Cellar Direct Winter Wines: Yannick Amirault “La Coudraye” Bourgueil

15 02 2020

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

After a short break, we are back with another winter run of Cellar Direct artisan wines, a further installment of our buyer’s guide for your reading (and hopefully drinking) pleasure. I’m particularly happy to be back in the Loire, and moreover, back with a Cabernet Franc in my hot little hands. As a friend once told me, these Loire Franc wines are quintessentially “Ray” wines. They are often linear and crisp, with well-defined crystalline fruit but additional herbaceous and spicy accents to ramp up the complexity. They can be delicate, rather lithe wines with little excess fat, unlikely to be mistaken for Bordeaux of similar quality, although a certain earthiness compliments the ethereal perfume, and some tannic structure should be apparent. Meaning yes, some of these wines can age. I relish this sort of vinous paradox, and “middle path” wines are typically where such contrast can be found. Loire Cabernet Franc is quaffable yet amenable to deeper analysis, rustic yet avant-garde. Although I am more familiar with Chinon, that most celebrated of Loire reds, here we take a look at the harder to pronounce yet equally impressive sister region, Bourgueil. But first, a little recap.

Taste-Hungary-Cabernet-Franc-harvest

You might recall my love letter to a legendary producer in Chinon, which provided coverage of Cabernet Franc’s flavour profile as well as some background regarding the Touraine sub-region of the Loire, which has found its quality wine footing via a match between Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc on the one hand and various admixtures of gravel, sand, limestone, and clay soils on the other. Much of what I said there applies equally well to the Bourgueil AOC, which was designated as such in 1937. Interestingly enough, the maximum permitted amount of Cabernet Sauvignon is only 10% in Bourgueil, versus the 25% allowed in Chinon. In either case, Sauvignon struggles to ripen here (Franc both buds and ripens about a week earlier). Chinon and Bourgueil are essentially mirror images of one another, occupying hillsides on neighbouring river valleys: the Loire itself for Bourgueil, and a Loire tributary, the Vienne, for Chinon. It is decidedly easier to focus on the similarities between the regions than it is the differences, although it seems my mind is on a never-ending quest to parse distinctions in the wine world, perhaps a fool’s errand in those cases where AOC demarcations are awfully arbitrary. Fortunately here, we can draw a few fine-grained distinctions. Read the rest of this entry »





Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2019: Day 14

14 12 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

Corked bottles suck. Alas, they remain part of wine life despite the myriad of precautions now taken during cork production and in modern wineries. The Bricks Wine Advent Chateauneuf-du-Pape curse lives on, at least for the three of us providing this coverage. We forge ahead. Today’s bottle appears rather short and squat under its wrapping, perhaps heralding some form of compact power in the contents therein. Now this is intriguing…

IMG_1368

Petite Sirah! Robert Parker once described Petite Sirah as “the most underappreciated red wine in California for drinking pleasure and longevity.” I did not expect this variety to put in an appearance, although I’m more than pleased to welcome it into the Advent fold with a big old plummy, tannic, spicy hug. Taking off the wrapping here makes me think of the Fonz strolling into the room with his patented “Ayyyy….”. However, there was a time when the identity of this grape was far from clear. So much confusion abounded that at least one entire book chapter has been written about the issue, and it reads like a compelling detective story. You see,  the “Petite Sirah” moniker was once applied to at least four distinct grapes in California vineyards, and likely more besides: true Syrah (fair enough), the obscure Peloursin (which still retains a toehold in old mixed plantings and even occasionally makes its way into wines such as the various Zinfandels from Carlisle), and even Pinot Noir (errrr…that one’s a bit of a stretch). Eventually, various researchers ascertained that around 90% of what was called Petite Sirah in California was actually Durif, itself a cross of Syrah and Peloursin bred in France by French botanist Francois Durif.  Mystery solved, and the stage was then set for this grape to become a fairly well-known international celebrity…occasionally even called by its original French name. Speaking of names, get a load of this particular bottle’s handle: “Royal Punishers”. Mildly disturbing and severely badass.

IMG_1371

A Zinfandel specialist located in the Napa Valley, Robert Biale Vineyards also makes a point to honour the deep history of Petite Sirah in the state. School chums Bob Biale and Dave Pramuk began this endeavour to preserve the tradition of the historic old vines in Napa that were often left to languish until winemakers started waking up to the possibilities permitted by the intense fruit that such vines can produce. Bob’s father Aldo used to sell jugs of homemade Zin to various neighbours and friends, many orders for which were placed over the phone. The phone line, though, was a so-called “party line”, susceptible to eavesdropping. As Aldo was not exactly selling his wine through, ahem, legal channels, he had his customers use the code phrase “Gallo Nero” (or Black Rooster, of Chianti fame) when ordering a jug. The code name then shifted to “Gallina Nero” or “Black Chicken”, a name that now graces one of the Biale Zinfandels. A keen interest in viticultural history remains a core strand of the Biale winemaking approach, along with careful farming and encouraging the effects of terroir to shine forth in the finished wines. The back label on the present bottle refers to a “black and blue” wine, a coy hint as to the genesis of this wine’s name.

IMG_1375

The 2017 Robert Biale Vineyards Royal Punishers Petite Sirah is made from hand-sorted fruit from the Varozza vineyard, meticulously farmed by the family of the same name. This wine is fermented in open-topped vessels, with ample punch down of the cap followed by a Burgundian oak regime (30% new). The wine is poetically enough a rather inky purple-blue in the glass, a dead ringer for Welch’s. My glass wafts up an expanding nebula of blueberry and black cherry pie, blackberry, purple Mr. Sketch marker, black tea, cinnamon stick, old dried rosemary and peppercorns, lavender, menthol, graphite, sautéed wild mushroom, pumpernickel bread, and milk chocolate. Beneath this cloud, the sugar plum and fig jam palate is reinforced by bands of ripe chewy tannin and scattered shards of hazelnut and dill oak. This is big, but markedly structured, and compelling in ways that some big wines are not. This taskmaster knows when to pull back just a little. A curious orchard fruit note flits in and out of what is otherwise a black fruit and baking goods profile, something almost like cooked pear. The finish lingers, wisps of coffee bean and more pie crust. Hurts so good.

89+ points

IMG_1374

Cork Rating: 7/10 (Great graphic. The other side has the winery name, mercifully devoid of a phone number.)





Cellar Direct Winter Wines: Olga Raffault Chinon

14 12 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

Welcome to the second instalment of our winter run through some intriguing Cellar Direct releases, reviewed here for both your wine reading pleasure and to provide you with a buyer’s guide of sorts. Peter provided a thorough synopsis of how this wine club works last Saturday, and I concur that the Canada-wide shipping, option to accumulate mixed 3-packs and 6-packs, and the meticulous attention paid to temperature control during shipping are major selling points. I can also appreciate the willingness to go well off the beaten wine path, as witnessed by the last offering. The rare and esoteric Fer Servadou?! Get out. This offering is by no means as mysterious, but still reflects a fundamental Cellar Direct ethos: to deliver balanced artisanal wines that reflect their place of origin. I do harbour a certain love for the wines of the Loire, and Chinon holds a special place in my heart as a prime bastion of my favourite Bordeaux grape, Cabernet Franc.

The elder Cab is lighter than its more popular offspring Cabernet Sauvignon, typically yielding rather pale ruby wines that contribute finesse and a floral, spicy perfume to Bordeaux-style blends, with the junior Cab providing more muscle and the ubiquitous Merlot providing flesh. Franc is quite notorious for yielding bell pepper aromas and other green stalky notes, particularly if over-cropped, although to my palate this signature is pleasant in moderation and if appropriately buttressed by characteristic raspberry and other red fruits. Moreover, this capsicum character can easily grade away from green bell pepper toward paprika, Tabasco sauce, and other fruiter chilli peppers (e.g., Ancho), likely as a function of ripeness and climate. Although adaptable and quite prone to genetic mutations (albeit less so than Pinot Noir), Franc does its best work in sandy, chalky soils, where it can channel its power to produce wines with reasonable body along with some of the cassis character of its progeny. Enter the Loire valley. More specially, meet Chinon. In “The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste”, Rajat Parr and Jordan MacKay, whose general sentiment is that the broader Loire valley is a criminally underrated wine region, describe Chinon and its sister region Bourgueil as places where Cabernet Franc finally gets to take its star turn as a solo variety. With the possible exception of nearby Saumur, it is here that varietal Franc wines reach their apex. Read the rest of this entry »





Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2019: Day 9

9 12 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

In at least two ways Day 9 marks a return of sorts. One: a Schug wine (that time in the form of a Pinot Noir) appeared in the 2017 Bricks calendar. Two: we briefly met the Carneros AVA on Day 6 this year, in its guise as the original home of the Starmont Winery. This time Carneros truly gets its due, with today’s wine proudly sporting “Carneros Appellation” on a label affixed to the bottle neck. A personal favourite California appellation and yet another iconic producer? Sign me up.

IMG_1351

The Los Carneros AVA straddles both the Napa and Sonoma counties. Receiving official AVA status in 1983, Carneros was in fact the first California wine region to be demarcated based on climate rather than political boundaries. A true cool-climate wine region, it finds itself well-suited to the classic Burgundian varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Indeed, this region appears to have been the first in California to establish anything like a decent track record with the temperamental Pinot. Cool winds blow in from San Pablo Bay and early morning fog is commonplace, moderating the warm temperatures needed for ripening such that acidity in the grapes is preserved. Moisture-retaining fertile clay soils also contribute a cooling effect. This yields fresh wines characterized by an elegant precision and a quintessential purity of expression, albeit one not entirely devoid of a certain distinctive sun-kissed California sweetness. As Paul Lukacs explains in “The Great Wines of America”, an overly forceful winemaking hand can easily mar this purity. Fortunately, German emigre Walter Schug understood this.

The Schug Carneros Estate Winery got started in 1989, when Walter ended a 10-year winemaking stint with Joseph Phelps to forge out on his own. Walter had in fact been bottling Pinot Noir under his own label since 1980 and doing so with the blessing of Phelps, even as he continued on as the winemaker at Phelps’ estate. Walter attributed his persistence with the variety to “patience and urgency” in equal measure, with grace and balance in the finished wines being the end goal. His passion for Burgundy did of course extend to Chardonnay, and currently lives on under the guidance of Walter’s son Alex. As you might deduce from the climate conditions explained above, Carneros Chardonnay is notorious for high acidity, thereby providing a much-needed counterpoint to the fatter, round, and frequently buttery Chardonnays produced in warmer Cali AVAs.

IMG_1354

Perfectly consistent with my expectations, the 2017 Schug Carneros Chardonnay receives most aspects of the classic Burgundian treatment, being 100% fermented and aged on the lees in small oak barrels. Vineyard sources include the Schug Estate itself (49%), with contributions from the Ricci, Hi-Vista, Cornerstones, Lund, and Sangiacomo Vineyards to add complexity. The wine is aged sur lie for 8 months, with the oak regime including 16% new medium toast French Allier oak barrels. Malolactic fermentation was not induced, apparently a more recent trend in the Carneros, allowing the wine to retain a more acidic backbone despite many of the other winemaking decisions seeming to converge on a full body with the corners rounded. Let’s see how it all shakes out.

IMG_1352

Cork Rating: 7.5/10 (this is a great cork… Look at this graphic. Alas, the other side features the winery name and a phone number! For a good time call…)

The nose doffs its hat toward the old country, with wisps of smoky hay, yellow mustard, struck match, flint and nutmeg heralding something that is likely to be quite steely as opposed to histrionic. Sure enough, the palate harkens to Granny Smith but also Honey Crisp apple, lemon rind, lemon pepper, and pineapple skin, initially compact and linear but revealing a broader attack that falls just short of creamy over the course of multiple sips. The acidity is cross but not outright angry…well, maybe a bit angry, butting up against the toasty oak that is more prominent on the palate than the nose. Fortunately the wood fails to completely obscure the famed Carneros purity. Some nectarine and honeydew begin to vie with the apples and lemon, and I briefly conjure up thoughts of pear Jello (yes, that used to be a thing), underripe kiwi, and plantains before the acid clamps back down after this nearly tropical pulse. Perhaps a shade too stern and woody to be truly graceful, this is still certainly trying hard to jump over this latter bar, ultimately landing somewhere in the ballpark. I ponder those twinkling sparks of Carneros fruit and peach kernels lingering on my palate, a finish longer than expected. See you in a few.

