Drink Chenin Day (Epilogue): South African Sampler, Part II – Wagnerians vs. Martians

29 06 2021

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

Although Drink Chenin Day is now in the rearview mirror for this year, our South African wine feature is but half complete. There is one more Chenin in the mix, but here South African cool climate “up and comer” Sauvignon Blanc gets its just due, along with a few classic red varietals and at least one oddball (if one can ever truly refer to the unobjectionable-to-a-fault Pinot Grigio as “odd”…I feel this grape might merit the designation in South Africa due to a relative lack of historical presence in the region, but I digress). As South African wine expert Tim James notes in his erudite treatment of the region’s history, various problems such as ongoing racially informed inequalities, a floundering economy, and viticultural hazards such as leafroll virus may “dim the brightness of the new world of South African wine, but do not obscure it”. When Apartheid finally came crashing down in 1994, the South African wine business almost immediately made rapid improvements as the international market opened up, and South African winemakers responded with a game of catch-up that has led to some intriguing results. South Africa morphed from a region notorious for overproduction of decidedly mediocre wines to one capable of showing the legitimate wine-growing potential of the land and climate through the lens of various international grape varieties, along with one (in)famous native cross, Pinotage. In short, South Africa did finally catch the terroir bug. Although this failed to spread quite as rapidly as the aforementioned vine virus, we now live in a world of South African wine where a farmer might sell his old vine Chenin Blanc grapes to a small-scale boutique producer who honours the health of the land just much as said farmer might, as opposed to a mammoth co-operative that ultimately consigns this vinous gold to an anonymously dilute identity death amongst the hoi polloi in a huge vat (a little more on huge vats later).

Nice couple of labels here … These capture everything that is old and new about Cape wine… or something.

My personal journey with the wines of South Africa began quite early into my obsession with this greatest of beverages, as I found myself immediately taken with the oft-repeated trope that South Africa naturally bridges the gap between the finessed restraint of the classic European wine regions and the opulent fruity hedonism of the New World. Far be it for me to either gainsay or corroborate what real experts have to say on this matter, but my own experience broadly affirms this notion. If the grapes are not excessively ripe, many Cape wines (particularly whites) display a fine acid structure and even a fresh minerality that cleaves nicely with Old World sensibilities, yet there is also a concurrent sun-kissed tropical vibe that you probably won’t mistake for Chablis…such wines are not austere. I also not infrequently get a distinctive herbal earthiness, for a lack of a better general descriptor, particularly in the reds. I am intrinsically drawn toward such stylistic middle grounds, because there are multiple layers on which to focus, and such wines can surprise when one is able to simultaneously experience elements that initially seem discordant (like, say, a fresh stony minerality that co-occurs with bright fruit). One has to be careful not to get too carried away, though. The present spread of wines range in price point from around $9 to almost $30. This is a set that will capture Cape wine in a much broader sense than a wine nerd like me might typically seek to experience. A further word or two on that if I may, which will explain the rather quaint title of this post.

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Drink Chenin Day: South African Sampler, Part I

18 06 2021

By Peter Vetsch

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

As far as concocted wine holidays go, this one has a rather organic beginning. The first Drink Chenin Day, a global celebration of the wonderful and perennially underrated Chenin Blanc, was not self-created by a trade association or a PR firm, but was held in 2014 by a group of American sommeliers and winemakers. Their initiative was picked up by the Chenin Blanc Association of South Africa, which has turned the third Friday of every June into an industry-backed festival of all things Chenin. This year’s Drink Chenin theme for the big day on June 18th (this Friday) is “Chenin & Sushi”, which makes a whole lot of sense, particularly if your Chenin Blanc is in sparkling form — there’s nothing like the bready, yeasty notes of bottle-aged traditional method bubbles playing off the umami funk inherent in wasabi-tinged soy sauce and raw fish. Add in vinegar (in the rice) and citrus (in the wine, like you’d squeeze over fish in the first place) and you have something mesmerizing. I am on board with wine holiday theme years, and hope to see this trend continued by the next grape on the Hallmark docket. World Lambrusco Day is June 21st…maybe steer clear of the sushi for that one.

Photo Credit: chenin.co.za.

