Monday, January 7, 2019

Pure Pleasure from the northern Rhone

Rhone wine star Francois Villard
Northern Rhone winemakers are far closer to their Burgundy confreres spiritually and in style and elegance than they are to their famous colleagues downriver in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. 

It's like night and day.

Lordly Chateauneuf is a delicious smorgasbord of different grapes while, by contrast, single-variety Syrah (almost alone) rules the north's reds, just as Pinot Noir rules Burgundy. The most famous Rhone white is single-variety Viognier (almost extinct not too long ago) while Burgundy boasts the world's most sublime 100% Chardonnay.

François Villard is one of the stars of the northern Rhône. He caught the wine bug as a chef then became a sommelier then full-time winegrower in 1991, starting in the tiny appellation of Condrieu. He now owns 37 hectares of vines across five crus. His wines are vibrant, high-energy, fresh and never too oak-heavy.

Good example red would be his St Joseph Poivre et Sol, a 100% Syrah, vibrant and elegant with a delicate spiciness, finesse and depth. Like all Francois' wines, it's on small allocations and is sometimes available in Ontario, like his other offerings, via Woodman Wines and Spirits, 416 767 5144 or at the LCBO. Villard's Certitude Croze-Hermitage 2015, also 100% Syrah, is available in a few LCBO stores at a very reasonable $40. WineSpec calls it "fresh, pure with a beam of cassis and cherry paste flavors backed by light-handed toast, a bright iron edge and a flash of violet." I call it finesse. His white Les Terrasses du Palat from Condrieu is 100% Viognier, wonderfully aromatic with minerality, amazing freshness and a hint of salinity on the finish.

Francois achieves this magic light touch by not over-extracting the red grapes by too much punching down the skins into the tanks and careful control of the "whole bunch"  fermentation -- including only perfectly ripe grape stems to give soft tannins and fine balance.

For maturation, as you might expect, it's only by careful aging in Burgundy oak barrels. Naturally!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

As Old As You Feel?

Today I feel about 900 years old. Well, over 700, anyway.
If we really are what we eat (and drink), then I'm at least 657 years more ancient today!

That's 'cos I just drank four Madeiras, a Margaret River Chardonnay from Oz and a lovely Vina Tondonia Rioja totalling 657 years from their vintage dates.

And they were all wonderful and full of life

The Verdelho Madeira 1918, for example, was the best wine/food match I've ever tasted -- with foie gras, espresso and date puree, chicken vanilla jus and brioche. Beyond exquisite, at Piano Piano, Toronto, home base restaurant of the Estufarians, Madeira wine fans par excellence. 

The 1843 Verdelho, predating my own birth by exactly 100 years, was, like myself, alive and well, fading slightly, but still on great form, with caramel/toffee on the palate and honeycomb on the finish.

The 1863 Bual was a happy camper, too. Showing caramel, mocha and toffee in ethereal balance.

The "old" wine was the 1808 Malmsey, all floral, toffee and citrus, lighter, perhaps, but with a long aftertaste.

These are (were) all wines in the 94-97 point range and completely irreplaceable. Gone forever, now.

Grown long ago on the tiny Portuguese island off the coast of North Africa, these rarities were all obtained via auctions, usually from private cellars and estate sales. Ancient barrels and 5-gallon glass demijohns of the finest vintages were handed down generation to generation as family treasures on the island. 

Prices of these rarities are soaring and a single bottle that was imported from Madeira to Philadelphia in 1796 just sold for $15,925 at a Christie’s auction in New York.

The reason for the incredible lifespan of Madeira wines is the "Estufagem" method in its production. It's a 3-month heating process keeping the cellar temperature at 122°F or 4 months at 113°F. The Estufa is a stove -- hence the Estufarians. As a result, the young, high-acid wine takes on very complex reductive and oxidative qualities, a little like a well-aged Sherry, and is also fortified with grape brandy.

Then it's good to go for future generations!

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Sherry, no risk, high reward

When I ordered a dry fino Sherry in a Hilton Double Tree recently in England, they offered me a Harvey's Bristol Cream! Furthest thing from delicate and dry that you can imagine!

OK, that was in the burbs, but you can't actually go wrong buying a Sherry anywhere.

It's the world's most underrated, under-priced wine. Fortified, from Spain, a serious bargain.

Too complicated to explain in less than a doctoral thesis but here's a guide:

Dry (fino and its saltier cousin manzanilla); medium (nutty amontillado and richer oloroso); and sweet (cream and pedro ximenez, like liquid raisins).
As The Guardian's wine critic wrote, "there's isn't much bad Sherry out there and it's reasonably priced, too."

You could start with a well-chilled Tio Pepe fino or La Gitana manzanilla -- with olives, nuts or tapas.

You can dilute them with lemonade to make a a rebujito. 

Medium Sherries can take bigger food: cheeses, mushrooms, meat, while the sweeties are all great with desserts.

Baristas are having fun using versatile Sherries as ingredients in every combo. 

The greatest name in the Sherry biz aside from Tio Pepe is Lustau, creator of a whole range of fabulous artisan versions.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Boaring, Boaring, Boaring!

You'd think winemakers would have
enough to contend with without wild boars charging down electric perimeter fences to scarf down their precious grapes!

Apparently not in Tuscany this summer, where drought made acorns and truffles scarce and put the foraging tuskers on serious hunger alert.

The temperatures approached 38 C and electric fences were no obstacle to the hungry porkers: 70% of the grape harvest became nibbles. The good news is what's left made a great, if small 2018 vintage.