89- points





Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2019: Day 6

6 12 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

Oh, California Cab. As one of the world’s benchmark wine styles, victor over Bordeaux in the infamous 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, this will of course have a place in any wine Advent calendar worth its salt. I also cannot prevent my mind from conjuring up such pejoratives as “overly oaked”, “heavily extracted”, “boozy”, and even “Mega Purple“. I will concede that for many consumers at the time, and many even now, massive size is a virtue. Fortunately a sea change began in the 2000s. A much-needed shift started taking place, from a winemaking culture focused largely on harnessing a technical wine science to yield a consistent product to please the average consumer, towards a “grassroots” middle path where science still matters but is now free to marry more European notions such as restraint, finesse and elegance, and even the notion that reasonable vintage variation can add interest and pleasure to the wine-drinking experience. It is no longer safe to make black and white assumptions about the monolithic nature of Cali Cabernet, and wineries like Starmont have played a key role in this paradigm shift.

IMG_1338

The name Starmont originally graced a bottle of Carneros Chardonnay in 1989. From there the name grew into a full-fledged brand, relocating from its original home with the more established Merryvale brand to the Stanly Ranch property, home to a couple of quality Carneros vineyard sites. Although the wines are no longer produced at a “green” facility built at one of these sites (that facility was sold this year), the commitment to sustainability remains. Although best known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Starmont does not shy away from Merlot or Syrah. There is an interest in seeing how each varietal does in its place, whether said place is the Stanly Ranch itself, the Carneros AVA, or the broader Napa Valley and North Coast AVAs, and this interest in terroir may have something to do with one of the men at the helm.

Starmont winemaker Jeff Crawford was born in Alaska but has managed to become superbly well-travelled, picking up bits and pieces of winemaking knowledge from places as far-flung as Greece. His general approach is to use his travels and reading to cram his brain with as much history, winemaking philosophy, technical acumen, and tasting experiences as possible. His unceasing quest has led to equipment upgrades at the winery, yet Jeff wishes Starmont to remain a “microcosm” of the Carneros region: a source of even-handed, balanced yet structured wines that can still convey some degree of subtlety.

IMG_1342

The 2017 Starmont North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon is bottled under the very broad North Coast AVA appellation, with the grapes hailing from vineyards across the northern part of the state (41% Sonoma, 37% Lake, 13% Napa, 9% Mendocino). The wine is 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Petite Syrah, and 8% Merlot. This blending approach renders much of the philosophy behind terroir irrelevant for this particular bottle, unless the concept of site specificity is somehow extended to rather large tracts of land that exist as legal entities rather than embodying bona-fide “climats”. Nevertheless, the goal here was to obtain a mix of sites that reveals restraint in the final execution. Handpicked, hand sorted, and de-stemmed fruit was not crushed at the winery, leaving over 90% of the berries whole. This approach, if you were wondering, can prolong fermentation, as sugar release from the berries is delayed. This gives winemakers more control over the process, and can also enhance fruitiness and yield a more delicate, silky texture in the finished wine. After a cold pre-soak, the wine spends an average of 14 days fermenting on the skins and is then aged for 15 months in a combination of American and French oak (30% new).

IMG_1343

Stelvin Rating: 6/10 (hey, this is a decent Stelvin: vinous colour, nice font.)

This is indeed pretty silky in the mouth, with a supple, velvet-like latticework of tannins reinforcing a rather light-bodied frame. The aromas do tick all the right boxes: blackcurrant (duh!), some cool climate black cherry, even maybe red cherry Nibs, Aero bar, Swiss mocha instant coffee mix, nutmeg, MacIntosh’s toffee, very slight red pepper flake and well-worn cedar plank. The oak notes I am pulling off this are assertive but not overly intrusive. All of the ripe yet fresh fruit is powdered with graphite and waves goodbye with a medium-duration plume of oaked red currant jelly. An efficient, seamless purple elegance, one that you will likely enjoy but that is unlikely to provide total recall a year from now.

