Calgary Wine Life: Veuve Clicquot Release Tasting @ Yellow Door Bistro

23 03 2018

By Peter Vetsch and Raymond Lamontagne

Sometimes the best times to celebrate are the times when there is nothing obvious to celebrate.  It’s a dreary weekday in late March in still-snowy Calgary, but Champagne lifts all spirits and makes all occasions special, and this was no exception.  The eponymous yellow door of the Yellow Door Bistro at Hotel Arts perfectly foreshadowed the array of yellow labels awaiting us inside, including the brand new release from Champagne’s powerhouse (and power-house) Veuve Clicquot.  Winemaker Bertrand Varoquier expertly guided us through a series of Veuve releases, not least of which was the winery’s latest concoction, the Extra Brut Extra Old NV, soon to be available on retail shelves across Calgary.


Veuve Clicquot is one of the oldest houses in Champagne, founded in 1772 by banker Philippe Clicquot-Muiron, who was then proceeded at the winery by his son Francois.  When Francois suddenly died young in 1805, his widow Barbe-Nicole Clicquot-Ponsardin stepped forward to take over the reins and run the business, a daring decision for a 27 year-old woman in early 19th century France.  The young widow (or veuve, in French) persevered, and her strong vision and fierce entrepreneurial spirit took the winery to new heights, leading to some significant innovations in tradition-laden Champagne.  Madame Clicquot was the first to create a rosé Champagne made from 100% wine (previous renditions of pink Champagne were created by mixing white wine with elderberry juice).  She is also credited with creating the riddling process that allows the dead yeast cells from Champagne’s in-bottle secondary fermentation to slip down into the neck of the bottle so that they can be frozen and disgorged, to keep the finished wine from being cloudy; before this, Champagne was served hazy and decanted to let the leesy sludge settle before pouring.  Clicquot-Ponsardin contributed so much to the region over her lifetime that she was nicknamed “La Grande Dame” of Champagne, a name that since 1872 has also been used for the house’s prestige cuvée.  Her impact on the winery was so significant that the entire brand was renamed in her honour.


Bertrand Varoquier is a native son of Champagne, born in the heart of the region in the town of Reims; as he puts it, “my blood is bubbly”.  For the past six years of his extensive 18-year wine career, he has been at Veuve Clicquot, where he is currently responsible for all red wine vinification.  Due to the house’s production size, and in order to ensure that its winemaking happens as close as possible to the vineyards where the grapes are harvested, the red grapes that go into Veuve’s cuvées (primarily Pinot Noir, which is at the core of Veuve Clicquot’s identity) are processed and vinified in their own standalone facility in Buzy.  Each discrete parcel of each red vineyard is vinified separately, and after alcoholic fermentation is complete and scores of still wines are created (some with very limited colour due to restricted skin contact, some fully red for use in rosé Champagne creation, all produced solely for future blending), the lots are sent to Veuve HQ in Reims for malolactic fermentation and blending.


Bertrand Varoquier, winemaker at Veuve Clicquot

Unlike almost any other top wine region in the world, which tends to glorify single-vineyard and single-vintage expressions of time and place, Champagne’s focus is on achieving and maintaining each house’s unique signature style with precision and consistency, year in and year out.  The mammoth challenge of this task is almost unquantifiable, but this will give you a sense of it.  In addition to his winemaking duties, Bertrand is on the Veuve Clicquot tasting committee along with Cellar Master Dominique Demarville and others.  Every year, from the start of November until the start of March, the committee tastes 24 different sample lots of still wines PER DAY out of the roughly 1,200 (!!!) already-vinified non-bubbly base wines aging in full stainless steel tanks in Veuve’s cellars in order to determine which wines will be used to populate each of the house’s different Champagne releases.  These base wines are from the present year’s harvest plus nearly twenty prior vintages, and all are ultimately rolled into a multi-vintage, multi-source patchwork tapestry that the Cellar Master weaves into the emblem of Veuve Clicquot, so that the buying public gets the taste experience they expect out of every single Veuve Champagne, regardless of the year in which they buy it. Read the rest of this entry »


Calgary Wine Life: Taylor Fladgate 1968 Single Harvest Port Release

17 03 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

Although I am deathly tired of the evil winter weather that simply will not give up the ghost in this city, I am more than happy to brave one more snowstorm (please, just one more?) in order to carry on the Pop and Pour tradition of covering the annual release of a Taylor Fladgate Single Harvest Port.  These bottles capitalize on Taylor Fladgate’s extensive back catalogue of aged Port stocks.  They are tawny Ports, meaning that they are aged in barrels for many years, exposed to oxygen and thereby mellowed into a resplendent golden brown. They are also Colheitas, or tawnies where all of the bottled grapes hail from a single vintage.  Taylor Fladgate eschews the term Colheita on these labels in favour of a more anglicized approach.  Regardless of the naming convention employed, Port connotes a sense of pageantry, giving off a regal vibe that this self-styled progressive enjoys basking in from time to time. I wander through the fine wooden décor of Calgary’s Ranchmen’s Club, past a litany of taxidermied game, following my nose into the tasting room where fragrant pourings have already sat for some time.


