Beyond Jam and Butter: New Directions for Californian Wine

There’s so much wine, and only so much time (and bodily constitution) to drink it. Even given that, I have to admit that California wine hasn’t received its fair share of my attention for the past couple of years. And the more I taste, the more I realize how varied Californian wine is (or has become). It’s not all jam and butter anymore, and I’m finding it easier to track down Californian wines to please my palate than even two years ago.

There’s no shortage of new Californian winemakers pushing boundaries with small operations (this article by Eric Asimov offers an informative roundup). Unfortunately, here in Quebec, the SAQ doesn’t seem to have caught on yet. But, as I discovered during a recent tasting with four Californian winemakers, from Chateau St Jean, Etude, Stags’ Leap, and Beringer, there are wines of interest to be found among the older, established producers as well.

The wines I tend to like are expressive without being overly extracted and aren’t too high in alcohol. There are some cooler sites and regions within California where it’s possible to make this kind of wine, as winemakers like Jon Priest from Etude (and Randall Grahm from Bonny Doon) are proving.

We tried four different Chardonnays and for me they fell into two distinct styles: the Chateau St Jean 2011 Robert Young Chardonnay and Beringer’s Luminus Chardonnay 2012 were riper and more aromatic, while Etude’s Carneros Estate 2011 Chardonnay and Stags’ Leap Napa Valley 2011 Chardonnay were more discreet and elegant. I particularly liked the Etude, which had the advantage of a cooler 2011 vintage and a site that’s visited by afternoon fog.

I was also impressed by the overall freshness of the Cabernet Sauvignon we tried next. In the past, many Californian winemakers tried to avoid any hint of “green” notes in Cabernet Sauvignon by letting grapes mature until they were overly ripe, which can make for hyper concentrated, almost jammy wine. Based on the Cabernet Sauvignon I tasted, not everyone is afraid of a little greenness anymore, which is a good thing in my books. There was still great concentration to these wines, but freshness as well. Unfortunately, though, the price tag of higher end Californian Cabernet Sauvignon ($49-$115 for the four I tasted) pushes it out of reach for many consumers.

The real treat was tasting a couple of older vintages (a 2002 Cinq Cépages from Chateau St Jean and a 1992 Private Reserve from Beringer), which showed the ageing power of California Cab. Both were holding up beautifully.

WINE SUGGESTIONS

Unfortunately not everything we tasted is available at the SAQ, but here’s a couple that are.

Stags’ Leap, Napa Valley Chardonnay 2011 ($35 at SAQ)
Expressive, with apricot, pear, and floral notes. A touch of tart apple and citrus that keeps it fresh. Winemaker Christophe Paubert aims to protect the juice and retain the natural acidity of this wine.

Stags’ Leap, Napa Valley Petite Syrah 2009 ($40 at SAQ)
Paubert also shows his touch on this one, avoiding over-extraction, which can make for a very rustic style of Petite Syrah, and instead going for elegance. The result is concentrated without being overpowering, with flavours of blueberries, plums, and sweet spice and silky tannins. Balanced and focused.

Thanks to Treasury Wine Estates for the tasting. 

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The Bittersweet Truth About Tonic

“With its characteristic bitterness yet hint of sweetness, a classic gin and tonic is one of the cocktail world’s simplest pleasures. And now that we can choose from several premium gins at the SAQ, including Quebec-made Ungava and Piger Henricus, the drink is even more enticing.”

I have a story in today’s Montreal Gazette about artisanal tonic water. It features the made-in-Montreal 3/4 oz. Tonic Maison, and you can also check out their recipe for a classic G&T.

My go-to G&T recipe of late: 1 part Ungava gin, 1 part 3/4 oz. tonic syrup, and 3 parts Perrier. Cheers!

 

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Reflections Following A Dry January

Wine wise, 2014 got off to a slow start. I started the year with more than thirty alcohol-free days. After the indulgences of the holidays, I wanted to give my body a break, and I like to use a dry January as a chance to recalibrate both my palate and my habits. I wanted to remind myself that dinner need not be accompanied by wine to be dinner.

