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 »


Wine Review: Red Blends of the Eternal Ice Age

20 03 2018

By Peter Vetsch

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

Happy first day of spring.  Spare me.  Yeah, I’ve seen all of the (obviously non-local) articles and Instagram pics and Twitter updates about new rosé and bubble releases and patio beers and T-shirt weather.  Meanwhile I have snowbanks bordering each side of my driveway that are taller than each of my children and still see the minus sign side the thermometer heading to work every morning.  It’s supposed to snow again on Thursday morning and there is no god and we are in some kind of forsaken meteorological time loop that will have no end.  So forget you, frizzy pink refreshing splashes and dainty Prosecco; I’m gearing up for blustery Armageddon, armed with a pair of full reds that scoff at the entire concept of spring.  I need to find joy somewhere, after all.


Forget you, “spring”.

2014 Gerard Bertrand Corbieres (~$20)

I know from past experience that Gerard Bertrand is a value wine savant, and that his legend in the south of France is ever-growing.  I also knew that this particular bottle of Corbieres, part of his “Terroirs” regional collection of bottlings, hit the wine awards mother lode in 2016 by landing the #55 spot in the much-anticipated Wine Spectator Top 100 list — not bad for a $20 bottle from a little-known region.  What I didn’t know about Bertrand was that he was a prodigious professional rugby player before he followed in his family’s footsteps and turned to winemaking, even juggling a pro career with vigneron duties in the aftermath of his father’s death as he took over the reins of his ancestors’ business.  He has now hung up the cleats for good but brings some of his sport’s scrappiness to all of the wines that bear his name.   Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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 »

Co-op Wines: The Social Collection, Bin 105

17 02 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

Here is the final installment of our Co-op Social Collection feature, and we are ending with a potentially big wine, one that I would not expect to see in a curated series such as this: the 2015 Bin 105 Amarone della Valpolicella. There is something seemingly incongruous about an Amarone inclusion in a line of negociant wines intended for affordable easy drinking, although with the Social Collection there appears to be a well-intentioned and laudable desire to preserve some degree of regional character and varietal typicity. I’m intrigued. I support the notion of an Amarone “for the people”, or at least an introduction to the style at a lower price point (lower, not low!) for those who are unfamiliar with what can be a daunting, polarizing, but ultimately rather compelling wine. It is worth noting that this bottle won an Alberta Beverage Award for Judges’ Selection in Veneto Blends, as adjudicated by the stellar Culinaire Magazine.

The Valpolicella region is close to Verona and produces a sequence of red wines that ascend in degree of concentration and power. At the top of the density hierarchy, Amarone is a blend of red grapes, of which Corvina Veronese is typically the most dominant, with DOGC regulations mandating that this thick-skinned grape constitute 45% to 95% of the blend. Partner Corvinone, a grape with larger berries and clusters than Corvina, was long thought to be a clone of the latter but instead turns out to be an entirely distinct variety. This vine can occasionally serve as the foundation of an Amarone, but is more commonly used to provide additional tannic structure to Corvina’s base of cherry-like red fruit. Corvinone can substitute up to 50% of a similar percentage of Corvina. Rondinella, which generally can comprise 5% to 30% of the blend, provides a key seasoning in the form of herbal notes that add a savoury character. Only Corvina and its progeny Rondinella are mandatory in Amarone, but the law permits other native “non-aromatic” red grapes to be included as up to 25% of the blend, with none of these individually exceeding 10%. Some of these grapes are fascinating but fall beyond the scope of the present review. 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.]

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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Co-op Wines: The Social Collection, Bin 101

12 02 2018

By Peter Vetsch

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


Get Social.

Negociant-style wines have long been a staple of the Old World wine economy:  instead of a winery planting, tending and harvesting a vineyard then using those estate-grown grapes to make wine, an enterprising producer or brand instead either buys grapes from a grower for use in their own winemaking or, more simply, buys already-made wine from a winery that is maturing in barrel or bottle and then sticks their own label on it. This may not accord with the most romantic notions of pastoral family-farmhouse wineries that automatically spring to mind when we think about the industry in the abstract, but it has a ton of advantages as a full-estate alternative, mostly tied to the division of labour.  To create and sell your own wine, you no longer need to own any land, purchase expensive wine-making equipment (or wine-aging vessels – do you have any idea how much oak barrels cost??) or have any winemaking education or expertise; you just need to get contact with the right subject-matter experts and have a vision for how to make it all come together cohesively.  The negociant approach drastically reduces barriers to entry in the wine production industry and also provides an additional market for those who grow grapes or operate winery facilities, and while it has always been a part of the industry in the New World, it now seems to be taking on an increased presence, particularly in the realm of branded grocery store wines.


Ultra-transparent for a Cab!

This is actually not a new topic to this blog — a few years ago, I had the pleasure and challenge of trying to dig behind what was behind the cover label of the PC brand of wines, which resulted in some truly entertaining (if somewhat strange) juice.  Now Co-op Wine and Spirits has released its own lineup of sommelier-curated negociant wines called The Social Collection, sourced from around the world and targeted towards “the socialite and modern wine drinker”.  Translation, I think:  these are mainstream wines intended for easy enjoyment while still striving to properly represent their varietal and region at a wallet-friendly price.  I was sent a trio of examples from this new branding effort to taste and decided to make a group event out of it.  Dan and Ray will taste and report on a couple of subsequent Co-op releases later in the week, but I’m kicking things off tonight from where it all started for The Social Collection:  Bin 101. Read the rest of this entry »

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