Calgary Wine Life: Maison Sichel Masterclass with James Sichel

3 11 2018
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James Sichel of Maison Sichel

James Sichel is on a mission.  One of five brothers who comprise the sixth generation running the family-operated Maison Sichel, born in Margaux to English parents, James grew up among the history and legacy of Bordeaux and is now charged with connecting a whole new generation of wine drinkers with the fruits of his family’s labour, and rekindling the passion of those who think Bordeaux has passed them by.  There is a view among some modern drinkers that the region has ossified, become beholden to ancient classifications and over-reliant on score-chasing, stratospherically priced speculative investment bottles that are detached from the land and the soil and everything human and natural that goes into making great wine.  There are parts of such a criticism that may stick, but there is so much more to Bordeaux than four-figure futures bottlings and producer tiers; it is a massively prolific producing region and has somehow become an under-the-radar source of superb Tuesday night offerings (particularly, in my opinion, on the white side of the ledger) and sub-$100 luxury splurges.  James’ quest is to bring value Bordeaux back to the rest of the world, to steer the focus away from the elitism that can accompany 1st growth price tags and to allow a fresh audience to rediscover the true beating heart of Bordeaux.  The audience seems to be responding:  Bordeaux sales in Alberta are up 24% this year as compared to last.

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Maison Sichel is a complex entity.  Based in Bordeaux since 1883, they are part estate producer (they own over 350 hectares of vineyards in various different appellations), part winemaking negociant (they work with and source grapes from a series of smaller growers in southern Bordeaux then make wine, including their value flagship Sirius, from the fruit) and part discerning merchant (they sell other hand-selected partner estates’ wines other those estates’ own labels).  On the whole, if you search for the whole Sichel range on its website, you end up with 189 producer results, from straightforward cheap and cheerful offerings all the way up to Chateau Palmer, one of the premier wine estates in the world.  The Sichel family’s pride and joy, however, and James’ current home, is Chateau Angludet, a Margaux estate that is now highly regarded but was on the verge of ruin when the family purchased it in 1961.  It is now their hub and the pinnacle family pursuit.  Aside from Angludet (and a highly savvy prior investment in Palmer in the 1930s), the Sichels own Chateau Argadens in Bordeaux Superieur and Chateau Trillol down in Corbieres.  James’ brother Benjamin Sichel is the winemaker for all three family-owned estates.

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Foreshadowing.

James was on day 10 of a Canadian tour when he took the time (ahead of a sold-out black tie dinner) to lead his Alberta import agent through a portfolio tasting of many of the Maison Sichel offerings available in the province.  I was fortunate enough to sit in on the session and experience my own reacquaintance with a region that too often bypasses my attention.  There were ELEVEN wines poured, so from here on out I will try to be brief.  [Editor’s Note:  I did not succeed.] Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: $21 Old World Supremacy

11 07 2017

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

FullSizeRender-676This will be the last PnP post for a while – in a couple days I’ll be escaping the country on summer vacation and will not be thinking much at all about word counts or flavour descriptors while I’m gone.  Expect palm tree and sea turtle Instagram pictures and not much else until the end of the month.  I therefore felt compelled to send off July on the blog with a double-feature, a head-to-head review of two Old World value level wines with near-identical just-a-shade-over-$20 price tags and almost nothing else in common.  It’s Italy vs. France, a contest of different grapes, winemaking styles, vintages and approaches, with the main unifying links being longstanding traditional estates and a quest to over-deliver on quality for a supermarket price tag.  Enjoy the summer! Read the rest of this entry »





World Malbec Day Review: 2014 Bodega Norton Barrel Select Malbec

17 04 2017

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

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Happy World Malbec Day!

Happy belated Easter to all – I hope your long weekend was filled with family and food and chocolate and wine in some order.  If you headed back to work on Easter Monday and were feeling the post-holiday blues, fear not, because there is another event on today that’s worth celebrating:  April 17th has been designated World Malbec Day, a designation I would bet many people choose to live out far more often.  In a blink sometime in the last decade, Malbec went from being an overlooked Bordeaux blending grape and an esoteric dark and chewy hidden treasure from Cahors to Australian Shiraz’s heir as the friendly, fruity, powerful gateway drug into the wonderful world of wine.  Whereas I stumbled onto Yellow Tail sometime in the early 2000s and worked my way up from there, nascent wine lovers today are heading to the previously non-existent Argentina section of their local liquor store and starting their odyssey with the grape, one that will hopefully last a lifetime. Read the rest of this entry »





2013 Nugan Estate Third Generation Chardonnay

28 10 2016

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

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Nice to see some work go into a value label design.

If you were on the hunt for the largest subnational designated wine region in the world, the gargantuan South Eastern Australia appellation might be your first and last stop.  While most demarcated wine appellations gain their distinction by having a set of physical characteristics or surroundings in common — climate, soil, terrain, aspect, varietal — this one is intentionally celebrated for its internal differences.  Spanning five separate states within Australia (Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and even Tasmania) and covering the bulk of the prime vine-growing area in the country, South Eastern Australia is an umbrella region created to permit the blending of grapes from a variety of disparate conditions across a vast geographic area into a single appellation-level wine.  While the scorching Barossa Valley may have nothing in common with the cool, maritime Yarra Valley 800 kilometres away, producers under the SE Australia label can pick and choose grape characteristics from each (like rich fruit in Barossa and juicy acidity from Yarra) and meld them together to create a more balanced, interesting blend.  Australia has long been a wine nation that does not frown on cross-regional blending (the country’s top grape, Penfolds Grange, is such a blend), and when used correctly, it can allow for producers to put out well-made and eminently drinkable wines and surprisingly accessible prices. Read the rest of this entry »





Argentine Value Challenge: Punto Final

4 10 2014

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

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Look closely: Spanish tasting notes!

There’s a lingering question out there that will go a long way in determining the ultimate path of the nascent Argentinian wine industry:  what to go along with Malbec?  That particular Bordeaux transplant has become a global phenomenon up in the foothills of the Andes and the undisputed star of Argentina’s vinous revolution, but there are a number of grapes currently vying for the role of its trusty national sidekick.  For a while it seemed like there was a strong marketing push to obtain Malbec-like acceptance of Argentina’s most unique white, Torrontes; I recently read a Decanter tasting panel that argued forcefully that the country’s recent forays into Cabernet Franc were an absolute revelation and that this underappreciated varietal should assume the silver medal position among Argentinian producers, although the less exciting Bonarda currently occupies that slot in terms of vineyard acres planted.  And of course, there’s always Cabernet Sauvignon, the international behemoth, promising instant recognition and easy sales for anywhere warm enough for it to grow.  In my experience, if an Argentine wine is on the shelves here and it isn’t Malbec, it’s usually Cab.  And while the wine geek in me would love to see Franc seize the day, the realist in me knows that Sauvignon will be pretty tough to displace. 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: 2010 Domaines Andre Aubert “Le Devoy”

23 07 2012

There are two compelling reasons why you should track down and drink this wine:

  1. It is a tremendously good value wine that offers depth, intrigue and tons of flavour at a bargain price.
  2. It may give you superpowers.  Or radiation poisoning.  Or both.  It’s tough to predict.

You see, Andre Aubert’s Le Devoy comes from the bucolic Grignan-Les-Adhemar region in France’s Southern Rhone valley.  Before Grignan-Les-Adhemar adopted its almost-impossibly-French appellation name in 2010, it was previously known as the AOC region of Coteaux de Tricastin, named for the French city of Tricastin found within its borders.  Unfortunately for Tricastin, on top of vineyards, it was also home to a series of 4 nuclear reactors, and unfortunately for the nuclear reactors, in 2008 this happened:

Shortly after this questionable incident, a number of employees at the Tricastin plant were exposed to radioactive particles that escaped from a reactor pipe that was supposed to be shut down.  Then a 3 year-old previously-unnoticed nuclear waste leak led to another spill.  Not surprisingly, these terrifying events did little to draw the public towards bottles of wine with “Tricastin” plastered all over their labels, so the growers there petitioned France’s governing wine body to let them change the name of their region, and Grignan-Les-Adhemar (which translates to “Land of the Geiger Counters”) was born.  I have never before heard of a French wine appellation changing its name, especially just so that it could escape from bad PR, but as a result, Le Devoy will now forever be known to me as “nuclear wine”.

But it’s good!  Really!  You should buy it! Read the rest of this entry »





The Mission Hill Pinot Olympics

17 07 2012

[The bottles below were provided as samples for review purposes.]

