Wine Review: 2015 Culmina Hypothesis

20 03 2020

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

My initial intent was to write this piece without a singular mention of COVID-19. I wasn’t sure I wanted this sort of historical tag on a bottle review…this too shall pass, right? It then occurred to me that wine itself is usually about the vintage, the year it was made. Wine is historical, and other things besides. I also don’t particularly want to talk about  our current global situation. We are all experiencing some degree of anxiety (not to mention other painful emotions) in our own ways, and do I want to fan those flames? Not really, but at the same time, I’m not in the business of denying aspects of the human condition. Perhaps this is a chance for me to ask all of our readers to say safe, look out for one another (even at a social distance), and retain hope that we got this. Because we do. Peter and I are going to keep doing this blog (for which this is post #600 — see? history), because we love what we do and because this is a great way to remain connected. At this moment join me, will you, in experiencing some of the most iconic red wine that Canada has to offer?

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Don Triggs

As a wine lover a tad obsessed with Gruner Veltliner, I immediately recall that Culmina and founder Don Triggs are responsible for one of Canada’s first plantings of this white grape, and they still produce Unicus, a wonderfully salty, flinty, yet surprisingly fruity rendition that does this wacky variety proud. It turns out that Don’s first vinous love is in fact red Bordeaux varieties. You likely recognize the surname. Yes, Don Triggs co-founded Jackson-Triggs, one of Canada’s largest commodity wine brands. When the giant Constellation Brands purchased Jackson-Triggs in 2006, Don thought briefly about retirement…or rather, what to do with retirement. Don and spouse Elaine decided to found a boutique winery, in essence taking the very opposite stance from the path that had previously brought him so much success, focusing instead on a deep desire to make terroir-driven wines. You see, Canada’s relatively cool climate doesn’t always reliably ripen red Bordeaux varieties. Although Merlot is more forgiving, Cabernet Sauvignon needs ample sun and heat. Far from daunted, Don and Elaine embarked on an intense research program to figure out just how “Canadian Bordeaux” could become more fact than fiction. Read the rest of this entry »





Obscure Italian Varieties I: Grignolino, the Polarizer

4 03 2020

By Raymond Lamontagne

It is high time that I turned my wine blogging pen (errr, keyboard) to a project that has been bouncing around the dusty caverns of my mind for some time now. For several years, I have been enamoured by the viticultural diversity that is Italy. This country contains more unique native grape varieties than any other, and this sort of cornucopia deeply appeals to the part of me that relishes new experiences. My mind never stops collecting: a new plant in my (limited) deck garden, a new bird or mushroom found in the woods, a new wine grape that I’ve perhaps (likely!) read about but never experienced in person. My brain is just wired to quest. And why Italy? Well, Italy is part of my heritage, I love the food (who doesn’t?), and honestly, I can appreciate that so many of these wines are truly the products of a distinct culture. Although international grape varieties are entrenched in the Italian viticultural landscape and won’t be going anywhere, the natives are currently ascendent.

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Grignolino

So my plan is to provide a series of blogs that introduce our intrepid readers to an Italian wine grape that they many not have heard of or tasted. Each will describe the grape in detail and then provide a tasting note for a single bottle that is hopefully emblematic of the grape in question. This project feels like a poor man’s homage to one of my wine writing heroes, Ian D’Agata, who spent more than a decade tasting nearly all of Italy’s native wine grapes. The resulting book shall be my primary companion as I share my own musings. Some (including probably Ian himself) would take umbrage with my use of the word “obscure” to describe these grapes. I am going to use the word because my view is that none of these grapes that I will cover are obviously well-known in wine markets outside of Italy, nor are they commonly available in this wine market, although fortunately Calgary wine shops feature a unique bounty that likely does not exist elsewhere in this country. Of course these grapes are not obscure in the Italian wine regions from which they hail, and perhaps some of them will become better known outside these confines. So there you have it. Let’s begin with one grape, Grignolino, that I find particularly compelling. Read the rest of this entry »





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.

