Wine Review: Modern Italian Traditionalists

11 10 2017

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

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Reunited with Italy.

I don’t know why, but before yesterday I hadn’t had a bottle of Italian wine for a long, long time.  I’m not a hater or a New World purist; I have a bunch of Italy in my cellar and rank certain Italian bottles and regions among my favourites in the world.  I’ve just been through a phase where nothing has drawn me to that corner of my wine racks in a number of months…there has always been something more enticing to my senses that has kept the country in the press box.  Well, no more:  in order to restore equilibrium to my wine world and reacquaint myself with one of the two traditional cornerstone nations of viniculture, I cracked a pair of Italian bottles last night and reminded myself of why Italy is viewed so loftily by grape lovers everywhere.

On the surface, the two bottles seemed to have very little in common:  one was playful pink bubbles, while the other was a legacy Chianti crafted to centuries-old founder’s standards.  But both in their own way were asserting their place in the often-calcified lore of Italian wine history.  The pink bubbles hailed from the province of Treviso in northeastern Italy, just north of Venice, the world home of Prosecco; but it couldn’t be called Prosecco by virtue of its hue and its choice to forego the region’s Glera grape (which was previously also called “Prosecco” in an attempt to be as confusing as possible), which took the wine out of the threshold criteria of the Prosecco classification. Even though it was produced by a generations-old Prosecco house, it wasn’t Prosecco, and it was OK with that, ambling on its merry mission to bring joy to those who opened it.  The Chianti was a modern take on a wine made to the recipe of a 19th century legendary figure, the one who first set down what it legally meant for a wine to be a Chianti.  While the first bottle gleefully acknowledged its place on the parallel track from history, the second not only embraced its history but walked in its footsteps.  In their own way, I admire each for their paths taken. Read the rest of this entry »

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Cellar Direct: Summer Vibes, Part 3

7 09 2017

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

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So different, yet so marvellous.

Well, the leaves in my backyard are starting to turn yellow and fall, and my kids just started a new year of school, so it’s probably a good time to wrap up my multi-part summer saga featuring the always-impressive old school wines of Cellar Direct, an online purveyor of European treasures that it offers up to a list of eager email subscribers and then ships nationwide when weather permits.  I recently had the chance to meet Ron van Schilt, one of the founders and owners of the business and the man in charge of sourcing all of the wines offered up across Canada, and his love and passion for his producers and their creations is physically palpable in every word he speaks.  Serious Wines all, and wondrous finds.

Cellar Direct sent me a six-pack sampler of their prior 2017 offerings at the start of the summer that I have been devouring in twos over the past couple months; to see how Wines #1, 2, 3 and 4 showed, click here then here for the recap (hint:  well, well, well and well).  Time to see if the last duo of bottles follow suit.  Like everything else in this offer set, they hailed from France and were the product of hand-worked soils and low-intervention winemaking, but they had basically nothing else in common.  I started off with a familiar face, and a blast from the past. Read the rest of this entry »





Happy Canada Day: Stag’s Hollow Summer Set

1 07 2017

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

Happy Canada Day all!  Our majestic and humble home turns 150 today, which makes me both celebratory and reflective, emotions which both inevitably lead to wine.  (OK, many things inevitably lead to wine, but these do too.)  As a nation, even at its sesquicentennial, Canada is still young and developing, growing increasingly confident in its global identity but not yet possessed of that inner calm of countries who have already seen and lived through it all.  As a wine nation, we are younger still:  while grapevines have been planted in Canada since the 19th century, our movement towards becoming a commercial producer of quality wines probably only dates back 40 to 50 years; the oldest producing vinifera vines in British Columbia are likely of a similar age.  In many ways, we are still finding ourselves and only starting to chart our path.

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British Columbia wasn’t blessed in centuries past with Burgundy’s army of soil-testing, site-delineating monks, who segregated cohesive parcels of land and determined which grapes did best in which spots.  As such, and without a suite of indigenous varietals to choose from, BC is playing global catch-up, still trying to sort out what might succeed in its soils and what is destined to fail.  In this New World landscape, it would be useful for the province to have a sort of advance wine scout, someone who is unafraid to push the envelope in terms of planting options and help set the boundaries for the area’s future course.