True story: one of the first “name” wines that I ever bought when I first started studying wine was a Chenin Blanc. I bought a book that discussed the major wine grapes of the world and listed a pinnacle producer or two for each of them. I took an interest to the Chenin Blanc entry, which described the varietal’s generous texture yet incisive acidity, and summoned up my bravery to enter the closest true wine shop to my home at the time (Calgary’s incredible Metrovino) to look for the recommended landmark Chenin winery. I swallowed hard at the $40 price tag, but walked out with a bottle of the Loire Valley’s Domaine Huet Le Mont Sec. Fifteen years, thousands of bottles and a WSET education later, I write a wine blog that I don’t have time for on evenings and weekends. And I still love Chenin. That bottle pitched me into wine headfirst.

For Drink Chenin Day 2021, we have an array of South African offerings on display that are…largely not Chenin Blanc. However, *spoiler alert* those that are clearly stand out from the crowd, as this Southern Hemispheric nation has embraced this grape (long known as “Steen” there, though less so now) more than most other countries and has clearly reaped the rewards of that allegiance. South Africa has undergone a quality renaissance recently that has largely been tied to improved farming practices and the avoidance of pesky vine viruses, so it is absolutely worth another visit for those whose prior memories are half a decade old or more. Some of the most pleasant vinous surprises I’ve had over the past few years have hailed from this burgeoning wine nation…and that’s without diving too far into their Chenin supply. (Pro tip: try the Raats Dolomite Cab Franc.) Raising a large glass of Testalonga Chenin to you all this weekend! Find some raw fish!

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Calgary (Virtual) Wine Life: Vina Chocalan Tasting with Fernando Espina

6 06 2021

By Peter Vetsch and Raymond Lamontagne

Perhaps the only good thing about the state of our current COVID world is that you can still attend a wine tasting even if you miss it. Scheduling conflicts prevented our attendance at the recent portfolio tasting that winemaker Fernando Espina of Chile’s Vina Chocalan ran for key Canadian markets, but like everything else these days, the tasting was virtual, and thankfully for us it was recorded for posterity. A couple of days and a bottle delivery later, we were in business, and we were extremely thankful not to miss out on an introduction to a tremendously compelling winery honouring its maritime climate to the fullest extent.

Vina Chocalan is a multi-generational family winery that came into the wine business from a unique parallel industry. You hear a lot of stories about long-time grape farmers who finally take the next step with the fruits of their labour and try their hand at winemaking; you hear far fewer about people who instead come to wine from the glass in. Vina Chocalan’s Toro family owns the second biggest glass bottle factory in Chile and has supplied bottles to wineries around the world for six decades. In the late 1990s, they decided that they should put something in their own bottles themselves, and a grand project was born, focusing initially on the coastal western side of Chile’s Maipo Valley. While the Maipo is the heart of Chilean viticulture, in particular anchoring the nation’s red wine production, no one had planted a vineyard along the Valley’s Coastal Mountain Range until Vina Chocalan did so in 1998, planting 114 hectares out of a 350-hectare plot located a scant 35 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean ahead of their first commercial production in 2001. The next year, they took a step even further into the unknown, establishing a second estate and 25 hectares of white-focused plantings by the village of Malvilla in the San Antonio Valley, located almost due west from the Maipo and only FOUR kilometres from the Pacific. This extremely cool-climate site is a completely different expression of Chilean wine, and a reminder that the best wines nowadays are often made right at the edge of the line.

Hegemonic producer Concha y Toro, one of the 10 largest wineries in the world, might have had something to say about it if the Toro family had opted to name their nascent winery after themselves. They instead opted for their less-litigious moniker Vina Chocalan, which means “yellow blossoms”, after a prevalent local thorn bush flower in the vineyards. Our introduction to the winery came in the form of a half-dozen bottles ranging across both the Maipo and San Antonio estates, whites and reds that emphatically confirm this is a producer to know. Three bottles each, a new universe to explore. Buckle up.