Our host Cynthia Opsal, Brand Manager for The Fladgate Partnership for Pacific Wine & Spirits, leads us off with a video that features an interview with Alistair Robertson, principal shareholder in the Fladgate Partnership.  Robertson explains that terroir is fundamental to good Port.  According to Taylor Fladgate winemaker David Guimaraes, 12 different indigenous grape varieties are planted, with four providing the majority of production.  Some grapes such as the vogue Touriga Nacional provide tannic grip, while others such as Tinta Barroca provide more color and sugar content.  Robertson explains that a day of work on the estate involves eight hours of picking grapes, followed by four hours of foot treading in the case of high quality bottlings.  Production of all Port involves adding grape spirit to stop fermentation just before its midpoint, which at Taylor Fladgate occurs around three days into the fermentation process, when about 5-6% alcohol has been produced.  Enough spirit is added to bring the alcohol up to around 20% (which in turn kills off any remaining yeast).  David Guimaraes has stated that a recent trend toward use of more clean and pure spirits means that vintage Ports are approachable sooner, with more fruity expression.  This latter point seems particularly relevant, as this year we get a welcome break from tradition:  instead of the preliminary offering of blended tawny ports that were tasted in prior Release years, we get to sample three 2015 vintage Ports — Single-Quinta vintages, that is.

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Calgary Wine Life: A Special Evening with Cinzia Merli of Le Macchiole @ Centini

15 03 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

It was while reading my very first book on wine, the 6th edition of Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan’s “Wine for Dummies”, that I first encountered the term “Super Tuscan”.  I instantly became enamored with the concept.  Some Tuscan producers became wary of traditional wine-making laws that they perceived as stifling innovation. Part of the motivation here was that these producers wanted to experiment with “international varieties”, particularly those famous for yielding Bordeaux blends in France.  Such grapes could be grown.  The kicker was that wines made from them could initially be labelled only as “vino da tavola” (or table wine), as they clearly violated Italian DOC production guidelines which emphasized native varietals.  However, it became apparent that parts of Tuscany were in fact better suited to growing international varieties than native son Sangiovese.  It was absurd to equate quality wines from such areas with the multitude of serviceable but undistinguished table wines found across the country, and thus the marketing concept of the Super Tuscan was born – described on the Italian Wine Central website as “a maverick wine of great breeding but living outside the Establishment”.


Cinzia Merli does not resemble any stereotype of a maverick.  My initial impression was one of a quiet, conservative, perhaps strict woman, full of resolve and perhaps possessing a keen wit underneath her stolid outward presentation.  She first apologized for her English, which by my reckoning is quite good.  She then provided a fantastic overview of the Bolgheri region and her own wine estate, Le Macchiole, during which her passion and unrelenting dedication to her craft became apparent.  I was already in awe coming into this event:  these wines are legendary.  Cinzia’s presentation only served to stoke the flames.  This evening shall live on in my memory as one of the most fun tastings that I have ever experienced with total strangers (strangers no more!).  I should add that Centini provided exceptional dinner service and perfect ambience.  Read on for my takes on five burly reds (including two vintages of the iconic Paleo), plus a sprinkling of relevant history.

IMG_1110 Read the rest of this entry »

Calgary Wine Life: Tabarrini Montefalco Tasting Seminar @ Model Milk

12 03 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne and Dan Steeves

We have always been impressed by the selection of Austrian and German wines in Salivate Wines’ portfolio, so we were thrilled at the opportunity to sample wines from one of the importer’s Italian producers, Tabarrini.  Hailing from smack dab in the middle of Italy, in Montefalco within the Umbria region (the only wine region in Italy that does not have a coastline or border another country), Tabarrini is a well-respected winery known for its big, brooding single-vineyard reds based on the Sagrantino grape, as well as for an interesting white wine made from the little-known Trebbiano Spoletino. Although maybe not quite as famous as other Umbrians such as Saint Francis of Assisi, Monica Bellucci or black truffles (a full 60% of the world’s supply of the latter originates from the region), there is no doubt that Tabarrini is producing some serious wines that have rightfully been getting global attention.

Tabarrini’s director of sales and marketing, Daniele Sassi, led us through an informative (and entertaining – Daniele is a natural comedian, and the jokes are not always politically correct!) tasting of three of the winery’s offerings:  the Adarmando Bianco (a white Trebbiano Spoletino), the Boccatone Rosso (a Sangiovese and Sagrantino red blend), and the Colle Grimaldesco Sangrantino (one of the estate’s premium single-vineyard dry Sagrantinos).  Read on for our combined thoughts and notes on each bottle. 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.


