Wine Review: Winter Warmers, Part 2

27 02 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

Red or white? Before wine became a serious subject of study for me, I gravitated towards whites, and not premium quality ones either, a preference that was likely the product of early learning (e.g., that box of German plonk that was a nigh-permanent fixture on the kitchen counter) coupled with an irrational phobia of such mythological creatures as “tannin-induced hangovers”. As it turns out, there is a general trend in humans towards a greater appreciation for bitter flavors and pucker-inducing sensations that comes with age and experience. Years later, I adore red wine while continuing to appreciate characterful whites. At this point the distinction between red versus white is but a minor factor in my choice of which wine to consume at a given point in time, one that can sometimes influence me at the very early stages of decision-making (“is it a red or a white night?”), but that ultimately carries less weight than varietal, region, style, or what’s for dinner. The Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada webpage indicates that at the national level, Canadians prefer red wine to white, with the exception of British Columbia, where whites are more popular. Heedless of the overall trend, many (myself included) continue to associate winter with hearty reds. Without further ado, let’s launch into part 2 of our robust red reviews, following Dan’s introduction from late last week.


2011 Montecillo Rioja Reserva ($18)

Spain has more area under vines than any other country and is the third largest producer of wine in the world. Spanish wine on the whole was considered rather rustic and ragged until a major shift towards improved quality occurred in the mid-20th century, before which time it was not unheard of to dilute the wine with lemonade to increase palatability (!). Rioja remains the best-known area for red wine production in Spain, although recently a few upstart regions have made inroads. Tempranillo is Spain’s top indigenous variety, with plantings doubling across the country over the past decade, and is the dominant grape in almost all Rioja reds. I found a great quote from a top Rioja producer in Benjamin Lewin’s book “Wine: Myths and Reality”: “Everywhere in the world, people want to make wine like Burgundy. But it is not in our history, we have  always blended”. Historically, Rioja’s very warm vineyards resulted in full ripening of any given grape varietal, such that blending was necessary to achieve the desired complexity. In a traditional blend, fruitiness came from Tempranillo, while Garnacha (Grenache) provided more color, body, and alcohol, with relative rarity Graciano providing acid to offset the softness of the other two. This classic blend often yielded wines featuring what Lewin calls “savory, almost animal notes of mature red fruits”. Use of American oak for aging has also led some to conclude that Tempranillo is rather neutral flavor-wise, with vanilla and char notes from oak constituting Rioja’s “true” distinctive flavor profile. Regardless, much Rioja is now made in a soft, fruit-forward style. Some producers have decided to split the difference and offer both traditional and modern bottlings. Read the rest of this entry »


Rioja Quality Ladder: Bodegas Montecillo

11 11 2015

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

Crianza vs. Reserva.  And one of the hardest sets of labels to photograph well.

Crianza vs. Reserva. And one of the hardest sets of labels to photograph well.

If I had to pick one European red wine region that was my Old Faithful, that always delivered quality and intrigue, regularly delighted and rarely disappointed, it would be Rioja.  Something about the wines coming out of Spain’s original star region just speak to me, offering up traditional character and depth and a unique voice at often-amazing prices.  Rioja is perched at altitude in north-central Spain, closer to Bordeaux (a 4 hour drive north) than Barcelona (5.5 hours east), and has long been the king of the Spanish wine world:  it was the first D.O. (Denominacion de Origen, or classified geographical quality region) in the country to be granted super-elite D.O. Calificada status in 1991, the highest quality category in Spanish wine law.  Only one other region, Priorat, has been awarded the designation since.  There are always challengers for Rioja’s crown in a country with soils, grapes, styles and traditions as rich and varied as Spain, but at its best, there is nothing quite like it. Read the rest of this entry »

Torres New/Old World Value Duet

8 09 2015

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

New/Old World.  Pink/red.  Value/value.

New/Old World. Pink/red. Value/value.

Over the past couple years, Torres has become my Old Reliable, the brand that never lets me down regardless which sub-$20 value offering I’m trying, regardless where in the world it’s from, and regardless of my level of expectation or uncertainty going in.  It has now been named the World’s Most Admired Wine Brand for two years running by Drinks International (to get a sense of that accomplishment, others in the top 15 this year include Vega Sicilia, Chateau d’Yquem, Ridge, the First Growth Chateaux Margaux, Latour and Haut-Brion, and Tignanello), and it succeeds without a multi-hundred-dollar wine on its resume and with wineries on three separate continents, focused on marrying high quality with affordable pricing wherever it goes.  That combination is not easy to achieve, but Torres makes it look routine.  I had a chance to toast the end of summer amidst the weekend snow in Calgary with two QPR (quality-to-price-ratio) gems from the Torres portfolio, one from the New World and one from the Old, each crafted with the same evident care and attention. Read the rest of this entry »

Canada’s Natural Wine Club: Cellar Direct

1 09 2015

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

FullSizeRender-118It was not like any other sample box I have received.  This two-bottle sample pack showed up in a container that could have easily fit a full case of wine with room to spare.  Puzzled, I broke into the box to discover the wine inside was surrounded on all sides by multiple inches of insulated styrofoam, like I was being shipped radioactive isotopes instead of a European red and white.  The bottles in the centre of the box were encased in even more styrofoam, and sitting in between them was a liqui-gel cryopack, like the kind you would use to keep your camping cooler cold.  After a multi-day, interprovincial Canada Post voyage, the icepack was still completely frozen.  And the wine?  Precisely at cellar temperature fresh off the delivery truck, a constant, perfect 13 degrees Celsius.  As it turns out, Cellar Direct doesn’t just ship their wines out in a way that ensures temperature stability; it also imports them in from producers in a rigidly temperature-controlled manner too.  They officially had my attention. Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Review: 2007 Bodegas Montecillo Rioja Reserva

2 10 2013

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

I heart traditional Rioja.

