Loire, Burgundy and the South

January 16, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Week 4 of wine snob class took us to the Loire Valley, Burgundy and the South of France. We began in the Loire Valley, where our instructor James Cluer, a Master of Wine, told us “you don’t exactly go shopping for red wines of the Loire.”

The Loire Valley is one of the most beautiful areas of France — think moat-encircled Châteaux, a stunning landscape of rolling hills and rivers, and important architectural heritage. Plus the wine, where they make excellent dry Chenin Blanc and sweet, botrytis-affected wines (yes, sweet wine from rotten grapes — but the good, noble kind of rot). Their sparkling wines are also good, but not world class. Things continue downhill to the reds and rosés.

On to the whites it was.

We started with a duo and were told to figure out which was which. There was a  a Chenin Blanc (tends to be more full-bodied and rich, less crisp, more ripe fruit and has an aroma of beeswax and an oily character), and a Muscadet (dry, light, more acidic, very steely, crisp, lean with some tart green apple character).

The first wine was a pale lemon-green in the glass with some youthful notes of citrus, green apple, grass and steel on the nose and palate. It was dry with high acidity, fairly light body with a short finish. We thought it might be a good wine to choose to wash down some fried, breaded oysters.

It turned out to be the Muscadet. A 2007 Haut-Censy Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie ($16), to be exact. Sur Lie means that the wine was left on the lees (dead yeast cells that sink to the bottom of the fermentation vessel when the wine is made). This is supposed to give more flavour to the subtle grape.

“You could water your flowers with it. It’s not that great — come on!” jokes Cluer to our class. “Left on the lees? My advice — keep leaving it.”

Wine number two was a pale lemon hue with more developing, riper aromas of citrus, mineral, stonefruit, honey melon, banana, hay, butter … more wine snob words means a more complex wine. With medium acidity and body and a waxy or oily character in the mouth, we pegged this one as the Chenin Blanc.

Indeed, this was a wine of that grape. From Vouvray, an area famous for their Chenin Blanc, the 2006 Château Gaudrelle ($25) did not dissapoint. Although Chenin Blanc is on par with Riesling for it’s agability, we thought that this one was made to drink now.

Next another white duo of Sancerre (your quintessential dry white wine made from Sauvignon Blanc from the Sancerre area of the Loire Valley), and another mystery grape common in the South of France.

Inside glass number three was another pale lemon-coloured wine with some developing aromas of grapefruit, pear, citrus, and some vegetal characters such as asparagus or grass, along with a mineral or mushroomy note. On the palate there was a bit of an unripe apple thing going on with a chalky-steelyness along with some of the same characters from the nose. It was fairly high acidity with medium body.

Those unripe, vegetal notes pointed to a Sauvignon Blanc, and this was it. The bottle of 2005 Pascal Jolivet Sancerre that we tasted goes for $38 … but you could get two bottles of New Zealand Sauv Blanc for that price, making this wine “not good value for money” according to Cluer. Hard to disagree there!

The mystery grape in glass number four made a white wine of a darker lemon or pale gold colour. The nose was fairly intense with honey, riper fruit like peach, melon, apricot and mango, and some white flowers. On the palate it was less intense than one would have expected after smelling it. It was leaning towards full-bodied, and the finish was slightly bitter.

This turned out to be a Viognier (2006 Gérard Bertrand Classic, Vin de Pays D’Oc, for $15), a grape that often makes wines that show off more on the nose than on the palate. The bitter finish could have been caused by the grapes being pressed too hard and allowing the bitter extract from the seed oils to come out when they were over-crushed.

Next we left the Loire and headed to Burgundy — home of the best Chardonnay you’ll ever drink. If you can afford them.

We started with a 2006 William Fevre Grand Cru Bougros from Chablis, which sells for a mere $64. For me, there was something pretty funky going on when I smelled this one. To try to put a finger on it, we threw out mushroom, steel, mineral, and wet stones. There was also some apple, citrus and a light creaminess to the wine.

It was a dry wine with fairly high acidity, but it was not sharp or tart. It had medium body and a medium finish that left a mineral flavour roaming around your palate. Cluer said this wine could be aged for eight to 10 years.

