The Vinebox Cometh: 12 Nights of Wine

14 11 2018

After 7+ years of blogging about and immersing myself in wine, I am in many ways an open book about what I like and don’t like, vinously speaking — there are now over 450 posts on this site, and other musings elsewhere, that spell out exactly what gets me pumped about a new product or wine experience.  Three of the things that rank high on the good side of my ledger, backed up emphatically by past history, are (1) savvy labelling and branding (my love of which is the basis for every Cork Rating I’ve ever done), (2) clever alternative packaging (bring me your wines in cans, your 1L bottles, and everything in between), and (3) Advent calendars.  If you rolled your eyes about the last one, feel free to consult PnP’s 125+ December postings over the past four years and then get back to me…if I’m not a boozy Advent authority by now, I never will be.  As we approach another holiday season, little did I expect to be dumbfounded by a sleek, shiny, downright sexy combination of all three of these things.  Meet Vinebox:

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Oh yes.  It gets better.  Take a look inside:

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OH YES.  Bring it.  That’s what I’m talking about.

Vinebox is a San Francisco-based company that, up until right this minute, was a US-only subscription service for by-the-glass-sized portions of new, interesting, high-quality wines.  This special holiday release box marks their first foray into the Canadian market, and luckily for us locals, it is exclusive to Richmond Hill Wines and a select few other boutiques right here in Calgary.  Given my prior history of Advent proselytizing, I would be remiss if I did not point out that Vinebox’s 12 Nights of Wine holiday kit is not technically an Advent calendar, as it offers 12 different holiday wine offerings instead of the classic Advent 24-day December countdown to Christmas.  It is instead intended to mirror the 12 days of Christmas (which, I was shocked to discover, all actually occur AFTER Christmas — they run from December 25th through January 5th, marking the time in Christian lore that it took the three wise men to arrive and visit the newborn Jesus…mind formally blown).  Practically speaking, this means that you can either crack a glass on every even day in December as a sort of quasi-Advent replacement (or get two and create your very own full-scale Advent calendar, with a critical revisit of each offering every second day) or get the coolest Christmas gift ever for somebody to enjoy on Christmas Day and the next eleven following.

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In recent years, because the progress of the species is a real and abiding thing, we have seen a proliferation of wine, beer and spirits-based Advent and holiday calendars in a variety of shapes and sizes.  What sets the Vinebox addition to this growing December lineup apart is the unique and patented way the wines are delivered, in Stelvin-enclosed, test tube-like — yet still amazingly labelled and producer-branded! — 100 mL glass cylinders that make a stunning visual impression. Read the rest of this entry »

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Calgary Wine Life: Maison Sichel Masterclass with James Sichel

3 11 2018
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James Sichel of Maison Sichel

James Sichel is on a mission.  One of five brothers who comprise the sixth generation running the family-operated Maison Sichel, born in Margaux to English parents, James grew up among the history and legacy of Bordeaux and is now charged with connecting a whole new generation of wine drinkers with the fruits of his family’s labour, and rekindling the passion of those who think Bordeaux has passed them by.  There is a view among some modern drinkers that the region has ossified, become beholden to ancient classifications and over-reliant on score-chasing, stratospherically priced speculative investment bottles that are detached from the land and the soil and everything human and natural that goes into making great wine.  There are parts of such a criticism that may stick, but there is so much more to Bordeaux than four-figure futures bottlings and producer tiers; it is a massively prolific producing region and has somehow become an under-the-radar source of superb Tuesday night offerings (particularly, in my opinion, on the white side of the ledger) and sub-$100 luxury splurges.  James’ quest is to bring value Bordeaux back to the rest of the world, to steer the focus away from the elitism that can accompany 1st growth price tags and to allow a fresh audience to rediscover the true beating heart of Bordeaux.  The audience seems to be responding:  Bordeaux sales in Alberta are up 24% this year as compared to last.

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Maison Sichel is a complex entity.  Based in Bordeaux since 1883, they are part estate producer (they own over 350 hectares of vineyards in various different appellations), part winemaking negociant (they work with and source grapes from a series of smaller growers in southern Bordeaux then make wine, including their value flagship Sirius, from the fruit) and part discerning merchant (they sell other hand-selected partner estates’ wines other those estates’ own labels).  On the whole, if you search for the whole Sichel range on its website, you end up with 189 producer results, from straightforward cheap and cheerful offerings all the way up to Chateau Palmer, one of the premier wine estates in the world.  The Sichel family’s pride and joy, however, and James’ current home, is Chateau Angludet, a Margaux estate that is now highly regarded but was on the verge of ruin when the family purchased it in 1961.  It is now their hub and the pinnacle family pursuit.  Aside from Angludet (and a highly savvy prior investment in Palmer in the 1930s), the Sichels own Chateau Argadens in Bordeaux Superieur and Chateau Trillol down in Corbieres.  James’ brother Benjamin Sichel is the winemaker for all three family-owned estates.

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Foreshadowing.

James was on day 10 of a Canadian tour when he took the time (ahead of a sold-out black tie dinner) to lead his Alberta import agent through a portfolio tasting of many of the Maison Sichel offerings available in the province.  I was fortunate enough to sit in on the session and experience my own reacquaintance with a region that too often bypasses my attention.  There were ELEVEN wines poured, so from here on out I will try to be brief.  [Editor’s Note:  I did not succeed.] Read the rest of this entry »





Global Champagne Day Taittinger Technical Tasting @ Alloy Restaurant

21 10 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

Happy (belated) Global Champagne Day! There is probably no better way than a champagne tasting to shake off what has become a considerable amount of wine writing rust. Tasting bubbles, bantering with a few friends, listening to a knowledgeable and engaging speaker — good for the soul. As usual I arrive at the restaurant too early, a neurosis that rarely extends to other important engagements in my life but one that seems omnipresent where wine events are concerned. I simply do not want to miss anything. Right away there is a glass of Cuvee Brut Reserve NV (non-vintage) in my hand, Taittinger’s entry level offering, and at this point I do not mind waiting. IMG_2148Taittinger’s Mikael Falkman comes highly recommended, although on this occasion he seems more inclined to let these majestic wines speak for themselves. He does come to life near the end of the tasting with an exuberant blend of knowledge and humour.  Mikael makes sure to provide a concise history of this famed house, but I particularly appreciate his expositions of the Taittinger family’s winemaking philosophy. I will provide these gems and nuggets along with my tasting notes for each wine. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Nautilus Technical Tasting with Winemaker Clive Jones

25 07 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

The more New Zealand wine I drink, the higher it climbs in my esteem.  Renowned for its superb array of cool climate vineyards and their purity of fruit expression, New Zealand provides a fine showcase for my favourite black grape, Pinot Noir; I have also met few who cannot appreciate the unique and ultra-distinctive style that is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. We were all exceptionally pleased to welcome to Calgary Nautilus Estate’s winemaker Clive Jones, who travelled all the way from the globally renowned Marlborough region to put an array of his wines through their paces before us. Limits on word count and reader attention span mean that I must immediately plunge into telling six different stories about six different Marlborough wines…OK, five stories. You’ll see below.

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2017 Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc (~$23)

Clive’s knack for explaining technical winemaking details in highly entertaining fashion becomes immediately apparent as the tasting begins. He feels fortunate that a vintage as challenging as 2017 in Marlborough, one marred by not one but two cyclones, could yield a wine of this caliber: “It did get 92 points…if we care about points.” I don’t, but much of the world at large does.