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Culmina Winery: Novelties and Rarities

31 03 2021

By Peter Vetsch

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

Well, I would say “happy spring!”, but this week has already seen a winter storm warning, wind chills down to -20, ice gales loud enough to wake you up at night and a fresh dump of new snow. “Happy Calgary spring!” seems more appropriate. As we head into what is ostensibly a season of rebirth and renewal, of overhauls and spring cleaning, the time is apt to check in on how a winery that has long been followed by this blog is approaching its own clean slate. Culmina Family Estate Winery was sold by founders Don and Elaine Triggs to Arterra Wines Canada in mid-2019, who appear to have approached their new venture with twin goals: (1) maintain the Triggs family’s legacy and vision for these meticulously studied and planned-out lands, and (2) use this existing knowledge and ambition to move the winery forward in a way that expands its reach and identity. Not easy things to try to do at the same time.

Perhaps luckily for Arterra, Culmina was already stretching and broadening its lineup when the new owners came on board. A string of additional bottlings outside of Culmina’s original core, whether as part of the standard release set or as part of the winery’s unique Number Series offerings, introduced a wave of variety while hewing to the estate-based philosophy on which the winery was founded, elegantly bridging the transition into Culmina’s new era and giving consumers tasting experiences that hinted at the winery’s own second wave. For each of these bottles below, it’s a clean slate for both the wines and their maker.

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Vinnified: A Great Canadian Wine Club in the Making?

26 03 2021

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with wine clubs. This is despite belonging to several. I value freedom of choice. I don’t necessarily love having to select bottles form a constrained number of options as compared to a shop, particularly if the lineup is purely crowd-pleasing and humdrum. On the other hand, a well-curated wine club can be a godsend: one doesn’t have to exert much effort to get a cool haul, particularly if the club is not afraid to offer some libations that tread well off the beaten path. My personal preference is for a roster of old school (albeit perhaps lesser-known) regional offerings coupled with some avant garde, dare I say edgy, selections. Not much to ask, is it? Meet Vinnified.

Vinnified was co-founded by Prince Edward Island-based Andrew Murray and Montreal wine consultant Dave LeBoeuf. Although the website states that the wine club brings “Canada’s best wines” directly to your door, digging a little deeper reveals that the intent is to highlight small-scale producers who identify as farmers rather than manufacturers. One can receive either a 3-pack (for $119) or a 6-pack (for $235) of selected wines once per month, for a fixed price that appears to include shipping charges. You can adjust your monthly subscription at any time to adjust your incoming bottle load. The reach is nationwide. Although Ontario provides the initial focus, the plan is to draw from BC and Nova Scotia producers some time this year. The sleek website is user-friendly and clearly designed to port one quickly and efficiently into the fold. Perhaps the first rule about wine club is that you do not talk (a lot) about wine club. However, some other press materials evoke concepts like “quaint” to describe the wines, which needless to say piques my curiosity. There is a desire to disseminate at least a modicum of wackiness. The first bottle showcased here from my monthly example subscription set provides more than said modicum.

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Wine Review: Friends of Oceania

3 02 2021

By Peter Vetsch

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

Since we can’t travel right now (without being wildly irresponsible, at least), I find myself lingering more in the memories of places I’ve been. We went to Australia and New Zealand on our honeymoon in 2008, and were so smitten with the latter that we went back again, this time with kids in tow, for our 10th anniversary in 2018. Obviously a return voyage in seven more years will have to be in the works; rarely have I felt more at home in a place so far away. Our more recent NZ vacation featured a day trip through the South Island Sauvignon Blanc wonderland of Marlborough, which is both more pastoral and more compact than I would have expected in light of the extraordinary production figures emanating from the region, enough to flood global retail shelves with a piercingly distinctive take on an otherwise broadly familiar grape.

The visit included a stop at Greywacke, to me a pinnacle producer of the region, started by a man who found fame in wine and then reimagined the pursuit, this time on a more personal, artisanal scale. I got to show my sons grapevines, one of whom was old enough to take a passing interest in the subject. He has a special affinity to the winery that bears his name, from a country that he has yet to see, in a part of Australia that I have yet to visit myself. Vasse Felix will always be royalty in our household by word association, aided by the fact that their entire lineup is consistently exceptional, never chasing trends, always honest to its vision and its surroundings. That Vasse Felix’s entry-level wines bear the name “Filius” or “son of”, is hopefully as heartwarming to fathers of Felixes everywhere and not just to me. I currently feel like I would love to take off to ANYWHERE, but I would especially love to be back on this side of the world. For the time being, I will use these bottles as transport instead.