I guess it worked, because I cooked a lot during that time, discovering new ingredients and flavours. My favourite meals over the past few months came from two cookbooks, Jerusalem and Balaboosta. Certain Mediterranean flavours began to taste familiar: roasted eggplant or butternut squash topped with tahini, za’atar and parsley, pomegranate seeds as a crunchy, acidic highlight to rich salads (Jerusalem’s sweetly spiced roasted cauliflower and hazelnut salad became a winter dinner party staple), and meats made even richer by the addition of stewed fruits.

Since signing up for a weekly box from Lufa Farms last fall, I’ve been experimenting with new vegetables: rutabaga, Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi, celeriac, and various types of beets. And sometimes coming back to old ones: all the winter squashes and sweet potatoes, my ultimate comfort food in winter. I used my mother’s recipe to make several pots of curried sweet potato carrot soup.

Once my self-imposed detox was over, though, I was ready to add the extra layer of choosing a wine to pair with dinner. But when I came back to wine, my tastes skewed a little eclectic. One of the first I really enjoyed in 2014 was a dry sherry, Fernando de Castilla’s Amontillado. The attack was especially bright and fresh, with a taste of lemon confit, a deliciously sweet salinity running through it to add tension, and a lovely hazelnut finish. It became smoother as it evolved, and some stewed fruit notes developed, a richer taste with a hint of date, and finally candied caramel. A complex and sexy wine.

I don’t understand why the sherry craze that has hit NYC over the past few years has never migrated up to Montreal. I take the opportunity to stock up on sherry whenever I’m in NYC, although even in NYC, dry sherry isn’t exactly mainstream. Walking into a small shop like Chamber St Wines and uttering the words “dry sherry” is like giving a secret code. It opens doors, earning you a certain amount of respect.

I also branched out beyond wine to things like scotch and gin (with Montreal-made tonic – more on that next week). Sometimes it’s nice to treat your taste buds to a different flavor profile, so you can come back to the familiar and appreciate it all the more. There’s something about the heavy richness of wintery foods that has me craving something light and zippy lately. I guess I’m ready for spring.

IlBrut

WINE SUGGESTIONS

If you have palate fatigue from heavy winter fare:

Valli Unite, Il Brut and the Beast, Vino da Tavola 2011 ($21.75 by private import, La QV)
An unusual white from an organic co-operative in southern Piedmont, this is a blend of Cortese and Favorita. With aromas of pear, peach, baked apple, and brioche, it has a slight fizz to it that, together with its salinity and racy acidity, keeps it light and refreshing. It’s a hard wine to pin down, but amazingly easy to drink.

Zind-Humbrecht, “Herrenweg Turckheim” Riesling 2010 ($30.25 at SAQ)
I tasted this wine at a recent Trialto portfolio tasting and it reminded me of an almost forgotten love: Riesling. From a biodynamic producer in Alsace, this is high in flavor, acidity, and minerality, with strong citrus notes and a refreshing lift, almost a hint of bubbles. If you feel like splurging, buy an extra bottle and put it in the cellar for a couple of years.

If you need a rich red to deal with the fact that it’s still snowing:

Chateau Mourgues du Gres, Terre d’Argence, Costières de Nîmes 2010 ($21.20 at SAQ)
Costières de Nîmes is the southern most appellation of the Rhône, bordering on Languedoc, and this is a blend of 80% Syrah and 20% Grenache. A bit restrained when first opened, give this some time in a decanter and it will take you through a range of flavours—blackberries, raspberries, and red currants at first, and later cedar, herbs, clove, pepper, and licorice. It’s a bit rustic and wild, with tannins that seem grippy but later seductive. By the end of the night, it had the velvety texture of fig jam.