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 »

Calgary Wine Life: Barone Ricasoli Luncheon @ Alloy Fine Dining

10 02 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ growing up. Amongst the many fond memories (including my grandmother’s never-ending tolerance of my boundless energy and predilection for getting into various forms of trouble), I can recall that there were always a few fiascos kicking around the house, those round-bottomed bottles covered with a close-fitting straw basket that shall be forever associated with one of the world’s great wines: Chianti. Although the wine contained in most of these vessels was far from remarkable, over time a serious quality revolution occurred, one that led to the creation of the Chianti Classico DOCG designation. This important development was associated with a renewed commitment to meticulous winemaking as well as the elimination of winemaking techniques that were eventually appreciated to hinder quality (e.g., blending white grapes into a must that was largely red). At the same time, there was a dedication to preserving a unique identity; Chianti was and is a Sangiovese-dominant blend, not a varietal wine (at least usually…it turns out that Chianti Classico can be 100% Sangiovese!). As a newly christened regular contributor to Pop & Pour, I could not have been more keen to draw this tasting assignment, hosted by none other than Francesco Ricasoli. You see, Francesco’s ancestor Bettino actually invented the style.

IMG_0808When Francesco, a professional photographer, finally entered the world of winemaking, Bettino Ricasoli’s beloved Castello di Brolio estate had spent some time being passed from one multinational to the next. Enter a “contractual loophole” that gave Francesco a chance to purchase his family’s legacy from Hardy’s, based in Australia. Although he was initially unsure about whether this was a good idea, some helpful advice and prodding from a friend at Castello di Fonterutoli sealed the deal. Alas, there was much work to do. Francesco wanted to restore his wines to glory. He commissioned a three-year study to clarify the agronomic potential of his property and conducted trial plantings of fifty different Sangiovese clones, eventually determining which would perform best in his vineyard soils. The latter are largely calcareous clay with additional stony components and occur at a wide range of altitudes. Francesco was careful to explain his philosophy of “precision viticulture”. Under this approach, every vineyard parcel is a distinct entity yielding a unique vinous product. Parcels are each farmed according to their individual characters. The wines are all vinified separately to preserve their distinct attributes and are then thoughtfully blended. It became clear that Francesco does not like leaving winemaking to chance. “Why make mistakes that can be avoided?”, he asked, in response to a question about whether he uses selected yeasts for fermentation. However, he is passionate about preserving grape character. This is a highly intelligent man who thinks deeply about his wines, one who has the utmost respect for nature’s raw materials but who is not shy about steering vinification exactly where he wants it to go, according to his vision. Read the rest of this entry »

Calgary Wine Life: Catena Virtual Tasting with Laura Catena

26 08 2017

Laura Catena is my wine hero.  Her list of credentials reads as if it must have been accomplished by at least two people over the course of long, full lives:  fourth-generation winery owner, global Argentinian wine ambassador, Harvard magna cum laude, Stanford medical school grad, San Francisco emergency room and pediatric emergency doctor, multilingual published author, viticultural researcher and innovator.  And these parallel tracks of success are not a story of a mid-life career switch; she has been excelling in one of the most challenging careers in medicine and continuing her family’s proud wine legacy simultaneously, on two different continents, since she was in her early 20s.  As I have a hard time juggling more normal professional work demands and writing a weekly wine blog in the same city, I hold Dr. Catena in some degree of awe, as an example of what purpose and passion truly can accomplish in a single lifespan.


Argentina has long been highly ranked on global lists of national wine consumption, made up as it is of a high percentage of European immigrants and their descendants, who brought with them an imbued wine culture and the know-how to introduce vines and winemaking practices to their new home.  One such voyager was Nicola Catena, Laura’s great-grandfather, who came to Argentina from Italy in 1902, at age 18, and planted his first vineyard, which became the origin of Bodega Catena Zapata.  However, it was Laura’s father Nicolas, two generations later, who brought the winery to the world’s attention and ended up bringing the whole country along with him.


Nicolas travelled to California in the 1980s, shortly after the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, where Napa Valley Cabernet and Chardonnay were first thrust into the global spotlight after besting top Bordeaux and Burgundies in a surprising blind tasting that went viral.  He met up with Robert Mondavi, perhaps the man most insatiably driven to keep California’s star burning ever more brightly, and was inspired by the quality and ambition in this burgeoning rogue wine nation.  Convinced that Argentina could follow the same path to prominence and be the equal of California (not to mention France) in quality, Nicolas Catena returned home, sold the domestic-consumption table wine portion of the family winery, and zeroed in his focus on quality wines for export, aiming to “put Argentina on the map as a grand cru” for world wine.  He spent years studying climate patterns and geology and gradually came to realize that the most popular vineyard areas in Argentina at the time were mostly too warm for quality wine production.  He had two choices for cooler planting zones:  south, away from the Equator, or up, into the Andes.  He went up, and Argentina’s wine fates rose with him. Read the rest of this entry »

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