Ruminations: One of the Wine Industry’s Colossal Questions

On January 31st, 2014, at the Vancouver Public Library, wine lovers and experts alike had the opportunity to come together to discuss one of the wine industry’s colossal questions: Does wine begin in the vineyard or in the winery?

Some of British Columbia’s biggest names were in attendance at The Grape Debate to assist with the discussion, including:
*Sid Cross — Honorary President of the International Wine & Food Society
*Ann Sperling — Winemaker for Sperling Vineyards and Clos du Soleil
*Val Tait — Co-owner and GM at Bench 1775
*David Scholefield — VP Wine Strategy, Wine Advisor, Okanagan Crush Pad
*Kathy Malone — Winemaker for Hillside Winery
*Howard Soon — Master Winemaker for Sandhill Wines

The debate was moderated by talented DJ Kearney.

Many folks were discussing their points of view prior to the panel sharing their viewpoints, and it was intriguing to see how intently folks were engaged in what this group of writers, advisors, viticulturalists, and winemakers were bringing to the table.

I decided it would be interesting to take this colossal question outside of the debate. My objective was to get the opinions of people who are in the wine industry, to tell me what side they would take if they were to examine this question themselves. I contacted Russell Ball from Adventures in BC Wine and the editor for the British Columbia Wine Appreciation Society Newsletter, Luke Whittall of Wine Country BC and a Black Hills Winery “Wine Evangelist”, tythewineguy who is an avid wine lover in addition to working for Liberty Wine Merchants, and Conrad – a popular wine writer from the group called “The Wine Wankers” out of Australia.

To be honest, going into this little side project, I was thinking that having four opinions would result in a similar situation as at the debate: about a 50/50 split. I, personally, went into this debate with a sturdy opinion that wine begins in the vineyard. I won’t reveal where I’m at now until the very end. Hey! Don’t deny it; this question isn’t easy to answer!

During the debate, David Scholefield made an interesting point with regards to both wine in general and BC wine. In summary, his thought process was that there are two kinds of wine: “commodity wine” (being wine that people buy to simply consume on a daily basis) and “wine of interest” (wine that is more valuable, rare, not for everyday drinking). Commodity wine, as Scholefield implied, involves the ability to produce vast quantities to IMG_1517meet consumer demand. He went on to say that British Columbia could never make commodity wine because we just do not have the space to plant that many vines. As a result, wine begins in the vineyard because it is about the romance and the story about where the wine originated. Wine is unique and distinct because of the vineyard and the land from which it “came from”. Bring that all together and BC’s wine industry is, according to Scholefield, making “wine of interest” from the land.

“Yes!” I thought during the debate. “One point for the vineyard team!” Luke Whittall took a similar stance post-ponder and agreed that the vineyard is where wine originates:

Great wine is made in the vineyard. The most consistently high quality wines come from parcels of land that have unique soils. However, the vast majority of wines sold in liquor stores are not ‘great wines.’ That doesn’t mean that they aren’t good wines or can’t be someone’s favourite. It just means that the vineyard’s influence has been blended, processed, or otherwise manipulated out so that they wine is less expensive, more widely appealing, ready to drink sooner, and/or consistent year to year.

Both Scholefield and Whittall have made some interesting arguments for why wine starts in the vineyard. The terroir is a critical factor in how the final product – the wine we drink – is perceived and enjoyed. Whittall’s argument is that plots of land that bear interesting soil or terroir tend to produce higher quality (and more intriguing) wines. Take into consideration Karen MacNeil’s advice on “Matching the Right Grapes to the Right Ground” in her book The Wine Bible:

Great wine can only result when the grape variety is tuned in, like the signal on a radio dial, to the “channel” of its environment. To continue the metaphor, when a grape variety is less perfectly suited to its environment, you can still hear the music, but it doesn’t have the same sound quality. (p. 21)

Some of the best wines in the world come from France. It would be argued that the best wines come from this Old World country. The concept of how terroir effects wine was birthed in France and flourished as French winemakers began to read their land. MacNeil additionally points out that, “…the French have been so convinced that nature and geography make the wine that there has never been a French word for winemaker” (p. 112). Not convinced yet that wine begins in the vineyard? Sid Cross passionately purveyed that soil, topography, and climate are key factors in making wine. Terroir-driven areas like lakes, hills, and various elevations all exist here in BC, but BC doesn’t recognize that yet. I quoted Cross as saying, “Terroir speaks everywhere but in BC … but it will in 10 years”. Why not right now? I suspect it has something to do with the fact that BC is still “playing around” or “fine tuning” the varietals that sing the loudest in our beautiful viticultural area.

Conrad, from The Wine Wankers, posed an interesting question when he said,

Hmmmm, does wine begin in the vineyard or in the winery?  This is almost like the old clichéd chicken and the egg, almost, but not really.  Although you can eat grapes separately to wine, like you can eat an egg separately to a chicken (or is that the other way around?), wine doesn’t exist in the form we all love until right at the end of the process.  So does this mean that the end process, a function of the winery, is the most important process and where the actual wine itself begins?

Well of course not.  Yes, technically that is wine begins to turn into the magic elixir we adore, and it is crucial to get the wine making spot-on to create the best drop, but the characteristics that make up the wine actually begin in the vineyard and without good grapes you cannot have good wine.  It’s the location of the vineyard, its soils and environment, and the farming decisions made that produce the best quality grapes.  So a wine always begins in the vineyard and then transitions to the winery where the magic IMG_2228is completed.

It’s warm here in Aus so I think I might have a chicken and egg salad tonight washed down with an average Aussie Chardonnay that had great wine making applied to it.

I’m in total agreement here. You just can’t have good wine without good grapes. I adore the idea that the winery is where the “magic is completed”.  The significance of Conrad’s point is irrefutable. If the grapes are grown well in the vineyard, then the winemaker simply needs to complete the crafting process. What’s the score so far? I’ve lost count. A glass of Aussie Chard and a chicken and egg salad sounds lovely right about now…

[pause] [stomach gurgle] [crickets chirping]

Moving on then! So, what about those who genuinely believe that wine begins in the winery? When I asked tythewineguy, his response was not only fun, but practical:

“Grapes begin in the vineyard.
Yeasts exist in the vineyard, winery and (today) in the laboratory.
It is the decision or non-decision of the winemaker as to which, when, where and how these two interact.
There is nothing “natural” about the processes and decisions of creating fine wine, although it tastes sometimes, quite de-vine.

His point, from my interpretation, is that you get grapes from the vineyard and wine from the winery. Thus, wine is the result of both artistry and competence in the winery by the winemaker. The winemaker takes what comes from the land and uses his/her skill sets in order to creatively craft what is consumed. Wine is not simply the direct product of Mother Nature’s fruitfulness; the winemaker must assess and consciously decide how to go about turning grapes into fine wine.

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Me doing battonage in a winery, Oct. 2012

Ann Sperling, being one of Canada’s top winemakers, had her own opinion. Of course she leaned on the side of wine being made in the winery. Her opinion, in summary, was that you will never be able to “define” a wine when there is no style, type, etc., attributed to it. These wine “genres”, as she called them, illuminate the artistry of wine making. There are genres within genres in wine making. Essentially, it is the winemaker who takes a natural, agricultural product and examines (or envisions) a final, good wine. It is the application of these genres where wine is made…in the winery.

Kathy Malone argued that wine needs intervention. Without intervention, wine will not only go bad, but it will never have the potential that it could. The “parameters and protocol” that winemakers use change all aspects of wine and how it is expressed. For example, a wine expresses itself on the mid-palate differently as a result of using yeasts or oak. Malone believes that wine begins in the winery, as it “allows terroir to speak”.

Russell Ball’s quote illuminates where I stood by the end of the debate on that cold Vancouver night:

One got the sense over time that even the debaters themselves were agreeing with one another, that in fact both facets contribute vital importance to wine. As Howard Soon declared, “it’s a bum question – the implication that it’s one or the other.” That was certainly my own take, especially when my wife noted the number of times the vineyard team mentioned “the potential” of the grapes, inadvertently revealing the necessity for a winemaker to complete the process. It didn’t really take much for the audience to come to the realization that both terroir and talent are required for great wine, made all the more obvious by how many people held up both voting cards when Moderator Kearney sought our opinion at the end! Maybe not as dramatic a debate as last year’s question about BC’s need for a signature grape, but it was certainly exciting to see the industry stalwarts and visionaries assembled on the panel contributing thoughtful (and entertaining) analysis to the issue.

Where does that leave things? I cannot fathom that wine is merely just made in the vineyard or in the winery. Without grapes, you can’t make wine. Without good grapes, you don’t have the potential to make good wine. What happens if you take good grapes and make “bad” wine? Well, then you’ve made bad wine, but you’ve still made wine using grapes that came from a vineyard. I’m convinced that you cannot separate the two; wine and wine making are like two peas in a pod, an old married couple who still hold hands, two lovers sharing a kiss, peanut butter and jelly….chicken and egg salad sandwiches with an Aussie Chard…

What do you believe? Welcome to one of the wine industry’s colossal questions.

Cheers!

The Perfect Date: Castello di Bossi Chianti Classico

So, you’ve been out on a few dates. You still have hope that one of these nights, you’ll actually meet someone worth spending time with. As time goes on though, you start to become weary that it just “ain’t gonna happen”. Friday nights turn into dates with your television, watching re-runs of Three’s Company or Sex in the City. Your idea of romance is the flickering candle beside the couch that casts a soft light across your flannel pajamas. Hey! They’re comfy.

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Photo by Valerie Stride 2014

…If this scenario sparks any sort of “Oh crap, that’s me” feelings, it is now time to go out and get yourself some 2009 Castello di Bossi Chianti Classico DOCG. No disappointments, no awkward conversations over your spaghetti-stained shirt, and definitely no texts to your friends asking them to rescue you by making the “emergency phone call”. (Do people actually do that?)

What you’ll get with this wine is simple, but not simple. Let me explain.

The simple part is that you’ll get straight-up quality from this producer. According to Tony Aspler,

Chianti can be a hit or miss proposition depending upon the producer. A good Chianti should have some evident red berry fruit with a fine spine of acidity, slightly bitter on the finish with a tannic bite. Too often they are sour and weak-kneed.

-from The Wine Lover’s Companion, 1994, pp. 181.

Honestly, this was one of the nicest Chianti’s I’ve had. This is where the not simple part comes in. With about 5 years age on it, this Chianti is quite complex and has developed a personality. The acidity is still quite high and its tannin structure is still holding up. I would not even come close to calling the Castello di Bossi “weak-kneed”; it was more like a well-toned, brown-haired, green-eyed babe, confidently gazing up from the glass… (Wait, did I just say that out loud? Inside voice, Valerie, inside voice!)

More on Chianti…

“Italy’s most important red wine, Chianti (including Chianti Classico) DOCG comes from central Tuscany. Although it can be made from a blend of varieties, classic Chianti is dominated by Sangiovese, as is Italy’s first DOCG wine, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG. [...] Much basic Chianti is inexpensive and simple but better wines coming from sub-regions such as Chianti Classico DOCG are among Italy’s finest.”

-from Wines and Spirits: Looking Behind the Label, 2011, pp. 46

Castello di Bossi’s Chianti Classico 2009 is made from 100% Sangiovese grapes, and was rested for 10-12 months on property. Other intriguing notes of this wine include red plum, licorice, raspberry, cherry, and light notes of both rose petal and clove. The palate distinguished itself by adding hints of toast, leather, and Morello cherry.

At about $35 a bottle, I figure it’s a win-win situation here, even if you didn’t appreciate my metaphor of this wine being a good substitute for a possible-bad-date-night.

Oh! One last note. Looking at the bottle, “Bacci” appears mid-label. When translated, this word means “berry” (which makes total sense since we are dealing with grapes here), but I’ll continue living in my dream world, where I remove one of the “c’s” and the word becomes “baci” — meaning kiss.

Passionate-Kiss

Cheers!

…Zweigelt Rhymes With What?

Alright, well, if you figure that out, let me know. I don’t have a clue what Zweigelt rhymes with. I could take a few stabs at it, but how about I’ll just take a few more sips instead?

