Friday, October 31, 2008

Cheap Portugal: 2006 Meia Encosta

Exploring the world's obscure grapes has resulted in some positive surprises, with Portuguese wines amongst the pleasantest surprises. Working with a unique slate of grapes this legendary producer of sticky reds is fashioning some great dry, red wines. From cheapo to mid-priced to high-end I have been very impressed, so a recommendation from the local SAQ was all I needed to take home this $10 wine.

The cherry red 2006 Meia Encosta (Dão) showed a nice nose of smokey bacon fat, pencil shavings, raspberry, and new leather. Simply textured, with crisp, juicy berry fruit, good structure and a short, smokey finish, it won't win any tastings but could be the king of mid-week wines.
Cork. 12% alcohol
Score: 15/20
Cost: C$10.45 (SAQ)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Taking on the Northern Rhone

Our tasting group, the inspiration for this blog, has been meeting for five years now. Over nearly 40 formal tastings we have torn apart and dissected most of the world's key wine regions and grapes in blinded, theme-based tastings, but we have never critiqued the syrah-based reds of the northern Rhône. This glaring omission was corrected tonight, with eight tasters taking on six of the region's greats.

After warming up our palates with some fine Burgundies we turned our attention to these northern Rhône treasures: four Hermitages, one Côte-Rôtie and one Cornas, ranging from 3 to 19 years of age. We even had a Parker 100-point wine at the table...

Some nights our group can be quite consensual, but other times our individual rankings are all over the map - tonight was one of those nights:

The winner of tonight's tasting was the youngster, Ash's 2005 Delas Frères Côte-Rôtie 'Seigneur de Maugiron', a wine ranked amongst the top 3 for most tasters. A youthful nose of spicy fresh berries, white pepper, violets and a flinty earthiness. The palate was a velvety carpet of dark berry fruit - fruitier than most of tonights offerings - but with a pleasing long finish and a nice minerally, acidic backbone. My third choice amongst this impressive flight of wines. I wonder if you threw this into an Aussie tasting, would anyone call it out as French? Score: 18/20

Consistently ranked first or second amongst the men, but last place rankings from the ladies resulted in a second place showing for Pramod's 1999 Ferraton Ermitage 'Le Méal'. It took a while to open up, ultimately revealing pretty floral, nutmeg, and old leather notes, earthy blackberries, flint, vanilla, and much more. Very, very elegant on the palate, perfectly balanced with supple tannins and a fine seam of acidity. Polished, with a never ending finish, very easy to enjoy today after a lengthy decant but I think it could be a decade or longer before we see the full potential. My second place, bravo! Score: 18.5/20

Third place (but my favourite of the evening) was Lloyd's 1989 Paul Jaboulet Hermitage 'La Chapelle'. Cam insisted on the scent of 'vomit' on the nose, but I was thinking cooked plums and dark berry fruit, violets and blackberries, leather, fern, hazelnut and flint. A great nose, but it was near perfection on the palate that separated this one for me - silky smooth tannins and fresh acidity held it all together, and despite nearly twenty years in the bottle it was still fresh. An extremely long finish, this has the stuffing to go at least another decade or two in the cellar. An absolute joy to taste one of Hermitage's legendary bottlings, perfectly aged. Score: 18.5/20

Fourth was an impressive showing for my inexpensive (in this crowd) Cornas, the 2003 Delas Frères 'Chante-Perdrix'. Someone suggested a nose of post-coital sweat, but I preferred fruit candy and flowers (pre-coital?), hay and earthy/mushroomy notes. Fresh, balanced, but simpler than the others with a shorter finish. Score: 17/20

Fifth was Cam's 1999 Ferraton Ermitage 'Les Dionnieres'. Meaty and ashen on the nose, firm gripping tannins but a touch hot on the palate. Rather awkward, could soften up and sort itself out with some cellar time. Score: 17.5/20

The biggest story of the night has to be the last place finish (first place amongst the ladies) for the 2003 Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage, a wine Parker rated 100 points. What?! Actually a pretty good nose of ripe (overripe?) blueberries, blackberries, orange, cardamom and tea, liquorice and hazelnut...and LOTS of heat. The palate presented big juicy fruit and firm gripping tannins...and heat. So fruity and awkward, it just didn't show well tonight. I concede that it may simply be 'closed', but I doubt this will ever present a perfect score in my books. All of tonight's wines were 13% alcohol except for this one, which clocked in at a very noticeable 15%. Score: 17/20


For me there were many sides to this evening: a wine that was expected to be compelling (the La Chapelle), a pleasant surprise (the le Meal), an overacheiver (the Chante-Perdrix) and a surpising downside (the Chave).

