Spirits Review: Hennessy V.S. Cognac

15 06 2018

By Dan Steeves

There is something about sipping on an exquisite fine spirit that provides a sense of sophistication and high class. It wasn’t always like that for me though. What was once an exercise of trying to stomach such liquids in the presence of my older and wiser siblings, a rite of passage you might say, eventually grew into an appreciation of their flavours and aromas once I was finally able to see past that burning sensation in my throat. I slowly gained a preference for whisky, single malt scotch, aged tequila and brandy, and these have been staples in my liquor cabinet ever since. When I was recently sent a sample bottle of Hennessy Cognac for review, I was pleasantly surprised and excited at the opportunity to taste and write up a spirit, instead of a wine, especially a bottle from one of the most iconic and best known Cognac producers (a place on the podium it has rightfully earned).

The unmistakable bottle shape of the Hennessy Very Special Cognac

Cognac is a type of brandy, a spirit made from grapes and the distillation of wine, that is produced is the Cognac region of France, just a short drive North from the famous Bordeaux wine region. The art of distilling the traditionally neutral and low-alcohol wines from the region has been practiced for hundreds of years and was originally done by Dutch merchants as a means of prolonging the life of the wines for transport to other markets. By law, Cognac must be produced using a specific copper pot still (the Charentais pot still, which is named after the Charente river that passes through the region). The base wine used for the production of Cognac can be made from up to eight different grape varieties, with the most popular being Ugni Blanc (more broadly known as Trebbiano). Grapes are grown at high yields which produce rather simple and, frankly, boring base wines with high acidity and low alcohol. The low alcohol levels in the initial wine mean that the finished spirit must be heavily concentrated through the distillation process to meet the legally required minimum alcohol levels for the spirit, which in turn also means a significant concentration of the aromas and flavours as well.

No additives (chaptalisation, sulphur dioxide, etc.) or other shortcuts are allowed in the production of the base wine so as to keep it as pure as possible and prevent any potential off flavours and aromas being emphasized in the final spirit. After distillation, the spirit (also known as the “eau-de-vie”, or “water of life”) is then placed into oak barrels for maturation for a minimum of two years before it can be called Cognac. Similar to the large Champagne houses, Cognac producers each have a signature style and character that is dutifully replicated every year through masterful blending of various aged eaux-de-vie, such that finished Cognacs are non-vintage (or, more accurately, multi-vintage) creatures, each classified according the age of the youngest spirit in the blend. The three main designations are V.S. (Very Special, 2 year minimum aging), V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale, 4 year minimum aging), and X.O. (Extra Old, 6 year minimum aging).  If only all legal alcohol designations had such cool acronyms. Although these minimum aging requirements are relatively low, it is very common for the blends to have eaux-de-vie with an average age far exceeding the minimum.

A five star label on the Hennessy V.S. (originally called the three star)

Cognac is dominated by a small handful of large producers that account for over 90% of the production in the region. Although all of these top producers are well known (Remy Martin, Courvoisier, Camus, etc.), Hennessy is the most well known and popular producer, especially in North America, where it has been exported for over 225 years and is the #1 market for the brand. Hennessy has also been at the forefront of Cognac innovation,  being one of the first spirits producers to offer its product in bottles rather than shipping oak barrels and also being the creator of the amazingly named Very Special, V.S.O.P and X.O. designations. Hennessy sets a benchmark with all their Cognac, be it the Very Special or Extra Old,  and thanks in part to the largest collection of eaux-de-vie in the world has created some of the most premium Cognac in the world. It’s no wonder it is part of LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) group representing all of life’s luxuries. Read the rest of this entry »

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Calgary Wine Life: The Fladgate Partnership 2016 Vintage Port Release Tasting @ La Chaumiere

9 05 2018

By Dan Steeves & Raymond Lamontagne

Vintage Port, undoubtedly one of the crown jewels of the wine world, is celebrated as one of the Earth’s most complex and robust wines, one that has a superior ability to age and mature in bottle, often only fully revealing itself after several decades. Having never tasted a vintage Port with less than 10 years of age on it, we were very interested in the opportunity to preview the brand new 2016 Vintage Ports from The Fladgate Partnership (literally, they were just bottled a couple weeks ago for sampling purposes, well before what will be their commercial release).