A crossing of Blaufrankisch and St. Laurent, Zweigelt is “the most widely planted black variety [in Austria] [...] which gives very deep-coloured reds with soft tannins and bramble fruit” (Wines and Spirits: Understanding Style and Quality pp.128). This grape is named after the person who pioneered it – Dr. Zweigelt. Aside from originating in Austria, this lovely country that is called Canada is one of the few places on this globe that plants Zweigelt in any large capacity. As I have said in previous blog entries, I like how Canada (particularly British Columbia) plants “unpopular” varietals. Where else in the world can you find significant plantings of Marechal Foch or Ehrenfelser? Win.

Recently, I was able to buy a bottle of Arrowleaf Cellars Zweigelt (2011 vintage) at the wine shop. Actually, to be honest, I was working the day it arrived in store, and I had to purchase it that night. How could I resist? How many Zweigelt’s do you see in your local wine shops? Yeah, I thought so.

Photo by Valerie Stride 2014

Photo by Valerie Stride 2014

Obviously, there are some producers who are taking the time to cultivate this not-so-sought-after vitis vinifera varietal. Arrowleaf Cellars from Lake Country (just north of Kelowna) is one of them. Originally, I tasted their Zweigelt in 2012 while on a wine tour of the beautiful city that is Kelowna. It was the first time I ever tried it, and I clearly never forgot it.

Wine made from this grape is seriously approachable. Who needs overly jammy Zinfandel, when you can have supple, intense red and black fruit flavours from a variety you have never even heard of before? Point, right? Don’t get me wrong! I do enjoy jammy Zin, and in all honesty, there are similar characteristics between the two. However, Zweigelt is, in my humble opinion, more classy. There is a poetic softness about it, and it sings peppery notes, boasts of bright berries, and allows you to stop and smell the…violets?

At any rate, if you have never tried Zweigelt, now is your chance. It’s out there, and you know it’s out there. There’s simply no excuse now.

Arrowleaf Cellars’ Zweigelt goes for about $20.00. I know other producers like Kalala and Mt. Boucherie are also making wine from this grape that, well, doesn’t rhyme with anything. Oh, right. It’s unique.

Cheers!

Demystified Vine’s 13 Most Memorable Wines of 2013

TWENTY-THIRTEEN was a fantastic year for trying new libations. It was like I had met Prince Charming…or something.

Last year I wrote “Demystified Vine’s 12 Most Memorable Wines of 2012″. This year, I added one. I know you can do the math though.

Working the entire year in a local & private Vancouver wine shop assisted me with this wine journey, but I am very lucky to say that I have friends who know my passion and invite me into their homes to try interesting wines, too. I’m a lucky gal.

As I’ve said in previous entries, I don’t believe in points systems, but I do believe in experience. As a result, the wines I will mention here today are in no particular order. Each wine pleasantly branded (no pun intended) itself into my memory, and when I was deriving my list, these were the 13 that I quickly listed. Then again, there’s only room for 13 on this self-marketed list. Fortunately, I’m an optimist; next year there will be an extra spot!

01. Caruso & Minini Terre Di Giumara Frappato Nerello Mascalese 2012
Disclaimer: I love strange and unknown varietals. Robert Stelmachuk (@wineunion) informed me that this was a “hug in a bottle”. He wasn’t lying. Bright, dark fruit notes (ie. blackcurrant), silky tannin, velvety chocolate notes, and good overall structure. I’ll take this hug anytime.

02. Clos du Soleil Signature 2010
From the up-and-coming Similkameen Valley region of British Columbia, this bold red will last until 2020 if cellared correctly. A Bordeaux-style blend made predominantly from Merlot, this graceful wine is abundant with cassis, blackberry, black cherry, dark chocolate, and soft vanilla notes. Lucky me; I have a magnum to enjoy one day.

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03. Mezzacorona Teraldego Rotaliano 2009 Riserva
What are you looking for in a red wine? Red fruit? Black fruit? Earthiness? Spiciness? Good tannin structure? Good body and acid? Oh. Good. Try this wine. It’s only made in the very best years. I told you I liked trying wines that aren’t well known.