Next we upped the stakes with a 2005 Louis Jadot Monopole Clos del la Garenne from Puligny Montrachet ($116). It was slightly darker lemon-coloured in the glass and the nose was much more complex. The oak treatment of the wine gave it notes of butter, toast, smoke, vanilla and sweet spices. There was also tropical fruit, peach, citrus, honey, and mineral.

Cluer told us this was “one of the best Chards you’ll have” so I enjoyed it while I could. For $116, I doubt I’ll be having it again any time soon. It had so much going on. Dry, high acid, fairly full in body, long length, and delicious multi-layered flavours. It’s another Chard that you can lay down and age.

Sipping trip to Alsace and Bordeaux

April 30, 2009 by · 4 Comments 

“Alsace has the best white wines in the world — full stop,” Master of Wine James Cluer tells our Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 3 class.

To prove this, he started us with a Pinot Gris face-off. The grape goes by Pinot Grigio in Italy and the styles of wine from the two regions are very different.

First we tried the 2007 Pinot Grigio from Santa Margherita from Valdadige, Italy ($20). It’s not a very intense wine, but you’re able to get some citrus, pear, green apple and maybe a mineral note. A dry wine with fairly high acidity, I’d like to try it with a chicken caesar salad on a summer afternoon.

The Italian PG got blown out of the water by the Alsatian. In our second glass was a 2004 Grand Cru Steinert Pinot Gris from Pfaffenheim from Alsace, France ($32). It was off-dry with just enough acid to make you salivate. Since it has a few years in the bottle, it had more developing notes on the nose: purfume, baked apple, and honey in addition to the citrus notes.

Overall, the Pfaffenheim was more intense, had more richness, was better balanced and delivered a long finish. Love that ripe fruit!

In addition to Pinot Gris, Alsace is known for growing Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Muscat (and to a lesser extent, Sylvaner). Our next stop on the Alsatian oenological tour was a delicious 2002 Pierre Sparr Grand Cru Altenbourg Riesling ($40).

I love Riesling. This one, having aged for seven years, had that wonderful petrol/mineral/honey/nutty thing going on. It was dry (not all Rieslings are sweet!) with lots of acidity (which Riesling is also known for) and was beautifully balanced.

Cluer called Alsatian producer Zind Humbrecht one of the top 100 best wine producers in the world.  We tried its 2004 Turckheim Gewurztraminer ($70). Gewurz is a highly aromatic wine, and this one definitely smelled like it was going to pack a punch! There was lots of exotic fruit, baked apple, spice, flowers, mineral — lots of descriptors means a complex wine. It was off-dry with medium acid and fat, rich flavours came through on the palate. Our only complaint was that the alcohol was a bit high and threw the wine slightly off balance.

All Aboard for Bordeaux

Our first Bordeaulais challenge was to taste the Cru Bourgeois Médoc (a higher classification) versus a AC Bordeaux supérieur (although superior, it’s a lesser classification. Supérieur in Bordeaux wines means it has a higher level of alcohol).

The first wine we tried was pretty crisp, and in later discussion Cluer pointed to unripe grapes as the culprit. It burned a bit hot with alcohol and wasn’t altogether well balanced. There were a few layers of  aroma and flavour: black fruit, sweet spice, licorice … but there was a definite sharpness to it.

This was Chateau d’Argadens Bordeaux 2005 ($21.99), the AC Bordeaux supérieur. “It’s not good — is it, really?” Cluer rhetorically asked the class. But he guaranteed it was the best wine on the store’s shelf at this price point (despite it being crap). Lesson? Don’t buy Bordeaux unless you have deep pockets. This wine was thin, acidic and you could find a lot of easier drinking alternatives around the world for your $20.

We compared it to a 2000 Chateau Maurac Cru Bourgeois, Haut Médoc (in Bordeaux)  ($34.80). The extra 13 bucks bought us smoother, more harmonious tannins and a  complex wine. After sitting for nine years in the bottle, this wine was taking on aromas and flavours of developing reds: forest floor, mushroom, earth, tobacco, and leather, in addition to some black fruit notes.