The Fladgate Partnership includes three iconic Port houses: Croft, Taylor Fladgate, and Fonseca. Each house enjoys centuries of history producing Port, and between them they hold the most revered vineyards in the Douro, giving the Partnership the ability to make some of the best and most sought after Ports on the market. Croft, founded in 1588 and thus the oldest Port house in the world, possesses the Quinta da Roêda estate, which has been termed the “jewel of the Douro Valley”. Taylor Fladgate has three main estates: Quinta de Vargellas (well known as a pinnacle wine estate), and two Pinhão Valley estates (Quinta de Terra Feita and Quinta do Junco). Fonseca, the relative newcomer in the Fladgate trifecta at the fresh age of 203 (founded in 1815), also has three significant estates: Quinta do Panascal in the Távora Valley, and Quinta  de Cruzeiro and Quinta de Santa António, both located in the Pinhão Valley. It is these special estate vineyards, with their prime soil, ideal climate conditions, and significant plantings of decades-old vines, which contribute most to the style and personality of each House’s classic vintage Port. As we shall see, there are compelling genuine differences in house style.

Vintage Port is made only in the very best of years when the fruit is exceptional and the wines are determined to be monumental in character, showing early evidence of the ability to age that all great Ports should have. It is a house by house decision, made in the second spring following the harvest once the wines have undergone initial aging and blending. If the producer believes the wine has the characteristics of a great Vintage Port (and the regulating body agrees), they make a formal vintage declaration and begin preparations for bottling. For Fladgate, this declaration occurs on April 23rd and it historically happens roughly three times each decade. The last vintage declared for Fladgate was 2011, which followed 2009, 2007, 2003, and 2000. Taylor Fladgate has declared 32 Vintages from 1900-2016, whilst Croft has declared only 24 vintages in the same period.

Jorge Ramos, the export manager for The Fladgate Partnership, led us through a tasting of three vintages (2003, 2007, and the new 2016) from each of the Fladgate Partnership houses. The opportunity to taste various Vintage Ports from all three producers, side by side, really brought into stark relief the differences in their identities. From the luscious fruit flavours of Croft to the soft yet strong complexity of Taylor Fladgate and the muscular power of Fonseca, these were all stunningly delicious with their own personalities. We’ve summarized our tasting notes below by vintage year, in the manner they were tasted. First up, the 2003 vintage, which had a near perfect start to the growing season and periods of intense summer heat in August which allowed for perfect ripening of the fruit. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Domaine Chandon Sparkling Wine Dinner @ Elwood and the Rabbit

13 04 2018

By Dan Steeves

Chandon is a name that instantly makes me think of the luxurious Champagnes from the famous (and largest) Champagne house Moët & Chandon, but its North American offspring Domaine Chandon is not just a clone of its majestic parent company.  It has a vision to be different and create its own legacy by providing a pure expression of what California is all about, while at the same time maintaining the quality that is inherent in its French pedigree.

When Domaine Chandon was established in the Napa Valley in 1973 it was not the first international venture for Moët & Chandon (Chandon Argentina was established first in 1959, and California was succeeded by Brazil in 1973, Australia in 1986, China in 2013, and most recently India in 2014) but it was the first French-owned sparkling wine venture into the US, which now hosts operations from many of the large Champagne houses. Moët & Chandon recognized the potential of the area for sparkling wine production, especially Carneros, which at the time was seen as too cold and infertile to grow grapes (coming from Champagne, they knew it’d be perfect). Moët & Chandon purchased 400 acres of Carneros vineyard land for mere pennies on the dollar in today’s market. It was a humble California beginning for the M & C Winery on March 26, 1973, whose official address was John Wright’s garage, but within a few years the current winery facility was built and opened to the public and the house’s name was officially changed to Domaine Chandon. The 45th anniversary of Domaine Chandon just passed a few weeks ago with the winery holding firm as a longstanding powerhouse in Napa Valley, seeing over 200,000 visitors a year and likely holding the honour of being the largest producer of traditional method sparkling wine in the US.