88+ points





Volcanic Hills III: Igneous Miscellany

25 10 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

With the core whites and reds now in the rearview mirror, we conclude our extensive coverage of the Volcanic Hills Estate Winery with some odds and ends, various bottles that fit less neatly into the relatively clear-cut categories explored in the last two posts. Wine’s endless diversity has at times been under threat by homogenizing forces, including bottom line-based agricultural and business practices, public demand and the allure of the almighty score as supplied by major critics. Fortunately, the spectacularly mutagenic grapevine refuses to stop reinventing itself (sometimes with human assistance), and the tide has turned away from standardization and towards treasuring the diversity we have across wine-growing regions.

IMG_E1133

Enter the Okanagan Valley, a wine region that is home to more than 60 grape varieties but that has yet to put all of its chips on any one vinous genotype. It can seem as if growers there will give anything a shot: the classic cool-climate grapes, hybrids, strange German crosses that haven’t stuck in their homeland (e.g. Optima), and more recently warm-climate grapes such as Sangiovese and Tempranillo, on top of the Bordeaux and Burgundy menu options that crop up everywhere. Some decry this diversity as emblematic of a lack of focus and an unhelpful disregard for the important match between varietal and terroir. In my view, there’s room in the expansive space that is world wine culture for both the perfect lock-and-key matches between land and grape and pockets of “throw caution to the wind” experimentation. And besides, how does one map out terroir in a newer area without taking a few risks? On that note, let’s bring our Volcanic Hills coverage home. Read the rest of this entry »





Volcanic Hills I: Molten Whites

9 10 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

It’s days like today when I truly value my connection with wine, fermented grape juice yet so very much more. You know, the sort of day where everything hits the skids, and wine is there at the end of it to provide an affirmation of the pleasurable things, to stimulate intellectual curiosity, and to infuse existence with a certain beauty that works to counterbalance any ugliness that cannot help but seep in around the edges of even the best-curated life. White wine is where it all started for me. At its best it is sharp and crystalline yet hedonistically fruity, linear yet complex, tart yet comforting. My first wine that I actually cared to attend to – you know, I am drinking wine and I’m actually going to notice that it’s wine! – was a Canadian Gewürztraminer. I won’t say which one. It was delicious back at that juncture, but at this point leaves me wanting on those rare occasions when I loop back to it. Nevertheless, I still seek out all things Gewürztraminer in this country, and am rewarded every so often with beacons of surprising revelation. It just so happens that the Volcanic Hills Estate Winery has made something of a specialty of this perfumed grape, offering an entry-level multi-vineyard blend, a single vineyard offering, a late harvest dessert wine, and even a sparkling Gewürz. They also offer two takes on Viognier, another notoriously perfumed fruit bomb currently making a name for itself in the Okanagan. I may be just the Canadian wine writer to guide our loyal readers through this particular romp.

IMG_1113.JPG

The Volcanic Hills Estate Winery is operated by Sarwan Gidda and his son Bobby, and is now into its 11th year of operations. Sarwan, born in India, founded the Mt. Boucherie Estate Winery in 2000 with his two brothers. According to Noel Gallagher, “Everyone knows that if you’ve got a brother, you’re going to fight.” Sure enough, Sarwan departed the partnership to start Volnanic Hills in 2008, with Bobby designing the layout of the geothermally heated and cooled winery. The winery itself is situated on the southeastern slope of Mt. Boucherie, which most agree is a 60 million year-old dormant volcano. The Okanagan’s Mt. Etna? I’m not sure, but according to the Giddas, the 70 or so acres of estate vineyards benefit from this rich volcanic heritage. Many swear that you can taste such soils in the finished wines. My own experience with certain Old World whites does corroborate this, even if the mechanisms involved remain poorly understood. The Giddas trust winemaker Daniel Bontorin, who trained locally in the Okanagan, to create complex yet affordable wines from estate grown grapes as well as the produce of various contract growers. Let’s check in on the whites. Read the rest of this entry »








%d bloggers like this: