Calgary Wine Life: Domaine Chandon Sparkling Wine Dinner @ Elwood and the Rabbit

13 04 2018

By Dan Steeves

Chandon is a name that instantly makes me think of the luxurious Champagnes from the famous (and largest) Champagne house Moët & Chandon, but its North American offspring Domaine Chandon is not just a clone of its majestic parent company.  It has a vision to be different and create its own legacy by providing a pure expression of what California is all about, while at the same time maintaining the quality that is inherent in its French pedigree.

When Domaine Chandon was established in the Napa Valley in 1973 it was not the first international venture for Moët & Chandon (Chandon Argentina was established first in 1959, and California was succeeded by Brazil in 1973, Australia in 1986, China in 2013, and most recently India in 2014) but it was the first French-owned sparkling wine venture into the US, which now hosts operations from many of the large Champagne houses. Moët & Chandon recognized the potential of the area for sparkling wine production, especially Carneros, which at the time was seen as too cold and infertile to grow grapes (coming from Champagne, they knew it’d be perfect). Moët & Chandon purchased 400 acres of Carneros vineyard land for mere pennies on the dollar in today’s market. It was a humble California beginning for the M & C Winery on March 26, 1973, whose official address was John Wright’s garage, but within a few years the current winery facility was built and opened to the public and the house’s name was officially changed to Domaine Chandon. The 45th anniversary of Domaine Chandon just passed a few weeks ago with the winery holding firm as a longstanding powerhouse in Napa Valley, seeing over 200,000 visitors a year and likely holding the honour of being the largest producer of traditional method sparkling wine in the US.

The line up of Domaine Chandon California wines available in Alberta –  Blanc de Noirs, Brut, and Rosé

Having visited the Moët & Chandon mothership in Épernay (the heart of Champagne) a couple years ago and being fan of all their Champagne wines, I was ecstatic at the opportunity to try the Chandon California wines alongside some delicious food from Bridgeland’s Elwood and the Rabbit. The dinner was hosted by Brian Fairleigh, the Brand and Wine Educator for Domaine Chandon, whose infectious passion for sparking wines is matched closely by a wealth of knowledge about every aspect of Domaine Chandon. Brian made it clear that comparing Moët & Chandon Champagne with Domaine Chandon is like comparing apples to oranges: the two are very different, although they share the same adherence to quality and excellence in the vineyard and cellars. Domaine Chandon aims to showcase the fun, vibrant, sunny California fruit flavours and builds wines that are accessible, enjoyable, and made for everyone to enjoy all year round. Many people only reserve sparkling wines for times of celebration, and although they are perfect for those times, they are equally as enjoyable for a casual sip with friends or an accompaniment to almost any meal. Brian was happy to show us some great pairings. Read the rest of this entry »

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Calgary Wine Life: Taylor Fladgate 1968 Single Harvest Port Release

17 03 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

Although I am deathly tired of the evil winter weather that simply will not give up the ghost in this city, I am more than happy to brave one more snowstorm (please, just one more?) in order to carry on the Pop and Pour tradition of covering the annual release of a Taylor Fladgate Single Harvest Port.  These bottles capitalize on Taylor Fladgate’s extensive back catalogue of aged Port stocks.  They are tawny Ports, meaning that they are aged in barrels for many years, exposed to oxygen and thereby mellowed into a resplendent golden brown. They are also Colheitas, or tawnies where all of the bottled grapes hail from a single vintage.  Taylor Fladgate eschews the term Colheita on these labels in favour of a more anglicized approach.  Regardless of the naming convention employed, Port connotes a sense of pageantry, giving off a regal vibe that this self-styled progressive enjoys basking in from time to time. I wander through the fine wooden décor of Calgary’s Ranchmen’s Club, past a litany of taxidermied game, following my nose into the tasting room where fragrant pourings have already sat for some time.