The line up of Domaine Chandon California wines available in Alberta –  Blanc de Noirs, Brut, and Rosé

Having visited the Moët & Chandon mothership in Épernay (the heart of Champagne) a couple years ago and being fan of all their Champagne wines, I was ecstatic at the opportunity to try the Chandon California wines alongside some delicious food from Bridgeland’s Elwood and the Rabbit. The dinner was hosted by Brian Fairleigh, the Brand and Wine Educator for Domaine Chandon, whose infectious passion for sparking wines is matched closely by a wealth of knowledge about every aspect of Domaine Chandon. Brian made it clear that comparing Moët & Chandon Champagne with Domaine Chandon is like comparing apples to oranges: the two are very different, although they share the same adherence to quality and excellence in the vineyard and cellars. Domaine Chandon aims to showcase the fun, vibrant, sunny California fruit flavours and builds wines that are accessible, enjoyable, and made for everyone to enjoy all year round. Many people only reserve sparkling wines for times of celebration, and although they are perfect for those times, they are equally as enjoyable for a casual sip with friends or an accompaniment to almost any meal. Brian was happy to show us some great pairings. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: Winter Warmers, Part 1

23 02 2018

By Dan Steeves

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

The end of February is slowly approaching and we are less than a month away from the first day of spring. That means warmer weather is in our sights and we soon won’t have to deal with any more snow, right? That might be wishful thinking, but we can certainly hope it is the case! Until that warmer weather shows up and takes permanent residency in the prairies, we will need to keep staying warm and spending our evenings huddled around the fireplace with a nice glass of full-bodied red wine. Although I personally drink all types of wines all throughout the year (nobody should deprive themselves of rosé for months on end), there is no doubt that I enjoy more red wines over the cooler winter months, not only for the warming effects of a 15% ABV Cabernet Sauvignon, but also because we tend to eat more hearty full-flavoured comfort foods during this time and less light and refreshing fare.

To get you through the next month until you start seeing green on the ground, we have reviewed a few robust red wines that will be great at keeping you warm and satisfied until the spring flowers start blooming. We kick off this two-part series with reviews of great value reds from two regions known for their big red wines:  Bordeaux, France and the Colchagua Valley, Chile.

Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Famille Perrin Tasting with Thomas Perrin @ Avec Bistro

15 02 2018

By Dan Steeves

Excited is an understatement of how I felt yesterday as I was on my way to an amazing vinous and culinary experience at Avec Bistro featuring the wines of Famille Perrin and proprietor Thomas Perrin. I have always been fond of the wines of the southern Rhone, especially after travelling through the area a few years ago an experiencing the culture, the landscape…and, of course, the wine! Being guided through a tasting by any winery owner is always a privilege. Hearing directly from them about the history of their area, small details of their wines and their actual impressions of each bottle creates a personal connection that makes it such a memorable experience. Combine this with impeccably paired cuisine and it is elevated to a new level of sublime indulgence.

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Famille Perrin is a family-owned and -operated producer (Thomas, the 5th generation, along with his siblings and cousins, all work for the family business) in the southern Rhône Valley which is most notably known for their flagship label from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Chateau de Beaucastel, although they have an extensive collection of wines from many other areas in the southern Rhone. They have been established for just shy of 110 years and are the leading organic grape grower in the area after Thomas’s grandfather, Jacques Perrin, pioneered organic farming practices in the 1950s which was followed by biodynamic practices in the 1970s. All wines produced by Famille Perrin are blends consisting of at least two grape varieties which are grown, vinified and matured separately and then blended to create a harmonious wine.  With there being 13 different grape varieties allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (all of which are used in the Chateau de Beaucastel CdP, one of the only estates to do so) and still other varieties used in other wines elsewhere in the region, you can imagine how long and busy the harvest season is for Perrin. The harvest starts in August with the early ripening Cinsault and ends two months later with Mourvedre and Counoise. Vinification is then done separately using stainless steel, concrete, or wooden tanks with very limited oak ageing done, at least in the sense that no new oak is used to avoid imparting oak characteristics in the wines.