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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 18

18 12 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

Day 18 of this blogging campaign has me starting off the final week with a slight limp but head unbowed. It has been particularly fun this year, truth be told. The calendar has been superbly curated, considering the perfectly understandable constraints of price point and availability of half-bottles. But I don’t think it is just that. The last few bottles have sparked some enjoyable discussion and debate between the three of us responsible for this Advent blogging set, causing me to reflect on just what it is about wine that is so mesmerizing, so able to inspire passion. Upon reflection, I think for me it is the intersection between art and science. If one knows how wine is made, in a technical sense, one can better assess what is going on with a particular bottle. Maybe this is how I naturally veer, given my professional background… “OK, does this wine gel with how I know it was made?” This sort of conceptual funnelling can provide all kinds of helpful cues as to what I’m experiencing. But then again, what if I am pleasantly surprised? What if I just love the lines of this particular sculpture, heedless of how I know it should present? I think there’s room for both perspectives, within me and within the field of wine assessment more generally. I try to be cognizant of this dichotomy when I see that today’s bottle reads “Cotes du Rhone Villages”.

IMG_1386I’m not implying that I’m disappointed. In fact, this appellation is a deliberate step up in quality from the Cotes du Rhone per se. In the late 1960s, several villages successfully petitioned to include their names on wine labels, in exchange for being willing to submit to higher quality standards. These included the requirement that Grenache must comprise not less than 50% of any given red wine, with a further 20% consisting of Syrah or Mourvèdre in any proprotion. A maximum of 20% of other authorized varieties is also permitted, with these including various obscurities permitted in Chateauneuf-du-Pape (Cinsault, Muscardin, Vaccarese, Terret Noir) along with Carignan. At this point, the Cotes du Rhone Villages appellation has expanded to nearly 10,000 hectares, making it the second largest appellation in the Southern Rhone, half of which can add the name of a specific village to the label. Twenty villages can do this at the present time. This is starting to get the feel of the Dodo Bird verdict from Alice In Wonderland, where “everyone has won and all must have prizes”. Further reinforcing this notion is the fact that the other half of the appellation can distinguish themselves from generic Cotes-du-Rhône by adding the term “village”, albeit without a more specific moniker. The present bottle falls into the latter category, although the producer would certainly take umbrage with the notion that their wines are somehow worse than those labelled Visan or Roaix.

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Domaine Roger Perrin is on the young side for the region, founded in 1969. In what is starting to feel like an eerie theme for me during this December blogging run, Roger died unexpectedly during the harvest in 1969, with well-studied son Luc taking charge. Irked at confusion over his name with that of the famous Beaucastel Perrins, Luc embarked on a quality control campaign to distinguish his estate (the two families are friendly but not related). Tragically, Luc succumbed to a battle with cancer, with sister Veronique and son Xavier carrying on the traditions of hand-harvesting and aging in stainless steel (with the exception of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines). The present wine has been described as a “baby Chateauneuf-du-Pape”, consisting of 75% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 5% Mourvèdre, with a minimum vine age of 45 years. Interestingly, some earlier documentation suggests that the wine was once 5% Counoise and Vaccarese. This wine is made only in good years, with a fairly long maceration period and 20-50% de-stemming depending on vintage ripeness. All this converges on something that is supposed to be an everyday sipper, albeit a step or two above the rest.

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The 2016 Domaine Roger Perrin Cuvee Vieilles Vignes Cotes-du-Rhone Villages is mercifully devoid of faults, suggesting that the Advent Chateauneuf-du-Pape curse does not extend to any “baby” versions. Phew. This leads with a sweeping plush bramble attack of red liquorice, blackberry, and black raspberry, with a few spoonfuls of Mission fig jam and cherry preserve and a dusting of broken clay flower pot, the soil from said pot, juniper, lavender, pineapple sage, and fennel seeds. A cinnamon and ginger snap cookie spice emerges mid-palate, carried along by supple ripe tannins. If Tetley conjured up a black tea flavoured with currants, cacao nibs, and ripe strawberries… this is the sort of warm climate wine I can get fully behind. Neither flabby nor jammy, but hardly a lightweight. Science and art.

89 points    

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Cork Rating: 5.5./10 (Reasonably sharp Diam.)





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…

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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.

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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.

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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

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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 4

4 12 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

After three days of alternative bottle shapes and even a can, Day 4 sees something more conventional lurking under the tissue paper. The previous Bricks calendars were true world tours that struck chords across the wine-making globe, hitting many of the classic regions and styles without disregarding lesser-known up-and-comers. Will I draw an Austrian wine this year? Of course I will, but not yet. If I do have a horse in the wine-making country race, one that I always return to no matter what, even if my favourite grape (Pinot Noir) is a bit player there at best, it is Italy. I am enamored by the diversity of grape varieties and terroirs, a patchwork quilt of regions and styles that often bleed influence into one another even as they remain distinctive and true to their own traditions. So in other words, today’s bottle suits me just fine.

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Last Advent season I took the opportunity to hike up the word count and write a bit of a love letter to Chianti Classico. I’m pleased to report that my feelings have changed little since then. I’m a sucker for temperamental grapes of the earth, with Sangiovese dutifully translating the nuances of soil and climate into its finished wines even as it stubbornly clings to a sour-cherry-meets-tea-leaf-and-damp-earth calling card. I remain fascinated by the history of the wine region itself, which has seemingly (and finally) found its footing in the world of fine wine after decades of bloated growth, political upheaval, and an unhelpful tenacity when it comes to clinging to tradition. There can come a time when one must change in the interest of making better wines, and today’s iconic producer, Isole e Olena, directly embodies Chianti’s many ups and downs.

The properties previously associated with Isole e Olena had a quality problem until the 1960s, when they were purchased by the Piedmontese family of current proprietor Paolo de Marchi. Given that Chianti period had a quality problem around this time, this should surprise no one. Paolo’s father in fact purchased two adjoining small estates, ‘Isole’ and ‘Olena’, and thus Isole e Olena was born. The headaches were many and the road to better wine was tortuous. Indeed, Paolo started running the property at 25 years of age, dutifully making a Sangiovese-based wine that included white grapes in the blend in a nod to tradition that the winemaking law then demanded, and one now almost universally and justifiably derided as detrimental to quality. Weary of this and not afraid to take a stand, in 1980 Paulo released Cepparello, a 100% Sangiovese wine that could not legally be labelled Chianti but that did go on to become one of the famous so-called “Super Tuscans”. Finally, Paulo took full advantage of key changes to the Chianti productions rules in the 1990s to banish the white grapes, wryly commenting that “it is much easier to make red wine out of red grapes”. Enter the bottle I now hold in my hand. Dubbed “Mr. Sangiovese” (which is a sweet handle), Paolo continues to pay close attention in both vineyard and wine cellar, carrying on the legacy of what has become one of the most prominent producers in the region, and one widely credited as key to the quality turnaround that saved Chianti from the doldrums of mediocre commodity.

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This estate’s vines cover a range of exposures but are largely planted on clay with a few contributions from limestone and volcanic rocks. “Mr. Sangiovese” moniker notwithstanding, here Paolo spiced up 82% Sangiovese with 15% classic blending partner Canaiolo and (fascinatingly) 3% Syrah, which Paolo himself reintroduced to Chianti Classico after a long absence in the hope that small amounts could contribute body and texture. As an interesting aside, in recent years he has decreased the percentage of Syrah used, which some argue can be rather coarse when grown in this region. All grapes were estate-grown, hand-harvested and fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks with approximately 15 days maceration, with pumping-over taking place twice a day during fermentation. Maturation occurs for one year in large oak casks. No small new barrels you say? Lovely. Sangiovese needs vanilla like Hollywood needs more sketchy reboots.

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Cork Rating: 3.5/10 (At least the producer is named, and the vintage.)

The 2015 Isole e Olena Chianti Classico presents a lovely middle path ruby hue that wafts up pleasing aromas of pie cherry, raspberry, sun-dried tomato and fresh salsa in approximately equal measure, with oregano, anise, menthol lozenge, dried cranberry, paprika and graphite lock lubricant, all wreathed in a perfumed floral corona of dried roses, lilacs, and carnations. There’s some brooding smoke but no overblown oaky fire to blot out the tangy nuances. I start doing a happy Sangiovese rock in my chair… Some blackberry bramble and Damson plum join the red fruits on the palate, along with a blood-like iron tang and singed orange peel. Everything is in its right place, the fresh acidity pooling over chalky tannins while the ripe fruits power forward. If this had an engine I’d certainly gun it a few times. Lithe and sinewy with bold fruit but no excess weight, thoughtfully constructed yet unmarred by crass commercialism. Classico indeed, with a modern twist.

89+ points








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