04. 8th Generation Pinot Meunier Rose 2012
One of the funkiest (in an unconventional and fashionable kind of way) roses of Canada, this Pinot Meunier-based beauty is full of tart fruits, earthiness, and zeal. It’s the kind of rose that confidently states, “I’m different, and I know you’ll be back.”

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05. Chateau Pajzos Tokaji Aszu 3 puttonyos 2003
Yeah, so, picture this: honeyed pear, dried apricots, Sultana raisin, hints of stone fruit. The charm of this wine was alluring. I remember the silence in the room as my coworkers and myself sat around at a gathering and listened to what it was saying to us.

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06. Cremaschi Furlotti Carmenere 2009
You can’t get more textbook Carmenere than this…except that this was exceptionally good Carmenere. I was disappointed that I didn’t put a few more bottles on hold; I sold cases of this stuff, and I turned people on to Carmenere. I’ll never forget this vintage. *shakes head*

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07. Nichol Vineyards Cabernet Franc Syrah 2007
Interested in how well British Columbia red wine can be? You might not want to miss this. I’m tempted to use my Teraldego Rotaliano blurb again (see above). This wine’s characteristics are so well integrated that it could totally rival some of France’s beauties. It has a smooth sophistication about it that oozes fearlessness.

8. Proyecto Garnachas de Espana “Salvaje del Moncayo” 2011
A superb red based on old vines Grenache. It’s savory, full-flavoured, and respectable. A sheer medium-bodied winner at its price point for ~$24.00. A beautiful label to boot…but that’s not why I bought it. The entire wine industry was going a bit crazy for it when it arrived. I took a chance and won.

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09. Torres Ibericos Crianza Rioja Tempranillo 2010
Bold. Complex. Silencing. Mysterious. That is all.

10. Remoissenet Pere & Fils Volnay 1er Cru 1978
Does this need a blurb?

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11. Nk’Mip Qwam Qwmt Riesling Icewine 2012
I’ve had a lot of sweet/dessert wines. I’ve had quite a few Icewines. Nothing has compared to this. Blown away by its complexity, this Icewine has poise, purity, and precision. When I’m getting into alliteration, you know it must be positively pleasing. Oh, and it got 100 points or something.

12. Silkscarf Viognier 2012
The best Viognier I have ever tried in BC thus far. If you think one can beat this, tell me.

13. Domaine Calot Morgon “Tete de Cuvee” 2011
Perfectly comforting on a cold night, this unobtrusive, smooth red paired perfectly with good conversation and charcuterie with winecountryBC at a local restaurant. He informed me that it was good. I trust his judgement, so I bought it. This Morgon was graceful.

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If you have any questions about where to find some of these wines, leave me a comment.

Cheers!

Chateau du Coing de St Fiacre – Muscadet Sevre et Maine

A good Muscadet soothes the soul, and to be even more frank, it also packs a good punch with a variety of holiday foods such as freshly-shucked oysters and light cheeses. Savoring this wine is easy with chevre or mild cheddar.

I recently had the chance to try Chateau du Coing de St Fiacre’s Muscadet Sevre et Maine Sur Lie – a wine we carry at the wine shop I work at.

For your education and entertainment, Muscadet comes from the most westerly region of the Loire Valley in France – most specifically in the Nantais area. This area practically touches the Atlantic Ocean, signalling that cultural dishes include lots of seafood. Muscadet Sevre et Maine AC is a smaller area within the region of Muscadet AC, where Melon Blanc, the grape that makes Muscadet’s wines, is widely planted. The soils in the Muscadet AC areas are a mix of rock: granite, gneiss, and schist. The term “sur lie” means the wine spent time on its lees or yeast cells. Leaving a wine “sur lie” imparts both a yeasty character and more body.

The Chateau du Coing de St Fiacre delightfully tickled my fancy because of its character. Clean on both bouquet and palate, this Muscadet had amusing notes of peaches and cream, freshly-picked apple, and Bartlett pear. Light in intensity but with good body, this wine glimmered with mineral hues – chalky, limestone, and wet rock notes. On the palate, fresh citrus fruits gave way to a Honeycrisp apple note.

