Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2019: Day 19

19 12 2019

By Peter Vetsch

Some New World sites are unlike anything that came before them, with no obvious comparator from the Old World to help tell their story; Australia’s Barossa Valley and Washington’s Rocks District of Milton-Freewater are good examples of places that, to me at least, don’t taste like anything except themselves.  Other non-European regions have a clear cross-reference to a classic vinifera haunt, a reasonable facsimile in the Old World that allows for an easy introduction.  Think the Willamette Valley and Burgundy.  Australia’s Margaret River falls in the latter camp, and has the benefit of two different European doppelgängers:  its Cabernet-based reds are routinely compared to those of Bordeaux, but its other specialty, Chardonnay, is very Burgundian in essence, combining acid and texture and a regal sort of presence in a way that makes you understand why this recently maligned grape remains at or near the pinnacle of white wine expressions.  I have a massive soft spot for the wines of Margaret River, so it was with great delight that Day 19 was revealed to have come all the way from Down Under.

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Voyager Estate was one of the first wineries to be established in Margaret River, located south of Perth in the southwest corner of Australia.  Its first vineyards were planted in 1978, a decade or so after the inaugural winery in the region saw its start.  Voyager now has five different estate vineyards spanning roughly 110 hectares, all located in a privileged position:  in the Stevens Valley, a spit of land that protrudes directly out into the Indian Ocean, to the point where its vineyards are surrounded by water on three sides, in the so-called “Golden Triangle” of Chardonnay, according to James Halliday.  Voyager is one point of the triangle; its neighbours Leeuwin Estate (along with Vasse Felix’s Heytesbury, the makers of the finest Margaret River Chard I’ve had to date, courtesy of its Artist Series) and Cape Mentelle form the other two.  The vineyards in this area have the benefit of taking root in the oldest soils in the country, gravel-based lands dating back thousands of millions of years (!!), and being kept cool by continuous swirling breezes that help prevent rot and allow for longer hang time.

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The team at Voyager is meticulous to near-OCD levels in the vineyard, striving for absolute uniformity in each block of vines:  careful pruning aims for the exact same number of buds, shoots and bunches per vine to ensure even and contemporaneous ripeness.  The winery is serious about its non-interventionist approach and its goal to express the purity of its soils, which plays out across all steps of the planting, picking and winemaking process:  the vineyards are organic (or in the process of converting thereto), all fruit is from estate plantings, all grapes are hand-harvested, all fermentation is with natural yeasts, and the winery has recently become carbon neutral.  Tonight’s offering, the 2016 Voyager Estate Chardonnay, spent just under a year in tight-grained French oak barrels with only partial malolactic fermentation in an effort to hit that intoxicating combination of texture and acid that only this grape can do justice.

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Stelvin Rating:  6/10 (This screwcap is weirdly difficult to photograph in focus, but it’s a Stelvin + in my book.  I should really fix that dent in the table.)

Everything starts out in highly promising fashion:  the wine is a brilliant gleaming lemon-gold colour as it hits the glass and starts beaming aromas before my nose is even halfway there.  It is a Burgundian dream aromatically, toasty chestnuts (open fire included), coconut crisps, pecan pie and popcorn kernels joyously interweaving with lemon curd, fresh pear and apple crisp fruit.  There was some consensus amongst our Advent blogging group that this might be pretty close to the nose of the calendar so far.  Then a few seams start showing.  The acid is vicious but almost hyperactive, like a tiny lapdog constantly nipping at your ankles.  The broad, full texture seems like a disparate entity, hitting just a touch out of rhythm, almost like you’re drinking two wines at once.  It’s a vertigo-inducing feeling, like a bassist that’s half a beat behind the rest of the band.  Smoke, custard, bananas Foster, lemon meringue and toffee notes play an enticing song, but I’m too stuck wondering why the tempo isn’t in sync to be able to fully sink into it.  I know this is a winery of impeccable credentials, and I can tell this Chardonnay has all of the elements of a winner, but despite being delicious it currently comes across a little bit scattered.  By this point in the calendar, I feel the same way.

88- points





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.

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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.

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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.

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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 3

3 12 2019

By Peter Vetsch

Three days into this year’s half-bottle extravaganza and we haven’t seen a standard-shaped Bordeaux or Burgundy bottle yet.  First off was the reinforced bubbles bottle, followed by the Germanic flute (which trickily held a red), and tonight it became immediately clear that the streak was going to continue.  Can we roll with the punches?  Yes we can.

