Calgary Wine Life: Veuve Clicquot Release Tasting @ Yellow Door Bistro

23 03 2018

By Peter Vetsch and Raymond Lamontagne

Sometimes the best times to celebrate are the times when there is nothing obvious to celebrate.  It’s a dreary weekday in late March in still-snowy Calgary, but Champagne lifts all spirits and makes all occasions special, and this was no exception.  The eponymous yellow door of the Yellow Door Bistro at Hotel Arts perfectly foreshadowed the array of yellow labels awaiting us inside, including the brand new release from Champagne’s powerhouse (and power-house) Veuve Clicquot.  Winemaker Bertrand Varoquier expertly guided us through a series of Veuve releases, not least of which was the winery’s latest concoction, the Extra Brut Extra Old NV, soon to be available on retail shelves across Calgary.

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Veuve Clicquot is one of the oldest houses in Champagne, founded in 1772 by banker Philippe Clicquot-Muiron, who was then proceeded at the winery by his son Francois.  When Francois suddenly died young in 1805, his widow Barbe-Nicole Clicquot-Ponsardin stepped forward to take over the reins and run the business, a daring decision for a 27 year-old woman in early 19th century France.  The young widow (or veuve, in French) persevered, and her strong vision and fierce entrepreneurial spirit took the winery to new heights, leading to some significant innovations in tradition-laden Champagne.  Madame Clicquot was the first to create a rosé Champagne made from 100% wine (previous renditions of pink Champagne were created by mixing white wine with elderberry juice).  She is also credited with creating the riddling process that allows the dead yeast cells from Champagne’s in-bottle secondary fermentation to slip down into the neck of the bottle so that they can be frozen and disgorged, to keep the finished wine from being cloudy; before this, Champagne was served hazy and decanted to let the leesy sludge settle before pouring.  Clicquot-Ponsardin contributed so much to the region over her lifetime that she was nicknamed “La Grande Dame” of Champagne, a name that since 1872 has also been used for the house’s prestige cuvée.  Her impact on the winery was so significant that the entire brand was renamed in her honour.

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Bertrand Varoquier is a native son of Champagne, born in the heart of the region in the town of Reims; as he puts it, “my blood is bubbly”.  For the past six years of his extensive 18-year wine career, he has been at Veuve Clicquot, where he is currently responsible for all red wine vinification.  Due to the house’s production size, and in order to ensure that its winemaking happens as close as possible to the vineyards where the grapes are harvested, the red grapes that go into Veuve’s cuvées (primarily Pinot Noir, which is at the core of Veuve Clicquot’s identity) are processed and vinified in their own standalone facility in Buzy.  Each discrete parcel of each red vineyard is vinified separately, and after alcoholic fermentation is complete and scores of still wines are created (some with very limited colour due to restricted skin contact, some fully red for use in rosé Champagne creation, all produced solely for future blending), the lots are sent to Veuve HQ in Reims for malolactic fermentation and blending.

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Bertrand Varoquier, winemaker at Veuve Clicquot

Unlike almost any other top wine region in the world, which tends to glorify single-vineyard and single-vintage expressions of time and place, Champagne’s focus is on achieving and maintaining each house’s unique signature style with precision and consistency, year in and year out.  The mammoth challenge of this task is almost unquantifiable, but this will give you a sense of it.  In addition to his winemaking duties, Bertrand is on the Veuve Clicquot tasting committee along with Cellar Master Dominique Demarville and others.  Every year, from the start of November until the start of March, the committee tastes 24 different sample lots of still wines PER DAY out of the roughly 1,200 (!!!) already-vinified non-bubbly base wines aging in full stainless steel tanks in Veuve’s cellars in order to determine which wines will be used to populate each of the house’s different Champagne releases.  These base wines are from the present year’s harvest plus nearly twenty prior vintages, and all are ultimately rolled into a multi-vintage, multi-source patchwork tapestry that the Cellar Master weaves into the emblem of Veuve Clicquot, so that the buying public gets the taste experience they expect out of every single Veuve Champagne, regardless of the year in which they buy it. Read the rest of this entry »

