulate and work its dehydrating magic. These raisined grapes provide a very concentrated must (the juice to which yeast is added after crushing to make wine), which makes fermenting the resulting wine to total dryness quite a challenge. I have grown to appreciate Amarone over the last year or so, although its combination of high alcohol, intense flavour concentration, and a unique nut-like bitterness can be polarizing. The Crispinos decided to bring this winemaking approach to Ontario, albeit using the Bordeaux varietals known to do well in the Niagara Peninsula (alas, Niagara Corvina is not a thing at this juncture). Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: A Field Guide to the Wines of Albert Bichot

10 02 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

Peter has kicked off the 2019 blogging campaign in style, with an intriguing comparison of wine preservation methods that will make a significant contribution to the annals of Pop & Pour science. And me? Well, I’m back doing one of the things I do most frequently on this blog: covering a tasting. This one was a casual drop-in scenario, bypassing the formal sit-down presentation, and on this date that was just fine by me. The frigid weather has left me irascible and more than a little crabby. Fortunately, we’ve got a prescription for those blues… and its not more cowbell. It is glorious, glorious Burgundy.

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I’ve mentioned my love affair with Burgundy (and Pinot Noir more generally) enough times on PnP, so I won’t belabour the point here. I had not tried any wines from Albert Bichot before, but I was promptly faced with 15 (!) of them, in a carefully curated sequence of whites and reds, from Chablis to Grand Cru, complete with a bonus round detour into Beaujolais Cru territory. Fifteen! I was titillated and daunted in approximately equal measure. How the hell is a guy supposed to keep these all straight, what with the small pours, limited analysis time, and numerous distractions around the table? I like to meditate on a half-bottle or more, savouring and seeing how the wine develops over time, as one’s palate habituates to the initial impressions. This is another kettle of fish entirely, with a pace more like Whac-A-Mole than a game of chess, although I do have my tricks, particularly a powerful secret weapon: “Beginner’s mind”. This is an application of mindfulness, where one deliberately pays attention to the present moment, concentrating the attention into a laser beam focused only on the wine in the glass, and then seeing what associations are dredged up. With beginner’s mind, you explicitly adopt a form of make-believe in which you imagine that the liquid in the glass is foreign, entirely novel, never before encountered, and see what this clean slate provides. Might sound hokey, but give it a try during a tasting. It’s like a palate cleanser for the brain. All this aside, I will not take much credit for the fact that I WAS ultimately able to keep all these wines distinct in my mind’s eye. This was more testament to the artistry of the 6th generation producer Domaines Albert Bichot. Read the rest of this entry »





12 Days of Vinebox: Day 10

3 01 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

My final vial of this inaugural Canadian Vinebox run hails from a producer with which I am familiar, at least in an academic sense: Chateau Gillet. The Nadau family has made Bordeaux wines for around 150 years. The Gillet vineyards fall smack dab on the limestone plateau that comprises the heart of Entre-Deux-Mers. Although Gillet makes red, rose, and white wines, the Entre-Deux-Mers region is best known for white Bordeaux. The area is vast, sandwiched between the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers (hence the name), and you will only see “Entre-Deux-Mers AOC” on white wines, with reds from this region labelled with the generic “Bordeaux AOC”. Confusingly, though, many producers of whites from the area now eschew the more specific regional appellation in favour of “Bordeaux Blanc AOC” or even just “Bordeaux AOC”, as is the case for the present vial. Ugh. According to Stephen Brook in his omnibus The Complete Bordeaux, there is little point in trying to navigate this morass of tedious bureaucracy and confusing regional laws. At least for today, I am inclined to agree. Suffice to say, Entre-Deux-Mers is too large and too flat to yield consistently great wines, although here and there are pockets of limestone that can elevate the grapes that comprise the typical white Bordeaux blend.

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Chateau Gillet’s white consists of 60% Semillon and 40% Sauvignon Blanc from 25 year-old vines. This is rather “old school” at a time when more and more white Bordeaux is dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, presumably in an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of this grassy, tart varietal in the New World. Traditionally Semillon provides the body and some texture. Personally I am fond of this grape’s rather unique aromas, which can be reminiscent of fresh linens and other textiles, candle wax, and so-called “wet wool”. Although the best white Bordeaux typically sees oak, many entry-level bottlings from less prestigious appellations are made in a fresher style. Such is the case here, fermented and aged in stainless steel. It would seem that Vinebox and oak do not mix, eh? Have we had even one oaked wine in this thing?! Maybe Day 2. I wonder how strategic this state of affairs might be. Read the rest of this entry »





12 Days of Vinebox: Day 7

31 12 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

Day 7 finds us sampling different wines from the same winery in close succession, presenting us with another native Sicilian grape, from the very same producer as Day 6. Or is it grapes, plural? What I’m glomming onto right away is the name “Inzolia Catarratto” on the vial. “Inzolia” is reminiscent of “Trebbiano”, in that this name actually refers to numerous white grape varieties that are in fact distinct. Most commonly this word is an incorrect but still commonly used moniker for Ansonica, a widely planted, golden-skinned, low acid Sicilian variety that has also made some inroads into Tuscany. Which brings us to Catarratto. This is another broadly planted Sicilian white grape, in this case in the high-acid camp. Yup, this is a 50-50 blend of Ansonica and Catarratto, two workhorses, presumably intended to capitalize on a balance between Inzolia’s relative bulk and Catarratto’s fresher edge.