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This is also the third straight day that I’ve peeled off the tissue paper to find a familiar friendly face:  Day 1’s Tawse has been my go-to Ontario stalwart for years, Day 2’s K.H. Schneider makes the best goddamn Dornfelder in the world, and Day 3’s can is brought to you by the wonderful, hospitable, salt-of-the-earth people at Fox Run Vineyards, from New York State’s gorgeous Finger Lakes area, a winery and a region that I was lucky enough to visit back in 2016.  That was the same year that this wine — sort of — was named the feature white of the Calgary Stampede.  Meet the Fox Run Vineyards On The Run Unoaked Chardonnay, can edition.

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Fox Run is a New York State institution.  This pastoral property on the western shores of Seneca Lake was originally a dairy farm before grapes were first planted there in 1984.  Fast forward 35 years and the winery now owns 50 acres of east-sloping vineyards and focuses on crafting a wide variety of estate wines under the watchful guidance of longtime winemaker Peter Bell.  While they rightly take pride in their excellent Riesling lineup, their Chardonnays are in my mind an equal part of their house identity, both the spritely unoaked Doyle Family Chardonnay and the marvellous barrel-fermented Kaiser Vineyard Chardonnay.  I believe that this can is made up of the former, although the can itself gives away no hints of its specific identity.  The can also strangely does not indicate a vintage, perhaps to avoid the annoyance of having to re-print can labels for each successive harvest; however, I am told that it is most likely not a NV wine and is instead probably the 2018 edition of the Doyle.  This is excellent news, because it means that it is likely also 8% Traminette, a lovably bizarre, slightly soapy, melony hybrid whose vinifera parent is Gewürztraminer (hence the name), which is normally added to the Doyle Chardonnay as a minority blending partner to rev up its personality.  (Fox Run also makes a varietal Traminette, which you absolutely must buy if you ever get the chance.  Traminette is amazing.)

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Cork Rating:  I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to do with this.  2/10.  Nice tab.

First impressions:  spritz!  The release from the can causes multitudes of tiny bubbles to cling to the sides of my glass for a good ten minutes while a reductive matchsticks and smoke aroma blows off.  What remains is a chiselled aromatic profile of fresh lemon, smoked lime, honeydew, wet grass, pina colada and something oddly like boxed cake powder or Premium Plus soup crackers, the latter two of which I will credit to the Traminette.  The olfactory intrigue does not arise due to any lees stirring or barrel contact, of which there was none — Fox Run built the Doyle in as linear a fashion as possible, save only for the incorporation of this Chardonnay’s mischievous blending brother.  The regimented cool-climate style takes over on the crisp, lean, precise palate, whose relatively neutral flavours of Asian pear, underripe white peach, river rocks and chalk dust are energized by a tight line of acidity that is not undercut by any excess in body or weight.  I almost think this would have been better off being drunk straight out of the can as opposed to splayed out in a Burgundy glass — it is a straight-shot linear wine well-suited to patios and campsites, its low alcohol and pH priming it to provide immediate refreshment, but its mission not extending to unfolding in layers over time.  That said, its consistency and focus are a continual joy with each successive vintage, and, it turns out, with any given container.

87+ points





Wine Review: The Whites of Castoro de Oro

31 07 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

It’s alive. The blog, that is. Peter is enjoying some much needed R & R overseas and got to sample hybrid grape Solaris for the first time. Don’t get too jealous of that particular detail. Although I’d welcome a chance to add this one to my life list, apparently we aren’t missing out on all that much. Meanwhile, let yours truly guide you through another Pop & Pour Okanagan run that will span two posts and six wines. I’ve enjoyed tasting these, particularly as I reflect on how this family owned winery has seamlessly melded careful viticulture, whimsical yet clever branding, and an earnest appeal to passion and hard work. All this yields a singular focus on making award-winning handcrafted wines from grape to glass. It seems warranted to begin with the whites. But first, some further background.

IMG_E0849The Castoro de Oro estate vineyard was planted in 1980. Located in the esteemed Golden Mile, this site seems engineered by Mother Nature to deliver full ripeness in the grapes, yet not at the expense of acidity. Here we have vines facing southeast to provide ample sunshine, with the grapes also growing on a slope right next to a lake, factors that together work to mitigate any effects of frost. This is all well and good, but too much heat can cause flabby wines that lack precision. Fortunately, a mountain provides evening shade that permits the grapes to cool off during the summer, preserving tartness and resulting in a key balance between acid and ripe fruit flavours. This is particularly important for white wines, for which acidity is the only source of freshness and structure (well… for the most part. Tannins from wine skins and barrels sometimes play a small role).