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Burrowing Owl: Reds of Prey

14 01 2021

By Peter Vetsch

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

So it’s been a while. I think this two and a half month gap between posts probably represents Pop & Pour’s longest lull since I started the blog almost ten years ago. Blame work stress, or COVID malaise, or blogging burnout or existential dread or some combination thereof, but I have found it a struggle to write recently and the site has suffered as a result. However, I have come to realize that the longer I went without posting, the more I fell back into doing nothing remotely beneficial after tiring days, which just exacerbated the funk and malaise and made me feel worse. I’m not someone who can do nothing for long and feel good about it, and I failed to recognize the benefit of this creative outlet until I stopped using it. So cue my 2021 New Year’s resolution (other than to get vaccinated, hopefully as soon as humanly possible, and to act like a responsible adult until I do): get back to the blog. Game on.

This is the final instalment of a three-piece, two-author review saga of the always-dependable wines from Burrowing Owl, starting with my initial assessment of the winery’s carefree Calliope side label, then turning to Ray’s foray into the first part of the Burrowing Owl lineup, and culminating with tonight’s look at a couple of the winery’s top reds, the Merlot and the flagship Meritage. Through its long Okanagan history, Burrowing Owl has been known for the big red portion of its portfolio first and foremost, thanks to its enduring determination to craft accessible, powerful versions of Bordeaux varietals in BC, even back when it was an extraordinary challenge to do so consistently. Vineyard age (their estate vineyard is now nearly 30 years old) and honed-in farming and winemaking techniques have dialled in this objective, while also making room for compelling white wines and other offerings. But the heart never strays too far from home, even if the body explores new horizons.

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Calgary (Virtual) Wine Life: Taylor Fladgate 1970 Single Harvest Port Release

29 10 2020

By Peter Vetsch

How’s this for an on-brand 2020 story? There is no event on the annual blog tasting calendar that I look forward to more than the release of Taylor Fladgate’s latest 50 year-old single-harvest Port. Not coincidentally, there is also no event that has been covered more on this blog — this will be the fifth consecutive year that I’ve been fortunate enough to post about the yearly half-century-old release. However, this year, quite understandably, an in-person tasting was not in the cards, so for the safety of all involved, it was held virtually over Zoom. I couldn’t make the Zoom tasting due to work commitments, but fortunately it was recorded for posterity…until it wasn’t. The recording got technologically tripped up and dissipated into the ether along with the rest of our hopes and dreams for this year, so I missed the event entirely. Thankfully for me, these wines speak for themselves; and to the credit of all those who made it happen, despite it all, the story of these amazing wines will continue to be told, even in the most forgettable of years.

Taylor Fladgate has been around for over three centuries and has access to an astonishing array of library Ports from its own cellars, which have been expanded by way of a number of acquisitions of lesser-known Port houses, particularly Wiese & Krohn in 2013, a producer with its own vast holdings of back-vintage stock. While often older barrel-aged Ports are used as blending components for 30 Year or 40 Year Tawny Ports with an Indication of Age (the number on the bottle represents the average age of the blended Ports inside, allowing both older and younger tawnies to come together in any given release), Fladgate longed to do something more memorable with these liquid historical snapshots, and it turned to the flexible Colheita designation as the vehicle to make it happen. “Colheita” simply means “harvest”, and officially the term applies to any Port from a single harvest vintage that has been oxidatively aged in wood for at least 7 years. There is no maximum aging period for the designation, so in order to go beyond 40 Year Tawny, Taylor Fladgate began releasing limited edition Very Old Single Harvest Colheita Ports on their 50th anniversary from vintage starting back in 2014. These thrillingly memorable wines demonstrate the near-eternal longevity and ageability of good Tawny Ports; protected by both potent sugar and alcohol levels, they have been exposed to the rigours of an oxidative environment for decades before bottling, rendering them near-impervious to further degradation. This is the seventh release of these half-century-old masterpieces, and each one has been a thrilling glance at an increasingly distant history.