“Anything but a Napa Valley fruit bomb,” Cluer laughed. This wine is hovering around its drinking peak, but since there’s still some fruit left it will likely hold on and drink well for another four or five years.

Left Bank Vs Right Bank

When you’re in Bordeaux, you’ll hear these terms tossed around all the time. Left bank means all the wineries to the left (West) of the Gironde river. Right bank refers to the ones on the other side, further from the Atlantic ocean. The left uses more Cabernet Sauvignon in their red blends, while the right favours Merlot. The choices have to do with the soil conditions, because the two grapes have different needs.

We started on the right bank with a 1998 Chateau Grant Pontet Grand Cru, from Saint Emilion ($70). After 11 years, this wine is gorgeous. Smooth tannins and plummy, earthy, leathery, spicy notes. Give me some beef with this one!

We crossed the river to Chateau Kirwan, a third growth from Margaux ($99). 2005 was a benchmark year in Bordeaux, but it’s still pretty early to be drinking it. Bordeaux wines are made for the patient consumer. The tannins were still pretty tight, but over the next 10-20, even 30 years this wine will come into its own. The aromas are elegant — no “jerk your head back I’m an Australian Shiraz” brashness here.

Gimme some Suga

Both Alsace and Bordeaux are known for sweet wines, and I have to admit I’m a fan. If only they weren’t so expensive…

Domaine Ostertag Grand Cru Muenchberg, Alsace 2004 ($100). A stewed apricot, honeysuckle, minerally delight! Made with Riesling, this wine has enough acidity to balance the sweetness. We thought it could be a bit sweeter on the finish, as it was a bit dry, but overall excellent quality. But still a hundred bucks!

Sauternes isn’t for everyone, the grapes here are encouraged to be infected with ‘noble’ rot. That’s right: rotton grapes make this very expensive, sweet wine. But I like it. We tried Chateau Filhot Grand Cru Sauternes 1999 ($36.48, 375 ml). There are tropical fruit notes, tinned pineapple perhaps and the noble rot gives hints of nail varnish or glue that some people take a while to warm to. Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!

Is France worth the wait?

The thing about Bordeaulais wine is that they are made in a different style than New World wines. You’re not getting that ready-to-drink, fruit-forward, big hitting wine that can be delivered from California, Australia or Argentina. These wines are elegant and most need a long time on the shelf before they drink at their best. And most of the ones worth drinking are expensive. But if you have the time and money, you can be rewarded with some really special wines.

France by the Glass

November 7, 2008 by · 1 Comment 

One of the main themes of our trip to France was wine. Bubbly, fortified, rosé, red, white, young and old, cheap and expensive, we tipped many a glass in our quest to find the best wine for the occasion. Some days we chose better than others and our chances paid off. Here’s how our vacation’s wine list poured out:

White Wines

2007 Domaine du Tariquet, Famille Grasse, Les Premières Grives. (Gers) France. 11%

A full-flavoured and juicy, sweet white wine that makes a good aparatif.

2007 Vin de Alsace, Sylvaner. (Alsace) France. 12%

A crisp and refreshing white with a hint of fruity sweetness that allows it to be enjoyed with or without food.

2007 Domaine La Fadèze, Sauvignon. (Vin de Pays d’Oc) France. 12%

A simple, citrusy, dry white to enjoy with fish.

2007 Chateau Les Graves, Sauvignon. (Premières Cotes de Blaye) France. 12.5%

A deliciously crisp and elegant Sauvignon from Bordeaux that will shine with seafood or alone.

2006 Chateau Coucheroy, Graves. (Pessac-Léognan) France. 12.5%

This dry sauvignon is fresh, smooth and medium-bodied so it can be enjoyed alone or as an ideal pairing to seafood and fish.

Rosé Wines

2007 Les Pierrons de Sobransac, Domaine la Lause, Rosé. (Vin de Pays de l’Aude) France. 13%

This fruity pink will go well as an aparatif or with your first course. It’s a great lunchtime wine.

2007 Château Bujan, Le Rosé de Bujan. (Cotes-de-Bourg) France.

A refreshing afternoon sipper with plenty of fruit and acidity.