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Wine Review: Red Blends of the Eternal Ice Age

20 03 2018

By Peter Vetsch

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

Happy first day of spring.  Spare me.  Yeah, I’ve seen all of the (obviously non-local) articles and Instagram pics and Twitter updates about new rosé and bubble releases and patio beers and T-shirt weather.  Meanwhile I have snowbanks bordering each side of my driveway that are taller than each of my children and still see the minus sign side the thermometer heading to work every morning.  It’s supposed to snow again on Thursday morning and there is no god and we are in some kind of forsaken meteorological time loop that will have no end.  So forget you, frizzy pink refreshing splashes and dainty Prosecco; I’m gearing up for blustery Armageddon, armed with a pair of full reds that scoff at the entire concept of spring.  I need to find joy somewhere, after all.

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Forget you, “spring”.

2014 Gerard Bertrand Corbieres (~$20)

I know from past experience that Gerard Bertrand is a value wine savant, and that his legend in the south of France is ever-growing.  I also knew that this particular bottle of Corbieres, part of his “Terroirs” regional collection of bottlings, hit the wine awards mother lode in 2016 by landing the #55 spot in the much-anticipated Wine Spectator Top 100 list — not bad for a $20 bottle from a little-known region.  What I didn’t know about Bertrand was that he was a prodigious professional rugby player before he followed in his family’s footsteps and turned to winemaking, even juggling a pro career with vigneron duties in the aftermath of his father’s death as he took over the reins of his ancestors’ business.  He has now hung up the cleats for good but brings some of his sport’s scrappiness to all of the wines that bear his name.   Read the rest of this entry »





Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2017: Day 1

1 12 2017

I am a realist when it comes to the reach and impact of this blog.  Calgary has a remarkable, informed, ambitious, impressive local wine scene, and my only goal in starting up this site years ago was to be a tiny voice in that massive chorus and find an outlet for my passion, whether anything came of it or not.  For the most part, I am simply an observer, experiencer and occasional reporter on the goings-on of Calgary wine life.  However, in this case, it’s at least possible that I was the catalyst for a great idea that Bricks Wine Company has now expertly executed.  About 12 and a half months ago, after seeing another set of annual Advent releases go by absent a particular format that I thought would be perfect for the occasion, I vented into the black void of Twitter…and was shocked to see somebody almost immediately respond and take up the task:

It’s one thing to send a two-word response on social media, and quite another to spend the time and effort to specially source two dozen half bottles of wine to assemble an Advent calendar for the NEXT year, so I didn’t allow my hopes to leap too high at the time, but now here we are, on December 1st, 2017, and I’m looking at a wooden crate filled with 24 beautifully wrapped and meticulously selected 375 mL splits, my Advent dream realized and in the flesh.  I am filled with awe and gratitude, and I haven’t even opened anything yet.  Way to go, Bricks — you really did it.

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And if I was excited BEFORE peeling back the wrapping on Day #1, my anticipation only intensified after seeing what was on tap for Calgary’s inaugural Half-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar:  wine geek paradise.  Bella Wines is a producer about whom I have heard a ton over the past year, without yet having had the chance to try their wines for myself.  Bella is British Columbia’s only winery that is exclusively devoted to the production of sparkling wine — all bubbles, all the time.  And their approach is brutally uncompromising:  all natural farming, traditional method Champagne-style fermentation (where the secondary fermentation creating the fizz takes place in each individual bottle in which the wine is ultimately sold), all single-vineyard single-varietal expressions, wild yeast fermentation, no additives, no dosage; nowhere to hide, no messing around.  Bella makes multiple different bottlings of both pink and white bubbles, with their pigmented production focused entirely on the Gamay grape, which they believe has unheralded potential in the sparkling world.

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Crown Cap Rating:  8/10 (Stylized and retro, great font, CROWN CAP – I’m all in.)