Enter Bruno Kelle and (Calgarian) Stella Schmidt, self-described “partners in life and wine-making”. They acquired this site and launched the Castoro de Oro winery in 2006, farmers who like to make wines that most people can afford. I can jive with that, although I can find it hard to relinquish the role of “guy who is supposed to assess these wines in a serious way according to certain criteria”. I’m going to wear that black hat here, because to some extent I have to… AND, I’m also going to attempt to appreciate these wines based on the winemakers’ own vision. Here we go. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: A Field Guide to the Wines of Albert Bichot

10 02 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

Peter has kicked off the 2019 blogging campaign in style, with an intriguing comparison of wine preservation methods that will make a significant contribution to the annals of Pop & Pour science. And me? Well, I’m back doing one of the things I do most frequently on this blog: covering a tasting. This one was a casual drop-in scenario, bypassing the formal sit-down presentation, and on this date that was just fine by me. The frigid weather has left me irascible and more than a little crabby. Fortunately, we’ve got a prescription for those blues… and its not more cowbell. It is glorious, glorious Burgundy.

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I’ve mentioned my love affair with Burgundy (and Pinot Noir more generally) enough times on PnP, so I won’t belabour the point here. I had not tried any wines from Albert Bichot before, but I was promptly faced with 15 (!) of them, in a carefully curated sequence of whites and reds, from Chablis to Grand Cru, complete with a bonus round detour into Beaujolais Cru territory. Fifteen! I was titillated and daunted in approximately equal measure. How the hell is a guy supposed to keep these all straight, what with the small pours, limited analysis time, and numerous distractions around the table? I like to meditate on a half-bottle or more, savouring and seeing how the wine develops over time, as one’s palate habituates to the initial impressions. This is another kettle of fish entirely, with a pace more like Whac-A-Mole than a game of chess, although I do have my tricks, particularly a powerful secret weapon: “Beginner’s mind”. This is an application of mindfulness, where one deliberately pays attention to the present moment, concentrating the attention into a laser beam focused only on the wine in the glass, and then seeing what associations are dredged up. With beginner’s mind, you explicitly adopt a form of make-believe in which you imagine that the liquid in the glass is foreign, entirely novel, never before encountered, and see what this clean slate provides. Might sound hokey, but give it a try during a tasting. It’s like a palate cleanser for the brain. All this aside, I will not take much credit for the fact that I WAS ultimately able to keep all these wines distinct in my mind’s eye. This was more testament to the artistry of the 6th generation producer Domaines Albert Bichot. Read the rest of this entry »





Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2018: Day 14

14 12 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

After last night’s quirky yet mightily delicious Rioja, I’ve got the distinct feeling that this weekend run of three wines is going to deliver fireworks. Lo and behold, today’s reveal is a Chablis from one of the best known, most emblematic producers in the region. Burgundy remains my favourite wine region despite many strong contenders. And Chablis, that northern Burgundian outpost of stark minerality and abject crystalline purity, is a particularly singular wine region unto itself. Plagued by viticultural hazards, including regular springtime frosts and the odd unpredictable hailstorm, grape growing is no easy task in this hinterland. I continue to marvel at exactly how these hard-working vintners can distill these harsh conditions into such sheer, stony, precise, pixelated and elegant wines. They are known for a distinctive “gunflint” note, described as “goût de pierre à fusil“, or “steely” if you prefer something rather less martial. ‘Minerality” remains hard to definitively pin down as a construct. We have to date identified no specific “mineral” receptors in the human gustatory system, and yet one cannot reasonably deny the existence of such aromas in certain wines. I’ve even heard the argument that Chablis is where Chardonnay shines most brightly, its true spiritual home. The notion that this grape’s genuine essence could be more ethereal mineral than gaudy fruit intrigues me to no end, subjective viewpoint though it may be.