I heart traditional Rioja.

The closest I’ve ever come to having a wine from my birth vintage (1980, by all accounts an absolutely terrible vintage everywhere, which explains why I can’t find any) was a bottle of 1981 Bodegas Montecillo Gran Reserva from Spain’s famed Rioja region, a bottle that I randomly stumbled upon with a friend at Co-op Crowfoot.  His birth year was 1982, so we decided that we’d split the difference and share the wine.  Montecillo is primarily a value-based producer whose wines steer clear from the ultra-expensive, but despite its non-insane price tag the 1981 was still gracefully present 32 years later, a shade past its peak consumption window but still a tremendously enjoyable drinking experience.  This longevity is partly due to Rioja’s traditional winemaking style and lengthy legally mandated aging periods:  for all wines designated as Gran Reservas, minimum 2 years aging in oak barrels and 5 years total aging is required before bottle release, and for Reservas, minimum 1 year oak aging and 3 years total aging is required.  This maturation process leaves the young wines exposed to air and leads to some flavour integration with the barrels themselves, resulting in finished wines that forego primary fruit flavours in favour of oak- and oxygen-induced secondary characteristics and complexity and that often have extraordinary staying power in the bottle.  While almost all wines are not meant to age, and while that maxim usually applies even more broadly to inexpensive wines, some traditional Rioja can be found on the shelves for bargain prices and can last for ages. Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Review: 2006 Bodegas LAN Rioja Crianza

22 10 2012

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

Exhibit A for why Spanish wine should be a part of your life.

When the good vino-importing folks at Christopher Stewart Wine & Spirits asked if there were any bottles in their portfolio that I might be interested in writing up, it took me about 0.02 seconds to zero in on this one.  Accolades and rankings don’t tell the whole story of a bottle of wine, and even the most highly regarded publications need to be taken with a grain of salt (with the exception of this blog, of course), but when a bottle that retails for $15ish CDN and is widely available makes Wine Spectator’s list of the Top 100 wines of the year, it’s worth noting.  The ’06 LAN Crianza was #44 in the WS Top 100 list of 2010 — I remember buying that issue back then and being very curious about the wine.  Two years and 185-odd PnP posts later, I got to crack the bottle and find out all about it.

The constant capitalization of Bodegas LAN is not a typo.  The winery name is actually an acronym for the 3 different provinces within Spain’s famed Rioja region where its grapes are grown:  Logrono (now called La Rioja), Alava and Navarra.  While many reds made in Rioja are blends, this one is entirely crafted from the region’s (and the country’s) star grape, Tempranillo.  Spain has long been known for mandating minimum aging requirements for its various quality designations of wine, and many producers continue to keep their wares from market for even longer than legally necessary, holding them back until they are deemed ready to drink.  In the case of this bottle, the term “Crianza” is a designation that in Rioja requires wines to be aged for a minimum of 24 months before release, at least 12 of which have to be in oak barrels.  The LAN Crianza spent exactly that long in a blend of French and American oak barrels.  Normally when people make such a statement, they mean that, after fermentation, part of the LAN wine went into French oak barrels and another part of it went into American oak barrels, with the two separately aged portions blended together after barrel aging.  Not so here:  in LAN’s case, EACH BARREL used to age its Crianza was made from a blend of French and American oak.  I would love to know the cooperage techniques necessary to make that happen, but I have never heard of anybody doing that before, and it is without question my favourite obscure fact about this bottle. Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Review: 2002 Campillo Rioja Reserva

10 08 2011

Grande Prairie, pay attention: go and find this wine. Right now.

I couldn’t resist — after talking at some length in my last post about how the Tempranillo grape was a chameleon that could show very differently depending on how it was made, and after seeing what the fruity, modern style of the grape had to offer with the 2009 Vega Moragona Tempranillo from Ribera del Jucar, Spain, I went down to my wine fridges tonight and this bottle kept calling out to me.  While the Vega Moragona did a decent job at showing off what New Age Tempranillo was all about, there are few better producers than Campillo at illustrating what can be created using the traditional approach to Spanish winemaking with this grape.  As I mentioned a couple days ago, the main difference with the more traditional style of Spanish Tempranillo is that the wines are aged in oak for significantly longer before release, often in new barrels to further enhance the oak flavours, which leads to bottles that tend to be pre-mellowed before they even hit the shelves; it’s like the wineries do most of the aging for you.  It’s an approach that makes very little sense in terms of the modern business model — how many goods retailers do you know that hang onto their inventory for 5+ years before allowing it to be sold? — but maybe that’s what makes it so charming to me.  These Spanish winemakers, especially in Rioja, the country’s traditional vinicultural heartland, are amazingly dedicated to their craft, and given the world’s recent obsession with bigger, riper, ultra-powerful reds, their wines can be found at shocking values. Read the rest of this entry »

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