I nominate Stag’s Hollow Winery in the Okanagan Falls, which, led by winemaker Dwight Sick, has done nothing but innovate since I first found out about them.  Make reserve-level small-production Tempranillo?  Check.  Create the Okanagan Valley’s first-ever bottling of Grenache?  Check.  Solera-style fortified wines?  Orange wines?  If you can envision it, Sick and Stag’s Hollow have probably made it, and have expanded the range of possibilities for Canadian wine in the process.  A recent further jump:  Albarino, the crispy, crunchy white grape that is the pride of Galicia in northwest Spain, features heavily in Portugal’s Vinho Verde and has been gaining an increasing worldwide audience.  I had never yet seen a Canadian version of this hot and trendy grape – but if I had had to place a bet on who would be among the first to come up with one, it turns out that I wouldn’t have been wrong.  I got to check out this trail-blazing New World version of Albarino along with a couple other patio-friendly new releases from the winery just in time for summer. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Moet & Chandon Winemaker Tasting @ Ruth’s Chris

24 03 2017

As it turns out, there is no inopportune time for Champagne.  Although the bubbly beverage has built its brand on being the drink of choice for special occasions and other times of celebration, it turns out that it’s equally nice to kick back with a glass of fine bubbles on an otherwise-normal Thursday afternoon.  It’s even better to kick back with six of them, which is what I was fortunate enough to do when Moet & Chandon winemaker Amine Ghanem came to town to lead an attentive and appreciative group through a good portion of the Champagne powerhouse’s portfolio.

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Amine Ghanem, Moet & Chandon.

Ghanem is one of 10 winemakers employed by Moet & Chandon in addition to their cellarmaster, or chef de cave, who directs and decides on the ultimate blend for each of the house’s Champagnes.  Moet has been doing its thing for centuries (since 1743, to be exact – Ghanem informed us that the very first bottle of Moet & Chandon Champagne arrived in Canada in 1839, before we were even a country!), and as such has honed its house style to a fine point, with very clear goals as to the characteristics it seeks to draw out in its Champagnes and specific strategies in place to reach them.  The three pillars of the Moet & Chandon style are, in Ghanem’s words:  (1) “bright fruitiness”, which is attained in part by careful non-oxidative winemaking techniques, even to the point where the house has developed a technique for “jetting” oxygen out of the neck of the bottle after disgorgment to avoid degradation during the maturation process; (2) “seductive palate”, with a welcoming, easy-to-drink texture aided by full malolactic fermentation; and (3) “elegant maturity”, achieved largely through extended lees contact pre-disgorgment, for much longer periods than required by law.  These foundational principles must be working, as we were told that there is currently a bottle of Moet being popped somewhere around the world every second.

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In case the ten full-time winemakers on staff wasn’t a tip-off, Moet & Chandon is a massive undertaking.  It is the biggest house in Champagne and the owner of its largest vineyard holdings, amounting to almost 10% of the entire area under vine in the region.  Since 1962, it has even had its own brand of proprietary yeast, which helps accentuate the characteristics that reflect the house style.  Moet’s primary brand is Imperial, so named in recognition of founder Claude Moet’s 18th century friendship with a certain French emperor, none other than Napoleon Bonaparte.  Napoleon visited the winery many times and was a steadfast consumer of Moet Champagnes, and in 1869 the Imperial brand was christened in recognition of the 100th anniversary of his birth.  The Imperial NV blend starts out as 800 different base wines, which are gradually combined into 3 proposed blends (each featuring solid proportions of all three of Champagne’s grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay) before one is selected.  The blending is as much of the artistry as the winemaking itself, and the efforts show in the bottle, which led off our tour-of-Moet tasting. Read the rest of this entry »





Champagne Day: Taittinger Portfolio Tasting

21 10 2016

Happy International Champagne Day, all!  If you follow wine media long enough you realize there’s a designated day for basically every country, region and varietal imaginable, but if someone wants to concoct an additional reason for me to drink Champagne, I will take them up on it.  To celebrate this illustrious occasion, I was fortunate enough to take part in a comprehensive tasting of a selection of Taittinger’s impressive lineup of Champagnes, which was particularly special for two reasons:  Taittinger’s International Business Developer Mikael Falkman had flown in from Sweden to lead us through it, and it was the inaugural Alberta release of the astonishingly rare and collectible 2008 Taittinger Collection Series, a bottle unlike any other I have seen to date.  Adding to the auspiciousness of the event was that it was held in the Skybridge of the spectacular new National Music Centre in Calgary, an event space suspended over a road and constructed as a piece of living art, complete with a ceiling fixture made from old instruments that emitted a continual buzzy tune aligned with the vibrations of the building.  Suffice to say it was not your usual Friday.

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Mikael Falkman, Taittinger; impeccable brand ambassador.

Taittinger has been around for nearly a century but is particularly catching fire in my neck of the woods right now as the fastest growing Champagne brand in western Canada.  Founder Pierre-Charles Taittinger was a soldier who was wounded in battle in World War I and who recuperated in a town in Champagne, in a memorable old castle that was being used as a command post.  He grew to love the area so much that he vowed he’d return someday and buy the castle, and he did, taking over the chateau and its vineyards in 1932 from Champagne house Forest-Fourneaux and rechristening it in his family name.  Taittinger stayed in the family until 2005, when it was sold (over the objections of one family member, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger) to Starwood Capital Group, which owns the Starwood chain of hotels.  The purchasers’ interest was largely in other portions of the Taittinger empire, which included hotels and a parfumerie, and the Champagne business was shortly on the market again.  Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger managed to get a financing group together and bring the house back to the family that gave it its name, a move that may have saved both the family’s legacy and the quality and reputation of the brand.