That Chave surprise was not just ours - Larry Meehan over at Gang of Pour expressed shock at this wine, and Parker's link to Neal Martin's view was an 88 - in line with my 17.

So why were the men and women so diametrically opposite the men on the le Meal and Chave? I'm not going to touch that one.

PS - for my Montreal friends, that le Meal is being cleared out by the SAQ, on sale for C$71. Not cheap, but you rarely get a chance to get such a compelling, aged Hermitage for this price - I think the critics missed this one.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Warming Up for Hermitage: Two Burgundies

The format for a meeting of my tasting group is pretty standardized: first we sit down with a glass of 'warm-up' wine to set the mood and get the palate ready while we let the main panel of wines air out in their decanters, then we move to the dining room to dissect a theme-based panel of wines, blinded, using a rank order method to crown a 'winner'. Each taster gets a clean glass for each wine to be tasted, sheets for taking notes, and a spread of complementary food is served to enjoy with the wine.

Usually the warm-up wine is a cheap version of the main event wine, but tonight Lloyd decided to warm up the palate with two not-so-cheap Burgundies, wines worthy of their own write ups.

I started with the white, a 2001 A et P de Villaine "Les Clous" from one of my favourite producers. Ripe green apples and a nutty almond extract on the nose, creamy, yeasty, and mushroom notes as well. While the nose hinted at age the palate was crisp, stern, and minerally, with a green earthiness - surprisingly fresh at 7 years of age, I loved this cuvee once again, but the buttery chardonnay crowd disagreed with me...
Score: 18/20

With the crowd surging towards the Hermitages I nearly forgot to try the red warm-up, a 2003 Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair Vosne Romanee 'La Colombiere'. After 30+ mins in the decanter it was spicy Dr. Pepper, wet ashes, candied raspberry, damp wood and old leather and old leather on the nose, very well put together. Velvety ripe fruit and very minerally on the palate, a very nice wine.
Score: 17.5/20

Seriously, two great Burgundies before a Northern Rhone extravaganza? Its gonna be a good night...

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Friday Night Burgundy: 2005 Chevalier Rognet et al

My good friend Cosme invited me over on a Friday evening "for a glass of wine". A rather innocent invite, but there was more than a single glass of wine on offer and this was no ordinary wine. You see, Cosme's palate has drifted over to (and is now stuck in?) Burgundy, which is good news for me...

Cosme has been a huge buyer of the '05 vintage, and started us with the 2005 Domaine Chevalier Père & Fils Corton "Le Rognet" Grand Cru. An unbelievably gorgeous and powerful nose, so fragrant that I was able to smell the wine while holding the glass at my waist and walking outside on a cool fall evening! Pretty truffles, sweet raspberry, spice (nutmeg or cinnamon) and ashen notes, simply beautiful. Tangy acid, silky tannins and minerally rasperries danced across the palate, lengthy but a bit tightly wound. So young, fresh and drinking so well today, but this wine needs time to unwind in the cellar and should be even more beautiful in a few years. Score: 18.5+/20

After this delicious pour we turned to Lloyd's 1998 Le Macchiole "Paleo", unfortunately a corker - too bad, there was some good stuff hiding in there...So Cosme returned to his cellar and pulled another Burgundy, the 2005 Bouchard Pere et Fils Beaune "Clos de la Mousse" 1er Cru. Sharp on the nose, with spicy oak and smokey new leather, sulphury raspberry notes as well. The earthy palate of velvety tannins was tight, awkward, at first, but it opened up nicely in the decanter. Should also benefit from some cellar time. Score: 17/20

A special thanks to Cosme and Rebecca for the delightful selection of cheeses and terrine that were a perfect match for tonight's Burgundies.

(PS- perceptive readers may have noticed a legendary J.L. Chave Hermitage in the background of my (shitty bberry) picture above, the theme for Saturday's get together of our tasting group. Stay tuned...)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Palate Drift...

Palate drift is a fancy way of saying that some of the wines that you used to love are less enjoyable than they used to be. Maybe your first love was a fruity Zin, a buttery Chardonnay, or a jammy Shiraz, or even the big, brooding wines of Barolo - where your first love came from doesn't really matter, but at some point you decided to see the world and leave your high school sweetie behind.

You see, drinking wine is very different from tasting wine. When you drink you pour, you taste, you say "mmmm, I like", and then you move one. Tasters are different - sometimes you sniff a glass for a half an hour or more pondering it: What is that aroma? Where have I smelled that before? A hot or cold vintage? Judicious use of oak? Flowers, which ones? And then the tasting...swirling, analyzing, critiquing...tearing apart in your mind a liquid that is part art, part natural chemistry.

There is nothing wrong with 'drinking' wine, but once you move from drinking to tasting you have cut yourself from your moorings and set your palate adrift. The symptoms are noticeable - signing up for a mixed case from your wine club, forcing dinner guests to drink from two glasses to compare wines they've never heard of, or an attempt at the Wine Century Club - these and other wine 'deviances' are signs that you have found some new love interests in your freshman years of wine.

Adrift, the great fear for a wine aficionado is that your cellar could hold dozens, hundreds, or maybe even thousands of bottles that are no longer 'your style'. Every time you reach into the cellar, you guiltily walk past 'that section' and say "maybe tomorrow", or even worse you say "I wonder how much I could get on auction for that". The relationship is not only over in your mind, you need to formalize the breakup.

So is Joe's style drifting? Absolutely, but it may not be instantly obvious if you look at my scores. I am clearly losing my taste for modern-styled fruity wines - not wholesale abandonment, but a definite reduction in both the frequency of purchase and the frequency of uncorking. In my scoring of wine I try to be style agnostic and focus on quality, i.e. is this a good representative of the style and region. So a fruity wine may be complex and balanced so I score it well, but only by reading my notes you realize that something is amiss. And this is not just happening here - nearly all of my wine friends and fellow bloggers have commented on wines they no longer drink.

In the end we me may drift back to where we began, taking the knowledge that we have gathered on our journey, tearing apart the wines we used to love and finding a new appreciation for them. But undoubtedly many of us will never return.

What prompted this reflective moment? Eminent blogger Barry picked up on my limited enthusiasm for last Friday's The Bull and the Bear - I am adrift, Barry, and enjoying the journey right now.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

One Hundred! 2004 Donnafugata Tancredi

Sometimes your first experience with a new grape or wine region is plain awful. That's natural - it's new, and maybe it wasn't to your liking. But there are so many producers out there, how do you know whether you hate the grape or hate the maker? Well, you'll never know until you taste more of that grape/region, but I find too many wine enthusiasts just plain give up right away. 

Me? I never give up on a grape or region. The eternal optimist, supporter of the underdog, I am always hoping to find that one good wine that proves myself and everyone else wrong. But when I have a disappointing experience with a grape/wine region I do the counterintuitive thing, I buy the most expensive bottle I can find - after all, if they can't make a good wine from that grape at $30+, maybe they should just give up, right?  With that in mind, and despite all of my trashing of Nero d'Avola, I thought I'd give this 'misunderstood' grape a chance to shine in the climactic finish to my quest to taste one hundred grape varieties