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Calliope: (End of) Summer Releases

27 08 2020

By Peter Vetsch

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

I have recently seen an opinion expressed more and more on wine-drenched social media:  that wine should be more expensive.  The basis behind the statement is that quality farming techniques, proper vineyard vigilance, ethical labour compensation and the avoidance of interventionist winemaking heuristics all cost money, and supporting a rigorous and chemical-free production process not only pays off in the result, but is worth paying more for on the shelf.  I empathize with the sentiment, and generally agree with the idea that more handmade vine-growing and winemaking processes necessitate a greater degree of care and focus in order to achieve success, which in turn can raise the ceiling of a wine’s potential.  I routinely pay more money for wines like this, which strive for quality through attentiveness.

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That said, there will always be a place for gateway wines, for both economic and marketing reasons.  There is a fairly significant portion of the wine-drinking population who won’t, or can’t, pay substantial sums for a single bottle of wine, regardless of its ostensible merit or authenticity.  In addition, our closest local winemaking industry here in Alberta, the Okanagan Valley next door, already faces pricing pressures to land on retail shelves at costs that are at least somewhat competitive to the Chilean and Argentinian offerings in the next aisle over, due to higher land and personnel costs and a host of other reasons.  If you want to convince people to pay a bit more for a certain region’s wines and to drink better as a result, you have to start them somewhere that combines both immediate enjoyment and and a subtle hint that they’re just starting to scratch the surface.  Enter Calliope.

This accessible, approachable, expressive value line from the Wyse family that brought you Burrowing Owl Winery is named after yet another bird (Canada’s smallest bird, in fact – a hummingbird found in southern BC) and is designed to offer wines with clear typicity and bright flavours in an attractive package that doesn’t scare people off.  While they could maybe do with a bit less stock photography on their website, their wines have consistently achieved this goal, and opened up the world of BC wines to new consumers as a result.  Calliope’s latest set of releases seek to maintain the formula, and bring some pink back into the winery’s vocabulary to boot.  But first, the whites. Read the rest of this entry »





Culmina: Summer 2020 Releases

21 07 2020

By Peter Vetsch

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

I love getting wines hot off the presses, just as they are hitting the market for the first time.  There is always a sense of anticipation associated with latest vintages of wines you have come to appreciate over time; with a baseline of familiarity about a particular bottle’s standard expression, it’s much easier to pick out differences based on vintage conditions or stylistic variations in winemaking.  Instead of trying to puzzle out what a wine is all about, you can look for how it approached a given year, what it suffered through to make it into the bottle, or whether its new rendition stretched its ambition or capabilities.

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I was especially interested in tracking the evolution of this latest set of releases from the Golden Mile Bench’s Culmina Family Estate Winery, as it was this month last year when it was announced that the estate’s founding family had sold the winery to Arterra Wines Canada, whose number of wineries under ownership has cleared the triple digits.  Arterra’s reach in the Okanagan includes stalwarts such as Laughing Stock, Nk’mip, See Ya Later Ranch and Sumac Ridge, as well as Jackson-Triggs, whose co-founder Don Triggs also founded Culmina, and also founded Arterra’s corporate predecessor Vincor International, a few mergers and acquisitions ago.  Time is a flat circle.  Don and his wife Elaine are now enjoying a well-deserved retirement (for real this time), leaving Culmina in the hands of winemaker Jean-Marc Enixon and the established winery management team.  What will they do with it?  The 2019 releases are our first chance to find out. Read the rest of this entry »





Castoro de Oro: Canned Heat Edition

5 07 2020

By Peter Vetsch

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

I have been on record for a while firmly in support of wines in cans.  While these aluminum-encased wonders will likely only ever play the role of sidekicks to the glass bottle in the world of wine packaging, they absolutely have their time and place:  specifically, whenever you need your wine to be portable and unbreakable, whenever you know that a full bottle won’t be needed, whenever you’re in a place where you need your wine’s container to be its own glassware, and whenever you want to stand outside and sip on a cold one that’s better than beer.  Cans are transportable, stackable, packable, TCA-proof and fully sealed from damaging oxygen, and once the wine is in the glass, you’d never know that a container bred after the Industrial Revolution was involved.  I’m all for the romance of wine, but I’m also for not wasting money on preventably damaged goods.  Cans are not a fad.  Bring them on.

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And Castoro de Oro has.  The Golden Beaver of British Columbia’s Golden Mile is the first southern Okanagan winery to bring out a line of canned wines, selected from the white, red and pink sides of their portfolio and line-priced at $8.99 across the board for the British Columbia and Alberta markets.  Each can is 250 mL, equivalent to a third of a bottle (or a can of Red Bull, for anyone who has ever had to work late, has had a baby, or just likes being jittery), and the wine inside is 100% estate fruit, the same as what the winery bottles in its standard glass packaging.  Quality, meet portability.

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[The lawyer in me has to intervene here for a second.  Often progress does not move as quickly as formal legal recognition, and this is one of those times.  British Columbia’s Wines of Marked Quality Regulation under the province’s Food and Agricultural Products Classification Act does not — yet? — allow for VQA wines, those of the highest recognized legal quality distinction in the province, to be bottled in cans.  Section 49(2) of the Regulation specifies that wines must be bottled in glass bottles; section 49(3) requires them to be sealed by real or fake corks or by screwcap.  Legislating quality practices is critically important, but it only works if you focus on what assures quality and don’t unnecessarily impede what doesn’t.  I predict an amendment to the Regulation is coming, but probably not until after the VQA emblem is regularly eschewed in favour of this wine delivery mechanism that consumers demand and that provides convenience without forgetting its primary purpose:  to respect and protect the wine inside.  Get on it, BC government.]

Those interested in further details about this peppy, approachable winery focused on delivering value and non-wallet-crushing wines should check out Ray’s excellent introduction to Castoro de Oro from last year.  Those interested in crushing some cans, read on. Read the rest of this entry »





Gerard Bertrand: Domaine de L’Aigle

23 06 2020

By Peter Vetsch

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

The South of France is paradise, for vines and tourists alike.  Consistent weather, tons of heat and sunshine, yet just enough reprieve thanks to surrounding bodies of water — it’s the recipe for both stress-free ripening and a highly satisfying vacation.  Because of these climatic blessings, the growing areas around the Languedoc-Roussillon can successfully cultivate almost any grape you can think of, which helps its ability to generate value-priced reasonable facsimiles of varieties grown at enhanced pedigree and cost elsewhere.  This flexibility may come at a cost, however, hindering the area’s ability to carve out its own identity, one not tethered to other regions’ preconceived notions.  Languedoc luminary Gerard Bertrand has above all sought to let his home region’s soils sing loud and clear, and over the years he has cultivated an impressive array of vineyards and standalone estates that aim to do just that.  It is somewhat ironic, then, that one of his most compelling recent acquisitions is a place that doubles as a convincing stand-in for what I would have told you was the least possible French region to reflect in the deep South:  Burgundy.

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I should be careful to clarify:  Domaine de L’Aigle is nobody’s copycat.  Located at the northern peak of the Limoux appellation, which itself is slightly inland of the Mediterranean Sea and just south of famed fortified board-game city Carcassonne, the Domaine is situated at the foot of the Roquetaillade cliff, always the home of numerous nesting eagles (hence the winery name).  The combination of the highest altitude in the region and the cooling air coming down off the adjacent Pyranees mountain range makes average temperatures here 2-3 degrees Celsius lower than its neighbours in the Languedoc, resulting in substantially more rainfall and a massive drop in temperatures overnight.  In this one specific spot — which was France’s first home of sparking wine, by the way, back in 1531, before Dom Perignon figured out bubbles in Champagne — the climate is sufficiently moderate and bracing that the Burgundian duo of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay excel.  The focus of Domaine de L’Aigle is to explore these northern French varieties (as well as a little Gewurz, in a nod to even-more-northerly Alsace) as translated by the Languedoc’s terroir.  Gerard Bertrand acquired the Domaine in 2007, and it is now one of 16 biodynamic estates under the Bertrand umbrella, joining the previously reviewed Domaine de Villemajou and Chateau la Sauvageonne.  Bertrand’s focus is eternally on clearly transmitting the voice of the South; let’s see how it speaks through the grapes of the North. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: City & Country, YYC’s Urban Winery, Part II