The tasting consisted of six wines from the Famille Perrin collection – a rosé aperitif, followed by a white and four reds, each accompanied with their own food pairing. Below are details for each wine (and food pairing). Read the rest of this entry »





Co-op Wines: The Social Collection, Bin 107

14 02 2018

By Dan Steeves

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

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As a follow up to Peter’s review of the first Co-op Social Collection bottle, the Bin 101 Cabernet Sauvignon, we now move onto the second bottle of our trio, Bin 107 Pinot Blanc, which hits a little closer to home.  This bottle’s front label clearly shows it is a product of Canada, and upon examining the back label, you notice further clues as to the wine’s origin. Underneath the grape variety is written “Golden Mile – Oliver, BC Canada”, and further down it shows that the wine was exclusively produced and bottled by Castoro de Oro Estate Winery in Oliver BC.

The region south of the town of Oliver and north of the town of Osoyoos is commonly referred to as the Golden Mile due to the amount of wineries off the highway between the two towns. However, stating “Golden Mile” on a label does not have an official meaning — this term shouldn’t be confused with the very-similar label designation “Golden Mile Bench”, which an area up off the valley floor that shows unique climate and soil types and which is now recognized as an official sub-Geographical Indication within the Okanagan Valley GI. That said, all wines made in this part of the Okanagan are well known for their high quality due to the ideal climate:  hot daytime temperatures, cool nights, and limited rainfall (it is for all intents and purposes a desert).

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Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2017: Day 22

22 12 2017

By Dan Steeves

It’s hard to believe that we are so close to Christmas Day, which means the end of the Advent calendar is also quickly approaching. It has been such a great experience trying so many new wines and being able to share some information and tasting thoughts on Pop & Pour. I didn’t originally think that enjoying (and reviewing) a split bottle every day for 24 days would take much effort, but I must admit it’s harder than you might think! That said, each time I’ve unwrapped a bottle to reveal the treasure contained within, I am overcome with excitement and eagerness to dive in and try it, as was the case again this evening!

Day 22… So close to the end!

Initially, I wasn’t sure what to think when I unwrapped the top of the bottle to see an alien face on the top of a screw cap. With such graphics, is this some gimmicky bottle of wine? Further unwrapping showed a 2010 vintage with an old-looking label with the title Le Cigare Volant, which, from my rusty French, I knew translated to The Flying Cigar. A quick turn of the bottle discloses that the wine is a southern Rhone blend (think Chateauneuf-du-Pape) from Santa Cruz, California, and produced by Bonny Doon Vineyard, a name I have heard of before but never tasted any of their wines. Also included on the back label was an explanation of the name of the wine which is an interesting and surprising story. In 1954, a law was passed in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape region banning unknown alien aircraft known as flying saucers (or, in France, flying cigars) in the area and stating that any such craft landing within the area will be held in custody. Yes, this is an actual law in Chateauneuf-du-Pape! Ok, everything is starting to make sense now, and it definitely has my attention.

A name incorporating UFOs and an alien screw cap is pretty awesome!

Bonny Doon Vineyard was started in 1983 by founder Randall Grahm and is known for pioneering the use of Rhone varietals in California. After purchasing land in the Santa Cruz mountains, Grahm originally sought to follow a dream for creating great Pinot Noir but quickly found Rhone varietals to be much better suited for the area, and the inaugural vintage of the now-flagship blend, Le Cigare Volant (1984), was released in 1986. The winery has embraced biodynamic farming practices and been transparent in labelling the ingredients on every bottle of wine since the mid 2000s, when the winery focused on producing more terroir driven wines. Grapes are grown, or sourced, from regions where achieving optimal ripeness is a struggle each year, allowing the grapes to produce deep flavours while maintaining their acidity. This viticultural approach, combined with non-interventionist winemaking, creates a more pure wine, giving a sense of place or terroir. Read the rest of this entry »








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