The most expensive Nero I could find for this day was the 2004 Donnafugata Tancredi (Contessa Entellina), a blend of Nero d'Avola (70%) and Cabernet Sauvignon. My previous experiences with Nero (and Sicilian reds in general) have been less than stellar, with most presenting leathery wall of dense, jammy fruit and little structure. But tonight's high stakes bet paid off - a first pour into the decanter and my nose was greeted by a wall of meaty black cherries (confirming my fears, I thought), but in the glass it provided an unexpected "green-ness" - green beans, peppers, and pine lumber, later some flintiness and tarriness - earthy volcanic ash as the night progressed. Incredibly crisp and focused, so unexpectedly stern and unjammy, flavourful but light at the same time. Blinded I might have thought a Loire red. My expectations were low, and this wine blew them away -  a pleasure to pair with meals and nice over the next three evenings, and would probably age well over the next few years.
cork. 14% alcohol
Score: 17.5+/20
Price: C$33.75 (SAQ)

Friday, October 17, 2008

2005 Two Hands "The Bull and The Bear"

In global stock markets "the Bear" has manhandled, mauled and danced on lifeless carcass of the Bull, but in tonight's wine The Bull and The Bear are supposed to live in harmony... 

The 2005 Two Hands "The Bull and The Bear" (Barossa) is a blend of 55% Shiraz (the Bear) and 45% Cabernet (the Bull). On the nose there is no doubt that there is Barossa Shiraz in the glass - big, leathery, black fruit (blackberry, cherries), grenadine, black pepper and a touch of vanilla. A palate of thick, velvety, black cherries - lots of tannin, but not enough acid to hold it together in the way I prefer. A very smooth and very polished effort, so "technically correct" but lacking in soul, leaving me somewhat uninspired. And it was not able to hide that whopping alcohol level...
screwtop. 14.8% alcohol
Score: 17/20
Price: C$49 (LCBO)

(My apologies to my wine buddy and occasional guest blogger Lloyd - my father in law grabbed this, not knowing it was set aside for you - I'll deduct it from your growing tab...)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Market Casualties

While the gentleman above seems to think the world would be a better place with a few less Wall Street types, the wine world should be very nervous. Many are suffering, cutting where they can, and wine is a luxury. One casualty of this market is my annual trip to Napa/Sonoma - thousands of dollars that will not be spent on local wines, hotels and restaurants. Surely I am not alone, and millions of these tiny decisions will have a dramatic impact on the industry. If you fantasize about owning your own winery, wait - prices will get better, and you may even be able to hire a few investment bankers for the annual harvest...

(Here are my posts from Napa 2006 and Sonoma 2007 ...)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Canadian Thanksgiving, Canadian Pinot: Le Clos Jordanne

It is no secret that I love to pair turkey with pinot noir (1234), and this year's Thanksgiving dinner continued that tradition. But I abandoned the foreign bottlings today for homemade Canadian wine to celebrate this Canadian holiday. Readers know that this is not home-town boosterism, as I rarely write about Canadian wines, but with the hype around this winery I had to taste.

Le Clos Jordanne is a partnership between two wine giants, Canada's Vincor (acquired by Constellation in 2006) and Burgundy's Boisset, that sought to express a Niagara terroir in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It opened with much fanfare, even talk of an impressive winery designed by Frank Gehry, but those plans seem to have fallen by the wayside after Vincor's acquisition by Constellation. Aside from the buzz around the winery, the wines have also generated a lot of buzz, with the media (mostly local) heaping praise on the early vintages.

Stylistically the 2004 Le Clos Jordanne "Claystone Terrace" was more in tune with my Pinot preferences. A nose of leather, grenadine, fried meat and cooked fruit - a spicy palate with crisp acidity and fine balance, some minerality. A more focused and flavourful effort with substantial length, but lacking in complexity, drink now.
cork, 14.8% alcohol
Score: 16.5/20
Price: C$39.75 (SAQ)

The 2004 Le Clos Jordanne "Clos Jordanne Vineyard" enjoyable, and even a touch more complex on the nose, but less structured than the Claystone. Plum and floral notes on the nose, musk, cloves and pipe tobacco as well. Smooth and enjoyable with leathery cherries, but with minimal tannin or acid to hold it all together. Drink now.
cork, 14.6% alcohol
Score: 16.5/20
Price: C$42.25 (SAQ)

Overall, these were pretty good offerings, with the Claystone seeming more Cote de Beaune and the Clos Jordanne mimicking the Cote de Nuits. These are serious prices, and I could find some better, more structured, Burgundies at those prices, but Cam did note that these were potentially more "drinkable", hence the glowing reviews.