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Nautilus winemaker Clive Jones

Only about half of 2017’s grapes were picked before the weather turned foul, but miracles were wrought and enough of the remainder were able to be used in the final blend. This crisis averted speaks to the classic advantage for those making a varietal wine from a blend of different sites year in and year out, a characteristic that Marlborough (with its myriad soil types and small-scale regional differences in elevation and climate) shares to some extent with Champagne. With an array of lots from different parcels to choose from, careful adjustments can be made by the savvy winemaker to land on a house style every time. The intent in Nautilus’ case is to dial down the aromatics (but not too far down) and dial up the palate weight, yielding something with a pleasing texture that maintains the drinker’s interest. Interestingly enough, part of Clive’s strategy involves adding around 1% of barrel-fermented wine to the Sauvignon Blanc blend, the remainder hailing from trusty temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. This calculated attempt to tame what is usually a fiercely aromatic, high-acid variety while still exalting the grape’s fundamental identity executes its mission with precision. 

Read the rest of this entry »





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: Paul Jaboulet Aine Tasting with Adrien Laurent @ Calgary Petroleum Club, Part II

2 05 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

To read Part I of this epic tasting write up, click here.

IMG_1356I was attempting to pace myself until the second half of this tasting, wishing to avoid palate fatigue and endeavoring to preserve a fresh mindset for the crown jewels near the end. That delicious St.-Joseph in particular made this sort of patience challenging. I glance to the end of the written materials and there’s even a dessert wine to close things out. Wow. We did move quickly and this was a good thing. There was just enough time to analyze and enjoy some brief discussion about each wine. Part II begins with the “roasted slope”, peaks on Hermitage hill (the big reason we are all here!), and ends in … Beaumes de Venise?! Read on, faithful.

2015 Cote Rotie Domaine des Pierrelles (~$123)

Cote Rotie could serve as the centrepiece in a tasting such as this, and no one in the know would complain much. An appellation short on geographical landmass but long on excitement, some of the steepest viticultural slopes in France are found here, so much so that the region became moribund in the 1970s: The back-breaking labour required did not provide sufficient economic returns. Eventually the folly in this view was recognized once and for all. The vineyards are angled so as to maximize the ripening effects of the sun (thus the moniker), although the wines are not baked in what is still a rather stark and harsh climate, instead evidencing a sublime savoury perfume. These grapes hail from a 1.5 ha biodynamic plot in Cote Blonde, known for graceful wines suitable for early consumption (relatively speaking). The vines are 40+ years old and are rooted in soils composed of mica-schist and dusty old exposures of iron oxide. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Paul Jaboulet Aine Tasting with Adrien Laurent @ Calgary Petroleum Club, Part I

29 04 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

Not a bad way to dust off my blogging chops after a lull. A chance to taste a 100-point wine? Sure thing. The fact that said 100-point wine happens to be the 2015 Paul Jaboulet Aine Hermitage La Chapelle causes my already surging excitement to soar into the stratosphere. Although I am not personally enamoured with the Parker-style point system nor its myriad effects on winemaking and consumer preferences, such a feat STILL means something even to this skeptic. I am truly happy for winemaker Caroline Frey. My sincere congratulations! This was a generous enough spread of wines that two posts are in order. I shall try to do the first set of these marvels justice here, stricken as I have been (by Bacchus himself?) with some sort of virulent bug that makes my bones feel like rheumy old birch twigs stashed away in a mausoleum. And I was hoping to sip something while writing this … Discretion is probably the better part of valour.

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We were greeted with some entry level Jaboulet Parallel 45 Cotes du Rhone bottles … A red, a white, and a rose … I sampled them all, of course. 😉

Our host Adrien Laurent felt like a kindred spirit, keeping things scholarly while occasionally flashing an understated charisma or busting out some hilarious off-colour jokes about the French distaste for monarchies (you had to be there). This tasting featured not just the one legendary new release but THREE Hermitage selections, plus an additional spread of whites and reds in what turned out to be a guided tour of nearly the entire Northern Rhone, through the lens of a single producer. How utterly marvellous. I shall cover them all, after first providing some background on the region and this historic producer. Read the rest of this entry »








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