14 06 2020

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

When I took my WSET Level 3 course a few years back, my instructor mentioned that, were it not for our punishingly cold winters, Alberta might feature a grape-growing climate similar to Alsace! Climate change notwithstanding, I cannot see this situation fully playing out in my lifetime. Nevertheless, a guy can dream. In the meantime, it turns out that our wonderful city does have a winery that makes honest-to-gosh wines from vitis vinifera grapes sourced from more pacific climes. We first met City & Country in April when Peter reviewed a white and two rosés (including a white Zinfandel which was initially approached lightheartedly but which it turns out might be food pairing magic). Tonight I tackle a few C&C reds. First, some background, by way of a quick review.

IMG_2092City & Country can be found east of Macleod Trail and just south of Erlton, although the brand itself predates the bricks-and-mortar winery that started operations this year. Chris Fodor and his wife Karen first made their own wine in 2017 with some help from Pentage Winery in the Okanagan, where their winemaking endeavours were originally housed, but the Fodors’ aspirations were ultimately bigger than just one wine region, or even one country. They reasoned that a winery based in a large city could source grapes or even pressed must from anywhere, so long as everything is temperature-controlled. I’ll mention here that such a model is used by some of my favourite boutique wineries in California and elsewhere in the US, although in these cases the winemakers draw upon a limited number of local options (often very specific, unique sites) for grape sourcing. The Fodors seem to scoff at the notion of such constraints, although understandably the focus of the winery’s initial releases seems to be on grapes from next door in the Okanagan.

IMG_2094The Fodors officially opened the City & Country winery on February 1st, 2020. Of course, COVID-19 struck after a mere month and a half of operations, but City & Country pushed forward with characteristic Alberta resilience, featuring an online storefront, contactless delivery (free across the province for orders over $60),  and wines available at retail locations across the province. In an exciting update from Peter’s prior post, we can happily announce that the tasting room is again open at the time of this writing, with appropriate distancing and sanitization protocols in place. Phew! Although the world is far from out of the woods, let’s support Calgary winemaking and see what the Fodors have to offer. We begin with my favourite black grape. Read the rest of this entry »





COVID Wine Life: Fine Vintage Ltd. Food & Wine Pairing Online Course

5 06 2020

By Peter Vetsch

Living pandemic life feels strangely like becoming a new parent for the first time.  You rarely leave your house.  There are places you suddenly just can’t go.  At times you feel like your very will to persist is being sucked from your body.  And you need to find other ways to pursue your interests, in those slices of time not taken up by survival interest and existential pondering.  When my first son was born back in 2011, he was a less-than-ideal sleeper, and there were only so many late evenings that I could spend watching bad TV, waiting for the next wake-up, so that my wife could get a few uninterrupted hours of unconsciousness.  My need to find a better way to spend that time led to this blog, which is now 9 years old and over 600 posts strong.  Now my kids sleep fine (except when they don’t), but during our current times of COVID-19 distancing, that same feeling of isolation weariness started to arise.  It was promptly banished, and my similar hope of avoiding stagnation was satisfied, by a virtual trek through the online Food & Wine Pairing certification course offered by Fine Vintage Ltd.

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Photo Credit/Copyright: Fine Vintage Ltd.

I was highly familiar with Fine Vintage already, having already taken my WSET 2 and 3 classes through their excellent Calgary-based school, one of 18 locations they have across Canada and the US.  Founded by Master of Wine James Cluer (who memorably was a substitute teacher for one of my WSET 3 class days), Fine Vintage has enlisted some of the most respected names in the Calgary wine industry, Matt Leslie and Jennifer Book, as course instructors.  But what if you can’t currently sit in a classroom and share wine with 30-odd strangers in the name of wine education?  Fear not – they now have COVID-friendly solutions too.

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Photo Credit/Copyright: Fine Vintage Ltd.