So if you’re keeping track at home, Day 1 of Wine Advent features an Okanagan traditional-method single-vintage sparkling Gamay natural wine:  the 2016 Bella Sparkling Rosé Brut Natural “Westbank”.  Hot damn.  Bella releases annual sparkling Gamays from vineyards both west and east of Lake Okanagan, and the Westbank hails from the Beaumont Estate Vineyard in West Kelowna, on the slopes of Mount Boucherie. It is a beautifully confident deep watermelon colour in the glass (yay, non-deathly pale rosé!) and makes an emphatically lean, tart and frothy impression, launching aromatic bullets of cranberry, sour cherry and pomegranate fruit laced with grape skins and handfuls of gravel.  The flavours are pure and unforgiving, the lack of any added sugar after secondary fermentation clearly evident, the wine sharp as a razor’s edge on the finish thanks to Ginsu acidity and circular saw bubbles.  This Gamay practically vibrates with energy and electricity from the moment it hits the tongue, and that coiled tension doesn’t ever release:  not when the bubbles burst, not when you hold it in your mouth, not when you swallow.  It’s like watching a thriller movie that never ends.  If this is Day 1, we are in for a SERIOUSLY impressive Advent.  I did not know Okanagan bubbles could be like this.

90+ points

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Wine Reviews: Red ShowDownUnder

13 06 2017

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

FullSizeRender-646I first got seriously into wine about 10 years ago, when the Australia Phenomenon was in its heyday and Argentinian Malbec was just a glint in some clever investor’s eye in Mendoza.  Yellow Tail Shiraz was my gateway drug, a fact that is assuredly true of more than one of you currently reading this as well.  Looking back now on the Australian wine scene then, there are still tons of similarities.  Critter wines, like it or not, are still a thing. On the quality pinnacle, the high-end wines from Down Under rocking people’s worlds in 2017 aren’t that different from those doing so in 2007.  But I’ve noticed a couple clear differences in the imports from Australia that have evolved over the last decade:  first, a welcome explosion of site-driven elegance from the cooler areas of the country, be it Pinot from Yarra or Mornington or bubbles from Tasmania or the laser purity of some of the post-modern wines coming out of the Adelaide Hills.  Second, a new focus on bottles like the ones below, step-up bottlings, a shade above entry-level in price and a world above the critters in authenticity and quality.  The $20-$30 tier of wines has never had stronger representation on our shelves from Australia than it does currently, as more and more producers zone in on these bottles as the best way to build a lasting relationship of trust with consumers as opposed to an $11 fling.

So what better way to celebrate how far Australia has come as a mature wine producer, and how far I’ve come in my 10 years of Yellow Tail-catalyzed oenophilia, than by lining up two step-up bottles, each from highly respected multi-generational family wineries and legendary regions, and tasting them side-by-side?  It’s not about picking a winner — the mere fact that the exercise is possible is a win in and of itself — but I’m sure that won’t stop Jim Barry and Yalumba from exerting full effort in this battle of reds under screwcap.  Let the showdown from Down Under begin. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Weingut Thörle Tasting @ Vine Arts

2 06 2017
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Christoph Thörle

It’s been a bit of a banner wine week, seven days tailored to the precise preferences of my palate.  My personal favourite types of red and white wine are Washington Syrah and German Riesling respectively, and late May has seen visionary producers specializing in each of these areas visit our fair city.  My Washington wine prayers were answered last week when Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars put on a remarkable Master Class in Calgary; this week it was Germany’s turn, thanks to an eye-opening portfolio tasting put on by the dynamic Christoph Thörle of the eponymous Weingut Thörle, from the global home of Riesling’s Rheinhessen region.  Through four different earth-shattering Rieslings and seven total wines, Thörle took us through what must be some of the world’s best expressions of my first vinous love.