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Ansonica is interesting in that it is so prevalent in the hot Sicilian climate despite being a low acid variety. On the plus side, it is drought-resistant. Turns out that Tuscany might be a better locale for it despite this grape’s Sicilian roots; in Sicily the wines tend to be citrusy and light-bodied, whereas in Tuscan island regions such as Elba the grape yields sturdier, richer wines that recall golden orchard fruits with a saline bite. In either case, Ansonica is also a rare example of a naturally tannic white grape. The name Catarratto (or Catarratto Bianco) means “waterfall”, which refers not to some pretty landscape feature but rather to the effusive quantities of wine this grape is capable of producing. Hoooo boy… When a grape name refers to a wine lake rather than some unique aspect of of its vinous personality, one has to wonder how it’s going to show in the glass. In any event, Ian D’Agata compares Catarratto to Chardonnay, stating that it can conjure up notes of savoury herbs, banana and butter. He also acknowledges that these conceits might have more to do with wine-making technique than they do with any innate characteristics of the grape itself (which, hey, actually does sound rather like Chardonnay). The technical sheet on the Feudo Solaria website reassures us that we can pair the wine with snapper, “with no fear of being banal”. Hmmm… Maybe there’s at least a little fear. Read the rest of this entry »





12 Days of Vinebox: Day 6

30 12 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

We are halfway through Vinebox. And back in Italy, albeit this time in the deep south, Sicily. Like its more northerly counterpart Puglia, Sicily grows tremendous quantities of grapes, most of which go into “IGT Terre di Sicilia” or “Terre Siciliane IGP” commodity wines. The heat and relatively flat, fertile land lend themselves to mass production of fruit-forward, easy-drinking and (most importantly) cheap wines, beverages to enjoy without need for much in the way of weighty analysis. And this is all well and good. There is a place for plonk, I suppose. Fortunately though, Sicily is like most Italian wine regions in that it is also a storehouse of unique, fascinating native grape varieties as well as some interesting terroir. In fact, Italy on the whole has more indigenous grape varieties than any other wine-producing country. The good news for wine nerds is that this heritage is being increasingly nurtured, protected, and celebrated. Enter the present grape, Frappato.

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Frappato is a Sicilian native and apparently enjoys a parent-child relationship with Sangiovese (although the specific direction of this relationship remains unknown). The grape is known for rather low acidity/high pH, low levels of delicate, soft tannins, low sugars, and (you guessed it) relatively low levels of colour compounds. This grape of diminutives was once rare as a varietal, instead used as a softening component in blends with heftier grapes such as the better-known Nero d’Avola. Although Frappato is challenging in the vineyard, it is rather forgiving in the winery. Its reductive nature does require exposure to enough oxygen during fermentation to avoid the production of sulphurous off-odors (for example, by frequently pumping of the must over the cap, a technique which also aids extraction of what few colour compounds and tannins are present in the grape). The resulting wines are typically light, fresh, aromatic, and meant to be drunk young. “Don’t expect the colour of Merlot”, says one viticulturist quoted by Ian D’Agata in his book Native Wine Grapes of Italy. (By the way, if you are any sort of wine nerd who is at all intrigued by Italy, this book is essential reading.) Read the rest of this entry »





12 Days of Vinebox: Day 5

29 12 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

The westernmost wine region on a map of the Loire Valley in France is Muscadet, maritime stronghold of the relatively neutral but late-ripening, frost-resistant grape variety Melon (or Melon de Bourgogne, or Melon Blanc). I might propose that this wine deserves a better fate than the shrinking total vineyard areas that characterize its current struggle to survive. Melon is a regional speciality and frankly as a grape might not be capable of achieving much more, although the wine world needs to hold on to this sort of heritage, lest everything homogenize into “hedonistic fruit bomb” oblivion. I’m therefore pleased to see such a wine in Vinebox. In theory, Muscadet should be popular for many of the same reasons Pinot Grigio is an international superstar: it’s neutral and hence unobjectionable (said to taste of “subtle green fruit”), approachable, and food-friendly, albeit with considerably more provincial character. I mean, how many wines can taste of the sea itself? Then again, this is the sort of wine that is built to pair well with local cuisine and is therefore supposed to represent but a shard of viticultural diversity, as opposed to stepping up as the next candidate for world domination. Perhaps it is mediocre to great right where it is.

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Muscadet Sevre et Maine is the largest appellation within the broader region, representing around two-thirds of total production. Wines from the broader Muscadet appellation are rarely seen outside the region, made in fairly small quantities, and deemed insipid by international critics. Sevre et Maine refers to a couple of small rivers that flow through the area, which roughly comprises the eastern half of the region. At their best, Sevre et Maine wines are light-bodied, tautly acidic, tangy, and saline in character, although there is some interesting regional variation in them that would be fun to explore. Although traditionally fermented in large old oak vessels, nowadays stainless steel and concrete have become more common. More recently winemakers are seeking to designate unique terroirs within the region, and are even experimenting with Burgundian techniques such as small barrel fermentation. Perhaps the region isn’t going anywhere without a fight. Read the rest of this entry »








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