All this came to my ears as I was enjoying 2013 Villa Le Torri, just 1,200 bottles made from my friend Elvio Del Sorbo's vines beside his villa in Tuscany, a Chianti farmhouse that dates back to the 1300s.

Not just any vines, you understand, but delightful Cabernet Franc, underrated parent of the lordly Cabernet Sauvignon.

You can't buy Le Torri, so I'll explain how it tastes and also share the name of something you can buy! Chateau Gourgazaud, a $14 red gem from the Minervois in sunny southern France.

Lighter, less tannic than Cab Sauv, Le Torri is elegant with a peacock's tail of ultra-ripe black berry fruit, like cassis, blackberry and blueberry. There's a kiss of new oak with a lick of vanilla, finishing with a touch of cedar and dry summer grass. James Suckling snagged a bottle and gave it a 93.

Gourgazaud, meanwhile, is mysteriously the only French wine among all the Ontario VQAs in my local Metro supermarket. Lucky for me, since I visited the property some years ago and am still impressed by its value for money.
A blend of syrah and mourvèdre showing blackberry, blueberry and plum with hints of black licorice, Provençal herbs and funky barnyard. Massively quaffable, smooth and affordable.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Abruzzo Worth Second Look -- And Taste!

"Best place to dine in Italy," according to many -- famed for its saffron, olive oil, lamb and truffles, and one of the great undiscovered fine wine regions, too.

Scrunched between the Apennine mountains and the Adriatic coast, just 30 minutes away, it has everything a winegrower could ask for -- except fame and fortune. And that's coming.

Known best in Canada for its $8-and-change everyday vino, Abruzzo is just now starting to show its true potential as a source of exceptional wine values.

Consistent co-ops are still thriving alongside emerging tiny boutique family ops that are outperforming famous names in other regions. 

The main Abruzzo red grape variety is Montepulciano, a probable sibling of Sangiovese, pride of Tuscany. In Abruzzo, it yields reds ranging from serviceable to stupendous. And we only now beginning to see the stupendous.

Great value starts with Bosco Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Eclipse, $8.35: deep ruby color; berry fruit with a touch of chocolate, smoke and barnyard; medium-bodied with plum and berry flavors and a touch of spice.

More upscale, Il Feoduccio Fonte Venna, $17, is ruby-red. cherry, raspberry, menthol and licorice. Fresh, juicy and approachable, with black cherry and spices, dusty tannins 
On the lighter side, there's a whole host of crisp, lemony Abruzzo dry whites by the name Pecorino: Like Citra Ferzo, $18, mildly tropical with apple and dried herbs. 
The good news is that a group of the top young Abruzzo producers were in town recently to show their terrific wines and hopefully find wine agents in Canada. May they connect and supply us sooner than later!

Names to watch for are Tilli, Ulisse, Ortona, Martello, Fontefico, and Di Sipio.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Bottega's The Gold Standard For Prosecco

The eyes feast first -- whether it's veal or vino! And, thanks to one of the world's great entrepreneurs, Sandro Bottega, we can all feast affordably on fine Prosecco, Italy's gift of great bubbly.

He almost single-handedly put Prosecco, made from Glera grapes in the northeastern province of Treviso, gateway to Venice, on the world wine map. A riot of dry, fruity, floral apple, white peach and citrus bubbles with notes of acacia and wisteria, it's a mouthful of soft, creamy fizz.

Grown sustainably from the chestnut forests of the Dolomites to the turquoise Adriatic, some 430 million bottles of Prosecco, slightly less than Moet Champagne, grace the world's tables. Sandro is pictured here with his Bottega Gold, launched in Ontario 13 years ago and still the industry leader. It took 4 years to perfect the brilliant bottle. Perfecting the wine began long before that.

When Sandro took over from Papa in 1983, Prosecco was a lowly, low priced and under-appreciated regional product. His high energy and promotional vision have transformed quality and image globally. He laughs about needing three phones: one to break, one for the media and one to make phone calls!

This is a man who slept and shaved in his car for the first two years to promote and sell his wines. All are single vintages and he swears by a best-by date of before five years old.

Best known in Ontario are Il Vino Dei Poeti Prosecco DOC Brut, $15, white and rose and Petalo, a Moscato, $14, Gold, $28, Club Grappa, $31, and even a Gin, Bottega Bacur, $31. Prosecco goes well with pasta, risotto, fish or meat dishes and vegetables, as well as pizza. Buon appetito!

Monday, August 20, 2018

Oh, You Big Brut!

From casual country weddings to noisy Formula One triumphs, there's no wrong place to splash out for bubbly wines, and that includes summer picnics, impromptu parties and romantic trysts. One version of fizz that can fill the bill anywhere is Chateau des Charmes' Brut Methode Traditionelle n/v and their "baby brut". ($25.95 and 15.95 respectively). A classic blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes combined in the traditional French (i.e. Champagne) style, it's carefully aged on the lees (the spent yeasts) for two to three years then filtered just before corking and shipping, (RD or recently disgorged) for freshness. The result, a creamy mini-explosion on your palate of Meyer lemon, lime zest and freshly toasted bread. All backgrounded by a steady stream of fine, persistent bubbles.
If you want to get all spicy, there's Chateau des Charmes Gewurztraminer 2016: This hand-harvested spicy grape, with its origins in Alsace, France, planted in Canada by the Bosc family in 1996, is hitting its peak now in Niagara with its bouquet of ultra-ripe tropical fruits and lychee, smooth, rich and complex. There’s a hint of residual sugar that gives a luscious mouthfeel without extra sweetness.