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Managing Your Wine Cellar

To help manage your wine cellar, go to www.CellarTracker.com and all your questions will be answered. This is an excellent site that has become the most popular wine website in the world for managing your cellar. There are hundreds of reviews on thousands of different wines so you’ll be able to decide when it’s time to crack each bottle.

In wine, as with many things, timing is everything. Drink a wine too early and it may not be ready to reveal its full potential. Wait until it is too old and it won’t have the energy it once did.

But fine wines can be very odd creatures. I remember opening a thirty year old red Burgundy at a family dinner, and it smelt and tasted terrible. I thought it was dead, and we’d waited too long. So I started pouring several bottles of it down the sink. I ended up leaving some wine in one of the bottles and, out of curiosity, tasted it the next day. It had evolved into one of the greatest red Burgundies I’ve ever had. Sorry Mum…

Joie de Vivre to Mankind

Re-integrating into society after a month visiting producers in Bordeaux, Champagne and Germany has not been easy. I need counseling, just like my rapper buddy “M”, but for different reasons. The world’s become trigger happy, firing billions of useless emails at each other. Leave me alone. Twitter your own self.

All I want to do is go and visit great producers and learn about wine. What I find fascinating, my own curious topic of interest, is how people transform grapes into a drink that can give so much pleasure, stimulate conversation, laughter, friendship, and bring a joie de vivre to mankind.

I was fascinated to watch a barrel-maker at Smith Haut Lafitte assemble a barrique. He makes 3 barrels per day. That’s his job. And he was a Master, one of the few in France. But he was so humble that he would only sign his name on the inside of each barrel, so only the wine could see it.

The wood was hand-selected from certain forests in France, by smelling and tasting the raw timber. It was then air–dried for 3 years outside to season it, and let the green tannins seep out of the staves. The toasting is an art-form.

And how about Michel Rolland at Le Bon Pasteur in Pomerol. He’s about to transform fine red winemaking with his new techniques of fermenting red wines inside new oak barrels. He takes the head off a barrel, fills it with grapes, does a cold soak using dry ice, and then triggers a ferment. Winemaking books will be re-written. Life will never be the same.

And what about Johannes Selbach from the Mosel, who is cutting open individual clusters to thin them out so that there is better air circulation in a challenging vintage, like 2010, where rot is prevalent. The amount of labour to do that is beyond belief. But the wines are beyond belief too.

As for the Champenois, with their 400 kilometers of underground cellars, (listen, that’s enough to go from Vancouver to the Okanagan, so stop and think about that for a second), well, they say they’re just starting to understand that the bubbles are the mechanism that transports the aromatic molecules to the surface, and their size impacts the degree of intensity on the nose. Tasting 12 Champagnes with the Head Winemaker from Lanson, who has been there for 37 years, was an experience.

Otherwise, Olaf the mad German and I are filming the harvest in Napa at the iconic producers Trefethen and Spring Mountain Vineyard. And I can’t wait for our next gig on Crystal Cruises because there’s no phone reception, and the little kids and I can hang out in the nightclub during the day.

FOR THE CELLAR:

Frescobaldi, CastelGiocondo, Brunello di Montalcino, Riserva 2003
Unbelieveable complexity and will go for another 6-8 years at least. Superb. You can try one now and if you like it then buy more.

Two Hands, Max’s Garden, Heathcote, Shiraz, Aust. 2007
Very dense and rich but excellent balance and not stewed. Another 5-7 years easy. Don’t drink now.

Pio Cesare, Ornato, Barolo, Italy, 2005
OMG. Better than bad sex.

Nicolas Potel, Volnay, Burgundy, 2005
Very stylish. Good deal. Excellent vintage. 3-5 years easy.

Nicolas Potel, Pommard, 1er Cru Epenots, Burgundy 2002
Good drinking now but will hold at least 2-4 years. Already quite barnyardy so watch out if you don’t like that style. Volnay is much fresher.

Markus Molitor, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Spatlese, Riesling 2007
Spectacular. Will age 10-15 years min.

Fritz Haag, Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr, Riesling Auslese, 2007
To die for. Sweet wine. Drink now through 2025, seriously.

Blends versus single varietal wines

Blends are not necessarily better than single varietal wines. Otherwise, all wines would be blends.

It is true that by blending different grape varieties together you can sometimes create a higher quality wine. Some of the great wines of the world are blends, such as Port, which typically has 5 or 6 different varieties blended together. A certain variety may bring depth of color, another stronger aromatic intensity, another tannic structure, and all combined there can be a myriad of different aromas and flavors that creates complexity – the Holy Grail in wine quality. Bordeaux, most Champagne, many of the Super-Tuscans and Sauternes are all examples of top quality blended wines.

But many of the world’s great wines are also made from one single variety. Fine red and white Burgundy, Barossa Shiraz, Sancerre, Napa Valley Cabernet, and Sonoma Zinfandel are all single varietal wines that are clearly outstanding examples of their type.

What is often forgotten is that all wines are blends, even single varietal wines. A wine could be a blend of multiple vineyards of the same variety. Or a wine might be a blend of different clones of the same variety from a single vineyard. Even when blending the final wine from a single grape there will likely be significant differences amongst the various “lots” that a winemaker has to draw from.

Personally, I’d rather drink a single varietal wine most of the time. This helps you understand the style of that varietal in a certain place. But hey, it’s not like I’d turn down a Bordeaux or Port either.

Port – Happy Endings

Great dinner parties are marked by a spectacular beginning and a climatic ending.

The beginning is usually done pretty well. Champagne hits the mark, especially when served in magnums. Sabering a bottle leaves everybody riveted, mainly because they’re waiting to see if you cut off your fingers.

But the initial excitement can fade when white and red wines are then served. It’s difficult to keep up the momentum. So to ensure that your guests leave on a high note, you’ve got to go out with a bang. And that’s where the Port comes in.

It sits in a decanter, gently breathing for 2-3 hours. The bottle stands beside it. There is a vintage date boldly marked on the label. The wine is older than you.

A glass is poured, people sip, and the OMG’s start flying. It’s the climax.

There are other ways to finish off. You could go for a Sherry but I’d be careful with that. You may ruin the night as many people don’t like the unique tastes, and you’ll be left sitting there trying to convince everyone that it’s such an amazing wine. Irritated, you’ll go to bed grumpy about the lack of sophistication of your guests and they’ll leave gossiping about how awful that last wine was, and accusing you of prematurely ageing. Grannies drink Sherry.

Madeira could be an option, but again, you’re playing with fire. You can hold court with tales of how they originally made the wine, shipping it across the equator so that it would literally cook. Chances are that guests will be intrigued, and then a comment will slip out from someone about how they think the story is amazing but they don’t really like the wine. No offence, of course. And so the climax is ruined.

So you’re left with Port, a wine that is sure to please both the casual drinker and the connoisseur. It’s partly the sweetness, but it’s also the rich dark fruits and chocolaty flavors, the full-body and heady power that people fall in love with every time. And don’t get me started on those Tawnies.

It’s one of the most amazing wine regions for several different reasons. First, it’s located in one of the most arid and rugged places on earth. The vineyards have been planted on steep terraces cut out of brutally hard rock. Sometimes they have to use dynamite to blow a hole in the rock so they can plant a vine. The fact that the terracing was done by hand, using a pick and a shovel, over 300 years ago, simply defies belief. This is the Machu Picchu of wine regions.

Then you have the fact that much of the vineyard work is still done by hand. Most of the terraces are so steep and narrow there’s no hope of racing around in a big machine harvester. You typically see Portuguese women wandering through the vineyards tending to the vines, and sometimes dusting them with a spray, all done by hand.

When it comes to quality control, you can’t just buy any old vineyard in the Douro valley and start making Port. No, you’ll be told if your vineyard merits making Port by the local regulators, and then they’ll tell you how much Port you can make. So the viticultural aspects are strictly controlled in order to maintain a minimum quality standard, unlike in much of the world.

In fact, each vineyard is classified on a scale of A-F. It’s kind of like being at school. If you’re grade A then your vineyard has the best terroir and you have the most chance of making high quality Port. If you’re graded F then I’m afraid you’re not allowed to make any Port at all.

And so in this way the regulators, called the IVP, ensure that poor quality vineyards don’t make Port and they also regulate the volume produced so there isn’t a surplus. The Australians could have benefited from this type of regulation, given that they estimate to have over 30% too many vineyards.

Another fascinating aspect of viticulture in the Douro valley is the grape varieties they have planted. Over 80 different varieties have been identified. All of them have bizarre Portuguese names, and in some vineyards there are dozens of different varieties interplanted, even in the same row. In fact, for the longest time, growers didn’t even know what they had in the vineyards. It just made Port.

But over the years about 5 different grape varieties have been deemed to produce the finest Port. People often use Bordeaux as an example of the benefits of blending varieties, but Port is a better one. Touriga Nacional forms the backbone, Tinta Barroca adds color and dark fruit characters, Tinta Amarela contributes fragrance, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) adds flesh, and Tinta Cao notches up the complexity. The art of blending is the ultimate skill in fine winemaking.

So the grapes are harvested. They arrive at the winery, called a Quinta, and they are unloaded into lagares, which are concrete tanks about the size of a paddling pool. The pickers then jump in, thigh deep in red grapes, and start stomping. This is to extract as much color, flavor and tannin from the grapes as fast as possible and the human foot does a great job. This is the preferred method at the top estates.

Even the foot stomping is regulated. The Boss orders the stompers to march up and down the tank, back and forth, to the sound of a drum. After a few hours, and if you’ve behaved, he’ll announce the libertad and then the party starts in the lagar. Wine is swigged from pig-skins. Music plays. People smoke. Passion and character is infused into the dark red nectar. You see, squeaky clean winemaking can rob a wine of character.

Along comes the winemaker, and when there is around 6-9% alcohol from the fermentation, he’ll add a powerful grape spirit at 77%. The yeast dies as soon as they come into contact with such a strong potion, and so the ferment is arrested, and the wine is left partly sweet. It’s half fermented grape juice.

They then put the wine into barrels, and usually transport it down to the coast, to Vila Nova de Gaia, where it becomes the responsibility of the cellar master. Arguably his most important job is to decide what style of Port each batch of wine will make. In Port, there’s a range of qualities and styles.

To cut to the chase, my favorite is the 20 year old Tawny. And that’s mainly because you don’t often see, or get to taste, the 30 or 40 year olds. Tawny Ports are the preferred style for many of the Portuguese shippers. They find it smoother, more refined, and easier drinking in the heat of the Douro. You can serve it slightly chilled.

What’s fascinating about Tawny Port is the fact that it is aged for so incredibly long. Twenty years is the average age of the wines found inside a 20 year old Tawny. So the producers are holding stocks for decades, and decades. They must have lunch with the bank at least once a month.

An aged Tawny turns a brownish red color and becomes the epitome of smooth, with all the tannin integrated or dissipated. The toffee, nuts, raisins, and butterscotch are so silky, yet rich and concentrated. It’s power and elegance. It is surely the most enjoyable Port to sip by itself.

Of course, Port from a single vintage is the ultimate for many. This is arguably THE greatest fortified wine in the world, capable of ageing for half a century or more. It is only the finest parcels in the greatest years when a vintage is “declared” by a House, and that is after the IVP regulators have approved the quality as “vintage”.

Now vintage Ports can be pricey, especially the latest and greatest 2007 vintage. But I always search out the older ones, like the 1994, or even older, because they are ready to drink and cost much less. Cost aside, when you hit the mark with a vintage Port, served with Stilton, it’s an experience. Raisin, milk chocolate, sweet black cherries, spices, density, and built like a Roman palace.

But the best kept secret in Port has got to be Late Bottle Vintage, or LBV. LBV is a wine from a single year that must have been aged for between 4-6 years in cask before being bottled and released. It’s wine that didn’t make the cut for the “vintage” batches.

But keep in mind that some years they don’t make vintage Port and so LBV becomes the next closest thing, and at least half the price. It’s the best deal you’ll find in fortified wine. For less than $30 you can be drinking a wine that is dark and inky, heady and perfumed, and explodes with flavor.

The best dinners are ones when the room is filled with laughter. Great wine is the catalyst. So next time you’re planning a party make sure you pick up a bottle of Port, maybe a mousse au chocolate, a few truffles, and some Stilton. Happy ending guaranteed.

STYLE, PRODUCER & FOOD PAIRING

10 Year Old Tawny, Grahams – chilled, by itself

20 Year Old Tawny, Taylor Fladgate with a caramel tart

LBV, Dows 2004 with mousse au chocolat

Vintage, Fonseca 2001 Panascal with stilton

Vintage, Dows 2007 with truffles and cheese

Alcohol in wine

The alcohol degree is one of the key things I always look at on the label. When I was 19 my motives were different from today, and naturally back then I was looking for a low alcohol wine so I could still do my homework.

But today I look at the alcohol degree because it can tell you so much about what a wine will taste like. The more sugar there is in the grape, the higher the potential alcohol. So if the grape comes from a hot climate it will typically have become very ripe, and contain a large amount of sugar that can be turned into alcohol.

Conversely, if a grape was grown in a cool climate, or comes from a cooler vintage, then the amount of sugar will be much lower and the alcohol degree in the wine will be less.

So how does that change the taste of wine? A Chardonnay from a cool area, such as Chablis, will have less alcohol, less body, greener fruit flavors, and crisper acidity. Don’t forget that in the ripening process acidity comes down as sugar content builds.

If you have a Chardonnay from a hotter climate, which will result in higher alcohol, there will be riper flavors in the wine. Also, there will typically be more body and a degree of sweetness, however subtle that may be. The high alcohol wine will also have a certain warmth on the palate, noted by the heat on your breath.

So if I see on the label that the alcohol degree is low to moderate (generally 12-13%) then I have an idea of the level of body, ripeness, sweetness, and acidity in the wine. If I see it is 14% or more then it should be a full bodied wine with riper flavors, some warmth from the alcohol and a touch of fruit sweetness.

