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 »


2015 Alvear Alange Tempranillo

28 09 2016

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



Some bottles immediately grab your attention for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on.  Other bottles grab your attention by screaming strange Spanish words in 128-point font.  Alvear’s Alange (sorry – ALANGE) is an example of the latter.  Its minimalist / maximalist label and Beetlejuice-like neck pinstriping are designed for the visually primed North American market, as is the consumer-friendly bottle indication of the grape inside (100% Tempranillo), a rarity on Old World wines.  It is a daring display from one of the older family-run wineries in the world, but it serves its purpose well, making you pause for that split second and linger over the bottle; after that, its price tag (a shade over $15) and the quality of the juice inside does the rest.

Alvear is truly a dynastic estate, now on its 8th generation of family winemaking.  The Alvear bodega was first constructed nearly three hundred years ago, in 1729.  Since then, it has not only stayed in the family but is now handled in all aspects by Alvears — there are currently over 50 members of the extended family involved in some capacity.  Alvear is known primarily for sherry, made in the region of Jerez in Spain’s arid southwest corner, but it is also gaining traction as a table wine producer, growing estate grapes due north of Jerez in the Ribera del Guadiana sub-zone of Extremadura.  To say this is an under-the-radar global area for red wine would be a marked understatement, but it’s places like this where values are often found.  Ribera del Guadiana is known primarily for scorching hot summers, freezing cold winters, reddish clay soils and an obscene array of planted grapes: while Tempranillo takes up the most acreage, the area is home to a crazy mix of red and white indigenous and international varietals, from Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir (!) to Pedro Ximenez and Graciano. Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Review: 2012 Torres Celeste Crianza

29 03 2016

Mysterious heavens. Mysterious brown bottle.

I must admit that the weekly sale flyer from my neighbourhood Solo Liquor store doesn’t usually flood me with inspiration,  but this past week, nestled in its pages amongst the Barefoots and the Yellow Tails, was an offer that made me make a special trip down the block.  The current edition (and 10th anniversary vintage) of Torres’ Celeste Crianza, a 100% Tempranillo bottling from the famed Ribera del Duero region in north-central Spain, was on sale for $17.99, down from its usual $26ish.  I now regret buying only one at that price.  It’s becoming harder and harder with the sordid state of the Canadian dollar to find a well-made go-to bottle of wine for under $20, but for one glorious long weekend, this one easily fit the bill.

Torres is as trustworthy a wine name as there is at this kind of price point.  I’ve had a wide range of their offerings over the past couple of years, some of which ($15 Chilean rose?) did not necessarily spike my expectations going in, but all of which delivered quality, character, consistency and obscene value, to the point where I now seek them out in junk mail flyers.  They are a Spanish family-based winery, but their headquarters are in the far east of the country, in Catalunya near Barcelona; Celeste is their first bottling from Ribera del Duero.  Made from grapes grown in the upper reaches of the region, at close to 900 metres of elevation where they are exposed to blisteringly hot days but remarkably chilly nights, the Celeste is able to offer up full fruit ripeness without coming across as loose or flabby.  The wine’s name and label emphasize the celestial, showcasing the heavenly bodies on display nightly above the elevated vineyard which keep watch over the crop. 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 »

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: 2008 Cachet No. 01 by Stag’s Hollow

27 02 2013
There is no debate:  this is a baller-looking bottle of wine.

There is no debate: this is a baller-looking bottle of wine.

Apologies in advance to my local Alberta readers:  this review will be almost useless to you.  I have never seen this bottle in our fair province, or on a retail store anywhere else for that matter.  I got it for Christmas a couple years ago from a cousin-in-law out in Vancouver (thanks Brad!), was immediately impressed by the rap-video blinginess of its container (the bottle must weigh 2 pounds empty) and then discovered through research that it was created as part of a unique and forward-thinking experimental line of wines by stalwart Okanagan producer Stag’s Hollow.  The Cachet wines are limited edition blends of top quality grapes which are outside of the standard SH catalog; they are made once, as a small run in a single vintage, and then never replicated again.  So while this is the 2008 vintage of Cachet No. 01, there is no 2009 or 2010 bottling — the 1500 bottles (125 cases) of this wine from that single year are all there is.  I have no idea how this is commercially workable, but I find it fascinating.  These high-end one-off blends put the power in the hands of the winemaker to express a different vision with these specialty wines every year…or at least that was the plan.  As it turns out, only two Cachets have ever been made:  this one, and the sequel Cachet No. 02 (made from Grenache, Syrah, Viognier and Marsanne) that was released around the same time.  The world is still waiting on Cachet No. 03, and I’m sort of wondering whether the concept has died before it ever really got off the ground. 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 »

%d bloggers like this: