Wine for Transitory Times

Maybe it’s because I’ve just returned from the searing heat of Indian summer, but it doesn’t feel like spring has sprung quite yet in Montreal. I’m still gripped by a chill in the air. Yet there’s something endlessly fascinating about Montreal and its inhabitants at this time of year. Just watch how everyone embraces each early glimpse of sunlight and warmth with pure abandon, face upturned to that long-dormant deity.

To me the interesting thing about these transitory times is the flexibility it leaves for wine: almost anything goes. A richer red to deal with that rainy chill, a light, high acid white for when the sun’s out, a broader, fleshier white to pair with Quebec snow crab (one of my favourite things about spring in Montreal), or a light, juicy red for something in between. Or how about some bubbles? You can almost never go wrong with bubbles.

Returning from India has also made me appreciate the tremendous variety of wine we have available here in Quebec. In India, wine culture was virtually nonexistent until fairly recently. Although wine consumption is increasingly rapidly, wine drinkers are still relatively few in terms of the overall population. Whiskey and beer are much more popular beverages, and on a typical menu you’re likely to find more varieties of whiskey than wine. Wine is generally limited to a few Indian selections (usually the same brands, with Sula Vineyards by far the most popular choice) or a sprinkling of imported bottles (usually big names and almost laughably expensive – think $100 for a bottle of Jacob’s Creek).

And so, a few suggestions as we transition into (hopefully) warmer times…

WINE SUGGESTIONS

For the terrace, before the sun goes down…

Aveleda Vinho Verde 2013 ($11.55 at SAQ)
It’s rare that I find a wine I feel comfortable recommending for under $15. So when I tried this Vinho Verde during a seminar with Véronique Rivest at a Wines of Portugal tasting the other day, I was impressed by its fruity freshness, but even more so by its price. Characteristic of Vinho Verde, it has just a touch of fizz, with clean flavours of green apple and citrus. For affordable terrace sipping, you really can’t beat it.

Goisot

A broader, fleshier white…

Goisot Exogyra Virgula Saint-Bris 2012 ($22.80 at SAQ)
A Sauvignon Blanc from Burgundy? Yes! A few kilometers southwest of Chablis, Saint-Bris became an official appellation in 2001, a recognition of its cool climate Sauvignon Blanc. I first discovered biodynamic producer Goisot at the marché bio in Paris last summer, and was happy to see their wine on SAQ shelves when I returned to Montreal. Expressive and unusual, this has flavours of tropical fruit and citrus, with a fleshy texture that lends weight to the focused, mineral-driven core.

Campolargo

An unusual red that’s somewhere in between…

Campolargo Baga Bairrada 2011 ($26.00 at SAQ)
This producer was my favourite discovery from the Wines of Portugal tasting. With a sparkling rosé, some unusual whites and fresh reds, Campolargo’s wines stood out. This particular wine is made from the Portuguese grape Baga, which can be very tannic and heavy in the wrong hands. (It’s a grape that producers love or hate, or perhaps love to hate, as Véronique Rivest suggested during the seminar.) In these hands, however, it’s fresh, fruity, and spicy, with a distinct smokiness that adds an unusual charm.

Bisol

Bubbles! Rosé! Two for one…

Bisol Talento Rosé Brut Vénétie 2005 ($32 at SAQ)
This wine is more of a splurge than the others, but I think it’s a worthy candidate to celebrate the arrival of spring. I tried it at a recent picnic-themed tasting at oenopole. A gorgeous golden orange pink colour in the glass, it drinks dry, with savory, bready notes, wild strawberries, and a touch of salinity to it. Made with 100% Pinot Noir, it’s super fresh and easy to drink. Perfect for a pre-BBQ apéro  on a warm spring evening.

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The Girl on Wine Guide to A Night Out in Brooklyn

Studying fortified wine at the IWC

Studying fortified wine at the IWC

 

I occasionally go to NYC and venture into Manhattan to take classes or exams at the International Wine Center as part of my WSET Diploma program. I spent last week in NYC so I could attend the fortified and sparkling wine units. Lately though, it’s Brooklyn, not Manhattan, that has my heart, and I’ve taken every opportunity to stay there and explore. By now I’ve made some discoveries, so here I give you my wine (and cocktail) geek guide for a night out in Brooklyn in three different neighbourhoods.

WILLIAMSBURG

The hipper-than-hip Bedford Avenue strip at the heart of Williamsburg has gotten a little overwhelming for my tastes. Things are calmer on the other side of the tracks (meaning the highway that divides the neighborhood) in South Williamsburg.

Start with one of the house cocktails or craft beers at Burnside, a cozy rustic-chic bar with a Midwestern theme. Next, move on for dinner at Shalom Japan, a Jewish-Japanese (yes, you read right) fusion place. Skeptical? I was too, until I tried the food, which was delicate, flavorful, and delicious.

But what impressed me even more was their wine list. By the glass or the bottle, this list is a hidden gem. There are several sherries on offer, as well as what was possibly the best selection of Hungarian and Croatian wine I’ve seen. Fancy a glass of Hungarian Hárslevelű or Crotian Plavac Mali? This is your spot. The list is divided into helpful subsections, including “Nerdy Whites” and “Nerdy Reds.”

My favourite discovery of the night was a “nerdy white,” Fekete Béla’s Juhfark 2009 from the Hungarian region of Somló. It was a concentrated, mineral-driven white with high acidity, a distinctive smoky note, and a pleasing touch of bitterness. It was my first experience with the Juhfark grape, and I believe I’ll be back for more.

For something a little more classically Williamsburg (if such a thing can be said to exist, and yes, I do mean hipster), check out Reynard in the Wythe Hotel for their natural wine-focused, French-heavy wine list. The boy on wine and I enjoyed a bottle of Philippe Bornard’s Trousseau “Le Ginglet” 2010 from Arbois Pupillin (Jura) there back in March after I wrote a particularly challenging exam.

Oh, and a Williamsburg bonus, if you still have the energy: to go local, try post-dinner drinks and cheese at Brooklyn Winery.

PROSPECT HEIGHTS

If you want to get a little culture in before eating and drinking, check out the Brooklyn Museum. I really liked its blend of historical and contemporary exhibits. Then head down the street for a cocktail at Tooker Alley, a Prohibition era-inspired cocktail bar. I stuck with a classic, an old fashioned, but they also have modern twists on classic cocktails.

Old fashioned at Tooker Alley

Old fashioned at Tooker Alley

 

When the hunger hits, head to rustic Italian eatery Franny’s, a Brooklyn institution. They don’t take reservations, so be prepared to wait in line, but their fantastic Italian wine list (according to Eric Asimov, one of the best in the city) makes it worth the wait. Being gluten intolerant, I didn’t indulge in their specialty, pizza, but the boy on wine assured me it was a damn fine pizza.

If pizza’s not your thing, you can easily make a meal of their antipasto dishes, or opt for polenta or pasta. There’s a reason this place is always packed, although the corollary to that is that I felt a little rushed through the meal. All part of the experience, but it kept me from indulging in the fantastic wine list as much as I would have liked.

But at least that leaves room for post-dinner drinks. Since they have no outdoor sign, stepping into Weather Up feels a bit like walking into a modern take on an underground speakeasy. The cocktail list is creative, the waiters (even the men) all wear their hair in fashionable braids, and if you wait long enough you can snag one of two booths in the front or a seat at the bar. Otherwise, stand around sipping a cocktail through a metal straw and soak up the vibe.

PARK SLOPE

The NYC wine bar to end all NYC wine bars, Terroir has a new outpost and it’s in Park Slope. I could easily spend a couple of hours reading through their quirky tome of a wine list, but my eye was caught early on by a whole page dedicated to sherry and madeira. The happy hour truly made me happy, as it featured those wines for as little as $2.50 a glass. In the interests of studying for my fortified wine tasting exam, I took advantage.

For dinner, trundle over to Applewood, a farm-to-table style restaurant with matching farmhouse décor that makes you feel like you’ve stepped into someone’s country house (it reminded me a bit of Montreal’s Nora Gray). Their tasting menu features sustainable, somewhat-locally-sourced ingredients (sautéed Long Island manila clams, pan-roasted New Hampshire rabbit saddle) and is worth the splurge (only $30 per person if you go Monday through Thursday). We opted for the reasonably priced wine pairings ($16 per person), and I happily tried my first sparkling wine from New Mexico.

And that’s only three of Brooklyn’s neighbourhoods – I have so many left to eat and drink my way through!

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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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