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William Fevre began with the 1959 harvest, although William’s father Maurice was growing grapes back in the 1930s, mainly in Chablis’ Grand Cru vineyards. Today William Fevre owns the largest number of Grand and Premier Cru vineyards in the region, populated mostly by old, low-yielding vines. The estate was purchased by the Henriot family of Champagne in 1998. Although such a takeover can sometimes be a harbinger of decreased quality, the Henriots instead implemented a new philosophy geared towards better preservation of the nuances of Chablis terroir: use of new oak was abolished in favour of old barrels with an average age of 6 years. Grapes are grown organically, although the estate isn’t particularly fussy about getting official certification. William Fevre seeks to preserve even the most muted variations across individual sites. This focus is coupled with an emphasis on “instant appeal” in the wines, one of those ideological melds of tradition and avant-garde technology that works, and works well.

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The 2015 vintage in Chablis was characterized by a late onset of winter, with some frost and rain until the end of May followed by hot, dry weather at the start of June until the end of August. This is pretty optimal for the Petit Chablis and (non-Cru) Chablis vineyards, lesser sites where grapes can struggle to reach an appropriate degree of ripeness. Indeed, the fine folks at Bricks chose well here. According to William Fevre cellarmaster Didier Seguier, “It’s a perfect vintage for the lower appellations, Petit Chablis and Chablis… These can be difficult in cool, late years, but in ’15 they have a good level of ripeness and freshness.” The entry level Chablis AOC profiled here is harvested manually, with the grapes receiving a brief, gentle pneumatic press followed by gravity settling of the juice. Some fine lees is retained, and the wine does undergo malolactic fermentation (many basic Chablis do not, although I believe the practice has become more common in the region of late). Maturation occurs only in stainless steel.

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Cork Rating: 3.0/10 (Points for total and utter clarity as to region and vintage. Alas, there is little else to score here.)

This all sounds textbook. Frankly, that’s exactly what I am expecting here, in the very best way. I am not disappointed. The fruits include tart Granny Smith apple and the most stern and austere of the green pears, followed by some suggestions of under-ripe hard nectarine, lemon and watermelon rinds (you know, that watery white stuff), a few ghosts of pineapple and starfruit. White berries do occur in nature (e.g. the snowberry) but they are largely unpalatable. If one were indeed edible, I feel I would detect such a note in this taut, precise little dynamo. A pleasing minerality of matchlock musket, chalkboards, and Epsom salts begins to billow from the glass, and I welcome more associations of green banana peel, salted cultured butter, margarita glass rim, and Siberian peashrub/caragana flowers (let’s go with “acacia” for those of you following along on a tasting wheel). The fresh acid is far from meek, malo notwithstanding, and the finish recalls an abrupt sharp slap followed by a few conciliatory caresses. This aggression will not stand, man. Truth be told, this is far too classy to merit more than a few allusions to anything truly bellicose.

89+ points





Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2018: Day 8

8 12 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

I am on a Chardonnay kick of late. Admittedly, though, California Chardonnay has not been on the docket much. If it were, Carneros would perhaps be one logical starting point for a guy who enjoys delicate renditions. This AVA spans both Napa and Sonoma counties, is moderately cool and windy, and enjoys a number of day degrees comparable to Beaune. Make no mistake, however. The sunshine is more intense and the growing season is longer than in Burgundy, leading to more prominent fruit flavours even as the grape’s acidity is preserved. A gentle winemaking hand yields a sip full of pure crystalline citrus and apple fruit character, gracefully lifted up by the acid and a distinct silky texture. A heavy-handed approach mars this regional signature almost completely, yielding a wine that might score points with some reviewers but that shows little distinction by way of place.

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With family roots in the Rheingau, Koerner Rombauer, his wife Joan, and their two children arrived in the Napa Valley in 1972. They became partners in Conn Creek winery, learning the wine business there and then staking out on their own in 1982. Rombauer vineyards was a run-away success, serving as an initial home base for numerous other up and coming California wineries (e.g., Duckhorn, Spottswood) while Koerner and Joan also made their own wines. Rombauer Vineyards purchased its first Chardonnay from the Carneros region in 1990, from the Sangiacomo family. This partnership fit lock and key, with Carneros grapes and Rombauer’s winemaking providing a synergy that resulted in numerous accolades, including four appearances on Wine Spectator’s “Top 100 Wines” list. The Rombauers purchased their own vineyard in Carneros in 2002, the same year that Joan tragically died from pancreatic cancer. Today a third generation of Rombauers remains employed at the winery. Carneros Chardonnay remains one of their standard bearers, with Wine Spectator claiming that “Rombauer defines the California Chardonnay style that so many adore”. So a big boozy white, ripe with tropical fruit aromas, buttery and decadent? Hmmm. Read the rest of this entry »








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