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Mikael Falkman has been with Taittinger for many years and has lived through its various recent changes of ownership, and he radiated a sense of ease and confidence about where the house is now and where it is going.  Falkman led us through a lineup of five wines, starting with the clean, linear Taittinger Brut Reserve NV and progressing into a quartet of the house’s finest offerings, each reviewed in detail below.  He spoke at length about Taittinger’s house style, which has remained consistent since the house got its current name, focused on freshness, elegance and minerality, eschewing heavy oak and focusing primarily on the Chardonnay grape.  “Notice that there are no spittoons on the table,” he intoned to start, his meaning evident:  this was exquisite, expensive, premium Champagne, and we would be drinking all of it.  Didn’t have to tell me twice. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2015 Gramercy Cellars Olsen Vineyard Rosé

19 07 2016
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Think pink.  And WA State.

This is the first time in a long time that I’ve sat down to write about a wine just because I wanted to.  I love (and am continually amazed by) the opportunity this blog has afforded me to try new bottles and attend incredible tasting events, but every once in a while it’s nice to step back and recalibrate and share the experience of a wine for the sheer joy of doing so.  And since there are few things that give me more joy in this world than opening a bottle of Gramercy Cellars (my favourite producer and a winery that currently occupies about 15% of my cellar), and since I’ve been waiting for this bottle of rosé to land for months now, this is definitely the wine for the task.

The story of Gramercy Cellars is the story of America’s youngest Master Sommelier, who went from serving, then sourcing, wines for some of the pinnacle dining establishments in various major US centres to making his own in rural Walla Walla, Washington, drawn to the desert in the Pacific Northwest by the potential he saw in the area’s Syrahs.  After graduating from Cornell University, Greg Harrington attained the Master Sommelier designation at age 26 (he was until recently the Chair of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas and is now on the Board as a Chair Emeritus) while working in New Orleans for famed chef Emeril Lagasse.  Stints for Wolfgang Puck in Las Vegas and the B.R. Guest Restaurant group in New York followed, but a chance tasting of Walla Walla Syrah in NYC led to a trip out to Washington State, which very quickly led to Greg and his wife Pam quitting their jobs, uprooting their lives and fast forwarding a far-off retirement dream of making their own wine to the here and now.  For me at least, Gramercy is one of a small group of Washington producers that is unwrapping the state’s wine potential in real time, turning out nuanced, textured and ageworthy wines that turn New World stereotypes on their heads. Read the rest of this entry »





Domaines Paul Jaboulet Ainé: Parallele 45 Trio

6 07 2016

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

There are not many producer names as synonymous with their home region as Jaboulet and France’s Rhone Valley.  From their pinnacle bottling La Chapelle from the world-renowned hill of Hermitage (which I have had once and vividly remember to this day) down through the rest of their lineup, the wines of Domaines Paul Jaboulet Ainé are known and revered the world over, although until recently they were decidedly under-represented in our market.  That has now thankfully changed, and Alberta once again has full access to some of the best wines the Rhone has to offer.

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The Jaboulet winery was first started by Antoine Jaboulet in 1834, who then passed it to his two sons, Paul and Henri, to carry on his legacy.  Paul, the older son, gave the winery his name (the “Ainé” in “Domaines Paul Jaboulet Ainé” literally translates to “eldest”), and it stayed in the family for almost 175 years before finally being sold in 2006 to the Freys, a family of French winemakers with properties in Champagne and Bordeaux.  Caroline Frey (fittingly the eldest daughter of the family), who is now 37 and so was in her late 20s at the time of the acquisition, assumed the mantle of winemaker and has instituted sustainable vineyard practices and carried forward Jaboulet’s reputation for classic quality.

Parallele 45 is Jaboulet’s entry-level lineup of Cotes du Rhone wines, so named because the 45th parallel of northern latitude runs right through the Rhone Valley, bisects some of the Domaine’s vineyards and is only a couple kilometres from its cellars.  The bottles all bear an inscription found on a monument in the nearby village of Pont de l’Isere (which, and I am not making this up, is at 45.0040 degrees N latitude):  “Ici Commence Le Sud” – The South Starts Here.  Post de l’Isere looks to be on the southern edge of the Northern Rhone as opposed to the northern edge of the South, but the mantra still fits, and Jaboulet’s wines straddle both sides of the Valley.  I got to taste through the full Parallele 45 lineup – white, pink and red, all of which share the same $18ish wallet-friendly price tag – and see how well they carried forward the tradition of this great name. Read the rest of this entry »