Unfortunately you can’t try wine before you buy it. So you have to use everything you can on the label to get a general idea of how it might taste.

Merlot – Soft and Smooth

I just love a nice rich Merlot. They’re just so soft and smooth.

If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard that, well, you know the story. In the 90’s it was all the rage. From businessmen to 20-something socialites, everyone loved Merlot. Grape growers planted it like mad, and the market boomed. But then along came Sideways, a Hollywood movie that vilified Merlot, and suddenly the party was over. It wasn’t cool anymore.

But Merlot will always be one of the best grape varieties, and true wine lovers remain perplexed by the market’s fads. Its quality potential is up there with the best in the world, showcased by wines like Chateau Petrus. So whilst Malbec and Shiraz are now the current popular choices, Merlot isn’t going to go away any time soon.

Grape growers love Merlot. Surprisingly, it is the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux, and you’ll find plenty of it in the south of France, northern and central Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and both North and South America. It’s even the most planted grape in Romania, and you’ll be able to quench your thirst with it at dozens of wineries in Bulgaria. Can’t wait.

Growers love Merlot because it ripens a week or two earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. In frost prone areas, or places that can get serious downpours in the Fall, that extra week or two can make the difference between a successful vintage and a wash-out. 1998 in Bordeaux is a good example of this. It’s was a spectacular vintage in St.Emilion and Pomerol, but the Cabernet dominated vineyards of the Medoc were not so lucky. It started pouring with rain before the grapes were fully ripe.

Another reason for its popularity amongst grape growers is because it can yield a bumper crop. I know that wine is all about the romance to those who drink it, but when you’re trying to make money out of producing it then yield becomes one of the most critical factors. Some varieties, like Pinot Noir, tend to produce lackluster wines when cropped above 4 tons per acre, but not so with Merlot. And as a grower, I want to produce as many grapes as possible, at quality levels suited to my commercial goals.

Merlot is also tolerant of a variety of different soil types, and doesn’t mind being planted in heavy clays. This is the primary reason why it thrives on the so-called Right Bank of the Bordeaux region, which is dominated by clay and limestone. But you’ll also find it producing some superb wines in the silty loam soils of Washington State, and some Okanagan wineries even have it planted on pure sand. So when it comes to soil types Merlot seems to be less picky compared to various other varietals.

So if you’re contemplating planting a vineyard then Merlot is often on the list of potential candidates. It’s popular, you can grow lots of it, it’s not so fussy about soil types, and it will even ripen early for you. Hey, it might even turn out to be great quality and sell for big bucks.

But grape growing issues aside, much of the final quality will depend on how it’s made in the winery. At the top estates in the world you’ll typically see it treated to a lengthy maceration of 2-4 weeks, with the goal of extracting plenty of flavor and tannic structure. It takes well to oak, particularly French, and can be matured for 2 years in barrel before bottling. Although it has a reputation for being soft and smooth, high quality Merlot can require at least 5 years in bottle before it comes around to showing its potential quality.

On the other hand, if you are making Merlot for the cheaper end of the market, then you’d typically go for a much shorter maceration, perhaps just one week or so, to limit the tannin extraction. And those French oak barrels can run you $1,200 a pop, and so many wineries opt for wood chips, which cost a fraction of the price but don’t give quite the same result. Obviously the marketing department is not inclined to tell you their wine is matured using their finest oak chips. Once it gets into bottle you can open these types of wine immediately, and they are usually more pleasant to drink than a Cabernet of the same age.

You’ll often find Merlot blended with other grapes, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, but also potentially Malbec and Petit Verdot. This can be done for both premium and inexpensive wines, and is the way a winemaker can sculpt his product to the house style, or adjust it to meet market demands.

So the quality of Merlot can be all over the map. You can buy a bottle at the gas station in the U.S. for peanuts, or you can go a little crazy and load up on a new vintage of Petrus at $3,000 a bottle. But the glut of uninspiring Merlot, along with the impact of Hollywood movies that have slandered the grape, has caused it’s popularity to wane. Despite this current fashion for other varietals, when it comes to truly fine wine, there’s never been any question that Merlot is amongst the very best grapes.

After all, the finest wines can age for over 50 years. True, they don’t have quite the same longevity as Cabernet Sauvignon, but they certainly do have better ageing potential than Pinot Noir and most others. So when it comes to stocking the cellar for the long haul you’ll certainly want to consider the finer Merlots as an option.