(Surprisingly, the insanely high alcohol was not that noticeable, a common gripe on this site)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Synchronized Tasting": 2006 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier

One of my best wine buddies is, in fact, a person I have never met. You see, Edward finds as much joy in the exploration of wine as he does in the tasting, and when you combine that with a love of back yard wine bottle photography, well, that's kinship. Unfortunately, Ed lives approx. 18,000 kilometres from Montreal, which makes a vinous "get together" nearly impossible. Recognizing that North America, the Pacific and the Australian continent separate our respective cellars, we agreed to the next best thing - a "synchronized tasting", opening one of Australia's finer bottles of precious liquid. Well, neither distance nor a 12-hour time zone difference could stand in the way of this e-meeting of great palates...

This evening Ed unscrewed the cap and I popped the cork on a bottle of the 2006 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier (Canberra District). With the eyes of the world watching, I decided to record my notes in the order that they arrived on paper...

t=0: The cork had a clean, clearly delineated purpley ring and smelled of cloves, some floral notes as well - beguiling...

t=1 min: As I poured this wine into the decanter I buried my nose in there (do not try this at home), smelling brie cheese, ivy and garden herbs (basil, oregano) - intriguing...

t=30 min: Light ruby red in the glass. Still cool from the cellar toasty new oak dominates on the nose, continued brie cheese. I couldn't wait any longer so I just dove in for a taste...I love the texture of a wine, and the first sensation was just how very smooth this wine was...medium-bodied, crisp and spicy, not showing the heat that some Barossas give off as they push 15% alcohol. I see an hommage a Cote-Rotie...

t=60 min: With the rising temperature and a dash of oxygen the nose explodes in aroma: liquorice, wet coffee grounds, white flowers, black cherry, truffles...

Overall impression: Incredibly soft, polished and balanced with silky tannins, fine acidity and a joyous nose. Don't let that softness fool you - rolling this juice across the palate reveals an edge that tells me more time in the cellar will be rewarding. Easy to love, probably the nicest Shiraz/Viognier I can recall (and that includes the Cote-Roties I have had).
cork. 14% alcohol
Score: 18/20
Price: C$72 (SAQ)

A couple of things: (1) I did not see Ed's score before I recorded mine (Ed kindly switched back to the 20-point system for me), and (2) The screwcap! Now why the heck do the Aussies ship it locally under screw top and overseas under cork? Surely the shipping hazzards are greater for thirsty Northern Hemisphere types? Perhaps it is hard to convince a Canuck to part with $70 if there is a screw cap involved...(guilty) 

PS - Some would call it suicide to go mano-a-mano with Ed's pen and camera, so I gave him a head start, ensuring that I would finish last and thus (hopefully) avoid the inevitable head-to-head comparisons...

Cheers Ed!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Shades of Autumn

Montreal is ablaze in colour, and with unseasonably warm weather Joe has been more outdoors than indoors. That is why Ed is still waiting for me to post my Clonakilla notes...notes coming very soon.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Drive for One Hundred: 2003 Quinta do Vale Meao (Duoro)

Sometimes my quest to taste 100 different grape varieties is, well, uninspiring. After all, there is probably a good reason why many of these varietals are rare, right? Well, a totally different story tonight as I knocked off number 98 and 99 on my list and sipped one of the most compelling wines I have tasted in 2008...

The 2003 Quinta do Vale Meão (Duoro) was tantalizing on the nose - tomato sauce, bing cherries, spicy cedar and green pepper at first, later some wet slate, jammy fruit, cocoa, vanilla and cloves. Gorgeous mouthfeel and texture - a healthy dose of acidity combined with crisp, dense berry fruit and velvety tannins for a finish that went on for minutes. A blend of Portuguese varietals: Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Barroca.
cork. 14.5% alcohol
Score: 18+/20
Price: C$59 (LCBO)

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Three Views of Spain and One Paella

Spanish wine is most commonly associated with red wines made from Tempranillo, but Spain produces a myriad of wines from quirky grapes and unheralded appellations. Similar to my Lasagna/Italian wine taste test, tonight I sought to pair a few Spanish reds with "Paella with Pine Nut Meatballs, Sausage and Potatoes" (p. 346) to see which worked best.