Mas Jullien, Terrasses du Larzac, Côteaux du Languedoc 2008 ($40.50 at SAQ for the 2010 vintage)
From Languedoc in the south of France, this is a blend of Carignan, Mouvèdre, Syrah, and Grenache. It started with a dark fruit concentration that gradually became more perfumed, blossoming into a juicy core of red fruit (pomegranate and cranberry) and faint herbal notes, with gritty yet elegant tannins. By the end of the night, it was singing pomegranates laced with garrigue, prune and plums. Smooth and mellow.

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The Search for Affordable Burgundy: Three Options for Three Budgets

My search for affordable Burgundy continues, and I’ve made a few discoveries amid pre-holiday festivities.

When starting to navigate the complicated terrain of Burgundy’s wine classification system, it helps to think first of four basic categories: regional appellations (i.e. Bourgogne AOC), village appellations (i.e. Gevrey-Chambertin), premier crus (i.e. Gevrey-Chambertin Les Cazetiers), and grand crus (i.e. Chambertin).

Generally, as you move up through those categories, the wine becomes increasingly complex, with an increasing price to match. But it’s possible to find quality wine within any of the classifications. Below are three Burgundies for three different budgets.

agnes paquet

Agnès Paquet, Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2011 ($20.45 at SAQ)

Juicy and straightforward, this recent arrival at the SAQ offers pure, easy drinking pleasure. It has lots of cranberry, cherry, and blackberry fruit, some candy and sweet spices, just a hint of that characteristic wet leaves character, and a bright acidity. Not the most complex Pinot Noir, for sure, but for the price you could hardly ask for more.

naudin_ferrand

Naudin-Ferrand, Côte-de-Nuits-Villages 2009 ($27.90 at SAQ)

A step up in complexity, with pleasing aromas of red fruit (raspberry, strawberry, cherry), mushrooms, and wet leaves. On the palate, add a dash of cloves and white pepper. If I were to write a personals ad for this wine, it would say this: smooth, soft elegance marries juicy ripeness for refined hedonistic pleasure.

Perrot Minot

Perrot-Minot, Gevrey-Chambertin 2009 ($66.00 at SAQ)

We splurged on this bottle for a Saturday night out at a bring-your-own-wine restaurant (Le Quartier Général), so my notes are sparse, but I know we really enjoyed it. Muscular yet perfumed, it was fresh red berries first, herbs and forest floor second, and some sweet licorice spice kicking in by the end. Simply lovely.

Girl on Wine will be back in January. Happy holidays!

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The Bourgeois Are Back: Crus in the Médoc

RauzanGassiesMargaux

 

“Drinking a wine like this every once in a while reminds you of why people make such a big fuss about Bordeaux,” said Kenneth.

We don’t drink a lot of Bordeaux at our house, but it was a Sunday night, and we had bought some lamb from our favourite Jean-Talon market butcher earlier in the day. So I’d gone down to the cellar and grabbed a bottle we’d brought home from a trip to Bordeaux a few years ago, a Château Rauzan-Gassies Margaux 2001.

When first opened, it was all charred wood and smoke (from the oak), but with a few hours in a decanter, the primary fruit and the perfume showed up. It transformed into a seductive tango of raspberry, mocha, and plum, reminding me that I do have room for some Bordeaux in my wine drinking dance card.

This particular iteration of my Bordeaux revelation was also inspired by a recent tasting put on by the Crus Bourgeois du Médoc.

The Médoc region of Bordeaux includes eight (and a few of Bordeaux’s most famous) appellations — Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Listrac-Médoc, Moulis en Médoc, Margaux, Saint Julien, Pauillac and Saint Estèphe. Cru Bourgeois is a designation unique to this region. It was created with the goal of acknowledging the high quality of some producers left out of the famous 1855 Bordeaux classification, which ranked châteaux into first growth (premier cru), second growth (deuxième cru), and so on.

The Crus Bourgeois designation has a checkered history in recent years, but the term has been used in the region for centuries, though not always officially. A written mention occurred as early as 1740. An official classification was drawn up in 1932, though not without some controversy.

