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





Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2019: Day 2

2 12 2019

by Raymond Lamontagne

After yesterday’s solid start, my anticipation is running high. It turns out that anticipation and trepidation can co-exist in equal measure. How am I going to keep up with all these blogs? The same way I kept up the last two years, I suppose, via doses of careful scheduling and an iron resolve to do what I love: drink wine. As Peter mentioned, this year’s Bricks Wine Advent offering looks like a particularly diverse mélange of different bottle shapes and even alternative packages. The wrapping for Day 2 conceals another distinct bottle shape, this one lanky and elongate. This can only be a flute, speaking to its Germanic (or at least Germanic-influenced) origins.

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Voila. K.H. Schneider! This happens to be one of my all-time favourite German producers from the Nahe, a region whose stony soils continue to provide much inspiration; Nahe winemakers walk a stylistically taut rope between the cool mineral elegance of the Mosel and the riper fruits of the Pfalz and Rheinhessen. To be transparent, there are a few of us here in Calgary who will vociferously imbibe anything and everything K.H. Schneider. I justify this stance by appealing to winemaker Andi Schneider’s emphasis on organic viticulture and spontaneous fermentations, an approach that yields truly honest, authentic wines of place. Increasingly I am inclined to agree with Terry Theise when he argues that such authenticity is a quality criterion that must come before other important yardsticks such as balance and intensity. If the terroir Andi farms is a vinyl record, his deft “low intervention” winemaking touch is the phonograph needle that precisely decodes the soil’s music for our drinking pleasure. But do take note: this is not the expected Riesling. It is something much, much stranger. Are we, team Schneider, being pranked?

I love it already. Dornfelder was created in 1955 by German viticulturalist August Herold. As you can see from the diagram above, Dornfelder is in fact a cross between crosses (!), with some pretty big names among the original four parents. It has been suggested that Dornfelder has genes from every black grape grown in Germany up until its creation.  A rare example of a successful man-made crossing (note that it is not a hybrid, as all parent stock is vinifera), Dornfelder is less obscure that you might think, in recent years becoming the second-most planted black wine grape in Germany. Vigorous and high yielding, Dornfelder also has something that its ancestors Trollinger and Blauer Portugieser do not: loads and loads of colour due to high levels of pigments called anthrocyanins. Dornfelder stands alone in Germany for its ability to make wines that are almost black in their deep purple intensity, with a soft texture, decent acidity, and characteristic aromas that conjure up dark berries, cherries, and more unique herbal/spice notes that some compare to bitters. Unlike many grapes used predominantly as colouring ingredients, this one has its own rather assertive flavor profile. Dornfelder even made inroads into the United States, Canada, and South America. Have you ever been this excited about a viticultural cross? I thought not.

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The 2016 K.H. Schenider Dornfelder Trocken half-bottle features a particularly crumbly stubborn cork, or at least mine did. Ultimately worth the effort. This is dark purple alright, but not completely opaque. The nose conjures up all sorts of underripe blackberry and huckleberry for me right out of the gate, but a balancing woodsy halo of dried violets, allspice, clove, fennel seeds, rosemary, rhubarb, stinging nettles, crushed gravel, and (yes indeed) herbal bitters (orange peel? quinine?), which prevents this from being anywhere near histrionic. Fruits much redder (cherry Nibs, strawberry, cranberry) begin to wink through the strange blueberry-bog-meets-baroque-darkness that was my initial impression. The acidity is buoyant but far from cutting, and the tannins form a light powder. My mind keeps coming back to cough syrup: give this a decent chill to mitigate this effect, unless of course you dig this sort of thing. And don’t get me wrong, this could very well be the world’s greatest Dornfelder, or at least the prettiest. Although I would have to try a few more exemplars to firm up that take, this is clearly winking at me. It is pleasantly odd to feel that a bottle of Dornfelder is an old friend. Thank you August Herold.

89+ points

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Cork Rating: 3/10 (putting aside the difficulties I had extracting this, I like the font but am otherwise underwhelmed, if that’s a word.)





Wine Review: Road 13’s Rhone-ish Reds

29 08 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

Welcome back to Road 13, with my red follow-up of Peter’s prior glowing praise for the white offerings from this Okanagan stalwart. I admit that some inevitable pangs of envy rose up when I heard about just how delicious Rousanne can be in the hands of this  particular producer. Nevertheless, I was pleased to have my opportunity with the reds, one another classic Rhone riff in the form of a GSM blend, the other a more unique joining of a classic stalwart from the same region (the “S” in the “GSM”) with Malbec, a Bordeaux grape that unexpectedly found its fortunes in the New World.

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Road 13’s labels, and indeed its very name, conjure up some pleasant associations for this country boy who has for some time now been irrevocably relocated to the big city. The name came about when the operation then known as Golden Mile Cellars was sold to Pam and Mick Luckhurst in 2003, with the new proprietors wishing to emphasize the more specific location of their winery and the three vineyard sites providing them fruit. A shift to terroir-driven wines occurred, buoyed by an earnest desire to celebrate the region’s rich agricultural history. A natural born gardener, Mick hated just sitting around and loves collecting farm equipment. Pam brought bookkeeping expertise and a natural aptitude as a wine taster. Both sought to learn viticulture, a process they readily admit continued throughout their stewardship of the winery, yet the result of this humbling journey has still been numerous winemaking awards. The last Road 13 red I had, a 2011 Syrah-Mourvedre opened in 2018,  positively dazzled. Hopefully these provide more of the same. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: The Reds of Sunrock Vineyards

4 07 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

You cannot make truly good wine without ripe grapes. Simple, no? Insufficient sugar in the fruit is not going to leave much for yeast to consume, and such starved fungi are not going to produce something with sufficient body (and alcohol) to merit any sort of “greatness” mantle. Moreover, grapes need heat if they are to attain physiological ripeness. This refers to the changes in tannins and other chemical components that occur largely in grape skins, stems and seeds during the ripening cycle beyond the mere increase in sugar.  These changes are what produce the key varietal aroma signatures we know and love, preventing a wine from tasting green, weedy, and brittle.

Although sugar ripeness and physiological ripeness are clearly correlated, it would seem that grape hang times might be a stronger predictor of physiological readiness than just heat alone, although in my view (and botanically speaking) you aren’t going to get any degree of maturation, period, without heat. The key question for wine quality is: how much heat is too much? Overly ripe grapes mean clumsy, muddled wines that are boozy, lacking in precision or definition, and often almost devoid of any sense of place or regional character. Such wines are going to be tremendously fruity and powerful, but may not offer much in the way of nuance or balance. As I read up on Sunrock Vineyards, which could very well be the hottest single vineyard site in British Columbia, I wonder how they approach these ripeness issues.

Sunrock is owned by Arterra Wines Canada, formerly the Canadian subsidiary of the massive Constellation Brands, but recently acquired in 2016 by the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan (for some reason that tickles my funny bone…I’m sure we drove many a substitute teacher to drink). Arterra farms around 1300 acres of Okanagan vineyard, with the expected corresponding range of quality tiers. Jackson-Triggs might be the best known of Arterra’s brands, and the single-vineyard Sunrock labels formerly carried this name as the top tier of that portfolio. Sunrock is now a standalone winery, a fine example of a large corporate entity with the good sense to recognize and preserve the unique character of a single site. And what a site it is. Read the rest of this entry »





Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2018: Day 19

19 12 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

Well, well. We appear to have ourselves an Advent “Battle of Oregon” this year… of sorts. After the current favourite for “2018 wine of the calendar” made its presence felt a mere two days ago, another iconic Oregon Pinot Noir comes out swinging. The present bottle, the 2016 Cristom Vineyards Mt. Jefferson Cuvee, keeps taking the crown in an annual Wine & Spirits poll to identify the “#1 Pinot Noir in America’s Best Restaurants” (five wins in total). However, most fascinating to me is that this wine represents a very different vinification philosophy from the Ken Wright approach from Day 17. Wright bottles a single-vineyard Pinot Noir from 13 different sites in the northern Willamette Valley. His overriding goal is capture the unique character of each plot. At Cristom, however, blending reigns supreme. Although the winemaking approach is informed by a traditional Burgundian ethos, grower and owner Tom Gerrie and winemaker Steve Doerner believe that the Willamette shows best when grapes from different sites are woven together into a tapestry, as opposed to enjoyed as single strands.IMG_2469

Steve Doerner had previously spent 15 years crafting world class Pinot Noirs with Josh Jensen at Calera, on remote Mount Harlan in California. Although this collaboration was fruitful, Jensen, a staunch advocate of site specificity much like Ken Wright, retained ultimate control over the winemaking. Doerner began to tire of working in such an isolated, lonely locale and was unable to persuade Jensen that blending could afford possibilities that single vineyard wines could not. As he told wine historian Paul Lukacs, “I just liked the idea of making something better, something more complete, than any of its components”. Doerner found the freedom he was seeking when he moved to Oregon and began working with Tom’s father, Paul Gerrie. The Gerrie family considers Doerner to be a blending ninja, a man able to sculpt characterful wines using grapes from all five of Cristom’s estate vineyards as well as quality sites from nearby in the Willamette Valley. Doerner makes the entry level Mt. Jefferson Cuvee first, tasting wines from the different plots and then synthesizing the finished wine using a non-obsessive, intuitive approach based on his tasting instincts alone: “I don’t agonize over it at that point. I just try to make the best I can.” Cristom does make site-specific bottlings, as the market is of course enamoured with terroir, and the Gerries are understandably proud of their estate vineyards. However, each year’s blend is the first priority, with consistency from vintage to vintage the final goal. Read the rest of this entry »





Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2018: Day 7

7 12 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

Now THIS I was not expecting. Seeing tonight’s label takes me back to an industry tasting maybe a year ago. I finagled an invite as “media” (delusions of grandeur) and it was a standard event, really: big crowds and tiny pours. Even at such large events, however, I am consistently astonished by how generous and approachable wine folks are. (Sure, there were a few awkward moments. Me: “I think I like this Viognier the best…really nice floral stuff on the nose”. Guy pouring samples: *blank stare*.) I won’t ever forget meeting these two dudes at the Purcari table, representatives from the near-anonymous wine nation of Moldova. One was maybe in his 20s and the other was on the older side of middle-aged. I wish I could recall their names. The younger guy seemed quite business-savvy, and the older gentleman was more focused on vines and harvest dates and the like. My friend (none other than fellow Pop & Pour author and wine guy extraordinaire Dan Steeves) and I must have spent an hour there, tasting through the entire ensemble and hearing the stories behind each of their wines. The older guy reminded me of my maternal grandfather, a no-nonsense, bright member of the proletariat, very willing to share these unprepossessing but fascinating stories. What a marvellous hobby we have, and what a tremendous memory, revisited in full force by tonight’s Negru de Purcari red, from the winery of those very gentlemen.

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A brief primer of this lesser-known wine region is certainly in order. Moldova is one of Europe’s poorest nations but has the third greatest vineyard area of the former Soviet republics (only the Ukraine has more, if we are talking about states with significant wine production). Grapes have grown in Moldova for millennia, and wine production reached an apex in the 15th century. Turkish occupation struck a severe blow to wine production due to the Islamic prohibition of alcohol, but then recovered after the country was annexed by Russia in 1812 (phew!). Vine varieties from France became ascendant until phylloxera smacked them back down. Grafting was adopted in 1906 and the tzars provided incentives to grow higher quality varieties, only to have the Second World War once again devastate the vineyards. Undaunted, the resilient and industrious Moldovans set about planting more international varieties while simultaneously preserving at least some of the native vine diversity, weathered a few Soviet importation bans on Moldovan wine, and basically kept flipping the proverbial bird at retrograde political, religious, and other forces that sought to threaten their vineyards.

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”.

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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.

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