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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.

To be a Mediterranean Vine…

If I was a vine I would want to be planted along the Mediterranean coastline. My ideal vineyard would be perched on a hillside, where I could bask in the sunshine whilst looking out to sea.

After all, the Mediterranean is a more inviting climate compared to being planted in the frigid parts of northern Europe. In cold climates vines can struggle to ripen the grapes and sometimes people would criticize me for producing acidic and astringent wines. And the blistering heat of fiercely hot climates isn’t that appealing either. The grapes might get over-ripe, resulting in raisin and cooked flavors. What’s worse, the French would tease me about making confiture (jam) rather than wine.

But in a pleasant Mediterranean climate, where the winters are mild and the summers are long, I would thrive. Plus I’d get to take 2 hour lunches and have a siesta in the afternoons.

And so it is. The wine regions that sit along the Mediterranean coastline are responsible for a huge percentage of the world’s wine production. In short, the climate is well suited to viticulture and can produce very good quality wines that are well balanced.

A huge reason for the way a wine tastes relates to the composition of the grape at harvest, namely, the balance between sugar and acidity. If the climate is too hot then wines can sometimes lack acidity and taste soupy. If the climate is too cold then the grapes can lack sugar and flavor, and taste thin and astringent. It’s rare that you see these excesses or deficiencies in wines from around the Mediterranean.

What I like the most about wines from this area is that they are usually made from indigenous grape varieties. This means that they deliver flavors that differ from the usual repertoire of international grape varieties, such as Chardonnay and Shiraz. There is also an abundance of choice. The wine regions of the Mediterranean produce a prolific number of different wines.

Let’s start with sparkling wine. Spanish sparkling wines, known as Cava, come from an area called Catalunya. Barcelona is the major city here, and responsible for guzzling huge volumes of the local bubbly. The main grapes are indigenous Spanish varieties such as Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo. Try letting those roll off the tongue at your next dinner party. Intriguingly, Spanish Cava is made in the same method as Champagne, with the second fermentation taking place in bottle. They are excellent value for money and the perfect way to kick off a party.

But Spain is not the only country producing sparkling wine. In north western Italy, within striking distance of the Mediterranean, is the small DOCG of Franciacorta. This region lays claim to making the finest dry sparkling wines in Italy. The varietal mix and the methods are closely modeled on Champagne, with excellent results. I recently tasted the range from Ca’ del Bosco, arguably the leader in the region, whose wines are considered amongst the best sparkling wines in the world. Sublime.

In dry white wine, the Mediterranean also produces a plethora of choices. The most unique has got to be Retsina from Greece. This white wine is flavored with pine resin. Yes, that’s right, pine resin. The reasons for this date back centuries to a time when resin was used to help preserve wines. Over time people became accustomed to the taste of resinated wines and so it became its own style of wine. Retsina certainly has its followers. Be aware that the wines can actually smell of pinesol cleaner so shall we say “it’s an acquired taste”.

More my bag would be a Viognier from the south of France. This varietal has beautiful aromatics of honeysuckle, peaches and floral notes. If you like Gewürztraminer then Viognier might hit the mark. The wines are dry, usually with a touch of residual sugar, quite full in body, with a pleasant richness in the best ones. Try a Vin de Pays D’Oc Viognier with roast chicken or a white fish.

In Rose, the beautiful wines from Provence rank amongst the very best roses in the world. They typically show vibrant pink colors, aromas of spice mingled with fresh strawberries, dry and crisp, and bang-on in the rose stakes. These are perfect for sipping on the deck; they pair well with a fresh seafood salad, and are liquid romance whilst watching the sunset. Take me to Saint Tropez.

In red wines, there is such a huge choice that making a handful of recommendations is no easy task. If you are looking for a classic wine, something big and burly but with depth and concentration, then look no further than Priorat in Spain. Many of the very best are made from Garnacha and Carinena (Grenache and Carignan in France). This is classic stuff, and 100 points from Robert Parker is not unusual.

Then you have a huge number of high quality wines from appellations in southern France like Corbieres and Minervois. Here, you can expect Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre to feature in the lead roles. These are the best value red wines in France and would go well with a steak frites.