Starting in 2000, authorities attempted to revise and further classify the Crus Bourgeois regulations, and these changes were made official in 2003 with a ministerial order that bestowed 247 out of 490 candidates with the designation. Many producers were not happy with these results, and 78 of them joined forces to challenge the ruling. They argued that there was a conflict of interest, since a few jurors owned Cru Bourgeois vineyards themselves. The 2003 decree was finally annulled in 2007, and suddenly use of the historic term was made illegal.

Many weren’t ready to give up on “Cru Bourgeois”, however, and campaigning for its revival started in 2009. The rules were changed, and an official selection process was published, with the idea was that individual wines (instead of the château) would be awarded the designation as a marker of quality. Any winemaker authorized to produce wine in one of Médoc’s 8 AOCs can submit their wine once per year. All samples are tasted blind and evaluated by a jury, and must receive a certain score to qualify for “Cru Bourgeois” status.

New sticker denoting Cru Bourgeois status on bottles

New sticker denoting Cru Bourgeois status on bottles

For the 2010 vintage, 260 châteaux were awarded the designation, and I recently tasted nine of them. If you’re looking to buy Bordeaux and don’t want to shell out for the first or second growths, these wines can offer great value with a certain assurance of quality. My tasting notes below.

Château Lousteauneuf, Médoc 2010 ($24.55 at SAQ): Bursting with fruit and a bit easy yet pleasant. Goes a touch flat on the mid-palate, but comes back with a strong finish. Hints of herbal notes and more savoury flavours if you give it a chance.

Château Les Grands Chênes, Médoc 2010 ($31.75 at SAQ): Soft red fruit that’s not as explosive as the previous wine. Spicy wood notes and a certain “smoothed-out-ness” from new oak and malolactic fermentation.

Château Cambon La Pelouse, Haut-Médoc 2010 ($28.20 at SAQ): More tension to the fruit, more acidity, and generally more going on. Red fruit with underlying savory smoky notes. Approachable.

Château D’Agassac, Haut-Médoc 2010 ($31.00 at SAQ): More exuberant and berry flavoured, with hints of mint and more tannic structure. The most charming of the bunch, with luscious, seductive fruit.

Château Cap Leon Veyrin, Listrac-Médoc 2010 ($27.10 at SAQ): Complex and aromatically interesting, with perfumed violet notes. Red berries, spice, and a mouth-coating tannic structure. Enjoyed the freshness and tension running through it, like small red berries dancing and bursting on the tongue.

Château Anthonic, Moulis-en-Médoc 2010 ($29.35 at SAQ): More discrete, elegant, and restrained, with a nice maturity to the fruit. Well balanced and evolving toward more savory, umami balsamic flavours and a certain salinity. A hint of mushroom along with the red fruit. Smooth, yet not too smoothed out like some of the previous wines, resulting in more character. Silky elegance to the not-too-present tannins. Love the tension between silky texture and tannic structure.

Château D’Arsac, Margaux 2010 ($39.25 at SAQ): More evolved aromas of smoke, meat, and humus, with a hint of green pepper. A more mature, savory and tertiary-driven palate; moving away from primary fruit toward meaty, animal, and leather notes. The fruit is darker and more stewed. Prune, mushroom, wood underbrush, a touch of cedar. Enjoyed this wine a lot.

Château Haut-Bages Monpelou, Pauillac 2010 ($40.25 at SAQ): Evolved woodsy, mushroom, animal, and spicy aromas like the previous wine, but with more polished fruit on the palate, like someone’s come along to round it out with a polishing cloth. Yet there’s still a freshness to the fruit, and a pleasing depth. To me this was less interesting than the Margaux, but I think this is a style many would enjoy and indeed look for when they think Bordeaux.

Château Tour des Termes, Saint-Estèphe 2010 ($40.25 at SAQ): Pure aromas of cassis and fresh herbs, like a breath of fresh air. Same purity of cassis fruit on the palate, almost like blackberry syrup. Smooth, with a certain quiet elegance, although the fruit does again feel rounded out. Love the purity and grace even if the concentration of fruit brings it to an overly loud whisper.

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