Photo credit: Valerie Stride 2013

Photo credit: Valerie Stride 2013

At a price point of about $20 CAD, this is both an affordable wine for the holidays, and would impress family members alike alongside some veritable holiday nibbles.

Cheers!

Bloom – What is it?

Yes, yes, I know you know what “bloom” means.

In noun form, we’re looking at a general name for a flower – particularly one that is created specifically for its beauty – like a rose, for instance.

Yes, yes, I know you know what the other meaning is – the verb form whereby it shows the action of growth; an opening of the bulb or the general means of being “in flowering”.

Yes, yes, friends, but what about the other meaning?

According to www.thefreedictionary.com, “bloom” is also:

a. A waxy or powdery whitish to bluish coating on the surface of certain plant parts, as on cabbage leaves or on a plum or grape.
b. A similar coating, as on newly minted coins.

c. Grayish blotches or streaks on the surface of chocolate produced by the formation of cocoa butter crystals.

Well, there you go. I didn’t know about (b) or (c), so I learned something in this process of trying to demystify something for you! Lovely!

Let’s take a closer look at (a).

You’re in the grocery store, walking around the fruits & vegetables section. From afar, you see piles of green and red clusters sitting in bags that are half-folded open or zip-locked shut. Apples mean nothing at this point, and oranges can wait. You carefully maneuver your crooked-wheel shopping cart over to the grape stand…and it is grape! >Groan< What?

You start eyeing all the bags of fruit, picking a few up to check and see how many grape berries have shriveled or are moldy, and then you spot that “white stuff”.

There it is, folks. The white stuff. I used to think, before I became educated, that it was a pesticide residue or really weird dirt…or…even dust!

Bloom on grapes in vineyard. Photo Copyright 2012 Valerie Stride

Bloom on grapes in vineyard.
Photo Copyright 2012 Valerie Stride

Bloom, however, is a very natural substance; for you chemists out there, it is also known as oleanolic acid. Oleanolic acid is “widely distributed in food and medicinal plants” and “exhibits antitumor and antiviral properties”. For a reference on those quotes, in addition to a lovely little picture of the chemical itself, click here onto the wikipedia page. It’s duty in relation to grapes is to protect those precious grape berries from decomposition and helps prevent a those plump, beautiful berries from wrinkling too soon. So, the next time you’re in the vineyard (or grocery store for that matter) and you’re strolling past those lovely grapes, you can give people the low-down on what that white powdery stuff is on those berries!
Cheers!

Wine Diamonds

…You’re about to open that bottle of wine that you’ve been saving for a long time now. You carefully push the sharply-tipped screw into what you believe to be the centre of the cork. You twist. You twist some more. You twist again. You then proceed to push the arms of the corkscrew down, slowly lifting that cork. Pop.

Your next move: look at and smell the cork. But wait! What are those shiny crystal-like things attached to the bottom of your cork? They look like diamonds!

Too bad they’re not worth the same amount as diamonds, but they are diamonds – wine diamonds!

So, what exactly is a “wine diamond” you ask?

Don’t fear, dear readers. These are natural occurrences, and are more common than rare. Wine diamonds can be seen more frequently on the corks of white wines of the world, but one can stumble across them in reds, too.

According to the Wine Doctor, Mr. Edward Finstein, wine diamonds are:

…potassium bitartrate crystals that result if a wine is not cold-stabilized. Believe it or not, they are actually a good sign in a wine, implying reasonable quality. Their appearance means the wine hasn’t been pasteurized (heated) and then quickly chilled before bottling. [...] Although unsightly, they are totally harmless with no colour or taste.

From Ask the Wine Doctor, 2002, pp. 232.

I was once taking a tour of the Okanagan with my colleague Brenda Latta, and we stopped into 8th Generation winery. Stefanie Schales (nee Frank), founder of 8th Generation Vineyards in 2007, took Brenda and myself on a quaint tour of the vineyard and winery. In the tasting room, she showed us a vase filled with wine diamonds, that had been collected from their tanks. Take a look!

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Photo by Valerie Stride

So, the next time you uncork that bottle of wine and you see those tiny little crystals staring you in the face, remember that it’s not a fault. It is probably a sign of good things to come.

Cheers!