Carrying the flag for Rioja was the 2001 Finca Allende Vina Olvido. Similar to my reviews of last January - tarry prunes and leather on the nose, with crisp cherry fruit and silky tannins - this seemed to be the crowd favourite pairing for this meaty paella, but less interesting than the other two wines. 
cork, 12.5% alcohol, Score: 17/20

The smallish Spanish D.O. of Montsant was represented by the 2001 Capçanes Costers del Gravet. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Carignan, sporting a complex nose of smokey blackberry and violet, cooked fruit and a heavy dose of oak. Dry and velvety textured on the palate with a very long finish - seems like it could age, but fine now with a lengthy decant. Probably better with a steak than tonight's paella. (2000 vintage reviewed here)
cork, 14% alcohol, Score: 17.5/20

Bierzo is located in northern Spain and is home to a rare grape, Mencia, the grape used in tonight's 2006 Pétalos by Descendientes de J. Palacios. A vivid nose of damp, black earth and vegetal notes...cherries, cappuccino, liquorice, black pepper and meaty aromas as well...very complex, coughing up new secrets with every swirl of the glass. Beautiful texture and mouthfeel, velvety tannins and crisp acidity, an extraordinary wine at this price point (but not as well paired with this paella). (2005 vintage reviewed here)
cork, 12.5% alcohol, Score: 18/20

Now some of you may recall a rather a rather salty paella in January, but my skills have much improved - the real star tonight was my paella! The first time my cullinary cooking skills have overshadowed my wine selections...

Friday, October 03, 2008

Drive for One Hundred: 2005 Pazo Senorans Albarino

Albariño, number 97 of my quest, is not an "obscure grape" at all. Found in cheap Portuguese Vinho Verde and pricier Rías Baixas from Spain, it has also found a following in the new world. While I have had Vinho Verde on a number of occasions, tonight I decided to spoil myself with a pricier bottling from Spain (served as a prelude to a paella dinner with friends):

The 2005 Pazo Señoráns Albariño (Rías Baixas) was a pretty wine - a nose of creamy fresh limes, hay and green grass, cranberries, apricot jelly, subtle floral notes in the background. Elegant and well balanced, luscious, with nice persistency and bitterness. Terrific!
cork. 13% alcohol
Score: 17/20
Price: C$23.15  (SAQ)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Drive for One Hundred: Two Obscure Reds

Grapes #95 and #96 in my nearly completed quest are true "oddities" - one fashioned from a grape rarely seen in a single varietal wine, while the other is an obscure old world grape that has somehow found a home in Canada.

I approached the 2004 Vina Ijalba Graciano (Rioja) with some reservation - after all, there must be a reason why Rioja producers have pretty much abandoned (just 0.7% of the vineyard area) this grape, right? A very solid effort - notes of bing cherries, liquorice and truffles dominating on the nose, but some attractive leather, vanilla-y oak, and flinty black pepper as well - very nice to sniff. Crisp cherries and liquorice on the palate, silky tannins and fresh acidity, oaky but not overly so. This is seriously good juice, and could win back some wine drinkers who have abandoned the jammier "nouveau Rioja" wines. 
cork. 13% alcohol
Score: 17/20
Price: C$20.65 (SAQ)

I had similar issues with the Baco Noir, i.e. if Baco is so great, why is this grape so rare? Well it seems to have found a home in Canada. The 2005 Henry of Pelham Baco Noir was quite aromatic and interesting - cherry liqueur and old shoes (leather and rubber, but not in a bad way), green herbs and tarry ashpalt notes - somewhat odd, but interesting. Very crisp, fine acidity, but with little tannin and a short finish. An unusual wine, likely polarizing - I kinda liked it, but I just can't figure out the right pairing...
cork. 13.5% alcohol
Score: 15.5/20
Price: C$14.85 (SAQ)