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Our host Cynthia Opsal, Brand Manager for The Fladgate Partnership for Pacific Wine & Spirits, leads us off with a video that features an interview with Alistair Robertson, principal shareholder in the Fladgate Partnership.  Robertson explains that terroir is fundamental to good Port.  According to Taylor Fladgate winemaker David Guimaraes, 12 different indigenous grape varieties are planted, with four providing the majority of production.  Some grapes such as the vogue Touriga Nacional provide tannic grip, while others such as Tinta Barroca provide more color and sugar content.  Robertson explains that a day of work on the estate involves eight hours of picking grapes, followed by four hours of foot treading in the case of high quality bottlings.  Production of all Port involves adding grape spirit to stop fermentation just before its midpoint, which at Taylor Fladgate occurs around three days into the fermentation process, when about 5-6% alcohol has been produced.  Enough spirit is added to bring the alcohol up to around 20% (which in turn kills off any remaining yeast).  David Guimaraes has stated that a recent trend toward use of more clean and pure spirits means that vintage Ports are approachable sooner, with more fruity expression.  This latter point seems particularly relevant, as this year we get a welcome break from tradition:  instead of the preliminary offering of blended tawny ports that were tasted in prior Release years, we get to sample three 2015 vintage Ports — Single-Quinta vintages, that is.

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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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Calgary Wine Life: Barone Ricasoli Luncheon @ Alloy Fine Dining

10 02 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ growing up. Amongst the many fond memories (including my grandmother’s never-ending tolerance of my boundless energy and predilection for getting into various forms of trouble), I can recall that there were always a few fiascos kicking around the house, those round-bottomed bottles covered with a close-fitting straw basket that shall be forever associated with one of the world’s great wines: Chianti. Although the wine contained in most of these vessels was far from remarkable, over time a serious quality revolution occurred, one that led to the creation of the Chianti Classico DOCG designation. This important development was associated with a renewed commitment to meticulous winemaking as well as the elimination of winemaking techniques that were eventually appreciated to hinder quality (e.g., blending white grapes into a must that was largely red). At the same time, there was a dedication to preserving a unique identity; Chianti was and is a Sangiovese-dominant blend, not a varietal wine (at least usually…it turns out that Chianti Classico can be 100% Sangiovese!). As a newly christened regular contributor to Pop & Pour, I could not have been more keen to draw this tasting assignment, hosted by none other than Francesco Ricasoli. You see, Francesco’s ancestor Bettino actually invented the style.

IMG_0808When Francesco, a professional photographer, finally entered the world of winemaking, Bettino Ricasoli’s beloved Castello di Brolio estate had spent some time being passed from one multinational to the next. Enter a “contractual loophole” that gave Francesco a chance to purchase his family’s legacy from Hardy’s, based in Australia. Although he was initially unsure about whether this was a good idea, some helpful advice and prodding from a friend at Castello di Fonterutoli sealed the deal. Alas, there was much work to do. Francesco wanted to restore his wines to glory. He commissioned a three-year study to clarify the agronomic potential of his property and conducted trial plantings of fifty different Sangiovese clones, eventually determining which would perform best in his vineyard soils. The latter are largely calcareous clay with additional stony components and occur at a wide range of altitudes. Francesco was careful to explain his philosophy of “precision viticulture”. Under this approach, every vineyard parcel is a distinct entity yielding a unique vinous product. Parcels are each farmed according to their individual characters. The wines are all vinified separately to preserve their distinct attributes and are then thoughtfully blended. It became clear that Francesco does not like leaving winemaking to chance. “Why make mistakes that can be avoided?”, he asked, in response to a question about whether he uses selected yeasts for fermentation. However, he is passionate about preserving grape character. This is a highly intelligent man who thinks deeply about his wines, one who has the utmost respect for nature’s raw materials but who is not shy about steering vinification exactly where he wants it to go, according to his vision. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Catena Virtual Tasting with Laura Catena

26 08 2017

Laura Catena is my wine hero.  Her list of credentials reads as if it must have been accomplished by at least two people over the course of long, full lives:  fourth-generation winery owner, global Argentinian wine ambassador, Harvard magna cum laude, Stanford medical school grad, San Francisco emergency room and pediatric emergency doctor, multilingual published author, viticultural researcher and innovator.  And these parallel tracks of success are not a story of a mid-life career switch; she has been excelling in one of the most challenging careers in medicine and continuing her family’s proud wine legacy simultaneously, on two different continents, since she was in her early 20s.  As I have a hard time juggling more normal professional work demands and writing a weekly wine blog in the same city, I hold Dr. Catena in some degree of awe, as an example of what purpose and passion truly can accomplish in a single lifespan.

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Argentina has long been highly ranked on global lists of national wine consumption, made up as it is of a high percentage of European immigrants and their descendants, who brought with them an imbued wine culture and the know-how to introduce vines and winemaking practices to their new home.  One such voyager was Nicola Catena, Laura’s great-grandfather, who came to Argentina from Italy in 1902, at age 18, and planted his first vineyard, which became the origin of Bodega Catena Zapata.  However, it was Laura’s father Nicolas, two generations later, who brought the winery to the world’s attention and ended up bringing the whole country along with him.

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Nicolas travelled to California in the 1980s, shortly after the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, where Napa Valley Cabernet and Chardonnay were first thrust into the global spotlight after besting top Bordeaux and Burgundies in a surprising blind tasting that went viral.  He met up with Robert Mondavi, perhaps the man most insatiably driven to keep California’s star burning ever more brightly, and was inspired by the quality and ambition in this burgeoning rogue wine nation.  Convinced that Argentina could follow the same path to prominence and be the equal of California (not to mention France) in quality, Nicolas Catena returned home, sold the domestic-consumption table wine portion of the family winery, and zeroed in his focus on quality wines for export, aiming to “put Argentina on the map as a grand cru” for world wine.  He spent years studying climate patterns and geology and gradually came to realize that the most popular vineyard areas in Argentina at the time were mostly too warm for quality wine production.  He had two choices for cooler planting zones:  south, away from the Equator, or up, into the Andes.  He went up, and Argentina’s wine fates rose with him. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: Buena Vista Social Club

16 08 2017

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

If there was a Most Interesting Man In The World designation for the history of wine, Agoston Haraszthy would be a strong contender for the crown.  I had previously come across his name in a book about the pioneering contributors of the California wine industry and had assumed that he was one of many 19th-century immigrants from Europe to the United States who brought Old World wine knowledge and tradition with him to his new home and helped it propagate.  And he was.  But his tale was anything but rote.

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Haraszthy was born in Hungary to a noble family in 1812, later becoming known by the honorifics “Count” and “Colonel” even though he was technically neither.  He carved his own path throughout his life, stringing together a series of firsts that would be near-impossible to top in this day and age.  He was the first Hungarian to move and settle in the United States; the founder of the oldest village in Wisconsin (and the planter of some of the first grapevines there); the first town marshal and elected sheriff of San Diego; and the founder of the first commercial winery in California (more on that in a bit).  From the time he first arrived in the United States in 1840 to the time he left in 1868, he was at various times a mill owner, an author, a steamboat operator, a butcher, a member of the California State Assembly, and a gold refiner and assayer at the US Mint.

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Cellar Direct: Summer Vibes, Part 1

2 08 2017

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

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Cellar Direct:  always delivers, figuratively and literally.

And we’re back.  If you’ve seen little activity on this blog for the past few weeks, it’s for good reason:  I was not on mainland North America.  Some family fun in the sun in Maui was an excellent and much-needed recharge, but too much time away from the cellar is a dicey proposition, so I’m revving up the tasting notes and Pop & Pour is ready to rumble again.  And we’re not easing back into blogging life either:  we’re kicking it retro-style tonight with a powerhouse sub-13% abv traditional red duet that’s as Old World as Old World gets, both of which were recent feature offerings at what ever-increasingly appears to be Canada’s can’t-miss online wine club, Cellar Direct.

If you read this blog and that name is familiar to you, there’s good reason, as this will be the fifth time I’ve been lucky enough to experience and describe their wares, dating back to the venture’s launch almost two years ago (see here and here and here for more).  I have yet to taste a Cellar Direct bottle that disappoints.  Sourcing directly from the cellars of producers themselves and focused on classically made, low-intervention, farm-to-bottle offerings from European producers steeped in history, CD gets them to consumers in a 21st-century manner, via regular inbox offers and an online storefront where you can go back and grab more of past winners.  They ship using AST Healthcare’s temperature-controlled delivery services when external temperatures permit (3-4 times per year) and safely store your ordered wines until they’re ready to be delivered to your door.  Cellar Direct’s reach is nationwide, and their inventory is stocked with European treasures that often don’t otherwise see our shores.  Past, meet future.

This is the first of a three-part series of posts offering a snapshot of what Cellar Direct has been offering its members (which can include you, as it’s free to sign up) in spring and summer 2017.  Some of the wines are still around in CD’s online shop; others have sadly sold out with haste; but all are representative of what this venture is all about.  The first two bottles I tried tell you all you need to know. Read the rest of this entry »








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