It would be unfair not to make mention of the wines from Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily. Now we start getting into the really unusual grape varieties. How about a glass of red from the Nielluccio grape in Corsica? Grapes such as Nero D’Avola from Italy are gaining a following as some wine lovers tire of the world of Chardonnay and Shiraz. Most are such good value that it’s not a fatal experiment if you don’t like the flavors.

Lastly, fortified wines are also alive and well in the Mediterranean wine regions. My favorite is Banyuls. This exceptional wine comes from the steep terraced vineyards in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where France meets Spain. Grenache is king in this fortified wine, known as a vins doux naturel. The winemakers suggest that these Port-like wines are paired with chocolate. A bottle of Banyuls, a chocolate mousse, and you’ll ascend into heaven.

So the wine regions bordering the Mediterranean offer an abundance of unique and exciting wines. The indigenous grape varieties offer the wine lover new flavors to discover. So give them a try. Besides, as you sip your way through the bottle you can dream of those gorgeous vineyards perched on a hillside, overlooking the Med.

 

More Champagne, Darling?

If you crack open a bottle of Champagne at a dinner party you can be guaranteed that someone, usually an attractive lady, will start swooning, flicking her hair, and then launch into a very public declaration that it is her “absolute favorite wine”.

At that stage I usually smile, mutter words of agreement, and make a mental note-to-self that time spent with the said individual could be fun for me, but not for the VISA.

I’m full of admiration for the way the Champenois have marketed their bubbles. Nobody else has done a better job. They’ve made it synonymous with luxury, romance, special occasions, and living the good life. Simply put, we’ve fallen in love with their fizz.

The history of Champagne is fascinating. Firstly, there’s a dispute over who was the first to make it bubbly, because originally it was a “still” wine. In the region, Dom Perignon lays claim to being the inventor, but the winemakers in Limoux, an obscure region in southern France, accuse him of riding down on his donkey and stealing their winemaking secret, and then galloping back to Champagne to begin creating the most famous luxury brand in the world.

But in all likelihood it was not the French who were the first to make sparkling wine in commercial volumes. Instead, it was likely the English who created the glass that was strong enough to withstand the massive amounts of pressure in the bottle. But whatever the case, we do know that the first Champagnes were incredibly sweet, even sweeter than the dessert wine from Sauternes in Bordeaux.

Once it was made, it had to be sold. And the proximity of the Champagne region to Paris was a definite advantage because not only was there a large urban population, but it was also the home of the aristocracy. The Champenoise plied the monarchy with free bubbly, and the elite followed suit. Monkey see, monkey do. Jean-Rene Moet, of Moet et Chandon, even built Napoleon a mansion in Champagne, just in case he stopped by.

But it wasn’t just the monarchy and aristocrats in France that sipped Champagne at lavish banquets. The Champenois also managed to convince the Tsars in Russia, and the Royal Family in England, that they too should become devotees. And so, for lack of a better word, the brand of Champagne was established as a luxury product, with prices to match.

But for a luxury brand to endure it has to be consistently high quality. And on this critical point, the Champenois have delivered, at least at the pinnacle of production. Houses like Krug, Roederer, Dom Perignon, Salon, Pol Roger, Billecart-Salmon, Laurent Perrier, Lanson, Bollinger, Taittinger, and Veuve Clicquot continue to make a quality of wine that is unmatched by sparkling winemakers in other countries, and other regions in France.

One of the great things about Champagne is that it is quite easy to visit, because sooner or later everyone goes to Paris. It’s just 90 minutes away by car, or 30 minutes by TGV from the airport. If you give yourself 2 days, including one night of romance, you’ll have seen enough to get the general idea. After all, every House makes pretty much the same thing, in essentially the same way, although every producer puts their own unique spin on it.

The major city is Reims, and here you’ll find many of the major Houses, as well as the stunning cathedral. But in fact most of the vineyards are 30 minutes away surrounding the pretty town of Epernay. Driving over the hillside into Epernay is quite breathtaking, as you can see vineyards sloping down towards the river Marne, and right into the outskirts of the town itself.