Fine Vintage has assembled a series of online wine certification courses to help fill the void while the in-person sessions are on pandemic hiatus.  Compiled by James Cluer himself, along with fellow MW Phillip Goodband, they do not result in any formal WSET classification (the WSET, or Wine & Spirits Education Trust, is an independent education and qualification body based in London that only governs over its own licensed courses) but do culminate in a final exam and a Fine Vintage certification.  There are three ascending levels of wine courses, an introductory course on spirits, and the course in which I have been immersed over the past few days, the Food & Wine Pairing Online Certification Course.  This is a 4-6 hour crash course (including the exam, it took me just shy of 5 hours total to complete) about the basic principles and some of the more advanced concepts behind properly matching food and wine.  It costs $99 USD to register and consists of 8 different modules that can be completed in stages at your leisure, from the sanitized comfort of your own home; from my experience, the collective content is easily worth the registration fee. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: Henry of Pelham Triple Baco Battle

27 05 2020

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

By Peter Vetsch

The hardest part about writing a review like this is resisting the urge to pun the headline.  Baby’s Got Baco.  Backstreet’s Baco.  Baco to the Future.  Baco Tuesday.  Where Baco Noir goes, a world of pun glory follows.  But in the end, I decided the title had to focus on the mission.  Three different Baco Noirs from one of the world’s best-known producers of this star-crossed grape, Niagara’s Henry of Pelham, at three tiers of the winery’s portfolio.  One survivor.  Take what you need, give nothing Baco.  OK, I’ll stop.

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Opening a bottle of Baco Noir feels a little like drinking Canadian wine history.  One forgets in our nation’s current golden era of properly ripe bigger vinifera reds and advanced farming techniques allowing warm-climate grapes (even Grenache!!) to flourish in northern climes that it was not that easy in the beginning.  Micro-soil-mapping to ascertain the perfectly right spot to plant the right varietal didn’t exist. Climate change hadn’t yet made the task of Canadian viticulture slightly easier.  It was not always clear what would grow, and when it did, there was always the chance it might just freeze and die the next winter.  The grapes that did the best in the conditions were not necessary the ones that made good wine, but at least they lived long enough to make wine.  You can understand the allure of Baco Noir, a grape that attempted to do both.

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Baco Noir is a hybrid variety, meaning that it is a human-bred cross between two grape parents, one of which hails from the vinifera species of vitis (grape) native to the Old World (from which all of the world’s top wine grapes are found), and the other of which is from a North American vitis riparia species, which makes a poor choice for winemaking but has a constitution much better suited to marginal climates.  Baco’s vinifera mother was Folle Blanche, one of the traditional (white) French grapes of Cognac and Armagnac; its riparia father was previously not known but has now been shown to be Grande Glebre, which carries on a sort of half-life in the wine world currently as a producer of phylloxera-resistant rootstocks onto which many susceptible vinifera vines are grafted.  These parents were crossed and bred by Frenchman Francois Baco in 1902, who obviously decided to name the result after himself.  It was initially called Baco 24-23 (giving you a sense of just how many Baco varietals there likely were out there) before being more convincingly changed to Baco Noir in the 1960s.  After a brief flirtation in Burgundy and the Loire Valley, the hybrid was planted in North America in the mid-20th century, where it gained a foothold in the northeast part of the continent.

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BACO.

Baco’s allure in a nascent Canadian wine industry is not difficult to understand.  Not only was it resistant to phylloxera, but it grew vigorously and ripened early (critical in a short growing season) and yet still retained plenty of acid.  It was cold-resistant through the difficult winters.  It is a teinturier grape, so unlike most red grapes, its flesh and juice were dark-coloured as well as its skins, allowing for guaranteed depth of colour in the finished wine.  Back when the idea of ripening and keeping alive most of the big red grapes of the world was sheer fantasy in Canada, here was this hearty and disease-averse grape that could reliably produce a dark, deep, rich, meaty red without losing its acidic backbone and without dying before the next spring.  Nowadays local alternative options have improved significantly, but the love affair with Baco Noir, particularly in Ontario, has never fully gone away, particularly at Henry of Pelham, where the Bacos are often some of the first wines to sell out every year, despite healthy production levels thanks to 60+ acres of plantings.  Bring on the Baco ladder. Read the rest of this entry »








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