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 »

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Global Champagne Day Taittinger Technical Tasting @ Alloy Restaurant

21 10 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

Happy (belated) Global Champagne Day! There is probably no better way than a champagne tasting to shake off what has become a considerable amount of wine writing rust. Tasting bubbles, bantering with a few friends, listening to a knowledgeable and engaging speaker — good for the soul. As usual I arrive at the restaurant too early, a neurosis that rarely extends to other important engagements in my life but one that seems omnipresent where wine events are concerned. I simply do not want to miss anything. Right away there is a glass of Cuvee Brut Reserve NV (non-vintage) in my hand, Taittinger’s entry level offering, and at this point I do not mind waiting. IMG_2148Taittinger’s Mikael Falkman comes highly recommended, although on this occasion he seems more inclined to let these majestic wines speak for themselves. He does come to life near the end of the tasting with an exuberant blend of knowledge and humour.  Mikael makes sure to provide a concise history of this famed house, but I particularly appreciate his expositions of the Taittinger family’s winemaking philosophy. I will provide these gems and nuggets along with my tasting notes for each wine. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: The Fladgate Partnership 2016 Vintage Port Release Tasting @ La Chaumiere

9 05 2018

By Dan Steeves & Raymond Lamontagne

Vintage Port, undoubtedly one of the crown jewels of the wine world, is celebrated as one of the Earth’s most complex and robust wines, one that has a superior ability to age and mature in bottle, often only fully revealing itself after several decades. Having never tasted a vintage Port with less than 10 years of age on it, we were very interested in the opportunity to preview the brand new 2016 Vintage Ports from The Fladgate Partnership (literally, they were just bottled a couple weeks ago for sampling purposes, well before what will be their commercial release).

The Fladgate Partnership includes three iconic Port houses: Croft, Taylor Fladgate, and Fonseca. Each house enjoys centuries of history producing Port, and between them they hold the most revered vineyards in the Douro, giving the Partnership the ability to make some of the best and most sought after Ports on the market. Croft, founded in 1588 and thus the oldest Port house in the world, possesses the Quinta da Roêda estate, which has been termed the “jewel of the Douro Valley”. Taylor Fladgate has three main estates: Quinta de Vargellas (well known as a pinnacle wine estate), and two Pinhão Valley estates (Quinta de Terra Feita and Quinta do Junco). Fonseca, the relative newcomer in the Fladgate trifecta at the fresh age of 203 (founded in 1815), also has three significant estates: Quinta do Panascal in the Távora Valley, and Quinta  de Cruzeiro and Quinta de Santa António, both located in the Pinhão Valley. It is these special estate vineyards, with their prime soil, ideal climate conditions, and significant plantings of decades-old vines, which contribute most to the style and personality of each House’s classic vintage Port. As we shall see, there are compelling genuine differences in house style.

Vintage Port is made only in the very best of years when the fruit is exceptional and the wines are determined to be monumental in character, showing early evidence of the ability to age that all great Ports should have. It is a house by house decision, made in the second spring following the harvest once the wines have undergone initial aging and blending. If the producer believes the wine has the characteristics of a great Vintage Port (and the regulating body agrees), they make a formal vintage declaration and begin preparations for bottling. For Fladgate, this declaration occurs on April 23rd and it historically happens roughly three times each decade. The last vintage declared for Fladgate was 2011, which followed 2009, 2007, 2003, and 2000. Taylor Fladgate has declared 32 Vintages from 1900-2016, whilst Croft has declared only 24 vintages in the same period.

Jorge Ramos, the export manager for The Fladgate Partnership, led us through a tasting of three vintages (2003, 2007, and the new 2016) from each of the Fladgate Partnership houses. The opportunity to taste various Vintage Ports from all three producers, side by side, really brought into stark relief the differences in their identities. From the luscious fruit flavours of Croft to the soft yet strong complexity of Taylor Fladgate and the muscular power of Fonseca, these were all stunningly delicious with their own personalities. We’ve summarized our tasting notes below by vintage year, in the manner they were tasted. First up, the 2003 vintage, which had a near perfect start to the growing season and periods of intense summer heat in August which allowed for perfect ripening of the fruit. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Paul Jaboulet Aine Tasting with Adrien Laurent @ Calgary Petroleum Club, Part I

29 04 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

Not a bad way to dust off my blogging chops after a lull. A chance to taste a 100-point wine? Sure thing. The fact that said 100-point wine happens to be the 2015 Paul Jaboulet Aine Hermitage La Chapelle causes my already surging excitement to soar into the stratosphere. Although I am not personally enamoured with the Parker-style point system nor its myriad effects on winemaking and consumer preferences, such a feat STILL means something even to this skeptic. I am truly happy for winemaker Caroline Frey. My sincere congratulations! This was a generous enough spread of wines that two posts are in order. I shall try to do the first set of these marvels justice here, stricken as I have been (by Bacchus himself?) with some sort of virulent bug that makes my bones feel like rheumy old birch twigs stashed away in a mausoleum. And I was hoping to sip something while writing this … Discretion is probably the better part of valour.

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We were greeted with some entry level Jaboulet Parallel 45 Cotes du Rhone bottles … A red, a white, and a rose … I sampled them all, of course. 😉

Our host Adrien Laurent felt like a kindred spirit, keeping things scholarly while occasionally flashing an understated charisma or busting out some hilarious off-colour jokes about the French distaste for monarchies (you had to be there). This tasting featured not just the one legendary new release but THREE Hermitage selections, plus an additional spread of whites and reds in what turned out to be a guided tour of nearly the entire Northern Rhone, through the lens of a single producer. How utterly marvellous. I shall cover them all, after first providing some background on the region and this historic producer. Read the rest of this entry »





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 »





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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