If you say the word “Rheinhessen” to a wine person, the tenor of their reaction might be a generational one.  The region, located in west-central Germany, due south of Rheingau and southwest of Frankfurt, is the largest in the country in terms of planted acres and is tailor-made for grape-growing:  it’s dry, sunny and relatively warm, with limestone-based soils overlaid by a variety of alluvial deposits, as long ago it was largely part of an underwater seabed.  Rheinhessen once had a reputation to match its physical advantages, and was long considered one of the pinnacle areas of German viniculture.  But a mid-20th-century flirtation with new lab-crossing grape varieties and mass-market, quantity-focused bottlings turned into a 1970s and 80s Liebfraumilch obsession that saw lesser varietals dominate much of the vineyard area and Blue Nun and Black Tower nearly obliterate the world’s prior impressions of German wine.  If you stopped paying attention to Rheinhessen then (as many did), you will have missed out on what’s going there now:  a quiet quality renaissance, and a return to the right grapes properly planted and tended on the right sites, perhaps not better personified than by Christoph Thörle and his brother Johannes.

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They took over the operation of the Thörle family winery in 2006, when Christoph was just 22 and Johannes 24.  Together they have overseen an expansion of the estate’s vineyard holdings and a corresponding increase in annual production, paired with a return to simple, hands-off viticulture and winemaking practices:  no pesticides or herbicides in the vineyards, multiple-pass harvests, all natural yeasts and no additives in the cellar, minimal sulphur at bottling.  Weingut Thörle now has 80 acres of vine holdings, remarkably spread over 100+ different vineyard parcels but largely centered around the town of Saulheim in north-central Rheinhessen.  The area features a wide array of different slopes, soils and sun exposures, allowing for the production of multiple different varietals, and Saulheim itself is surrounded by Thörle’s three crown-jewel vineyards:  Probstey, Schlossberg and Hölle.

Thörle has been generating increasing acclaim for both its white (Riesling, Silvaner, Chardonnay and more) and red (Pinot Noir, known Germanically as Spätburgunder) wines and made its glorious entrance into the Alberta market last year.  Now some new offerings are on their way to the province, and we were fortunate enough to have Christoph talk us through most of them, including a few bottles that might change your perspective on, well, everything. Read the rest of this entry »





Burrowing Owl Spring Releases

16 05 2017

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

Some people chart the seasons using a calendar; others look to the melting snow and the first robins to mark the start of spring.  For me and this blog, the new season only arrives when the box of new releases from Burrowing Owl is delivered and tasted.  I can now happily announce:  spring is here.

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OK, yes, I had a glass of the Chardonnay before the tasting started.  I regret nothing.

Burrowing Owl is one of the few Canadian wineries that has been consistently able to juggle both quantity and quality, producing 35,000 cases annually from 16 different varietals grown across 170 acres and three different estate vineyard sites encircling the scorching southern Okanagan hubs of Oliver and Osoyoos.  It is likely best known for its Bordeaux varietals, but also makes room in its vineyard sites for less expected offerings like Tempranillo and Viognier, not to mention a killer Syrah that is proof of concept of the region’s suitability for the grape.  Burrowing Owl’s two largest vineyards are scant minutes away from the US border, on western-facing slopes angling down towards the temperature-modulating Lake Osoyoos, which both restrains the Okanagan desert heat during the day and extends it at night.  The third is due west of Oliver, in the neighbouring Similkameen Valley, using its proximity to Keremeos Mountain to help grow Bordeaux whites Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, where 2017’s spring releases conveniently start. Read the rest of this entry »





International Sauvignon Blanc Day: 2016 Adobe Reserva Sauvignon Blanc

5 05 2017

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

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International SB Day 2017!

I swear that not every future entry on this blog will begin with “Happy [Varietal-Specific Holiday] Day!”, but…Happy International Sauvignon Blanc Day!  Yes, there is an entire calendar of world wine days now, each concocted by various marketing geniuses, and as it turns out, a couple weeks after World Malbec Day and a scant four days before World Moscato Day comes a designated day to celebrate the safest grape to pick out of a strange new liquor store and the varietal that first introduced the vinous world to New Zealand, the consistent and omnipresent Sauvignon Blanc.  Unlike today’s grape of honour, I am not omnipresent, and as this piece posts I am actually going to be hanging out in Walla Walla drinking world-class Syrah; International SB Day falls on my birthday this year, and I am spending this spin-around-the-sun in my personal wine Mecca.  So the blog and I will celebrate simultaneously this year, albeit in different places and for different occasions. Read the rest of this entry »








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