So what should you buy? Well, the great wines of St.Emilion and Pomerol on Bordeaux’s Right Bank are still the benchmark. Pomerol is the classic appellation because the wines typically have a higher percentage of Merlot in them, usually around 80%, with just a splash of Cabernet Franc and maybe Sauvignon. These are usually tiny estates, producing a few thousand cases of wine, and hence the prices can be stratospheric. Enter stage left Petrus, Le Pin, Vieux Chateau Certan, La Conseillante and a dozen others. One of my best ever bottles was a 25 year old Petrus. I finally understood what all the fuss was about. It left everyone almost speechless.

But the top wines of St.Emilion are spectacular too. Ausone, Angelus, Le Dome, and so many others. These tend to be slightly less opulent than Pomerol, but are always dense and concentrated all the same. If you can wait for 10 years or so you’ll see the deep ruby color turn a shade of brick red, the nose open up to reveal a spectrum of complex nuances that can include fruitcake, licorice, black cherry, chocolate, coffee, tobacco, vanilla, mushroom and wet earth. They’re to die for.

If you are intent on drinking a French Merlot but only want to spend $20 then the south of France is your best option. Since the 1990’s there have been huge plantings of this grape in the so-called Pays D’Oc. But the wines, whilst deep and full bodied, tend to have much less complexity than in Bordeaux and are more suited to a casual BBQ.

In north eastern Italy there is a surprising amount of Merlot, but I wouldn’t be in a hurry to buy these. They tend to be light in every way – color, body and ripeness levels. Instead, buy the Super Tuscans that have a heap of Merlot in them. Masseto and Tua Rita are the benchmarks, 100% Merlot, and astronomically expensive. My personal favorite is Luce, which is a blend of Merlot and Sangiovese, and is a very fine wine for around $100.

If the recent turmoil in the stock market has you searching for a deal on European Merlot then you probably can’t beat the prices of Hungarian, Romanian and Bulgarian wines. It’s surprising just how much is planted here, and the prices can be under $10 a bottle. I’ve tried several and the quality can be pretty reasonable, but most west coasters just can’t get over the negative brand image of most of these countries. I suppose they might slip down better if you’re hoping for a return to Communism.

If I was looking for a high quality Merlot from the New World then I would be heading for the California and Washington sections of the store. Duckhorn in Napa made a mark with some gorgeously rich and plummy Merlots, and now the grape is widely planted in California. These wines tend to have less earthiness than their Bordeaux counterparts, and burst with ripe berry fruit and the warmth of higher alcohol.

In Washington State Merlot is the most widely planted grape, and it typically plays a role in many of the finest wines. These are under-rated by consumers, but not under-priced. The local demand in Seattle for the best wines results in prices being in the high $70’s+ in western Canada.

South America, especially Chile, can produce some exceptional Merlot, both in terms of value for money and absolute quality. Sena is a benchmark amongst the famous labels, but I’m also impressed with the likes of a basic Errazuriz Merlot for just $15.

New Zealand is a sleeper, that has recently shown what it can do with Merlot. A few years ago the best wines from Hawke’s Bay on the north island were put up against the finest wines of Bordeaux, and guess what? The Kiwis stole the show. But I’m more inclined to drink Pinot Noir from New Zealand, just like you would be to drink Shiraz from Australia.

One of the nice things about Merlot is that some of them can be drunk without food. They don’t have the astringency of most Cabernet and so they can slip down without much “bite”. But really these go so much better with red meats, and so whether it’s a steak, roast beef, a leg of lamb or a burger you’ll enjoy them much more than flying solo.

WINE & FOOD PAIRING

Chateau Petrus , Pomerol 1990, with a nice inheritance

Chateau Le Bon Pasteur, Pomerol 2000, with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding

Chateau Grand Mayne, St Emilion, 2005, with steak Frites

Tua Rita, IGT Toscana, 2005, with pasta in a tomato sauce

Duckhorn, Napa, 2000, with leg of lamb

Woodward Canyon, Washington State, 2006, with stew

Errazuriz, Sena, Chile 2006, with bison

Sweet Wines – Sugar Me Up

Sauternes from Bordeaux, Tokaji from Hungary , Coteaux du Layon in the Loire, icewine, sweet Germans, late harvest from Alsace, well, there’s no shortage of options when it comes to dessert wine. Personally, I’m a huge fan. I find the unique production methods to be fascinating and the sheer quality of the wines can be staggering.

But most of all, I love watching people melt as they sip on a glass after a great dinner. It’s the icing on the cake. So don’t forget that before the Port, you’ll need to serve some dessert wine with a cheesecake, a fruit tart, a selection of cheese, and various other delights.

Sauternes is arguably the king of all sweet wines. It certainly wins the prize for being the most expensive with Chateau d’Yquem ranking amongst the most pricy wines in the world. Expect to pay a few hundred dollars for a half bottle from an average vintage. And if you come across a bottle from the 1800’s then expect to remortgage your house. But there are plenty around $35 too, so you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy it.