There are three key sub-regions in Champagne to be aware of. The first is the Montagne de Reims, which is a little misleading because it’s more of a large hill than a mountain. This is primarily planted to Pinot Noir, a grape that benefits from the southerly exposure that the hillside provides, in order to help ripen the grapes in this cool climate.

At the bottom of the hill, and following the river, is the Valle de la Marne, which is predominantly planted to Pinot Meunier, another black grape. The reason is that Pinot Meunier breaks its buds later in the Spring than the other varieties, and so it is less prone to the severe frosts that can result in crop loss. Keep in mind that a major reason for most Champagne being non-vintage (i.e. a blend of several different vintages) is because the Spring frosts can decimate a crop.

Finally, you have my favorite region, which is the Cotes des Blancs, home to some of the most refined wines based on the Chardonnay grape.

In terms of grape-growing, or viticulture, each village in the region has been graded on a quality scale. It ranges from 80% up to 100%, and the classification is based upon the quality potential of the vineyards in that little village. If you own vineyards in a Grand Cru village, rated 100%, then you’re laughing all the way to the bank because the Houses pay a premium for grapes from these terroirs. I love the names of some of the villages, and suggest you make a stop in Bouzy before heading to Dizy. Obviously, if you own vineyards in a village rated 80% then you’re not quite so sought-after.

One of the key aspects of the terroir is the chalky soils, and in many places it is pure chalk, good enough for a school mistress to use. In some places the chalk is so deep that it extends to a depth of 400 feet, although I can’t vouch for that personally. This chalky soil helps reflect light back onto the grapes to assist with ripening, provides excellent drainage in this wet region, and gives the wines a certain finesses, elegance, and class, that you rarely find outside of Champagne.

Once the grapes are picked in September, which is always done by hand, they are rushed to the press in order to minimize oxidation. There are strict laws regulating the amount of juice you can extract from a press load, because the harder you squeeze the grapes, the worse the quality becomes. Other sparkling wine producers in other countries have no such regulation, and should take note.

Once the juice is extracted it is then placed in stainless steel tanks, which have largely replaced the oak barrels that were commonplace until the 1970’s. The first fermentation proceeds, generally triggered by inoculation with commercial yeast, and the wine is fermented to dryness.

Now comes the true art of making great Champagne, which is the blending, or assemblage, as they call it. Each House will have a portfolio of wines, which may include a luxury cuvee, a vintage wine, the standard non-vintage, and maybe a Rose, amongst others.

The amazing part to me is that the winemaker, with the assistance of an experienced team, often has over 500 ‘lots’ to work with. A non-vintage, will include wines held in reserve from previous vintages. The potential permutations are endless. A little bit of Chardonnay from this village, a splash of Pinot Noir from another town, some reserve wine from 2, 4 or 7 years ago, 1% of this, 3% of that… and so on.

What never ceases to amaze me is that the winemakers are able to foresee how these different lots will marry together, and what they will taste like when enjoyed years later. In some cases, the wines will not be released for 10 years. Making a pink Champagne that is destined for long ageing is the greatest challenge of all because it is so hard to get the color right, and hence the fact they are generally the most expensive wines in the luxury cuvee category.

Once the blend is made, the wine is bottled and then a small amount of yeast and sugar is added to trigger the second fermentation, which creates the carbon dioxide that dissolves in the wine. This is kept inside the bottle by sealing it with a crown cap.

And then it is taken down into the underground cellars, which are dug out of chalk, and one of the wonders of the wine world. Some of the largest Houses have several million bottles in stock, all slowly maturing, and the largest producer, Moet, has a staggering 96 million bottles ageing.

After the yeast has eaten the sugar and created the bubbles, plus a tiny bit more alcohol, it starts to breakdown, or decompose. The long ageing time on the dead yeast cells, called the lees, contributes a bready, toasty, biscuit character to the wine which all contribute to the complexity and depth found on the nose and palate. No other sparkling wine region has minimum ageing times as long as the Champenois impose on themselves.

To ensure that what we actually drink doesn’t have any sediment, or dead yeast, floating around in it there is an elaborate process of gradually turning the bottles into a vertical position. This is called riddling, or remuage, and at some Houses it is still done by hand. A riddler can turn about 40,000 bottles in a day, with a precise motion that causes the sediment to gradually slip into the neck of the bottle. This is something to see, and I suggest you visit within the next 20 years because machines, called giropalettes, are taking over from the human touch.