2007 Domaine du Sabarthès, Rosé d’Ariège. (Vin de Pays l’Ariège) France. 13%

A simple, tart wine that, like a simple tart, you might invite to lunch once for the first and last time.

Red Wines

2004 Oc Cellus, VdP de la Haute-Vallée de l’Aude. (Limoux) France. 15%

This full-bodied blend of six grapes makes a spicy, complex wine that we were told to age for at least three to four more years (until 2011 or 2012).

2004 Vicomte Edmond H. De Coussergue, Pinot Noir. (Vin de Pays d’Oc) France. 13%

We did a tasting at a large wine merchant Sieur d’Arques in the town of

Limoux and at the end of the tasting selection, I asked the hostess what her favourite wines were. This Pinot was her top pic, so I bought a bottle and brought it home. More details once I taste it!

2003 Clocher Des Bénédictins, Merlot Grenache. (Vin de Pays d’Oc) France. 13.5%

This peppery, blackcurrent-scented wine is a tasty number to sip alone or with fromage au poivre.

Domaine la Croix Sainte Eulalie. (Saint Chinian) France. 13%

A good choice to pair with a heavy or fatty meal. A bit sharp for a solo-sipper.

2007 Domaine de Montesuieu. (Coteaux du Languedoc) France. 13.5%

A drinkable wine for €2.50 that is great to wash down strong cheeses with your casual picnic.

2001 Château Bujan. (Cotes-de-Bourg) France. 13%

We tasted a few bottles from Château Bujan, as we rented a house on the winery’s property. Read more soon…

2007 Echantillon de Mouton Rothschild. (Pauillac) France.

We were allowed to preview this wine while visiting the glorious chateau. It is not yet for sale, but when it does go up for sale expect prices to be upwards of €300 per bottle. Yikes! It’s what you have to shell out for a Médoc Premiers Cru (wines classified to be the best in France by Bordeaux trade brokers in 1855).

2004 Château Beychevelle and 2004 Amiral de Beychevelle. (Saint-Julien) France.

The premier and second labels from a famous Château classified as a fourth growth in 1855. That means the ’04 premier label goes for €39 while the second label is closer to €20. If you buy at the winery.

2001 Chateau Lynch-Bages. (Pauillac) France. 13%

We were told during our visit to this fifth growth classified Bordeaux winery that a lot of attention was given to the wines of 2000 because it was the millennium. However, our hostess at the winery said that 2001 was a perfect year for grapes, but nothing extraordinary. That has made it a “forgotten” vintage, although it still sells for €84 in their shop.

1982 Chateau Grand Mayne. (Saint-Émilion) France.

This winery is in the top 50 best wines of the Saint-Émilion region, and you’ll notice the 1982 vintage. 1982 is a “vintage year” or a year that’s known in wine snob circles as being above the rest. So we considered ourselves lucky that a friendly wine merchant happen to have a bottle open and offered us a taste.  It was very lightly-coloured and brownish in the glass and the main flavours were leather and Tobasco, in my opinion. Although the merchant claimed caramel and asked for over €150 a bottle. I was not sold.

2004 Roc de Cambes. (Cotes-de-Bourg) France.

This was one of the favourite and recommended wines of the friendly wine merchant in Saint-Émilion. It was an enjoyable, juicy number.


Blanquette de Limoux

We tasted many different Blanquette de Limoux from a large wine merchant Sieur d’Arques in the town of Limoux and enjoyed all of them. Read more soon…

2004 Emile Stagé, Blanquette de Limoux. (Limoux) France. 12%

When a rugby player’s mug is grinning at you from the label, you know you’re found yourself a quality bubble. Read more soon…

Fortified Wines

Pineau is a wonderful discovery that I wish I’d known about earlier! Read more soon…

Apple Cider

So soft (2 to 4 % alcohol) it’s a great drink for the driver. Or for breakfast. And it’s easy to find in French shops.

I’m goin’ back to Cali

May 13, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

With wine prices so low for California reds, who wouldn’t go back for another bottle? Here are a couple metal-worthy bargains from the Golden State.

Wild Bunch California Red Wine 2004. It’s a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah and Barbera grapes. It was a dark ruby colour in the glass. You can smell dark berries and a dusty and smoky aroma. It had a really mellow mouthfeel and easy finish. I recently tried this at a wine tasting with seven other wines and after the big smell, some found the finish “anticlimactic.” But we were still very impressed with this one and chose it as #1overall. It would go well with meats and sharp cheeses, tomato-based sauces or on it’s own — making it a perfect BBQ red! And the best part: it was only $10.99.

Beaulieu Vineyard Coastal Estates Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. It fills your glass with a lovely, scarlet colour and your olfactory nerve with blackberry and cherry. It has a nice mouthfeel like smooth velvet. The long finish left me salivating for more. It was $14.45.

P.S. On a recent trip through Toronto Pearson Airport, I noticed that this very wine was available to patrons of the Maple Leaf Lounge. Someone at Air Canada must have thought it was a good buy too!

Pleasure or Plonk?

May 13, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

As a curious wine drinker and a lover of a good bargain, I often find myself buying wine with my fingers crossed. Will it be pleasure in a glass … or plonk? Here are a couple of South African Shiraz I’ve recently tried.

Gloden Kaan Shiraz 2005 from South Africa. This mysterious wine has a mild aroma with perhaps a hint of kerosene mixing with hints of berry and pepper. But the taste is big and fruity, strawberry even, and a spicy kick. It has a heavy, rich, velvety mouthfeel. It opens up well if you give it some time. I tried it at home and liked it enough to bring it to a tasting with friends. It went over well with 12 people. Then a couple weeks later I saw it in the Vancouver Courier recommended by Tim Pawsey. And the price tag? $12.87.

Verdict: Pleasure!

Drostdy-Hof Winemakers Collection Shiraz 2007 from South Africa. This wine was fairly purple in the glass, a tell-tale sign that it’s young and will most likely taste that way. There was a spicy smell and some dark berries trying to fight their way through the overwhelming whiff of alcohol. The taste was a bit spicy then quickly turned into a shudder-inflicting bitterness that continued to haunt my tongue. It was about $11.

Verdict: Plonk.

Lust, pain and Malbec

April 30, 2008 by · 1 Comment 

Lust for sure

October 2009 Update: My last visit to Firefly Fine Wines and Ales saw a $16.10 price tag on this bottle — oh happy day! Now if they could just keep it in stock…

August 2009 Update: This Malbec just dropped to $19.25 at Firefly Fine Wines and Ales. I’m so excited!!

Perdriel Punto Final Malbec‘s dark berry, cherry, tobacco nose also has hints of vanilla. It’s a generous, masculine mouthful that will leave you with a black-toothed smile of guilty pleasure. This wine will get your engines roaring.

After tasting this delicious Malbec from Argentina it became my mission to find another bottle at a lower price. It’s not that it’s insanely expensive at $21.30, but finding a delicious wine for under $20 is always my ambition. There’s five weekday dinners and only two weekend ones, right?

“Leave me alone with this one and black out the room…”


Using my best logic, I marched back to the liquor store and found myself another Malbec. Pascual Toso Malbec is also from the Mendoza area in Argentina, but it’s around $13. Same area, same country, same grape — how can the taste be that different, right? Wrong! The lovely aromas of dark cherries that hooked me on the Punto Final were replaced with paint chips, kerosene and perhaps a hint of dry-erase marker in the Pascual Toso. At first sip you get a peppery pang, then bring on the bitter. The finish is just an awful wrong-doing to your tongue that made me recoil and shiver with regret.

If cheap and rough is your fancy, you’ve found your wine.

Worth the pain

Never one to admit defeat (or quickly learn a lesson), I made another attempt with La Chamiza Polo Amateur Malbec. From the same Mendoza area of Argentina, but this one is about $12.

It’s fairly purple in the glass and it’s got a boozy-bouquet at first, which becomes less harsh if you decant it, but never goes away.

If you don’t let this one breathe for a while it’ll burn all the way down and leave you with cotton-mouth.

If you have time to let it breathe, you’ve found an average table wine. But don’t serve it to guests.