Sauternes is part of the Bordeaux region, in south west France. In the fall, autumn mists lift off the river Garonne where it intersects with the Ciron, because of the temperature differences in the water. This mist shrouds the vineyards and creates very humid conditions which are the catalyst for the development of botrytis, or noble rot. It doesn’t sound good, and it doesn’t look good either, but this noble rot attacks the berries and punctures small holes in the grapes which cause them to shrivel. As a result the water content of the berry evaporates and you’re left with a high degree of sugar, and ultra-ripe tropical fruit flavors.

But botrytis doesn’t affect all of the grapes at exactly the same time. This means that picking has to be done by hand, with harvesters passing through the vineyard in waves, selecting only the berries with noble rot. At some estates the pickers may go through the vineyard several times, armed with no more than a pair of nail scissors. To put it in perspective, a single grape vine will often produce one 75cl bottle of red or white wine, but in Sauternes the yield is so low that you’d be lucky to extract one glass of the sweet liquid gold from a single vine.

Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc are the grapes of choice. The former is highly susceptible to botrytis and the latter helps counter-balance the sweetness with a refreshing acidity and a spectrum of different flavors. The fermentation is halted at approximately 14% alcohol leaving plenty of unfermented sugars in the wine, and then it is transferred to oak barrels for around two years of maturation.

Expect honey to predominate, with notes of pineapple, brown sugar and crème brulee, in a full bodied style. The French love to serve it with foie gras as a starter, but I prefer it with a cheesecake at the end of a meal. When it comes to sweet wines, Sauternes is still my first choice.

But those Hungarian Tokaji’s can be so good too. It’s like picking your favorite child. I take back my comment about Sauternes. Tokaji is gorgeous, replete with an expansive bouquet of marmalade and honey, and a thread of acidity that can enable them to last for decades.

True, Tokaji is not as well-known and perhaps the fact that it is made in Hungary doesn’t exactly help win consumer’s affection. But it is the Wine of Kings and the King of Wines, as they say. And the way they make it is entirely unique.

Botrytis is triggered by the same phenomena as in Sauternes, caused by temperature differences in the waters of two rivers that intersect. But here the grapes are different. You have Harslevelu and Furmint, which are hardly household names. A dry white wine is made from Furmint and then the botrytis affected Harslevelu is added. On the label you will see a statement about the number of Puttonyos. The number of Puttonyos ranges between 3-6, and if you buy a 6 then expect it to be sweeter than a 3,4, or 5. Puttonyos is the name of the wicker baskets that the pickers use, filled with botrytis affected grapes.

Let’s face it. If you bring out a bottle of Tokaji, which may cost you around $50, and relay the story of the wicker baskets and the Puttonyos, you’re probably cruising for an “accidental” goodbye kiss on the lips from your flirtatious neighbor.

Moving on. The Loire, including Coteaux du Layon, Quartz de Chaume and Bonnezeaux, made with Chenin Blanc, can display succulent honeyed flavors, in a wine that tends to be a little lighter and more acidic than Sauternes. One of the nice things is the price, which tends to be less than Sauternes and Tokaji, at least for Coteaux du Layon. I’ve found some stunners that are around $30, which is half the price of icewine. Try these with some blue cheese, as the saltiness is offset by the sweetness of the wine.

Germany and Alsace can produce some fabulous sweet wines too. In Alsace look for the words Vendange Tardive (late harvest), or Selection de Grains Noble for the botrytis affected ones. Riesling and Gewurztraminer is king, and I love the incredibly intense aromas of an Alsatian Gewurztraminer. Red roses, spice, honey, apricot and a rich oily texture are the hallmarks.

I always look for the wines of Domaine Weinbach, a family-owned producer, established hundreds of years ago. This is traditional winemaking at its best. When I asked Catherine Faller how she handles the winemaking, she replied that she does nothing more than pick the grapes at the perfect moment, press them, and then let nature take its course.

But whilst sweet wines are a rarity in Alsace, Germany specializes in them. Look for the designations Auslese and Beerenauslese on the label if you want something with an undeniable amount of sweetness. These rather complicated terms refer to the amount of sugar in the grape at harvest. This is the basis of the German wine laws, where sugar is prized above all else.

The great thing about these wines is the phenomenal balance between sweetness and acidity, delicacy and power, and the unusually low alcohol. Most of the sweet wines from the Mosel have an alcohol degree around 8.0%. This is a good thing, because nobody likes being hung-over.

The Mosel valley in Germany produces many of the benchmark, classic wines. Some of the vineyards are planted on slopes that are so steep that one slip and you could end up in hospital. Fritz Haag, Egon Muller, Selbach-Oster and Dr Loosen all produce stunning wines.