When the bottle is almost upside-down, and the sediment in the neck, the bottle is dipped in a freezing brine solution and the sediment is frozen into an ice plug. The bottles then rattle along the bottling line, the crown cap is removed, the sediment shoots out from the massive pressure of the bubbles, and then the final sweetness of the wine is adjusted in a process called dosage. After that the bottle is labeled, the wire muzzle placed over the cork, and a long capsule, or skirt, placed over the neck. And voila, the wine is typically shipped shortly thereafter.

So, what should you buy? And what foods should you pair these Champagnes with? Now if I wanted to make myself popular with the Champagne lover, and I’d taken her to a 2 star Michelin restaurant for an 8 course dinner, I’d go for a line-up like this.

Roederer – Cristal – Vintage
The ultimate way to declare your love, perhaps with a few oysters to up the ante.

Lanson – Noble Cuvee – Vintage
One of the great winemakers in Champagne is Jean-Paul Gandon, who makes a stunning luxury cuvee, that pairs well with smoked salmon tartare.

Taittinger – Comtes de Champagne – Vintage
This exquisite Blanc de Blancs, made just from Chardonnay, is a model of elegance, delicacy, yet intense power. Scallops St Jacques please.

Krug – La Grande Cuvee – NV
A spectacular Champagne that is very rich, and pairs well with a dish such as Halibut.

Billecart Salmon – Rose – NV
A fantastic pink Champagne, which has a touch more body than most whites, and pairs well with a morsel of veal.

Bollinger – R.D. – Old Vintage
An old Bolly that has been recently disgorged, and pairs well with creamy cheeses, such as goats cheese.

Veuve Clicquot – Demi-sec – NV
A sweet champagne, perfect with a light puff pastry with strawberries and raspberries.

Laurent Perrier – Ultra Brut – NV
This has absolutely no sugar added during the dosage, and I would explain to my new friend that it’s the equivalent of a diet Champagne, enabling one to remain slender, and best sipped as the dawn approaches.

Published on James Cluer’s The Vancouver Sun blog on Dec 9, 2011.

What to buy for $15?

The good news is that you can buy quite a few good quality wines for that amount. The fact is that most people don’t spend much more than $15 on a bottle of wine.

In sparkling wine I would buy Spanish Cava. Wines like Segura Viudas are exceptional value given that they are made in the same method as Champagne. Don’t expect anything widely complex, but instead the wine will be dry, medium to light bodied, crisp and refreshing and showing lots of green fruit.

In Sauvignon Blanc I would buy from Chile, which just inches out New Zealand which tends to be a few dollars more. In Chile look out for wine labeled as coming from the Casablanca valley. They are aromatic, pure and focus, with Sauvignon’s classic herbaceous qualities. Santa Rita can make good wines.

There are some pretty good Pinot Grigios from Italy in this price range, Chardonnays from Australia, and for a few dollars more you can buy delicious Rieslings and Gewurztraminers from Alsace. But if you really want me to name a single country that makes excellent value white wines from a multitude of different grapes it has to be Chile.

For red wines, Malbec from Argentina is excellent value. They’re deep, dark, full bodied and brimming with juicy black fruits. These are the best value red wines on the market today.

In Europe, southern Italy and southern France can offer some excellent deals on their red wines. Look for areas that are not well known. Producers here have a harder time selling their wines and that works in your favor. Portuguese reds are incredible value too and Spanish reds from La Mancha ranks amongst the best values.

Again, I would take a serious look at Chile for Merlot and inexpensive Pinot Noir. And Australia has some unbelievable prices on Shiraz. So in fact there is quite a lot of choice.

For sweet wines you typically pay more than $15 but the best values are Canadian late harvest Rieslings, sweet Chenin from the Loire valley, and you can even buy Sauternes for $20.

To cap it all off, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port is a fantastic deal with some around  $20-$25. Plus the bottle can stay open for about one week.

You usually get an increase in quality as prices go up. But there are plenty of nice wines around $15 too.