As tactfully mentioned by the disclaimer above, I recently received a mixed six-pack of sampler bottles from the good folks at Mission Hill Family Estate winery in the Okanagan Valley.  Two of these bottles, the 2011 Reserve Riesling and the 2011 Five Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, have received separate PnP review treatment over the past couple of weeks:  see here and here for the full write-ups.  But I couldn’t bring myself to split up the other four bottles and rate them separately, because it was clear that they belonged together, bound as they were by a common provenance:  the family name Pinot.  Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir all sat side by side in the MH sample box like a monochromatic grape rainbow, their shared forename a reminder of their common genetic ancestor (Pinots Grigio and Gris are the same grape, and both PG and Pinot Blanc are mutations of Pinot Noir, which is well-known for being genetically unstable).  Since the fortunes of these bottles were clearly tied together, and since it’s July 2012 and our athletes are preparing to head off to London for the Summer Games, I did the only thing I could do and hosted the inaugural Mission Hill Pinot Olympiad at my house over the weekend.

In order: Grigio, Gris, Blanc, Noir. Let the Games begin.

Here’s how our game was played:  I invited over a couple of fellow wine enthusiasts, opened all four bottles of MH Pinot, and we tasted through the lineup and separately ranked each of the wines as against its peers, individually coming up with our gold, silver, bronze, and, um, whatever’s below bronze (lead? aluminum? tungsten?) medal choices.  I then added all of the placements together to come up with a cumulative judges’ score (for example, a wine ranked 1st, 2nd and 3rd by the three different judges would get a total score of 1 + 2 + 3 = 6); the lower the score, the better.  The lowest total score won the overall prize, which basically meant that the bottle was emptied the fastest.  We tasted the wines from whites to red, lightest to heaviest, and my notes below are in the same order.  Who emerged victorious?  Read on! Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: Sokol Blosser Evolution Red, 1st Ed.

26 05 2012

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

That familiar E, now in red form.

If you are at least a semi-regular wine drinker, chances are you’ve stumbled upon the white version of Evolution, a borderline-bizarre blend of 9 different grapes concocted by Oregon producer Sokol Blosser which has become the poster child of fun quality table wine.  White Evolution has been around for 15 years and counting, and this year it has been joined by a red counterpart out to accomplish the same mission using darker-skinned grapes.  Sokol Blosser is keeping the specific mix of grapes for this new wine a secret, revealing only that red Evolution is a Syrah-based blend, but a look at past SB red offerings can let us take an educated guess as to what might be in the bottle.  For the past few years, Sokol Blosser has made a sister red brand called Meditrina, which was a blend of Syrah, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.  With the introduction of Evo red this year, Meditrina is no longer being made, and I would think there’s a better than even chance that the Syrah, Pinot and Zin grapes which were previously sourced for Meditrina may have found their way into this new label.  I almost hope this is true, because I found Meditrina quite enjoyable when it still existed, and tying it to the juggernaut Evolution brand would certainly help increase its exposure. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2010 Umani Ronchi Vellodoro Pecorino

19 09 2011

When drinking on a budget, many people go for cheap wine.  Me, I opt for sheep wine.

Baa.

You are forgiven for thinking that Pecorino is only a sheep’s milk cheese, because I was convinced of the same thing until I was presented with an opportunity to buy this neon green, livestock-labelled bottle.  For the first and possibly last time in my life, the back label of a wine I owned proudly trumpeted that it was made from “the grape of the sheeps” (bad grammar not mine) — the word “Pecorino” comes from the Italian “pecora”, meaning “sheep”.  Apart from being delicious with crackers on an appetizer platter, Pecorino is also a little-known white grape indigenous to the central-eastern Italian wine region of Abruzzo.  It almost became extinct over the past few decades because it is a fairly low-yielding varietal that doesn’t lend itself to big money crops (and because wineries weren’t lining up down the block to plant sheep grapes), but large-scale producer Umani Ronchi recently began a crusade to revive it in an effort to keep regional grape varieties alive, leading up to the first vintage of this Pecorino in 2007.  Thanks to the palate-broadening encouragement of Brian at The Ferocious Grape (who was also behind my foray into Malvar a couple months ago), and because I liked the cute cartoon sheep on the label, it ended up in my glass. 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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