Of course, if you had a guest from the Middle East I might consider serving them Canadian icewine. It’s local and the fact that the grapes have to be picked at -8 Celsius would be as foreign to them as the desert heat is to us.

Canada produces more icewine than any other country, especially in Ontario where there are massive volumes made. Riesling and Vidal are widely used, and producers wait until frigid temperatures freeze the grapes on the wine. This can happen as late as January, which highlights the fact that many sweet wines are made by taking a tremendous risk.

Once the grapes are picked, which is often during the night, they are pressed whilst still frozen and the small amount of sweet juice is inoculated with a powerful yeast to trigger the ferment. A few months later, usually at around 11% alcohol, the ferment is halted and a colossal amount of unfermented residual sugar remains. These are some of the sweetest of all wines, and sometimes can be syrupy, and cloying. Frankly, icewine would be last on my list, especially given the ridiculous prices many producers charge for a ½ bottle. At least you get some fancy packaging thrown in.

There are other sweet wines that you should track down, like the amazing Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, from the southern Rhone. Although this is a fortified wine, it is only lightly so, and the gorgeous floral, orange and honeyed aromas will blow everyone away. At around $25 for the half bottle you’ll be the hit of the party.

The list could go on. But that’s enough to get started. So next time you are planning a dinner party, or have romance on the brain, make sure you don’t forget the sweet stuff. There’s a reason why they call it the nectar of the Gods.

WINE, PRODUCER & FOOD PAIRING

Sauternes, Ch. Doisy Vedrines with Blue cheese

Tokaji, Ch Dereszla with Strawberry Cheesecake

Alsace VT, Domaine Weinbach with Crème Brulee

Mosel Auslese, Selbach-Oster with Tropical fruit plate

Canadian icewine, Inniskillin by itself, well chilled

How to know if a wine is “off”

The short answer is if a wine smells or tastes unpleasant then it might be “off”. To be more specific, if you smell things like rotten eggs, burnt matchstick, vinegar, a musty wet cardboard aroma, then the wine may well be “off”.

But the fact is that it can be quite difficult to tell if some wines are “off”. I’ve shared bottles of wine with some of the top winemakers in the world and towards the end of the bottle they have questioned whether the wine is “in condition”. Why? We all have different thresholds for noticing certain smells and tastes. There was a famous incident when a wine critic found an entire batch of wine to be “corked”, but after the winery did a blind tasting with a focus group they decided that the taint was below threshold and continued to sell the wine.

Cork taint is the major fault to look for. Corks can sometimes harbour a fungi which can develop into potent organic compounds, notably one called TCA. This can dull the aroma of a wine, make it smell musty, like wet cardboard, and make the fruit taste dried out and astringent on the palate.

One of the other major faults is oxidation, which happens when excessive amounts of oxygen come into contact with the wine. This can start during the winemaking process as soon as the grapes are picked. Just like an apple, the juice can start to turn brown. Sometimes you can tell an oxidized wine just by the color. Look for white wines to have an unusual amber or dull golden brown color. The nose can smell dull, lacking freshness, and with some heavy nutty and caramel notes. Tired and stale are hallmarks of oxidized wines.

There are several other potential faults but in my experience the incidence of faulty wines is decreasing. The good news is that BC Liquor Stores will replace any faulty bottles. Just don’t confuse that with a wine you personally don’t like the taste of.

Italian Charm

It was all about Italian charm this month. I purchased and blind tasted all the Amarone, Ripasso and Valpolicella on the LDB shelves, along with a variety of miscellaneous Italian whites.

ITALIAN SOAVE
Soave is a victim of its own success, much like Australia. Back in the 70’s and 80’s the wine became so popular that the region expanded its boundaries and permitted ridiculously high yields which led to a decline in quality and a wine that became dilute and anonymous. Getting a Soave in the MW blind tasting exam was akin to certain death. Garganega is the grape in the best wines, but some can have a clone of Trebbiano that is also widely used.

There are some producers that uphold the tradition of producing flavorful wines with typicity. Pieropan is the icon winery and can be found on the shelves, but is over $30. These wines can have an oily character, ripe citrus fruit, underpinned by moderate acidity and a delicate style. Dry, medium in body, I would go for seafood starters like scallops with the only one I recommend from our tasting.

Ca Rugate, Monte Fiorentine, Soave Classico, 2007 $24.99 180273
Pale lemon, medium + intensity, almond and floral, delicate, oily, ripe lemon. Dry but fruity, soft on the mid palate, with an oiliness and ripe lemon and hints of peach with medium body, and medium alcohol, good length and well balanced. Garganega.

ORVIETO
Orvieto comes from Umbria, a landlocked region in Central Italy. It is often made from Trebbiano and is another wine that is almost impossible to identify in blind tasting. They can be very neutral, dry, light in body and citrusy, and personally I’m not a huge fan – but this is the best one and for the price it’s worth a shot.

Ruffino, Orvieto Classico, 2008 $13.99 31062
A little neutral on the nose, no depth or expression, medium intensity, dry, light to medium bodied, medium acidity that kicks on the finish, ripe pear and lemon, finishing with a dryness and slight tartness, and medium to short length. OK – value for money.

SICIILIAN WHITES
Down in Sicily you can find all kind of weird varietals that Sommeliers love to get excited about. I can recall a Sommelier, on the brink of orgasm, describing the nuances of their latest finding – a Grillo from Sicily. Grow up. When they resemble a Puligny Montrachet in quality, call me. But this is the best and for $12.99 worth experimenting. Think of it like a foray into bondage.

Feudo d’Elimi, Grillo, Sicilia, 2008 $12.99 134957
Different nose, with medium intensity, with herbal notes. Dry, slight spritz, oily, medium to + acidity, round and oily, lemon but with herbs and spice, medium body, clean and fresh with a pleasant aftertaste, something different, and not bad length.

VALPOLICELLA
Thank god we finally make it to Valpol as I was running out of steam on the whites. I love this area. It’s so diverse. It is the epitome of Italian winemaking. They use the same grapes to make 3 completely different wines. There are some classic wines, with so much more individuality than the ocean-load of homogenous tasting wines found in many New World countries. Vive la difference. Viva Italia.

Think Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara along with Corvinone as the grape mix. I had a stunning straight Valpolicella blind about a year ago that resembled nothing like the mediocre examples that dominate our shelves, and opened my eyes to stunning wines even at the entry level style.

Under $20
Masi, Bonacosta, Valpolicella, 2007 $16.99 285585
Nice red and black cherry nose with some liquorice and milk chocolate, not a fruit bomb. Dry, slight tartness which is characteristic of Valpolicella, medium to light bodied, with medium to low tannins with some bitterness and astringency, but characterful, and would pair well with a pizza Margherita.

Between $20-40
Zenato, Valpolicella Superiore, 2007 $19.99 476572
Much deeper color, medium + ruby red. The nose shows darker cherry, some depth and dark chocolate notes. It’s dry, much richer than the Masi, with medium body and more structured tannins but chewy, and actually would benefit from a few years to soften, or needs protein, but good depth of flavor and richness and an espresso and milk/bitter dark chocolate finish. Good wine.

RIPASSO
A Ripasso is a style of Valpolicella that results from a straight Valpoilcella being refermented on the skins of an Amarone. This adds richness, body, alcohol and darker fruit flavors. I like this style as a mid point between Amarone and Valpolicella as the value for money is attractive and the quality can be very good. Think Osso Buco and rich meat dishes.

Under $25
Folonari, Ripasso, Valpolicella Classico Superiore, 2007 $19.99 481838
Medium + ruby, bitter chocolate and red cherry, characteristic tart elements, medium bodied and crisp acidity. It’s good for the price but the Accordini is streets ahead.

Under $30
Accordini, Valpolicella Ripasso, Classico Superiore 2005 $29.99 540088
Excellent wine. Good buy. Deeper ruby, with raisin and sweet dried fruit on the nose, some tobacco and leather too. Dry but almost off dry, with a raisiny sweetness, just off full bodied, lovely structured tannins and a rich mid-palate – maybe all Valpolicella should be Ripasso?

AMARONE
I was excited to taste one of Italy’s benchmark wines. Amarone’s can be spectacular. It is made by drying the healthiest and generally the best bunches on straw mats for about 5 months to encourage the berries to shrivel. This concentrates the flavors and increases the amount of sugar in the berry, because the water content is reduced through dehydration/evaporation. They can last for well over 10 years and a serious cellar should have a stash of Amarone to pull out on cold winter nights. At 15% + alcohol, don’t plan on an early start the next morning.

The blind tasting format is always revealing as several of the top names, like Masi, didn’t come out and were, frankly, disappointing. But we found 2 wines to recommend which are:

Under $40
Cantina Di Negrar, Amarone della Valpoliella, Classico 2005 $37.99 44784
Very impressive for the price. Sweeter nose with more raisin and earth and leather. Good intensity, full, rich, dry with some bitterness, coffee, raisin, leaning to off dry, but drying on the finish. A good buy.

The Best Amarone
Fabiano, I Fondatori, Classico 2003
Lovely depth of sweet raisin and dried herbs and black fruits with a pleasant baked character. Off dry in the mid palate with lovely intense spicy character, cloves, liquorice and tobacco complementing the meaty character of the black fruit. High tannins but no astringent, will age 3-5 years, layered and long – delicious.